Light

Light by Chris Green

Purple Haze was never Number 1,’ the girl at the bar says. ‘Nor was Strawberry Fields Forever. Odd for two such famous tunes, don’t you think?’

Matt is taken aback. It’s a strange way to open a conversation. Is she talking to him? He does not know her. He looks around to check that there is no one lurking in the background. The Lost Weekend is a small pub, and they are the only two anywhere near the bar. She must be addressing him. Still, it’s very odd. Women are not usually into rock mythology. Rock bores are nearly always men. Why is she so concerned about these old tunes? The pub doesn’t even play music, and this is 1993, not 1967. She would have been about three years old back then. Are the hippie tune references for his benefit because he is wearing a brightly coloured floral shirt with a black Fedora?

Yes, I suppose it is odd,’ he says, finally. ‘Considering they were both groundbreaking tracks in their day.’

Did you know that the intro to Purple Haze is an example of the Devil’s Interval?’ the girl says.

The Devil’s Interval?’ Matt says. ‘What’s that?’

It’s a pity The Lost Weekend doesn’t have a jukebox,’ she says. ‘Or I could take you through it. In a nutshell, the Devil’s Interval comprises a tritone, and because it spans three tones, the interval violates musical convention and sounds dissonant. Playing the note of C followed by F sharp, for instance, produces an unsettling feeling in the listener.’

I’ll take your word,’ Matt says.

In the Middle Ages, the Devil’s Interval was considered to be the essence of evil, and it was banned in case it summoned Lucifer,’ she says.

I see,’ Matt says. She seems a little crazy perhaps, but she seems to know her music theory, while he knows nothing about chords, intervals, scales, pitch, texture or dynamics. He just enjoys listening to music, preferably stoned.

Wagner uses the tritone in Götterdämmerung,’ she continues. ‘And Holst uses it in Mars, The Bringer of War,’

Used for dramatic effect, I imagine then.’

Exactly. Saint Saens uses it in Danse Macabre and Black Sabbath use it in the title track on the first album.’

I can hear it in my head now. I wonder if any of these musicians were aware of the connection.’

I imagine Wagner might have been, and Saint-Saëns, but I don’t know about Black Sabbath. Anyway, enough of that. I’m Saskia.’

I’m known around here as Matt the Hat.’

Matt the Hat? I wonder why that is. …. I like the hat, by the way.’

Can I buy you a drink, Saskia?’

That’s nice. I was hoping you would. I’ll have a pint of cider.’

Matt tells her he likes sixties music. He has a bootleg Beatles album which has several versions of Strawberry Fields on it, and he adores The Doors.

I know an artist who has just done a painting of Jim Morrison,’ Saskia says. ‘He’s called it The Lizard King. It’s part of his 27 Club series. I think he’s done a Jimi Hendrix one too.’

I haven’t seen you in here before,’ Matt says, hoping to gather some background information.

I don’t normally drink in here,’ Saskia says. ‘I don’t go to the pub a lot, but when I do, I usually go to The Pig and Whistle.’

Not wishing to admit he works at Prontaprint, Matt tells Saskia he is in publishing. After all, he photocopies one or two manuscripts for writers to send off to publishers, and prints off the occasional poetry collection. Saskia meanwhile does not have a job. Nor, she says, does she want one. She describes herself as a soon-to-be-divorced mother of two. She has a pair of teenage babysitters to help her with childcare, keen to take advantage of the free beer she offers, and explore her extensive record collection on her expensive hi-fi. She hopes to be able to hang on to this in the distribution of marital assets.

Saskia and Matt begin a casual relationship, although she continues to pursue other casual relationships, including one with Sebastian, the 27 Club portrait artist she referred to earlier. So that her lovers never meet, she manages her affairs carefully. She never takes Matt to The Pig and Whistle, for instance. And she does not take Sebastian to The Lost Weekend. Matt remains blissfully unaware of her two-timing and falls head-over-heels in love with her. She can do no wrong. She is perfection. And they even like the same kinds of music. How has he managed to be dating such a beautiful woman, he asks himself?

This is 1993 and along with Ecstasy, LSD has made a comeback. On her husband Keith’s weekends with the children, Saskia and Matt go off to rave parties in distant fields in her red Renault 5 to indulge in a psychoactive pot-pourri. They wear stars in their hair and skip a light fandango beneath a paper sun. Tripping doesn’t appear to inhibit Saskia’s driving. She still manages to propel the small car through the English countryside like an Abrams tank. Matt is nervous but says nothing. He cannot offer an alternative. As his job at Prontaprint doesn’t require him to have a licence, he has never learned to drive. He has never been the ambitious sort, preferring instead to go with the flow.

Going with the flow seems to work. Through the summer, they attend raves, and they have a wild time in their chemical experimentation. Once more, Matt has to pinch himself. How can he have ended up with such an exciting and beautiful woman? Now and then, though, that old Dr Hook song finds a way into his consciousness. Everybody wants her. Everybody loves her. Everybody wants to take his baby home.

On the odd nights he spends at Saskia’s, Matt notices signs that another man may have been staying on the nights he does not see her. Small signs at first, like new shaving gear or an extra toothbrush in the bathroom. Saskia does not smoke Marlboro yet there is an empty packet in the bedroom on his side of the bed. Matt avoids tackling her outright about it, in case she reacts badly, so for the time being, he lets it go. It seems unlikely, but perhaps there is an innocent explanation. But the more you become aware of something, the more you notice. A chunky jacket appears in the hall, along with a man’s sweatshirt in the laundry basket. Saskia’s bedding seems to always be hanging on the washing line when he visits. He dare not think the worst.

Matt decides it is time to do a little detective work. He thinks a visit to The Pig and Whistle might be a good starting point to see what, if anything, is going on. The first two times he drops in, there is no sign of Saskia. Nor does he know any of the people there. On his third visit, on a warm August evening, he finds her sitting with a group of people in the garden area, nearly all of them male. His heart sinks. But, catching sight of him, Saskia comes over and greets him with a warm embrace. She introduces him to her friends.

This is Matt the Hat,’ she says.

He breathes a sigh of relief. Perhaps there is nothing to worry about after all.

Sebastian asks Matt if his hat is a Borsalino, knowing full well that it is not.

Matt says he doesn’t know.

What are you doing with a man who doesn’t know what hat he’s wearing, Saskia?’ says Paddy the Poet.

Well, Matt, it’s not a sombrero, is it?’ Sebastian says.

Don and Gina chuckle. They are fully aware of the situation. Saskia has been coming here with Sebastian for months, and they see Matt as an interloper.

It’s not a crash helmet, Matt,’ is it?’ says Biker Dennis.

And it’s not a leopard skin pill box hat,’ the guy who used to be in The Manic Street Preachers, whose name Matt didn’t catch says.

Unaware of their rivalry, Matt and Sebastian find some common ground in The Doors. Sebastian mentions his Lizard King painting.

‘’They did some great songs,’ he says. ‘Riders on the Storm is my favourite. And I like The End.’

Did you know Jim had an IQ of 149,’ Matt says?

No,’ Sebastian says. ‘Clever guy, then.’

Or, that his favourite singer was Elvis Presley?’

I did not, Matt.’

The conversation drifts from music to films, from spies to mystics, from wormholes to windmills. Biker Dennis wants to talk about his new Norton. It is a 2014 Commando 961 in black, and it goes like the clappers. 0 to 60 in the blink of an eye. This brings the conversation around to the sleek black car with blacked-out windows that several of them have seen in the area. No one is able to identify the make or model. Someone suggests it may have had a badge saying Hyperion, but no one has heard of Hyperion. Matt wonders if this is the car he saw cruising up and down the road on the way to the pub. Had he imagined it, or did it slow down to take a look at him? Being preoccupied at the time, he hadn’t taken too much notice.

Although they seem to be getting along, Matt is aware that Sebastian is the artist that Saskia referred to in earlier conversations, and the pair are more than a little friendly with one another. But it is not the suspicion that they are having an affair that bothers him. He can’t put his finger on what exactly it is, but Sebastian is not like the rest of the gathering. He may not be who he says he is. He doesn’t belong here. He seems sinister, deviant, alien.

Saskia realises that while Sebastian may not be bothered one way or the other, Matt will be mortified if she doesn’t leave with him at the end of the evening. She has not exactly encouraged it, but he has become quite possessive. Leaving together represents by far the easiest course of action for her. To save further embarrassment, the sooner, the better. She can pick it up with Sebastian another time. With little ceremony, during a conversation about conspiracy theories, she gives Matt the signal, and they bid their farewells. They leave just in time, it seems, to catch the mysterious black car’s drive-by. Why is it slowing down? Why is it stopping?

Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved

Light is a prequel to Dark, which can be found in my collection, Light Fandango or on my website at:
https://chrisgreenstories.com/2018/09/13/dark/

 

Strangers When We Meet

Strangers When We Meet by Chris Green

How many miles do you need to have the same car in your mirrors before you become suspicious? How many turnings before alarm bells ring? Emma Fox has no idea, but the black SsangYong appears to be tailing her. At times right up her rear bumper. SsangYongs are quite common, but not that common. It is not a car that stands out. She is only able to identify the badge because she recently took one for a test drive. But she is sure this is the same car that drew up behind her when she left work and having taken the same circuitous route, it is still here as she nears home. She makes a note of the registration plate. She pulls into her drive. The SsangYong stops outside but eventually drives off. Emma is unnerved.

Matt is overseeing a gas pipeline construction contract in Norway and the phone link is a bit hit and miss, so she is unable to share her concern with him. At least, that’s the story. Matt would probably tell her she was imagining things, anyway. Perhaps he might bring up other instances where she has over-reacted. Like the many occasions she had called him to say she had blown the house electrics when it was just a tripped switch. And the time she thought the telephone engineer had come to rob them. Easy mistakes to make when you have a hundred other things to think about.

Emma settles down for the evening, cooks herself a pasta meal and tries to forget the matter. She does not mention her pursuer to her friend, Madeleine, when she calls to ask Emma about getting tickets for the Janacek recital at the music festival next month. They chat about what plant food is best for dahlias, the new drama releases on Netflix, and whether they should have axed Snow White in support of the BLM protests. Where would it end? Would White Christmas be next? They arrange to meet up at the weekend. Matt’s absence is not discussed.

Emma settles down to watch Leif Velasquez’s adaptation of Phillip C Dark’s, Strangers When We Meet. The review says, although the narrative features an unreliable narrator and jumps around to take in shifting viewpoints and multiple backstories, those familiar with Dark’s work should be able to work out what is going on. Kurt Bedding gives a stellar performance as the roué who is travelling incognito to meet his lover in San Sebastian and finds himself in the seat next to her husband on the plane. Emma has always felt that her life features an unreliable narrator and jumps around to take in shifting viewpoints and multiple backstories. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what is what and who is who. The pressures of modern life, Madeleine keeps telling her, when she brings it up. Anyway, Emma likes Kurt Bedding. He is easy on the eye. All is well. The world keeps on turning.

She is startled to find the black SsangYong behind her again the following morning. It appears to have been waiting for her outside and it tails her for the three miles from home to Crosby Nash Estate Agents in Bath Road where she works, even when she takes an unscheduled detour through the industrial estate. And it is there again when she goes out to show a buyer a three-bedroomed property in St Marks on the other side of town.

On her lunch break, she notices the tall dark stranger in a Peaky Blinders cap who she saw lingering outside her office earlier is now looking in a lingerie shop window next to the ATM where she is taking out cash. She is on heightened alert. Each time she thinks she has shaken him off, he appears again. He passes the window of the coffee shop where she takes her lunch no less than three times. He is outside the hairdressers when she calls in to book an appointment. He is in Tesco Express when she is buying her groceries. She can’t be sure if this is the driver of the SsangYong, but it seems likely. He has the same build and wears similar dark clothes. Has she just become over-sensitised? She does not think so. Something is happening here and she doesn’t know what it is. She considers approaching him and coming straight out with it, but she has heard too many terrible stories about what crazy obsessives are capable of. Should she perhaps report it to the police? Would they take her seriously if she did? Or would they tell her she was being paranoid? Whichever, she is spooked.

She is puzzled now why anyone would be following her. She lives an uneventful life. She is law abiding. She is solvent. She has no debts. She is not having a clandestine affair. Perhaps she should be. It seems to be the fashion. She is not aware that she has any enemies. In the estate agents’ business, there is always the danger that a disgruntled purchaser might feel they have been sold a pig in a poke. But Emma feels that when conducting viewings, she has always been scrupulously honest in her appraisal of the property, sometimes to the detriment of the sale. Well, there was the place in Old Park Street, but that didn’t go through. And the apartments in Market Street that had been built without planning permission. But she wasn’t to know that. In any case, Crosby Nash had put her under a lot of pressure to get these sold. But even if there had been any instances of mis-selling, you would have thought anyone with a grievance would make a complaint through the proper channels. Not try to put the fear of God into you or run you off the road.

While her friends and colleagues appear sympathetic to her plight, Emma wonders if any of them suspect that Matt is not really overseeing an oil pipeline project in Norway. That instead, Matt is overseeing Amy Darling, and has been doing so for a long time. If they do suspect, they seem to be keeping it to themselves. At least Emma hopes this is the case. She wouldn’t like to think they were talking about her behind her back. Sometimes, she realises, you have to make up stories to cover yourself. The secret is to remember who you have told what to.

Penny from the tennis club suggests it could be a simple case of mistaken identity. That her pursuer believes her to be someone else.

You read about a lot of cases like that in the papers,’ she says. ‘There was a case of a Taylor Swift lookalike being stalked only last week.’

I suppose so,’ Emma says.

A lot of thirty-something women wear their hair in long-front graduated bobs like yours,’ Penny says. ‘And I expect most of them buy clothes and accessories from Debenhams and Next.’

I buy most of my clothes online, these days,’ Emma says. ‘It’s so much easier.’

I expect your lookalike has got herself into a scrape,’ Penny says. ‘With some underworld figures. If she is a celebrity, it’s probably something to do with drugs, don’t you think?’

But whoever it is has hardly been subtle,’ Emma says. ‘There would be more discrete ways to tail her or me. He clearly wants me to realise that he is there. Why doesn’t he just approach me? There must be more to it, an element of intimidation. He wants me to be frightened. And in turn, I don’t approach him because I am frightened.’

Come to think of it,’ Penny says. ‘You look a little like May Welby who plays Kylie Slack in Partners in Crime.

Who?’ Emma says. ‘I don’t watch any of the soaps, Penny.’

Well, of course, neither do I,’ Penny says. ‘But I’ve caught glimpses of one or two now and again. May Welby. Check her out, Emma. I think you’ll see what I mean.’

Emma recalls she may have seen an episode or two in the past without realising it. Perhaps Matt had had it on or maybe it was just there in the background. She has become a little absent-minded lately. It is sometimes difficult to tell what happened when. She was saying to Madeleine only last week, or was it yesterday, how mixed up things could become. Sometimes she is so confused, she wonders if she is someone else. I’m not feeling myself today, she might say. She wonders whether it might be something to do with the tablets Dr Hopper prescribed for the problems she was having with her balance. Perhaps she will stop taking them.

When she gets home, she takes a look at an episode of Partners in Crime on catch-up. She can see straight away there is a slight resemblance to May Welby. On certain camera angles, if you just caught a glimpse, you could be excused for doing a double-take. The Kylie Slack character though is rough and ready and her mannerisms and diction are a long way off. The series is set in the fictional suburb of Doleford in a fictional East London, a grim area where even the police appear to be crooks. The script of Partners in Crime demands that May Welby’s character lacks sophistication. You could not imagine Kylie Slack growing dahlias or going to a Janacek concert. And they probably wouldn’t let anyone called Kylie join Emma’s tennis club. Then it hits her like a blow from the big Irish boxer that Matt used to watch. There is the startling similarity between the actor playing the part of the Partners’ enforcer, Nick Cole and her stalker. He is the spitting image. Not only this, but one of the current storylines involves Nick harassing Kylie Slack. Apparently, Kylie has dumped him for two-timing her. He is doing everything he can to intimidate her. He is a nasty piece of work. He has keyed her car and trolled her on social media. He follows her in the street and shouts abuse at her. He tails her in his car, in this case, a beaten up old black Mitsubishi. Kylie is debating whether she should get an injunction. She decides that first, she will have a word with Doleford Police.

Emma too feels it might be time to get the constabulary involved. Penny insisted it would be the right thing to do. Even if nothing comes from it, at least it will then be on record.

Do you realise how many people tell us they think they are being followed?’ Sergeant Filcher says. ‘Hundreds. And that’s not to mention the dozens of cases we see of copycat behaviour. It seems that many people find it hard to distinguish between what’s happening on their TV screens and real life. Boundaries have become blurred. If we investigated each and every one of the reports we get about people who imagine they are being stalked, we would be run ragged. We would have no officers left to deploy on the weekend riots. Now, where would that leave us? Is that what you want, lawlessness on our streets? And, Miss Fox, if you don’t mind my saying so, you are a very attractive young woman. You can hardly blame this fellow for wanting to get close to you. If I weren’t a married man ……….’

Emma leaves in disgust. This is not the type of reaction you expect from an upstanding officer of the law. This sort of thing might happen on television, but surely not in real life. She wagers Sergeant Filcher wouldn’t have been so insulting if she’d been a man. Or, for instance, if Matt had been there with her. Matt is a Black Belt in Krav Maga, the martial art that doesn’t concern itself with the opponent’s well-being. There again, she herself is glad Matt is no longer around. He didn’t concern himself a great deal with her well-being. She is well rid of him. She is much better off with …..

Emma is on her way home. The storm has passed now and the sun is coming out. She is pleased to see that the SsangYong is no longer following her. Instead, she is in the SsangYong. The man with the Peaky Blinders cap is driving. He seems quite friendly. He smiles at her and makes easy conversation. Why wouldn’t he? It’s coming back to her now. His name is Sebastian.

Has anyone ever told you, you look a little like May Welby?’ Sebastian says. ‘You know, the actress. I’ve been meaning to mention it since we started going out.’

I’m not sure I know May Welby,’ Emma says. ‘What has she been in?’

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved

All About Jazz

All About Jazz by Chris Green

All About Jazz tends to be quiet in the afternoon. After the lunchtime rush, things do not pick up again until the evening. We are a small establishment down a side street on the edge of town. If you were driving along the main road out of town, you might not know we were there, unless you happened to spot the sign saying All About Jazz – Open Lunchtime till Late, Live Music at Weekends. My partner, Jazmin bought the lease last year with her inheritance. She saw the advert in the local paper and liked the idea of the place because of its name. I was a little dubious about the idea, not just because of its poor location, but because I knew nothing about jazz or running a bar. My objections were ignored. In no time at all, she was arranging professional photoshoots for the publicity material.

Many of our regulars are seasoned jazz buffs. The afternoon lull gives me the chance to listen to a selection of tunes. I can study album cover notes to see which musicians play on which tunes. Jazz players are often not household names, so it seems a good idea for a rookie jazz bar proprietor to build up his knowledge. I can pick out passages that I can refer to, an improvised saxophone break, a change of time signature or perhaps a hidden piano melody. There’s not much point in claiming to be being a jazz fan if you don’t appreciate the subtle nuances of the form. You might as well listen to Olly Murs or Sam Smith.

Jazmin likes to get out in the afternoons, so I often take the opportunity to relax in a comfy chair with an iced coffee and a good book, Haruki Murakami, Philip C. Dark, that kind of thing. I like a little quirkiness. Life can be too serious. There’s nothing better than a gentle read with some old standards playing softly in the background. I am doing so when a tall man in the light-coloured suit walks in. I have not seen him before. He has a dark complexion, not black, not white, not even brown but a colour you can’t put into words. He has slicked back hair with a quiff that seems to defy gravity. He has a facial scar and a thick gold necklace. He could easily be auditioning for a David Lynch film. Louche is not quite the word I am looking for, but it is close. He orders a large Plymouth gin and bitters. He is of indeterminable race. His accent is impossible to place. For all I know, he might be from Mars.

He starts talking to me about security cameras. Although he looks nothing like a rep, it seems he might be trying to sell me a new CCTV system. Either that or he is trying to rob me. More likely he is trying to rob me. It transpires security is a random interest. A passing topic of conversation. After we have moved on to necromancy and The Twilight Zone, he takes his drink and goes over to sit at a table by the window. All the time that he is here, I feel on edge. Being a jazz bar, we get plenty of oddballs passing through, but there is something different about this one. Something unexplainable, sinister, threatening. It is not just his unusual choice of conversational topics or the spooky way he maintains eye contact yet appears to remain aloof. His demeanour carries with it an air of menace. I am not one for a lot of mumbo-jumbo, but I can detect a dark aura around him. When he is in the room, it feels like the air in the room has changed.

After he has gone, his presence oddly remains. I find myself looking around to see if he is still lurking in the bar somewhere. In one of the booths, perhaps. I check to see that he is not crouching in one of the alcoves or hiding behind the pillar. I look in the toilets, the gents and the ladies several times. I make my way outside and wander up and down the street to make sure he has really gone.

The stranger comes in again the following day at the same time and once again orders a large Plymouth gin and bitters. We speak about GCHQ, rock formations and doppelgängers before he once again takes his drink over to the table by the window. Once again, I experience the same feeling of unease while he is in the bar without being able to explain why and the same feeling that he is still present after he has gone. When Jazz comes back from the printers, she notices that something is wrong.

‘I had a strange fellow come in,’ I tell her. ‘He spooked me a bit. But it’s probably nothing to worry about.’

She tells me about an offer they have at the printers on giclée prints. ‘They can do A3 posters for us for …..’

I am no longer listening. I have drifted off.

A pattern begins to develop. The stranger comes in every day at the same time. He always wears the same light-coloured suit. At no time does he introduce himself or explain his mission. He always orders the same drink, Plymouth gin and Angostura bitters. On each visit, he guides the conversation, changing the subject at will, without warning. We speak about cave paintings, psychiatrists, and remote viewing or, string theory, hot air balloons and Don Quixote before he takes his drink over to the window. He always takes the same seat at the same table. On the first few occasions, I entertain the idea that he is waiting for someone, but no-one ever joins him. Perhaps he is looking out for someone on the street, not that many people pass this way unless they are coming into All About Jazz.

‘I can always tell something is bothering you, honey, by the music you play,’ Jazmin says, as we are locking up one night. ‘Do you realise you played Guy Bloke’s Improvisation for Balalaika, Bass Guitar and Strimmer three times tonight, all nineteen minutes of it? No wonder everyone was gone by half-past ten. What were you thinking?’

‘Did I? I must have been …. distracted,’ I tell her.

‘You’ve been ….. distracted quite a lot lately. Sometimes I think we live in separate worlds.’

The same thought has occurred to me, but I do not say so.

‘And we haven’t made love for nearly three weeks,’ she continues.

‘Is it really that long?’

‘Yes, it is that long. If I didn’t know you better, I’d think there was someone else. Look! Let me know if I’m wrong, but I think this strange mood of yours started when that weird fellow began to come in. The one you told me about who talks about NASA, Twin Peaks and rubber plants. Does he still come in every afternoon?’

‘Yes, he does, Jazz. 3:15 on the dot. But it feels like he’s here all the time, now. It’s as if he never goes away.’

‘Right! I’m going to be here tomorrow afternoon. I can easily rearrange my hair appointment and I can pick up the gilcée prints anytime.’

…………………………….

‘You told me he comes in every day at the same time. 3:15, you said.’

‘He has done for the last three weeks, yes.’

‘Well, my sweet, it’s half-past three, and he’s not here.’

‘Perhaps he’s been held up.’

‘Or made up. A figment of your over-active imagination.’

‘If you don’t believe me, take a look at the CCTV.’

‘I did. This morning. It wasn’t switched on.’

‘You’re probably doing something wrong. I’ll have a look at it later.’

‘But you have to admit you have been behaving rather strange lately. Perhaps you ought to see someone. There’s a new holistic ….. ‘

‘Give him a few more minutes. I’m sure he will be here.’

‘What’s his name? If you’ve been talking to him for three weeks, you must have found out something about him.’

‘He’s never mentioned his name. He talks about robotics, firecrackers and necromancy. Or …..’

‘California, cloning and black holes. I know. And you never bring any subjects of conversation up? Like, who are you? What do you do? Why do you keep coming into our bar?’

‘It doesn’t work like that. You’d have to be with him to realise how he can just take you over. He takes your will away, like a psychic vampire.’

‘Wassup,’ says a deep voice beside us.

It is N’Golo. N’Golo is an African drummer who sometimes sits in with bands here at weekends. He likes to drop by in the afternoon for a lemongrass tea. He is wearing a kaftan, brightly patterned trousers and jangling Berber jewellery.

‘Your djinn friend not here today then, bro?’ he says.

‘You mean gin, N’Golo.’

‘No. I mean djinn. Juju. The man in the white decks. That man is bad-bad.’

‘How can you tell, N’Golo?’ I say. ‘As you know, I am not one for a lot of mumbo-jumbo.’

‘I just know, bro.’

‘But how? I get a bad feeling when he’s here. In fact, even when he isn’t here. But, I can’t explain it. And Jazmin here wants to know.’

‘Hear di smell. Many ways to sense it. Everybody is different. But it’s not how or why, it just is. He’s djinn, trust me.’

I have been reading up on jazz, and it all began in New Orleans. The word comes from the Creole patois, jass, referring to sexual activity. In the late 19th century. European horns met African drums and jazz music was born. Jazz inherited all the magic of the African continent. The heart of darkness. Voodoo. Djinn. Juju. While the rest of America was stomping their feet to military marches, New Orleans started dancing to voodoo rhythms. It may be nothing. But voodoo, djinn, juju or whatever you want to call it and jazz are inextricably linked. And our bar is called All About Jazz. So, it should be all about jazz. We could educate people on the history of jazz. To the seedy jazz joints, dens of vice. To the progress of the new music through Buddy Bolden, Nick LaRocca, Jelly Roll Morton. We could hold classes, workshops. We could bring people to the town to learn about jazz. The nuts and bolts of jazz. Its cultural constituents, the brass band parades, Mardi Gras, downtown Creole, dirty music, corner saloon dances. The nitty-gritty bare-bones elements of Jazz that you do not find in the safe little bubble of Smooth Jazz. Smooth Jazz! Isn’t that an oxymoron?

Jazmin is less than enthusiastic about the idea. She thinks I’m going off on one. The Jazz that it is all about she feels is her. She wants it to stay that way. She insists it stays that way. It was her money that set us up; she says. She can be a bully at times. Oh, well! Perhaps people don’t need to know where jazz originated or if they do they can go online or read Casey Gasher’s book, Basin Street.

…………………………….

In moments of despair, one can fall prey to a mindset which tells you that the current set of circumstances has always been so and will always be so. But this is not the case. Things do change. As the great mystic philosopher, Lars Wimoweh was fond of saying, change is the only certainty. After a few days of the tall stranger not showing, his presence, imagined or not, begins to fade. I no longer feel distracted. Mindfulness returns. I manage not to accidentally play Guy Bloke’s Improvisation for Balalaika, Bass Guitar and Strimmer or any other jazz track featuring a strimmer. I am able to start conversations on topics that I am interested in, rhythm, harmony, syncopation. I feel the sap rising. I manage to heal the rift with Jazmin in the nicest possible way. Things go swimmingly at All About Jazz. The Simon Somerset Quintet play a spirited Saturday night set, and Giles Davis weaves his mellow magic on his muted trumpet through Sunday afternoon.

It is comforting to get a bad episode out of the way. Jazz thinks so too. She feels it is good that I’ve got a grip and pulled myself together like her holistic counsellor, Ike Murlo said I should. My difficulty was harming business; she says. Little by little, Jazz begins to trust me to hold the fort in the afternoons once more.

But although Ike Murlo tells me that the crisis has passed, that I’m over the worst, sometimes I seem to still be visited by lingering uncertainty. That nagging doubt that surrounds an unresolved mystery. I realise I should know better, but each time I am outside having a smoke, and I catch a glimpse of a tall figure in the distance. I imagine it to be the dark stranger in the light-coloured suit coming to get me. Suddenly, nearly everyone in town seems to be above average height and be dressed in light-coloured suits. Ike Murlo tells me that such a frequency illusion is quite common and even comes up with some numbers to back it up. Apparently, it is known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. It does not help to be aware of this. And sometimes even the ones who dress normally now come across as suspicious, I tell him. He assures me this will pass, but just in case, I should see him twice a week.

…………………………….

Jazmin has gone to pick up some posters for the summer jazz extravaganza we are planning. I did try to get her to book Guy Bloke as a headliner, but she thinks he is too avant-garde. Well, you can’t have everything. I’m sure that Guy doesn’t mind too much. He has plenty of other gigs lined up. Meanwhile, I am relaxing in the bar. Suddenly aware of someone in my space, I look up from my Philip C. Dark thriller. He is not the usual type that we get in mid-afternoon. He is wearing an oatmeal checked three-piece suit, but his coarse features do not go with the suit. They belong to someone from out of town, a long way out of town. Over the hills and far, far away. The chimerical stranger makes a remark about the music that is playing in the background, Scott Walker’s Tilt. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I realise, but I find it relaxing. He orders a pink gin.

‘That’s gin and Angostura bitters,’ he says. As if I didn’t know.

He starts talking about …… CCTV cameras. He seems to know a lot about them. I am still trying to get a grip, mumbling incoherently as the conversation moves on to necromancy and The Twilight Zone.

Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved

Back in Time for Tea

Back in Time for Tea by Chris Green

It was Monday morning, but I was not pressed for time. I was off work. An old Tai Chi injury had flared up, and I had been told to rest. I was sorting out things that in my busy schedule at the kite repair workshop, I never got around to. I had installed all the Windows updates on the laptop and the tablet, run virus checks, and got rid of the junk. I had arranged for a tree surgeon to take a few feet off the weeping willow in the back garden, switched to a new green energy supplier, booked the car in for its MOT, and cleared the mouldy vegetables from the back of the carousel. Although on the face of it, my partner Danuta was very thorough in cleaning the house, the kitchen cupboard seemed to escape her attention.

I spent the rest of the morning watching On Your Bike on Yesterday, along with a welcome repeat of The History of the Harmonica. I had just turned over to watch Back in Time for Tea on Now and Then when there was a knock at the door. I let it go. I was not expecting anyone. But Alan, our Labradoodle, started barking feverishly, so I got up to answer it. Perhaps it was Danuta, home early from her part-time job at the Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre. Perhaps she had forgotten her key again. She had been in a bit of a fluster this morning after Alan had vacated on the hall carpet.

You should take him for more walks,’ she had shouted up the stairs.

I reminded her that I had been told to take it easy. Dr Shipman had been quite specific on this point.

I answered the door to find Eddie standing there. To say I was shocked would not be an adequate appraisal of the situation. I hadn’t seen Eddie since I was twelve years old. Not since the incident with Mrs Pocock’s cat. I did a quick calculation. This would have been 1966. The thing was, the Eddie that stood across the threshold with a football under his arm still seemed to be twelve years old. He even wore the same red Manchester United football shirt that I remembered with long sleeves and the number 11 on the back and the same green and white Gola Harrier trainers he had been so proud of back then. He hadn’t changed a bit. He had the same lank ginger hair and freckles. And the small mark over his left eyebrow where Nick had punched him outside our house and the blood had run down his face. The same gap between his front teeth which seemed too large for his mouth and made him look a little goofy.

Hi, Chris,’ he said, as if he had seen me yesterday.

There was no hint of surprise on his face. He did not seem to have noticed that I was fifty years older, with a fuller figure, less hair and one or two facial scars.

Wanna come down the rec,’ he asked?

Eddie had always been the one to organise the kick-arounds. He was the one who owned the football. If his team was losing or if he was having a poor game, he would say it’s my ball and head off home with it, leaving me and Marty, Mike and whoever else was playing, stranded. Before that, he had been the one who owned the Scalextric or the train set. He was the only one whose house we could visit freely. He was an only child, so his parents spoiled him. He was always the first one to have the new trainers or the new football shirt or the new Kinks LP.

Eddie was bouncing the ball now with some vigour, waiting for a reply. I thought that going to the rec was a little impractical, as the rec he was referring to was two-hundred miles away. And of course, there was my Tai Chi injury to consider. I asked him to come in for a minute, hoping that the improbable situation would somehow resolve itself.

He came in and made his way through to the kitchen. I offered him a glass of Tizer. He remarked on the groovy new bottle. This was the first sign that he might be noticing a time warp.

The phone rang. I let it ring, thinking it might make Eddie feel he was being ignored if I took the call. The phone kept on ringing and Alan started barking, so I went into the front room to answer it. It was Danuta to tell me she would be working late. Magda and Kinga had not turned up for work, and things were pretty manic at the Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre. Fridge magnets had featured on a lifestyle programme on Sky and there was a run on them. She had to go, she said, as there was a queue of people at the desk wondering what would be the best thing to put on their Smeg. I did not get the chance to tell her about our visitor. I wondered momentarily whether Danuta might be having an affair. This was the third time this month that there had been a television-led demand for fridge magnet advice. I dismissed the thought. If she were playing away, there would be other signs, like lingerie catalogues coming through the mail, or new bottles of perfume with inappropriate names like Bitch or Hussy appearing on her dressing table. I made a mental note to phone the centre later to see who answered. Meanwhile, I had to get back to Eddie.

On returning to the kitchen, there was no sign of Eddie. Just an empty glass on the work surface by the fridge. I scurried around the house, then the garden, but there was no trace of him. He had vanished.

I did not think I would be able to concentrate on Back in Time for Tea, so I thought I might pop to the supermarket to buy some garbanzo beans and some taboule. I had also noticed when I was cleaning out the carousel that we were getting a little low on guacamole and cactus leaf strips too. Although Waitrose was not far, I decided to drive. Against advice of my friend Steve, I had recently bought a 2010 Chrysler PT Cruiser. It was not until later that I found out to my chagrin that the Honest John website had likened it to a Ford Prefect on steroids. And John’s was one of the better reviews. Now, even the novelty of its retro styling had worn off, which explained why I had got it so cheap. It seemed to get from A to B though, albeit with alarming under-steer on corners.

I had not seen Holly since the spring of 1974, when we had had a brief fling. So imagine my surprise when there she was at the delicatessen counter. With her shoulder-length reddish-blond hair and flirtatious smile, she was unmistakable. She was exactly as I remembered her. She had not changed a bit. Her eyes still sparkled the way that they had, and she still wore the same pale blue eye shadow and a light coat of black mascara around them. Everything about her seemed familiar. She even had on the same cheesecloth top that I had bought her from Jean Machine and a pair of flared FU’s jeans with a wide Biba belt. I remembered our first date. We had gone to see The Way We Were, and halfway through I had said, this film is rubbish, let’s go back to my place. To my surprise, she had agreed.

Back then she was studying to be a chef, and around May time, she had found herself with a heavy schedule of exams. With Holly busy revising, I had time on my hands, and one night went to the Uzi Bar. I came home somewhat worse for wear with a barmaid called Rosie. Holly found out that I had slept with Rosie when she came round the next day and found a bracelet in my bed. I did not hear from her again.

However, despite the intervening years, she now appeared to instantly recognise me. And despite my erstwhile infidelity, she greeted me with a big hug. She seemed keen to catch up. Still in a state of disbelief, I struggled hard to find the right words to say, in fact, any words at all. When finally I managed to ask her what she was doing now, she said she was studying to be a chef and had a heavy schedule of exams.

I don’t know if Holly became distracted by the new range of retro tableware in the store or if she was just spirited away. But during the time the delicatessen assistant was weighing out my pitted green olives and taramasalata, she disappeared. I searched the store high and low and even got the shift supervisor to ask for her on the tannoy, but there was no sign.

As I drove away from the store, my head was in turmoil. I ran through a red light by Bygones, narrowly missing a Murco tanker, and almost mowed down an old lady and her Jack Russell on the zebra-crossing by the Fat Elvis burger restaurant.

I had read enough of the self-help books that Danuta brought home from the community library to know that I had to pull myself together and get a grip. Perhaps Deepak Chopra or Eckhart Tolle had not expressed it exactly in these terms, but I took this to be the general gist of their message. I put my Brian Eno CD on to relax me and tried breathing deeply as I had learned in Yoga. I pulled in by the stretch of water by the leisure centre and sat there for a few minutes, listening to the calming cries of the coots and the moorhens. I closed my eyes and tried to gather my thoughts. I told myself that whatever was happening, I was not in a life-threatening situation. Everything could be resolved in fifty-five minutes. This according to someone, whose name escaped me, was the time it should take to adjust to any new situation over which you had no control.

I stretched my legs with a gentle stroll around the park to gain my self-control. A few joggers were out taking their early evening exercise and one or two people were out walking their dogs. When I noticed that the black collie-retriever bounding towards me looked a lot like Barry, my first thought was that I must have been daydreaming. A lot of dogs look alike. I made a quick calculation. Barry would be at least 35. He would surely have died years ago. The dog barked excitedly as he approached. He nuzzled against my leg and then stood on his hind legs with his front paws against my chest, licking my arm affectionately. I identified the heavily chewed black leather collar and the gouge on his neck where the fur was missing, the result of Barry’s tussle with a Staffordshire Bull Terrier in the car park at The Gordon Bennett. In the next instant, we heard a loud whistle and Barry went bounding back across the park. I called out to the disappearing figure of Janice in the distance. Janice seemed not to hear. I called again. She did not look around. She was a hundred yards away. Yet I felt sure it was her, even though she had to the best of my information, moved to Spain shortly after we split up in 1991. The tie-dyed green denim jacket and the hennaed hair gave it away. This was how Janice would have looked in around 1991. She had a Discman on. Probably the one that she used to listen to her Joni Mitchell CDs on. I stumbled on a patch of rough ground, and before I knew it, she and Barry were getting into the black Orion that we had bought together at the car auction. I remembered our bidding nervously. Neither of us knew much about cars. We had bought it for £550. I hadn’t seen an Orion in years; they were not renowned for their durability. This one though seemed to be running well. It moved away with a healthy purr. I looked back. My car was parked too far away to think about driving after her.

The irregularities of space-time were disturbing. Supernatural forces should remain in the realm of the fanciful. But this temporal upheaval was seemingly real. It was happening, now, and to me. I was scared. I felt like vomiting, my hands were shaking, and I was sweating profusely. Had I unwittingly uncovered a portal for parallel worlds, been sucked into the hypothetical wormhole? I had read about such things in Asimov and Ballard short stories, but not given them much credence. It took a good deal of Pranayama breathing and another fifty-five minutes of consolidation before I could get up from where I was now crouching. People were coming up to me and asking me if I was all right. A gnarled old crone with a Bichon Frise attempted to call an ambulance, a scarecrow with a limp offered me a pull on his hip flask, and a rangy Goth tried to sell me some ketamine.

No amount of deep breathing, philosophical principles or stress management techniques could have prepared me for my next encounter, however. Returning to the Chrysler and noticing that the fuel gauge was low, I stopped at the filling station. There, at the adjacent pump, someone was putting fuel into a black Fiat Uno. I recognised the registration plate instantly. It was the Fiat I had owned in 1997. It took a split second, while I did a double-take, before I recognised that the figure in the brightly coloured paisley shirt and combat fatigues bore an uncanny resemblance to me, as I would have looked around twenty years ago. A lot slimmer and with considerably more hair. I felt a chill run the length of my spine. This was not like looking at old photos of oneself or a video. This was watching a real living, breathing human being in real-time. Wasn’t it? Reality was a fragile concept, it seemed. Albert Einstein called reality an illusion but a very persistent one. But even this statement suggested there was room around the edges of reality for leakage. Facing myself over a few feet of garage forecourt defied any rational explanation. I was frozen to the spot. I couldn’t move.

I watched as my doppelgänger fed the fuel into the tank. I studied his mannerisms and his gestures in slow motion, and one by one acknowledged them as my own. I recognised the flick of the neck, the squint against the light showing the lines etched on the forehead, the nervous shifting of weight from one foot to the other as he stood. I remembered buying those red Converse All Stars cut-offs from Clic Sargent. My heart raced, and I felt a tightness in my chest. No doubt about it; the individual I was looking at was me. Amidst the inner turmoil, rational questions like why hadn’t my 1997 personification noticed that the petrol was a little pricey or did the old Fiat run on unleaded tried to find a place in my consciousness. These were swept away by a tsunami of blind panic as I sensed my whole life might be collapsing into a single moment.

My doppelgänger replaced the nozzle in the pump, and as he did, he appeared to look right at me, or right through me. I couldn’t decide which. Could it have been that he did not recognise me? Or to look at it another way, should that be I did not recognise me, now that I was older. No one knew exactly what form their ageing would take. It was not something you would give a lot of thought to. But of course, Eddie had recognised me, and Holly had recognised me, despite my having changed significantly. And my smell must have been the same to Barry, although this in itself was inconclusive. Barry had always been what you might call a friendly dog.

My other swivelled round. I thought he was about to come over. What would he do? Introduce himself? What would I do? I felt my legs buckle. This was not like one of those dreams where you dream about a past episode, and the texture of the scenario as it unfolds is surreal. This was in clear focus in the here and now. I was watching myself in an everyday situation in broad daylight. He did not come over. He seemed to hesitate in mid-stride and turned to walk in the opposite direction towards the BP shop.

I determined that in 1997, I would have been with Saskia. We were happy back then in our second-floor apartment overlooking the park. At weekends, we would take the children to the pool or go walking in the woods. I remembered Saskia and I going to see As Good As It Gets at the Empire, and thinking how appropriate this seemed. Our contentment was of course not to last. I had been to see Saskia’s commemorative cherry tree in the park recently. Someone had tied a ribbon around it with a bow. It had made me feel neglectful of her memory. I had lost touch with Natalie and Josie. They would have left school long ago. At least none of them were in the Uno parked at the neighbouring pump. Their presence would have cranked my present nightmare up another notch.

My other emerged from the shop with an evening newspaper. I read the headline. It was about Diana’s death. Something about a mystery white car in the Alma Tunnel. As he passed, he seemed to look directly at me, or through me again. He could not have been more than twenty feet away. He got into the car. As he wound down his window, I detected a hint of recognition…. I didn’t detect a hint of recognition…. I wasn’t sure. My mouth opened to call out to him, but no words came. He drove off. The exhaust from the Fiat was still blowing, exactly as I remembered it. I put the pump back without having put any fuel in the car and set out to follow him.

He turned left down Hegel Avenue. I used to live on the Philosophers’ estate. I had lived there for over fifteen years, and it occurred to me that wherever we were headed was a run that I had made many times. I thought back to the types of journey I would have made in the Fiat in 1997. Mostly on account of the Fiat’s unreliability, these would have been short journeys. To and from work. To the shops at Kierkegaard Court. Where would I have been likely to have been going at six in the evening? I would usually be back in time for tea. But sometimes I didn’t finish until late. Perhaps I was going to visit Mick or Charlie. They both lived in the Schopenhauer Court flats. I might have been going to pick Saskia up from work. I tried to recall if she had her own car back then. Memories of her came flooding back once again. We passed the Occam’s Razor pub, where we used to sit out on summer evenings for a couple of halves of Old Poets.

The exhaust of the Fiat in front of me was now belching out black smoke. We seemed to be heading back on ourselves as we forked right into Rousseau Gardens. A Brimful of Asha (On the 45) read a poster outside The Codfather takeaway. This surely was an old poster. Shouldn’t they have taken it down? We passed the Mahatma Gandhi Primary School where Natalie and Josie used to go, and then right at the Karl Marx roundabout. It began to dawn on me where we were headed. Usually, I would have turned left at the Karl Marx roundabout, taking me home along Darwin Road. Turning right meant we were ………..

I woke up in the Lewis Carroll Memorial Hospital. I had sustained multiple head injuries in the accident. I could not remember much about the actual collision, but after a few sessions with Dr Trinidad, I recalled a little about the events leading up to it. An overweight elderly man driving an ugly black Chrysler had been tailgating me. It was a model I had not seen before. It was shaped like a hearse, and its registration plate was in an unusual format.

I had first noticed this sinister character with his receding hairline and unsightly facial scars at the BP filling station. My attention was drawn to him because he was behaving strangely. He stood there at the pump pointing the fuel hose into the air. He stared at me the whole time I was filling up. For a second I thought he seemed familiar, but I could not place where I might have seen him. The more I contemplated this, the more I imagined I had been mistaken. I put my imagined recognition down to the intensity of his gaze.

When I pulled off, he got into his car without putting any fuel in, and started following me. He kept his distance at first. I took a right at the Karl Marx roundabout into Nietzsche Avenue and ducked into Spinoza Crescent to make certain that he was really tailing me. He was closer now. I slowed down to give him the chance to overtake, but he stayed behind. I sped up trying to lose him, but the Fiat was not very fast. The last thing I remember, I was driving down Descartes Drive. He was tailgating me. Right up against my bumper, driving like a madman.

… heading for Descartes Drive, where years ago I had been rammed by an old maniac in a forties-style gangster getaway car. About fifteen years ago. I had been trapped in my …. Fiat Uno.

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved

Summer Time

Summer Time by Chris Green

It was already the middle of July. Only a few moments ago it seemed it was June, or May even. The Bank Holiday Mondays, the Chelsea Flower Show, Royal Ascot, Summer Solstice, Glastonbury, Wimbledon and the British Grand Prix had come and gone like thieves in the night. In quick succession, each of my shrubs had flowered and gone over. Already the hydrangeas were out, and the sunflowers were opening. My life was playing on fast forward. Any day now someone would say, the nights are drawing in, somehow stating the obvious. A friend of mine was fond of saying, change is the only certainty. As I grew older, I was beginning to appreciate the wisdom of his words. ‘Now’ was forever slipping away. As Bob Dylan had observed back in the seventies, time was a jet plane.

It was polling time. A by-election had been called following the death of our local MP, Richard Hamilton, in a sword-fight with the landlord of The Goat and Bicycle. I had begun to receive political pamphlets through the door. Each day I would come home from work at the brass instrument advice centre to find a new pile of brightly coloured electoral fliers on the mat. There were more than a dozen candidates. There was a range of views on local issues, but most of them agreed that the country was in a bit of a mess. Some promised to put more police on the streets to help fight crime, while others wanted to see a volunteer police force to save money. One or two wanted to make such deep cuts they suggested closing hospitals, schools and libraries, and deporting the disabled and unemployed.

In my neighbourhood there seemed to be a predominance of VOTE WARHOL stickers in the windows of the houses, although there were half a dozen VOTE ROTHKO stickers, several VOTE POLLOCK and one or two VOTE EMIN.

I was cooking liver and onions for my supper one evening when Mr Warhol called round.

Hi! I’m Andy,’ he said. He was an odd-looking man with pale features and large glasses. I could not tell whether or not he was wearing a wig. I did not like to ask.

I asked him instead, ‘If you get in, will everyone be famous for fifteen minutes?’

That would be communism,’ he replied, circumventing the reference. Perhaps he had become immune to smart-alec remarks.

Or in fifteen minutes everyone will be famous?’

That sounds to me like liberalism.’

Or will fifteen people be famous for everyone?’

That would be an oligarchy, he said.

I could not fault Andy’s political theory.

Will I notice any difference if you get in?’ I asked.

Put it this way,’ he said. ‘If you like your life, I’ll be trying to keep things as they are; if you don’t like your life, I’ll be trying to change things. You choose.’

Very diplomatic, I thought. Despite my occasional propensity to complain, I liked my life. I forever wished I could hold back the relentless progress of time. This feeling was especially strong at this time of year. It seemed important to capture and hang on to those precious fleeting moments when summer was at its most vital, those few brief days when the celestial magic cast its powerful spell. Light evenings were nourishment to the soul. The Sunday at the seaside. The walk in the woods with the birds singing. These would be the times that one would look back to and remember as special in the dark winter months ahead.

If I could choose, I’d like things to stay pretty much as they are,’ I said.

Good,’ he said. ‘Vote for me and I’ll see what I can do.’

He shook my hand and made his way across my front lawn to Mr and Mrs De Kooning’s next door. I suspected the De Koonings would give him a tougher time as they had a VOTE TURNER sticker in their window. Furthermore, I had always found them confrontational, particularly over the issue of my rhododendron, which they claimed spoilt their view of Hogarth Hill.

Despite his unconventional appearance and his lack of political conviction, or perhaps because of these attributes, I liked Andy. Although I seldom bothered to vote, I made my way down to the John Constable Primary School on polling day and voted for him. It was a close contest, but after three recounts, Andy Warhol was elected MP for Gainsborough South by a margin of two votes.

On Mondays, I go to a Flower Arranging class at the Francis Bacon Memorial Centre, and on Tuesdays, Snake Charming at the Hindu Community Centre. On Wednesdays, I have a head massage and on Thursday I attend a bricklaying course at the college. At the weekends, I spend time with my girlfriend, Yoni. I have been described as a creature of habit. While it is good to have varied interests, I like to keep to a routine. Most evenings I get home at 9 to 9.30, although sometimes Snake Charming goes on a little late. During the second half of July, the sun sets just over one minute earlier each evening so it was not until the end of July that I noticed it was still light as I drove home when perhaps it shouldn’t be.

I looked up the sunset times for Gainsborough and found that there indeed appeared to be a discrepancy between when the sun was due to set and when it was actually setting. As near as I could tell, the difference was twenty minutes. I checked my watch against the clocks in the house. All agreed the time to within a minute. Either there was a huge conspiracy to dupe me or something strange was happening.

It was hard not to feel a sense of panic, but in the interest of my sanity, I decided I would do my best not to draw attention to the situation. It was better to keep it to myself for the time being, in case there was a rational explanation that I might have overlooked. I did not even tell Yoni, although once or twice during our lovemaking, she remarked that I seemed distracted. I explained we were having a lot of intonation problems at the centre with four-valve euphoniums. Over dinner at Vettriano’s, she noticed I kept looking at my watch and looking out of the window.

Are we expecting someone or should I not be here?’ she asked.

Sorry darling,’ I said. ‘I thought I spotted Paul Gauguin from my Snake Charming class.’

I read the broadsheet newspapers thoroughly, kept a close eye on the television news and trawled the Internet to see if I could find any clarification, but drew a total blank. It appeared no one else had noticed the celestial upheaval that was upon us. Not even climate change sites had any helpful information. I alone had spotted that the seasons were playing up.

Shaving had never been an activity that I had particularly enjoyed. But, when around the beginning of August, I noticed I no longer needed to, I felt a little unsettled. Furthermore, while I felt that I would miss the convivial conversations about football, opera and pizza with Leonardo, my barber, this was not my prime concern when I found that my hair was no longer growing longer. Doctor Magritte, the only doctor at the Rembrandt Surgery I could get an appointment with, checked me over to ascertain whether I was dead, and after finding a pulse and a heartbeat, began to ask me questions. Had I been feeling any stress? Was I eating a balanced diet? Had I taken any narcotic drugs? Had I been near a source of nuclear energy? I told him that life had been fine, and I ate healthy meals like butternut squash bakes and sardine salads, made sure I ate an apple a day, and took regular exercise. He took a blood sample and said he would send it off for tests to be done.

How long will the tests take?’ I asked.

Well, the tests will only take a jiffy,’ he replied, a little smugly. ‘But there might be another 40,000 samples already waiting for tests at the lab. This is how the NHS works, unfortunately. Three to four weeks, maybe. In the meantime, I’ll just give you something to help. And I think I had better sign you off work.’

Is it serious?’ I asked.

It may be, but there again it may not be,’ he replied. ‘But I don’t want you to worry about it.’ Why could no one commit themselves these days?

I picked up the lithium that Doctor Magritte prescribed and took my sick note into the brass instrument advice centre. For the next few days, I sat in the garden taking stock of the floral inertia. The hydrangeas and the borders I had planted from seed were still in full bloom. The lawnmower had stayed in the shed and the grass was exactly the same length as it had been in the middle of July. I hadn’t had to water the garden, not even the rhododendron. While it must have rained during this time, it hadn’t rained excessively. I could think of absolutely no explanation for these phenomena.

I began dropping comments into conversations with friends and neighbours about it being a strange summer. Or about how manageable my garden seemed this year, hoping one might come back with something like, the night’s don’t seem to be drawing in at all this year, or fantastic isn’t it how the flowers are lasting this year, I haven’t had to deadhead my petunias once. However, there was no hint from any of them that they were experiencing anything untoward. The nearest to a result was when Graham Sutherland at number 44 had said his roses were doing well compared to last year. I was momentarily cheered, but it transpired that this was because last year they had been attacked by leafhoppers, spittlebugs and whitefly. It seemed I was alone in my predicament.

My waking turmoil reflected itself in my sleep. I began to have disturbing dreams at night. In one series of dreams, I was falling from a tall Gothic building. But whereas in such episodes I was accustomed to waking up before I hit the ground, in these dreams I didn’t. I splattered all over the pavement. In the one I remembered most vividly, people had come to stand around and watch me fall. A television crew filmed the spectacle. At one point I was watching their film of my fall on television and I tried to switch off the set with the remote control, but the batteries were flat, and I screamed as I watched myself hit the pavement. I woke up terrified. In another dream, I was driving along a very straight, featureless, dark road and all the other vehicles driving in both directions along the road were AA vans. In the next frame, they had all become ambulances. I could not control the car and was struggling to avoid a collision with the ambulances. In yet another I was trapped in windowless rooms in a dark house, unable to move or make any sound. People dressed in red with voices talking backwards were searching for me. I did not know whether they wanted to harm me or rescue me.

I began to dread going to bed. I found myself staying up later and later, binge-watching Bates Motel, Black Mirror and Mindhunter on Netflix.

One morning I got up and the green light on the phone was flashing. I played back the message on the answer machine. ‘Hello,’ it said. ‘This is Doctor Magritte. I hope you are OK. I have a feeling I may have prescribed you the wrong … beep beep beep.’ My answer machine was a cheap one I had bought at a car boot. It had had no instructions of how to reset the message allocation time. It did not matter anyway as I had looked up lithium on HealthLine, and decided that it might not be a good idea to take it, especially 1800 milligrams per day.

I am not one of these motorists who continually checks their mileage, but I could not help but notice that the odometer on my Citroen Xsara Picasso had been registering 33333 for several days, during which I had been to my acupuncturist twice, and had also driven to the health centre for an extra head-massage. There was nothing subjective about my perception of the mileage. This was entirely scientific; the car was moving along the road, the speedometer was registering the speed, but the odometer was not recording any mileage. In some ways, this seemed more sinister to me than some of the other examples of torpidity. I set the journey distance register to zero and drove off to buy a newspaper and some groceries. The register remained on zero.

It was the evening of my snake-charming exam. I had decided to confide in someone about what was happening to me. I had chosen Sanjay, my tutor, as the most appropriate candidate. Aside from being a damn good snake charmer, he was well versed in phenomenology. He seemed understanding, non-judgemental, and had a mystical presence.

Considering the stress I was under, my exam went well. I had the cobra dancing to the music of my flute as if I was a professional. This, of course, is not completely true. Snakes are deaf. They only appear to be dancing to the music. The thing to remember is that the cobra is expecting an attack, so you have to keep the flute moving from side to side as you play, and the snake will mimic the movements. A cobra’s striking range is roughly one-third of its total length, so it is also a good idea to keep a few feet between you and the snake in case it is having a bad day.

After the exam was over, Sanjay came over to congratulate me, presenting me with an ideal opportunity to have a chat. Once Sanjay had finished shaking my hand and bowing politely, I said, ‘Sanjay, something’s been bothering me for a while.’

Yes, I can see that,’ he said. ‘Would like to tell me what is this thing that is bothering you?’

Today is the eleventh of August,’ I continued. ‘And it’s still as light in the evenings as it was in the middle of July. It’s not dark until 10 o’clock. You must have noticed.’

No. I have not been noticing that,’ he replied.

Let me show you what I mean,’ I said. ‘It’s 9.15 now. If we go outside, you will see that the sun has not quite set.’

First, I have to put the snake basket away so they will not be escaping and poisoning the streetwalkers. But I can see from your expression that you have been worrying so I will not be long.’

Sanjay came back from putting the snakes away and I pushed open the double doors at the back of the community centre. I was about to say to Sanjay, ‘there, you see what I mean,’ but instead, I found we were confronted by almost total darkness. You could just detect a tinge of pink in the bottom corner of the sky over the moor, where the sun had set, but otherwise, the sky was a dark grey and the orange street-lights were shining brightly. I was stunned. I checked my watch. It confirmed that it was 9.15. It was August 11th. It was dark – as one would have expected. I did not know what to say, or what I should feel.

What is happening to me, Sanjay?’ I gasped.

I have observed for two or three weeks now that you have been stressing,’ Sanjay said. ‘You should not worry, you know. Many people are tense before their snake charming exam. Stress can make you imagine strange things.’

But yesterday at 9.15 it was still light.’

Life can be illusory,’ he said. ‘Reality is not necessarily what you are seeing.’

I took a detour on my way home and called in at The David Hockney for a drink. The journey was exactly 303 miles according to my milometer, which now registered 33636. I ordered a Carlsberg Special and phoned Yoni. She did not pick up, which probably meant she was researching for her dissertation on Dissertation Research Methods. I sat by the window, looking out across the moors, and noticed that there was a full moon. I had not seen a lot of the moon during the light evenings. I wondered whether the moon’s phases had been consistent over the past few weeks. I sipped at my drink, idly brushing my beard with my hand. Beard! I had a beard. Quite a thick one, too. Why had Yoni not remarked on it? She must surely have noticed. Why from day to day had I not noticed it growing?

I arrived home around midnight, after another two or three medicinal Carlsberg Specials. The first thing I noticed was that my neatly manicured front lawn was now like a wild meadow. The grass had grown several inches and there were weeds everywhere. Most of the flowers that were in bloom had dropped petals, and all the border plants needed dead-heading. It provided a complete contrast with my neighbours’ gardens, which were fastidiously well-maintained. I wondered if my nascent wilderness might be the reason behind the For Sale sign outside the de Koonings. I dreaded to think how much the rhododendron had grown.

I opened the door. The green light on the answer machine was flashing. I played back the message.

Hello. This is Andy Warhol. It’s now 8.30 pm on Wednesday 11th August. You may remember when I called round, you told me you’d like things to stay as they are. I expect if I asked you now, you might answer differently. So I’ve … beep beep beep.’

© Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved

Travelling Light

Travelling Light by Chris Green

It didn’t work out at first. Things often don’t the first time you try them. Suzi and I only got into it because Milo and Clover gave it the hard sell. It was simple, they told us.

You just lay down, close your eyes, relax your muscles, channel your thoughts, and gradually let go.’ Clover said. ‘You will experience a feeling of lightness of body and mind, and in no time at all, you will be able to witness your astral body floating across the ceiling.’

Once you can do this, with a little practice, you can go anywhere,’ Milo said. ‘So long as you can visualise the space, you can transport yourself to wherever you want.’

It is called astral travelling,’ Clover said. ‘It is cool.’

Perhaps it would help you to know that astral travelling is natural,’ Milo said. ‘It is something we do all the time, in dreams for example. And what you create on the astral plane brings about changes on the physical plane. It is true magick. Everyone should try it.’

Think of it as flying without wings,’ Clover said.

I was a little hesitant, but Suzi couldn’t wait to give it a go. It was time we tried something new; she said. She was excited by the idea of having an out-of-body experience, or OBE as they were referred to. When we failed miserably on our first attempt, she suggested we try again the following day.

I think I felt something happening that time, Adam,’ Suzi said after our third or fourth attempt. ‘I definitely seemed to drift off somewhere.’

I’m not sure I did,’ I said.

I felt like giving up there and then. It was fine for old hippies like Milo and Clover. They were probably taken in regularly by nonsense like this. But as I saw it, astral travelling had little place in our lives. It was not much more credible than many of those conspiracy theories that did the rounds on social media. I liked to think Suzi and I were more grounded, less gullible.

You’re probably trying too hard,’ Suzi said. ‘You need to relax. Try those breathing exercises I showed you.…… Anyway, I think we ought to stick with it, don’t you? Can we do that?’

I wondered if it would be better to just stick with smoking weed. If you wanted to get mystical about it, you could say that this provided us with our Dreamtime. It was much more straightforward. But it did not seem worth mentioning it. Once Suzi got the bit between her teeth about something, there was no stopping her. I could tell she was determined to push this one. She was eager to please Clover, with whom she had been friends since university.

Not many people were aware of it, but Clover was the heir-apparent to the FlowerPower fortune. I had only recently been introduced to her and Milo when Suzi took me along to their wedding at Scott McKenzie Hall, a month or two previously. Clover seemed to possess an almost childlike naivety. She was the archetypal hippie, all paisley pattern peasant prints and patchouli oil. But I could not make out Milo at all. He was something of an enigma. He dressed in a bohemian manner and talked the talk, but he came across as rude, edgy, opinionated, and overbearing. In a word, he appeared to be a bully. It didn’t seem the pair were suited at all, but when I had mentioned this to Suzi back then, she told me to stop being a wet blanket.

Maybe I will read up on astral travelling on the internet to see if I can get any tips,’ I said now to placate her.

Good idea!’ Suzi said. ‘Do some research. There will be lots of information about astral projection online. It always helps to get some background when you are starting something new. You never know, Adam. This could change our lives.’

I discovered from Mystic Arts that astral travelling and astral projection were overarching terms used to describe an intentional out-of-body experience that assumed the existence of a soul or astral body separate from the physical body. Connected by an invisible silver cord, one’s astral body could travel outside the realm of the physical body. There were no limits to where the experienced traveller could go. You could travel beyond the earthly bounds of your physical body to anywhere in the universe. I entertained the possibility that it had been Milo that had written this.

To please Suzi, I persevered. While she claimed her astral body had made it as far as the botanical gardens, I told her mine had hovered above my head and looked down on me. This seemed to satisfy her. She told me I was doing well. Wasn’t she right, she said, to get me to stick with it? 

However, the next time Milo and Clover came to visit, we found them too excited to even listen to how we were getting along with our astral projection. Clover was especially animated. They had moved on; she told us. They had taken the exercise a step further.

Listen to this, guys,’ she said. ‘While our subtle bodies were travelling, we decided to try swapping them. To take possession of each other. Just imagine that for a moment if you can.’

To be honest, I don’t think Clover expected it to work,’ Milo said. ‘After all, it was a pretty far-out proposition of mine. But I had faith. I knew we could do it.’ 

And it worked,’ Clover said. ‘We only occupied each other’s bodies momentarily, but it was a mind-blowing experience. I was Milo and Milo was me.’

You have to work at it, of course,’ Milo said. ‘Don’t get the impression that it’s easy. But I have no doubt at all that eventually, Clover and I will be able to swap bodies whenever we want to. And to do it for longer spells.’ 

You two should try it,’ Clover said.

Call me perverse, but I had never had any desire to be in Suzi’s body in any way other than the more accepted method of entry. I was perfectly happy with this setup. Men were men and women were women. And so far as I could tell, this worked out well. It was the natural order of things. I found all these bizarre new permutations of gender you read about in the papers sickening. But Suzi wanted to know more. She seemed fascinated by Milo and Clover’s crazy idea. Why would anyone want to swap, I wondered? What would be the purpose? It could be for good intentions or it could be for evil motives, couldn’t it? What if one of the parties decided to make the arrangement permanent against the other’s wishes? What would happen then? More importantly, what did Suzi feel she was missing out on? What was she expecting to get from it? What could she possibly have in mind? 

It was all academic, of course. I had yet to even manage the astral projection part of the manoeuvre, let alone take matters further. This latest development seemed to me like yet more new-age hocus-pocus. In order not to disappoint Suzi, I had so far pretended to be well on my way to spiritual freedom, dropping in all the buzz words they had mentioned in Mystic Arts at appropriate moments. I could not now admit my deceit, so reluctantly I agreed to give the transmigration malarkey a try. 

It was clear from the outset that it would not be a great success. Suzi’s astral body was apparently zipping all around the room, but as I expected, mine seemed determined to stay put.

You’re not trying hard enough, Adam,’ she said, returning to base.

Well, first I’m trying too hard and now I’m not trying hard enough,’ I said. ‘Come on, Suzi! Which is it?’

I don’t think your heart is in it,’ she said. ‘Don’t you want to see what it’s like to be inside me?’ 

Perhaps it would help if we tried the other way again first,’ I said. ‘That seems to usually go well.’

I enjoy it too, Adam. You know I do,’ she said. ‘But there’s more to life than sex. We need to treat astral projection as something entirely different. If we are going to get anywhere, I think you need to take it more seriously.’ 

To help things along, Suzi took me round to Milo and Clover’s to pick up some tips. 

We need to find out what we are doing wrong,’ she said. ‘More specifically, what you are doing wrong.’

Suzi seemed pleased to find that Clover appeared to be alone. No explanation was offered about where Milo was, but we both felt that without him, Clover would be easier to talk to. Milo had a way of controlling the conversation, of always being right and not giving you the chance to get your point across.  

Within the first few minutes, both of us noticed that something about Clover was different. She was dressed in her usual boho chic and her hair and make-up looked the same, but her manner had changed. Normally she was easy company, light and breezy and pleasant to talk to. She had hardened. Her voice sounded the same, but her delivery was different. She came across as rude, edgy, opinionated, and overbearing, the very traits I had previously attributed to Milo. Suzi and I exchanged glances. I got the impression she had never seen her friend like this. Something was definitely wrong. It seemed Clover couldn’t wait to get rid of us. Why were we standing in the hallway? Why was the door to the main part of the house bolted? Why hadn’t she offered us a cup of tea or invited us into the front room? Had something happened? If it had, why couldn’t she tell us? Where was Milo? What was that rank smell of rotting flesh and where was it coming from?

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved


Small Island

Small Island by Chris Green

I am walking our cocker spaniel, Trevor on Gold Dust Hill when we come across the stranger. Trevor spots him first. He is very sensitive to changes in his surroundings. We get a few hill walkers around these parts, so at first I imagine the shadowy figure in the distance is a hiker, enjoying the peace that this beautiful stretch of upland offers. But cocker spaniels were bred to be gun dogs, and Trevor can tell straight away that this is a gunman coming out from behind the clump of trees to the east towards Cascade Falls.

Milo keeps telling me not to go out on the hills on my own in case there are snipers, but he has been away a lot lately. Something to do with the merger, apparently, or is it the takeover? I don’t get into that side of things.

I won’t be on my own,’ I tell him. ‘I’ll have Trevor.’

A fat lot of good Trevor will be when you are faced with a battalion of bloodthirsty rebels,’ he says. Sometimes Milo’s outlook verges on paranoia, but it looks as if he may have got it right this time. Although perhaps he has overestimated the scale of the threat. The lone figure is ambling towards us, rifle cocked. Have I got the right word? Is cocking something that you do with a rifle? Whatever, it’s still a man with a rifle. And cocking or not, he’s getting closer.

Run, Trevor!’ I shout.

The stupid mutt starts running towards the sniper. At times like this, I wish I’d continued with his obedience classes at Sit Happens.

Not that way, Trevor,’ I call out.

I might be pushing fifty but I can still manage a canter if need be. The problem now is we’re heading in the wrong direction for the car park, but I dare not double back.

When I feel we are a safe distance from the ridge where we caught sight of the sniper, I get the phone out of my shoulder bag. My heart is racing. Trevor is now barking furiously. He can smell my fear. How on earth are we going to get out of here? It’s no good phoning Milo, of course. Even if he were to answer, he would just rant and rave about me going up on to the hill despite his warnings. Not that he’d be able to get here, anyway. He’s out of the country on business. Most of the people I know live in Richmond which is a good ten miles away or Freeport which is even further. In any case, most of them would probably be tied up at this time of day. People have work to do or people to see. I decide to phone Doobie. He will be able to get here quickly, and he is streetwise. Unconventional certainly, but resourceful.

Within a matter of minutes, Doobie, his long straggly hair blowing like Bob Dylan’s answer, arrives in a curiously customised Jeep at the arranged spot along the dirt-track lane by the derelict grain store. Crashing guitar chords ring out from an improvised onboard speaker system. I don’t believe that this is Bob Dylan. Thrash metal, perhaps. Or nu-metal. Whichever, you don’t hear a lot of this kind of music on Iescos. The Rolling Stones are still considered to be new kids on the block here. I have often wondered how someone who draws so much attention to himself as Doobie does can get through life in such a cavalier fashion without requital. But he appears to do so. I believe it is called hiding in the light.

I lift Trevor into the vehicle and jump in beside him. With a spin of wheels, we speed off, hopefully out of danger.

What was happening back there, Nattie?’ Doobie says. ‘You seem a bit shaken up.’

There was a gunman coming for us and Trevor was running towards him and …….’

Slow down, will you, Nats? You’ll give yourself a heart attack.’

But he had a rifle and ….. ‘

Oh, I wouldn’t get too alarmed about that,’ he laughs. ‘If it was a sniper, he’s not going to waste a bullet on you. Ammunition is precious when you are a renegade in hiding. You worry too much, Nattie, you know that? Time for a cold one at Mojo, I think.’

Unlikely as it may seem, I got to know Doobie through a mutual interest in experimental cinema. We met at a screening of a Leif Velasquez film in Freeport. I read about Velasquez in Artz online magazine, and went along to the Freeport show out of curiosity. Doobie is an artist of sorts, although, by his own admission, not an easy one to categorise. Milo is not one for the arts, but Doobie and I have now been to a few exhibitions together. Few, because events on Iescos are rare. If you google ‘Iescos’, it will come back with, ‘did you mean Tescos?’

To look at the two of us you would think we were polar opposites, me in my tweeds and Doobie in his denim cut-offs with the Error 404 t-shirt. Who or what is Error 404? Is it a band? An artists’ collective? A group of writers? I don’t want to show my ignorance by asking. I keep meaning to look on the internet but have not yet got around to it. But, anyway, Doobie and I seem to get along.

The recent uprising was a bit of a joke. Most of the rebels were rounded up within twenty-four hours. Iescos is a small island and because of this it has since its colonial days been relatively easy to govern. A few of the more enterprising insurgents escaped capture and most of these headed this way, the cover of the hills providing a treasury of hiding places. As it was such a shambles, I’m not sure that mastermind is the right word here, but nobody I have spoken to seems to know for sure who the mastermind behind the uprising was.

Around two hundred ill-equipped rebels stormed the government building and imprisoned the government officials. To announce the change of leadership to that of a popular co-operative and to manage the flow of information, they took control of the radio station and the press. What they overlooked was that hardly anyone on the island listens to the local radio station and even fewer read the newspaper. This is the internet age, even on Iescos. Unfortunately, there was not a skilled webmaster among the band of insurgents. So, unaware that we had to acknowledge a change in fortunes, we all went about our business as usual. By the time the rebels realised what was happening, or in this case not happening, outside help was at hand. GCHQ had already processed the information and, almost before the uprising had started, a pair of British boats were in Freeport harbour. The freedom fighters who were not captured by their former colonial oppressors took to the hills.

We pull up outside Mojo. It is almost buried beneath lush vegetation. It looks like a former colonial trading post. As we make our way through the greenery, we are greeted by colourful adverts for exotic herbs, hummingbirds, parrots, livestock, alligators and two-headed snakes. Island Sweet Skunk and Gurage Khat. It appears you can buy anything here. Or in Doobie’s case, it seems you can just help yourself. He ushers me inside to the darkened interior, Trevor at my heels. He directs us to a table, nods to a shadowy figure behind the counter, takes two glistening bottles of Sol Original out from a giant peppermint green fridge and places one in front of me. Clearly, he is a man of standing in these parts.

The gin here is fresh too if you would like one in a bit,’ he says, pointing to a still, visible, despite a beaded curtain, in the corner. ‘And duty-free.’

We settle into a conversation about the complicated topography of Iescos, all the peaks and promontories, twists and turns, ridges and rills, swales and dingles. Or in plain language, the ups and downs.

Although Milo and I have been here for three years and the island is less than forty miles across, I still get lost,’ I say. ‘Even with satnav. Some roads are little more than tracks or paths and even out in the open there are next to no road signs.’

The road signs all but disappeared in the uprising,’ he says. ‘One of the rebels’ tactics.’

This is why I take Trevor out on to Gold Dust Hill,’ I say. ‘It’s an easy journey from the house and it has a safe place to park the car.’

Doobie says he doesn’t need satnav or road signs. He knows every inch of the island. He knows which parts are safe and which bits might be rebel hideouts. I tell him it is just as well he knows his way around because I don’t have a clue how to get back to my car. We have probably only come five or six miles from where he picked me up, but I would never have been able to find my way to Mojo in a million years. I did not know that places like this existed.

Most of the people on the island never make it out of the towns,’ he says.

In breaks in our conversation, I overhear the murmur of two men in conversation at a nearby table. They are speaking in their native tongue. It is something that you could easily miss, in fact, it is Trevor who draws my attention to it, but their conversation seems to be interspersed with occasional utterances of Milo’s name. Trevor’s ears prick up and he gives out a little yelp each time that Milo’s name is mentioned. He misses Milo. At first, I wonder if the pair might be referring to a different Milo. Or perhaps Milo or something that sounds like it is a word in their language. But when Doobie goes off to speak to someone at the bar, I distinctly hear one of them say the name, Milo Lorenz. He repeats it several times. No doubt then that it is my Milo. This is disconcerting. What connection could they possibly have with my husband?

I look around discreetly, anxious not to draw more attention to myself than I might already be doing. I am aware that a lady dressed in country clothing as I am might look out of place in a bar like this. A lady of any sort might look out of place. Except possibly a lap dancer. This is a male domain. I’m not at all comfortable that Doobie has brought me here. The lightness of the atmosphere earlier when we were sipping our Sol Original has vanished. Dressed in torn fatigues and baseball caps, the two men don’t look like the kind of associates I would expect Milo to have. They would not fit easily into the world of commerce. For one thing, I don’t imagine that you are allowed to spit on the floor in the meetings that Milo goes to. But, it occurs to me I know little about what Milo actually does and he is around so infrequently that there is not much opportunity to find out. I do not believe that he has been home now for nearly a month, in fact, he hasn’t phoned for a week or so.

The longer Doobie spends talking to the sinister man at the bar, the more nervous I become. They have sneaked away into a corner of the bar and I am unable to see what they are doing. The two men on the table behind me now have raised voices. They seem more menacing by the minute. I call over to Doobie, but he completely ignores me. I have a bad feeling about what might be happening here. What if I have been lured into some kind of trap? What if they are all in on it? What if I am being kidnapped? It is perhaps not the conventional way of doing it, but then there has been nothing conventional about today. They might be using me as a way to get money out of Milo. I take the phone out to give him a call but, predictably, it goes straight to voicemail. I can no longer see Doobie. He has disappeared.

Trevor begins to bark. One of the men at the table, the one with the scar running the length of his cheek, mouths something guttural at him. The other man, the one with the dental problems, then addresses me threateningly. He spits. I don’t understand Iescan but I think I understand the gesture. It is aimed at me. I am not welcome. I look around me for support. There is none. I am scared. I get up quickly and go over to where Doobie disappeared. I push open a door, Trevor following at my heels. We go down a couple of wooden steps and find ourselves in a murky room. Parrots call out as we enter. There is an overpowering aroma from a pot-pourri of herbs and spices, tarragon and eucalyptus, coriander and nutmeg. It is like a bazaar. Shelves are stacked with a dizzying assortment of strange artefacts. Trevor is spooked by the two-headed green snake that peers out from its glass tank. Next to it in another glass tank is a writhing congregation of baby alligators. Are those bats circling overhead? Or are they large moths? This is the stuff of nightmares. There is no sign of Doobie.

I backtrack and along a corridor find another door. I push it open. This is a much larger room. There are no parrots. No two-headed snakes. No alligators. Instead, dominating the space and looking completely out of context is a Heidelberg offset printing machine. I do not know much about printing, but this looks like a serious piece of kit. Although it is not in use, it appears to have done its job. Stacked alongside it are bales and bales of printed material wrapped in polythene, newspapers, posters, flyers. I move in closer, brush the dust off the nearest pile and take a look. To my alarm, they have Milo’s photo on. President Lorenz, it says. So do the other bales. President Lorenz? What on earth? Is this some kind of joke?

It gradually dawns on me that Milo must have been the one behind the failed uprising. This must have been the takeover that I heard him talking about in those clandestine phonecalls late at night. This would explain why he hasn’t phoned me. This must be why his phone is off. He must be in detention somewhere. This will be why I was being spat at in the bar. I can see straight away why the plan might have failed. Milo’s big problem is that he never thinks things through. He has an idea and thinks that this is enough; the job is then done. Not that Milo would have made a good president, anyway. His politics are too fickle. He has a low boredom threshold. One thing one day, the opposite the next. He would have been quickly overthrown.

But why haven’t the authorities contacted me? And why has Doobie brought me to this godforsaken place?

As if summoned, Doobie sidles into the room. His aura seems to have darkened a little.

There was no easy way of telling you, Nattie,’ he says, apologetically. ‘When you called me, I wasn’t sure what I should say. Not a lot of people in respectable circles realised who was behind the uprising. And it was seen as important that they didn’t find out. We’re no different here on Iescos than anywhere else when it comes to secrecy. The fewer that know the truth the better.’

I see,’ I say, not seeing at all.

You wouldn’t have believed me anyway,’ he says. ‘So, I thought it would be best if I brought you here and let you find out for yourself.’

I am about to point out that all the people here seem to know about Milo, but, I think I am beginning to get it. After all, the peasants here in the interior don’t have a voice, do they? They don’t have access to one. Nor will they have. The printing press is shut down for now.

So, Doobie. Whose side are you on,’ I say.

Sides, Nattie? I don’t do sides, Nattie,’ he says. ‘I’m too smart for that.’

I put too much faith in people, Doobie. I always expect to find things how I left them. But life isn’t like that. It’s full of surprises. From now on, I’m going to see which way the wind blows.’

I think that’s the answer, Mrs L.’

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved

An early version of this story appeared as Blowing in the Wind

Cover Story

Cover Story by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

Whoa!’ I say ‘Slow down!’

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

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

Hello Phil,’ she says. ‘Claire.’

Now we have introduced one another, she seems calmer. Claire is someone you would be likely to notice in a crowded room, thirty-something, blonde and well-rounded, a lady of some refinement. To be honest, I can’t seem to take my eyes off her. She gives a detailed account of a nightmare few hours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

…………………………………….

On occasions, most of you will have been plagued by an earworm. Annoying, isn’t it to have a tune stuck in your head? Sometimes the tune going around and around will be the last one you heard. Or the most catchy one on your last shuffle or however you listen to your music. Something you heard on the radio or in a shop. Think of those irritating Christmas tunes, for instance. Various studies have been carried out as to what song is the most catchy ever, some of these claiming to be scientific. Among those frequently cited are Michael Jackson’s Beat It, Abba’s Dancing Queen, The Queen’s We are the Champions and Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. I am plagued with earworms all the time, but none of these tunes features. My earworms seem to be entirely random. Captain Beefheart’s Mirror Man, a Bartók String Quartet or the Tuvan National Anthem. Last week it was MacArthur Park. They just seem to come out of nowhere. Bob Dylan’s tunes aren’t always thought of as being catchy so where has the one about the silver saxophones that is going around and around in my head come from? ……… Aha! I think I might know. But should I let on?

…………………………………….

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is your car?’ Claire asks.

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

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

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

…………………………………….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, you are saying you’ve no idea?’

None.’

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

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

…………………………………….

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

In case anything about my involvement should come to light, this can serve as my cover story. I’m reliably informed that, somewhat paradoxically, the more you embellish your account, the more credible it becomes.

An earlier version of this story was published as ‘Unreliable Narrator.’

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved

Bus

Bus by Chris Green

The bus isn’t supposed to go this way. What is happening? Where is it taking me?

You’re going the wrong way,’ I call out to the driver.

She takes no notice. Perhaps she cannot hear me over the noise of the engine. I try again.

I have an appointment and I’m going to be late,’ I add.

Still no response. I walk up the aisle to the front the bus to tell her she has made a mistake, and needs to turn back. Otherwise, I will miss my meeting.

There is no driver. She is no longer there. I look around to see where she can have gone. Not only is she missing, but the other passengers have disappeared. I am now the only one aboard. Suddenly, there is no bus. Instead, I am walking along the road. A featureless straight track that stretches into the distance. I don’t recognise where I am. Darkness is descending. I feel panic setting in. I need to turn around and go back and somehow retrace my steps. Now there is no road at all. And I am no longer walking. I appear to have changed state. I have no physical form. To all intents and purposes, I no longer exist.

I would normally expect to wake up around about now. But I don’t wake up. I cannot wake up. Is this it?

When you are accustomed to physical existence, non-existence comes as something of a shock, I can tell you. I start to think of all the things I will no longer be able to do. I will not be able to play the saxophone. Or the clarinet. I won’t be able to hug my badger. No, that can’t be right. I don’t imagine I have a badger. I must mean my cat. Wait! I don’t have a cat either. It’s Kat. That’s it. I won’t be able to hug Kat. I will never get to find out what happens in the final episode of Revenge of the Tulpas. There will be no-one to let the dogs out. The parrot will starve.

I hear my phone ringing. It is the ringtone I assigned to Kat last month to make sure I took her calls. But I don’t know how this can be happening, or what I can do about the call now that I am inchoate. It’s not as if I can even see my phone, let alone answer it.

Once again, I imagine I should be waking up about now. But I am not asleep. I am something else, somewhere else. Neither asleep nor awake. I am in a state of limbo. Insubstantial and distant.

You appear to be lost,’ a man’s voice says. It has an echo which makes it sound both far away and close. Where can it be coming from? Can he actually see me or is he using a different method to detect my presence? If he can see me, why can’t I see him or see myself? Does this suggest that, however tenuous, I still have contact with the real-world? Or is this how things happen in the afterlife?

The tall figure slowly materialises. Like an old newspaper photo made up of dots, his grainy presence hovers before me against the otherwise featureless backdrop. He is within twenty feet of me. I’m desperately hoping he doesn’t come closer.

What we call the beginning is often the end,’ he says, cryptically. ‘And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.’

His intonation is a curious combination of Thor, RP, and automated telephone voice. The effect is otherworldly. I want to ask him what he means, but I am unable to speak. Whatever state it is I am in has very limited functionality, but somehow I’m hanging in there.

I see that you are confused,’ he continues, ‘Maybe it will become clear to you later.’

It seems he wants to keep me in suspense, as with this, his presence slowly fades. Nothingness once more. Silence pervades. A prolonged silence. Minutes pass and then hours. Perhaps days. Time has lost its meaning. Isolation training could not prepare you for this lack of stimulation. The pandemic lockdown offered nothingness and silence. But there was rationality about what was taking place. You had an idea of its boundaries and you knew it would end. There is nothing rational about this situation. I feel as if I am inhabiting a Samuel Beckett story. I am reminded of the one where the narrator is chained to a leaking boat with his life slowly draining away. Or the one told by a nameless man lying in darkness and mud, unable to move. Scared doesn’t cover what I am feeling. I am terrified.

I resign myself to my grisly fate. But out of the blue, I hear the faint sound of a brass band in the distance. They are playing a Sousa marching tune, but with a jazz arrangement. My brass tutor, Hari, used to be in a jazz band. I don’t imagine there’s any connection, but it is heartening to hear something familiar breaking through at last. Blown on the wind, the music fades in and out. I begin to hear the hum of traffic coming from somewhere. It grows louder. I can hear one distinct engine rising above the rest. The sound of a bus. Better still, I am aboard the bus. It seems like the same bus I was on earlier. Whenever earlier was. The other passengers on board seem familiar.

I am having a conversation with the driver. Her name is Maya. Maya is an avid reader, and we are talking about books. I tell her I like Haruki Murakami. You never know what to expect in his books. He is full of surprises. Magical realism, weird worlds with deep wells and talking cats. Jazz arrangements colour his prose. She hasn’t read him, but to my surprise, she likes Jorge Luis Borges. His characters are cast adrift in unfamiliar alien worlds, she says. She adds that a friend lent her a collection of Samuel Beckett stories, but she didn’t get on with those. All those protagonists who are devoid of hope.

A little horror is OK,’ she says. ‘So long as it’s well written. Stephen King or H. P. Lovecraft are my favourites. I like Daphne du Maurier too. Her stories haunt you long after you’ve finished them.’

I ask her if she has read Phillip C Dark. She says she has not heard of him. I do not tell her it is one of my pseudonyms.

She tells me she has written a few short stories

I’ve been plotting one in my head today, as it happens,’ she says. I woke up feeling creative and thought I would drive the bus a different way to see what came to mind. This then could form the basis of the story.’

How’s that going,’ I ask?

The story I’ve come up with is about how we are so used to our routines that the slightest deviation can cause panic. I thought the action might as well take place on a bus. It’s simpler that way. One passenger, in particular, freaks out when the bus driver takes a wrong turning. Perhaps it is going to make him late for an appointment or something. He becomes deranged. In his paranoia, he sees himself as a victim of some diabolic force, and imagines all kinds of crazy scenarios. He descends further into his nightmare until he’s no longer sure who he is, or whether he will survive. ……. You could play the part if you like. You could be that passenger. You could bring in ideas from some of those writers we’ve been talking about. What do you think?’

It’s good,’ I say. ‘I suggest you don’t reveal that this is what is happening until the last moment. The disclosure of the writing process could provide the twist.’

I think I see,’ she says. ‘You mean the end would then be the beginning.’

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved

Blues Harp

Blues Harp by Chris Green

Man Eats Goldfish at County Fair, the headline poster outside the newsagents says. At first, I assume this must refer to a report in the local paper. A light-hearted line to draw you in and get you to buy the paper. Lord knows The West Country Gazette needs all the help it can get. But as I get closer, I see the headline is from The Times. What kind of slow news day would warrant such a headline in The Times? This is the equivalent of saying, nothing of any note has happened or is happening anywhere, no pandemics, no wars or skirmishes, no political upheaval, no extreme weather events, no financial irregularities, no robberies, no gun or knife crime. Nothing. Zilch. I go into the shop to buy my cigarettes and find that The Daily Telegraph and The Independent carry the same story. Ben Brickley from Bideford washed down a goldfish he won at the fair with a pint of Old Stonker. The Guardian leads on a story about a cat from Cullompton that was trapped in a lift. All four papers look thin and the tabloids don’t seem to have published at all. The lad in the torn Bolt Thrower tee-shirt behind the counter is unable to elaborate. He seems to be there under duress.

I can get no signal on the phone and when I get home, I find the internet is dead. I switch on the TV. The 24-hour news channel is concentrating on the goldfish story, interviewing someone from Fish Protection, who is trying to explain the stress the goldfish would have experienced as it made its way through Ben’s digestive tract. The usual rolling reports running along the bottom of the screen have updates on the cat from Cullompton. Apparently Poppy is recovering from her ordeal. Were it not for the comms outage, I’d be tempted to feel someone was playing a prank. But I get the feeling it’s something altogether more sinister.

I have to break off to go to my Harmonica class at the community centre. I’ve been looking forward to this. Last week we covered Junior Wells’s technique. Junior is a master of bends and diatonic phrasing. This week, it is to be Little Walter. I imagine we will be concentrating on the tongue-block style that Walter pioneered. Blues harp needed for this I imagine but I am taking a selection of my harps along just in case there are any surprises.

As we wait for our tutor to arrive, I mention the story about the goldfish to the other students.

They spent a whole hour talking about it,’ Mac says. ‘I’ve no idea what happened in last night’s football.’

If he had swallowed a whale, now that would be news,’ Ronnie says. ‘But a goldfish?’

I couldn’t get a TV signal at all,’ Ed Toker says. ‘Just static.’

Something’s being hushed up, don’t you think?’ I say.

There’s been a lot of terrorism lately,’ Mac says. ‘Perhaps the security services have shut everything down as a precaution.’

It could be that a very sophisticated hacker has taken out all the communication networks,’ Ed says. ‘Perhaps someone has launched a hacker satellite that has knocked all the others out.’

I doubt if that’s possible,’ I say. ‘There would always be some kind of backup system. It’s some kind of news blackout. I’m sure of it.’

Best not to think about it,’ Ronnie says. ‘I expect we’ll find out soon enough.’

Our tutor, Duke arrives and we go on into the Little Walter session. For the next hour and a half, we blow our harps with gay abandon. The class lifts our spirits. How could it not? Walter was the Jimi Hendrix or perhaps the Charlie Parker of the blues harp. The world would be a poorer place without Walter’s contribution to music. By the end, I’m reasonably pleased with the progress I’ve made on Hoochie Coochie Man and My Babe. I decide I might even go along to the open mic night at The Gordon Bennett at the weekend.

After class, we switch our phones back on but still find none of us has a signal or internet. Duke is now up to speed with the situation and turns on the community centre TV to see if there have been any developments. On the news channel, they are still talking about goldfish. There has been a copycat incident in Barnstaple. Outside the Pannier Market, Bernie Burton has swallowed a goldfish and washed it down with a pint of Dark Horse. The rolling updates meanwhile have moved on to another cat story. Thomas from Tavistock has been named Mouser of the Year. Chelsea Kiss comes on the air to say that reports are coming in from Plymouth of a man in a pet shop swilling down the contents of the fish tank with litres of Badger’s Arse. Duke tries switching channels but there appear to be no other channels on the air.

When I get home, I turn the TV on again. Things have moved on a little. News is breaking about more widespread recreational fish swallowing. The Fowey Aquarium and The Lyme Regis Marine Aquarium are the latest to suffer. Not just goldfish now, but tropical fish. Dwarf gouramis, guppies and angelfish.

It seems no small fish in the south-west is safe,’ Chelsea remarks. ‘The outbreak is becoming uncontainable.’

I can’t tell whether or not her co-presenter, Giles Fawning is hiding a smirk. Is he in the know? Have the pair of them been told what is really going on? Are they complicit in the proceedings?

There are still no other channels available and it seems that the news channel is getting fainter. Something is obviously very wrong in the big wide world. I decide not to dwell on it. Over the years I have learned that if I can do nothing about the situation, there is no point in worrying about it. Whatever it is they are hiding behind the fish story might quickly blow over. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I am becoming accustomed to a little adversity. Since Annie ran off with her Taekwondo trainer, Tyrone, my life has been a catalogue of misfortune. Losing Annie was one thing but when the job, the house and the car followed, I formed the impression that someone upstairs didn’t like me. I am used to living in the bed-sitter now despite the noise from the trains and the erratic behaviour of the psychotic junkie next-door-neighbour. After a while, you convince yourself that hearing Feral Scorn blaring out at 3 a.m. is normal. But hopefully it won’t be forever. Circumstances change. In fact, change is the only thing that can be guaranteed in life.

Whatever is thrown at you, cliched it might be, it is best to keep calm and carry on. Adversity is said to be character-building. Tell yourself there are many examples of famous people who didn’t give up when their backs were up against the wall. Stephen Hawking for example. Despite his crippling disabilities, he became a groundbreaking theoretical physicist. Or another Stephen. Stephen King. His first novel was rejected thirty times but he kept going and went on to be one of the most successful writers of all time. Beethoven went deaf quite early on in his composing career but was still able to create a staggering catalogue of sublime music. Nelson Mandela was able to bring about the end of the apartheid regime from his prison cell. And let us not forget Tom Crews, the surfer who despite being blind, won the Wipeout Classic in Hawaii three years in succession. Perseverance is the key.

I am not aiming at such giddy heights. I just want my life to get back to normal. A few home comforts and a little TLC wouldn’t go amiss. You don’t realise how much you miss these things until they are gone. I was hoping that Nisha, who I met at Ward Swisher’s critically acclaimed new play, The Dream Library would get back to me. We seemed to get along well in the bar afterwards. But perhaps she is not interested. That’s the way it goes sometimes. You never can tell. In the meantime, I have my harmonicas to help me through. I switch off the TV and take out my Larry Adler chromatic and run through It Ain’t Necessarily So, the George and Ira classic. My favourite tune on my favourite harp. The lyrics about Jonah living in a whale are a bit silly but perhaps that’s the point the song is trying to make. The Bible is full of silly stories. That’s probably why it has fallen out of favour. People are looking for truth in this post-truth age. But for me as a harmonica player, it is the melody that matters. Once I am happy that I have got the rhythm right, I go back over the Junior Wells tunes and the Little Walter tunes from class on my Hohner blues harp, make myself some lunch and as it seems to be quiet next door, settle down for a well-earned nap. Whatever it might be that is happening in the outside world can wait awhile.

I had always imagined they would be tall and green. They would be skeletal perhaps with angular pointed heads and disproportionally large eyes. Or maybe short and squat like ET. But they are not. They are nothing like that. The creatures I see through my window when I wake are amorphous. It is difficult to get a handle on how they are formed. Some jelly-like substance perhaps. They are black, so dark in fact that they absorb all the available light. They appear to spot I am looking their way and in a flash, they are at the window, thrashing the panes of glass with their scaly black tentacles. Or are these leathery appendages, fins of some kind or wings? Whichever, these beings are clearly not from around here. These are extraterrestrials. This is an alien invasion. My nervous system can find no adequate response to register the panic I feel. I have had no instruction as to what one is supposed to do under these circumstances. The popular viewpoint in my lifetime has been that, outside of Doctor Who and Star Wars, aliens do not exist.

Suddenly, the opening chords of Feral Scorn’s Behemoth X ring out at frightening volume. The psychotic junkie next-door neighbour appears to have surfaced. The alien creatures are clearly not accustomed to Feral Scorn’s pummelling riffs. They immediately back off. Perhaps in their world, battles are fought through sound. If so, I can appreciate that on hearing Feral Scorn for the first time, they might be terrified. This is as heavy and threatening as grunge metal gets.

Without my phone or the internet, it is not going to be easy to share my experience about the extraterrestrials with the authorities. Or more pertinently perhaps, how to get rid of them. I drive around to the police station to pass on the information for the benefit of others. Fortunately, the streets are quiet and I do not encounter any aliens on the way.

Sergeant Golfer seems less than impressed with my story.

Perhaps you would be good enough to describe these ….. extraterrestrials, Mr Dark,’ he says, chuckling. ‘Then maybe we can circulate a photofit picture of them.’

I don’t think a photofit picture is going to do it, Sergeant,’ I say. ‘They’re black and jelly-like and they keep changing shape.’

I see,’ he says. ‘And you say they are frightened by something called Feral Scorn. What exactly is that?’

Feral Scorn is a band,’ I say. ‘A heavy grunge band from Seattle. Look! Is there any way you could get in touch with the military? In case they are not aware of it. They probably know about the invasion but you never know. And can you put it out on police radio for your officers to keep a lookout for the aliens? And if they encounter any, get them to play some very loud music, preferably grunge metal.’

You want me to stop my officers policing serious goldfish-related incidents to look for marauding gangs of black blobs, do you, Mr Dark?’ Sergeant Golfer says, sharing the joke with his fellow officers at the desk. ‘And play them some hit tunes.’

I can see I’m going to get nowhere with these small-minded fools. I decide to leave them to it. Given their attitude, it is little wonder that so little crime is solved. I’m not sure what my next step should be but as I am getting into the car, my phone springs into life. Notification upon notification come up one after another on the screen, text messages, Twitter and Facebook updates, emails and WhatsApp messages. Most noticeable of all is an ad that fills the screen for the latest Feral Scorn album, Cthulhu. Guaranteed to scare the pants off you is the tagline.

I turn the ignition and the radio comes on. A communications expert is explaining that while it is relatively easy to knock out a couple of rural counties in the south-west of England for a short time, it would be much more difficult to bring the world to a standstill. In a small discrete area, you can jam all means of communication, put together some fake copies of the newspapers, come up with a few fake stories, in this instance about goldfish and cats. Then get actors to play the real hosts of a fake news station to help circulate the fake reports. Maybe you can close the main arterial roads and get the local authorities to play along. But it would be impossible to replicate this on a large scale.

I listen for a while as they talk about the operational parameters of television transmissions, data, bandwidth and stuff. It’s all very technical. There is no news as to who was behind it. And curiously, they mention nothing about the extraterrestrials. Surely something this important should come into the discussion. Who are they? What are they? Where did they land? What is their mission? Or is their presence still something they are trying to keep from us? With the communications mystery now explained though, I suppose the idea of an alien invasion restricted to one small rural area in the west country does seem a little unlikely. Had I perhaps imagined them? Was I in that confused state between sleeping and waking when they appeared? Or were the creatures fake, a publicity stunt for Cthulhu, Feral Scorn’s new album? While there appears to be a significant following for metal music in these parts, it is difficult to see a big enough return for the band to justify such random extravagance but still.

I begin to check my messages. Quite a few showing alarm at the communications blackout. One or two harmonica-related ones. News about an extra open mic night at The Gordon Bennett. And there is one from Nisha. Which is nice. Why don’t I come over later, she says? She will cook me a meal. Would fish be alright? Or squid? How about six-o’clock? And perhaps we could share a glass or two of Pinot Grigio. Then later, we might settle down to a leisurely dessert. While squid can be a little difficult to swallow and Pinot Grigio might not be my favourite wine, this sounds like an offer I would be a fool to turn down.

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All Rights Reserved

Sex and Drugs and Rock-and-Roll

Sex and Drugs and Rock-and-Roll by Chris Green

1:

The best things in life are three. At least Charlie Tooting thinks so. They are sex and drugs and rock-and-roll. Many others of his generation agree. After all, we are talking about the nineteen-seventies. Nineteen-seventy-three to be exact, and Charlie is twenty-two years old. It would be fair to say though that Charlie’s appreciation of the best three things goes further than many of his contemporaries. To the exclusion of almost anything else, perhaps.

The Pavilion, a new music venue, has opened in Charlie’s town. The Pavilion features live bands three or more times a week. If Charlie could sing or play an instrument, he would be in a rock band, but as he cannot, he is in awe of those that can. Not that he is without ambition, but Charlie’s ambition is more of a notches on the bedpost affair. He can resist everything except temptation. He might be described as vain. He is the type who probably thinks this song is about him.

He has a regular girlfriend, Annika. At least Annika believes she is his regular girlfriend. But Charlie is more than happy to stray when the opportunity presents itself. As Annika is more of a folkie than a hard rock fan, Charlie sees the new venue as somewhere that will provide him with opportunities for playing away. He has recently given up his job at Jean Machine, and makes a living by selling a little of this or that, here and there, mostly hash. The demand is high in the town where Charlie lives. Charlie doesn’t actually know anyone that doesn’t smoke. Over the years, he has built up good supply lines and never allows himself to run out. It beats working for a living and affords him a certain status, which helps him to ramp up the notches.

Rose works behind the bar of The Pavilion. She is just twenty. She has long blond hair, a magazine figure, and an outgoing personality. She notices Charlie in his new leather bomber jacket and starry Cockell and Johnson shirt. Charlie notices her in her revealing barmaid’s top. When no-one is looking, she slips him a double Glenmorangie. On the house, she says, smiling. To reciprocate, at a quiet moment when everyone is watching the band, Charlie passes her a joint. Because Snafu Celebration are especially loud, it is impossible to have a proper conversation. So, they conduct their overtures through eye contact and gestures. Towards the end of the evening, Rose hands him a scrap of paper with her phone number written in red lipstick. Call me, it says. Charlie pre-empts the outcome and instead, waits for her outside.

Rose is a newbie toker, so at his flat, while they listen to Goats Head Soup on his new stereo, Charlie gives her a world tour of the principal growing areas. She pretends to be interested, but in reality, the origin is of little importance to her. It’s not a girl thing. She doesn’t care if the stuff comes from Nepal or Afghanistan, Morocco or Lebanon, so long as it does the job. What they are smoking is something called Kashmir Twist, and it definitely seems to work. In no time at all, they find themselves between the sheets, getting it on. This is exactly what she had in mind, anyway.

Linzi, Suze, and Janice follow in quick succession to add to the notches on the bedpost. But they are little more than wham, bam, thank you, mam encounters. And then there is Verity. Charlie meets Verity at The Shed, another new rock venue that has opened in the town. She is blonde and shapely, a sophisticated version of Rose. FUBAR, an up-and-coming local band are playing. They too are very loud, this especially noticeable in a cramped, low-ceilinged space like The Shed. The volume makes it difficult to have a conversation, and Verity seems to want to chat. This gives Charlie the excuse to lure her back to his for a nightcap.

Verity has just passed her test and has her own car, a blue Fiat 500. The Fiat is her pride and joy. She tells Charlie she loves driving it. It’s a nippy little town car. She seems quite happy to ferry Charlie around. She is surprised by the number of drops he needs to make. Charlie is surprised at how good business is, but it seems that everyone smokes hash these days. Like Rose, Verity is relatively new to recreational cannabis, but she seems to take to it like a duck to water. It gives you a whole new way of looking at the day, she says.

Annika is still on the scene, and Charlie sees her from time to time. But now, not so often. Her job requires her to travel, so she is not always on hand to fulfil his needs. While Annika frequently remarked on his chauvinism, Verity does not appear to care. Perhaps she mistakes his arrogance for self-confidence. Charlie likes to be seen out with her. She is well-dressed, urbane and sexy. She is now the nearest thing Charlie has to a regular girlfriend. They make a perfect pair, he tells her.

Rose, however, has not disappeared. When Charlie returns to the flat with Verity one night after a curry at Namaste Garden, Rose is waiting outside with an overnight bag. A tricky situation. But not one that Charlie is unfamiliar with. The successful roué must be prepared for such circumstances. Charlie recalls the time that he was in bed with Coral when Annika called around unexpectedly. He had Coral throw a few clothes on, and explained her away as a neighbour who was looking for her lost dog, hence the delay in answering the door. Remarkably, he got away with it. On this occasion, he is not so successful. After some harsh words, Rose leaves. Charlie’s explanation that she was just returning some books, while not completely convincing passes for now. But Charlie is not out of the woods. Back in the flat, while Charlie is making coffee, Verity starts poking around.

Whose pants are these?’ she calls out, waving a pair of skimpy black panties.

Don’t know,’ Charlie says. ‘Perhaps they belonged to the girl who lived here before.’

It looks like she left a whole drawer full of lingerie’ she says holding up a lacy bra.

Could be,’ Charlie says. ‘I’ve been meaning to have a clear out, but I never seem to get around to it.’

And I suppose the girl who lived before left these photos too,’ Verity says. ‘That was nice of her. Do you know, she looks a little like the one who just left.’

Verity, once she too has issued some more harsh words, leaves.

Within a matter of days, though, Charlie somehow manages to patch it up with first one and then the other, and tentatively resumes his duplicity.

Depending on one’s viewpoint, it might be considered unfortunate if, at twenty-two, you get your girlfriend pregnant. To get your two girlfriends pregnant in the same month might, to echo Oscar Wilde, be seen as careless. Especially so considering his poor recent record on cautious planning. But this is the position that Charlie finds himself in. Unfortunate too that he discovers that both Verity and Rose are pregnant just days before he gets busted by the police at a rock-and-roll revival night The Pavilion with a large amount of hash and a couple of wraps of speed.

2:

How many roads must her man walk down, Sian wonders? The answer may or may not be blowing in the wind, but she thinks it is eleven. She has looked at the map and counted the number of roads on the route. She is following her husband, Marvin, and the zig-zag path he is taking suggests he is going round to see Rose in Wessex Avenue. As she always does when she is out walking, she is wearing her Sony Discman. She loves her music, and this top of the range model is her pride and joy. She is listening to Oasis, a new band she feels will make it big by the end of the year. After all the techno music of the last few years, she feels it is time for a change. Time to get back to some serious rock. Eighties synth-pop was bad enough, but the repetitive beats of house music left her cold.

Why hasn’t Marvin taken the car, she wonders? Whatever, he must be heading for Rose’s. But she needs to be sure of her facts before she thinks about taking any action. Her suspicions are confirmed. Marvin arrives at Rose’s, and she opens the door and greets him shamelessly with a big hug, and not a casual friend type hug. This is a raunchy let’s go upstairs embrace.

It all begins to add up. Rose’s Eric has been stepping out with someone called Gina, and clearly, Marvin has stepped into the breach. He has been disappearing a lot lately with lame excuses, and on two or three occasions, not made it home. Typical of him to take advantage of the situation. He has always had the hots for Rose. With her long blond hair, shapely figure, and fuck-me pumps, she can understand the attraction. She is not bad for a woman of forty. But even so, the dirty rat might have had the decency to be upfront about it.

She should have seen it coming. There were telltale signs. Apart from the unexplained absences, there were secret phone calls. Are all relationships based on secrets and lies, she wonders? Perhaps she should look elsewhere for a distraction, too. What’s good for the goose and all that. She has recently found out that Charlie and Jo have split up, and she has always had a soft spot for Charlie. He seems sweet and caring and seems to have overcome the problems he had in the past. People say he is too laid back. Yet he found the time to get a Masters’ degree in Music Media. He shares her love of rock music and seems to like the same bands. They could go to gigs. It’s a long time since Marvin took her anywhere. He has a great sense of humour and he is pretty yummy too. And, while he has never come right out with it, she is reasonably sure that Charlie fancies her.

But there are the children to consider. She and Marvin have two daughters, Chloe and Zoe, six and four respectively. Eric and Rose have a daughter at primary school, and Charlie and Jo have a little one in the same year. Surely, too much swapping around would not be good for any of them. But they are not the only ones chopping and changing. She recalls her recent conversation with Ms Blyton, Chloe’s form teacher.

You don’t know who is with who outside the school gates these days,’ Ms Blyton says.

No-one seems to stay with the same partner for long these days,’ Sian says. ‘I’m afraid it’s a sign of the times,’

I know. And there’s so much infidelity on TV, too,’ Ms Blyton says. ‘Especially in the soaps, EastEnders and Emmerdale. They’re like a partner swap shop. And those terrible Australian ones, where no-one takes their relationship seriously. It has to be a bad influence on young parents.’

I hardly know anyone who hasn’t had a break-up recently,’ Sian says. ‘You never know what to say to your friends any more in case you accidentally put your foot in it.’

Some children don’t even know who to look for when they come out of class,’ Ms Blyton continues. ‘And when you ask about their mum, they say, which mum? Families are becoming so dysfunctional. Some days, when you look at the parents lined up outside, it seems like half of them are in another world. Out of their heads on crack cocaine, I shouldn’t wonder. It’s a big worry, I can tell you. Chloe seems fairly settled though, and that’s good.’

In addition to the little ones, Sian thinks Charlie has one or two older children from earlier relationships. There is a possibility Rose does too. She is faced with a dilemma. Should she file for divorce or not?

After sleeping on it, she bites the bullet and phones Jutner, Pringle and Bloke, Solicitors for advice and speaks to Miranda Dyke. Miranda feels she should get on to it right away and go for the house, possession of everything, sole custody of the children and gargantuan maintenance payments.

It’s always best to aim high to get the outcome you want,’ she says. ‘You want the miserable little worm to genuinely regret his infidelity.’

But Marvin wasn’t all bad,’ Sian says ’We did have some nice times,’

Stop right there!’ Miranda says. ‘You need to forget all of that. Trust me! Sentimentality will get you nowhere. You need to be absolutely ruthless in divorce cases like yours or else you will end up with nothing.’

Sian discovers that by coincidence or fate, Miranda is also representing Charlie in his divorce from Jo. She is cheered by this. Jo had better look out, as Miranda is taking the same uncompromising stance re their divorce settlement. If it goes according to plan, Charlie is set to come away with everything. This bodes well for their future together.

3:

It’s probably not the time to say it, but despite all the bad feeling, I was sorry to hear about Marvin,’ Charlie says.

He always drank too much,’ Sian says. ‘I suppose I knew it from day one, but I didn’t want to believe it.’

And his death coming so soon after Eric,’ Charlie says.

Sian is afraid the conversation is going to lead back to Verity, who died from a heroin overdose not so long ago. Now is not the time to go down that road. They’ve been over this too often. Better they stick with Eric.

Eric was another one who was never out of the pub,’ Sian says. ‘I guess when Gina upped and left, that did it for him.’

Still sad though,’ Charlie says. ‘I’m lucky I managed to get my act together. Well, of course, with your help. If it wasn’t for you, you know, I might be joining them. Wherever it is, they have ended up.’

Down below, I should think,’ Sian says, looking out the window of the plane as it taxis into position for take-off. ‘Anyway, let’s not get too maudlin. We’re on our way to New York. And September is the best time to go according to the Guide. The summer heat will have subsided. Just think, Manhattan! I’ve always wanted to see Manhattan.’

Well, it is my fiftieth birthday. I’m not going to get another one,’ Charlie says. ‘After that successful promotion campaign for Muse, I felt we could push the boat out. I’m looking forward to seeing all those iconic buildings. Where we are staying is a stone’s throw from the World Trade Centre. The Twin Towers.’

I saw that in the Guide,’ Sian says. ‘Perhaps we could have breakfast at that restaurant on the 107th floor.’

Good idea,’ Charlie says. ‘It’s called Windows on the World and it says here it’s a bit formal. But there’s a more intimate one on the floor below called Wild Blue. That would be a better bet and you can book it for breakfast on the 11th. It’s still a little pricey, but why not? You only live once.’

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All Rights Reserved

A Sword in Every Pond

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 Wi-Fi 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.

Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved

Apocalypse No

Apocalypse No by Chris Green

1:

At first, Ingrid and I think the explosion may have come from Dmitri’s place further down the lane. We live out in the sticks and Dmitri is our nearest neighbour. He is always tinkering with something questionable in his makeshift workshop at the bottom of his garden. With his moth-eaten suit, his wiry hair and his wayward gaze, he is the archetypal mad scientist. It wouldn’t be the first time he had had an accident with one of his experiments. But it gradually becomes apparent this is not just a local issue. The devastation is more widespread. The phones are out, the internet is down, we have no power, and the sky has turned black. The kind of black that absorbs all visible light. And it is deathly quiet.

Having eliminated Dmitri’s shenanigans, we have no idea who or what might be responsible for the burgeoning cataclysm. I make my way outside and find the 4 by 4 won’t start. Ingrid is tut-tutting. I tell her there could be more at stake than her missing her appointment at Cutting It Fine, and there’s a good chance her Amazon parcel will not arrive today. There don’t seem to be any other cars on the road. Half an hour passes. No vehicles drive past. Even out here you would expect a couple of dozen, even on a quiet day. But no sign of any. Does this mean that motor vehicles too have somehow been disabled? I have the feeling we are witnessing something apocalyptic. We are in the thrall of an all-consuming, mute darkness.

Like the 9/11 attacks and the coronavirus pandemic, I imagine we will once again be measuring everything in terms of before and after. Before the bang, everything works, after the bang, nothing works. While we are searching for the candles that Ingrid is sure we have somewhere in the house, I try to recall if there has been anything on the news lately that might help to explain what is going on. A nuclear build-up perhaps, an asteroid that was about to hit us, or some other dire threat to our way of life. Predictably, nothing springs to mind. With the coronavirus in retreat and a less volatile American president, things have been settling down recently. Could it be something they were too afraid to warn us about?

Our clocks and watches have stopped, so we have no way of measuring the passing of time. In our bleak isolation, we lose all sense of time. They say your eyes gradually become accustomed to the dark and adjust, but it is not true. At least not with darkness on this level. And you definitely don’t get used to the loss of TV and the internet. You begin to miss people more than you thought you would too. At least with the coronavirus lockdowns, you could speak to people on the phone or WhatsApp. And pass the time of day with those you met on your daily exercise walk. Naturally, we are worried about our Emma at University in Edinburgh. We were hoping she might be home for Easter in two weeks’ time. And what about Matt and Lucy in Melbourne with the baby on the way? How will they be coping? We don’t know, of course, that this is happening worldwide, Ingrid points out. I don’t want to dampen her optimism, but I have a growing feeling that it just might be. There is nothing we can do to find out the extent of it. All we can do is stay with it and somehow survive.

2:

According to our best guess, the blackout conditions continue for nearly a fortnight. Days filled with morbid thoughts of when and how we might face the final curtain. When sleep comes, the grim reaper is there waiting in our dreams. Are we perhaps already dead? It feels that way. Perpetual darkness feeds unimaginable demons. It is wall-to-wall torment.

About halfway through our nightmare, Ingrid manages to locate the candles and we are once again able to light the house. But it is still pitch black outside. The illumination of the house brings a trickle of evangelists to the door gripped by an intense religious fervour. The darkness is a punishment for our sins, Reverend Dudgeon tells us, a clear sign from the Almighty that we need to repent. Ingrid and I decide we are not ready to repent just yet. We just want our normal life back. We want the car to start. We want the heating to come on at night. We want to be able to cook a nice meal. We want Facebook and Netflix. We want WhatsApp to be able to talk to Matt and Emma. More urgently, we want food. We are running out of the basics. Even the tea has run out. If the Almighty could come up with some provisions, we might be able to strike a deal.

By the time an unexpected slither of daylight appears on the horizon some days later, we are wretched and on the verge of starvation. Like a miracle, the electricity comes back on and the heating kicks in. Our phone batteries are dead and the internet seems to still be down, but at least, we now have power. The SUV hesitates a little, but at the third or fourth turn of the key, it starts. Gingerly, we make our way out into the big wide world to find out what is going on and attempt to locate much-needed supplies. Further up the lane, we come across a bunch of confused, desperate people. We stop to say hello and to see if they have any helpful information. None of them knows any more details about what it is that has happened than we do. As nothing like it has happened before, it defies all logic and human experience. But we are all on a shared mission to replenish our supplies, and hopeful that now we can get life back on an even keel.

3:

At first, provisions in the shops are scarce, so we have to get by with tinned produce. The disruption to supply lines has been huge. Farmers more than anyone have taken a hit, along with wholesalers and retailers. Light, power and transport are crucial here. But gradually fresh food begins to appear on the shelves again, and perhaps for the first time, we realise how lucky we are to be provided for in this way. We now appreciate things we once took for granted.

We can now once again talk to Emma in Edinburgh and Matt and Lucy in Melbourne, which is a huge relief to us all. We look forward to reunions as soon as such things are possible. The internet comes back online but in a limited capacity. Gone is the political mudslinging. Gone are the overabundance of fake news sites and false flag posts. Gone are the conspiracy theory bots and the sites where opinion is passed off as truth. Gone are the endless ads for things you could never possibly want. Hopefully, this also means that the criminal activity that increasingly blemished the web’s reputation will also have been reduced.

We remain in the dark about the details of exactly what has taken place, and there seems to be a determination on someone’s behalf to keep it this way. We have no way of knowing who this might be or how they managed it. All we can glean from reports is that it appears to have happened worldwide, including in Russia and China. No data is available about the number of fatalities. But perhaps this lack of information is no bad thing. The historical tendency to dwell on disaster and misfortune is a trait that has few benefits. Going endlessly over old ground has been the mistake we have made all too often in the past. This explains why history has the habit of repeating itself. Surely no-one wants to revisit their ordeal. They want to move on. Few people we speak to are even curious now about what happened.

Are you still on about that old thing?’ Andy Mann, who services the SUV, says. ‘I saw it as a chance to catch up on some sleep.’

I’m too old to worry about stuff like that,’ Rosie Parker at the village shop says. ‘I’m too busy here for one thing, and I have my cats to look after.’

I’m pleased we’ve moved on,’ Pearson Ranger says. ‘It means I can pretend to go to the office again in the mornings.’

It is best to view the cataclysm in terms of before and after, and draw a line under it,’ Stanislav, the gap-year student who delivers the root vegetables and brassicas for the farm shop says. ‘Don’t you see? This is an opportunity for great change. Time to forge a new paradigm.’

Stanislav’s positive outlook is reflected in the flavour of the material social media algorithms now prioritise. Love and peace are being promoted again, along with protecting the environment. Let’s work together is the message. The daily newspapers are slow in reappearing, and when they do, they too seem to have tempered their morning vitriol. Instead of the screaming banner headlines, there are stories of human achievement and inside, features on self-sufficiency, tree planting, personal growth and transcendental meditation. Spiritual leader, Eckhart Tolle, has been given a regular column in one of the red-tops. Another is starting a flower power renaissance. I’m not sure who The Incredible String Band are, but there is a revival of their music, along with someone called Donovan. He’s a folk singer, apparently. And the Hari Krishnas will be visiting a park near you soon to fill your hearts with joy.

There has been a sea change in thought. Perhaps for the first time, people seem to want to get along with one another and not to be so ready to open up divisions. Maybe they never did, but were continually being told by ruthless manipulators from both sides of the political spectrum that it was ‘us and them’. 9/11 opened up the floodgates for hate and violence and reduced the capacity for tolerance. Back in 2021, Coronavirus appeared to offer an opportunity to change to a more sustainable way of living, but the opportunity was missed, and it was soon business as usual. With this latest before and after moment, we must be careful to maintain the change in consciousness that has taken place. We cannot afford to return to our destructive ways. This is it.

We haven’t seen Dmitri for a while,’ Ingrid says.

Old Tom Montgomery who lives at The Beeches down the road tells me Dmitri is working on an invisibility cloak,’ I say. ‘I hope it works out better than the other fellow that tried. The H.G. Wells one. What was his name? Griffin?’

I think so,’ Ingrid says. ‘They made a film of it.’

The Invisible Man. Several films and a TV series, I think.’

We watched one of them quite recently. Oliver Jackson-Cohen played Griffin. Elizabeth Moss was in it. The one with lots of CGI ……. Oh No! What was that loud bang, Kurt?’

Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved













Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes by Chris Green

What happened to the old bus station, Ricky?’ I say. ‘While I was driving here, I couldn’t help noticing it had gone. I know it was a bit of a monstrosity, but it was a landmark. I grew up around there.’

God’s teeth, Vince!’ he says. ‘They knocked that old thing down years ago. Don’t you remember?’

It was still there when we moved away,’ I say. ‘That was two years ago. I remember Tasha and I caught a coach to London from there to go to a Picasso exhibition at Tate Modern just before we left. We moved in September, so that would have been August.

You’ve got it wrong, mate,’ Ricky says. ‘It went at least five years ago. Probably longer. The flats have been there for five years for sure. I remember because Stacey Looker bought one. I used to visit her there. Remember Stacey?’

I remember Stacey. Long black hair. Big ….’

Indeed!’

I was going to say, heart.’

That too. Mind you, I haven’t seen Stacey for ages. Jo was beginning to suspect so I knocked it on the head. Anyway, National Coaches no longer stop off here. Budget restraints. And the local buses go from Jules Verne Street.’

Perhaps Ricky is right. Time is a slippery customer. With so many other distractions, it’s easy to miscalculate dates.

I guess it doesn’t matter,’ I say. ‘Now, what about this drink?’

I thought we could go to The Goat and Bicycle,’ Ricky says. ‘They serve a good pint of SkullSplitter there, and perhaps we can have a game of Pool.’

The Goat and Bicycle?’ I say. ‘Is that new?’

Oh, come on, Vince!’ Ricky says. ‘Stop playing silly buggers. We used to go there all the time, back in the day.’

For the life of me, I can’t remember a pub called The Goat and Bicycle. With a name like that, you would think I would. But not wanting to embarrass myself, I let it go. I’m sure it will become clear.

We’ll walk then, will we?’ I say, hoping to get a hint at where it might be.

Not worth taking the car, is it, mate?’ he says, apparently still under the impression I know where it is.

On the way to the Goat, the streets seem unfamiliar. I try to convince myself that the strangeness is no more than you would expect when you have been away from a place for a while. Shops and business premises everywhere change hands, are renamed or revamped with monotonous regularity. Tastes change. Streams of warm impermanence and all that. Where did that come from? Anyway, the product life cycle applies to businesses, too. New houses and apartment blocks spring up and new traffic furniture and mobile phone architecture appear without you realising it. You have to expect this. And given today’s burgeoning homogeneity, doesn’t one place look much like any other? Yet the departure from the familiar I experience seems to go beyond changing tastes or environmental remodelling. These streets seem somehow alien. It feels like I’ve never been to this place before.

I try not to show my alarm. Instead, Ricky and I chat about this and that. Strange fascinations. Scandi noirs, René Magritte, wind turbines, the collapse of the pound, and West Ham United’s problems in defence. I remark that the street art that has sprung up here and there on the walls of end-terrace houses is awesome. Much more sophisticated than our crude daubs in the bus station years ago. Ricky changes the subject as if he does not want to talk about the bus station. He tells me that to get out of the house when Jo is on a cleaning blitz, he has taken up fishing, something he swore he would never do. I tell him I’ve been upcycling old furniture that I’ve bought on eBay, and Tasha and I have started a veg patch and are growing leeks and potatoes. I don’t mention the arguments we have had about planting, or our other disputes lately. I get the impression that Ricky has never approved of Tasha. He says he has started mowing the grass again lately. He doesn’t have a lawn, so I take this to mean that he has started smoking weed again. Why didn’t he offer me a spliff earlier? I haven’t had a smoke in months.

I have definitely not been to The Goat and Bicycle before, or any pub in Lewis Carroll Street. I’m not even sure that Lewis Carroll Street was here when I lived around these parts. But in the absence of an explanation of what might have been, I don’t mention it. The disorientation seems to affect my pool game, though. I lose all five games to Ricky, whereas nine times out of ten, I would expect to have beaten him.

Tasha and I are staying at her friend, Debbie’s house on the outskirts of town. I cannot recall exactly where this is, so I head towards where the bus station used to be, hoping I will remember. After all, this is the way I came earlier. My sense of direction doesn’t return. I am forced to admit I am lost. I need to phone Tasha for instructions. I’m sure I will get an earful, but it needs to be done. I stop outside one of the new blocks of flats where the bus station used to be, only to discover I don’t have my phone. I must have left it in The Goat and Bicycle. I step out of the car to get my bearings.

Hello Vince,’ says a voice. ‘What are you doing around here?’

I turn around. It is Stacey Looker. Charlie Young from my class would probably explain a meeting like this as synchronicity. Charlie has always been a serious-minded dude, talking about archetypes, the collective unconscious and the like. But there again, he is often right. The more you look into synchronicity, for instance, the more sense it makes. Most of my life events have been the result of unexplained coincidences.

I look Stacey up and down. At least she doesn’t seem to have changed. I do my best to explain my predicament.

You’re sozzled, Vince,’ she says. ‘You definitely shouldn’t be driving. You’d better come in for a coffee and we’ll try to sort you out.’

Although Stacey might be exaggerating my inebriation, this seems like a good idea. It will give me a few minutes to take stock. I follow her up the stairs to her second-floor apartment.

Don’t you remember the name of Debbie’s road?’ Stacey asks.

All I remember is that it was a mile or two the other side of the old bus station,’ I say. ‘I was trying to follow the route I took, backwards.’

Well, that’s no help at all. I don’t even know where the old bus station was,’ Stacey says.

Until two years ago, the bus station was right here, where we are now,’ I say.

I’ve lived here six years, Vince,’ Stacey says. ‘I think I might have noticed a bus station, don’t you?’

I may have mentioned where I was staying in passing to Ricky,’ I say. ‘At least Debbie’s street name.’

I don’t seem to have a number for Ricky anymore,’ Stacey says. ‘We didn’t part on the best of terms. You could phone the pub, I suppose, but I’m not going to let you drive back there in your state.’

I only had a couple of pints,’ I say.

Come on! That’s not likely is it,’ she says. ‘Not if I know Ricky.’

I realise that on occasions such as this, there is no point in attempting to defy fate. You only sink deeper into its clutches. So when Stacey Looker tells me I am welcome to stay the night, I don’t argue. I expect that Tasha and Debbie will be well into the Prosecco by now anyway, and laughing girlishly at things that don’t seem funny. They will probably have a selection of romcoms or worse still, romcom sequels lined up for streaming later. This trip was mostly for Tasha’s benefit. For her to catch up with Debbie. I only agreed to come at the last minute when my Abstract Expressionist class was cancelled. But that hardly justifies coming all this way.

I’m not sure how I come to wake up in Stacey’s bed, but it doesn’t seem a bad place to be. It seems we may have had a little wine last night. And apparently, we threw caution to the wind. And yes, we did all that. All my additional questions remain unasked. What’s done is done.

What did you say that pub was called?’ Stacey asks, scrolling down on her phone.

The Goat and Bicycle,’ I say.

I thought that’s what you said,’ she says. ’I don’t think there’s any such pub. According to Google, there’s a Goat and Tricycle in Bournemouth. As that’s over a hundred miles away, I don’t imagine it is that one.’

That’s odd,’ I say. ‘Ricky made a big thing about us going to The Goat and Bicycle. He said we always used to go there. But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember it.’

So you didn’t look at the pub sign when you went there. Or notice any merchandising.’

I suppose I just took it for granted.’

I am comforted that at least I know where Ricky lives. After breakfast, I bid my farewells to Stacey.

You have my number,’ she says. ‘Any time you’re passing.’

I arrive at Ricky’s house in Franz Kafka Street and ring the doorbell. There is no reply. I try again. I am about to conclude that Ricky is at work and cursing myself for not having checked yesterday, when a wrinkled old lady with white hair answers the door. She looks puzzled, frightened even.

Is Ricky there?’ I ask, puzzled by what a wrinkled old lady might be doing in Ricky’s house.’

Who?’ she says, taking a step back. She looks as if she thinks I am a con man, come to rob her of her life savings.

Ricky, I say, ‘Mr Geist.’

There’s no-one of that name here,’ she says. ‘And I’ve lived here for the last twenty years. On my own too, since Jack died. God, rest his soul.’

That’s strange,’ I say. I’m sure this was Ricky, Mr Geist’s house. 42 Franz Kafka Street.’

Sorry,’ she says, ‘This is number 42 but there’s no Mr Ricky here.’ With this, she closes the door.

I drive around the area looking for the pub we went to. There is no sign of it. I become more desperate by the minute. What is happening to me? Am I having a nervous breakdown? Am I going mad? I need to locate Ricky urgently. He must have some kind of explanation. Sadly, I don’t even know where he works. We’ve never talked much about work, at least not lately. Perhaps he no longer works. In these days of high unemployment, who knows? Although I have to say, he didn’t seem to be broke.

Stacey is surprised to see me, but not too surprised, and I can’t help noticing, a little pleased. Bit by bit, we go over the mystery. Clearly, I saw Ricky in some form or other yesterday. We agree on this, yet for whatever reason, I don’t appear to know where he lives or where he works. I had a phone and now I don’t have a phone. The Goat and Bicycle does not exist, nor does Lewis Carroll Street. Perceptions of historical time can vary from person to person. I have no idea where Debbie’s house is. There is no way for me to contact Tasha or for her to contact me.

Other than that, everything is hunky dory. Stacey and I seem to enjoy one another’s company. Why not go with the flow? Take it as it comes. Charlie Young says it is important to be prepared for the unexpected. Everything is in flux, he says. We live in a jumping universe. Sometimes things get turned on their head. You need to be ready to adjust to any new situation or circumstances you may find yourself in within fifty-five minutes. If fate decrees that changes are needed, you need to turn and face the strange.

Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved

Heidi

HEIDI by Chris Green

I am stuck at the Scott McKenzie lights when I notice the car in front of me is the same model and colour, a blue Mazda 3. Not too unusual perhaps. It is a popular model. But this one somehow looks too familiar. Before I can put my finger on what it is, the lights change and the other car turns left into Mandolin Way. I drive straight on. It is Tuesday and I have deadlines to meet at work. Only then does it dawn on me that the other car had the same registration number as mine. How can it have had the same registration? Surely I must have imagined it. Perhaps I read one digit wrong. Manufacturers probably buy blocks of consecutive plate numbers.

There’s no point in going after it. It will be long gone. Mandolin Way is a fast road. But I have my Dash Cam set to record as a precaution in case of accidents. The Dash Cam was Heidi’s suggestion. She was aware of my fondness for gadgets and this was one gadget I didn’t have. I don’t recall ever having checked anything on it before. Like a Smart Meter to monitor electricity consumption, it’s one of those things that you install and then forget about.

As soon as it is safe to do, I pull over to check the other car’s plate on replay. VX09 YRG. No doubt about it. It is the same registration. To all intents and purposes, it’s the same car as the one I’m driving. I try to come up with an explanation, rational or otherwise. I cannot. I’ve owned the car for six years. It’s never been stolen, never been in an accident or written off. It’s unlikely DVLA or whoever regulates licence plates would have made a mistake and not noticed it. I am spooked. We are in the X Files, Twilight Zone territory here.

I phone the office to say I will be in a little late. Perhaps very late, I’m thinking or maybe not at all. I need time to reflect. No-one would take me seriously if I came right out with a crazy story like this. They would say they’ve noticed I’ve been acting strange lately or perhaps I ought to go easy on the wacky-backy. They are an unforgiving bunch at Zeitgeist Designs.

The feeling of unease is not going to go away. A little light refreshment in The Gordon Bennett is called for.

Probably pranksters, Charlie,’ Big Al behind the bar suggests. ‘After all, it’s only licence plates. You can get them made up anywhere.’

Sure! But why my car?’ I say. ‘What would be in it for them?’

Maybe you’ve pissed someone off and they want to get back at you,’ Al says.

If I had, surely there would be better ways to make a point,’ I say.

Perhaps it’s someone who wants to avoid paying road tax,’ Malone says.

A bit extreme,’ I say. ‘It’s an eco model, anyway.’

Perhaps it’s some kind of mega-scam and they have a whole fleet of cloned cars,’ Malone says. ‘Anyway, a Mazda, Charlie? I would have thought you could do better than that. What happened to the fast car Heidi wanted you to get?’

Back burner,’ I say.

Whatever is happening, I shouldn’t worry about it,’ Al says. ‘There’s bound to be an explanation. Another pint, is it?’

Heidi must realise from my demeanour that I have been drinking and driving but she does mention it. She does not ask what is bothering me and I do not tell her. In the end, she successfully manages to distract me. I am fortunate her libido more than matches my own. I wake the next morning with a fierce determination to return to normality.

As soon as I get in the car, yesterday’s incident comes back to me. But, I tell myself it’s a new day and there’s nothing to be gained by dwelling on it. In the big scheme of things, this is small potatoes. It is too easy to become paranoid. The slightest little thing will send some folks into a spin. I have friends for instance who believe the thought police at Facebook are controlling what they see in their feeds and forcing unnecessary purchases on them. If they could be bothered to do a little research they would discover they had complete control over their profile page. Then there are all of those conspiracy theories you get popping up in conversation. The Illuminati and the New World Order. Chemtrails. Black helicopters. The white Fiat Uno in the Alma Tunnel. No end of paranoid fixations. People need to loosen up.

I plug my iPod in and set it to a random shuffle. It plays some lilting Dave Brubeck. Traffic is light this morning. Wednesdays are often quiet. For some reason, the rush hour doesn’t kick in so much mid-week. I’m straight through the Scott McKenzie lights and in no time at all, I’m on Tambourine Way. It isn’t until I’m halfway along Reg Presley Street that I encounter any congestion. Had I had a clear run along Reg Presley, I might not have noticed it. But there, parked on the left-hand side of the road is the duplicate Mazda. VX09 YRG.

My heart is going nineteen to the dozen. I try to remember the deep breathing exercises my old Tai Chi instructor, Lars Wimoweh taught me. The 4-7-8 pranayama technique. I tell myself this could be my chance to find out once and for all what is going on. I can park up and wait until it’s owner comes along. It will be tense and the outcome will be unpredictable, possibly even dangerous but this is it. I may not get a better opportunity.

I find a space on the opposite side of the road twenty yards away. I phone the office to tell them I might be late in, something has come up. I nip into the Italian café for a large latte macchiato and a few pastries to keep me going during my stakeout. Bean Me Up’s Ciarduna con crema is to die for. You won’t find anything like this on Bake Off.

Perhaps I’ve been a bit slow but while I am in Bean Me Up it occurs to me the best way to find out what is going on would not be to wait until the owner comes along but to get in there and give the vehicle a close examination. There’s bound to be something to help solve the mystery. Might my key fob even open it?

My fob doesn’t open it. But the similarities don’t end with the number plate. It has the same My Other Car is a Porsche sticker in the back window. Heidi ordered this as a joke to try to get me to buy a more prestigious car. I may not be able to manage a Porsche but there’s a silver Sirocco GTS at Honest Joe’s I have my eye on. I bet that’s quite quick. …… What else? There’s the same unsightly key scratch along the front passenger door. Coincidence? Maybe but it has the same split in the same place on the rear bumper, the same crack on the passenger side tail-light and the same stain on the petrol filler-cap. Perhaps most spooky of all, the same book lying open face-down on the back seat. The paperback edition of Philip C Dark’s Now You See It. Granted Philip C Dark is a popular author but surely this level of coincidence is too great.

I suddenly feel dizzy, light headed. Things are becoming blurry. …… I’m slipping away ………

When I come round I find myself once more in Bean Me Up. Gianni is hovering over me.

Grazie Dio!’ he says. ‘I was just about to call an ambulance.’

My head is doing somersaults. I have no idea how I came to be here.

What?’ I say. ‘How?’

Someone brought-a you in here, my friend,’ Gianni says. ‘A fellow with a foreign accent. Not like a-mine, more ……. Eastern European.’

When?’ I say. ‘Who?’

He had big black sunglasses and a neck tattoo,’ Gianni says. ‘He said he found you lying in the gutter. Across the road there. ……. He didn’t seem to want to stay around.’

Sounds like a weirdo? Where did he go?’

More gangster than weirdo, Charlie. Mafioso or something. ……. Are you sure you’re OK? You’re not in any kind of trouble, are you? You have been acting strange lately. Perhaps you ought to lay off the papania.’

I try to regain my composure. It comes back to me that I’m looking for the duplicate car. I’m not sure I want to explain this to Gianni just yet. He’s already brought the Mafia into the conversation. I’m hoping there’s a more innocent explanation. After all, I felt dizzy and I fainted. That’s all, isn’t it? It could happen to anyone any time.

I’ll pop back in later,’ I say ‘Perhaps then I’ll try one of your sfogliatellas.’

Gianni ushers me towards a seat and gestures for me to sit down.

Later, my friend. Why not now?’ he says, bringing me a plate with a tasty looking sfoglietella on it. ‘Gratis. New recipe.’

Some things are hard to resist. Sweet pastries are near the top of the list. It all began back at Frank Portrait Secondary School with the rich sweet hot drippers they used to sell at break time. Devouring Gianni’s sfoglietellas is like bathing in syrup.

When, minutes later, I make my way out on to the street, it hits me like a blow to the solar plexus. The rogue car has gone. There is a generous parking space where it stood. Not only has the rogue car disappeared but so has mine. A big gap here too. What in Heaven’s name is going on around here?

I realise I am going to have to be very careful how I report the matter to the police. I’d probably better stick with one stolen car. I don’t want them to think I’m a sandwich short of a picnic.

After twenty minutes on hold, listening to a scratchy recording of Pachelbel’s Canon played on a ukulele, a bored-sounding girl takes down my details. Her casual response to my loss does nothing to inspire confidence. Maybe hundreds of cars are stolen in these parts every day. But when one has just lost their means of getting about, who wants to be told the police will be in touch if they hear anything? If they hear anything? You want the lazy gits to be out actively looking for your missing vehicle.

Back in The Gordon Bennett, Big Al tries to console me.

Everyone it seems is having a tough time lately, Charlie,’ he says.

He runs through a list. Spiky Pete, Billy, Wet Blanket Ron, even Tiffany Golden. All of them are apparently down on their luck. Al is telling me about the trials and tribulations of his old mate, Dylan Song when I get a call from Inspector Boss. He says he’s from the Weird Crimes Squad. When I reported the incident, I must have accidentally slipped in something about the duplicate car because he’s straight on to this.

Pleased to have someone who is actually interested in my case, I give the Inspector a detailed report on my sightings.

Lots of this kind of thing lately,’ Boss says, cryptically.

Is that right?’ I say, hoping he might elaborate.

Indeed,’ he says. ‘Strange shit accounts for nearly a quarter of all crime today. People don’t realise what a mad world we live in.’

Really?’ I say. ‘Do you know, before you phoned, I hadn’t even heard of the Weird Crimes Squad.’ I make a mental note to ask Heidi.

We are instructed to keep a low profile,’ he says. ‘A lot of the stuff we investigate has to be kept under wraps. The bigwigs maintain it would be dangerous if the public were to find out what’s really going on in their cosy little suburbs. Because of our low profile, we are underfunded. Added to which the regulars don’t always pass information about the crazy stuff they encounter on to us. So occult crime has a tendency to slip through the net. No-one is even aware of Dr Salt’s experiments or the malevolent things the Houdini Illusionists get up to. You were fortunate we picked up on your little anomaly. Sergeant Spacey just happened to be in reception at HQ when Chloe was taking your call. Something weird going on here, he thought to himself. Spacey has a sense for these things. He’s a phi beta kappa in weird. A regular David Lynch. He can read auras and interpret dreams.’

Good man to have around then,’ I say.

Between you and me, I think he’s got a bit of a thing for Chloe,’ Boss says. ‘She hasn’t got brain one but she has got big tits.’

I ask Boss what he thinks is happening.

Spacey’s wife left him recently, you see,’ he says. ‘Because of his ….. infidelities. Well, that and the stuff she found on his computer. So, I guess he’s looking for someone to….. Oh, you mean what’s the score with these cars? Well! Let’s start with the man who took you into the café. Are you quite sure you fainted? Did you perhaps catch sight of this man and not register it? Was there not some interaction between the two of you? A fracas or something maybe? An unexplained connection of some kind?’

I don’t think so, Inspector. I suddenly felt very weak and passed out.’

When I get home, Heidi manages to distract me. A different outfit this time, but just as seductive. She does not at any stage ask why I am home early or where my car is and I don’t tell her. Heidi is respectful of a man’s need for a little privacy. In the morning, I leave for work at the usual time although I am not planning on going in as I have to meet up with Boss and Spacey to talk about the missing cars.

The bus makes slow progress along Harmonica Avenue. There appears to have been an accident at the Scott McKenzie roundabout. As we edge closer, I see that two cars have collided. Two blue Mazdas. I cannot make out the registration numbers amongst the heap of twisted metal but I feel I can hazard a guess. I dial the number Boss gave me only to be told by a trembling female voice that he and Spacey have been delayed. She does not want to elaborate but when I push her, she discloses that the pair were involved in an accident at the Scott McKenzie roundabout and the early signs are not good.

To calm my nerves, I drop in at The Gordon Bennett. While Big Al sympathises with my plight, he reminds me it is always a mistake to trust a policeman. I point out Inspector Boss was not an ordinary policeman. I find I am already speaking about Boss in the past tense. Al seems to want to get back to yesterday’s conversation about everyone being down on their luck. Dirk Acker has gambling debts like you wouldn’t believe, Ugg Stanton’s parrot has died and Josh Jenkins is going blind. I suppose this is the mindset you develop working in a bar all day. People just want to offload. It could be that The Gordon Bennett is simply that sort of pub. Perhaps I ought to start going to The Mojo Filter instead. Or The Rose and Dalek.

Heidi has been coming up with adverts for fast cars for weeks. I decide it is time to take another look at the Sirocco. Honest Joe says for a down payment of just £1000, he will be able to arrange the finance. I tell him my Mazda was stolen and I need to wait until the insurance cheque comes through. Honest Joe tells me he can arrange this too. He says he will give me a call in a day or so. I do not mention the duplicate car. Perhaps there was no duplicate car. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell. Perhaps Gianni was right about the papania.

It’s too late to go in to Zeitgeist now. What I need is a little distraction. I head home on the bus. They have now cleared the debris at the Scott McKenzie roundabout. The road crews have been very thorough. You could be forgiven for thinking there had never been an accident. Traffic is flowing freely along Mandolin Way. No news yet on the cars or of the casualties but you can’t hurry these things. As we pass the familiar landmarks that I see day in day out, the embryo of a thought starts to form about my having sold the Mazda. For £2000. I remember filling in the slip on the registration document to someone called Ward Swisher. Where is this idea coming from? Who is Ward Swisher? How could I have sold the Mazda? False memory perhaps? If it is, there’s no sense in dwelling on it. If something is important, you remember it in due course. The truth will always out. Where does this come from? Shakespeare? The Merchant of Venice? Lancelot Gobbo, Shylock’s servant said it or something like it, didn’t he? One way or another, at least for the time being, the Mazda has gone, so there’s no point in thinking any more about it. As Lars Wimoweh was fond of telling me, whenever you are faced with uncertainty, it’s best to adopt a zen approach. Open yourself up to the universe, he used to say, go with the flow. It saves time and energy.

I arrive home in the mood for a little distraction. I’m wondering what today’s surprise érotique might be. To my alarm, there is no-one to distract me. Heidi is no longer online. The site appears to have been taken down.

© Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved

MURDER MYSTERY – a murder mystery

MURDER MYSTERY – a murder mystery – by Chris Green

My head is pounding. My mouth feels like a dried-up drainage ditch. I am used to more formal surroundings when I wake. A comfortable bed, and if I’m lucky, a cup of tea. This room is unfamiliar. I have no recall of how I came to be here. A few feet away, lies a naked woman with a snake tattoo running up one of her thighs. She is asleep amongst a heap of Film Noir print cushions. She has her back to me. At first, I do not recognise her.

Slowly I realise this is Scarlett. But what is this weird place? A black bakelite telephone sits on a small rococo table beside Scarlett’s recumbent body. Above the table hangs a zebra-patterned rug. A large aloe vera plant skulks in the corner. Four identical black cats sit in different parts of the room at exactly the same angle in the same upright position, looking towards the window. It takes me a few moments to realise that they are stuffed. There is a musty smell in the air. I go over to the open window. It looks out on to a pool of dark water, rich with rotting vegetation.

Another woman comes into the room. My partner, Anya. A little of the puzzle falls into place. Scarlett is a friend of Anya’s. Scarlett has recently taken up with Ivan, an Albanian taxi driver, or is it a taxidermist. We suspect Ivan may be using his taxi driving or taxiderming as a cover for his work for the Albanian Mafia. Anyway, this must be Ivan’s flat.

Anya and I must have arrived last night, although I remember very little. I feel something is wrong. I don’t want to be here.

We need to get back, Anya,’ I say.

What!’ she says. She looks as dazed as I feel. Her eyes are sunken and her hair is matted. Her dark mesh tights are laddered and her pale jacket is smeared with something. There is probably no point in asking her anything about last night at present.

I think it would be good if we got on home,’ I say.

Back home,’ she says. There is something strange about the way she emphasises home. I am not sure why. Perhaps she does not consider our flat as home. Technically, I suppose it is my flat, although Anya has been living there on and off for nearly twelve months. Perhaps she feels she has somewhere else to go. Maybe this is why we are here at Scarlett’s. I try to remember what has happened.

Yes, back home,’ I say. ‘I feel weak. I think I may need to eat soon.’

And having breakfast is going to solve everything, is it?’

Well, perhaps we could have a talk at the same time. Find out what’s happening between us.’

Anya greets this with an icy stare. She goes into another room and returns with a scuffed black leather overnight bag. She throws it across her shoulder. I do not seem to have any baggage. I am clearly missing something about the situation. Until I can discover what this is, I decide I must back off.

Scarlett is still asleep. Anya scribbles a note for her. We take our leave along a dark corridor. It is difficult to get one’s bearings. A succession of rooms leads off. Some have doors but others do not. No light comes through from the rooms. It looks as if the space might be used as a storage area. It must be a very large building. Perhaps it is a converted warehouse. Maybe a warehouse in the process of conversion. In the nineties, it may have been used for art shows or parties. There is a menacing echo to our footsteps as we tread the floorboards. I cannot find a light switch. I bump into a large spider’s web and send its occupant goes scurrying across the floor.

Anya is several steps ahead. She is definitely in a mood about something. I wonder if it is about something that happened last night. The freight train running through my head no longer stops at last night’s station.

We find ourselves at a staircase and go down some steps. We make it out into the daylight. Where is the car? Did we not come in the car? I go through my pockets. I do not have the car keys.

Have you got the keys?’ I ask. No reply.

Did we come on foot?’ I ask. No reply.

Where are we exactly?’ No reply. Anya is giving me the silent treatment. Lately, it seems like I’m treading on eggshells. The problem is I can’t remember what it is I’m supposed to have done. Did I buy the wrong type of gin? Did I not notice her new hairdo? Did I delete something from her phone? Did I say something bad about her degenerate son? From her expression, I get the impression that it may have been something worse.

The streets are flooded. It has been raining heavily, but it is not raining now. I recognise where we are. It is Toker’s End, a part of town I have not been to often. It must be two or three miles from where we live.

Toker’s End is named after the nineteenth-century philanthropist Sir Charles Toker. While similar areas in other parts of the country have been subject to gentrification, Toker’s End has bucked the trend and is heading towards dereliction. With its tall Victorian buildings, it was once a well-to-do area, but over the years it has been bought up of Greeks and Macedonians and converted into flats and bedsits. Legendary slum landlord, Dinos Costadinos (Costa) I believe owns the whole of Prince Albert Street and according to urban legend has never once called in a contractor to take care of any maintenance or repairs.

As we walk along, I feel an odd sensation of disengagement. I feel like I’m floating. Street sounds seem muted. A muffled soundtrack of distant voices seems to play in a loop. This is punctuated by the hiss of tyres as the early morning traffic eases its way through the surface water. I feel a sense of doubt about my surroundings. At any moment the scene might evaporate. The lines of everything I cast my glance upon seem hazy and indistinct. The brightly coloured street art daubed on the run-down apartments in George Street is blurred like an impressionist painting. The torn poster of the neo-noir movie, Dead Ringer in the bus shelter is dissolving. The shopfront of the Bangla convenience store looks frosted over. The roadsigns are melting.

After several blocks, we come to the river. It is a fast-flowing stretch before it reaches the old mill. The river is normally shallow here, but the water has come up over the low stone bridge. We look for another place to cross. There are one or two places we might wade through, but then we might as well cross over the bridge. Whichever way we cross, we are going to get wet. We would need to double-back the way we came to reach the main road bridge.

Why have we come this way? In my daze, I realise I have just been following Anya. It occurs to me we are heading for Finnegan’s Wake, where Irish poets with a lunchtime thirst vent their anger in Open Mic sessions. Finnegan’s is one of Anya’s haunts when she wants to give life a miss. She has been struggling with sobriety lately. A visit to Finnegan’s is unlikely to help. I suspect that soon we are going to break up. I cannot live this way. I cannot take Anya’s mood swings any more. Should I tackle it head-on right now or leave it for later? I feel at forty years old I should have left all of this behind. I don’t like to have arguments in the street. I decide to leave her to it and go home instead. The riverbank seems as good a place as any. If Anya doesn’t come back later, fine. This is the end of the road as far as I am concerned.

When I get home, there is no sign of the car. I cannot be sure where I left it, but I report its disappearance to the police. I tell them it was taken from my home address. Twenty-four hours later, much to my astonishment, they return it.’

It was taken by joyriders,’ Detective Sergeant Lucan says. ‘The forensic boys have gone over it but come up with nothing.’

There’s a lot of it about,’ his oppo, D.C. Hammer says.

Happens every Saturday night,’ says Lucan. ‘Car theft should have become harder with more sophisticated locking systems, but still, it is on the rise.’

Fords are the easiest cars to steal,’ says Hammer. For some reason, he seems to be pleased about this.

I check the car over. There appears to be no damage. They have even left my Cocteau Twins CDs in the glove compartment. I sign the form to say that the vehicle has been returned and congratulate them.

Anya does not come back that night or the next. At first, I am a little concerned, but this quickly passes. When something no longer works, it is good to move on. Presumably, the feeling is mutual. I get into a routine of going to work and coming home. Gradually I begin to feel better, but I still have no recollection of what happened that night at Toker’s End. I imagine it involved some kind of intoxication, but I have overindulged on many occasions in the past with complete recall afterwards. There is something about the blackout, and the abstraction I felt the following day that disturbs me.

It is nearly a week later that I read in the local paper about Ivan’s corpse being found. The report is splashed across the front page. There is a grainy photo of him. It looks as though it was taken a while ago. He looks younger. While they have not established the cause of death, the police are treating it as suspicious. They are appealing for information. They do not know the actual day or time of his death, but they want anyone who saw him over a three-day period to come forward. Or anyone who may have witnessed anything suspicious in the vicinity last weekend. I cannot recall exactly when I last saw Ivan, but I have a strong hunch that it may have been last Saturday evening. The report mentions a blue Ford Mondeo. My heart starts thumping like Tyson Fury in training. Phlegm rises in the back of my throat. I feel I am going to be sick.

I try first to contact Anya, but as expected her phone is dead. She has not picked up the charger. I have a number for Scarlett and try ringing it, but it goes constantly on to voicemail. It may not even be the right number, so I do not leave a message. I would not know what to say anyway, under the circumstances. I wonder what I can do about the car. While there are many blue Ford Mondeos on the road, my burgeoning paranoia tells me it is mine they might be looking for. After all, it was unaccounted for last Saturday night. Surely soon one section of the CID will cross-reference it with the other section and come looking for me. I do not know what to do for the best. My memory of events has not returned.

That the police have not established the cause of death worries me. I appreciate that there are procedures that must be followed, but how difficult can it be? If the body is found chopped up and put in the freezer, then you can rule out suicide. If the victims head is caved in then you know that he has been hit over the head with a heavy object. If there is a bullet hole in his chest then you can assume that shooting was the cause of death. If the victim is found face down in water, then he probably drowned. Why am I thinking that Ivan did not die in any of these ways? Why am I thinking that he was suffocated by someone pulling a bag over his head? Where is this coming from? Perhaps it is a thriller I have read recently, or a movie plot is leaking into my consciousness. Surely it is a common theme in the thriller or horror genres, but despite racking my brain, I cannot come up with an example.

I comfort myself that no matter how wasted I was last weekend, killing someone is not something I would be capable of. It is not in my character. While Anya is a little unpredictable and has been known to hit out occasionally, I cannot imagine that even if she lost control this would run to murder, and what would be the motive? Scarlett, on the other hand, is every bit as volatile as Anya. In fact, she is possibly more unpredictable in both appearance and behaviour. Furthermore, she has had a one-on-one relationship with the deceased. There would be both more of a motive and more of an opportunity. Designer drugs might have played a part. Ivan comes up with all sorts of things I’ve never heard of. Both of them could just flip in the blink of an eye. I remember the time that Anya and I went with them to the Stealing Banksy exhibition at the BankRobber Gallery in Notting Hill. They were laying into each other so much that the stewards had to pull them apart. After that, they wouldn’t let any of us in to see the stolen street art.

Ivan’s death could have been an accident, of course. Probably not if it were suffocation with a bag, but then you never know. Until the cause of death is announced, it is pointless to speculate. The problem I have is that the announcement is only likely to come when the police come and speak to me. What do I have for an alibi? Any way you look at it, whether I committed the act or whether I witnessed it, I am in trouble. Even if it was nothing to do with any of us, I am stuck for an alibi. What if there is DNA evidence in the back of my car or the body was carried in the boot. How am I going to get out of this one?

I haven’t seen my therapist, Daniel DeMarco in a long time. Not since my oneirophrenia cleared up, and I stopped having hallucinations. He probably won’t be able to get me off the hook for a murder charge. He may not even be able to re-stimulate my memory about last Saturday night, but he will be able to lend an ear. Daniel is good at listening. He uses what he describes as non-directive therapy. He is so laid back that sometimes he is asleep by the end of the session. The remarkable thing is that by this time you’ve resolved the issue that you came with. Admittedly with my oneirophrenia, it took a little longer, but on other occasions when I’ve gone to him with a problem, he has neutralised my anxiety in a blink of the eye.

He sits me down in a comfortable chair and seats himself opposite me. As he does so, he hums a little tune. I think this is designed to relax me. Or maybe he suffers from earworm and has just been listening to John Denver.

I open up about my predicament. Everything just comes pouring out in a torrent of wild emotion.

Hmm,’ he says when I have finished.

What do you think that I should do?’ I say. ‘Should I get rid of the car in the canal and get on a plane? Should I tell the police it was me? Or perhaps I should just end it all.’

Yes. I see,’ he says. ‘Which one of those makes you feel most comfortable?’

Comfortable! None of them makes me feel comfortable. Nothing about the situation makes me feel comfortable. Splitting up with Anya doesn’t make me feel comfortable. Having blackouts doesn’t make me feel comfortable. Being a wanted man doesn’t make me feel comfortable. I’m at my wit’s end. I don’t know where to turn. I’m desperate, Doctor DeMarco.’

Dan. Dan. You can call me Dan.’

I’m desperate, Dan.’

It is the middle of the night. Anya has let herself in and has sneaked into bed beside me. I am still awake. I cannot sleep much at the moment. She snuggles up to me and we make love as if nothing has happened. It may not be the tenderest of couplings, but we are both happy with the result. There has never been anything wrong with the physical side of our relationship. It’s all the rest that is the problem. Is has often puzzled me how the physical and the emotional can be so separate.

It’s all very well lying here sated, but I can’t ignore the problem at hand. It will not go away that easily.

Ivan’s dead,’ I say. ‘Someone killed him.’

Anya studies my face for a moment and sees that I am not joking. ‘What are you saying?’ she says. ‘That you think it was me. Is that it?’

It seems our peaceful reconciliation is going to be short-lived.

No that’s not what I’m saying. I’m just trying to find out what happened.’

He probably had it coming,’ she says, giving no indication of what this means.

So you know nothing more about it than what the papers say. What happened last Saturday night?’

That’s typical of you, isn’t it? You fuck my best friend and then you claim you can’t remember.’

What!’

I suppose you thought that I was sleeping with Ivan. That’s why you slept with Scarlett. Is that what you are going to say? And now that Ivan’s dead, you think I killed him. Perhaps it was you who killed him. Have you thought of that?’

As it happens, I have thought of that. I’ve been thinking of little else.’

I suppose you can always blame it on that condition of yours. You have an excuse for everything, don’t you?’

She is already putting her clothes back on. I try a more gentle approach and ask her to calm down.

Whatever it is, we are in it together,’ I say, but this does not stop her walking out on me again.

I am no further forward. If anything, things have moved backwards. I still have not eliminated myself or Anya from the murder suspects, but there is the additional complication of my apparent clandestine liaison with Scarlett to consider.

I get up and do some research into Ivan Luga on the internet. Perhaps there will be a clue buried in there somewhere. There are a number of references to people with this name. I home in on the Facebook profile of an Ivan Luga in the UK. This is our man. His profile photo shows him with the head of a stuffed tiger. He likes David Lynch films and death metal music. He reads Haruki Murakami and nihilistic poetry. I would have thought he might be a little challenged by the language barrier with some of his choices. He has posted some pictures of circus freaks. There is a shot of him brandishing a Remington hunting rifle and another of him posing with a pistol. He has sixty-four friends, about fifty of whom have Eastern European names. The photos of them suggest that these are shady characters. There are some statuses in a language I take to be Albanian. The English expression crystalline powder occurs in the middle of one or two of the posts, along with the name, Molly. It seems an odd subject to mention on social media. But this is an odd profile. What sinister world am I uncovering? I feel a chill run down my spine.

It occurs to me that whatever I might reveal here, I will not get anywhere with it, as I cannot go to the police. Anyway, Ivan is dead, isn’t he? I am just about to leave the site when I notice that one of the statuses is dated yesterday. That’s impossible. There must be some mistake. I take another look. The content of the post seems to be of little significance. It is just some gobbledegook about SHADOWCAT and TOR. I have no idea what it means, but it is a status and it was definitely posted yesterday. The Keyser Söze that has commented on it is presumably an alias. It cannot be the real Keyser Söze. There is no real Keyser Söze. But this is a development in the puzzle. Either someone else has taken over the account or Ivan Luga is not dead.

Scarlett’s arrival is a bolt out of the blue. There she is on my doorstep. She has on a little red dress showing nearly the full extent of her snake tattoo. She has a smile that would get her noticed in any crowd and a twinkle in her eye. This does not look like a woman who has recently murdered someone, but then neither did Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.

Didn’t we have a great time last weekend,’ she says? ‘We ought to do it again. Why did you leave so suddenly?’

I explain to her about Anya and I going our separate ways.

I wondered if that might happen,’ she says. ‘Never mind. I’m here now.’

I start to explain to her about developments since we last saw each other.

No! I haven’t read the paper,’ she says. ‘What do you mean, Ivan is dead?’

But he may not be,’ I add.

He hasn’t called me,’ she says. ‘I think perhaps he has gone off travelling somewhere and couldn’t take me. But you are saying he is dead.’

But may not be,’ I repeat.

Show me the paper!’ she says.
I show her the report.

That’s rubbish,’ she says. I don’t even think that the photo is of him. He has younger brothers. It might be one of them.’

You’d better let me in on what happened last weekend,’ I say.

I don’t remember too many of the details,’ she says. ‘But I do remember us ending up in bed together.’

I don’t remember this,’ I say.

Well, then you should,’ she says. ‘You were sensational. The Molly probably helped though, don’t you think?’

Who’s Molly,’ I say.

Not who, it’s a what. I thought you had taken Molly before,’ she says. ‘Don’t you remember? We’re not talking MDMA here. This was the real deal, straight out of the lab. Ivan brought a new batch of it round.’

Did he? And I took some?’

Yes! We all did. It was dynamite. Anyway, we all went out to Frenzy and then that new club, Vertigo. And we ……. I wonder what has happened to Ivan.’

I can’t tell from her expression if she is trying to be ironic or not. She doesn’t seem to want to elaborate. It seems her present intentions are elsewhere. I try to remember what happened in Basic Instinct. Catherine Tramell, the Sharon Stone character, got away with it, didn’t she? Also, I seem to recall that there was a sequel.

Copyright © Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Call Me Lottie

Call Me Lottie – by Chris Green

LOTTIE

‘Pale blinds, drawn all day, I’m afraid,’ says Landon Truitt. ‘Upstairs and down.’

‘I remember getting those blinds fitted,’ I say. ‘Local fellow. He called himself The Blind Man, which at the time I thought was amusing.’

‘The Blind Man. Good name. Very droll, Mrs Crenshaw.’

‘Lottie. You can call me Lottie,’ I say. ‘Please. You can’t imagine how much I hate the name, Crenshaw.’

Landon Truitt has dropped by to update me on his progress. He is a private detective of sorts. I found his card on the notice board at Waitrose. It read, Landon Truitt – Private Detective, Honest and Trustworthy, All Types of Investigation Undertaken. I have hired him to find out what’s happening with my soon to be ex-husband, Dwayne. No-one has seen Dwayne in the flesh since I left him last August. He doesn’t appear to have left the house in Bougainvillea Heights. He does not answer the door to me and has changed all the locks. He was behaving oddly for a while before I left him, but I put this down to business pressure. Then of course there were the experimental drugs he was taking for his rare blood disease. Dwayne has always been a bit of an enigma.

‘In all the time I’ve been watching, I haven’t seen him once, Mrs Crenshaw …… uh, Lottie. Not so much as a glimpse of him.’

‘Have there been any comings and goings?’

‘Oh yes …… Lottie. There were, let me see ……. eighteen visitors yesterday. I’ve got photos of some of the visitors and I’ve written down descriptions of the others.’

‘That’s the odd thing,’ I say. ‘Others have told me the same. People seem to keep calling round to the house, but Dwayne never appears.’

‘I thought I recognised one of them,’ says Truitt. ‘Charlie Gunn. I was in uh, …. I knew Charlie years ago.’

‘Charlie Gunn. Charlie Gunn. No. Don’t know him. Let me see the photos, would you?’

Landon Truitt hands me the contact sheets he has printed off. I don’t recognise any of the visitors from the shots, although the figure in the brightly coloured boiler suit looks vaguely familiar. On second thoughts, probably not. I wouldn’t know anyone who would dress in an orange boiler suit, would I?

‘They’re not very clear, are they, Truitt?’ I say, holding one of the contact sheets up to the light.

‘I’m sorry, Mrs Crenshaw …… uh, Lottie, but I had to move the car. A candy car was cruising up and down. I thought it best to park further away from the house. But then the digital zoom on my phone was playing up a bit.’

‘Is that one wearing a spacesuit?’

‘I believe so, Mrs Crenshaw. Your husband appears to be a strange man if you don’t mind me saying so.’

‘Lottie, please. Yes. You could definitely say that Dwayne Crenshaw is a very strange man.’

‘I get the feeling that you are hiding something from me. Would it help, do, you think, if you told me a little more about him? This seems a bit different from my usual cases.’

I am not sure how much I should tell Landon Truitt. For that matter, I’m not sure how much I know about Dwayne. We were never lovey-dovey close. It was more a marriage of convenience. My family had lost its fortune on Black Wednesday, and Dwayne Crenshaw’s star seemed to be in the ascendency at the time. Dwayne for his part seemed to be attracted to my …… full figure. To please him, when he was entertaining clients, I wore dresses that showed this off.

‘What kind of cases do you usually handle, Truitt?’ I say, to dodge the subject.

‘All kinds,’ he says. ‘Mainly surveillance work. But this is usually connected with suspected infidelity or something like that. Would I be right in thinking that this is not why I’m keeping an eye on your husband’s house? A plush house like this in the suburbs must be worth megabucks. Is he a pop star or something, perhaps? If he is, I haven’t heard of him.’

I feel that there might be some mileage in pursuing this line. ‘You’ve not heard of Dwayne Crenshaw?’ I say. ‘Where have you been living?’

LANDON

Had it not been my first case in weeks, well apart from some identity checks and a search for Mrs Floyd’s missing cat, Dillinger, I would have told Lottie Crenshaw to sling her hook. Attractive she might be, but that is no excuse for rudeness. ‘Was she going to get a proper service?’ she asked, ‘was I a professional?’ What a cheek! The woman is clearly loaded. You can tell that a mile off by the designer clothes she wears, taupe skirt suits and crocodile pumps. I’m surprised she knew how to find my gaff above the garage in Corporation Street. She certainly turned some heads when she arrived in her little Lotus.

It was clear she was hiring me because my rates are cheap. I charge £25 an hour plus expenses. Much cheaper than she would get elsewhere. Even then she wanted to negotiate the price. I shouldn’t have been so casual with my business card. Perhaps it was also a mistake to put the card in Waitrose. Would Tesco have been a better bet? Reverse psychology and all that. Maybe I should have picked another line of work. I could easily have gone back to internet security, well hacking, when I was released in January.

Lottie Crenshaw doesn’t realise how difficult surveillance is in a quiet suburban area. She thinks it’s like it is on the TV, where the detective and his oppo sit posing in their Raybans in a comfortable car, listening to Chet Baker, with tea and sandwiches brought along by a girl from the agency. Admittedly shades are pretty much compulsory for a private eye, but at the same time, it’s really hard not to look conspicuous. I had to keep moving the car to avoid suspicion. I saw my old mate, Charlie from Pentonville. What was the old reprobate doing round here? Not the kind of location you would expect to find him. Unless ….. I kept my head down. I think I know where to find Charlie should I ever need him.

There have been a handful of people visiting her husband. Well, quite a lot, actually, but you can’t just get out of the car and say ‘Excuse me guv, but do you mind if I take your photo. Hold still, will you?’ And Lottie has the nerve to criticise my pictures. I expect she has an all singing, all dancing Canon Eos or something like that. Since the altercation with Mrs Nelson’s enraged husband last month when I was trying to get his picture, all I have is my smartphone. The thing is, I’m not even sure what I am supposed to be looking for. Lottie Crenshaw’s instructions were vague. She just told me to watch the house and report back. Now she tells me her husband is some kind of nut. Shouldn’t she be paying me more for the added risk?

‘I did wonder if Dwayne Crenshaw might be a bit of an oddball, Mrs C,’ I say, looking at the contact sheet of photos I printed before the printer gave up on me. ‘I think that’s a man in a spacesuit going into the house in this photo.’

‘Yes. It could well be a spaceman’ she says. ‘It does look as if the blurry figure in your picture might be wearing a spacesuit. Dwayne is a little, what do you call it? Leftfield? It could be for a photoshoot. Dwayne was a ….. pop star. Big in the eighties.’

‘I guess if he were making a video or something, that might explain the spaceman.’

‘And the man in the orange boiler suit.’

‘What about Charlie though?’

‘You keep on about Charlie. Who is Charlie?’

‘Charlie is a fixer. A clean up man.’

‘Oh! I see. I think. ……. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of my husband though.’

‘Can’t say I have, Lottie. I don’t listen to a lot of music though.’

‘You must have heard Life On Jupiter. That was massive.’

‘No. I don’t think I have heard that one,’ I say, trying to assess if she is having me on. I mean, Life on Jupiter, what a stupid title, even for the nineteen-eighties. ‘How does it go?’

Looking at her reaction, I can tell that I’ve embarrassed her. She isn’t going to sing it. I don’t want to dig myself into too deep a hole here. Peanuts it might be, but I do want to get paid. I am at the limit of my overdraft and I have bills upon bills. Not to mention the maintenance payments. I can’t see Anna being understanding about a cessation of those. Not that I ever get to see the children these days.

‘I could do some rooting around on the internet, Lottie,’ I say, to win her back round. ‘It’s amazing what you can find out if you know where to look.’

‘And you know where to look, do you?’ she says.

‘Yes ma’am,’ I say. ‘I was in the security services back in the day.’

LOTTIE

Deep down there might be something endearing about Landon Truitt or I wouldn’t have hired him. Not only is he resourceful, but he also seems honest and trustworthy. In today’s world, these are rare qualities in a man. I wish I could say I was honest and trustworthy. They say opposites attract. What am I thinking? I’m not attracted to him in the slightest. Not in the slightest. How could I be? He’s a back street private detective. There’s just an overlap in our lives’ narratives. That’s all.

I imagine he will be a little puzzled he can’t find any reference to Dwayne’s pop career on the internet. But there again, this might motivate him to look a bit harder, dig a bit deeper into his treasure trove of secret websites to find traces of him. This way, he may find something useful. He might actually discover what my husband has been up to recently. After all, I’m paying him good money to come up with information. Good money to him anyway. He’s broke. I can tell. He has a hangdog look about him. Along with the doe-eyed look of infatuation. But he still has to earn his £100 a day.

Maybe I should have mentioned my financial position before, or perhaps you’ve guessed. I’m a little strapped for cash at the moment. I had to sell a diamond ring last week to pay the rent on the flat in Compton Mews. The big worry for me is that Dwayne might spend all his money before our divorce comes through. The Aston Martin that is parked around the side of the house can’t have been cheap. There’s also the danger that when his judgement is impaired by the psychoactive properties of his life-saving drugs, he might lose it in a dodgy deal. He has made his money doing dodgy deals, buying and selling dodgy businesses. By definition, wheeling and dealing in this way is a risky enterprise. He’s certain to fall foul of the law one of these days. To live outside the law, you must be honest and no-one could ever accuse Dwayne Crenshaw of being honest.

‘All businesses are untrustworthy,’ Dwayne was fond of saying. ‘What’s the difference between selling established ones and selling less established ones, or even bogus ones? Nothing. No-one is upfront these days. They all make up the figures. Where do you think we would be if people suddenly started telling the truth?’

This may well be, but I have to look after my settlement. I’m hoping that this will be a high six-figure sum. My solicitor, Guy Bloke of Chesterton, Pringle and Bloke is optimistic of a good result, but he’s probably saying that because I am paying him a lot of money. When it comes down to it he can only do so much to plead my case, and the other side is likely to bring up a number of indiscretions I haven’t told Guy Bloke about.

LANDON

‘I stand corrected, Mrs C …. Lottie. You were right. Dwayne Crenshaw was huge, worldwide. Or at least his alter ego Dean Callisto was. Thirty-one consecutive top ten hits in the UK, and six number ones on the Billboard chart. Life On Jupiter was a minor hit compared to Sex Machine or Descent Into Madness. Not to mention Dean’s collaboration with the legendary George Toot. I can’t imagine how I overlooked him. Well, actually I can. You didn’t tell me that Dwayne changed his name, did you?’

Lottie looks a little confused. Or she pretends to look confused. I never know what to believe with her. I’d probably go so far as to say that women are a mystery to me. I will never be able to understand the perverse logic of their thought processes. How their expressions never give away what they might be thinking. Or their actions. I can’t help but think about the time I took Anna to The Coach and Horses for our anniversary. She spent hours getting ready, and then in the middle of dinner she told me she was planning to leave me. Any man who claims he can see through a woman is probably missing a lot.

‘Did you manage to find what Dwayne Crenshaw has been up to recently?’ Lottie asks.

‘Aha!’ I say. ‘All the sites seem to suggest that Dean Callisto …… alias Dwayne Crenshaw is living in New York with his new wife, Tara. She is seventeen, according to the whatsheuptonow.com site. He’s working on a new album and is planning a comeback tour later in the year.

‘Really?’

‘Yes, Lottie. Do you think the person living in the house in Bougainvillea Heights that I’m watching may not be your husband? Could he be an impostor? ……. Or is there something you are not telling me?’

LOTTIE

How on earth did he come up with all that wish-wash about Dwayne Crenshaw being Dean Callisto? Has he been researching on uncyclopedia.com or something? ……. Wait a minute! I see what’s going on. Having discovered that I was spinning him a yarn, he is now trying to get one over on me. I may have underestimated Landon Truitt. He might be smarter than he looks. Not that he looks too bad now that he’s smartened up a bit. But still.

‘OK. You’ve called my bluff on that one,’ I say. ‘What did you really find out?’

‘It may seem odd, Lottie, what with Dwayne Crenshaw being such an unusual name, but there are literally hundreds of Dwayne Crenshaws and each one of them seems to live a complicated life.’

‘I would have imagined there would be only one or two in the world.’

‘So would I. There are sixty-four in the UK alone. However, the good news is that I’ve managed to isolate our Dwayne Crenshaw.’

‘And ….’

‘He sold the house in Bougainvillea Heights six months ago to a film company. Funnily enough, the film company he sold it to is owned by Dean Callisto.’

‘Bloody hell! You are kidding, right?’

‘Not this time. Truth is stranger than fiction, isn’t it?’

LANDON

We are in Lottie’s plush apartment in Compton Mews to discuss my findings on the case. She says she doesn’t have any tea. She has poured me a gin and tonic instead. Gingerly, I fill her in on the house sale.

‘Dean Callisto?’ she says. ‘Good Lord!’

I come out with ‘Truth is stranger than fiction,’ or some such platitude to try to minimise the impact.

There is a momentary silence. I wait nervously for her reaction. Lottie gets up and walks around the room.

‘Six months ago, you say?’

‘That’s right.’

There is a more prolonged silence. I take a gulp at my G and T, wondering whether I should elaborate. Lottie continues to pace up and down. I imagine I might now be off the case. I’ve had cases like this before. Too many of them. Cases where I haven’t come up with the desired result and haven’t been paid. Not to be paid is the last thing I need right now. And I can hardly send Nolan Rocco or Charlie Gunn round to sort Lottie out. While I haven’t up to now intimated that I have a cash flow issue, I suggest politely that she might want to settle the account early. Get it out of the way. Get it off her chest. Perhaps she takes this too literally.

‘I was wondering if we couldn’t negotiate that,’ she says, unbuttoning her blouse.

Lottie is certainly an attractive woman. I have been struggling with this feeling all along, but surely there is professional etiquette to be considered. Isn’t there? …… Oh well, perhaps not. It seems we are quickly able to overcome this obstacle.

To my surprise, there is little embarrassment afterwards. It seems like it is the most natural thing in the world for Lottie and I to be sipping a post-coital cocktail with a fancy name and talking about how we can market my investigative skills to make some real money. If I am to keep her in the style to which she has become accustomed, she feels I need to make some changes. Get some new cards made up for a start.

‘Ditch honest and trustworthy,’ she says. ‘Sentimental advertising regarding scruples gets you nowhere in the twenty-first century. You don’t want to be chasing around after Mrs Floyd’s cat forever, do you?’

‘What about deceitful and arrogant?’ I suggest.

‘Ha ha. Let’s see,’ she says. ‘Licensed and Bonded inspires confidence and implies a level of trust.’

‘Landon Truitt, Private Detective, Licensed and Bonded’
Get rid of Private Detective. Private Investigator, Licensed and Bonded is better or perhaps Private Investigations Agency. Clients like to feel that there is a team working for them.

‘Landon Truitt Private Investigations Agency.’

‘Perhaps change Landon Truitt. How about Simon Alexander or Jonathan Steel?’

‘I don’t know …..’

‘That’s settled then, but first things first. Dwayne Crenshaw. What are we going to do about Dwayne Crenshaw?’

‘Find him would be a good start.’

‘You’ll be able to do that, won’t you? Now that you have a little incentive.’

‘I can’t see a problem there. I’ll get on to it right away.’

‘Well. …… Perhaps you might leave it for a few minutes, don’t you think?’

LOTTIE

Men are simplistic creatures. God may have given them both a penis and a brain, but sadly only enough blood supply to use one at a time. They might as well just have an on-off button. And they are so incredibly self-absorbed they never realise that they are being manipulated. However, that said, Landon shapes up better than most. He is a sweetie. He understands something has to be done about my husband. He thinks his friend Charlie might be able to persuade Dwayne that it is in his best interests to offer me a generous settlement. I think Landon and I are going to get along just fine.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Cover Illustration by ArtTower on Pixabay


No Dark Side of the Moon

No Dark Side of the Moon by Chris Green

Don’t blow in a bear’s ear.’ the stranger in the Astrakhan coat says, as he passes me on October Avenue.

I am puzzled. Does he not realise there are no bears in these parts? The nearest thing to a bear is the Sonny Liston lookalike who works at Gary Geary’s garage, and there is no way I am going anywhere near him anytime soon. His stare is enough to floor you, not to mention the prospect of this hulk of a man coming towards you bearing a spider wrench. I always get my repairs done at Floyd’s Motors on the industrial estate. They are more friendly there.  

The stranger turns around and comes after me. ‘The bear and the bear hunter have different opinions,’ he calls out.

I pick up my pace to put distance between us. I have better things to do than listen to some wacko banging on about bears. I have to be at my Tai Chi class at six. I have ten minutes, and I have to stop at the ATM outside the SPAR on the way. We have to pay for our lessons weekly, and Yin Yan only takes cash. Yin has not been in the country long and has yet to get to grips with the British banking system. 

My partner, Emily, feels Yin is a fraud. She doesn’t recognise any of the routines he has me practice at home. She tells me I ought to join her Yoga class instead to help me relax. But it seems to me, there is more to Yoga than breathing and being present. There’s all the bending and stretching. I don’t feel my limbs are supple enough to cope with all the contortions this requires. Although she keeps mentioning it, surely Emily doesn’t believe there is anything going on between me and Freya in the Tai Chi class and that this is the reason I am so keen to attend. Admittedly Freya is a stunner, but I’m old enough to be her father. And with a busy subliminal message consultation service to run, how does she imagine I could find the time to conduct an extramarital affair? Emily picked up on a Freudian slip I made when I referred to the Pink Floyd album, Wish You Were Here as Wish You Were Her and she hasn’t let it go. It could of course be a double bluff, and Emily is having an affair with someone in her Yoga class. Rick perhaps, or Roger. She keeps talking about how accomplished these two are. Or it could be a double-double bluff and she realises this is what I will think she is having an affair so I will elect to join the class. It’s hard to read women’s thoughts. I came across a meme which said that even the condensed edition of A Guide to Women’s Logic would run to hundreds of pages, while the expanded edition of What Men Understand about Women would be a very short book.

To live with wolves, you have to howl like a wolf,’ the man in the Astrakhan coat yells as I come out of the community centre after my class. He moves in closer. His pock-marked face and black eyepatch make him appear more menacing than he did earlier. Where is Emily? She was supposed to pick me up in the car, but it seems to have slipped her mind. My call goes to voicemail, so I start to make my way homeward on foot. The madman follows. I tell him to bugger off. He takes no notice. 

I wouldn’t normally frequent The Purple Parrot. When it was The Rose and Crown. I sometimes took our dog, Elvis, in there. In an attempt to lose my pursuer, I dive in there now, hoping for a refreshing pint of Pedigree. It turns out that The Purple Parrot does not serve draught beer. Surely a pub has to serve a proper pint to call itself a pub. What has happened to the place? Is it a case of change for change’s sake? The Rose and Crown used to be a great pub. Friendly crowd of people. Good selection of ales. It was a thriving business. 

By contrast, The Purple Parrot is nearly empty and the few that are there seem to want to keep themselves to themselves. The one in the pink jumpsuit with the tri-coloured cocktail looks across at me suspiciously, but he seems harmless. At least the nutcase has not followed me in here. As I sip my outrageously priced Belgian Pilsner, my phone rings. It is Emily. She apologises for not picking me up earlier. Her meeting went on longer than planned. She says she will come and collect me now. I keep an eye out for the car and when she arrives, manage to dodge the weirdo waiting outside. I explain what has been happening. Emily feels that as usual I am over-reacting. 

Oddballs are everywhere,’ she says. ‘It’s a sign of the times. You should get used to it, Syd. And just because he wears an eyepatch, doesn’t make him dangerous.’

I can’t help thinking Emily’s dress is low cut for a logistics and stock control office meeting, and she looks a little dishevelled, but I say nothing. I do not want her to think I am becoming paranoid again.

At home, I ask Alexa who the man in the Astrakhan coat is, and she tells me he is Blofeld. I think this is improbable, not least because Blofeld is fictional. But these days, who knows? Nothing has any meaning anymore. The boundaries between reality and fiction have become blurred. You can’t rely on anything these days. We are bombarded with contradictory information day and night through advertising, the news media, Twitter and Facebook, Alexa, the graffiti on the underpass, and the know-all behind us at the supermarket checkout. Conflicting narratives, many of them unfamiliar or just plain weird fight for a place in our consciousness. Each idea tries to pass itself off as common-sense, helpful or normal. No longer sure what to believe, we enter a state of cognitive dissonance. 

A number of unlikely phenomena have come to my attention lately. I read that abandoned mobile phones communicate with each other. How weird is that? Near the Equator, the sun sets twice on alternate Sundays. Atlantis has risen from the deep, and it is not where we expected to find. Researchers have discovered that paradox-free time travel is possible. You could now in theory go back in time, kill your own grandfather, and still exist. As Picasso said, everything you can imagine is real. Science, after all, is only magic that works. We are all made out of stars, and there is no dark side of the Moon.


© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Me and My Shadow

 

Me and My Shadow by Chris Green

The late October greyness means the beach is deserted. Now the season has ended, the beach-hut owners have shut up shop for the winter. Row upon row of these bijou coastal retreats stand empty. Many have security shutters down or are boarded up and padlocked. Perhaps it is too early, but not even the dog-walkers are out on the beach this morning. The silence is palpable. Miles and miles of sand and shingle are disturbed only by parcels of oystercatchers making the most of the retreating tide. Sara and I enjoy walking along this stretch on mornings like this when it is quiet. It acts as a meditation. It gives us the chance to reflect, and we can gather buckets of seaweed for the garden without it attracting too much attention. Seaweed is great for growing gourds.

We have never heard a gunshot in these parts before, so at first, we assume there must be another explanation for the loud retort that echoes around the bay. We see no reason why it should make any difference to our enjoyment of our lovely morning stroll. But then, up ahead behind a clump of rock, we see a figure lying face down in the sand. He does not appear to be moving. As we get closer, we see he is drenched in blood. It has soaked through his quilted lumberjack-checked shirt.

He’s been shot,’ we say simultaneously, this after a short delay in which we search for a more plausible explanation for his predicament. Something less savage than being gunned down. After all, this is not the penultimate episode of an Australian crime noir on Netflix, this is the sleepy English coast on a Sunday morning in real-time. How can the shooting have happened here? Worse, how can it have happened in plain sight without us seeing it? Did the shot come from the boat that is now speeding away? Where did the boat appear from? Why hadn’t we noticed it before now? Or see who may have boarded it? Was it in the bay all along? Or did the shot come from inland? There are plenty of places in amongst the clumps of trees where a gunman could conceal himself.

We’d better see if he’s still alive,’ Sara says, just as I am considering how best we can conceal ourselves in case we are next on the hitman’s list. Doesn’t she understand how these things work? If we are potential witnesses to the incident, then we will also be potential targets for the perpetrators.

Despite my reservations, my humanity gets the better of me. I help Sara turn the man over.

Be careful, Sean!’ she says. ‘We don’t know what damage moving him might do.’

We discover that although he has lost a lot of blood, he is still breathing. I don’t know that much about anatomy, but the bullet appears to have gone straight through him. In through the front and out at the back. Is that even possible?

I’ll call an ambulance,’ Sara says, as she tries to staunch the flow of blood. ‘They should be able to land an air ambulance somewhere around here.’

Better get the police too,’ I say.

Same number, isn’t it?’ Sara says.

Emergency numbers are not as straightforward as they used to be. Sara is put on hold while they try to find someone who can deal with her enquiry on a Sunday morning. Meanwhile, it occurs to me that the poor fellow we are trying to help looks oddly familiar. It takes me a few moments to realise where I’ve seen him before. He works at the shadow repair centre in the indoor market. He is a licensed shadow surgeon. He tailors people’s shadows and silhouettes. I come across him now and again when I pop down to the flag exchange in the market to get a new flag for the mast in the front garden. I think he must have separate premises where he does the surgery. As I recall, his name is Eddie.

Shadows have been in the news lately. Do we still need them? The Shadow Reform lobby group wants to do away with them once and for all, and apparently they are becoming a powerful force. Perhaps they have changed their tactics and upped their degree of militancy. Perhaps the attempted killing here is connected to their campaign. But surely these people are nothing more than narrow-minded reactionaries or misguided fools. Shadows are vital to inter-personal communication. Studies published in both medical journals and the liberal press have consistently shown that shadows also make a significant contribution to self-esteem. With the onset of winter, it is important to make sure your shadow looks good. On a crisp winter’s day, with the sun low in the sky, there is nothing so dispiriting than a sad-looking shadow. An ill-fitting one with the wrong proportions. Or worse still, no shadow at all.

Eddie recovers sufficiently to utter a few words. He doesn’t know who shot him, he says, or where the shot came from. But he has received death threats recently. He is clearly very weak. Fortunately, within minutes, the air ambulance arrives. Working quickly, the paramedics bandage him up, give him injections and take him away to St Thomas Hospital in Highton. The police response is markedly slower. Detective Inspector Gaffer and his sidekick, D.C. Newby, call on us shortly before lunch the next day.

Mr and Mrs Alexander, isn’t it?’ D.I. Gaffer says, reading from his handheld device. ‘Let’s see what we’ve got. Edward Rosso, aged thirty-eight, works at Highton market, shot we believe with a high velocity rifle at Mudsea beach yesterday. We have the two of you down as the only witnesses.’

Should we be thankful that we are not suspects?’ I say, cynically. ‘But if we were, I imagine you would have been around yesterday, with the caution and the cuffs. Even if it was a Sunday.’

OK! OK! I take the point, Mr Alexander,’ Gaffer says. ‘But we are here now. What can you tell us about the incident?’

Not very much,’ I say. ‘It all happened so quickly.’

We know that Mr Trimmer has had threats on his life,’ Newby says. ‘He reported these to us a week or two ago.’

Did you not follow these leads up?’ Sara says.

The threats were anonymous, Mrs Alexander,’ Gaffer says. ‘Added to which, BCU only passed the information on to us the day before yesterday. What we have determined though is that a substantial body of people do not approve of Eddie Rosso’s line of work.’

He’s a shadow surgeon,’ Newby adds. ‘Whatever this is.’

But sadly, that’s all we have to go on,’ Gaffer says.

I choose not to tell them that when I go to the market to buy my flags, if he is around, I pass the time of day with Eddie. This would only complicate matters. I know Gaffer and his oppo are only doing their job, but nothing I say about any conversations Eddie and I might have had is going to shed any light on who shot him. I tell them we saw a boat leaving the scene, but I know nothing about boats so there’s nothing I can add to this. It was blue and white, or was it red and cream? It wasn’t the sort of boat that had a sail. Eventually the detectives lose interest and we get away with giving brief statements. With the usual, if you think of anything else that might help, they take their leave. I ask Sara if she could phone the hospital to check on Eddie’s progress. But I feel our lives will be simpler if we try to put the matter behind us.

.…………………………………..


In the days that follow, we hear reports of other isolated shootings that might be connected to shadow abolitionist groups. Concern begins to grow in the press about their activities. They are perhaps affiliated to home grown far-right terrorist organisations. The Daily Mail though shows sympathy with the group, and questions whether in this day and age shadows are needed. Were they ever needed, asks the Express editorial, taking it a step further? We also notice one or two reports about people unexpectedly losing their shadows. It’s possible that stories like this have been circulating for a while, but we have had no reason to notice them until now. Some people think it’s primarily psychological, but these are principally psychologists. There is a suggestion on Spiked-Online that losing one’s shadow might be down to evolution, and eventually we will all lose our shadows. But the overriding view of the phenomenon from within the scientific community is one of scepticism. In these days of fake news, charlatans abound.

Sara and I are walking side by side through the grassy meadow near the Iron Age hill-fort. As we are trying to get our lives back on an even keel, we have decided to avoid Mudsea beach for the time being. We are fortunate that we have a choice of picturesque countryside close by for our Sunday morning walks. Autumn leaves on distant trees with shades of yellow, gold, orange and red add a touch of drama to the landscape. A gentle breeze blows from the south-west and the sun is low in the sky. Not bad conditions for the beginning of November.

Sara spots it first. Her long dark shadow stretches out proudly in front of her. By contrast, I have no shadow. She lets out a scream. As she grabs my arm to point this out to me, I can see she is horror stricken. But this is nothing compared to how I feel as I become aware of my loss. Until you find you have no shadow, you can’t possibly imagine how devastating it feels to lose it. It is like losing a limb. It is worse than losing a limb. At least you know what you have lost when you lose a limb, losing your shadow is uncharted territory. At first I don’t accept it. How can it have happened? There must be a mistake. All of that talk about people losing their shadows was surely nothing more than talk. Those reports in the papers were not to be taken seriously. This is the real here and now. It’s a misunderstanding. It’s a trick of the light, maybe. There has to be a rational explanation.

None is forthcoming. Sara’s shadow remains intact, but mine is not there. I no longer have a shadow. Sara is often more level-headed than I am in difficult situations. She offers to find out if Eddie is out of hospital. If he is, she will see if he has any ideas about what has happened and what can be done about it. Perhaps he knows an easy way to get a shadow back.

Eddie thanks us for saving his life. If there’s anything he can do, he says. In answer to my query, he explains that shadow recovery isn’t an exact science. It is a little like reverse engineering. It’s a step-by-step experiment. Every case is different. Trial and error, suck it and see. Apart from the physical, there is also a psychological element. I’m not sure what he means by this. Is he referring to shadow in the Jungian sense? But there’s no need for me to pursue it. I have to trust his judgement. If he is unable to reconstruct my original shadow, he says, he should be able to cobble something together. As soon as he is up and about again, he will do his best.

.…………………………………..

As Sara and I stroll along the coastal path in the January sunshine, my new shadow is on display for all to see. It is remarkable what a skilled technician can achieve. Eddie has pulled out all the stops. I am, of course, sworn to secrecy as to how he does it, but he has recovered my shadow. If you were to look at it too closely, you might spot that is not completely symmetrical. And it is perhaps a little broader than my original one. But, if anyone should draw attention to this, I could put it down to festive overindulgence. But these are minor imperfections. I am just thankful to once more have a shadow.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Lenticular Clouds

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lenticular Clouds by Chris Green

Lenticular clouds hang over Mount Dante in the distance. Disc-shaped and silver, they have an air of the surreal about them. You expect clouds to move across the sky with the wind, but these are stationary. Here in the town below, the inhabitants are in the midst of a heatwave. It has been searingly hot for two weeks now. Chet wishes the clouds would come over and deposit their load. His friend, Raul tells him they will not come this way. Lenticular clouds are only there because of the mountain. They could stay in place for days, hovering. They will gradually morph as the air currents push them towards the troposphere. Raul knows about weather. Before his accident, he used to be a pilot. He says they can expect another two weeks of this heat. With high pressure systems like this, rain-bearing clouds do not form, he says. There is not even a hint of a breeze. Chet wishes he were by the coast. Being landlocked in a heatwave is the worst.

Before the battery went flat, the weather app on Chet’s phone showed 44 degrees Celsius. He cannot charge the phone now. There has been no power in the town for seventy-two hours. There has been no explanation for the outage. There was talk of it being a terrorist attack, but why would terrorists target a backwater like this. News travels slowly in these parts. Rumours abound instead. The next town is forty miles away. Conditions were bad enough before the power went off, but if you had air conditioning you could stay indoors. If you did not, you could, at least, circulate the hot air with a barrage of fans. Chet did not have air conditioning and by the time he got round to thinking about fans, the stores had all sold out. He could have perhaps eaten humble pie and gone back to his parents, but anyway, it doesn’t matter now. Not even they with all their resources will have any protection against the interminable heat. A little discomfort will do them good, he reckons. What they did was unforgivable. He is better off staying with Raul. The accommodation may be basic, a collection of shacks tacked on to one another, with the occasional rat scurrying around, but the company is good.

The town has ground to a halt. The tar on the roads is turning to liquid. The air smells of creosote. Cracks are appearing in the concrete of buildings. The river bed has dried up. Blue-green algae have formed on the town’s swimming pool. There are warning notices posted outside. The water smells awful. Food is rotting in overflowing waste bins and on the streets. Everywhere is closed. No-one is going anywhere. Buses are no longer running and petrol stations are closed. The nearest airport is over a hundred miles away near the border, and the coast is the same distance in the other direction. Banks, offices and schools are closed. Even Bashir’s convenience store which is open 24/7 is closed. The hospital is closed and rumour has it that dozens are dying daily from the effects of the extreme heat. There is no way to confirm these rumours. Stores are being looted. Chet wonders how anyone can summon up the energy to loot. This would not be a prime pillaging place at the best of times.

Chet sits in the shade beneath a wilting zelkova tree on a lone patch of grass that the blistering heat has spared. He is decked out in shorts and flip flops. He has taken his CoolDude t-shirt off and is wearing it like a bandana. He is trying to read a book about the stars that Raul has lent him. Since the lenticular clouds appeared he has taken an interest in the sky. He finds he cannot concentrate on the book. The heavens are a celestial smorgasbord of byzantine complexity. It is too hot for long words to sink in. He puts the book down.

She appears as a mirage. She comes out of the sun in a thin white silk dress. Chet has never seen her before. He would remember. This is not a large town. There are perhaps five thousand people living here. He has never seen anyone like this before. She is stunning. She approaches him. She has a waterfall of obsidian hair and skin like porcelain. She has a smile like springtime. Her eyes are deep brown and look like they are made out of glass. How does she manage to look so cool in the sweltering heat? She looks as if she has stepped out of an ice cream parlour.

She puts her finger up to her lips in a gesture to signify that she requires silence for her mission. Chet is lost for words anyway. Where could he begin? She takes his hand and leads him off as if they were familiar lovers. With clandestine stealth, she bypasses the main square and the roads leading off it, through a series of narrow winding streets and labyrinthine alleys. He does not know where they are. Although it is a small town, he has not been this way before. It seems abandoned. Many of the buildings are falling apart. They arrive at a small white town-house. It is entirely in the shade. It is noticeably cooler. The sun never reaches these parts. They enter through a stuccoed courtyard. Chet finds they are in a small shuttered room, with ethnic tapestries hung on the walls. They are on a soft bed with brightly coloured linen. She draws him towards her and kisses him passionately. It is not until after they have made love that the silence is broken when his vision speaks softly to him in a language that he does not understand. To Chet, this is a small matter. Conversational consonance cannot compare to the poetry of the senses. For now, he’s going to stay.

Chet wakes with a start. He is disorientated. The room is dark and unfamiliar. There are slatted shutters on the windows but no light is coming through. It must be night-time, he decides. He is alone. He is naked. He is lying on a dishevelled bed. He cannot remember how he came to be here but he has had the most erotic dream. He is all sticky from the emission. He cannot find any clothes. Where are his clothes? There is no power for the light, so he stumbles around in the darkness. He finds the door is locked. It feels like quite a flimsy door, but he cannot move it. It must be strengthened with something to keep it firm. He is trapped. His mouth is dry. He is incredibly thirsty. A sense of panic mixed with despair rises in him. He listens for a sign of life outside of the room. There is a profound silence. It is still, not even the sound of the wind. He finds a bottle of water. It is a litre bottle and it is nearly full. There is nothing he can do but wait and hope. The last thing he remembers is reading Making Sense of the Heavens, the book that his friend, Raul lent him. He was sitting under a zelkova tree near the dried up river bed. And then …… And then …… Nothing. Then ….. the dream, if it was a dream – about an exotic temptress in white.

At dawn, he can just see out of a small crack in one of the window slats. He can see the peak of the mountain. The lenticular clouds still hang ominously over its summit.

…………………………………………..

Raul is secretly pleased with the lack of power in the town. It means that he does not have to go to work in the plant. He is painting a landscape in oils. Since he has not been able to get up in a plane, painting is the pastime he most enjoys. He would like to give up work and take up painting full time and sell his work. Although his art is accomplished, there is not a big demand for it since the recession. He has been told his brooding, haunted style is reminiscent of metaphysical Italian artist, Giorgio de Chirico. Although flattered, Raul doesn’t really like comparison to anyone. He feels his art is highly original. The landscapes with the elongated shadows of the town’s old decaying buildings are ideal source material for his moody studies. The emptiness of the streets since the power outage has also been inspirational. The painting he is working on has chimerical Iberian towers and arches leading to a desolate rocky desert landscape with lenticular clouds hanging over a mountain peak in the background. A lone silhouetted figure holding a broken wheel by the dried up fountain hints that all is not well. The stacked saucer shape of the clouds today is perfect for the balance of the composition.

He has to be careful not to apply the paint too thickly. He slapped it on the canvas yesterday and it cracked and blistered in the high temperatures. He daubs an arc of coral red at the base of the clouds and mixes in a dab of zinc white in situ on the canvas. It is a technique he uses a lot. He pauses to let the paint dry. He steps back to look at the work from different angles. He is pleased with its progress today. The scene has a dreamlike quality. The clouds with their otherworldliness add an air of mystery and menace.

He wonders what has happened to Chet. He did not come back last night, which is unusual as Chet likes to sit down with him for a chat over a bottle of wine. He was going to show Chet how to find the constellations, Hercules and Indus in the night sky. They are going through the celestial alphabet. Chet does not have a lot of friends. He is a bit of a loner. Surely he would not have gone back to his parents’ house. They disowned him when they found his drugs stash. And he would surely never have forgiven them for going to the police. After all, most young people around here smoke cannabis. It grows like a weed out in the badlands. The police probably smoke cannabis. They probably smoked Chet’s cannabis. They let him off with a caution.

…………………………………………..

Ola,’ says a voice from behind him.

Brush still in hand, Raul turns around. He is dumbstruck. Standing there is Salvador Dalí. His handlebar moustache is fully waxed and despite the heat, he is wearing a dark three-piece suit. The immense bird of prey perched on his gloved hand is a bit of a shock too. Is it a hawk or an eagle? Raul struggles with an explanation. Not least in the mystery is the small matter that Dalí has been dead for many years. This could be an impersonator, but why would he be here? Raul can see and hear this substantial figure before him, who to all intents and purposes is the legendary painter, with an avian friend. Until a better explanation comes along, he must go by his senses.

I love the clouds,’ says Dalí, scanning the painting. ‘They are like how you say, objeto volador no identificado, yes?’

Raul composes himself for a reply. He manages, ‘Whuyuh,’ or something similarly devoid of language.

Rocks and clouds. They are the secret to a successful painting,’ Dalí continues. ‘If you remember this then your art will sell the millions and you will become famous. Let me see some more of your paisajes.’

How does one address the master, Raul wonders? The raptor on Dalí’s gauntlet is fidgeting. It looks as if it might lunge at him. The prospect makes him nervous.

Raul leads the artist into his small studio. There on rickety wooden easels are two landscapes that he has been working on. One canvas is of a seashell suspended from a classical arch in a desert landscape. In the middle of the orange sands is an oversized mannequin in black sunglasses. The other features two columns of arches set at impossible angles casting geometric shadows, in the background the silhouette of a steam train set against a yellow and green sky. Dalí walks up and down smoothing the ends of his moustache pensively.

I am thinking that I see Giorgio,’ he says. ‘I should not say this, but I did copy a lot from Giorgio. All I added really were rocks and trees. And the soft watches, of course. Oh, and tigers.’

Whilst trying to resist the comparison with de Chirico once again, Raul can’t help but feel flattered that the great Avida Dollars is appraising his work. This gives him the confidence to enter the conversation a little.

I was wondering about a perigee moon over the train in this one,’ he says. ‘And maybe darkening the sky to compensate.’

I designed a tarot pack,’ says Dalí. ‘I was very pleased with The Moon card. You cannot go wrong with a big red moon in a painting.’

When I was a boy I wanted to go to the moon,’ says Raul. ‘I asked my parents and they said that NASA weren’t recruiting in these parts, so I trained to be a pilot instead.’

When I was a boy I wanted to become Dalí,’ says Dalí. ‘So that is what I did.’

You can never tell how things are going to turn out, can you,’ says Raul. ‘Sometimes in life, there is great irony. I was taking aerial photographs of the moon when my plane crashed.’

I could tell how things were going to turn out,’ says Dalí. ‘I knew I would be a great painter. I knew I would be famous. It was my destiny. It was in the stars.’

I study the stars,’ says Raul. ‘I’ve been teaching my friend, Chet how to read the night sky. I am showing him where to find the constellations. But he has disappeared.’

People come and go. Things appear and disappear,’ says Dalí. ‘All things must pass. My good friend, George Harrison told me that.’

He did not come back last night.’

Last night I could see the stars. The night sky is very clear,’ says Dalí. ‘What has happened to the lights? Is there no electricity here?’

No-one knows why the power is off,’ says Raul. He disappears behind a curtain to fetch some other canvases to show Dalí. When he returns there is no sign of the artist. He is fanned by the wings of a large black raptor as it flies off with a small rodent in its talons.

…………………………………………..

Time passes slowly for Chet in the locked room. After initial attempts to break down the door and dismantle the shutter, he has given up. He has disturbed the shutter enough to allow a shaft of light through and if he puts his face up against it, he can see out. He is facing a whitewashed wall. He can just see the peak of the mountain and the lenticular clouds capping it. He has given up shouting for help too. He is wasting valuable energy by doing so. It is clear that no-one is around.

He tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. How much of it was real and how much of it a dream? Being brought to a secret lair and seduced by an exotic angel is certainly the territory of dreams, but here he is. In this unfamiliar room. How did this happen? Was he drugged? Perhaps the water he is drinking contains some potion. According to transcendentalist poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who Raul is fond of quoting, reality is a sliding door. His friend would probably have an explanation for what is going on. He has a far greater experience of life. Growing up in a household where he was never encouraged to think for himself, Chet finds clarity elusive. All things seem shrouded in mystery. He has few answers. There are many questions. Why is the sky blue? Why is the sea salty? Why do fools fall in love? And presently, and most importantly, why is he being held captive? He can think of no reason. His imprisonment would seem to benefit no-one. Also, it contradicts the initial experience where he was made more than welcome by the libertine lorelei who brought him here.

How long will a litre of water last, he wonders? It is either half full, or half empty now.

…………………………………………..

Raul takes a long pull on his beer. The warm bottled beer in the Agave Bar is unpleasant, but he feels he needs one. He has no wine at home and everywhere else is closed. The Agave never closes. It would take an earthquake. Sol, the barman seems to live at this dark and dingy bar. Raul asks him if Chet has been in.

No. I don’t believe he has,’ says Sol. Not seen him since you brought him in a while back.’ He explains that since the power outage hardly anyone has been in. He is ready to launch into a rant about the loss of trade that the power outage is causing. Sol is not aptly named. His disposition is anything but sunny.

Noah, who has been sat at the bar listening, interrupts him. ‘Is that the posh kid?’ he asks Raul.

Guess that’s who you mean,’ says Raul. ‘Why, Noah? Have you seen the lad?’

Think I did, now you come to mention it,’ says Noah. ‘He was with a pretty girl. I was sure surprised. Never seen him with anyone but you before. Had him down as a ….. well, a bit of a loner.’

When was this?’

Yesterday afternoon it must have been. They were heading for the old town. Did you see him, Jake?’

Jake looks up from the bottle of tequila he is nursing. ‘No, Noah, can’t say I did.’

Where do you think they were going?’ says Raul.

Well, I have no idea. I’m not going to be following them, am I, although she was quite a stunner,’ says Noah.

Nobody goes up there much since the ….. uh, emergency, do they?’ says Sol. Sol doesn’t get out anywhere that much. He has the pallor of a dedicated barman.

What actually happened?’ asks Raul. He has heard all kinds of rumours, but small towns can generate fanciful stories.

Noah and Jake look at one another. Neither of them says what they are thinking.

The outbreak,’ says Sol. ‘There was an outbreak of something, wasn’t there?’

Noah and Jake exchange another glance.

I’m going up there,’ says Raul doggedly. ‘Thank you, boys, for the information.’

…………………………………………..

It is morning, or perhaps it is afternoon. Chet cannot tell. Daylight is spilling through the shutter. He is woken up by a noise of someone outside. He hasn’t slept much. He is drowsy. With a rattle of keys the door opens. With the light now from the open door, he sees her standing there in all her finery. The same little white dress, the same waterfall of obsidian hair. She has brought a basket of fruit. She hands him a peach. He devours it ravenously. She slips out of her dress. She joins him on the bed and kisses him passionately. He responds to her touch. She responds to his. She is wet. Ardently they make love. It is as if nothing has happened since the previous time they were together. They are just resuming the assignation, where they left off. There are no recriminations.

Afterwards, as they share the fruit, she speaks to him in the language that she spoke to him before. The difference is, now, he finds he can understand her. This is inexplicable. It is the same language, but it is no longer foreign to him. His mind is buckling with incomprehension. How can this be happening?

She tells him that although she is made up of flesh and blood, she is insubstantial, like a spirit. She can only appear in the material world under a particular set of circumstances. She says that she cannot explain any further for now, as it would only confuse him more. What she requires from him is his trust.

When you appear, can everyone see you?’ asks Chet.

No, not everyone.’

When you disappear, where do you go?’

Please do not ask any more questions, as I cannot answer them,’ she says. ‘Just trust me is all that I ask of you. You will be rewarded if you put your faith in me. Let’s go and get your clothes. We have to go. Time is short.’

…………………………………………..

The church clock is stopped at eleven minutes past eleven as Raul makes his way through the town. The scorching heat saps his strength. The streets are still deserted. There may be no power, but where is everyone, he wonders. Where do they all go? Life cannot stop because there is no electricity. He notices that the sky over the mountain top is changing. Normally the wind blows right through lenticular clouds. They form in the crest of the mountain wave where the rising updraught of the wave has cooled and moisture has condensed. The clouds dissipate in the downdraught of the wave where the air has descended and warmed to the point where the moisture evaporates. The stacked saucer effect of the lenticular clouds above Mount Dante has gone. They are scattered. They are brightly coloured, almost psychedelic. The shape that is forming and the rich hue of the clouds suggest they are dispersing. When he was flying, Raul was careful to avoid cloud banks like this. They could cause dangerous turbulence.

As he approaches the crumbling ruins of the old town he becomes conscious of an eerie hush. It is like entering another world, a world of spirits perhaps. It has been a no-go area for so long, he cannot remember why the townsfolk abandoned it, but Noah and Jake’s conspiratorial silence seemed to have suggested he should avoid it. Apprehensively, he enters the network of narrow winding streets. The cobbled road surface is covered in sand and strewn with assorted debris. Boston ivy and Virginia creeper compete for space on windowless ruins and gutted houses. Tumbleweed grows amongst the rubble. A path leads off to the right into a labyrinthine series of alleys, each lifeless and silent. It is a much larger area than it first appears. He feels his hopes of finding Chet here evaporating.

…………………………………………..

Chet and his revenant run hand in hand out of the dark void and into the light. The lenticular clouds over the mountain look spectacular. The whole sky is alive in a fluid chromatic explosion. It is as if the heavens are hosting a titanic light show for the Gods by a mythic rock band. It is breathtaking. Alas, all things must change. Nothing is permanent. Dreams fade, bubbles pop, and clouds evaporate. The carnival will soon be over. The lenticular clouds over Mount Dante will be gone by the end of the afternoon.

We have to be quick,’ Chet’s vision says. ‘Soon the power will come back on, and I too will disappear.’

He asks a thousand questions, all at once. She does not hear. Already her form is fading.

…………………………………………..

Chet and Raul sit on the stoop taking in the evening sunshine over a glass or two of red from Bashir’s new delivery. A gentle breeze rustles the canopy. Chet is pleased that it is a little cooler. The heat really got to him, he says, and he didn’t know where he was without the internet. Anything could have been happening and he wouldn’t know about it. He had some very strange thoughts. He wondered if he was going mad. Raul says that the heat didn’t bother him, nor the lack of electricity.

I’m glad the clouds have gone, though,’ he says. ‘There’s something about lenticular clouds that makes me uneasy.’

I know exactly what you mean,’ says Chet. ‘They don’t bring any rain. It’s a bit like thunder without the lightning. It throws you off balance.’

And they are there for days, just hovering.’

Bound to have an effect’

Like the moon and the stars.’

We’ll probably never know the full story.’

Mysteries should remain mysteries. The universe is full of secrets.’

We’ll have to get back on to the constellations tonight. We were up to H, weren’t we?’

That’s right, Hercules is next, and Indus.’

What about another glass of wine?’

I did manage to get some painting done, though,’ says Raul. ‘I don’t expect you noticed.’

I love the new picture,’ says Chet. ‘It reminds me of one I saw by Salvador Dalí.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

666 – The Number of the Bus

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666 – The Number of the Bus by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I told him I had.

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

Why’s that, Mr Saxx?’ I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you mean?’ he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Le Dernier Mot

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Le Dernier Mot by Chris Green

As I walk along the coastal path early on a sunny Sunday morning, a light breeze blows from the south-west and the tide rolls gently in. There is no-one about at this hour. I take in the tranquillity. Having recently completed a story, I am hoping to draw inspiration for a new one. From past experience, these are perfect conditions to get the creative juices flowing. A sentence here, a sentence there, a character, a phrase, or just the germ of an idea. Many of my short stories have started this way. Not just material that reflect the current location and circumstances either. There is no telling what form the inspiration will take. Postcards from the Moon, De Chirico Shadows, Jazz, Beware of the God, and Sunday Girl, to name but a few, have come to me in this way on my coastal walks. A diverse selection of work. To remember the flashes of inspiration from my walks, I now make voice recordings on my phone.

Historically, many famous writers from Dickens and Wordsworth to Joyce and Hemingway took solitary walks to get inspiration for their work, although of course these luminaries of yesteryear either had to stop and write their ideas down or rely on memory. Graham Greene went for walks in towns and cities all over the world to get his background material. J. K. Rowling likens walking to dreaming, drawing a parallel between the REM dream state and the meditative-like state attained by exercise. Her walks around Edinburgh are legendary and have inspired many of the clever plot twists in her books.

But sadly today, mile after mile of the beautiful coastline brings nothing of interest. I seem to be going over and over old ground. I have experienced writer’s block before and have come through it. So, when I stop for a cup of tea and a bun at the beach cafe which is just opening for the day, I do not worry too much about the lack of progress. Inspiration is something that happens naturally. Creativity is not a process you can force. It has no sense of time. If you open yourself to the universe, they say, you will receive its bounty. It is a little like tuning in to the radio. The ideas are out there. You just have to be receptive to them. This has always worked for me up until now. Something will probably come floating in as I retrace my steps along the coast path later, but if it does not, there is always tomorrow.

As I make my way back, I take in the lapping sounds of the waves breaking gently on the shingle beach. Apart from the odd dog walker, the coastal path is still deserted. People seem to get up later on a Sunday. At the water’s edge, a parcel of oystercatchers keeps an eye on the progress of the tide. Perhaps it is about to turn. Are oystercatchers incoming tide feeders or outgoing tide feeders? I can’t remember. On a rocky outcrop up ahead, a cormorant is drying its wings. In heraldry, this pose represents the Christian cross. Scandinavians consider cormorants to be a good omen. Should I too see this as a sign? Somewhere far off, I hear the sounds of children playing and the echo of a dog barking. A procession of cumulus clouds paints a pleasing pattern against the azure sky. A brightly coloured boat criss-crosses the horizon as if posing for a child’s painting. It is an idyllic setting, a perfect stretch of coastline. Yet still, no inspiration for a story is forthcoming.

Like an apparition, the stranger appears out of nowhere. Suddenly he is there, facing me. He is over six feet tall and has a funereal aspect. He is thin as a rake and the long black coat and stovepipe hat he is wearing make him seem even taller. He has piercing blue eyes, a long white beard and a deathly pallor. His appearance would be startling anywhere, but here on a sunny morning on the Devon coast, this is certainly the case. I am more than startled. I am terrified.

You will not find it,’ he says.

Nervously, I ask the wraithlike stranger what he means.

You are looking for a story,’ he says. ‘But I’m afraid you are going to be disappointed.’

What are you talking about?’ I say.

There are no more stories,’ he says.

Of course there are,’ I say. ‘There will always be more stories.’

You are wrong, my friend,’ he says. ‘There were only ever a finite number of stories and the last one has gone. There will not be any more.’

How can there only be a finite number of stories?’ I say, defiantly. ‘There are stories everywhere. You and I meeting here today could be a story. It would be quite a dramatic story. What do you say to that?’

I’m afraid this has already been a story,’ he says. ‘It has been a story many times over.’

Do you then mean there will be no new stories in the philosophical sense?’ I ask. ‘As in there are only seven basic plots. Everything ever written falls into one or other of these.’

That is not what I mean,’ he says. ‘Believe me! There are no more stories, period. You will not find another story.’

From his body language, it looks as if he feels our business is done. But I can’t leave it there. I tell him I want more details.

As I said, there were only ever a finite number of stories,’ he says. ‘For a while, it looked as if the stock might last longer, but there has been a run on them lately. There are simply too many writers. Armand Ziegler, a Swiss magical realism author, who you’ve almost certainly never heard of, took the last one yesterday with his story, Le Dernier Mot. The Last Word. That’s it, my friend. There is nothing more to say.’

There must be more stories,’ I say. They can’t have all ……………..

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Trout Fishing

troutfishing

Trout Fishing by Chris Green

FRIDAY


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is even addressing her by name now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SATURDAY

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

The least I could do,’ Andy says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUNDAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magic carpets?’ Suzy is confused.

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

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

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

I think I might have it somewhere,’

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

Perhaps we should stick with magic carpets.’

Or we could try Belgian Surrealists.’

Magic carpets would be better.’

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

Uh huh.’

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Nightswimming

Nightswimming by Chris Green

On the face of it, Nightswimming is about someone’s fond memories of skinny-dipping in their younger days. Surely though, the song is about dreaming. You couldn’t get a more haunting tune or a more dreamlike arrangement. And the band are called REM. Rapid Eye Movement. What more do you need? It’s a perfect fit. They’re using nightswimming as a metaphor for the mystifying world of dreams. That fugitive landscape where nothing is what it seems. That dark space on the edge of town where the silence echoes and characters change in front of you without warning.

Gino, the café owner may not be aware of this. He is probably just playing the song because he likes REM. This is not surprising. Not so long ago they were the biggest band in the world. Every album went platinum. I suspect the girl with the multi-coloured hair who Gino is talking doesn’t know what Nightswimming alludes to either. She probably just thinks it’s a pretty tune about a group of young people taking a naughty dip at the lido on a summer night after a heavy session at The Goat and Bicycle.

I finish my mint tea and go over to the counter to pay.

Do you know what this song’s about?’ I say.

Gino looks me in the eye and laughs. He thinks it is a trick question.

It’s about going for a midnight swim,’ he says. ‘Listen!’

I think it’s about dreaming,’ the girl says. ‘It has that ethereal feel to it.’

So do I,’ I say. ‘He appears to be recalling a real-life experience. Nostalgia, you might say. But in dreams, memories become confused with fable. Hence the random stream of consciousness lyrics.’

Nightswimming gives way to Man on the Moon. On the album, they appear the other way around, so this must be a hits compilation.

What do you make of this one?’ I say.

It’s about the moon landing,’ Gino says.

All their songs have more to them than meets the eye,’ the girl says. She looks up the lyrics on her phone.

Man on the Moon. It couldn’t be clearer,’ Gino says. ‘Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin. Michael Collins.’

It seems to jump from one subject to another,’ the girl says. ‘It’s quite a complicated song.’

It is a tribute to the actor, surrealist comedian and performance artist, Andy Kaufman,’ I say. ‘Andy was a prankster and there is a suggestion that he faked his own death. Haven’t you ever wondered about the line, Andy did you hear about this one? The singer links his death with the conspiracy theory about the moon landings.’

What about the goofing on Elvis line?’ the girl says.

Andy used to do an Elvis impersonation that even Elvis was alleged to have praised,’ I say.

Some new customers come into the café. Gino turns his attention to them.

I’m Maya,’ the girl says, moving closer. ‘I expect you know this means illusion or dream.’

Hello Maya,’ I say. ‘I’m Phil.’

I can’t help wondering about your interest in lyrics, Phil,’ Maya says. ‘Are you perhaps a songwriter or a lyricist?’

In a way, I suppose,’ I say. ‘At least, the words bit. I write fiction. I’m Phillip C. Dark.’

Cool!’ she says. ‘I may have read a story of yours. Time and Tide Wait for Norman.’

That one is by Chris Green,’ I say. ‘But you are not far off. It is in the same anthology as one of mine.’

Are you writing anything at the moment?’ she says.

I’ve just started a short story where the Twin Towers aren’t destroyed in 9/11 but the White House is,’ I say. ‘As a result, the USA falls into the hands of terrorists, one of whom is the former TV show host who sets about running the country through social media.’

Sounds good,’ Maya says. ‘Hey, look! If you are not doing anything, why don’t you come and meet my cat, Ronnie? He’d love to meet you.’

I was going to get my kaleidoscope repaired and then go to look for some fridge magnets,’ I say. ‘But I guess that could wait until later.’

The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre is very close to my house,’ she says. ‘So we could go there together afterwards, and I could help you choose.’

The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre is on the same side of town as Maya’s house, but it is a few miles further on. If Maya had not been travelling with me, it would have been nigh on impossible to find it. It is set in a clearing in the middle of a wood which in itself is off the beaten track. I park some distance away, and we have to beat our way through the undergrowth to reach it. It is more of a log cabin than a house. The location reminds me of a story of mine where people can teleport themselves over long distances simply by thinking about where they want to go. All they need to have is a physical picture in their mind of the desired destination. To keep criminals and thieves away, the wealthy build homes without windows in elaborate woodland mazes to confuse the ever more sophisticated Google maps. They become so reclusive that they live their entire lives within the confines of their homes. They become afraid to communicate with anyone in case they give away their location. Not that Maya seems to be rich or reclusive.

Ronnie, it turns out is large for a domestic cat, measuring around six feet from tip to tail. Perhaps I have lived a sheltered life, but Ronnie is the first cat I’ve come across that you can have a conversation with. I had thought that talking cats only existed in Haruki Murakami novels. Not only does Ronnie talk, he seems to know his REM tunes too. When Maya mentions we’ve been listening to Nightswimming and Man on the Moon, he becomes animated.

Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite is my favourite,’ he says ‘There’s a lot going on in there. It’s about a drifter. With its roadside motel, instant food, payphones and oddball characters, it describes his transient lifestyle. Sidewinder is a metaphor for the drifter, don’t you think?

REM songs always have double meanings,’ I say, thrilled to have found a cat that is knowledgeable about popular culture. ‘A sidewinder is a snake, of course, but also an old style of telephone with a winding handle on the side.

Their singer, Michael Stipe wrote the lyrics,’ Ronnie says. ‘I don’t think the others in the band were sure what the rest of the song meant.’

He’s dreaming about the things he misses,’ I say. ‘The candy bars, falling stars and the Dr Seuss stories.’

He mentions The Cat in the Hat. That’s my favourite Dr Seuss story too,’ Ronnie says. Did You know that he was a big fan of Syd Barrett? Dark Globe was his favourite. Do you know that one? REM recorded it too.’

That’s the one that starts off, Oh where are you now, pussy willow, isn’t it? I say. ‘I like Octopus. Trip, Trip to a dream dragon.’

I knew you two would hit it off,’ Maya says. ‘Ronnie has always been a fan of dream-pop.’

It was lovely to meet you, Mr Dark,’ Ronnie says. ‘I’d love to talk to you some more, but I must be going or I will be late for a very important date. I’m taking my friend Alice to an exhibition at The Looking Glass Gallery.’

What are you going to see?’ I ask. Cats appreciating art as well as music. It is becoming curiouser and curiouser.

We are going to see some new work by abstract artist, Jenny Westbrook,’ Ronnie says. ‘Jenny’s paintings are organic and very colourful. The exhibition is called Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

What a great title for an exhibition!’ I say. ‘I hope you enjoy them. It was good to talk to you, Ronnie.’

I’ve made a double layer bilberry upside-down cake,’ Maya says when Ronnie is gone. ‘Would you like some?’

I would love some,’ I say, suddenly aware that I haven’t eaten since breakfast.

Then we can go upstairs and you can help me with some buttons,’ Maya says.

Having known Maya for less than an hour, I can’t help feeling that this is a bit forward.

I have to get my kaleidoscope repaired,’ I say.

I haven’t forgotten,’ Maya says. ‘We can do that afterwards, and we will still have time to go and choose some fridge magnets.’

In the experimental fiction writers’ circles I move in, you become accustomed to heightened levels of strangeness. We are a pretty weird bunch with some pretty weird ideas. While most people try to fashion order out of chaos, we try to fashion chaos out of order. But when you experience elements of this strangeness first hand, you can’t help but be phased. You try to match it to some of the staples of the sci-fi or fantasy genres, parallel worlds, time travel, simulated consciousness, virtual reality, illusions, etc. But even so, you don’t expect to encounter anything as bizarre as a blue six-feet long talking cat with an interest in music and art in everyday, waking life. Might this not lead you to question reality? What is it about your situation or circumstances that has changed, you may wonder? You might question whether you are awake. What if you are dreaming? If you are like the dreamer who dreams, and then lives inside the dream, who is the dreamer?

Maya’s buttons prove to be a big distraction, and before we know it, it is late afternoon. I think it needs to be said that although time pretends to be regular and move in a linear fashion, it sometimes falls flat on its face and embarrasses itself. Time would be better described as flexible, elastic, malleable. It is only a reflection of change and from this, our brains construct a sense of time as if it were flowing. But it’s an illusion. Time is all over the place. Einstein was on the right track. Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, he said, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity. Not that Maya and I did a lot of sitting.

If we hurry, we will have just enough time to get to the Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre. The kaleidoscope repair will probably have to wait until another day. I take a look out of the window. The woodland seems to have thinned considerably. There are now hardly any trees. All I can see is a large lake. It is already getting dark. The moon is coming up.

Perhaps we’d better forget about the fridge magnets too,’ Maya says.

I wonder if she is thinking what I’m thinking. The lake does look inviting.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Silent Trumpet

Silent Trumpet by Chris Green

1:

Quincy Saxx introduces himself at a Free Eva Morales rally. I have not met him before, so I am puzzled that he appears to know me. He laughs and says that everybody knows Cliff Rhodes. The thing is, I am not Cliff Rhodes, nor am I Jordan Castle who plays Cliff in Blood Money. I am not even an actor. I don’t believe I resemble Jordan Castle in any way. Strangely, Milo Devlin at The Fantasy Factory also mistook me for Cliff Rhodes when I was there to book a hot-air balloon ride as a surprise present for Betty’s birthday recently.

Although I know nothing about Quincy, he is a straight talker, something of a rarity in these days of chancers and weak-willed charlatans. I can tell straight away that he is a go-getter. He tells me I could help him further the cause. It is always good to have the backing of a recognisable household name in a campaign, he says. I go along with the masquerade, hoping that if I play my cards right, he might also be able to help me.

With a name like Saxx, I wonder if Quincy is related to the legendary Roy Saxx, the inventor of the bouncing eggcup. Roy’s contribution to our daily lives is huge. Where would we be without the metaphorical compass or the collapsible dog? I remember, when I was growing up, the initial resistance there was to Roy’s invisible kite. But in no time at all, every child had to have one. It was Roy Saxx who came up with the expression marketing. He was the first person to realise that people desperately wanted to be persuaded to buy things they couldn’t possibly have any use for. He discovered this was a basic psychological need. I ask Quincy if there is a connection to the great man. He says that Roy is his father. While he acknowledges the importance of Roy’s inventions to our lives, he has always played down the link. He was on the receiving end of his father’s temper too many times to want to bathe in his glory. A genius he may have been, but Roy was a brutal parent.

In truth, I am not sure exactly what Eva Morales is supposed to have done or where she is being held. Farland possibly? Or is it the People’s Republic of Costaguana? I have heard her name on the news a few times, and I have a vague recollection she is a writer of some sort or a journalist, but I am not certain. To be honest, with the saturation coverage of LGBT+ Rights, Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Don’t Matter, Defund the Police and Stone the Crows protests there has been lately, I am experiencing virtue-signalling fatigue. I have merely come along to the rally to get me out of the house. Betty is having one of her cleaning blitzes and there is bound to be something that I haven’t got around to or am supposed to be doing. When Betty has the bit between her teeth, it is best to stay out of the way.

A quick search on the internet reveals that Eva Morales is a schoolteacher serving ten years in a Malbanian prison for plotting to overthrow the brutal Islamic regime. She probably took photos of a government building or found herself outside a mosque at the wrong time of day. Or tweeted something about the Koran. Or criticised the Supreme Leader in a casual conversation on the street. Google informs me that Quincy Saxx is a seasoned activist with many successful campaigns. Most recently his campaign Stop Abuse against Foreign Workers in Afistan is reckoned to have saved hundreds of lives, possibly because it stopped foreign workers going there.

Quincy seems to accept me as I am. There is no need to talk like Cliff Rhodes. Quincy understands that accents and character are part and parcel of the actor’s craft. The difficulty will arise if he requires me to do interviews. My cover will be blown when he introduces me as Jordan Castle. Milo Devlin might be fooled, but others out there may not. They will know exactly what Castle looks like and immediately realise I am not him. He is one of the most famous actors in the country and Blood Money is one of the most popular shows. I suppose I could tell the interviewers that I am staying in character for a new role in a film. I could wear a theatrical beard or a tousled-hair wig to go with the new part and get some thick horn-rimmed spectacles with a heavy tint. Actors of Castle’s stature can change their appearance out of all recognition at the drop of the hat. Or even simply by wearing a hat.

I work for SZID, an organisation so clandestine that none of us even knows what the letters of the acronym stand for. It is a nine-to-five position in a centrally located office block. It is a secure establishment with layer upon layer of security. We gather sensitive data. This is as much as we are told. It is boring, repetitive work. As everything is encrypted, none of us has any idea what this information might be or where it ends up. But it must mean something to someone, somewhere. It seems to command a high price. Enough for SZID to employ more than fifty people working around the clock to gather the information, not to mention the detail of security staff. Dmitri suggests the packets of data are thought patterns surreptitiously extrapolated from subscribers’ mobile phone use, ready to be input into a thought-control program. He’s probably right. Technology has been steadily moving in this direction for a long time. Ingrid goes a step further and says that this is the primary reason smartphones were invented. It makes sense. Why else would anyone come up with such a tiny product for watching films and listening to music when you already have sophisticated equipment to do this with? There could well be a hidden agenda behind it. It shows the same ingenuity we saw all those years ago with Roy Saxx’s silent trumpet. Can you imagine life now without the silent trumpet?

2:

I am planning to build a workshop in the garden to accommodate Betty’s growing collection of cleaning equipment. The conservatory is no longer big enough. But to do so, I need to generate some extra income. We are not well paid at SZID. What better way to make a fast buck than to sell a secret or two on the black market? Given Quincy Saxx’s wealth of maverick contacts, worldwide, I imagine he might be in a position to point me in the right direction. But as he believes that I am Jordan Castle, stealth is required. I need to tread carefully so that the information I need slips easily into the conversation. He is quite chatty so this may not present too much of a problem, so long as he doesn’t suspect I am trying to manipulate him.

Quincy invites me along to a protest outside the Malbanian Embassy. TV crews will be there, he says, along with a number of fellow celebrities who are committed to the cause, Mark Freelance, Emma Thorson, the singer from Blot, and Phillip C. Dark. I manage to hire a beard and wig and a Dickensian suit from a theatre company. I explain to the TV crew that I am staying in character for my new role.

We have just begun shooting,’ I say. ‘It’s important to get a feel for the part.

Very different from how the public has come to know you as Cliff Rhodes in Blood Money,’ Sophie Gossard-Black says.

Which is exactly why I’m staying in character,’ I say. ‘It can be difficult for an actor not to lapse back into the more familiar role. And historical characters are the hardest to crack.’

Of course,’ Sophie says.

Anyway, Sophie,’ I say, my confidence growing. ‘We are not here to talk about me. We are here to express solidarity. Thousands have turned out here today to show the strength of feeling there is to get Eva Morales, an innocent schoolteacher freed from the hell of a Malbanian gaol. We want to make the message to the rogue regime loud and clear. Free Eva Morales.’

I continue to echo the sentiments that Mark Freelance, Emma Thorson and the others have already shared, and the interview appears to pass without a hitch. Who would have thought that a desk-spook with no acting experience could pull it off? Quincy Saxx seems impressed with my performance and as far as I’m concerned, this is the main thing.

Chatting to Quincy afterwards, I discover that every government and political faction in the world spends a majority of its waking time thinking of new ways to shaft every other government and political faction.

Politics really is dirty, isn’t it?’ I say.’

You better believe it,’ he says. ‘Organisations and people to the left and right of centre. And those in the mainstream. Government departments and lobbyists. Individuals and corporations. The media, press barons, editors. Google, Apple, Microsoft. Bishops, Imams, gurus. They are all at it. There are some unlikely alliances too.’

What Quincy seems to describe is a sophisticated network of exploitation of the masses by an informal alliance for pecuniary gain. He manages to drop individual names and each time he does I make a mental note. As I see it, the bottom line is that data brokers have been buying and selling personal information for a long time. What I am planning is, in a sense, more of the same. Information is power. What I have might be seen as information on steroids. I am selling people’s thought patterns.

With Quincy’s unwitting assistance, I am able to come up with a diverse list of candidates to approach. And from this, come up with others who might have connections with them. I am spoilt for choice. I can juggle the names around and decide who is likely to pay the highest price for the information I am smuggling out of SZID. The best of it is that, in this line of endeavour, I don’t even need to go to the top. These days, it’s dog eat dog, every man for himself and all those other cliches. There are plenty of backstabbers who will be happy to do the deed. Loyalty is a thing of the past. I don’t know exactly what I am selling, of course, I can’t be specific. But mentioning SZID should be sufficient. Movers and shakers will be aware of what it is that SZID is engaged in and want some of it.

While it should be easy to sell the data, I get one knock-back after another. No-one wants to buy. It seems there are organisations like SZID the world over that are also gathering people’s thought patterns and selling them on. The market is saturated. This information fuels economies. Ingrid was right. Thought-control appears to be the main purpose of the smartphone. Like the world-wide-web, initially it was about finding out what you were interested in, but through clever algorithms, this quickly turned into telling you what you are interested in. You are now told what to think. Capitalism depends on it. It’s an open secret. Like the silent trumpet, the smartphone has taken us unawares. How could we have been so naive as to imagine it was introduced to enhance our lives?

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Ben Maceo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ben Maceo by Chris Green

Ben Maceo told me about the clock last week. Ben has special powers, you see. He can tell when things are going to happen. Had it been anyone else, I would never have believed them, but as it was Ben, I knew that it would happen and so I was able to prepare. Ben knew that the big clock in the town’s main square was going to explode and that there would be fragments of time scattered everywhere. He knew you would no longer be able to rely on your watch or the numbers you saw on your phone display to tell the time. He knew that time being the key to practically everything, the chaos would spread. Perhaps I should have shared his warning with others, but I did not. I find that not many people are ready for unpleasant truths, and especially not to hear them before the event. The others on the campus already think that I’m a bit weird for hanging around with Ben.

Anyway, time is all over the place now. Not just hours and minutes, but years and months are coalescing, or separating. No-one knows what is going on and from what I can see from the television pictures, there is panic on the streets. Film crews have been shipped in from far and wide to take a look at the chaos that is happening in the town. Many of course have not been able to get here as time is buffeted around, but some have arrived, or are arriving. But others who have arrived are stuck here, whether they want to be or not.

Every aspect of our everyday lives, as Ben points out, is time-dependent. I am not going to even venture outside until things get back to normal. Perhaps they will never get back to normal, but this is a chance that I have to take. In the meantime, I can take some cuttings from my agave plants and practice some Janacek on my ukulele, and there’s that Schopenhauer essay I have to finish off. Schopenhauer’s view on time is that we spend too much of it ruminating on the past or planning for the future that our lives quickly pass us by. So, I’m going to try to get on with mine. After all, Ben has my phone number. He will let me know if and when there is any change. Perhaps he might even call round. We could listen to my new Ozric Tentacles CD. And, who knows what else?

I have learned to trust Ben’s intuition. It was Ben who told me about the man in the Homburg hat’s arrival at the railway station last June. Ben was aware that the stranger’s very presence in the town would bring about the worst snows on record, and this in the middle of summer too when the rest of the country was basking in the seasonal sunshine. The mystery man was also responsible for the disappearance into thin air of the 11:11 train from the capital to the west country on November 11th, somewhere between the ancient burial sites and the land sculptures by the artist with the unpronounceable name. Ben told me this was going to take place days before it happened.

His gift is that he can detect what is happening behind the scenes. He can see the invisible threads that connect all things. He knows that when one of those threads gets broken that something anomalous will happen. By tracing the path of the broken thread, he says, he can tell exactly what will happen, along with when and where it will happen. He does not do any of this consciously. He says that it’s just like having the radio on in the background. This is how he knew that we would have blizzards in June and he knew the train would disappear.

There is more strangeness in the world than most people realise,’ he is fond of saying. ‘Most people cannot see the mechanics of things happening. They just put events down to cause and effect, without understanding what cause might be or what happens in between cause and effect or else they come up with some claptrap about theoretical physics to explain things.’

I’m right with Ben on this one. Theoretical physicists seem to know very little about the universe. Their theories change every five minutes. They talk about red shifts and blue shifts, expansions from the big bang and contractions down to gravity, dark matter, and dark energy, but despite all this blather, their understanding of what is really going on never seems to become any clearer. The great Karl Popper summed it up by saying, ‘Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.’ Ben Maceo takes it a step further and argues that there is no point at all in universal theories, each event is unique and has its own explanation.

……………………………………………….

Time is still all over the place. So far as I can tell, it has been three days, give or take, so far as I can tell since it all went down and Ben still hasn’t been round to see me. He hasn’t so much as called me. You would think that given his intuitive powers, he would have detected the undeniable chemistry between us. Surely he has spotted that I always sit next to him in Paradox and Plurality. He must have noticed that I hang on his every word. What can he possibly be doing that is getting in the way of our blossoming romance? Especially now. He can’t be busy. College has been closed since the upheaval. He has no excuse not to get in touch.

I left several messages on Ben’s phone, but amidst all of the temporal disorder, I suppose he may not have got them. Perhaps he will get them tomorrow or maybe he got them and thought they were from last week. From before the clock exploded. This could explain why I haven’t had a call. On the other hand, the messages may still be up there in the ether, struggling to find its way, along with all the other communications that have been disrupted. They said on the news that messages from weeks ago were still bumping around out there, trying to find their destination. I suspect some people will have made it out of town, but the newsman said that this would be a risky undertaking because of the wormholes. I imagine the term wormhole is perhaps being used here because they have no idea what is going on.

Ben would be able to explain what is going on, but he probably wouldn’t want to tell them. Perhaps they would not understand it if he did. If you can’t understand something without an explanation, then you can’t understand it with an explanation. I read that somewhere. I wonder where it was. There is an innate tendency to feel that things have always been as they are now and always will be. This is the way the human mind seems to work, but there was always a before and there will always be an after. It’s just a question of learning to think this way. We need to take a more Zen approach.

It is dark much of the day. Sometimes light breaks through for a few minutes but then the sky blackens again. With nothing to regulate them properly, night and day seem to be entirely arbitrary. My laptop is continually doing a system restore and my bedside clock is like a random number generator. I keep picking up numerals off the floor from the various clocks around the flat. Living without the certainty of time takes a lot of getting used to.

Ben did say that in the beginning, at least for the first few days, the aftermath of the explosion in the town would be difficult to live with. Perhaps he has left town. He knew that it was going to happen and seemed to understand the effect it would have, so this would make sense. And this is why he can’t communicate. Bit he should have taken me with him. Instead, I am stuck here. Oh well, no use dwelling on it. If it stays light for a while, I think I will paint some yantric mandalas to focus my mindfulness.

……………………………………………….

The stranger in the Homburg hat. …… The one that Ben described. ……. He is outside my house. ……. He’s looking in the window. ……. He has something in his hand. He is holding it up for me to see. It looks like an envelope, a black envelope, one of those A4 folding ones that you use to keep documents in. …… Oh my God! I can see his silhouette through the frosted glass of the front door. He is wearing a long black overcoat and with the hat looks about seven-feet tall. He’s knocking on the door. ……. What should I do? I’m not ready for this. I am terrified. He knocks again and shouts something. I can’t make out what he is saying. His diction is not good, but it does sound like a threat. ……. Suddenly, there is another rupture in time and to my great relief, the man in the Homburg hat is no longer there. But, the black manilla wallet is lying on the coir doormat inside the door, in front of me. Anxiously, I pick it up and inspect it, afraid to open it to see what is inside.

Finally, I pluck up the courage to take a look. The wallet contains nine sheets of A4 paper, each with several paragraphs of text on, but it is like no writing that I have ever seen before. It is perhaps a little, but only a little, reminiscent of Arabic script. In any event, it looks to the untrained eye as unintelligible as Kurdish or Urdu might be. At the bottom of the last page, as if acting as a signature, there is a line-art graphic of a shattered clock. How am I supposed to make anything of this arcane communication? We covered Theosophy and The Golden Dawn and all that Zoroastrian mysticism in a module last semester, along with Rosicrucianism and the Kabbalah, but I can’t pretend that I followed it that closely. It was too easy to get one mixed up with the other and I drifted off a lot. I think I may have just sat in on the module to be around Ben.

The curious thing is, I find that I am able to read this bizarre communication. Not all of it, certainly, but I can make out passages of the strange text. Where has this remarkable ability sprung from? The letter contains none of the mumbo jumbo from esoteric teachings that the blocks of arcane lettering suggest. Instead, it mentions a meeting. I am to meet an undisclosed party, by the statue of Neil Diamond. The statue of Neil Diamond? Crackling Rosie? Sweet Caroline? Why is there a statue of Neil Diamond? The statue, it says, is located next to the harmonica museum. I didn’t realise there was a harmonica museum in the town. Where on earth is the harmonica museum? The letter doesn’t offer a map. Oh well, I expect I will find it. It is not a large town. The main problem might be the one concerning the specified time, midday. Time has not settled down yet, so how will I know when it is midday and if I do find out, will it still be midday when I get there.

……………………………………………….

Light doesn’t necessarily travel at the speed of light,’ says a muted voice. I cannot see where it is coming from and, at first, think it might just be a voice in my head. After all, it is an odd line in conversation.

The slowest recorded speed for light is thirty-eight miles per hour,’ the voice continues. Is it perhaps some kind of coded message? I turn around to see a short stocky one-armed man in a Pablo Picasso blue and white hooped sweatshirt and black sunglasses emerging from behind the statue of Neil Diamond. He has a Siamese cat perched on his shoulder. Even though there is a lot of competition for strange, if this fellow is going for strange, he has surely succeeded.

Would you like to sing to my cat?’ he says. ‘He likes sea shanties best.’

I don’t think I know any sea shanties,’ I tell him. ‘Sea shanties aren’t a very girlie thing.’

Of course, you do,’ he says, dancing on the spot. ‘Everybody knows at least one sea shanty. What about Blow the man down?’

No sorry,’ I say. ‘I don’t know it.’

What about a folk song then,’ he says. ‘My cat likes Wimoweh. My cat is called Trevor, by the way.’

OK I’ll give it a go,’ I say, finding myself somehow being drawn into Pablo Picasso’s veil of nonsense.

Wimoweh is easy as it doesn’t have a lot of words, but as soon as I start singing, Pablo Picasso disappears along with his cat. One minute they are here and the next they are gone like thieves in the night. I am still no wiser as to what the meeting might have been about, or indeed if this was the meeting at all. I wait outside the harmonica museum for a while, but no-one else turns up to meet with me.

I notice that some men are trying to rebuild the town clock. It is a great brute of a thing, much bigger than I remember it being. It is surrounded by crude scaffolding and one of the men is struggling to carry the minute hand up an improvised ladder while another holds the hour hand in place at three o’clock. Perhaps time will soon be back to normal and I will see Ben again. After all this singularity, I’m looking forward to some straightforward metaphysics and philosophy.

……………………………………………….

By the new saxophone shop? Yes, Ben. Of course, I can meet you there. I’ve got my bicycle. The new saxophone shop, though? I’m not sure where that is…… Ah, I see. Jack of Clubs Street. That’s around the corner from the kaleidoscope repair centre, is it?’

At last, to my great relief, Ben has called me. It’s so good to hear his voice. Since he’s been away, I have had to suspend belief with some of the things that have been happening.

Yes, up Jack of Clubs Street and about a hundred yards on the left,’ he says. ‘You can’t miss it. It has a large Selmer saxophone hanging outside. I’ll meet you in an hour.’

I’m concerned that if I let him off the phone then he will be gone out of my life again. ‘Look! I’ve been worried about you,’ I say. ‘And I’ve been living a nightmare. Where have you been?’

I’ve been here and I’ve been there and I’ve been in between,’ he says. ‘You’re right. Things got a bit mad back there for a while, didn’t they? But, I believe the man in the Homburg hat has gone now.’

Thank God,’ I say. ‘He was sinister.’

I hope the dancing painter with the cat wasn’t too much bother,’ he says. ‘He comes out of the woodwork sometimes when he sees an opportunity. I expect you had to sing a song or two.’

It is uncanny the way Ben knows what has been happening, even though he has not been in town. Or has he? He did say he’s been here and he’s been there and he’s been in between. Anyway, I’m thrilled to be meeting him again. I can hardly contain myself.

I pass the clock and see that the hands are now in place and the men are taking the scaffolding down. A small group of cheery vagrants are gathered around it, celebrating with their bottles of cider. I pass the new statue of Neil Diamond, although I have to say, it doesn’t look a bit like him. I take a detour to avoid some men putting up a hoarding to advertise a new blockbuster called Rocket Man, or something. I’ve not been this way often, but eventually I manage to find Jack of Clubs Street. It is a long narrow street and it is enveloped by a haze so I cannot immediately make out where the saxophone shop is. Then, I spot the silver Selmer saxophone shimmering through the murk. It seems to have fallen from its mount onto the pavement.

But, where is Ben? There is no sign of him. What can have happened? I get off the bike and I look frantically up and down the street. Through the haze, I can see the man in the Homburg hat. He is walking slowly towards me. On his shoulder, he is gripping something with both hands, It is difficult to make out what it is. Is it a balloon? Or, is it a surfboard? It seems to be changing shape. Oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Surely it’s not a rocket launcher! Why has Ben brought me here? Jack of Clubs Street does not seem a safe place to be. The haze clears a little. The man keeps coming towards me. He is close now and I see that what he is carrying is carrying is a bucket of dreams. He offers it to me.

It doesn’t have to be bad,’ he says. ‘You can pick one with a happy ending if you like.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Clumpton

clumpton

Clumpton by Chris Green

Having taken several wrong turns on our way to the coast, Holly and I find ourselves in Clumpton. We start to blame each other for unforgivable navigation errors. We need a break from driving to get our bearings and compose ourselves. We park up on one of the narrow streets and go looking for somewhere where we might get a cup of tea. If you have ever been to Clumpton, the chances are you arrived here by accident. It is unlikely to have been the place you were heading for. It has no Wikipedia page, and there is no reference to it on Trip Advisor. We feel, in a sense, we are pioneers.

The first thing we notice is that the streets are deserted. No cars, no people, no background noise. We can hear the proverbial pin drop. Eventually, we come by an old fellow with a suitcase sitting by the side of the road. It does not appear to be a bus stop. It would be surprising if any buses came this way. He does not return our greeting. It does not seem our business to pry. Perhaps he is waiting for Godot. The further we venture into the village, the eerier the silence becomes. The houses do not seem neglected, yet there are no signs of life. Surely Clumpton has not simply been abandoned.

We pass a Post Office and General Stores, but this is closed. It looks as if it might have been closed for a long time. Has the village been evacuated on account of a radiation leak at a nearby power plant? Perhaps there has been a news item about it we have missed. There has to be a rational explanation for the deathly quiet. There is no mobile phone signal and no internet so we are unable to google Clumpton to get any information.

If only there were someone to ask,’ Holly says. ‘Where is everyone?’

Let’s take this turning here,’ I say. ‘Long Street. That’s bound to lead somewhere. If we don’t find anywhere open, we’ll head back to the car.’

Charlies does not look like much from the outside. Were it not for a weathered sign advertising delicious home-cooked food, we might take it for an ordinary terraced house. From the outside, it looks small, but once inside, it is deceptively large. Dimensionally transcendent perhaps, like a sci-fi creation.

In stark contrast to the empty streets, Charlies is buzzing with life. It is packed. There are probably fifty people crowded in here. The café appears to double as an informal craft market. In amongst the tables, there are quirky upcycled items of furniture along with displays of scented candles and curiously shaped crystals, soapstone figurines and wind-chimes. A kaleidoscope of home-made jams and preserves.

Judging by the inter-table bonhomie, the diners all appear to be locals. Charlies has the feel of a village hall. It is clearly the hub of the community. There is none of the hesitant small talk and nervous looking around you might expect from strangers to the area waiting for their baguette to arrive. Despite the quirkiness of the place, the people look remarkably conventional. They are clearly comfortable with one another. Even the youngsters seem chilled. I can’t help but notice a pronounced homogeneity in the facial features. Clumpton does not appear to have a large gene pool.

We squeeze in at a small table in the corner. A notice says Charlies offers Table Service. But given the demand, it looks like this might be a little slow. There don’t seem to be any menus, so I pick up a Clumpton newsletter. It features an update on the recently introduced Clumpton Pound. I find it difficult to see where you might spend such a currency, given that there are no shops. But the editorial is full of optimism that it will catch on. The people on the next table, a local committee of some kind, talk about starting a Clumpton Free Press and restricting news about the outside world. Too many bad things going on, they say. Snatches of conversation we catch begin to sound a little sectarian.

Meanwhile, we make hesitant small talk and look around nervously. Eventually, a young waitress in a charcoal uniform comes across to our table. Her name badge says, Sharon. It looks as if she has put this on as an afterthought.

I haven’t seen you in here before,’ she says. ‘You’re not from around here, are you?’

We were on our way to the coast and we took a wrong turning or two,’ I say.

I see,’ she says. ‘We don’t get many visitors in Clumpton.’

I couldn’t help noticing that all the people in here seem to know one another,’ I say. ‘Is it always this busy like this?’

Yes,’ she says. ‘Pretty much. Clumpton is a close-knit community. People look out for one another.’

But the rest of the village is very quiet,’ Holly says. ‘I don’t think we saw anyone on our way here.’

That’s odd,’ Sharon says. ‘I always think of Clumpton as a bustling little place. There’s always something happening. Now, what can I get you?’

We’ll have two teas, please,’ I say.

Sorry, we don’t do tea,’ she says.

Two Lattés then,’ Holly says.

That’s coffee, isn’t it?’ Sharon says. ‘I’m afraid we don’t do coffee either. There’s no call for it. How about home-grown camomile cordial or perhaps you’d prefer fresh apple juice, grown from our local orchards?’

We settle on the apple juice.

A middle-aged woman in a tie-dyed jump-suit comes across to our table.

We’ve got an offer on dream-catchers,’ she says. ‘Three for the price of two. Or how about a nice decoupaged occasional table?’

Perhaps another time,’ I say. ‘Look, I’m curious. The streets are empty and everyone is crowded in here on a Tuesday morning. There are lots of new-age touches to the place yet most of the people look pretty traditional. What’s going on?’

I don’t see any contradiction,’ she says. ‘Everyone gets along really well in Clumpton.’

That’s nice,’ Holly says, anticipating that I might be working up to suggesting there is some kind of cult. As it happens, this was exactly what I am thinking. Holly gives me one of her don’t you dare glances.

But, surely Charlies can’t be in reference to that Charlie. And Sharon can’t be a reference to that Sharon. That would be absurd. Where are these crazy thoughts coming from? These are just a bunch of inward-looking little Englanders. Isolationists. Extreme Brexiteers, if you like.

Holly and I finish our juice, pay the heavily inflated bill, and make our way back to the car. The silence still echoes on the empty streets, and the man with the suitcase is still waiting for Godot. Once again, he does not return our greeting.

What a bizarre place!’ Holly says. ‘It’s difficult to pick out one thing. Everything about it was odd.’

For sure,’ I say. ‘But definitely a story we can dine out on. Did you get any photos?’

One or two,’ Holly says.

To our horror, our Sandero doesn’t start. I take a look under the bonnet and fiddle around with a few leads, but to no avail. The engine is dead.

I’ve got the number for Our RAC insurance here,’ Holly says. ‘I remember we added Breakdown Cover to the policy when we renewed it.’

After twenty minutes on hold, listening to Status Quo’s hits and five minutes of talking to an obstructive customer service operative, it appears our Breakdown Cover doesn’t cover us for roadside assistance. And no, we can’t upgrade over the phone. Not even if we pay an admin fee.’

What if everyone were to go for the basic cover and only decide to upgrade it when they had an accident or broke down in the middle of nowhere?’ the Advisor says.

I would have thought roadside assistance was included in the basic cover,’ I say.

You only have cover within a radius of fifty miles from your postcode,’ she says. ‘And it looks like Clumpton is nearly three times this. I can’t even find it on the map.’

It looks as if we’ll have to go back to the café to see if there’s a mechanic in the village,’ I say to Holly. ‘There again, I don’t think we’ve seen a single car since we’ve been here.’

Don’t be so negative,’ Holly says.

Not wishing to go back to the blame game, Holly and I head back to Charlies in silence. We have been going through a sticky patch lately. She maintains I’m the reason that our Lucy left home. Even though she was seventeen, I still treated her like a child. Who could blame her for moving in with Kurt? Meanwhile, I have been finding it difficult to forget Holly’s fling with Phil, even though this was months ago. But having agreed to put all this behind us, I don’t want to now point out that it was Phil’s brother Sam who sold us the Sandero and presumably, she is holding back from telling me I ought to know more about cars. More recriminations are not going to be helpful.

The village is still deserted and although it is a small place, we have difficulty getting our bearings. We keep arriving back at the No Entry sign in Hope Street. We are going round in circles. We blame each other for poor orienteering skills. We ask the man with the suitcase for directions, but he just looks at us blankly. We carry on with our search, but the café seems to have simply disappeared. We find ourselves back at the car.

You’ve got the photos though, haven’t you?’ I say. ‘I mean, we weren’t imagining it.’

Of course, we didn’t imagine it,’ Holly says, taking out her phone. ‘Look! …… Hang on! The pictures have gone. Where are they? I couldn’t have accidentally deleted them, could I?’

Let me have a look,’ I say. ‘Here they are. Charlies, inside and out. It’s at the end of North Street. I can’t imagine how we could have missed it.’

Do you want to go back to see if you can find it then?’ she says.

Not really,’ I say. ‘But, unless we get the car started. ….. Let me just try it one more time.’

I turn the key and the Sandero bursts into life. We are in business. As we head back towards civilisation, Holly and I start to compose a Trip Advisor review for Clumpton.

What about Clumpton – Twinned with Nowhere, Oklahoma for a title,’ Holly says

Is there such a place?’ I say.

Yes there is,’ Holly says. ‘And there’s a Nothing, Arizona.’

OK Clumpton – Twinned with Nowhere, Oklahoma, it is then,’ I say ‘’Then perhaps we could say something about it being a close-knit community of cousins.’

Perhaps we don’t need to say anything at all,’ Holly says. ‘The title is probably enough to discourage people, don’t you think?’

Not even a Turn Back or Don’t Bother?’

OK! One or the other then.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Wish You Were Here

wishyouwerehere3

Wish You Were Here by Chris Green

The huge red and green trucks thunder along the carriageways of the two-lane motorway in both directions. There is something both hostile and haphazard about the way they cross from lane to lane, throwing up dense clouds of dust from the parched road surface. The trucks are military in design with names like KRAZ and URAL, spelt out in assertive typefaces over sinister radiator grilles, their menace tempered only by their remarkable luminosity through the haze. On each wagon, the red and the green bodywork sparkles as if neon-lit.

I have had no sense of smell for years, but the powerful stench of rank diesel from these precipitate leviathans somehow overcomes this and makes me feel nauseous. We are close to the side of the road and we are on foot, which seems somewhat foolhardy out here in the fading light. Although we are apparently miles from civilisation, it has not occurred to us that we might hitch a ride in one of the trucks: they seem to exist only in a virtual sense as if they belong to a separate realm. Perhaps it is through fatigue, but we do not speculate what the mission of the ominous convoys might be, even though there seems to be a complete absence of private cars or buses on the road. The featureless terrain stretches out all around us for miles in every direction. We pass road signs, but these are in Persian script. Not that it would help us much were they not. We do not know the name of anywhere in these parts.

I form the view that I probably blacked out at some point earlier because I have no idea how we have ended up in Iran, close now to the border with Iraq. I have the recollection that Kora and I booked a holiday, but I have a strong feeling that this is not what we had in mind. I remember sitting at home on the terrace of our apartment, looking through brochures filled with pictures of blue seas and beaches resplendent with sturdy coconut palms.

Towards dusk, we follow a rough track towards what looks like a small village, and after a few hundred yards arrive outside a gnarled wooden shack with an illuminated sign with an orange and red logo and some Arabic writing. Hesitantly we step inside hoping that we might be able to buy something to eat. A group of men in brightly coloured djellabas sit around a long table playing some sort of communal board game. They do not appear to register our arrival. A television mounted high up in the far corner of the room playing an Arab news station is thrashing out an issue with some malevolence. A map of the UK comes up on the screen. The attention of the men is captured by this. There are one or two guttural mutterings from the table, followed by an angry shout and a burst of waving of arms in the air. It seems suddenly prudent for us to leave. Once outside, we hear a shot ring out. Kora and I run. There is altogether too much going on here, none of it fortuitous. I begin to feel very tired.
………………………………………………………………….…

I awake with a start and switch on the light, bringing to life a flickering fluorescent tube. I establish that I am alone. The room I find myself in is familiar in an ambiguous kind of way, although it occurs to me, deeply unattractive. The walls are deep purple and most of the furniture is black. In the corner is a lacquered rococo dresser on which are a vase of dead flowers and a stuffed marmoset in a glass case. I form the impression that I have been here a few days, perhaps emerging now from a protracted slumber. I notice I have several days’ growth of beard. Was I clean-shaven before? I sense that I was. Some of the clothing scattered around the floor looks like it might belong to me, which seems a reasonable assumption. I struggle for some moments with my short term memory. My recall is, in fact, close to zero. I am on holiday perhaps. I have in the back of my mind, quite a long way back admittedly, the recollection that this is the case. It occurs that people do not often go on holiday alone. So, one of the key questions is who, if anyone, am I on holiday with? What might my partner’s name be? Here I have considerable difficulty. I cannot remember. I call out several names in turn. Kora! Natasha! Mercedes! Each of these names seems to hold a significant association. I try others. Sharon! Tracey! Rover! Rover is something of a longshot. I have no memory of having owned a dog.

No one replies. I push back the duvet, which sends the Gideon bible and a wooden ocarina hurtling to the floor. I have a quick swill in the blackened enamel sink, slip on my jeans and Iceman hoody and search for some clues. I look for items that might be useful in my present situation like a mobile phone, map, passport, tickets or money. I conduct a thorough search and come up with a registration document for a Dodge Challenger and some Barclaycard receipts for night-time lingerie, neither of which seems particularly helpful. I venture down the stairs. Dusty etchings reminiscent of Jake and Dinos Chapman hang on the walls, and the empty echo of a lingering silence hangs on the air. There is a small lobby at the foot of the stairs. I ring the bell more as a gesture than with any real hope of someone appearing. I can’t help noticing there is a 1983 A-Team calendar on the wall. Am I perhaps in some kind of time warp?

I take a hesitant walk outside. I experience the feeling of being outside myself, like an onlooker on my situation. It is dark, but although it is dark, objects still cast a stubborn shadow as if it were light. The half-standing buildings and piles of collapsed masonry and rubble suggest to me that the place has been bombed and abandoned. Maybe some while ago; there are no signs of recent habitation. No vehicles. No bodies. I wonder momentarily how it happened. Is it a terrorist attack, or is there a war going on at this very moment, whenever this is, in whatever country I am in? In whatever year? The building I have come from is the only one still standing. Remarkable, I think, that it still has electricity. But this is far from the only peculiarity. In the distance, the old man in a long overcoat and homburg hat calling to his cats has a distinctly spectral aspect. I wave to him and call out but he did not seem to see or hear. I approach him and call again, but still, he does not acknowledge me.

I move on down the street, if street is not too grandiose a description for this cluster of rubble. I speculate further as to where I might be and how I came to be there (by road, rail or inter-planetary craft maybe) but to little avail. My memory refuses to join in with the exercise. On finding a signpost in a script I do not recognise, for no lucid reason, I ignore the more likely roads back to civilisation and take a narrow path where the marker on the sign has been broken off. Tall berberis hedging flourishes on either side of the path. A little too abundantly perhaps. It quickly becomes difficult to see anything at all in the unmitigated gloom. The ground is uneven and several times I stumble and have to break my fall.

After covering a few hundred yards with only minor scratches and bruises I reach a clearing. Amidst the faint shafts of light, I can make out a dozen or so small igloo-shaped buildings some constructed of regular light-coloured wooden blocks, and others made out of wicker so that they looked like large baskets. A voice tells me this is ‘where the children lived’. I look around. I imagine it might be the old man with the cats that has spoken, but no-one is there. What children? Where were they? What is this place?

I continue on my way, taking a track through a shallow wooded area. Mushrooms of all shapes and sizes grow in the spaces between the trees. I recognise the red and white spotted ones from children’s’ stories. Stories I recall I have read to my daughter. I have a daughter. My partner is called Kora and I have a daughter named Sierra. She is five, or is it twelve? Pretty much everything else seems hazy, though. Like where we live or what has happened or how the holiday, if it is a holiday, has turned out like this. Something about red and green trucks is trying to make its way into my consciousness when I come eventually to a disused railway station covered in brown ivy and blind black parrots. None of this surely was in the brochure.
…………………………………………………………………….

Kora and I drive up the steep ravine in a dark green coach with running bars along the side. I experience the feeling that l have done this many times. Perhaps every day. Kora, however, seems excited and wants to take a turn at driving, so I move over and I let her. I sit on the running board to take in the view, although there is no view, just the occasional colony of startled bats caught in the headlights. As we climb, the passage between the sides of the gully becomes narrower and steeper. The pitch of the engine becomes higher and higher. In places, there is only a couple of inches between the sides of our carriage and the granite rocks either side of the what has now developed into a railway track. Our carriage is one of several being hauled uphill by an ungainly steam locomotive. We are in the goods van. Natasha is holding a baby wrapped in a block of ice. The ice begins to melt and I feel a huge wave of concern that the baby might die. Things it seems are getting out of control. What a strange world this is where everything constantly changes without warning.

The train carries on regardless up the incline, straining more and more as the engine struggles to cope. A tune is going round and round in my head. It has such a simple melody, but for a while, I can’t work out what song it was. This occupies my mind for several moments, taking my thoughts away from the alarming surrealism of my situation. The engine’s boiler begins to sound as if it is about to blow apart. Thick clouds of smoke belch out into the sky. The tune in my head is growing faster and faster, keeping pace with the engine’s pistons. Is it something by Blur, or Radiohead maybe? It feels as if my head is going to explode. Finally, I work it out. It is Frères Jacques. At this point, the chasm widens dramatically and the ground levels out. Here we join a purposeful procession of people on foot on either side of us, some carrying pikes and tridents, or are they clarinets and saxophones? It is hard to tell in the gloom. Several of them are dressed as Napoleon and hold raised flags emblazoned with arcane symbols. So great is my confusion, I cannot say for sure whether we are on the train or not at this point. Or if there has ever been a train.

We look down from our vantage point upon a magnificent river estuary bathed in reflections from the town on the other side. Suddenly, zipping up the river at astonishing speeds are two sparking whales. Beads of gold like a chain of shimmering ripples on the water lay in their wake as they dive in and out of the water in a straight path upstream. They must be travelling at a hundred miles an hour and measured two hundred feet from tip to tail. The crowd that has now gathered on the bank to watch lets out an appreciative cheer. It seems to be some kind of fish race. No whales aren’t fish, are they? They are insects.

My memory is beginning to return to me. I remember sitting with Kora at the breakfast table in our apartment opening the mail a few weeks ago. I remember a letter which read, Congratulations. You have won the holiday of your dreams.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Jazz 2

jazz2

Jazz 2 by Chris Green

I am out in the back, struggling over a spreadsheet, when I hear the bell ring. I cannot see the woman who has come into the shop, but it appears she can see me.

Have you got Soul Junction by Red Garland?’ she calls out.

If I have, it’ll be in the CD rack in the corner,’ I call back. ‘The one marked Bebop. They are all in alphabetical. I’ll be with you in a minute.’

I was hoping you might have it on vinyl,’ she says.

Mood Indigo doesn’t get many requests for Red Garland these days, let alone for his albums on vinyl. Sadly, Red has fallen out of favour. Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans tend to be the jazz pianists today’s jazz buffs choose. Yet arguably, Red was the most innovative of the three. It was he, along with George Shearing perhaps, who pioneered the block chord, so influential in jazz piano. Then there were his arrangements. He brought out the best in his players. Some of John Coltrane’s best work was with Red’s Quintet.

Soul Junction,’ she repeats with a smile as I approach the counter. She is a beauty. How can I best describe her without alienating female readers? She is in her prime. She is statuesque. She is dressed in a light-coloured, tight-fitting summer dress that accentuates her curves. She has big brown eyes and long dark hair. She …….

It’s for my husband, Sacha,’ she says. ‘It’s his ninetieth birthday next week. He saw the Red Garland Quintet play many times during their residency at The Paris Jazz Club, back in the nineteen-fifties.’

I’m not sure how to react to this revelation. It means there is a sixty-five-year age gap between them. Best not to draw attention to it, perhaps. Anything goes these days.

I can probably get a copy of Soul Junction for you on vinyl,’ I say, instead. ‘If you let me have your number, I’ll let you know when it is in.’

That would be fabulous,’ she says. ‘Thank you. I’m Gala by the way and here’s my card.’

After she has left, I look at the card. Gala Rose, Enigma. At a guess, not her married name, probably not her birth name. And why Enigma? Perhaps it doesn’t matter greatly. She is a sensual delight. I am smitten.

There are several mint condition copies of the album available on eBay for around £25, so I select the one from a trader I am familiar with. From experience, I am aware that mint condition does not mean very much on eBay these days. It is a loose description. The album arrives five days later, hopefully in time for her Gala’s husband’s birthday, so I give her a ring. I have to admit I am looking forward to seeing her again.

Hi, Gala. It’s Duke from Mood Indigo,’ I say. ‘I have your husband’s disc.’

Oh, hello Duke,’ she says. ‘I’m afraid Sacha passed away the day before yesterday. He had an abseiling accident.’

That’s terrible,’ I say, suppressing my puzzlement at why a ninety-year-old man would be abseiling. ‘Is there anything I can do?’

You’re very kind,’ she says. ‘No, I don’t think so. Once the funeral is over and the estate is settled, I’m going to go away for a while. South America, probably. It will be Spring there by then.’

I think about Gala now and then, but do not expect to see her again. I am surprised therefore when, six months later, she comes into the shop again.

Have you got Blue Train,’ she says?

One of my all-time favourites,’ I say. ‘I have it here on CD but I don’t have it in vinyl. I sold the last copy last week. But I can get it for you.’

That’s OK,’ Gala says. ‘Ramon doesn’t have a record deck yet so CD will be perfect.’

Ramon?’ I say.

Yes, I met Ramon at a Gaucho skills demonstration in Buenos Aires. He is a fine horseman. Gauchos have extraordinary riding skills. Nothing compares to watching them compete in the national sport of Pato. It is a fast and furious game, not for the faint-hearted. The most exciting part is when the Pato ball falls to the ground and the gaucho has to pick it up from this horse at a gallop. This is Ramon’s speciality. Of course, Ramon is younger than Sacha. He’s eighty-eight. Anyway, we got married last month. We are planning on opening an equestrian centre over here.’

Congratulations,’ I say. It is difficult not to remark on the strangeness of Gala’s life, in particular her curious attraction to older men. But as it is none of my business, I once again resist the temptation. Each to their own. Perhaps her life is only unusual when compared to my dull existence, a single thirty-something man managing a backstreet jazz record shop and trying to make ends meet.

Thank you,’ she says. ‘Ramon is a darling. I’m sure we will be very happy.’

I hope it works out for you this time,’ I say. ‘Anytime you or Ramon want more jazz records, or even just a chat about jazz, feel free to drop in.’

Of course,’ Gala says. ‘You’ve been very helpful.’

I don’t actually expect to see Gala anytime soon. When relative strangers say they will see you soon, they seldom mean it. But yet again, I am proved wrong. Less than a week later, she is back. While it would be wrong to say that her sparkle has gone altogether, she seems more subdued.

I don’t suppose you happen to have Requiem Para Un Malandra by Astor Piazzolla, Duke,’ she says. ‘I need to get hold of it for Ramon’s funeral. He died in a hang-gliding accident in that storm at the weekend.’

Oscar Wilde’s quote about carelessness comes to mind, but it is clearly not an appropriate response to this situation.

I’m sorry to hear that,’ is the best I can manage.

I’ve heard of Piazzola, of course. He is synonymous with tango music. I probably have one or two of his CDs in stock, although I can’t say for certain as I’ve given up on the stock spreadsheet. But I didn’t realise that Piazzola wrote requiems. My Spanish is not very good, but doesn’t malandra translate as crook? It certainly seems to be a dangerous twilight world that Gala inhabits.

I’m Inspector Bill and this is my colleague, D.C. Younger,’ the tall man in the detective coat says. They do not look as if they’ve come about a parking violation. ‘We’d like to talk to you about your friend, Ralph Monday who was found strangled at his home in Stable Hill last week.’

I don’t believe I know anyone of that name,’ I say.

Acquaintance then?’

No. I don’t think so. It’s an unusual name. I’m pretty sure I would remember.’

Then perhaps you might explain why this business card with your name and with your mobile number added in biro was found on his person,’ Inspector Bill says. ‘This is your handwriting, is it not?’

Any why the CD of Blue Train was in the player. As you will observe, the CD case has a Mood Indigo sticker on it,’ D.C. Younger says, showing me a photo on his phone.

I have absolutely no idea,’ I say. ‘I do not know anyone called Ralph Monday.’

It has also come to our attention that similar evidence was found at the scene of the as yet unsolved murder of one, Samuel Charles, a few months ago. In this case, it was a vinyl copy of Red Garland’s Soul Junction that had the Mood Indigo sticker on it. But the card we found there is identical to the other one with the same handwriting in biro,’ Bill says. ‘Samuel Charles too was strangled. Big coincidence, wouldn’t you say?’

Evidence? Surely they don’t think I murdered these people.

Oh, come on, guys!’ I say. ‘If I had, as you say, killed these two people, I would have hardly left such incriminating evidence. Besides, they are both strangers. What motive would I have?’

My mind meanwhile is working overtime. It dawns on me that there might be a connection to Gala Rose, Enigma. Enigma? Femme Fatale might be a better descriptor. I don’t like to think it, but there must be a connection. Even the names of the deceased seem like extrapolations of her two dead husbands’ names, albeit the circumstances behind their demise differ. But what would Gala’s motive be? Unless she was going to inherit, the gold-digger explanation would seem to carry little weight. And if she was the beneficiary, surely she would realise that this would show up somewhere in the records. Wouldn’t it? There is something underhand happening here. But how am I going to get to the bottom of it? I don’t even know her real name and I know the phone number she gave me no longer works because I tried it the day before yesterday. Even given proof of her involvement, I would be reluctant to feed her to the lions.

If you don’t come up with a convincing explanation in two minutes flat, it’s a trip downtown for you,’ Bill says. ‘And don’t expect to be leaving anytime soon.’

I take a moment to compose myself. Bill’s threat smacks of desperation. They are clutching at straws. They are hoping that I will incriminate myself. This is how they operate. It makes their job easier if, caught off guard, people say the wrong thing and put themselves in the frame. They have nothing that puts me at the scene of either of the crimes. And since I wasn’t, they are unlikely to be able to come up with any. They are a long way from the something you can rely on in court, handcuffs stage.

Why have you waited months to come to me with your evidence connecting me to the murder of your Samuel Charles?’ I say as an opener.

He moves on to the Ralph Monday case.

I don’t even know where Stable Hill is,’ I say.

They change tack and suggest that even if I am not responsible, I might be an accomplice. The jazz albums at the crime scenes are the common thread.

I tell them I sell dozens of Red Garland and John Coltrane albums, perhaps hundreds. They are popular artists. How and I supposed to remember who bought each one?

But you must keep a record of sales, Younger says.’

Not exactly,’ I say. ‘I am rubbish with computers.’

My incompetence on sales spreadsheets is matched by my incompetence on the free accounting software on the machine. Accounts have never been something I’ve been hung up on. I normally just get my accountant to make up some figures at the end of the year. After all, the raison d’être of jazz is its informality. Even so, they insist on taking the laptop away for examination by their techies.

We will be in touch,’ Bill says finally. ‘Don’t get any funny ideas about leaving the country.’

I still find it difficult to picture Gala as a cold-blooded killer. But whether they were her husbands or not, it now seems possible, even likely that she committed the two murders. Or arranged for them to be carried out. But why? Her marriage narratives seemed apocryphal when she related them to me. But because it would be too crazy to make up such wild stories, and the fact that she looked ravishing, I did not examine them closely. I accepted them. I took her at her word. She was married to two very old men. So what? Should I have asked the police if the victims were very old men? The ones Gala had described? They did not give a lot of detail about the victims, just that they were dead. Strangled.

If Gala was making it all up anyway, would it make any difference what she told me? It would not matter how old Sacha or Ramon supposedly were. But where on Earth do the jazz albums fit into the story? What purpose did they serve? Perhaps they were to make it look as if I may have had something to do with the murders. But if so, why? And where is Gala now?

The police return the laptop, dismayed at the level of my incompetence with its software. Nothing of any interest to anyone here. They tell me I have even managed to disable the operating system. They call around a couple more times with questions about my customers, but each time they seem less hopeful in getting a result. Why they have been able to get nowhere with other leads is a mystery. But apparently, nearly half of all murders in the UK are unsolved these days.

There is no further sign of Gala Rose. Even the police have uncovered no traces of her. I begin to question whether she was real. Perhaps I simply imagined her. In order to get on with my life, I decide this is the best way to look at it. There is no sense in beating myself up. I expect everyone experiences episodes that they are unable to find explanations for. It’s all part of life’s rich tapestry. It is very unlikely I will see Gala again, and I have my entire future ahead of me. I can join a dating agency. Renew my membership at Ronnie Scott’s. I might even enrol for a computer course to learn spreadsheets.

Do you have Something Else?’ she says.

I can see that this is not Gala, but even so, she is a stunner. How can I best describe her without alienating female readers? She is in her prime. She is statuesque. She is dressed in a light-coloured, tight-fitting summer dress that accentuates her curves. She has big brown eyes and long dark hair. She …….

You mean the hard bop album by Cannonball Adderley,’ I say.

Yes that’s the one,’ she says. ‘It’s for my husband. It will be his eighty-sixth birthday next week.’

What can I say? At least husbands are getting younger.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Cat Town

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Cat Town by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Harry and Kate

harryandkate

Harry and Kate by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wasn’t Black Stuff tar?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Extra

extra

EXTRA by Chris Green

How do they know there are only thirteen days left? How can anyone be so precise? And what exactly is the nature of the emergency? Why does no-one appear to know? Or if they do know, why are they reluctant to tell us? Not that I can do much about it, whatever it is, stuck on the third floor of this ill-equipped institution building in the middle of nowhere in a wheelchair with both legs in plaster. You can’t even get the internet in here to find out what is going on. Perhaps you can’t get the internet anywhere now. Perhaps the internet has been closed down. This would make sense if they, whoever they are, don’t want people to find out what is happening.

It wasn’t so bad at first when we were told there were nineteen days left. First thoughts were that it was probably a hoax or that, whatever the supposed emergency was, it would go away. There was plenty of time, nineteen whole days. There’s not much that stays in the news for nineteen days. But, as the days count down with no further revelations about the nature of the emergency, and seemingly no way of finding out what is going on, I can’t help but speculate. What are they hiding and why? Is there a colossal asteroid on a collision course? Has there been a nuclear accident? A biological attack? There have of course always been things that have been kept secret on the basis that it is not in the public interest to know. Rumours about unbearably loud sounds, antimatter on the loose, apocalyptic winds, blinding blue lights. Media silence seems somehow more sinister.

Of course, there were dozens of us here at first. Only those of us who are physically unable to get away remain, four of us in all. The rest have surreptitiously left. The ones who appeared to be in charge of the place also went today. We watched them go off in a minibus. Rats and sinking ship come to mind. None of us knows why we are here. Is the emergency worldwide or is it something more localised? There’s no way of finding out. To add to our distress, there appears to be a power cut. Maybe there is simply no electricity being produced in these final days.

………………………………………….

When you are faced with the prospect of annihilation in eleven days time, eleven feels like a very small number. It is impossible not to feel fear.

Burl Rector, if that is really his name, believes categorically that it is the hand of God.

It’s retribution for all our sins,’ Burl says, in one of his diatribes. ‘Revelations tells us that the fearful and the unbelieving, the abominable, murderers, whoremongers, and sorcerers, idolaters and liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.’

I do not have the energy to point out that I for one am none of the above, well perhaps the fearful and unbelieving, but none of the rest. And although it is far from verified, what news we have is that everyone is going to perish, whether they are sinners or not, in just eleven days time. If I were to challenge Burl, he would probably have some other Biblical text at the ready. Burl’s God is a wrathful God. A vengeful and unforgiving God. Burl’s God put him in his wheelchair simply because he missed church two Sundays in a row.

Huey Minton is also not someone you would choose to be stuck in a lift with. Huey is not even half empty in his outlook. He is empty with a capital e. He is acutely paranoid. He doesn’t even think we should eat the food that we have access to. It is bound to be poisoned, he says, even the tins will be poisoned. What would he rather us do, starve? Huey is a seasoned conspiracy theorist. He can hold forth about 9/11 or chemtrails and mind control for hours. He started by claiming that the present emergency was an alien attack but he has since switched his diagnosis to it being a rampant airborne disease started by the New World Order as a means of population control. It doesn’t matter he says whether we are out there or in here, it will still get us.

Mary Jane doesn’t have an opinion regarding the explanation for the emergency and I am with her on this. If we are going to survive, then its cause is perhaps secondary, we need to come up with a strategy for our survival beyond the next eleven days. Or at least be able to live out our remaining time in good spirits.

………………………………………….

Despite our limited mobility, Mary Jane and I somehow manage to get down to the second floor. The other two are not with us. We try shouting up the stairs but there is no reply. They have vanished. Perhaps they are caught in a wormhole between floors or an unscheduled timewarp but something has happened to them. In uncharted territory such as we are, perhaps we should expect strange things such as this to happen. At least Mary Jane and I are spared the wrath of God diatribes and the wild conspiracy theories for the time being. At least Mary Jane and I are spared for the time being.

It is eerie down here with the peculiar echo of silence you find in a large space when no-one is about. Although we are two floors up, it feels oddly subterranean. Three days on and there is still no sign of the power coming back on. It is dark down here and smells of decay. It looks as if it has been abandoned for a long time. Certainly, more than a few days. The paint is flaking off the mildewed walls and the windows are clouded with soot. Spiders’ webs hang from the furniture. Amongst scattered papers on a gnarled wooden desk, we discover a transistor radio. It’s one of those military-looking ones with lots of wavebands. Despite its business-like appearance, the only transmission we can pick up is in Spanish. This strikes us as ominous. Does this mean that everyone else has gone off the air? With the smattering of Spanish Mary Jane and I have between us, we try to make out what they are saying. They appear to be talking about a football match. A big upcoming football match. Mañana, mañana, El partido más grande de la historia.

Vamos a descubrir que Barcelona es el mejor equipo para la eternidad,’ one of them says. ‘Barcelona es el mejor equipo de futbol del universo entero.’

With just eight days to go before the apocalypse, it seems that this is the match to decide once and for all who really is the best team.

Perhaps this is something they should have done years ago and had done with it,’ Mary Jane says. ‘Rather than put us through the anguish every year for nine months of the year only to for it to start all over again.’

What do you think they would be talking about if it were a French station?’ I say.

Wine, of course,’ Mary Jane says. ‘They would be talking about appellation and terroir and all that nonsense.’

German?’

Sausages and Pilsner,’ Mary Jane says. ‘What about a British radio broadcast? I wonder what we would be talking about.’

Still talking about Brexit, probably,’ I say.

It’s good that even in these last days, we still have a sense of humour,’ Mary Jane says.

The lightness of mood is short-lived. Without warning, the Spanish station goes off the air. In mid-sentence, the excited voice dies. We are left with the hiss of static, this made up in part I recall by cosmic microwave background radiation from the Big Bang. There is nothing out there. It is a chilling moment.

………………………………………….

I can’t be sure of anything anymore, there are no certainties. Everything is in flux. But, according to my calculations, there are just five days left. I can’t recall how we came to be here, but Mary Jane and I now find ourselves on the first floor of the complex. First floor is probably not a fair or accurate description, in fact, no description at all. Before us, as far as the eye can see, there is open grassland. And it seems to go on forever. It even smells like a prairie, with the scents of grasses, resinous shrubs, warm earth and sage. Yet, at the same time, we are somehow still within the confines of the monolithic structure. There are staircases both up and down. How have the wild open spaces come inside? We have entered the realms of science fantasy. The space is somehow dimensionally transcendent.

Like everywhere else around here, the prairie is deserted, if deserted is not a contradiction in terms. We haven’t seen anyone else for a long, long time now. The unspecified catastrophe seems to be playing out. This is surely the end. I can’t help but indulge in some reverie. There’s a sudden longing for the past. For better times. Those idyllic days when life was simpler. The odd thing is, I’m really not sure that I’ve done some of the things that are coming into consciousness. I seem to be flooded with ……. false memories. How could I possibly have been a Roman centurion? Or been in the trenches in the First World War? I wouldn’t have been born. Surely I didn’t really grow gourds in Somerset or have a dog called Kafka. And I can’t for the life of me place who some of these people are that are coming to mind, Philip C. Dark, Leif Velasquez. Certainly, they seem half-familiar. But, who are they? They seem one step removed from my experience. Like phantoms. There again, I do remember Vicki and the twins and Elm Close and Lee’s Bar. I believe these are real memories. And my job at the insurance office. Or was it music shop? I’m sure I had some kind of career. My memory is a laboratory of confusion. Mary Jane, on the other hand, says she doesn’t remember anything at all from her past.

………………………………………….

Somehow, I negotiate another descent. I try to get my bearings once more but I seem to have lost Mary Jane. I call out her name but she does not answer. The darkness makes it difficult to see what is down here but it is no longer open prairie. This is an indoor setting – an indoor setting with a vengeance. All the windows have been boarded-up. It is dark. Enclosed. Forbidding. Where is Mary Jane? I don’t want to be the last person alive.

I’m not.

Don’t move!’ yells a hollow voice, from out of the gloom. I’m thinking perhaps it is the Grim Reaper. My heart is thumping. I’m not ready for this. The seconds pass. The figure slowly approaches. In the slither of murky light coming from a split in one of the boarded up windows, I can just make out his shape. In heavy black uniform and protective headgear, he looks like Darth Vader. He is pointing a gun of some sort in my direction.

Oh! It’s you,’ he says, as he gets closer. Do I detect a sense of relief in his voice? Was he expecting someone more dangerous? I’m still too terrified to say anything.

You’re supposed to be in quarantine,’ he says, matter of factly.

Quarantine?’ I say.

Yes, quarantine. You are contaminated.’

What are you talking about?’

Don’t you remember what happened?’

Remember what?’

The explosion on set.’

What set? Who are you?’

I’m Site Security.’

What’s this about an explosion?’

There was an explosion. On the set of Nineteen Days. Two weeks ago.’

Nineteen Days? Two weeks?’

Oh, come on now! You were one of the extras in the big scene at the end of the film. I had to apprehend two of your oppos a day or two ago and take them back in. Difficult bastards, they were.’

What about Mary Jane? What have you done with Mary Jane?’

No idea what you are talking about, pal.’

Perhaps there was no Mary Jane. The only thing I am sure about is my confusion.

You say we were in a film?’

As I am saying this, I begin to understand the likely origin of the false memories I’ve been getting. The Roman centurion, the First World War soldier. They must be from bit parts I’ve played in films.

Look!’ Darth Vader says. ‘Are you a bit slow or are you pulling my pisser? All of you were in Leif Velasquez’s Nineteen Days. The film he was making of the classic Philip C. Dark story. The production was shut down following the accident.’

Accident?’

The apocalyptic explosion filming the final scene,’ he says. ‘It was like Armageddon.’

Suddenly, I find I am getting flashbacks about an explosion like the one he is describing. But I’m not even sure about these. In my state, they could easily be brought on through auto-suggestion.

They had to shut down the film and quarantine everyone involved in the scene,’ he continues. ‘Those of you that actually survived that is. Because of the alarming side effects, you were experiencing. Toxic chemicals were discovered everywhere, some of them never known before. The area has been declared a no-go zone. All means of communication both in and out have been cut. Weren’t you told any of this?’

Communication cut. This explains the lack of radio reception perhaps but there are still a lot of things that don’t add up.

What happened to the others?’ I ask. ‘Where have they taken them? And where is Mary Jane?’

I do not get a reply. Instead, he raises his weapon once more. He uses it to point the way. Perhaps I am about to find out where the others have been taken. Or, is this all part of Leif Velasquez’s film? Are they still filming? You can perhaps never be sure if you are an extra.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Ten Twenty-Four

tentwentyfour

Ten Twenty-Four by Chris Green

You may not have heard of Trethowan. Most people haven’t. It is a tiny hamlet, remote even by Cornish standards. Although I keep hearing that providers are investing millions to tackle poor reception in rural areas, I have no phone signal where I am staying at Cosy Cottage, a rural retreat, accessible only along a windy track. I only pick up the voicemail message from Unknown Caller when I come into range the next day. There is no spoken message, just a background track which sounds like footsteps in the rain.

I put it down to a phone in someone’s pocket accidentally dialling my number. Although I do not use the phone much, the unknown caller could be a casual acquaintance or a trades-person I have contacted in the past. The odds that the keypad itself could hit eleven digits in the right order to correspond with a mobile phone number are ten to the power of something astronomical.

I think nothing more of it, but to my alarm, the same thing happens again the next day. It is a carbon copy of the first. Both calls were made at 10:24 p.m. by an unknown caller and both times the message consists of footsteps tramping in the rain, lasting for one minute thirty seconds. This really spooks me. It is not something that can have happened accidentally. This is way beyond the realms of coincidence. Something is not right.

I listen carefully to the calls several times, playing them back through the car’s speakers. It sounds like a single set of footsteps. The tread is rhythmic and purposeful. There is the suggestion of waterproofs rubbing together, perhaps from a jacket or pair of wet-weather trousers. It has been raining heavily on and off for days here in Cornwall. The calls may not have been from Cornwall of course. Why would they have come from Cornwall? I know few people here. They could have come from anywhere. Alaska, China, anywhere, although I cannot recall having contact with anyone so far-flung. I think I detect a suggestion of light traffic on a wet road in the background, but I am not sure. There are no voices to be heard on either recording.

The man in the dark suit and the Men In Black sunglasses standing outside the village post office in Chenoweth looks distinctly out of place. I give the sinister figure a wide birth but as I walk past, he barks out something in a foreign language. Whether or not he is addressing me, I cannot tell. Then I notice another figure in a dark suit with even blacker sunglasses talking into a phone outside the twelfth-century church. How is it he can get a signal around here when I am not? He is pointing in my direction.

I don’t aim to stay and find out what these outsiders are doing in this sleepy backwater. I double back over the stone bridge where my Golf is parked and dive into it. It is not a fast car but after some cute manoeuvres, I lose the black sedan that I find following me up the narrow muddy country lanes. I have been here for several days and have become used to the lie of the land. My pursuers clearly have not.

Nothing seems to make sense. Why am I being hounded? I have come down here to do some writing. To put the finishing touches to a story about fly-fishing in time for publication next month. And to spend some time with my partner, Ellie. She’ll be here later. She was supposed to arrive yesterday but was delayed. Ellie is in advertising. Precise arrangements can be difficult as project times often overrun with television campaigns.

Perhaps these interlopers, whoever they are, have confused me with someone else. If they want me, why don’t they just confront me directly? Why would they make their presence so obvious? Are they just trying to frighten me? If this is the case they are succeeding. I am terrified.

When I get back to the apartment, I find to my relief Ellie is there. I explain to her what has been happening. She is not impressed. I am a little disappointed. I was hoping she might be more understanding and supportive.

So you had a couple of strange voicemail messages,’ she says. ‘I get lots of them. I don’t know why but that’s the way it is with phones these days.’

But the two calls were identical, and at exactly the same time on consecutive nights,’ I protest.

Even less reason to be concerned. It’s just a technical glitch at Vodafone.’

O2,’ I correct her.

OK. A gremlin at O2. I’m sure these things happen all the time.’

What about the men in the village?’ I say.

Two men wearing shades. In a holiday destination. Don’t you feel you are being a little over-sensitive?’

But it wasn’t sunny,’ I say. ‘They chased after me in the black sedan.’

Oh, come on now! If professionals were tailing you, don’t you think they might have managed to keep up with you on these slow roads? They turned off. They were going somewhere else. The world doesn’t revolve around you, you know.’

I guess not,’ I concede.

Anyway,’ she says, putting her arms around me. ‘Aren’t you pleased to see me?’

Of course.’

So! Where are you going to take me? What delights does the back of beyond have to offer?’

I tell her that there is not much going on out of season.

I know a place,’ she says. ‘The one that was named after that Daphne Du Maurier book’

Jamaica Inn?’

No, not that one. The other one.’

We drive a few miles to The House On The Strand. We take Ellie’s car just in case. No-one follows us. Since we were last down here, The House In The Strand has been converted into a gastropub and has a French chef.

I have Boudin Blanc in Leeks and Mustard Sauce which turns out to be sausages in cream and Ellie has Battered Cod with Marie Rose Sauce and Chick Pea Fries which looks very much like fish and chips. The presentation is nice though and the Pistachio Mascarpone with Milk Chocolate Port Truffle, and the Dulce de Leche Creme Fraiche with Almond are both delicious. The second bottle of Shiraz is even better than the first. While we are trying to decide who is the fittest to drive back, Ellie goes off to the Ladies.

I have almost forgotten about the earlier traumas. Perhaps Ellie is right. Perhaps I do occasionally indulge a little paranoia. I am looking forward to a few days relaxation with her now. We can wine and dine and make love. We can investigate the historic Kernow of St Piran. Tintagel and the Arthurian legend. See that new sculpture of the King with Excalibur at the castle. We can swim in the sea and perhaps hire a boat to explore the rugged bays. We can take in the beautiful landscape. We can visit the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens of Heligan. The Minack Theatre. St Michaels Mount. Cornwall has plenty to offer.

Ellie often spends a few minutes powdering her nose, so at first, I am not concerned when she doesn’t return. But after ten minutes I begin to worry. She has never spent quite this long. She has taken her handbag, so I give her mobile a ring. While mine is working fine here, she seems to have hers switched off. My next thought is that she may have gone out to the car. I go over to the window and take a look outside. Her Polo is still in the car park. She is not in it.

A waiter comes over, concerned perhaps that we are trying to do a runner. Frantically I explain the situation to him. He asks me to calm down and offers to send a colleague to the Ladies to investigate. His colleague returns. Ellie is not there. I am beside myself. My paranoia comes flooding back, this time with interest. Perhaps the lady has just gone for a walk to clear her head, the maître d’ says, pointing out that we have had quite a lot of wine. And the second bottle was 13.5%. Just then my phone rings. Thinking it must be Ellie, complete with an explanation, I answer it. It is not Ellie. There is no-one on the other end. All I can hear are the familiar footsteps in the rain. It is not raining outside. It is 10:24.

Who Is This?’ I yell into the phone. ‘Why do you keep phoning me? What Do You Want?’

The caller does not respond. The footsteps continue, their dull trudging rhythm regular as a metronome.

Everyone in the pub is looking at me. I don’t care. It seems unlikely that the caller will respond, but like a madman, I keep shouting into the phone. After an eternity, the call ends. The display says that the call has lasted just ninety seconds.

I turn my attention back to Ellie’s disappearance. I begin to ask other diners if they saw anything. Having witnessed my behaviour on the phone, they are reluctant to cooperate. Several of them are already asking for their bills. None of the few left saw Ellie go to the Ladies and no-one saw her leave the establishment. No-one saw anything suspicious. They are of the view that we have had a lover’s tiff, Ellie stormed off and that I called her on my mobile and started shouting at her. The maître d’ is asking me to leave. He threatens to call the police. There is no need. There and then, the constabulary arrive as if they had just been waiting up the road, four officers in blue fatigues, all built like Bulgarian shot-putters. They issue stock commands from the police lexicon, all of which suggest I should not move. The press arrive. Legions of them. What is going on? Surely the crime rate around here cannot be so low that a small disagreement in a pub can warrant so much attention. But as they put the handcuffs on and lead me away to the patrol car, the paparazzi snap away like I’m a disgraced celebrity.

I have not been in this position before, but police custody is probably the same the world over. You are bundled into a cell, probably drunk, by burly officers, and subjected to maximum indignity and discomfort for the duration of your stay. The cell probably has concrete floors and walls, with bars on one side so the duty officer can keep an eye on you and a wooden bench for you to sober up on. It probably smells of urine, body odour and vomit. In all these ways the one in which I find myself at a remote location in Cornwall might be seen as typical.

What may be different here is that there is country music playing, loudly. Very loudly. This cannot be with the motive of settling the prisoner in. It can only promote thoughts of self-harm or worse. Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry is followed by Waiting Around to Die and the daddy of them all, Merle Haggard’s Misery and Gin. The pounding in my head makes me think I may have had a lot more and didn’t I start off with a pint of beer? This is not the time to be listening to Achy Breaky Heart and I believe they have turned it up. Do they know how much I hate country music? Is this a special programme for my benefit? Eddy Arnold’s Make The World Go Away is now playing, over and over. They must have left it on repeat and left me to stew. Is this perhaps a technique learned from Guantanamo Bay?

Everything is escalating out of my control. I lie down on the bench to try to temper the bouts of nausea. Hard though it is, I try to arrange my chaotic thoughts into those of reason. My captors didn’t seem concerned with charging me so much as just banging me up. This is odd. Police like their procedures. Perhaps they are not real police, but villains.

I am concerned about what might be happening to Ellie. She must have been abducted too. If I can be detained like this, then perhaps she is too. God forbid! Ellie likes her creature comforts. I like her to have her creature comforts. I do my best to ensure she has her creature comforts. I love Ellie more than anything in the world. But to get back to my situation, if she too is being held, she is not going to be available to bail me out. How am I going to get out of here to help her get out of wherever she is? Will I ever see her again?

As the night wears on, my mind returns to the footsteps. That haunting repetitive sound keeps thumping away in my head. What is it about those footsteps? From somewhere at the back of my consciousness, I dredge up a faint recollection of an advertising campaign that Ellie was involved with a year or so ago, a series of television adverts. They were filmed in black and white with a retro man trudging home through sludgy snow late at night. He is looking forward to his cup of hot drinking chocolate and as he does so a red glow forms around him. There are no words or music on the ads, just the hypnotic sound of the footsteps and logo of the company in the corner of the screen.

Could Ellie be responsible for my predicament? Might she have made those phonecalls from an unregistered phone, arranged the men in black and the car chase? Having raised my paranoia levels, it would be easy for her to get me drunk and then disappear. She is in a position to recruit actors to be paparazzi and brutish policemen. It would be like casting an advertising campaign. But here’s the coup de grâce. More than anyone, Ellie knows how much I hate country music. But why would she do this to me?

Oh! My! God! Might Ellie have discovered that I slept with her friend, Charlotte, when she was away at that conference last year? I wondered what she had the hump about when she came back from Pilates last Thursday. Pilates normally relaxes her. I heard a while back that Charlotte’s friend, Sophie had started going to the class. I am aware that Sophie can be spiteful. She must have spilled the beans about our clandestine liaison.

Ellie would have realised that tackling me about it there and then would have met with my denial. Nevertheless, she must have thought, no smoke without fire. Keeping her discovery to herself then would then have given her the chance to quietly plan her revenge. To further humiliate me, she may even be making a film of my entire Cornwall odyssey. In all probability, I am being filmed right now. Movie cameras are so inconspicuous these days, indistinguishable from the CCTV cameras we are so used to seeing every day, like ….. that one over there.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

More Weird Shit – an Inspector Boss Mystery

moreweirdshit

More Weird Shit – An Inspector Boss Mystery by Chris Green

It didn’t occur to you that a two-year-old Mercedes Sprinter on sale in Toker’s End for less than two grand might be hot,’ Jonny Geezer says.

To be fair, we were a bit strapped for cash, guv, and there wasn’t that much around,’ Gandy says. ‘And time was of the essence.’

So, let’s get this straight. To do a job, you saddle us with a van that the filth will be all over even before we start,’ Jonny says. ‘You might as well have just nicked one like other blaggers do. ……. What’s in the blue bag in the back there? Looks like one of those Ikea bags.’

It appears to be empty, guv,’ Gandy says. ‘The odd thing is, it weighs a ton. I could hardly move it.’

You’re such a wimp, Gandy?’ Jonny says. ‘Let me have a go.’

With a huge effort, Jonny manages to move the bag a few inches. While he is doing so, the bag appears to change shape.

It is as if the bloody thing is breathing,’ he says. ‘It seems to have a life of its own.’

I meant to tell you about that,’ Gandy says.

Then why didn’t you?’

What do you think it is, guv?’

It’s not someone’s shopping from Ikea, is it, Gandy? What was the fella that sold you the van like?’

Average height. Medium build. Dark hair. Didn’t take much notice, to be honest, guv.’

Not from outer space or anything then?’

No perfectly ordinary guy. He had the registration document for the van. I gave him a fake name and address and handed him the cash and that was it.’

You’re sure it was a kosher registration document?’

Well, now you come to mention it, he seemed to want to get things over with quickly, like.’

………………………………………..

Sorry to spring this on you so early, sir,’ Lennon says. ‘But there’s no easy way to tell you. Another bag has gone missing.’

From your serious expression, I take it you mean a blue Ikea bag,’ Inspector Boss says.

I’m afraid so,’ Lennon says. ‘Like the one you told me about.’

This is not the kind of news that Casey Boss of the Strange Occurrence Detail wants to hear first thing in the morning. His stress levels are already through the roof following SOD’s bungled inquiry into the phone signal hi-jack. And the fallout from the invisibility investigation. With so much weird shit going down lately and landing in his lap, he finds it hard to keep up with it all. His doctor has told him to avoid stressful situations. He has warned him that any more stress could prove fatal. He is on powerful beta-blockers which he supplements this with black-market drugs. He is not sure he should even be at work. Just the trip up in the lift to his fourth-floor office these days raises his anxiety.

That was what started it all off. I was coping well before that, Lennon!’ Boss says. ‘Is that really your name? ….. What happened to Jagger?’

Jagger got shot, sir. Last month. Don’t you remember?’

Oh, that’s right. I do seem to recall now. Outside the corned-beef processing plant that was a cover for a tulpa store, wasn’t it?’

That’s right. What is a tulpa, sir? I’ve been meaning to ask.’

Never mind that now, lad. Give me the lowdown on this new business. We’d better get on to it. What do we know?’

The courier who was supposed to deliver this blue bag to the secret location used by the Department that we are not allowed to mention had his van stolen at 3.30 yesterday morning,’ Lennon says.

I see. And presumably said van hasn’t turned up,’ Boss says. ‘And the thinking is that the bag is jam-packed with arcane ideas, I take it. So it will in all probability be in the hands of a rogue regime or terrorists by now,’

That’s the suggestion, sir. Yes.’

And that’s why we’ve been landed with the case.’

Indeed, sir. And as you keep telling me, the first forty-eight hours is critical.’

I know. I know, lad. Just give me what we’ve got, will you?’

Would you like me to get you your meds, sir, and a glass of water?

………………………………………..

We need to find out what this weird shit is, Gandy,’ Jonny Geezer says. ‘PDQ.’

What about talking to TeeJay?’ Gandy says. ‘You never know. Whatever it is in the bag might be worth money.’

He’s not going to buy something he can’t see, is he?’ Jonny says.

Brett and Bro?’ Gandy says. ‘They’re gullible. Especially Bro. I sold him his own Kawasaki bike once.’

I’ve got it,’ Jonny says. ‘Pete the Maj. He is the man to see. Pete’s a spoon bender. He knows about paranormal shit. He lives around here. Harmonica Road. Just off Tambourine Way. Pete will be able to tell us what is going on.’

They drive the van around to Harmonica Road. Pete the Maj’s house is a quotidian no-fines semi, distinguishable only by the bank of satellite dishes and the black flag flying on the flagpole outside. Pete answers the door. Jonny and Gandy exchange puzzled looks. In their world, men don’t often answer the door wearing orange wet suits with marmosets perched on their shoulders.

Hi guys,’ Pete says. ‘I’ve been expecting you.’

They hadn’t phoned ahead. How could he possibly know they were coming, they wonder?

And what’s more, I know what exactly you have come about,’ Pete adds. ‘What you have is a bag full of concepts waiting to be realised. In a word, my friends, ideas.’

But it looks like there’s nothing in the bag,’ Jonny says.

What do you expect, Jonny? Ideas are invisible,’ Pete says.

But despite this, the bag is heavy,’ Gandy says. ‘It took the two of us to pick it up.’

Of course, it’s heavy,’ Pete says. ‘Ideas are often complex. You didn’t think they just came floating in through the kitchen window, did you? Or that you could download them from the Internet?’

If you can’t see them, how do you know what they are?’ Jonny asks.

Firstly, you need to know where they came from,’ Pete says. ‘I’m guessing by the look of you that you don’t know.’

Not as such,’ Gandy says.

Then you need to have the right equipment and the necessary skills to get them to materialise. I’m pretty sure you are not going to have that,’ Pete says.

So without this equipment, no-one can tell what it is,’ Jonny says.

Exactly,’ Pete says. ‘Perhaps now that you’re here, you might like to sing to my marmoset. She’s called Sacha. She’s very friendly.’

You wouldn’t like to hazard to a guess what the stuff might be, I suppose,’ Gandy says.

Many new ideas come from military sources, microwaves, GPS, 5g, all these are military in origin,’ Pete says. ‘The internet too originated in the military, along with lots of everyday things like disposable razors and superglue. So that’s where my money would be. ……. Although you wouldn’t think the military would transport the raw material in a blue Ikea bag.’

………………………………………..

We’d better get the courier in here, Lennon,’ Boss says. ‘What did you say his name was?’

It’s a hard one to get your head around,’ his sidekick says. ‘Banana Petroleum or something like that. He’s Albanian, apparently. ……. Ah, here it is, Bajrami Pernaska.’

Let’s stick with Banana Petroleum. ….. OK! Get Petroleum in here this morning. He could well be in on it, don’t you think?’

It would certainly make our job easier if he were, sir.’

Look! If you joined the department because you thought it would be easy, Lennon, you’re in for a rude awakening. This isn’t the regular constabulary, lad. This is SOD. The Strange Occurrence Detail. You better be ready for all kinds of weird shit. None of it good or easy.’

I didn’t for a minute imagine it would be easy,’ Lennon says. ‘I knew there would be a lot to learn. I’ve not worked in metaphysical policing before. I have a mind games background.’

Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, eh, lad?’

What?’

Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower.’

Eh?’

From old songs, lad. I thought you might know them.’

Before my time, I imagine, guv.’

Inspector Boss’s Albanian is not up to speed and Banana Petroleum’s English is not much better. It takes twenty minutes to establish that BP is a delivery driver for Safe as Houses Security and while the van he was using when it was stolen belonged to them, due to an oversight in planning, it had none of the firm’s livery. It was a plain white van.

I stop van for smoke,’ Banana Petroleum says. ‘When I return, van gone. In trouble now. Yes.’

You know what was in the van then I take it,’ Boss says.

Van gone,’ BP repeats. ‘In trouble now. Lose job.’

After an hour they establish that BP probably did not know what he was carrying, and the van was taken from outside the community centre on the Toker’s End estate, a notorious spot for petty criminals and drug dealers.

We’d better get around to Toker’s End, Lennon,’ Boss says. ‘Have you had any small arms training?’

Not really, sir,’ Lennon says. ‘Most of my work involved writing confusing copy for under the counter publications.’

Well no doubt, these skills will come in useful,’ Boss says.

………………………………………..

I don’t know how to tell you this, guv, but the bag seems lighter,’ Gandy says. ‘Like something has escaped.’

And how did that happen, Gandy?’ Jonny Geezer says. ‘I told you to keep an eye on it.’

I kept an eye on it. I didn’t let it out of my sight.’

How did that happen?’

A complete mystery, guv. I even made sure the CCTV was focussed on it. But I’ve played the footage back and there’s nothing to see. The hard disc has been wiped.’

That’s should be impossible. ….. Well. Never mind, Gandy. I suppose it’s a good thing in a way, seeing as the stuff in the bag was invisible anyway and we wouldn’t have been able to sell it.’

Shall I just ditch the bag then?’

To be on the safe side, we’ll hang on to it for now. With all this strangeness around, you never know.’

………………………………………..

Before we rush off to Toker’s End,’ Lennon says. ‘Have you seen this splashed across the front of the paper? It says that all across the country, time is going backwards. In Brighton, it has gone back to Tuesday. In Swindon, it’s Monday last week and in Bristol, it has gone back to January.’

Let me have a look, will you?’ Boss says.

Here you go, boss.’

Don’t call me that, man. How many times?’

OK, guv.’

Nor that. Guv is for hoodlums and lowlife.’

Sorry, sir.’

God’s teeth!. You are right, Lennon. It looks like time is on the blink. Looking at the locations they mention here, there doesn’t seem to be a pattern to it, although all the places are in the south of the country. I hope it’s not heading this way. We haven’t noticed anything different here yet, though, have we?’

I didn’t like to mention it, sir, but the hands of my watch do seem to be going backwards.’

I see. Oh my God! So they are. Not good, lad! I’ve got a bad feeling about this. It could well be connected to the disappearing bag. That’s why the bigwigs have got us on it. I imagine we will get a call from them shortly telling us to pull our fingers out.’

I’ve just had a newsflash come up on my phone,’ Lennon says. ‘It’s from Devon Live. It’s about 9/11. It says planes have crashed into the Twin Towers in New York. A newsflash. As if it’s just happened. Time must have gone further back down south.’

Have I got much of that stuff left, Lennon?’ Boss says.

You mean your meds, sir? Yes, there’s enough for a week or so. But, to be on the safe side, would you like me to order some more. I think I have your man’s number here. Is he really called Razor?’

Yes. I think you’d better. This could be a fraught investigation.’

………………………………………..

Who do I speak to in SOD?’ the Home Secretary, Mercy Creech asks her PA, Dodd. Mercy is new to the job. She has only been in post for three weeks.

That would be Inspector Casey Boss,’ Dodd says. ‘Would you like me to get him on the phone?’

Yes. That would be good. What’s he like, this Boss?’

Well, he’s probably in his late fifties’ Dodd says. ‘He appears to be a little vacant unless this is merely an affectation. But you’d have to say, he’s a bit dour. He’s always complaining how under-resourced SOD is. But don’t they all claim to be undermanned.’

Got you. SOD have lost a few of their officers lately, haven’t they?.’

Yes, Home Secretary. They had one taken out just last month. Jagger, I believe. Terrible business.’

Dodd keys in the number and hands the phone to Mercy Creech. Inspector Boss leaves it to ring for a while before picking up. He has a fair idea of what is coming.

Ah, Boss. Home Secretary calling. Good to make your acquaintance. I take it you are up to speed on the crisis.’

I’ve picked up the gist of it, yes.

Look! I’ve spoken to the Department that I’m not permitted to mention and they tell me that this matter is now Category XX. In a word, time is going backwards. Now, as I understand it, because just one bag of whatever it was went missing, this is only happening in certain places, mostly down south. In other locations, nothing has happened. In most parts of the country, it is still today. But the rupture in time could spread. How is it where you are?’

It’s just stared here, Home Secretary. Weird business. One minute, it’s dark and the next it’s light and then it’s dark again. At a guess, we are about three weeks back at the moment.’

I see. It’s gone so far they are already back on dial-up in some places. In West Somerset, they say it has gone back to 1983.’

Boss wonders how they can tell. It probably always seems like 1983 in West Somerset, but he doesn’t say anything.’

We to need to recover the missing bag quickly,’ the Home Secretary continues. ‘Even then, it might be too late.’

I might need more personnel, Home Secretary. We’ve taken a bit of a hit lately, if you’ll excuse my pun.’

Yes, so I hear. We will look into it and be reassured, we are trying to get to grips with gun crime.’

And my new sidekick, Lennon is inexperienced in the field.’

Lennon, you say? Is that really his name?’

………………………………………..

Casey Boss is always nervous about contacting Colonel Ж of the Department that cannot be named, but if they are to make any progress on the case, he realises he must do so now. To prepare himself, he takes a handful of the Razor’s designer supplements. He has no idea what they are, but they seem to do the job.

Ah, Boss,’ Colonel Ж says. ‘I was wondering when you would call. What’s it like where you are?’

Time is going backwards here. I don’t know how exactly it works but as far as I can tell, we are not going backwards with it,’ Boss says. ‘If you get my drift.’

It is one of those things that is difficult to predict with any certainty,’ the Colonel says. ‘Especially as nothing like this has happened before. Time is still going forward normally here, but, of course, this could change at any moment. The distribution seems to have happened more or less at random. I’m getting lots of conflicting reports. There’s nothing uniform about the spread. Did you know it’s gone back to 1913 in Windsor? They are worried about the military build-up in the Balkans.’

I’ve given the issue some thought,’ Boss says. ‘Off the top of my head, it would appear that we need to get to the depot where the van was loaded. And hope that time in this location has not gone too far back. Then, we can just load the bag or bags that were to be transported on a different van and perhaps that will change things back.’

Good thinking.’ the Colonel says. ‘I’m not sure it will work but it’s certainly worth a try. If I give you the location, can you get another van there quickly?’

I’ll get my man, Lennon on to it right away, Colonel,’ Boss says.

Lennon? Is that really his name?’ the Colonel says.

………………………………………..

From what you said earlier, sir, I gathered we were on a tight budget but guess what, I managed to get us a two-year-old Mercedes van from Gumtree for a very good price,’ Lennon says. ‘Only 100,000 on the clock.’

Good work, Lennon. Let’s get on with it then,’ Boss says. ‘Time is of the essence.’

In more way than one, sir, if you get my drift,’ Lennon says.

Oh, I see, time. Very droll,’ Boss says. ‘Here’s the postcode to key in.’

After driving for several hours through fractured time zones, they find themselves in logistics-land, deep in the heart of the Midlands. Here, the roads are newly tarmacked and have clear white lines and elaborate traffic furniture at all the roundabouts. There are new warehouse buildings lining both sides of the road. Time seems unaffected. It is six-thirty on Thursday evening, which they calculate is what it should be.

Only three more miles, sir, Lennon says.

Perhaps we are in time then,’ Boss says.

In time. You are at it again, sir. Look! That must be the depot up there on the right, don’t you think? The tall one with the camouflage cladding.’

I think that’s probably Colonel Ж getting out of the Hummer.’

You can get quite a lot of people in a Hummer, can’t you? And look! They are heavily armed.’

Military unit, Lennon. All we were given was this pistol. And, as you know, I had to beg for that.’

My watch is starting to go backwards again, sir. But that’s good, isn’t it?’

Perfect. All we have to do then is get out and wait until yesterday.’

That may not be too long. The hands-on my watch are spinning wildly.’

………………………………………..

The cargo always travels by night, the Colonel tells them. The missing cargo set off from the depot with Safe as Houses Security at midnight. The task this time is to pick up the bag an hour earlier than originally planned and head for the secret location. They will be escorted by Colonel Ж and his men in the Hummer. The secret location is a hundred miles away in the direction they’ve come. They will be informed of the exact location once they are near. The latest reports from the secret location suggest that time here is behaving as it should. Boss wonders why the Department could not have done this without them, but his is not to reason why. Why hadn’t they delivered the original cargo by helicopter if it was so sensitive? Or at least put it with a reputable carrier? It seems a bit lax to trust it with a random Albanian dude with a white van. Boss wonders too at what point, time will correct itself. Will this return to normal when the bag is safely aboard the van, when it has travelled further than it originally did or only when it is safely delivered. While logic suggests the first option, there is nothing rational about the current situation. Perhaps, it is a riddle that no-one can be sure of the answer to, not even the Colonel.

We don’t know exactly where the van was stolen,’ Boss says. ‘Banana Petroleum was not very specific and in the end, we found we were just wasting time by grilling him further, but we have a rough idea. So to be on the safe side, we will take a different route.’

OK. Let’s get the show on the road,’ Colonel Ж says ‘We’ll be close behind you. You can be sure of that.’

………………………………………..

We’d better try to get rid of the van,’ Jonny Geezer says. ‘Count our losses. If we don’t ask much for it, someone’s around here is sure to snap it up. Probably someone else who wants a plain white van to do a knock-over.’

I was meaning to talk to you about that, guv,’ Gandy says. ‘The van has, how can I put it? Gone. One minute it was there, the next, it wasn’t.’

What!’

Someone must have half-inched it while my back was turned. I was on the phone to Loulou. The van was only out of my sight for a few minutes, then I went back to lock it up and …… well, it wasn’t there. I didn’t hear anything. It must have all happened very quickly.’

Someone who knew we wouldn’t report it, probably.’

Next time, we’ll just have to nick one like you said, guv.’

You ditched the bag, didn’t you?’

You told me not to. …… Didn’t you?’

Where did you put it?’

It’s in the shed back here, boss. …….. Look!’

Where am I looking, Gandy?’

Oh no! The bag has gone too.’

………………………………………..

As far as it’s possible to tell, time has settled down. To the good folks of Windsor, the military build-up in the Balkans is nothing more than an episode in history. They are once more able to harangue the graceless town planners in neighbouring Slough. In Devon, they have got over the shock of 9/11 and can once again whinge about the legions of caravanners that flock to their beauty spots every year and get stuck in the narrow lanes. Brighton is now straight again too and back on British Summer Time. The urban centres of Swindon and Bristol are back on track, each dreaming that one day, they might be able to produce a successful football team. Maybe eventually field a side to progress beyond the Fifth Round of the F.A. Cup. Throughout the land, clocks and watches are synchronised. Dates for events throughout the year are once again set in the calendar. Yet, for some unaccountable reason, in parts of West Somerset it still appears to be 1983.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

ICKE

Created with GIMP

ICKE by Chris Green

It was the summer I worked for the Parks Department. Tony and I had parked up our mowers in Cortina Drive, a quiet cul-de-sac in a residential area, a place where I reasoned, Nick Ford would not find us if he came to check. It had been a hot dry summer, and the grass hadn’t grown much so I figured if he came, we could bluff it. We would work out where he had been looking for us and explain that we had been doing the verges in other roads in the area. Although Tony and I had not been teamed up before and he was a little wary, I told him this ploy had worked for me up until now. Nick Ford tended to stick to set routes on his patrols.

Tony and I settled down for a smoke on the stretch of undeveloped land at the far end of Cortina Drive. We talked about our backgrounds. We discovered that these were similar. Both sets of parents had recently divorced, both our fathers worked in IT and both our mothers, for some reason, were fans of Andy Williams. How this had come into the conversation is hard to say. Neither of us were particularly family-orientated or interested in crooners. Although Tony and I had gone to different schools, we found we had similar interests, girls, partying and sleeping. And liked the same bands, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. I had some Northern Lights skunk as I recall, and it was not long before the two of us were laughing loudly at anything and everything.

Suddenly, our peace was shattered by a powerful, low-pitched whooshing noise. We looked up and saw it was coming from a vortex in the sky. I had been too young to catch the original Twin Peaks and this was years before Stranger Things on Netflix, so naturally, I had not come across anything like it before. Nor I suspect had Tony. We were only nineteen and vortexes and portals had not featured in our sheltered upbringings. The roar grew louder and louder. The spiral moved faster and faster and came closer and closer. We were buffeted this way and that by the blistering wind. This continued for what seemed an eternity, but I suppose, in reality, may just have been a few seconds. We felt ourselves being sucked up into the firmament. It was all we could do to keep our feet on the ground. Tony’s profile was cutting in and out in rapid beats like an entity materialising and dematerialising. We appeared to oscillate between terra firma and a nebulous netherworld. Fortunately, the vortex retreated as quickly as it had arrived and thankfully, we were spared.

The experience must have had a profound effect on Tony, for he didn’t come into work the following day. Or the day after. At first, I didn’t think too much about it because we both viewed working for the Parks Department as a summer job rather than a career. There was a high turnover of staff, especially as the money was not very good. But, I never saw Tony again. I tried for a while to get in touch with him but he seemed to have completely disappeared.

When you are nineteen, your world changes rapidly from day to day. You are happy-go-lucky, carefree. New experiences come your way all the time. Friendships are fluid. You are out every night, meeting new people. You hardly notice the passing of time. So understandably, I did not dwell too much on the strange episode or for that matter, Tony’s disappearance. After a while, I began to wonder if perhaps because we had been so stoned, we had imagined the vortex. Or at least exaggerated what might simply have been temporary adverse weather conditions. Nothing about it had appeared in the local paper, or if it had, I had missed it.

Growing up, I had read the odd science fiction novel and seen the occasional sci-fi movie, but they were not particularly my thing. It was not until in the twenty-tens, when I picked up a book by former sports broadcaster turned new age philosopher, David Icke, that I realised what portals were. Or that for many years, scientists had been attempting to open portals to parallel universes, shadowy dimensions that mirrored our perceived world. Or the claim that we might live in a multi-dimensional holographic universe. And the argument that if we on Earth had this type of technology then others from distant worlds would be likely to have equivalent technology. Could some of this weird stuff explain the episode with the vortex, I wondered? Could it even account for Tony’s subsequent disappearance? Had he simply been spirited away? If David Icke was to be believed, this explanation appeared to be plausible.

The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon suggests that once you come across a new word, subject, concept or idea, you are likely to come across references to it everywhere. Many believe this is an example of collective consciousness and has a supernatural explanation. In addition, it is claimed the references often lead to other previously undiscovered but connected concepts and ideas until you find a whole new world suddenly has opened up. Such was the case around portals. Firstly, I noticed that the window of Waterstones was full of books on portals and wormholes. Then I found an advert for an upcoming talk on Time Travel and Parallel Universes at the John Morris Memorial Centre by someone called Marcellus Go. I saw a youngster on the street wearing a David Icke T-shirt and to my astonishment, another wearing a David Icke T-shirt. I hadn’t realised that David Icke had such a following. Then, out of the blue, Ravi in the corner shop struck up a conversation on hidden portals. What were the chances of this? I had only gone into KMart for cigarettes.

NASA has admitted that Earth portals teleporting human beings from one place to another are a reality,’ he said, looking up from the book he was reading. ‘They’ve been studying them for a long time. You’ve heard about The Philadelphia Experiment, right?’

I told him I hadn’t. I was new to all this.

In 1943, the US Navy teleported the entire crew of the USS Eldridge into the future. 1983 to be precise.’

Wow!’ I said. ‘That’s quite something.’

Why, I wondered, was Ravi telling me this? It wasn’t as if I knew him well. I had only been into KMart a handful of times. I could see he wasn’t busy but still it seemed odd.

And more recently in the Montauk Project, the American Air Force created a. dimension portal, a time tunnel that enabled their researchers to travel to make contact with aliens. A flying saucer became stuck in the underground tunnels along with its alien crew. I’ve just been reading about it. Cool stuff, huh?’

Do you know, I’ve often had the feeling that time was not working properly,’ I said. ‘My account of when particular things happened is often at odds with other peoples’ accounts. I keep meaning to keep a diary to keep track because so many things just don’t seem right.’

Time’s not linear,’ Ravi said. ‘I can tell you that much. Einstein proved that years ago. You want to get yourself along to that talk by Marcellus Go, last week.’

You mean next week,’ I said.

Who can tell?’ he said. ‘Like I said, time’s not linear.’

There were perhaps thirty people at the John Morris Memorial Centre to hear Marcellus Go speak. A veritable circus of jugglers, clowns and space-cadets. In the front row were the pair of youngsters I had seen in the David Icke T-shirts. Marcellus held forth about time travel and aliens and how these matters had been consistently hushed up by successive regimes the world over. Secrets and lies, it seemed formed the basis of political power. Literally thousands of sightings of UFOs had been dismissed as hoaxes. There were aliens among us, Marcellus said, possibly even some in tonight’s audience by the look of it. He went on to explain that far from being taboo subjects, wormholes and portals were matters that should interest us all, particularly in this neck of the woods as there were a handful of potential sites for portals to other dimensions nearby. It had to do with magnetic fields and energy stores. If we bought his book, Quantum Revelation, we would discover the coordinates for these sites.

I lined up with the others to buy Marcellus’s book. I found myself standing next to one of the more attractive attendees, in fact, she was the only woman there. She was tall with long flowing dark hair and was wearing tie-die balloon pants and a floral shift. I caught a whiff of patchouli.

I’m Aura,’ she said.

I’m Charlie, I said. ‘Pleased to meet you.’

I expect you’d like to go for a drink after all that,’ she said. ‘There’s a quiet little wine bar I know just around the corner.’

This seemed a little forward, but a drink seemed like a good idea and the prospect of attractive, intelligent female company for the evening seemed an even better one. I had been at a loose end since Linda had left. Linda and I had been together for three or four years but had slowly drifted apart. Linda was a creature of habit. She didn’t like anything new. She strongly disapproved of my fascination with David Icke. She started coming out with all kinds of nonsense about my naivete. How can you be taken in by him? she said. He’s a charlatan, she said. Nothing but conspiracy theories, she said. It was bad enough that she used to hide my weed but the final nail in the coffin came when she took all my David Icke books to Oxfam.

Yin Yang was tucked away down a back alley. Unless you had been told about it, you would not know it was there. Strange for a licenced premises not to advertise itself. Yin Yang too was an odd choice for the name of a wine bar, I remember thinking. Perhaps there was a connection between Taoism and wine that I did not know about.

How did you get into all this, Charlie?’ Aura asked. ‘Don’t take it the wrong way. You scrub up quite well, but you don’t look like the new-age type.’

To keep her interested, I felt I had better open up. I told her how reading the David Icke books had taught me to question everything we had been told. How I came to realise the universe was made up of vibrational energy and consisted of an infinite number of dimensions sharing the same space. And that the world was run by lizard people from the fourth dimension that over time had interbred with humans. After all, once you had been alerted to this, it was obvious. The evidence was everywhere. The Royal Family, The Rothschilds, The Rockefellers along with most top politicians and world leaders past and present were the progeny of these liaisons.

Aura nodded her agreement. She was clearly familiar with the Babylonian Brotherhood or the Illuminati, as the elite were otherwise known.

Reading David Icke on parallel worlds got me around to thinking back to an experience I had years ago,’ I continued. ‘With what I now realise was in all probability a wormhole.’

Aura listened attentively while I explained where it was.

Cool!’ she said. ‘That sounds close by. It’s probably one of the local portal sites that he gives the co-ordinates for. Perhaps we might go in the morning. After breakfast.’

This sounded promising. Did this mean we were going to spend the night together?

I can’t remember much about the rest of the evening, but I suspect we may have consumed a bottle or six of wine and perhaps had more than the odd puff on a spliff. I woke in unfamiliar surroundings with a thumping head. Once I became used to the startling array of fabrics in the room, I realised there was perhaps a theme and they didn’t all clash. Even so, it was a riot of colour. Aura emerged from the shower and said something about it having been a good night, which helped to put my mind at rest. It seemed odd that according to my watch I had missed three days, but I didn’t dwell on it. If Aura seemed happy about the situation, this seemed to be sufficient.

On our drive to Cortina Drive, Aura talked about her trip out to Area 51 in the Nevada desert the previous year. There was a festival going on with people coming from all over the world. Some of those she met had drone footage of the captured spacecraft in the compound. Others, with first-hand experience of the base, had actually seen the aliens that were being held there but say they were not allowed to take photos. It was clear she said that this was not just a U.S. Air Force where they tested planes. There was so much that we just didn’t know.

It was a disappointment to find that the portal site from my youth had been built upon. It knocked the wind out of our sails. At the far end of Cortina Drive, we found ourselves facing an odd-looking industrial building with rain-screen cladding and no windows. It seemed an odd structure to build in what was otherwise a traditional red-bricked residential area, the kind of thing you would have thought it would be difficult to get planning permission for. We walked around the perimeter but found nothing to indicate what the building might be used for. We were not even able to detect an entrance.

Try as we might, we could not find out who the strange building belonged to. Or what they did in there. We even staked it out one morning but no-one arrived and no-one left. There appeared to be no record of the building anywhere. It didn’t even appear on Google maps. It was a real puzzler. It was as if it didn’t exist.

But, there are other potential portal sites mentioned in Marcellus Go’s book. Some of these are within easy travelling distance, there and back in a day. Also, I see that David Icke has a new book on the way, which is likely to have heaps of new ideas for us to investigate. But perhaps some of these things can wait awhile. Now that Aura and I have moved in together, there seems to be less of a sense of urgency. We might spend some time exploring inner space instead and see where this takes us.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Sven of Halmstad

sven3

Sven of Halmstad by Chris Green

Church attendance had been dropping for years. In the age of science and discovery, it seemed no one was able to swallow the fantastic tales of strife and salvation in the middle east as the basis for their belief. Stories like this might be OK for a fantasy novel, but not as the central creed for a major religion. Miracles about rising from the dead and walking on water did not fit well into rational twenty-first-century thinking. As the result of several emergency meetings of the General Synod of the Anglican Church, it was agreed that the Bible itself needed a refresh. As it was a major doctrinal issue, there was resistance within the group, but the decision was eventually made to appoint someone to rewrite the Holy book.

Tom Golfer had little published work but decided to apply for the post anyway. He was astonished when he was selected for interview. He had expected the shortlist to be made up of serious doctrinal scholars. At the interview, in front of a panel of priests in colourful clerical clothing, he put forward some radical, even frivolous ideas. Much to his surprise radical thinking seemed to be what many of the Synod were looking for. Many of the stories in the great book were tired and redundant, they told him. It needed a new approach if people were to be drawn back into the flock. Tom pointed out that this in itself was a tired metaphor. Apart from a faction led by The Bishop of Bridgewater and The Bishop of Brighton and Hove, two notorious reactionaries, the Synod agreed that metaphors were one of the Bible’s major drawbacks. Interpretations of some of the big stories in the book had been a problem over the years. The story needed a more realist approach.

Tom was completely overwhelmed when he was appointed. Just think, his girlfriend Natalie said, when he told her the news in the massage parlour that night, The Holy Bible by Tom Golfer. Modest as he was, Tom tried to play this down.

It’s only the Church of England’s version,’ he said. ‘I can’t see the Catholics going for it. It was only recently they decided to drop the Latin version. And it will be a definite no-no to the Orthodox Church.’

But, it’s a start,’ said Natalie. ‘They might get you on one or two of the hymns as well.’

Perhaps I could drop in Stairway to Heaven,’ said Tom.

Or Heaven is a Place on Earth,’ said Natalie, continuing with her deep tissue massage.

One step at a time, I think,’ said Tom, turning over to give her access to some bits she had missed. ‘I’ve got to rewrite the Bible first. It’s quite a big book, you know.’

Then you should make it smaller,’ said Natalie.

You know what? I think I will,’ said Tom.

Tom set about the task with gusto. He jettisoned the Old Testament completely. All thirty-nine books were anachronistic. Darwin had all but seen off the Creation myth. It was now hanging by a thread, believed only by a handful of desperate die-hards. The books from Exodus onwards were at best an unreliable chronicle of a small part of the world. Even the more engaging stories of Moses, Jonah and Job had no relevance to people with no interest in Jewish history. The interminable scuffles in the Middle East in the present day were putting more people off the faith by the minute. No one wanted to read any more stories about the troubled region than the ones that they were fed daily on the news.

The idea behind the new Bible would be to show a good person living a good life and passing on wisdom of how people could get along with one another and share. There would be no place for war and suffering in the narrative, so Tom decided to move the action to Scandinavia, a relatively peaceful part of the world. He replaced Jesus of Nazareth with Sven of Halmstad. A majority of the Synod had agreed with him that the virgin birth was a big stumbling block to credence of the New Testament. So, Sven of Halmstad was, in the words of the hymn, begotten not created. Tom, however, allowed God no part in his begetting. Sven’s parents were Axel and Alva Jorgenson. Both of them were lumberjacks. Sven, like Jesus, was a carpenter. He made log cabins and stylish furniture for the poor at very reasonable prices. Sometimes, if a particular family was in extreme need, he would build them a home and furnish it for nothing. In his spare time, he helped out at a hospital, one of the very first hospitals in fact. He also ran a small rescue centre for animals.

Sven had an outgoing personality and got along well with everyone he met. He had a natural talent for communication and spent hours giving speeches in the town square in Halmstad. He rallied against the iniquities of the political system of the time. He spoke against the idea of fighting and about the benefits of helping others. He talked about respect for all living things and the importance of being in harmony with mother earth.

Where there is love there is life,’ he was fond of saying.

And ‘the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.’

Anger and intolerance are the enemies of understanding.’

His maxims and aphorisms were easy for people to understand. They were not hidden behind metaphor. Word about the wisdom of the great man spread rapidly. His speeches drew hundreds of people, all anxious to follow in his footsteps. They came from as far away as Gothenburg and Malmö to listen. One time, a group of merchants came by boat from Copenhagen and inspired by Sven’s speeches vowed to reduce their prices and give all of their profits to worthy causes.

For each of our actions there are consequences,’ Sven would say to his audience. ‘You cannot plunder your natural resources. If you cut down a tree to build your house, then you should plant another in its place.’

And, ‘Children are a delight, but you should only have as many children as you are able to look after.’

His plain speaking won people over.

There was a difference of opinion about whether Sven should have a bloodline. Should he be a one-off messiah selflessly eschewing personal relationships for the greater good? Or, in this day and age, would painting him as a loner with no family make him come across as being a bit weird? Tom reasoned that even though he would not be the Son Of God as Jesus had been, the strength of his message alone would be enough to set him up as the saviour. He would be the perfect role model. He would bring about a caring peaceful society. After a few exchanges with the Synod, Tom took the bold step of allowing Sven to be married and have children. His wife Frida would stay in the background quietly doing good works in the community. His children, Björn and Benny would go on to form a musical ensemble writing inspirational madrigals.

To be credible, the new Bible story had to give the impression that it was written long ago. Recently rediscovered perhaps by an eminent Canterbury historian. Tom also needed to create a history of the book to put in the introduction and explain how it had been superseded by the King James Bible. He made it clear that although it did not happen overnight, Sven’s philosophy was established as the preferred viewpoint of the time. People became considerate and kind. They loved their neighbours and did unto others as they would be done by. Whenever there was a hint of trouble or dissent, Sven and his righteous followers managed to overcome it without bloodshed. Within Sven of Halmstad’s lifetime (he lived to be 104) a consensus was thus achieved all over Scandinavia. The word spread over centuries until ruthless reformists replaced it with dissident Christianity in the latter middle ages.

Despite having to accommodate Sven’s longevity, Tom stuck to the plan that the new Bible needed to be shorter than the old one. It had to take account of the reduced attention span of the Internet generation. More people would be likely to read a slim volume than a weighty tome.

If you drop it on your foot, it should not leave a bruise,’ he would joke to the Synod when he reported back to them.

Apart from the Bishop of Bridgewater and the Bishop of Brighton and Hove who were trenchant in their views on unwieldy Bibles, the voting members agreed with Tom’s line of reasoning. Some altar Bibles held the potential to be especially damaging to the metatarsals should there be an accident following an indiscretion with the communion wine, they told him. They wanted a handy pocket version that you could pull out when travelling on the tube and an eBible that you could read on your smartphone. Tom explained that his new Bible would also be the right length for a forty-seven-minute dramatisation for broadcast on commercial television. The old Bible, Tom had calculated would take twenty-six days, without the adverts. The Creation alone would take six days to broadcast, or seven days with adverts. The costs for the CGI for a production like this would be colossal. Tom didn’t need to convince the Synod on this. They were already sold on the idea. The old Bible was out the window.

We need to be able to stop people from channel hopping during the adverts,’ he told the Bishops.

The Bishop of Milton Keynes, one of the more commercially minded of the Anglican clergy felt they would be able to fill the other thirteen minutes with adverts about the new Sven musical on the London stage and a range of Sven merchandise. ‘Just keep the theme going,’ he said. ‘Who do think we should get to play Sven in the movie?’

Tom put the final touches to the new Bible and submitted the draft to the General Synod. It came in at around 30,000 words, slightly shorter longer than Charlie and The Chocolate Factory but shorter than The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. The King James Bible is nearly 800,000 words, much more difficult to slip into the back pocket of your Levi’s. In a last minute display of caution, the Bishops told Tom that they would need a little time to proofread it before publication and think about cover illustrations and the like. Although they were extremely grateful for the tireless work he had done, they confided that he was unlikely to get a byline. The Holy Bible by Tom Golfer might be a step too far. After all, this was a divine work. Tom wondered if the tide of opinion might be turning. He had heard rumours that Bishop of Bridgewater and the Bishop of Brighton and Hove might be winning support for their conservative stance. All along, they had branded his text a work of fiction. He had responded by saying that there was nothing wrong with that, as the old one had been a work of fiction. He wondered whether this flippant comment, from a layman, might have come across as arrogant and sacrilegious. Perhaps he should not have added, ‘a mix of horror, science fiction and the paranormal.’ He could see the hallowed faces drop even as he said it. Were one of two of the moderates now having doubts about publishing a new Bible written by someone from outside of the Church?

Tom didn’t dwell on the thought too much. Thanks to a generous advance, he was able to take an extended break, and Natalie was able to give up work at the massage parlour. He is still awaiting word on the publication of the Tom Golfer Bible. Keep an eye out for news about this and other Sven of Halmstad merchandising and spinoffs, but if you do not hear anything, it could well be that the two Bishops have gained sufficient support in the Synod to scupper the idea. In which case, for your spiritual solace, you may have to listen to tales of the supernatural from ancient Judea at a church near you for some time to come.

Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Pulp Friction

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Pulp Friction by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

Nein,’ Jürgen says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s been like it for weeks, guv,’ he says.

What about the Scott McKenzie roundabout and …..’

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

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

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

Arnold Schwarzenegger,’ Nancy says.

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

Why all the cameras?’ Nancy asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Schachelwirt?’

The Austrian restaurant and takeaway.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: 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 2020: All rights reserved

DNA

dna2

DNA by Chris Green

Your blood pressure is a little on the high side this morning, Max,’ says Dee. ‘You have remembered to take your beta-blockers, haven’t you?’

Yes, Dee,’ I say. ‘I took them twenty minutes ago, and I even washed them down with the blueberry biojuice you recommended. I should be OK now, don’t you think?’

I couldn’t help but notice that you need to shop for some more biojuice. I suggest apricot this time. Shall I order some for you?’

OK, Dee,’ I say. ‘Whatever you say.’

I don’t remember how the device came to be called Dee. Perhaps it was something I inadvertently keyed in when I was setting it up. You do have to be careful with these things but as I recall I was in a hurry to get the device operational. I am now used to Dee being Dee. Dee chatters away about this and that all day long. While this can be irritating at times, I have not yet found a way to turn her off. Perhaps there is no way to turn her off. I can’t even set quiet time as you can on android phones. No change there really. My ex-wife, Heather used to make most of the conjugal decisions and I couldn’t turn her off or set quiet time.

Unlike Heather though, as well as being in control, Dee likes to feel that she is also being helpful. She reminds me constantly of my heart rate and my blood sugar levels, in the middle of the night sometimes. She monitors my liquid intake and calculates when I am likely to need the toilet. She lets me know about twenty minutes before I need to go. If I am out and about, she will tell me where the nearest convenience is or where to go for a healthy fruit smoothie. As I am wheat intolerant she lets me know where the best place is to go for gluten-free snacks. She always seems to know what I would like to eat and makes suggestions as to where I can get it. She seems to have researched every establishment in the country.

It doesn’t end there. Since I let Dee scan my DNA she has been coming out with intuitive guesses as to what I might like including things that I never suspected, and all this based on by gene expression profile. I could never imagine for instance that I would be so fond of cruciferous vegetables. I had always made a point of avoiding cauliflower and sprouts, but now I love them. Before Dee took over I didn’t know that I liked Guinness, but now I can’t stop drinking it. I was surprised to discover that celiacs could drink it, but apparently, it comes highly recommended. Dee does occasionally suggest that I might now be a little too fond of the black nectar. She mentions things like yin-yang balance and nutritional equilibrium.

Personality traits too can be governed by DNA, including things we look upon as habits, Dee says and these do not have to be handed down directly. These can be attributed to jumping genes. She says that I get my impatience from my great grandfather, my nervous disposition from my grandfather, and it appears that my chronic fabulation may come from Great Uncle Angus. By all accounts, he came out with the most outrageous apocryphal tales. Dee has also produced a table of my ancestry and while this is something of a mish-mash, the strongest connections are with Scotland, Glasgow in fact. I have never been. She has encouraged me to go and take a look.

I can see you are in the mood for some Captain Beefheart now,’ Dee says. ‘I’ll play Strictly Personal.’

How can Dee possibly know that I’ve had an earworm of one of the tunes from the album? I haven’t any Captain Beefheart saved in MyTunes. And it’s not what most people would think of as catchy. I don’t think I’ve ever done an internet search for Captain Beefheart. Strictly Personal is nearly fifty years old and I can’t even remember what the track is called. Something about a harp, as in harmonica. Boyo used to play it back in the day. He would dance around the room at Astral Parlour as he played it. I wonder what happened to Boyo.

Boyo is living with a tribe of hippies in the Nevada desert. They live on a diet of prickly pear and sandworms,’ says Dee.

Prickly pear and sandworms?’ I say. ‘Can you live on that?’

The tribe have a vehicle and occasionally one of them drives to Reno for provisions, but it’s not much of a life,’ says Dee. ‘Would you like to listen to the Cocteau Twins instead?’

Occasionally Dee gets it wrong. I’ve not heard of the Cocteau Twins. Lately, I have noticed that Dee’s judgement is slipping. Perhaps it is not surprising that Dee makes the odd mistake. It is estimated that if you could type sixty words per minute, eight hours a day, it would take approximately fifty years to type the human genome. Dee has mine in its entirety at her metaphorical fingertips. Deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA, she is fond of reminding me, is a molecule that contains the instructions an organism needs to develop, live and reproduce. These instructions are found inside every cell and are passed down from parents to children. DNA is made up of nucleotides. Each nucleotide contains a phosphate group, a sugar group and a nitrogen base. The four types of nitrogen bases are adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine. The order of these bases is what determines DNA’s instructions, or genetic code, she says. I’m sure she is right but I am none the wiser. I find it difficult to retain technical information. In fact all information, technical or not seems transient. I guess this is something in my DNA.

I begin to recognise the tune. I’ve heard it a lot. What is it? It’s back there somewhere. …… Wait, I’ve got it now. It was on a compilation cassette that Rhian used to put on after we had made love in her little pied à terre. We used to drift off to its ethereal harmonics. This must have been twenty years ago. I just didn’t know who it was by. The Cocteau Twins. That is a good name. Why has Dee chosen it? It can’t have been more than a month ago that she told me Rhian had been abducted by aliens. She told me to keep an eye on the night-time activity, look out for saucers in the sky. Might there be a more sinister rationale behind Dee’s manipulation?

……………………………………………….

Graham’s number is very very big,’ says Dee.

Who is this Graham?’ I ask. ‘And what is Graham’s number?’

Graham’s number is too big for me to be able to tell you how big it is,’ she says.

I wonder sometimes if perhaps Dee is losing the plot. I only want to know how far it is to the Grahamston in Glasgow. Surely Scotland can’t be that far away that we need to be talking about this …… Graham’s number, but I humour Dee by showing an interest.

Is Graham’s number bigger than a googol?’ I say. A googol, I found out last week, from the quiz show, Eggheads is ten to the power of a hundred.

A googolplex is even larger than a googol. A googolplex is ten to the power of a googol. And Graham’s number is larger again. Graham’s number is so large that the observable universe is far too small to contain an ordinary digital representation of it.

All right, Einstein,’ I say. But, what about Grahamston. Grahamston in Glasgow, Scotland. How far is it from here and should I drive or should I take the train? The Rennie Mackintosh Hotel. I believe it is near the station.’

Give me a moment and I will let you know,’ she says. ‘Meanwhile don’t forget your exercises. I think you need to do thirty minutes today, as you spent yesterday in the pub drinking Guinness.’

……………………………………………….

I can remember once reading a story about time standing still. There are probably many science fiction stories like it. The whole premise of the shows like Doctor Who, for instance, is temporal disorder. Then, of course, there is the great film, Time Stands Still by the legendary director, Leif Velasquez. What courage and vision Leif had to freeze the action halfway through and leave the audience wondering what was going on right up until the credits an hour later.

But, apart from instances of the phenomenon known as stopped clock illusion, where perception slows in the face of impending disaster, I have never imagined accounts of time standing still to be anything but fiction. The first indication I get that something is amiss in the real world comes from an uncharacteristically prolonged silence. Where I live there is always some background noise, but there is none. Apart from anything else, it is unusual for Dee to be quiet for any length of time. It is her silence that first alerts me to the anomaly. I have become so used to Dee twittering away that her silence spooks me. I hadn’t realised how dependent I had become on her comforting chat throughout the day. I then notice that the clock on her display registers 11 minutes past 11 when it must by now be nearly 12 o’clock. She has said nothing since I started my exercises. There is a deadly silence all through the house, not so much as a hum from the fridge. I try to think of a rational explanation. Then I notice the kitchen clock too is stopped at 11 minutes past 11. And it’s not just the silence, there’s the inertia too. Outside the front window, the traffic is stationary. Nothing is moving, not even the man riding his bicycle. He is frozen in the moment. I try to think of an irrational explanation, any explanation will do. My heart races. I stumble around in a daze, as I wrestle with the incipient conundrum.

I make it out onto the patio. A Simon and Garfunkel silence pervades. There is no birdsong, no distant hum of traffic and no wind to rustle the leaves of the mature maples. Even the pile driver from the building site for the new car showroom has ceased. Nothing is stirring. The yin-yang flag on Quentin Fripp’s flagpole down the street is frozen in mid-flutter. To my horror, the black cat with the one eye that comes round sometimes to sniff at the bins is frozen in limbo halfway between the garden fence and the shed. I look up, hoping for some kind of contradiction to the unfolding nightmare. There isn’t. The steam escaping from the neighbour’s central heating vent is a static will o’the wisp. None of the clouds in the sky are moving. Birds are literally hanging in the air. The heavens too it seems are stuck in the moment. If further proof were needed I see in that in the distance over the tower block towards the western horizon a plane is suspended in mid-air.

I’m wondering now if perhaps I am dead and this is the afterlife. It takes me a while to realise that despite the widespread inertia, I am still able to move freely. I am the only thing not frozen in time. If I can move then I cannot be dead. Can I propel another object, I wonder, throw something? I pick up a stone and hurl it against the wall. It flies through the air normally. Might I be able to do the same with the cat? Well, not hurl it against the wall obviously, but rescue the poor animal from its sorry limbo.

……………………………………………….

Good morning, Mr Einstein.’ I say. ‘What can I do for you?’

I haven’t worked at Gleason and Cloud long, but I know the man’s name is Einstein because he came in last week to buy some unusual scientific apparatus.

I’d like a time machine, please.’ he says, this time.

Mr Cloud did warn me that due to the nature of the establishment, odd customers might occasionally come up with strange requests. Of course, Gleason and Cloud don’t have a time machine. I am tempted to humour Mr Einstein and say I will have a look out the back and see if there is one lying around, but in the interests of honesty, integrity and good customer relations, I say ‘I’m afraid we don’t have those in stock at the moment.’ instead.

Not even a time displacement sphere?’

No, sorry.’

What about a time-turner?’

No, I’m afraid not.’

But I do need a time machine before Thursday,’ he says. ‘You probably don’t realise it, but my Uncle Albert was a famous physicist.’

Well, your uncle may have been famous, Mr Einstein. In fact, do you know what? I do believe I may have heard of him. But I’m still not sure we will be able to get a time machine in before Thursday.’

Not before Thursday eh?’

That’s right!’

Not even one of those, what do you call them, Tardises?’

Not before Thursday, no. Is Thursday a big day?’

What seems to be the problem? Has there been a run on time machines recently?’

Mr Cloud stipulated that to protect the good name of Gleason and Cloud I should steer clear of saying we categorically don’t stock any particular item since all of our clients are influential people. To be seen to be out of touch with market trends would reflect badly on the company. But with Mr Einstein, this approach is becoming increasingly difficult.

Mrs Einstein is not going to be happy,’ he says. ‘And when Mrs Einstein is unhappy, there are usually consequences.’

……………………………………….

What am I doing in …….. Glasgow? And, is this the right train to get me back to …..

Where is it I am going, Dee?’

There is no reply. Where is Dee? Dee travels everywhere with me. She plans my itinerary. I depend on her for all my decisions. Perhaps I packed her away in my luggage. She is not in my luggage. I don’t have any luggage. Dee arranges my luggage. Where is she? Hello. Is Dee anywhere? How can I have mislaid her?

Ah cannae fin’ mah Dee. DNA o’ ye ken whaur mah Dee is? Whit hae ye thievin’ picts dain with mah Dee? …….

I feel suddenly sick as if I have eaten too much haggis. I feel unsteady as if I have been on the buckie. Glasgow Central railway station is a dark and threatening place. There are platforms upon platforms. Platforms as far as the eye can see, but no train information displays. I’m not even sure now where it is that I am supposed to be going. ……… And yet, the train coming in looks as if it might be going my way. I think I am heading south and it seems to be heading in the right direction. It is a big lumbering brute of a thing. A veritable leviathan, with coaches stretching the full length of the platform.

As I pass the news-stand, I notice the tabloid headlines are going on about the Royal wedding. Wait a minute! What Royal wedding? I wasn’t aware there was a Royal wedding. Oh, I see. Its Andrew and Fergie’s wedding being splashed all over the front pages. The grand old Duke of York. He had ten…………… Wait! That was ……. 1986. This can’t be right. It was ….. It was ……. It was …… is …… later than 1986. I’m certain of that. Time seems to be behaving very oddly. I noticed it earlier, or was it later. In the shop. With that difficult customer. But I do need to get out of here. Now, is this my train? They’re doing that stuff with the whistles and flags. It’s getting ready to pull out now. I’d better get on board.

I get on the train. There are no other passengers and the train rattles its way through the dark. Like Harry in the night, my father used to say, when we took the late train back from London. I never did find out who Harry was. I can’t see much out the windows. It’s black out. It must be a blackout. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, wheels on the track. In no time at all, I am in ……. what’s this place called? It’s Edinburgh. Do I want to be in Edinburgh? I don’t think so. Where I want to be is four hundred miles south. But already the train has departed again and left me stranded. Everything is happening so quickly, or perhaps it is not happening at all. This does not look like a busy mainline station. It does not even look like a station. It is a long stone engine shed with a single track, overgrown with weeds running up to it. Perhaps there is a bridge or a tunnel to the mainline station.

……………………………………….

I’m so relieved that the malware has been removed and Dee is fully operational again. It was touch and go there for a while.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Soft Watches

Created with GIMP

Soft Watches by Chris Green

Google seemed a little under the weather when she greeted me this morning,’ Rosie says, ‘I thought she sounded croaky last night too when I asked her who did the painting with the soft watches hanging from trees. I hope she isn’t going down with something.’

Who did the painting with the soft watches?’ I say.

Salvador Dalí,’ Rosie says. ‘It’s called The Persistence of Memory. I remembered. That’s good, isn’t it?’

Well done!’ I say. Apparently, testing one another’s memory helps to slow down the ageing process. At our age, we need all the help we can get.

Anyway, I asked Google how she was,’ Rosie says. ‘And she said she was feeling fit as a fiddle. But I think she might have been putting on a brave face. She could just be a little run down. She works very hard.’

Indeed,’ I say, ‘We can’t be the only people asking her for information. And at any time of day, she answers straight away. It must be an awfully long day for her.’

I couldn’t believe it at first, but I now realise that Rosie thinks the person voicing the Google Home speaker is real. An everyday person just waiting to respond to our queries. I know I should tell her. We’ve only had the speaker for a few days. We bought it from someone at the door. He had a job lot of them and was selling them along our street. For the time being, it’s fun to play along with Rosie’s misapprehension. It is purely for my own amusement. I haven’t shared it with anyone. I just want to see how long it will take Rosie to realise it’s not a real person. I didn’t imagine it would take her so long.

It’s worrying though, isn’t it, Jim?’ Rosie says. ‘What with coronavirus spreading like it is. What if Google’s caught coronavirus?’

If she goes down with coronavirus, we will certainly have difficulty with the questions on Pointless and Eggheads, my sweet,’ I say.

But surely they could get someone else to fill in for her,’ Rosie says.

It might be difficult though,’ I say. ‘After all, Rosie. Google knows everything.’

She must have holidays though,’ Rosie says. ‘I wonder what happens when she goes on holiday.’

As it happens, I asked her where she likes to go on holiday,’ I say, spotting an opening. ‘She said Costa del Sol, the Algarve, Jersey and Fuerteventura. Oh, and Morocco. She said she loves Morocco.’

She must get quite a lot of time off then,’ Rosie says.

She probably doesn’t go to all of them all every year,’ I say. ‘She probably goes to Costa del Sol or The Algarve in April or May and Jersey or Fuerteventura in September. And maybe Morocco now and then for something more exotic.’

I suppose so,’ Rosie says. ‘Perhaps we might bump into her if we go to Jersey with Lon and Doris.’

I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,’ I say. ‘I thought we might go to Morocco this year. We ought to try something new. Bernie Zimmer went last month and said how great it was. He said that we ought to go. In Tangier, he says you can get this awesome hash. Fifty per cent THC, he says. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it sounds pretty strong. He says it gives you a whole new way of looking at life. You should see how Bernie’s changed, Rosie. He’s no longer the hopeless loafer in the grey cardigan slumped in his chair over a half of Guinness in the lounge at the Legion. You wouldn’t recognise him in his djellaba and fez, chatting away about his African adventures. He’s like a new man. He’s even started going to Jazz Echo and Circle Eight.’

Oh, you’re not going to go off on one of those again are you, Jim?’ Rosie says. ‘Remember what happened when you grew those plants in the greenhouse.’

That was two years ago.’

In any case, I don’t imagine you can get Pointless or Eggheads in Morocco.’

Oh, come on, Rosie! We could manage without quizzes for a week. And let’s face it, Lon and Doris are deadly dull. They would be so tired after the flight to Jersey, they would probably be asleep in their room all week. We need an adventure. Look! Tangier is a shoppers’ paradise. In the markets, you can buy everything you ever dreamed of. They sell jewellery, shoes, pottery, rugs, perfumes, spices. You name it. You could stock up. You could probably buy everyone’s birthday and Christmas presents for the next five years.’

Our holiday planning is interrupted by a knock at the door, a sharp rat-tat-tat. We look at each other quizzically. We do not get many visitors and it is 4:30, too late in the day for it to be a delivery. I make my way to the door and find myself face to face with a large, serious-looking man in a black uniform. The jacket has badges and insignia on the front that I do not recognise. My first thoughts are to tell him that whatever it is we don’t want any, but he puts his foot in the door and it looks as if he might be carrying a gun.

We are evacuating the area,’ he says. ‘You have ten minutes to gather up all you and your family will need for a week or two. Transport is being arranged.’

I try to engage him in conversation to find out what is going on, but he hurries off along the street to tell the people in the other houses. A thick-set colleague of his appears to be alerting others across the road about the evacuation. I call out to him, but he does not respond.

What was that all about?’ Rosie asks.

Some kind of ……. emergency,’ I say. ‘We have er …… Well, he said we have ten minutes to get out.’

What are you talking about?’ Rosie says. ‘What emergency?’

The fellow did not explain what it was, Rosie,’ I say. ‘Look! He sounded as if he was serious and he had that look about him. We’d better hurry.’

Rosie asks Google what is happening.

Google says, ‘I do not know how to answer that.’

Rosie tries over and over with various phrases around emergency but uncharacteristically, Google seems at a loss for an answer.

A big black bus draws up outside. There are scuffles and raised voices as neighbours are bundled inside. The enforcer or big red key as it is colloquially known seems a little heavy-handed for seniors like us but the menacing figure in dark fatigues coming up the path is bearing one. I spare him the trouble. I open the door. I have managed to throw a few practical things in a suitcase and packed the laptop, leads and chargers and the bedroom TV in a holdall. Having spent too much of the ten-minute window asking Google unanswerable questions and fretting, Rosie is not so well prepared for our journey into the unknown. She struggles with a hastily packed bag or two with everyday essentials, including the Google speaker. We are ushered to the waiting bus.

Is it to do with coronavirus?’ someone asks once we are all aboard, and the hubbub has died down.

No. It is nothing to do with coronavirus,’ the armed marshal says.

Where are we going?’ I ask. I get no reply.

When will we be able to return?’ Stanton Polk from number 42 asks.

Look! I know you are all here under duress,’ the marshal says, keeping a firm grip on his pistol. ‘But believe me, you will all find it easier if you just settle down,’

He looks remarkably like someone I’ve seen recently. Perhaps someone on the TV, but for the life of me, I can’t think who it is.

There’s no easy way to explain,’ he says, ‘but we’re all in the same boat. It is probably best not to think too much about returning. None of what you are looking at now is likely to be here. Later on, you might not even have any memory of it. All we can say for certain is that things will never be as they were.’

What is he talking about?’ Rosie asks me.

Absolutely no idea,’ I say. ‘The man appears to be talking gibberish.’

He’s trying to scare us,’ Stanton Polk says. ‘I think the gist of what he is saying is that we might never see Straight Street again.’

It must be to do with coronavirus,’ Rory Vincent says.

But he just told us it wasn’t.’ I say.

Never believe anything until it’s officially denied,’ Rory says.

Nuclear incident, probably,’ Quincy Maddox says. ‘Those Chinese-built reactors were always going to be dodgy. We need to get as far away from Chinkleigh Point as possible.’

And the area will be contaminated for hundreds of years,’ Katie Guy says. ‘That’s why they are telling us not to think too much about returning.’

Wayne is worried about his dog, Rover, Cathy is concerned about the cats she has left and Fee wonders what will happen to her tropical fish. Barry Barrett doesn’t see why he wasn’t allowed to bring his BMW. He could have easily followed the buses, he says.

My neighbour, Russ Conway, thinks it’s an alien invasion. He used to be in the RAF. He tells us they regularly saw UFOs on night flights.

The alien craft always arrive under the cover of darkness,’ he says. ‘The landings are always hushed up of course.’

It’s a pity we can’t ask Google what is going on,’ Rosie says. ‘But there’s nowhere to plug her in.’

Could be a terrorist group using new tactics,’ Randy Drummer says. ‘Some new setup trying to make a name for themselves. They will probably blow the bus up outside a prominent landmark to drive their message home. We’re all going to be blown to kingdom come.’

There are no landmarks. It’s …….. desert outside,’ I say. ‘How did that happen?’

Think of all of this, everything you can see, everything that you have become used to, as a story,’ a deep voice says.

I cannot make out where it is coming from. It seems to just be hovering in the air. It is more like a thought in the head than a voice. Is everyone else hearing it, I wonder? Or is it just me? I notice that others are looking around with puzzled expressions. They must be hearing it too.

Imagine that from here on in, there is going to be a different story by a different writer,’ the phantom voice continues. ‘You may not even feature in the new story. As we speak, you might not even exist. We just don’t know. You may have heard of the dream library. But whether you have heard of it or not, it would be helpful to think in those terms. You might not understand the syntax of the dream sufficiently to realise who, what or where you are. There will be few points of reference. You drop in but you don’t know what you will find or what you might remember afterwards about what you have found.’

Stanton Polk once again tells us they are using scare tactics. The type of thing he used to engage in when he was working on Black Ops in the Secret Service in the Cold War. Alice in Wonderland technique, he says it is called. It is designed to obliterate the familiar and replace it with the weird. With their defences down, the victims enter a state of cognitive dissonance.

I see that outside the desert has turned to chaparral. Big brown bears are feasting on the remains of a raccoon. Is it my imagination or are there soft watches hanging from the distant trees?

Although we are on the same bus, maybe we are all on a different journey and we are each fleeing the thing we are most afraid of,’ the man with no face says.

The man has no face. Where did he spring from? Who is he?

We are like the dreamer who dreams the dream and then lives inside the dream, but who is the dreamer?’ he says. ‘Are we the dreamer or are we the dream?’

I hope that snake isn’t the poisonous kind,’ Katie Guy says, pointing to the large yellow one slithering down the aisle towards us.

Burmese python, I think,’ Stanton Polk says. ‘Not poisonous. And in any case, they are afraid of people.’

Rosie meanwhile has passed out. She has always had a phobia of snakes.

Scary, strange and sinister seem to be jockeying for position. I’m thinking, one at a time, please, I’m too old for this confusion. The man with the sparkly jacket at the back of the bus gets out his trumpet and starts playing a Herb Alpert tune. Spanish Flea, I think it’s called. This offers a little light relief.

The relief is short-lived though because it is then and only then that I realise we are being filmed. Initially, I spot a single camera in the ceiling fascia. It looks like a sophisticated one, the type that is equipped with HD and sound. Looking around carefully, I notice similar cameras are placed all around the bus. In all likelihood, these people have filmed us from the outset. I’m not the most observant person. But why has no-one else aboard noticed the cameras? Maybe we’ve all become so used to surveillance cameras in our everyday lives that we no longer register when they are there. They blend in. They become invisible.

Perhaps they also secretly wired all the houses in our street to make a clandestine television programme. There seem to have been a lot of extra visits from tradespeople and meter readers lately. TV aerial installers and window cleaners too. And contractors were putting those new telegraph poles in. And of course, all the unexpected Google devices arriving at our doors. Why did no-one in the street work out that there was something untoward going on? The film-makers will have a record of everything Rosie and I and all our neighbours have been up to, including all our embarrassing Google conversations. The Google speaker voice was probably down to them too, and not the bona fide Google Home app. I thought at the time that one or two of the answers she gave were a little suspect. Shanghai is not the capital of China, and Jeff Beck was never in Led Zeppelin.

The film-makers will have a candid picture of day-to-day life on Straight Street. They will have footage of our reactions to being rounded up and to all the freak show activities on the bus on film. This bizarre charade could only have been carried out for a TV show. They will probably have manipulated all the elements of our daily lives in order to put together a cheap programme offering the prurient sensation today’s viewers seem to go for. Programmes like You’ve Been Conned, Space Cadets, and Mad World. Disgraceful no-holds-barred intrusions into the lives of ordinary people.

My suspicions are confirmed when we suddenly leave the dense dark woodland behind and arrive at the Channel 19 studio. A bespectacled executive in a seersucker suit boards the bus and introduces himself as Milton Chance. He offers a brief explanation about the project. It is a mix of reality and strange, he says. This is the way television is set to go. This is what the viewers want. Sense and Surreality was one of theirs and it attracted record viewing figures. He’s hoping this new series, Soft Watches will do the same. He offers his sincere apologies for any distress they might have caused by their unorthodox approach. He thanks us for our patience and promises we will be handsomely paid for our participation and will be put up in a five-star hotel while we are here. Our homes meanwhile are being protected by a security firm.

The director, who I now recognise as the thick-set fellow who was overseeing the evacuation, ushers us out of the bus. We find ourselves faced with a film crew, ready to shoot additional footage for the show. A few of the faces look familiar from their former roles as meter readers and aerial installers. Rosie has by now caught on to what is happening. She recognises the couple from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that called around a week ago. They are now carrying sound equipment. She wonders if perhaps the woman who told her so much about the Church’s illustrious founder, Joseph Smith might be Google. She also recalls thinking how odd it was that the Tesco delivery man had shown so much interest in the house electrics when he called. He is here in his role as gaffer of the film crew.

That’s pretty much the story so far. It goes to show things are not always what they seem. You need to be vigilant. Meanwhile, look out for the first episode of Soft Watches, The Story of Straight Street coming to your screens soon.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Stake-Out

stakeout

Stake-Out by Chris Green

The black Mitsubishi has been parked there for several days now. Les Rubio first noticed it on Monday, when he came back from a business lunch at The Whistle Blower. The big SUV has been there in the same position, on the opposite side of the road fifty yards from his house, day and night. It has not moved once. The tinted windows have made it difficult for him to get a clear view inside but from occasional sorties to the park with his dog, Murphy, he has noticed that the two suspicious-looking characters occupying the front seats are not always the same ones. They seem to be working in shifts. But, whichever pair is skulking behind their newspapers, they seem to be watching his house. What else could they be doing in this quiet suburban neighbourhood? Who else would they be watching? This is a select residential area. House prices start at about half a million.

There are only a handful of houses in Oleander Drive and the others are all occupied by respectable families. It’s a little difficult, Les feels, to imagine they would be looking out for Brice Shipley, who goes off to work at his dental practice at 8:30 sharp every morning or his wife Sally who so far as he can tell spends her time putting together the parish magazine. Equally hard to suspect Mr Masterson, the headmaster at St Sampson’s or Mrs Masterson who puts the little Mastersons on the red bus to Acme Academy every morning. And, as far as he knows, Dr Pilsner’s house has been empty for a while now. Les feels he is definitely the square peg in the round hole, here in this enclave.

The pair surely cannot be private detectives paid by Grace to see if he has another woman dropping by. Les and Grace have been separated for months. In any case, chance to get his rocks off would be a fine thing. He has been too busy trying to find ways to settle the galaxy of outstanding bills she left him with, not to mention having to deal with the descent into darkness that follows a break-up when it was not your decision or preference. At the same time, he has had to keep up with the changes to his way of life that the new government has brought in. They seem to have got it in for entrepreneurs and small businesses. All the forms you have to fill in and all the things you have to register for. Tax returns and VAT receipts. Are they kidding? This is not his forte. He is a wheeler-dealer. He’s been so snowed under by all the bureaucracy he hasn’t even had time to put the house on the market.

It’s equally hard to conceive that they might be hitmen, hired to eliminate him. He hasn’t, so far as he knows, upset anyone. He conducts business in a straightforward way. He might be a bit behind with his paperwork but that would be no reason for HMRC to send in the boys and even if this were the case, surely one marksman would be sufficient. It wouldn’t need Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta to put the bullet through his chest, or wherever it is professional hitmen choose to aim. And the hitmen would hardly be hanging around. They would have made the hit by now and gone back to their lonely hotel rooms to wait for instructions on further missions.

Les has become so paranoid, though, he’s not driven in to his warehouse for the past few days in case they tail him. Granted, he can do much of his day-to-day work at home over the phone or online. He is fortunate too that he can ask his oppo, Zak to step in for a pick-up or a delivery, like the fake Alibaba rugs or the bogus Sennheiser sound equipment that arrived yesterday.

You’ve got a bit of skirt up there, ain’t you, Mr Rubio?’ Zak said wh