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

lederniermot2

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

Strangers When We Meet

strangerswhenwemeet

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?’

© 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 when he told him he wasn’t coming in.

I wish,’ he said. ‘Look, Zak! I will be in soon. In a day or two. Three, tops. Definitely Friday.’

I can come over if you like and we can go over things,’ said Zak.

You’d better stay away, Zak,’ he said. ‘I’ve got the …… Zika virus.’

He thinks it best not to let them see someone like Zak visit him. Zak is more Trotters’ Trading than reputable entrepreneur. He wouldn’t look right in Oleander Drive. He’s from Toker’s End. That’s the other side of the tracks. The Mitsubishi men would pounce on him straight away.

I thought you only got that Zika thing in Brazil,’ said Zak.

It has spread, mate, Haven’t you heard?’ Les told him. ‘But don’t worry. I think I’m on the mend now.’

…………………………………………

On one of this reccies with Murphy, Les manages to get a better look inside the SUV. They have the windows wound down and he can almost make out the men’s features. Just a feeling he has, but they do look like they might be police. They have police sunglasses and police haircuts. Beyond that though he is at a loss. There are so many facets to police work these days it’s pointless to speculate which squad these might be from. He recalls being woken by the resonant thrum of the police helicopter hovering over his house on Wednesday night. He pulled back the curtains and could just make out its shape above the back garden. It was so black it was practically invisible, but certainly not silent. His friend, Jimmy Jazz says it was probably a Chinook. The modern police see themselves as a military unit, Jimmy says. It’s to do with all those movies.

Les phones his friend, Robyn Constable downtown to see if she knows what might be going on. Sergeant Constable has helped him out several times before for a small consideration and makes sure a blind eye is turned to his nefarious schemes. Les does not like to think of it as bribes. It’s a bit like paying insurance premiums. Sergeant Constable does not think of it as bribes. It’s just another aspect of police procedure in these troubled times.

I’m being watched night and day,’ Les tells her.

That doesn’t sound good, Les,’ she says. ‘For a man in your position.’

It’s not anything to do with your …… officers, is it?’

I’ve not heard anything,’ she says. ‘But you better fill me in with a few details so that I can check if we’ve got the word out on you. No guarantee I will be able to stop it if its another squad, though, you understand.’

Two men dressed in dark clothes. Parked up in a black Mitsubishi outside my house. Round the clock, 24/7,’ Les says. ‘They do look like they might be plain-clothes if you know what I mean. But it’s not always the same two.’

What are you saying, Les?’ she laughs. ‘Do we look different to others? Is it the prognathous jaw, or the third eye, perhaps? I tell you what. I will ask around and let you know if there’s a match. Your payment is due by the way.’

Again?’

Every three months, Les. The payment is due every three months. Unless of course, you want me to…’

No, it’s OK. I will get it to you. Just find out about these guys, please.

They might, of course, be security services, Les. Had you considered that?’

Sergeant Robyn Constable has a point. They could be from the nearby spy base, the so-called listening centre. There are thousands of people working at the base. Les has often wondered what they find for them all to do all day. Perhaps this is part of their outreach programme. Might it be something to do with the dodgy domain names he bought, the ones with the sensitive addresses? This is the kind of thing that perhaps might be of interest to intelligence services. But there again, given the nefarious things that go on in cyberspace, would the security services be especially excited over the innocent purchase of a few domains with names like bombisrael(dot)com? There was, of course, the domain he purchased that actually had gchq in the name.

Les hasn’t set up websites on any of the domains. He wouldn’t know how to. He just bought the domain names for his amusement after coming back from The Whistle Blower one night. There was a pop-up ad for buy one get one free offer on domain names. He bought forty-eight of them for the price of twenty-four. He bought them purely to see how far he could go with the names before someone would try to stop him. No-one did. He realises he shouldn’t have done it, but when you are drunk sometimes crazy ideas come into your head, and he was very drunk, he recalls. Grace had not long packed her bags.

To cut a long story short, Les Rubio spent time in la-la land. Whisky and gin, along with his appointed psychiatrist Dr Pilsner’s powerful prescription drugs, temporarily got the better of him. He was in such a bad way, he feels lucky now to have pulled through. It was a mistake to stock those cheap spirits from China. You never know what you are drinking and God knows what the pills were. Perhaps he just took too many. It’s so easy to get a digit wrong when you are under stress. He might have taken ten a day rather than one a day. He wonders what has happened to Dr Pilsner. He hasn’t seen him around since his discharge. Perhaps he has taken a sabbatical to write a primer on anxiety disorders or taken a lucrative teaching post in his native Vienna or something.

Whoever the mysterious emissaries in the Mitsubishi are, if they want him, why don’t they just come and get him? What are they waiting for? Surely they don’t imagine he’s armed and dangerous. And why he wonders are they drawing attention to themselves? There must be subtler ways to spy on him. What about drones? Or a rotation of cars parked in different places. A plain white van. Bogus workmen digging up the road. There must be any number of ways for surveillance operatives to look anonymous, even in an exclusive residential area like Oleander Drive. Perhaps he should have driven normally past them a moment ago, then they would have followed him and then they would have to have it out. At least then he would know what was what.

Les is astonished that the well-to-do neighbours haven’t said something to him about it all. It’s not as if the surveillance could have escaped their notice on such a quiet street. Jarvis Heckler lives in the large detached house opposite where they are parked. He is a retired civil servant and he is always outside washing his Jaguar or manicuring his box hedges. You would have thought he would have been around or at least gone over and had a word with them. And the Mitsubishi is practically parked outside Stacey Aragon’s house. She is forever asking him about Grace and when she might be coming back, waiting to see what his reaction is. There only has to be an unexpected conversation in the street for Stacey to be rustling her Cath Kidston curtains to see what’s going on. But somehow the parked vehicle seems to have escaped her attention. Has she gone away to see an ailing relative or something, Les wonders? Why have none of the neighbours registered the intrusion to their settled lives? Perhaps they have all gone off to see ailing relatives. Might they all be in collusion? Maybe the mystery men in the car have phoned them all and got them all on side with the assurance that it will soon be over and they will be gone.

…………………………………………

Today is Friday and Les Rubio does have to go in to the warehouse and the men in the Mitsubishi are still outside. He drives slowly past, hoping that they will realise that he has spotted them and they will realise that he will be expecting them to follow him. So they won’t. Reverse psychology. He thinks that it is the original pair casting a furtive glance over their red-tops, the ones he spotted on Monday. To his relief, no-one tails him and there is no black stakeout vehicle waiting to intercept him at the warehouse. Inside the premises, everything seems to be as it should be. He logs into the computer, half expecting to find some gremlin in the system or some horror in the inbox, but there is nothing. Everything seems to be running smoothly. There are even some new orders. He takes a look around the stock. The silver saxophones are still in the storeroom along with the multicoloured Gucci handbags. The Alibaba rugs and the new sound equipment are there. He needs to get on to moving some of the internet TVs later to make room for the Japanese clarinets that are arriving.

Zak arrives in his beaten up old van, the one he uses to ferry his band, Corpse around. They are death metal or thrash metal or some kind of metal, Les can’t remember which. Zak keeps asking him to go along to gigs but he is delaying this particular pleasure. He comes in with his headphones on, singing along to some crashing guitar chords. With an air of distraction, Les greets him.

Whatcha, Mr R,’ says Zak, taking off his phones. They look suspiciously to Les like one of the sets that came in yesterday, but he lets it go. ‘You recovered from the Zika bug a bit quick.’

Well, you know, Zak. I do keep myself in shape,’ Les says, puffing out my chest and holding his stomach in. ‘Takes more than a virus to get the better of me.’

I drove by your place on the way in, Mr R.’

But you live in Toker’s End.’

I know. I took a bit of a detour. I was going to call in to see how you were, but there were dozens of Old Bill around.’

What?’

Old Bill. You know, the bizzies.’

What? Outside my house?’

Difficult to tell, Mr R. There were shitloads of candy cars around and more of them seemed to be arriving, so I didn’t hang around to find out. Some funky shit is going down, I’d say.’

Come on! We’d better go and see what’s happening.’

Are you sure, Mr R. What if……. You know ….. All right. We’d better go in the van, then. Incognito, like.’

No. It’s too late for that now. Get in the Merc!’

Over the three-mile journey, traffic is slow. The atmosphere is strained. Conversation is sporadic and staccato.

How many police cars, Zak?’

Lots of them. ……. Wasn’t that a red light, Mr R?’

Can’t you stop blowing that in my face, Zak? What do you put in those….. joints?….. Wait. Pass it here! It might help.’

It’s called Northern Lights, Mr R.’

That’s skunk, is it?’

The best. ….. Are you OK, Mr R?’

I’ve not been thinking straight lately, Zak. I’m not sure what is real and what is not.’

I wouldn’t worry too much about that, Mr R. Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.’

I don’t know if I’m in a state to make decisions anymore.’

I can’t help but notice that you have seemed a little weird recently, Mr R. In fact, you’ve not been the same since Grace left.

Is it that noticeable? Tell me, Zak! Why am I going into the lion’s den?’

I think if it were me I might be doing a runner or at least lying low. ……. Didn’t you see that woman in the Toyota pulling out?’

Despite the advice, indecision persists. The Mercedes makes it way westward and before they know it they are approaching Oleander Drive. They are greeted by a battery of flashing blue lights. Police vehicles are everywhere. A bustling crowd has gathered to watch the unfolding drama, including a pack of press reporters and a TV crew. Amongst the confusion, it is difficult to ascertain what exactly is going on. As Les and Zak push their way through the mêlée, it slowly becomes clear that a handcuffed man is being led kicking and screaming by a pack of burly police officers to a riot wagon.

Mad doctor. Multiple murder. Motive unknown,’ says a disarmingly young reporter, bringing the new arrivals up to speed. ‘I’ll have my own byline.’

The thing is, they had been watching his house for days,’ says another whippersnapper, with a bag full of hi-tech accessories. ‘They were on to him a week ago and waiting for him to return home. What they didn’t know was that he was there all the time. This one is going to run for days.’

And night by night, he managed to get into his neighbours’ houses and murder them in their sleep,’ says the first one, as he keys the story into this phone. ‘Right under the noses of the surveillance team.’

Dr Pilsner,’ Les manages to say. ‘That’s Dr Pilsner. What…..’

Dr Pilsner. Yes, that’s his name,’ says the whippersnapper. ‘He’s a psychiatrist, apparently. This is going to sell some papers. They’ll fly off the news stands. Do you live around here by any chance?’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Shooting Script

shootingscript3

Shooting Script by Chris Green

1:

The headline on the front page of The Independent, Shot Down in Downing Street came as a shock to Catherine Larsson. It was accompanied by a grainy picture of the Prime Minister clutching his shoulder. A trail of blood appeared to be trickling down his white shirt. Unaware that he was being scrutinised, Matt continued to turn the pages of his paper. PM Fighting for his Life, was emblazoned across the centre spread. This was big, big news. Assassination attempts on British Prime Ministers were unheard of. Why had it gone unnoticed? Catherine had heard nothing about the shooting on the news when she drove in to work, it was not reported in her tabloid, and curiously, no one in the office had mentioned it during the morning. Yet a story of this magnitude would be something that spread like norovirus. It ticked all the boxes for good newspaper copy, bad news, head of state, bloodshed and closeness to home. This was something you would expect everyone to be talking about.

Having only been briefly introduced to Matt earlier in the day, Catherine was a little nervous of him. His having possession of the newspaper with the dramatic headline seemed to give him extra charisma but also made him more unapproachable. She occupied herself with some desk tidying while she weighed up the situation. She was about to ask Matt for a look at the paper, or at least get him to clarify what was going on, but at that moment a call came in. When she had finished on the phone, Matt was nowhere to be seen. She had not noticed him leave. Having just started at Total Eclipse Events Management a week ago, Catherine was still finding her feet. She could not remember what position Matt held or where she might find him. She had never seen him around before. Perhaps he was just a visitor. She looked around for her colleague Maddie who had introduced them but now Maddie had vanished too.

Another call came in, and before Catherine knew it, it was lunchtime. Although she liked to keep up with current events, the attempted assassination of a public figure was perhaps in the big scheme of things not going to affect her greatly. It was only politics after all. And furthermore, she didn’t care much for the Prime Minister anyway. He was smug and mendacious. Since her divorce eighteen months ago, Catherine was more concerned with keeping her own boat afloat and making sure that her teenagers, DJ and Jessica were keeping away from the deadly new skunk parties she had heard were sweeping the country. All the same, it was very odd that news of this significance had not circulated more measurably.

Since starting at Total Eclipse, Catherine had begun to take her lunch at Gino’s, a small café around the corner from the office and down a side street. Here she could listen to jazz, enjoy a baguette and a cappuccino and generally chill out. She felt that it was important to put all work thoughts out of her head for a spell, so she usually went alone. She put in her order and took a seat. Miles Davis was playing It Ain’t Necessarily So. Miles was one of her particular favourites. She loved the melodic style of the muted trumpet and the way his quintet filled in the harmonies.

While she was waiting for her order, as she looked around at the jazz posters that hung on the walls, she noticed that Gino’s offered a range of newspapers. Curious once more, Catherine scrutinised them one by one for any news of the assassination attempt. To her puzzlement and alarm, none of them carried the story, not even the Independent, which instead led on the earthquake in the Middle East, with a feel-good picture of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Australia on the right-hand side of the page for balance. Catherine was not comfortable with things she could not explain. They made her head spin and gave her a feeling of nausea in the stomach. She did not touch her baguette.

During the afternoon, when she had a few quiet moments, Catherine zipped around the news sites on the internet. There was not a mention of an assassination attempt anywhere. Had the whole thing been a wind-up? But what would the motive have been? Surely there was no point in such an elaborate hoax, for her benefit. She felt too cautious to bring it up with any of her colleagues. She was the new girl and did not want them to think she was doolaley. There was still no sign of Matt. Had she imagined him too? She thought back to the moment when she had been introduced. There had only been a brief exchange. They had shaken hands. Her mind had misted over and she had felt dizzy, she recalled. She had thought nothing of it at the time as she was in the middle of some printing, and the printer had jammed. She could now bring to mind next to nothing about Matt, other than he was a large thick set man with, she thought, a trace of an accent. She could not recall what the accent was. He was wearing a grey suit, or was it jeans and a sweatshirt, or was it a diver’s wetsuit. She was not sure. It might have been any of these. She remembered only that their eyes had met briefly. This was shortly before he had disappeared. She recalled she had sensed a charge of electricity. Something strange was definitely happening.

As Catherine was getting into her Micra at 5 o’clock, she noticed a black BMW leaving the car park. Although the windows were heavily tinted, behind the wheel was a large shadowy figure. As he sped off, she noted the registration. It was a 68 plate with the first two letter area code being LK. A 68 plate!! But this was 2017. The plate would not be due for another year or so. She experienced that feeling of nausea again like she was slipping away.

Stanmore, London,’ Devinder said, in response to Catherine’s question about the plate’s origin. She had phoned him on her hands-free while waiting for the temporary traffic lights to change at the St Georges junction. ‘But 68 is impossible. You must have misread it.’

No, it was definitely LK 68 something,’ she said.

It is easily done,’ he countered.

Catherine was determined she had not been mistaken.

Would you like me to come over?’ Devinder said, sensing that Catherine was more than a little distressed. ‘I can leave Ravi to look after the shop.’

Catherine did not consider her and Devinder to be an item, but after the dating agency had matched her with a series of chain-smoking lorry drivers, balding insurance salesmen with paunches and sixty year-old thirtysomethings, she had found Devinder to be a breath of fresh air. She had taken to seeing him once or twice a week. She found him knowledgeable, witty, understanding and very good company, except when the cricket was on. Perhaps it was the lavish gifts he bestowed on them on occasions, or some under the counter activity that she was unaware of, but even DJ and Jessica seemed to accept him. Devinder’s biggest plus point, however, was his ability as a lover. No-one had understood her body and pressed all the right buttons like Devinder. It was as though he knew what she was thinking. But of course it was early days and she was careful to remind herself that her ex-husband, Hilmar had once seemed like the man of her dreams.

When Catherine arrived back at her flat in Cardigan Street, she found it empty. Perhaps DJ and Jessica were at the library. There again, more likely they weren’t. There were plenty more unsavoury places to hang out. What could you do with teenagers? Whatever you told them, they would be likely to ignore. They would negotiate their own terms of engagement with life’s great mysteries.

Devinder duly arrived and while Catherine expressed her confusion, administered much-needed comfort. Before long, they found themselves in an uncontrollable embrace. This seemed to happen every time they met lately. There was only one place to go. Afterwards, Devinder attempted to put Catherine in the picture about reality.

Reality is an illusion,’ he said. ‘Even the teachings of the Ten Gurus will tell you that this is so. For instance during sleep dreams seem very real, but upon awakening, you realise that they were just dreams. So it is with this world that we call reality. It is possible to wake from it too. Sri Ramana Maharshi, the great Indian teacher, maintained that the difference between a dream while sleeping and the dream we call wakefulness is only of duration, one short and the other one long.’

So you are saying I did not meet a man called Matt today, who had a unique newspaper and a car from the future,’ Catherine protested. There had been she realised now something strange about Matt’’s presence. It was difficult to explain; it was as though he was there but not there. Although he was broad, he was at the same time, insubstantial, like an apparition.

We never directly experience the world around us,’ Devinder said. ‘All we ever know are the contents of consciousness, the thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations that appear in the mind.’

2:

It was just after six in the evening. Dennis and Audrey Crick were enjoying Eggheads on TV, when they heard a loud knock at the door. Living as they did on a suburban estate, the Cricks quite frequently had cold-callers at this time of day, so they did not immediately answer. At their time of life, they did not get a lot of friends casually coming round and their own family had over the years spread out. Besides, people that Dennis and Audrey knew would always phone before calling round. This caller seemed persistent, so on the third or fourth knock, with a grunt of disapproval, Dennis got up and went to the door. The figures he was faced with across the threshold, a man and a woman, did not look as if they were representatives from a power supplier trying to get customers to switch or speculative callers on behalf of a charity. They wore dark blue quasi-military uniforms and had a grave look about them. The man introduced himself and flashed an ID card. Dennis did not have his reading glasses, so just took it on trust that it was genuine.

You may have heard that there’s been a nuclear accident,’ the man said. He did not give the impression that he was joking.

No,’ Dennis said.

We’re here to let you know about the arrangements for your safe evacuation,’ the woman said.

What?’ Dennis said, astonishment now mixed with perplexity.

We would like you not to panic, but to be ready with the things you need to take in one hour,’ the man said. He barked something cryptic into his chunky radio pack. The pack Dennis noticed had a bold stencil stamp on it, MKEF or something.

Transport is being arranged,’ the woman said. ‘We’ll be taking you to the closest reception centre.’

Any questions?’ the man said.

Dennis was too stunned for enquiry. His rational mind was dissolving. He stood on the step with his mouth open.

We’ve got other calls to make,’ the woman said. ‘One hour! Please be ready!’

Dennis closed the door and went back inside. Barry for The Eggheads had just won the Arts and Books round, having correctly identified that it was Picasso who had said, ‘he wanted to tear reality apart’.

Who was it, love?’ asked Audrey. ‘You’ve gone very pale.’

I think we’re being evacuated,’ Dennis said. ‘A nuclear accident.’

There must have been a radiation leak,’ said Audrey, applying a phrase she remembered from the news coverage of the French nuclear plant crisis.

But I don’t think that there is a nuclear power station within a hundred miles,’ said Dennis. ‘But then, I couldn’t be sure.’

Didn’t you buy a Geiger counter at the car boot last year?’ Audrey said.

No dear, that was a metal detector. I don’t think that would work. Anyway, it hasn’t got any batteries. I was meaning to get some.’ Dennis did not get out much since the rheumatoid arthritis had worsened. It was over a year now since he had been to a Milton Keynes Dons home game. He had not been since they lost 4-0 to Yeovil. The Don’s Montenegrin keeper had been responsible for all four goals in a nightmare game, but the following week he had played a blinder against local rivals, Stevenage in a narrow 1-0 win and even got away with a blatant trip on Stevenage’s Sudanese striker. Dennis found things had a way of working towards a balance. A friend of his was fond of saying, ‘go with the flow.’ Dennis found that this made a lot of sense and saved a lot of time and energy. You could not expect to get a run of green lights all the way to the superstore. And if you did, there would be road works on the way to the garden centre. Dennis attempted to adapt this principle about dynamic equilibrium to their present situation.

Shall I turn over to the news?’ Audrey said. ‘There’s sure to be something about it.’

There was no mention of anything about the emergency on the BBC News or Sky. The military build up on the Turkish border with Iraq and the floods in North America were the main stories and there was a report about a beached whale in the Outer Hebrides. Nothing anywhere about radiation. Perhaps security issues were involved, and the authorities wanted to keep it a secret. If this was the case, how could anyone hope to find out?

Dennis went round to see the Lockharts next door, knocked several times, and peered through the front window, but it appeared they were out. Perhaps they had already been evacuated, he thought. He was about to go round to see if the De Koonings had heard anything when Audrey called him.

I’ve just phoned Alison and she thinks that it is a hoax,’ she said. ‘Fake news, Alison called it..’

Is she sure?’ asked Dennis.

You know Alison pet; she knows everything,’ Audrey replied. ‘She thinks it’s pranksters.’

Bit of a rum thing to joke about,’ Dennis said.

Alison said that the Sintons had two nice young men round to tell them about the total eclipse of the sun. You would only be able to see it from high up, they told her. They went to the clock tower and waited, but there was no eclipse and when they got home they found they had been burgled,’ Audrey said.

Blimey!’ Dennis said.

Then there was the time they said on the tele that Big Ben was going to go digital,’ Audrey said.

But wasn’t that April Fools Day,’ Dennis said.

I still don’t believe it,’ Audrey continued. ‘What do they say on that show, It’s a Wind Up?’

Have we ever watched it?’ Dennis said. Lately, Dennis was finding the drawers in the cabinet where he stored his narrative harder and harder to open. The wisdom of age was, as far as he could see, a fallacy. You spend your life accumulating knowledge so that you can have facts at your fingertips, but the cruel irony being that when you are at a stage of life when you might benefit from this, you are already beginning to lose stock daily from this repository of information. Dennis’s consciousness was diminishing. Most days he and Audrey watched Eggheads, Celebrity Eggheads and perhaps EastEnders, then let the cat out, put their teeth away on the bathroom shelf and went to bed. Sometimes they would stay up to watch a drama. He was not sure why they watched these programmes. He could never remember the answers to the questions on Eggheads, usually lost the thread of the complicated plot lines in EastEnders and had no idea at all what was going on in the drama. There had been one on recently called Total Eclipse, which was so incomprehensible it might as well have been science fiction.

I’ll make us a nice cup of tea,’ Audrey said.

Dennis and Audrey settled down to watch Celebrity Eggheads, which had just started. The Eggheads were playing a team of celebrity chefs. In the Music round the TV chef with the double-barrelled name and the plum in his mouth had just guessed correctly that it was Bungalow Bill and not Caravan Carl or Penthouse Pete who had ‘gone out tiger hunting with his elephant and gun’, in The Beatles’ song. Pat from when there was a knock at the door. It was Lars de Kooning.

Are you and Audrey ready?’ he asked. He had his coat on and a large Team Blitz sports bag across his shoulder.

Audrey’s sister says that it is a prank,’ Dennis said.

Well, we’re all set,’ Lars said. ‘The children are really excited. They think we’re going on holiday. They’ve packed the playhouse. How much do you think they will let us take?’

I don’t know what to think…….What did they say to you?’ Dennis asked. ‘To be truthful, I did not have much of a conversation with them.’

They’re not allowed to say very much, are they? National security. Anyway, it’s probably one of the French nuclear power stations that’s melting down or whatever they call it after there’s been an explosion. The French have got hundreds of reactors dotted all around the coast, and the southerly winds that we have been getting would be blowing the dust over this way.’

You don’t think it could be a nuclear war,’ Dennis said. ‘We seem to be very good these days at upsetting other countries.’

Either way, there would probably be a news blackout,’ Lars said.

You never know what to believe these days, do you?’ Dennis said.

No hay banda! Nothing you see or hear is real.’ Lars said.

Come again.’

Mulholland Drive’

Dennis was none the wiser. Perhaps Mulholland Drive was a film. He and Audrey seldom watched films. Except for The Great Escape or The Railway Children occasionally on Boxing Day. Films today were much too hard to follow.

3:

Matt Black was a television screen-writer by accident rather than design. He left university after his dissertation on ‘The Illusion of Reality’ had been poorly received by the School of Natural and Social Sciences. Matt’s research had been helped along by an eclectic interest in Eastern mysticism, string theory, Carl Jung, Monty Python and psychoactive drug use. The central tenet of his thesis held that contradictory statements could be true; Schrödinger’s Cat was as we know both dead and alive. Were we limited to a single outcome from our decisions, or might a number of outcomes be realised simultaneously, as in Borges’s The Garden of Forking Paths? Paradox was key to Matt’s argument. Which is better, he asked, eternal happiness or a tuna sandwich? It would appear that eternal happiness is better, but, he argued, this is really not so. After all, nothing is better than eternal happiness, and a tuna sandwich is certainly better than nothing. Therefore a tuna sandwich is better than eternal happiness. His frivolity and word play did not go down well with the examiners.

Matt had a loose circle of friends. He was a keen saxophone player and could keep fellow musicians, Bernie, Bazza, Frankie, Gooch and Ziggy, or Eric, Derek, Dolph and Mario entertained for hours with apocryphal tales, in the Jazz bar of The Blind Monkey, where they hung out. Jam sessions at The Blind Monkey interspersed with these exchanges could go on well into the night. Matt refined his stories over the years and his storytelling became more and more polished, until one day fellow saxophonist, Fats, suggested Matt should write for television.

TV drama is like painting by numbers,’ Matt said. ‘It’s so completely predictable.’

Granted most of it is garbage, but there are a few good things,’ Fats said.

One or two maybe. But the television schedule is so mindlessly conventional. The same programmes in the same order every day on every channel. It’s spoon-feeding couch potatoes syrup,’ Matt said.

You are one stubborn sonofabitch. Sometimes in life to get anywhere you have to compromise. Meet them half way. Look at it like this. The jazz world wouldn’t have been able to accept Charlie Parker if he had hit them with his virtuoso improvisations straight off. Even Bird had to establish himself as a player first,’ Fats said.

You mean I have to make a name with a style that doesn’t rock the boat too much,’ Matt said.

That’s right. You’re getting it at last,’ Fats said. ‘Once you’ve had one or two of your efforts screened, then you will be able to experiment. Take your cue from Miles. He started off filling in the harmonies for others. But, once he had made his name, he could make the music that he really wanted. He had the freedom to experiment. And of course, he went on to create some of the twentieth century’s coolest music. The point is he took his audience with him. He could get away with playing anything and they’d listen.’

So, for the time being, I stick to the banal plot line of the discovery of a crime, the plodding investigation by maverick investigator who has family problems and a battle with the bottle, moving towards the arrest of a perpetrator at the end of the episode,’ Matt said. ‘Is that what you are saying?’

Bergerac is not on anymore,’ Fats said. ‘Things have moved on a bit. They have espionage thrillers and all sorts these days.’

Still written to a formula,’ Matt said. ‘Disillusioned intelligence agent goes off the grid, defies authority, blows stuff up. Shoots a lot of people and single-handedly makes the world a safer place.’

And psychological dramas.’

Formulaic. Visibly unstable characters. Dark rooms with long shadows. Sparing dialogue with a lot of echo on the voices. Flashbacks. Bit of sinister music by Sigur Ros repeated throughout.’

I’m sure you’re allowed to throw in a twist or two,’ Fats said.

I guess I’ll have to,’ Matt said.

Matt Black’s success in screen-writing was not immediate. He had to send off numerous ‘spec scripts’ before his first was accepted, a fifty minute post-modern crime drama called Missing Link. Although it was screened at 11: 30 at night on BBC2, it was so popular with viewers that it was quickly re-shown, with just a few cuts, at a sensible hour on BBC1. It also caught the attention of producers at the corporation and Matt found himself working on the team writing for the top BBC soaps. This was not exactly what he would have wanted, he would have preferred the top BBC spy genre perhaps, but the money was good. He knuckled down and gave them scripts involving baby swaps, cot deaths and the annual torching of the pub in their flagship soap. These all seemed to go down well, but when Matt upped the ante and wrote Christian suicide bombers into the script, the producers baulked. Fortunately, people in television now knew his name and all was not lost, as a young executive recognised that Matt’s controversial themes would suit the experimental political thriller. Matt embarked upon a series of successful dramas in this genre, Double Take, The Beirut Diaries, Conspiracy, Total Eclipse, etc.

Following his initial success, Matt Black installed himself in a small but well-placed penthouse overlooking the Thames to do his writing and bought the latest ibook and software. Writing required solitude, but at the same time, it was important to be near the hub of things to provide inspiration. Surrey Quays provided both. He got himself into the habit of writing from 8 to 2 every day and again for an hour in the evening. His reputation developed steadily. His edgy thrillers Collateral Damage and Fragile both won awards, the latter compared by one critic to David Cronenberg, and it was suggested that he might move into films.

Matt was always meticulous in the way he presented his scripts, down to the last detail. He even put in stars and stripes logos where he thought the commercial breaks should be placed if the programme were sold to American television. He was certain that he had saved the document for his new script, Malice, correctly. He had updated it daily. Final Draft 10 was a piece of software on which you could rely. Nearly all screen-writers used it. But when he opened his document one day, he could not help but notice that a key scene from his story had disappeared. Matt was mystified.

He updated his firewall and virus checker, ran a host of malware checks and retyped the scene, as close as he could remember to his original. Fortunately, there was not much dialogue, as there were only two characters, Ron and Anne. Much of this section consisted of sluglines and action. As a further precaution set Final Draft to auto-save each document every two minutes. He also began to back up all his files on a data stick and also, for belt and braces security, on icloud.

Two weeks later he discovered that Bruce and Lee, the two Emergency Force characters from Brink had disappeared entirely from his screenplay. Every reference to them was gone. To his alarm, they had also disappeared from the all of the sequential copies of Brink on his data stick backup and from icloud.

Shane, the technician on the repair desk at PC World told him. ‘We’ve run dozens of tests. There have been no incursions into your hard drive. Your machine seems perfect.’

But its also gone on all of the storage backups,’ Matt said. ‘How do you explain that?’

The loss of data there is even weirder,’ Shane said. ‘It’s is all a bit GCHQ,’

Either that or X Files,’ Matt said.

Shane was not familiar with The X Files. He was from an X Factor generation.

There are measures we could take to find out where the data is disappearing to’ he said. ‘We could put a programme on that would track each byte of data.’

But doesn’t the Apple operating system do that anyway?’ queried Matt.

Well, it does and it doesn’t,’ Shane said.

Perhaps it would be a good idea,’ Matt said, ‘to start again from scratch.’

Fortunately, there was an offer on a top of the range iMac.

Shane readied the machine, and Matt was soon typing into the recovered version of Brink, putting in the passages that had disappeared from the original. It was a cracking script, he felt as he embellished the evacuation scene. Happy that he had made good progress, he went off to make a cup of tea. When he returned, to his horror, the new passages had gone again. In fact, the text of the document was disappearing before his eyes. The sentences were evaporating.

Soon there would be a blank screen.

Soon there would be no-one left in Milton Keynes. Peterborough and Northampton were being evacuated too. There would be burning and looting all over central England. There would be many casualties before order was restored. As he pressed keys helplessly and line by line Brink vanished, he was completely unaware of its far reaching consequences. How could he know? Nothing like this had happened before.

Matt also noticed that, minimised on the task bar, the screenplay for Shot Down in Downing Street was open. The assassin, posing as a reporter, was ready to strike as the Prime Minister emerged from Number 10.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Homburg

homburg2020

Homburg 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

When I Was Older

wheniwasolder

When I Was Older by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

Vincent asks Eve if there is any wine.

Eve laughs and says something about 1969.

What on Earth is she on about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time can be a trickster,’ I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Now

now

Now by Chris Green

The day-to-day proclamations of doom and gloom and celebrity indiscretions in the media were getting me down. It seemed none of it had anything to do with me. Why did I need to know what they were squabbling about in Parliament if I could do nothing about it? Or that a gay piano player and his partner had had another baby? And the talk of military conflicts that made the news with monotonous regularity. Should we attack? Would they attack? Should we retaliate? Would they retaliate if we attacked? Should we retaliate before they attacked? Should we set up a false flag incident and pretend we were defending our territory? Warmongering had been going on all my life. As George Orwell pointed out, wars weren’t meant to be won, the state of war was meant to be continuous with the current enemy, subject to periodical adjustment. But the realisation that this was the case made it all the more depressing. Climate change featured heavily but only inasmuch as no-one seemed to want to do a lot to tackle it. Then there was all the fake news we were fed daily through the mainstream media as vested interests aggressively pushed their jaundiced points of view. News and advertising were now almost indistinguishable. I wanted none of it.

What would happen, I wondered, if stopped watching news or current affairs programmes on TV, in fact, if I watched no TV at all and turned off the internet on my computer and my phone? If I read no papers and averted my gaze each time I passed a newsagent or found myself in a public space where I might inadvertently be subjected to the news? What awareness would I have about what was happening in the world if I relied on snippets of conversation I might accidentally pick up during the daily round? How much would I miss? Would my being out of touch even matter?

I resolved to never get involved in discussions around current affairs with friends and colleagues. Nor would I ask them questions about what was going on. As a seenager, retired and lived in a rural area, I reasoned it ought not to be too difficult to avoid the saturation news updates we were subjected to daily. I might miss Facebook a little and experience mild Twitter withdrawal symptoms but I felt sure I could cope with these. Surely, on the whole, my life would be enhanced. I could follow Eckhart Tolle’s advice and spend more time staring into space. Being here now. Oh, wait! That was the other fellow, wasn’t it?

Shopping presented one of the first big challenges. Everywhere that sold food, supermarkets, general stores, filling stations, etc. also sold newspapers. Watching people plonk their Daily Mail or Daily Express on the belt with their shopping, face up with its screaming headline visible had been one of the big problems in the first place. I found it distressing that these people believed all the stuff they read in these rags and come election time, they voted accordingly. I found that if I left it until later in the day to do my shopping, there was less chance of seeing the headlines. I took to shopping at four in the afternoon. This, of course, did not stop the rain on the way type chatter at the checkout or if they had got their information from The Express that day, the record-breaking temperatures or fourteen inches of snow that was expected before the weekend. It did not stop the racial stereotyping, the casual put-downs of minority groups or the demonising of the youth of today. I was thankful that the checkout operators at Lidl were quicker than most.

My regime also meant that I needed to avoid some of my friends. Roger Burdon was a definite no-no. He talked about little else but the political rough and tumble. He had given me an unremitting blow by blow account of both of the recent leadership elections. Trevor Bailey too was out. He could converse about nothing other than the looming terrorist threat and whether security levels were sufficient. I couldn’t imagine Trevor staring into space or being here now. Ellie Barnes-Wallis’s bizarre fascination with the plump, gay piano player’s burgeoning family suggested I needed to give her a wide berth too. Once I had written off Vince Castle (neo-liberalist alienation and Russian interference in elections), Stan Lee (tax evasion and offshore investments), Cliff and Sarah Richards (LGBT rights and BAME rights respectively), Rosey Parker (Harry and Meghan and celebrity culture) and I had stopped going to The Red Lion and The Black Horse in case conversations touched on current affairs, I was left with no-one to chew the fat with.

Solitude was not as grim as one is led to believe. Being alone was not scary at all. I had more time to stare into space. Without the constant chatter of others, I was no longer tugged this way and that by rogue thoughts. I began to appreciate the world around me. I became aware that I had a fabulous array of wild birds in the garden and took in the sweet songs they sang as they went about their day. How could I have not noticed this before? I watched the clouds float across the sky, mesmerised by their forever changing patterns. It didn’t matter I did not know what the clouds were called. The names we gave to things were just names, they had nothing to do with their essence. I felt somehow connected to it all. I talked to the wind but the wind did not know it was called the wind. It just carried on blowing. I wished upon a star but the star did not know it was called a star. It just carried on reflecting light as it had always done. Everything seemed to be in capricious harmony with everything else. I had a sense that I belonged. Was this what it meant to be in the present moment? Was this the essence of now that Eckhart Tolle talked about? Others referred to the state as mindfulness. Was this it? Free from concepts, was my personal history now just another story?

Occasionally I speculated how many Facebook notifications might have built up or what my email inbox would look like but I didn’t dwell on it. The electricity had not been cut off and the water was still running so presumably the direct debits were still being paid. I was able to resist the temptation to take a peek at any of my online accounts. The past, as someone famously once wrote, was another country. They did things differently there. Or to put it another way, there was no past and there was no future, there was and could only ever be now.

Of course, when I was out and about, I overheard snatches of conversation but did my best to shut these out. It would be the same old stuff. Moans and groans about something inconsequential. I caught the anxious looks on people’s faces but hadn’t this always been the case? Hadn’t anxiety been the norm for most people? I wasn’t about to be sucked back into their world of doom and gloom. If you took the time to look for it, there would always be something to worry about. Insecurity and dissatisfaction made up the backbone of the economic system. Capitalism depended on free-floating neediness. There was always plenty of bad news circulating, a good proportion of it manufactured or fake. To justify their existence, it seemed to be the politicians’ job to make sure of that at there was always a crisis. The role of the media in all its forms was to spread concern about it far and wide.

Retsina seemed an unlikely topic for everyone to be talking about. Retsina was an odious wine, probably only palatable to those born in the Attic peninsula and surely of no interest beyond this. Why then was it suddenly the word on everyone’s lips? I had gone into town to get supplies and the tension was palpable. Anxiety levels were off the scale. On the street and in the shops, there were heated exchanges. People were cursing Retsina. Blaming Retsina for all manner of problems. Retsina was the reason that phones were dead. Retsina was to blame for the power cuts. Retsina was the reason the shopping arcade was closed. There were no newspapers on the news-stands so it could be that Retsina was behind this too. With each step I took, people’s agitation became more and more vigorous. Panic was setting in. It was mayhem. I could contain myself no longer. Being in the present and being at one with oneself was all very well but sometimes curiosity could not be contained. I had to find out what was going on.

I would not normally seek out Ron Smoot, popularly referred to at Wet Blanket Ron but you had to hand it to Ron, he was a mine of information. If you really wanted to know something, he was your man. More importantly, he lived close by. He would no doubt be able to give me a detailed account of whatever it was that was freaking people out.

How on Earth can you not know?’ he said. ‘Everyone’s talking about it. Retsina is the most deadly computer virus yet created. It is rootkit, worm, bot, trojan, multi-purpose all-in-one. In no time at all, it appears to have knocked out all communications worldwide. It’s going to be back to the carrier pigeon and the horse and cart, old buddy.’

Was this a joke? Ron didn’t normally do jokes. He was famed far and wide for his dour delivery.

Then I may have been spared,’ I said. ‘I switched off all my devices a month or two ago.’

It won’t make any difference,’ Ron said. ‘Retsina will have found a way to reactivate them and infect them.’

So just how bad is it, Ron?’ I said.

As soon as I had said it, I realised that you asked Wet Blanket Ron how bad something was at your peril.

It’s bad!’ he said. ‘Nuclear power stations and automatic guided missile systems will have been affected. There’s probably something heading this way as we speak. We’ve no way of knowing, of course, but it could well be the end of civilisation.’

I see,’ I said. ‘Tell me! Why is it called Retsina?’

Good question!’ he said. ‘It is abominable I suppose. And it is thought to have originated in Athens. As Greece was the birthplace of Mathematics and for that matter, modernity, it’s perhaps fitting that it should be involved with the end.’

I am pleased that Eckhart Tolle taught me that there is no past. And no future. There is only now. There can only ever be now. It will always be now. I need to find a quiet space to get down to some serious Omming to contemplate the eternal.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

In Dreams

indreamsdroste2

IN DREAMS by Chris Green

The girl at the next table is the spitting image of the one I was dreaming about little more than an hour ago. The dream comes back to me now in vivid technicolour cinema surround sound. There is no doubt about it. It is her. The suntanned beauty sitting six feet away from me in Costa is the one from the dream. Everything about her is the same. From the long flowing dark hair and smoky black eyes right down to the loafers she is wearing.

I might have recalled the dream in greater detail when I first woke, but Donna’s car had broken down and she needed a lift to work. Being my day off, I was able to oblige. Usually, a dream fades quickly and only small parts of it are accessible. The rest is gone forever. But this one is different. I am now able to replay it as if it were a recording. It is not just made up of visuals. It has sound, taste, touch and smell. It has body and texture. It evokes both wonder and fear. I am stunned.

In the dream, the girl leads me along dark labyrinthine corridors in a crepuscular Gothic house on the outskirts of a half-familiar town. Familiar only as a dreamscape, perhaps. Corridors upon corridors career this way and that in impossible explorations of infinity, with echoey staircases ascending and descending like those in an Escher painting. We are looking for someone called Eddie Strange. I do not know who Eddie Strange is or why we are looking for him, but the girl keeps talking about a key. We have to find the key. Does Eddie Strange perhaps know where the key can be found? The key will unlock a box, she says. A box where the dreams are kept. If we find the key and unlock the box, then I will be destined to dream about her forever. What does this mean, I wonder? Destined to dream about her forever.

There is a gap now, like a few frames of the film are missing, but I manage to pick up the thread again. Further along in the narrative, we find Eddie in one of the house’s subterranean rooms. Eddie is insubstantial, other-worldly, like silence in a vacuum. He casts no shadow, but …….. he has the key. It is like no key I have ever seen. It is a twisted cylinder, a Möbius strip. How this impossible shape opens a box I cannot imagine. I do not remember it opening a box. The scenario jumps instead to a dream where I am dreaming about myself dreaming about her and then to a dream where I am dreaming about a dream where I am dreaming about her, and on and on, like a Droste mise en abyme.

In each new episode of the dream, the girl in the black dress is leading me through an ever more complex series of cascading corridors. I feel a haunting blend of longing and trepidation. I cannot help but follow. Eventually, we are outside. We are in a city. Tall stone buildings. I can hear the thrum of traffic. But there is no traffic. The location keeps changing. We are by a river. A big brown river. Are we still looking for the box with the dreams in it? I do not get the chance to find out. In the material world, Donna is shaking me by the shoulder to tell me that her car won’t start.

The girl at the next table looks across at me. Is it a look of recognition or is it a look of suspicion? I have never been too good at reading body language. Donna is always telling me I misread her signals. Have I been staring at the girl all through my reverie, I wonder? I think I detect a smile. This is a good sign, surely. I lean over and am about to speak, but like a vision of the night, she vanishes. One moment she is there and the next she isn’t. Her place at the table is now occupied by a wrinkled old harridan with a Bichon Frise and a tartan shopping basket. Was she the one I was staring at all along? It’s possible, but on reflection, I don’t think so. This is all just too weird. I feel arcane forces may be at work.

I don’t often go to the pub at lunchtime but I know I will find Ross Cody at The Gordon Bennett. The squat little man with the curly grey hair, the paunch and the patched-up John Lennon glasses will be sat at a table reading a sci-fi thriller, nursing a pint. Ross is a fount of occult knowledge. What he doesn’t know about dreams and the paranormal is not worth knowing. He is versed in East Asian shamanism, Hassidic Kabbalism, Armenian theosophy, Caribbean voodoo, H. P. Lovecraft and probably Harry Potter. Before he sank into his present dipsomania, he worked as a supernatural adviser on films for the cult film-maker, Lars Von Trier.

Hello Ben,’ he says. ‘Long time, no see.’

I agree that it has been too long, and over a pint of Broadside, I tell Ross about my experience.

One line of thinking is that every face you see while dreaming you have seen in real life at least once,’ Ross says. ‘It is someone who you just don’t recognise. Maybe you met them nine years ago passing on a zebra crossing a busy street or nine hours ago in a cinema queue. Our brains are a lot better at remembering faces than we think.’

Why is it that I think I would have remembered if I had seen this girl before?’ I say. ‘She is not the kind you expect to see every day. She is quite striking.’

On the other hand, Ben. We might see people in dreams that are not actually people. Our brain can create characters that are totally fictional and things there is no way we could have ever seen. And we have the ability in dreams to do things that in waking life we have never been able to do. Or maybe we even see people that we will meet in the future.’

Which side do you come down upon?’

It’s hard to say, but I think your unconscious can create people and somehow they become real.’

So, I’m not going mad, then.’

No. But if I am right, you will almost certainly see her again in dreams. And probably in waking. You might find that this girl, who might only seem to be a phantom at the moment gradually comes to life.’

Ross’s guess is right on the money. That night the mystery girl turns up in my dream world once more. This time in the dream, she calls round to my house in the middle of the night and lets herself in. Donna and I are asleep. She puts a chloroform-soaked handkerchief with a monogrammed R over Donna’s mouth. It meets with some initial resistance but quickly knocks Donna out.

She takes the strange key from the previous night out of her bag and says. ‘Come on, Ben Shapiro. We’ve got work to do.’

I want to protest about what she has done to Donna. Do I want to be destined to dream about someone who is ruthless, I wonder? But it is a dream wonder and has no substance. In the dream world, R has absolute power over me. I allow myself to descend once more into the surreal netherworld, ready to do whatever we have to do and go wherever we have to go to find the box of dreams that the key unlocks. All other thoughts are now gone.

We walk through some ancient ruins, set in a desolate landscape. The night sky is illuminated by a million stars. A full moon hovers. It is blood red. Ominous looking desert rocks lurk in the distance, like those of a Dalí painting, along with the fuselage of a long-forgotten passenger jet and a sand whale. An all-enveloping silence pervades. We pass through a crumbling stone archway decorated with a Medusa head. The other side of the arch, a pageant of small black snakes slithers across a chessboard patio. Snakes from the Medusa’s head? The board is illuminated now. The top left-hand square is green instead of black. Suddenly I can hear music. I look around me to see that R is playing a clarinet. Or is it an oboe? A dwarf dressed as Robin Hood appears from out of nowhere and hands me a mandolin, and I join in the refrain.

There are unearthly delights to be found inside the box of dreams,’ R says, when we have finished the tune. ‘We will find it soon. Then you will my amante notturno.’

At breakfast, Donna seems a little dazed. She looks as if she hasn’t had a good night, so I do not mention my dream, and with her Fiat fixed, she leaves the house before me. It is probably one of the days she opens the salon early for a special customer. For a brief second, I entertain the thought that the special customer might be R.

I dismiss the idea but I remain agitated. Details of my dream keep coming back to me. The half-recognised tune we were playing was that Doors’ track. The one with the line faces come out of the rain. The Robin Hood dwarf was really freaky. And the mandolin. I didn’t know I could play the mandolin, but my dream persona seemed to know exactly where to put my fingers. Ross said that he believes that in dreams one has the ability to do things that in waking life you have never been able to do. And see people that you have never seen. But what was it the dwarf had said? ‘If you’re not a fish, how can you tell if a fish is happy?’ What did he mean by that? And the sand whale. It was a whale and it was in the sand yet I had touched it and in complete contradiction to its environment, it was sticky, wet, slimy to the touch, like an eel just out of the water. I wonder how a dream can be so bizarre but appear so real?

The other big question that needs answering is, assuming that there is an explanation for the unlikely stuff that is happening, why is it happening? Why would this vamp be interested in the devotion of a middle-aged married man? What do I have to offer? What would be in it for her, besides amusement? What is in it for me apart from the loss of free will? None of it makes any sense.

I am so distracted I almost have an accident when I pull out in front of a bus at the Scott McKenzie roundabout and go through a red light at the Frankie Vaughan crossroads. At work, I cannot concentrate. I send emails without messages and accidentally delete my inbox. Then, there she is. The girl from my dreams. Over by the photocopier. In a charcoal skirt and white blouse. The same sweeping hair and smouldering obsidian eyes. Even the same shoes. She is the one. No doubt about it. I am dumbstruck. How can this be? What is she doing here at my workplace?

Nikki Jackson from Accounts comes along and sees that I am gaping at the girl.

That’s the new girl, Rhonda,’ she says. ‘I see she’s making quite an impression on you, Mr Shapiro. Let me introduce you.’

Hi, Rhonda. This is Mr Shapiro from our legal department. Mr Shapiro, this is Rhonda Chance.’

Pleased to meet you, Mr Shapiro,’ Rhonda says, looking me right in the eye. ‘I expect I shall be seeing a lot more of you.’

When I come to, I am unable to explain to Nikki Jackson why I fainted.

It could have been something I ate last night,’ I say. ‘That’s it. We had eel for dinner last night. I’m not used to eel, so I’m not sure how it should taste but I did thought it tasted strange.’

No one remembers your name, when you’re strange starts to run through my head. The Doors’ song from the night before. On the mandolin. With the girl. With Rhonda.

Something is puzzling me,’ Nikki says later. ‘Rhonda says that she knows you. In fact, she says she has known you for a long time. She thought that it was strange that you did not recognise her. She says she hasn’t changed that much.’

I pretend to take a call on my Samsung.

Yes, I know,’ I say as if responding to something the caller is telling me.

And ‘What did you think about that?’

Suddenly to my amazement and horror, Rhonda’s voice comes on the line. ‘Hello Mr Shapiro,’ she says. ‘How have you been since our ……. meeting?’

All the blood drains from my face. Nothing could have prepared me for this. Now she is talking to me on my phone. All the encounters with her so far have been what I would think of as impossible, out of the realm of everyday life, but somehow this is cranking up the level of impossibility a notch.

See you later,’ Rhonda says. ‘I have a feeling we may find the box tonight.’

Donna wonders why I am home early. I tell her we had a power cut at work. Several times through the evening, she asks if everything is OK.

You normally like to watch The Apprentice,’ she says. ‘Is something wrong?’

I’m just tired,’ I say. ‘I don’t think I slept well last night.’

Shall we have an early night?’ she says, snuggling up to me.

There is something wrong, isn’t there?’ she says in bed when I don’t respond to her overtures. ‘I don’t know why I buy this underwear from the Ann Summers catalogue if you are not going to be interested when I wear it.’

With this, she turns over. I put off going to sleep as long as I can, but tiredness overtakes me and eventually I drift off. Rhonda, of course, is waiting.

The reason we haven’t been able to find the box up until now,’ she says, ‘is because it’s invisible.’

That does make it difficult,’ I say.

Not only is it invisible, but it only exists given certain very specific conditions. Atmospheric conditions, phases of the moon, planetary alignments and all that. But the good news is that I believe we have these conditions tonight.’

Again I feel a confusing mix of apprehension and arousal, aware that as she puts me under her spell once more, apprehension is going to lose out. The strength of her sweet sorcery is too much for my defences.

It is hard to describe how you see an object that is invisible, but as Rhonda has pointed out, under particular circumstances, it can be done. If you are thinking invisibility cloak, you are barking up the wrong tree. You cannot expect to understand matters like invisible boxes in the realm of night from a purely scientific viewpoint. Suffice to say the box is colossal, and to my amazement, Rhonda’s Möbius strip key fits the lock perfectly.

Once the box is opened things cannot be the same. Change is inevitable. A thousand and one dreams escaping from an invisible box that has been locked for years is a sight for the senses. All nineteen of the senses. It is like the moment of creation. Matter, antimatter and cosmological turbulence.

I feel a nudge in my back and I awake with a jolt. Usually, a dream fades quickly and only small parts of it are accessible. The rest is gone forever. But this one is different. It is no longer a dream. I turn over to find the girl on the pillow lying next to me looks exactly like the girl I’ve just been dreaming about. Everything about her matches. The same long flowing dark hair and smoky black eyes right down to ……… It is Rhonda, the girl of my dreams. In the flesh. In the here and now. I am stunned.

No matter how unlikely the proposition,’ she says, ‘dreams can come true. Reality is constantly in flux. Forever changes. Prepare yourself for strange days ahead.’

But, the unanswered questions, I want to protest. What? ……. How? ……… Why? ……… And, where is Donna? Has Rhonda simply taken the place of Donna?

Rhonda reads my thoughts. ‘You will get answers to your questions but not until you are ready for them. In the meantime …….’

Later, while Rhonda is out, I try to gather my thoughts on the bench at the bottom of the garden. All my boundaries have become blurred. I no longer know what is real. My life has become a Chinese puzzle, an unfathomable succession of interlocking riddles. I end up getting nowhere. Perhaps there are no answers. When I return to the house, I see there is a message on the answering machine.

I think we may be able to arrange an appointment for your husband’s little treatment for as early as next week, Mrs Shapiro,’ the message says. I don’t imagine I’m meant to be hearing it. ‘Please, could you call back to confirm how you would like us to proceed.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

The Pugilist

thepugilist

The Pugilist by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me have a look.’

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

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

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

Bridge?’

Yes, the one over the troubled waters.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Lady and Red

ladyandred2019

Lady and Red by Chris Green

Lady does not like going up in the elevator to Red’s ninth-floor apartment in Peregrine Heights. It moves so slowly that sometimes it doesn’t seem to be moving at all. She is afraid that one day she will get stuck in it with a killer. Yet, it would appear the chance of encountering an assailant is small. Security is tight. Peregrine Heights has a uniformed concierge to vet unwanted visitors. The concierge is armed. In addition, legions of CCTV cameras keep watch. Peregrine Heights is not designed with ostentation in mind. The block is functional. There are few features. It is minimalist, secretive.

Visiting Red can be a lonely experience for Lady. She will arrive at the apartment and let herself in. Red might be typing into his iMac, playing his tenor saxophone, or just gazing out the window. The view to the west is admittedly a fine one, taking in a sweeping panorama of the city with the skyline settling against blue hills in the distance. When silhouetted against the setting sun, the twin peaks are heavenly. Red might be mixing up oil paints, watching a European movie, or stroking his white Persian cat. He might be feeding his parrots or gazing at the Picasso prints on the walls. Whichever, he doesn’t appear to see Lady’s arrival as an important interruption. He will just continue as if she weren’t there.

Lady and Red have been lovers. Are they still lovers, she wonders? If they are, this is very much on Red’s terms. He hardly casts a glance in her direction and does not speak unless he has something important to say. Lady seldom gets to start a conversation. Their communication does not work that way. Given her background, this dynamic might appear strange to outsiders. Although she is not a Lady as such, she comes from a long line of mid-European aristocrats. Lady is a soubriquet to reflect her connections with nobility. She studied Philosophy at Cambridge, can speak nine languages and is a gifted painter. In her mid-thirties, she is in her prime. She has wisdom and wit and dazzling beauty.

What is it then that draws her even through the winter months several times a week to drive across town to meet this mean man of mystery? Certainly, there is an allure. Red has mystique, poise, charisma even. But this is not the primary reason that Lady comes to visit. She needs to be there in case there is an assignment. They work together. They are a team.

Lady knows little of Red’s background. He is matter of fact but enigmatic, passionate but objective. He can be a ghostly presence. He can blend in, become one with his surroundings. Sometimes, when he is playing an extended solo, he and the saxophone become one. His physical form drifts off into space. He becomes invisible to the eye. The soft arpeggios of his improvisations are left hanging in the air like celestial smoke-rings. It is such a moment now. The silver saxophone is suspended in mid-air radiating the most sublime passage. Red is elsewhere, on his astral plane, intangible, quintesscent. Lady sits in the lotus position, silent, serene, mesmerised. For now, in this space, Lady is an acolyte of the transcendent spirit. Yet, Lady is no flower child. There are contradictions in everyone and Lady is no exception. In another space, Lady may well kill people with her bare hands. In this ever changing world, there are many paradoxes

The door entry phone buzzes. Instantly the atmosphere in the room changes. Red is back down from the heavens. He speaks on the intercom and admits the caller. It is Black. Black has no interest in jazz. Black calls round to Peregrine Heights on business. His business has to do with adjustment, temporal and psychic adjustment. He has called to give them an assignment. They will be required to stop something that has happened from happening. This is known as a correction.

Everything that happens is governed by the principles of cause and effect, action and reaction. Sometimes apparently inconsequential actions by ordinary people can set in motion a chain of events that results in catastrophe. It is important that the likes of Black and Red have the ability to intervene, otherwise, the world would have been blown to smithereens long ago. The undocumented presence of quantum gnostics like them is the force that ensures relative stability in a jumping universe. Their concern is not a political one. It is not about East and West. Nor is it about right and wrong. It is purely about balance. To keep the world turning.

Stockholm,’ says Black. ‘Here are the tickets. They are for yesterday.’

Neither Red or Lady show surprise. They are accustomed to these impossible missions. To do what they do, it is necessary to operate in the margins.

Understood,’ says Red.

Understood,’ echoes Lady.

Hemming Olofson mustn’t take that train to Malmo,’ says Black. ‘He will not then meet Marita Blom. They will not travel to Copenhagen together. They will not, therefore, discover the document that implicates his brother, Björn in the cover-up by the Danish lawyers over the ownership of the patent on ……. well you get the gist. And then finally Guatemala won’t then be destroyed by a plague of giant moths. And there won’t be a stand-off between the US and the Russians.’

Chains of events can be quite complex, can’t they?’ says Red. ‘We are on our way.’

The air crackles with the electricity of déjà vu. Two conversations take place simultaneously, one in the past and one in the present. Red says the secret is to stay focussed on both. They must coalesce. In between words, in between worlds, the air becomes turbulent as they tumble through space. They are buffeted this way and that in a whirling cyclone of uncertainty, like the Tower of Babel. Gradually Black’s presence fades. The job is over. Lady and Red are back to where they were.

I’m relieved that one is out of the way,’ says Lady. ‘These escapades can be so exhausting.’

It can be very strange,’ says Red. ‘But when you’ve seen through as many corrections as I have it will become second nature.’

I think Black was pleased,’ says Lady.

There aren’t too many people who can do what we do,’ says Red.

Is that a blessing or a curse?’ says Lady.

Nothing is ever straightforward,’ says Red. ‘Paradox is at the centre of everything.’

Red, I’ve been coming up here for a long time and for some while I’ve been meaning to ask you a question. I get a very strange sensation every time I come up in the elevator. It’s difficult to describe the feeling. On the one hand, it feels as if someone is watching and they might at any moment attack me. But on the other hand, it feels as if I’m not there anyway so how can I be being watched? What happens in the rest of the building?’

I’ll let you into a secret,’ says Red. ‘There is no rest of the building.’

But the lift and the corridors and the cameras?’

All an illusion.’

But the concierge with the gun. He says hello every time I come round.’

There is no concierge with a gun.’

But I do come up in the lift. And the lighting changes colour between floors?’

It’s all held in place by auto-suggestion and the subsequent belief that it is there.’

The space below?’

Ah! There is no space below as such. But would it help if I told you that the space you are referring to, the space where you imagine you are when you come into the building and come up in the elevator is the repository for curious matter?’ Red says, cryptically. With this said, he goes off to attend to his parrots.

Lady realises she now has an existential issue. She has always found Red’s information to be reliable and if he says that Peregrine Heights is nothing but an illusion then it is nothing but an illusion. But, therein lies the rub. If she stops believing in the substantial nature of Peregrine Heights, then she will not be able to get out. It occurs to her, not for the first time, that Red probably has not, through normal channels, left the building in years.

Lady goes into the hallway. The door through which she came, and more recently Black came, is no longer there. How is this possible? Whatever the explanation there must have been a way in. She has not always been here in this space. She has, through belief or otherwise, come and gone many times. Nothing inside has changed. She goes into the westerly facing room. Red is still attending to the parrots. He has that look of detachment that she has become used to. He does not want a conversation. He feels he has said all he wanted to say. Lady goes over to the window that looks out on to the city with the hills in the distance. The tall buildings and the blue hills look real enough, but might they too be an illusion to support the illusion of Peregrine Heights.

It takes Lady a while to get used to the idea of isolation. Rather than fight against it, she remembers learning long ago that the healthiest option in adverse circumstances like this is to go with the flow. Silence those voices that vex the spirit and nurture that peace that lies within the heart. This is a time for quiet contemplation. Besides, situations can change. In fact, change is the only certainty.

Red is of similar mind. This is after all his world. He is philosophical about his role. His wisdom and poise begin to captivate Lady once more. He reads her sonnets and teaches her to play the violin. They watch the colours change in the evening sky as the sun sets over the twin peaks. They make love to Debussy. It is in one such tender moment, they are disturbed by a new caller. The door is back. Across the threshold is Gold. If Gold comes to call at Peregrine Heights then the matter is serious. Gold on this occasion is accompanied by Silver. Silver has never been before.

Three days ago Curt Dodge, a thirty-two-year-old hacker believed to be from the Detroit, Michigan area hacked into the servers of the global communications satellites network and planted what is known as a blended threat that within fourteen days will have completely brought down the entire global system. You will have noticed already that your phone can’t detect its location.’

GPS is unable to detect Peregrine Heights anyway,’ says Red.

Ah yes. Of course. I see,’ says Gold. ‘Anyway, the threat that Dodge has come up with acts in an entirely random way. But, here’s the killer. It also gathers up any virus, worm or trojan it encounters along the way and adds them to the blend to increase its potency. One by one the satellites have gone down. There appears to be no defence against the attack.’

There are, or there were ninety-one operational satellites. To take out the entire network is no mean feat,’ says Silver.

Now, clearly the objective is to go back to last week and liquidate Dodge before he has done any of this,’ says Gold. ‘The problem is that without GPS we have no idea where he is.’

A tricky one,’ says Red.

How long do you think we have?’ asks Lady.

I’d say three days at the most to make the correction. After that the damage might be irreparable,’ says Gold. ‘Even the Russian military satellites are failing.’

We know the length of time before you make an adjustment should not make a difference to its ultimate effectiveness, once you have made the adjustment. But with the entire system of global communication crippled this might not be the case here,’ says Silver. ‘There might be no way back.’

OK. It’s down to our intuition then,’ says Red.

And good old fashioned occult powers,’ says Lady. ‘Witches broom and Abracadabra.’

I expect you have noticed that your satnavs and mobile phones have recovered from their momentary blip. You can assume from this that through the efforts of Lady and Red the correction was made. And until now. you’ve not seen the name of Curt Dodge anywhere. These things don’t get out into the public domain.

It would be difficult to describe how the job might have been done. Highlights could include mental projection, psychic navigation, invisibility, time travel, force field generation, teleportation, experimental jazz, and pranayama breathing. Planes? Guns? Maybe, maybe not. Illusion, willpower and luck will have played their part. And passion. Yes, passion is important. The operation would have been held together by imagination and belief, just like the things you see around you every day. Imagination and belief. Seeing is believing, but everyone sees things differently. Everyone constructs a different reality. No two are the same. Even should information about the exact techniques used here be available to governments, these would be classified. Better then that the secrets of their methods stay under wraps.

Make no mistake, your life will have been affected in some way by the corrections that quantum gnostics have made. Things don’t just run smoothly of their own accord and there’s no point in trusting politicians and government departments to get it right. Too much of their energy is invested in courting catastrophe. Just be thankful that there are hidden forces at work. That Lady and Red are there in the background refining their arcane skills.

If you are driving through the city, you might be surprised at the circuitous route your satnav takes you on, but you might put this down to a poorly planned one-way system. If you are on foot, at a certain point you might begin to feel dizzy. You might wonder what The Fractal Centre is and why you cannot go there. Either way, there will be no sign of Peregrine Heights.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Magic and Loss

magicandloss

Magic and Loss by Chris Green

Let me introduce myself. I’m Miles London. I am a collector of specialist celebrity memorabilia. Primarily things that have belonged to dead A-List rock stars. I do not go for the obvious trophies like guitars or jackets. Nor do autographed photos interest me. I like items that tell a story. In my collection I have John Lennon’s ouija board, Jimi Hendrix’s kite and Bob Marley’s surfboard.

But as a collector it is important to understand the marketplace and take advantage of it when you can. As long as you don’t let sentiment take over, trading in collectibles can be profitable and certainly beats working for a living. Naturally, I was sad to see it go but Syd Barrett’s bike made a handsome profit for me and the sales of Buddy Holly’s yoga mat and Marc Bolan’s cricket bat for respectable prices meant I was in the black.

When I heard about Lou Reed’s death, I felt profoundly sad. Although I did not know Lou, it felt like I had lost a friend. I had long been a fan. The Velvet Underground and Nico was the only record I can remember us playing at our squat in Queen’s Parade, back in 1971. How old would I have been then? 18? 19? We played the album over and over. It is one of those indefinable masterpieces. Brian Eno is quoted as saying ‘while the album may have sold only ten thousand copies in its early years, everyone who bought one of those ten thousand copies started a band.’

Lou seemed to be immortal, someone who could walk on the wild side, flirt with danger, defy the odds and go on forever. My partner, Josie, who is perhaps not such a devotee, was away at a photo-shoot, so to console myself, I played New York and Magic and Loss in tribute to this legend. I then got on the phone to my contact in New York, Macy Hoff.

What’s the word, Macy?’ I said. I knew Macy would have been expecting my call.

A-yo Milo, I know why you’re calling, Macy said. ‘Listen! Lou’s dog lead and his coffee grinder have gone, but I have something hot. Lou’s set of worry beads.’

I never asked how Macy came by his acquisitions. It was probably better not to know.

Can you email me some photos?’ I said. From experience, I found it helped keep the price down if you showed a little hesitation.

Fo shizzle dude,’ he said. ‘By the way, how did the Warhol Gotham restaurant tab go down?’

Gotham was a trendy place off Fifth Avenue and Macy had sold me Andy’s bill for a list of French dishes and wines with fancy names. The bill had been a four-figure sum even back in the 1980s and I had only paid a three-figure sum for this rarity. Legendary painters are also a fascination of mine and I have one or two bits and pieces of twentieth-century artists memorabilia, including Picasso’s wind chimes and Dali’s dreamcatcher. I told Macy I had framed the Warhol bill and had it hanging on the wall of the red room, next to Jackson Pollock’s driving licence and Mark Rothko’s prescription for tricyclic antidepressants.

I hadn’t had Lou down as a great worrier, perhaps not happy-go-lucky, more of a pragmatist, someone who attacked life’s problems head-on. Macy Hoff’s photos arrived in my inbox and I took a good look. Lou favoured a traditional Greek evil eye Komboloi set of beads. I could tell that Lou had done a lot of worrying. The beads were hand-painted but the pattern was worn down in places which had the effect of making each of the eyes look sunken. Three other attached photos taken over a period of twenty years showed Lou in various poses, with furrowed brow, working the beads. While you can never be one hundred percent sure of authenticating a purchase, by zooming in on Lou’s hands, the beads seemed to match those in the first photo.

I found out you could buy a set of evil eye Komboloi on the internet for as little as £3.99. While I felt that this should have a bearing on what I would offer Macy, these were Lou Reed’s Komboloi we were talking about, the very ones that had helped him to write Dirty Boulevard and The Great American Whale. They had untold psychic value. I discovered that the evil eye was a malevolent look that could cause injury or misfortune for the unsuspecting person at whom it was directed. Belief was strongest in the Mediterranean region. Both Greeks and Turks carried worry beads all the time.

Handling beads did not seem an obvious New York custom. I had only been to New York once, this when I was touring with Trousersnake in the eighties (guitar and keyboards, Max Frontman was the singer you may recall) but I could not remember seeing men with worry beads. I wondered how Lou had come by his. Might they have perhaps been a gift from his friend, Leonard Cohen, who had spent many years on Hydra in the Aegean? I dismissed the thought that Leonard, now in his eightieth year, might be the next to go, although I couldn’t help speculating what might come up for sale when this happened.

The following morning I read through Lou’s obituaries. ‘He was a master,’ David Bowie said, expressing what we all felt. Fittingly Lou died on a Sunday morning like the one described in the opening song on the first Velvet Underground LP, looking at the trees and doing Tai Chi with just his musician hands moving through the air. This gentler side of Lou was at odds with urban myth. One of the most telling tributes came from the author Salman Rushdie who, after Laurie Anderson had put him on the phone to Lou in the eighties, said, ‘It was like having God’s unlisted cell phone number.’ On a religious theme, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi tweeted on behalf of The Vatican, ‘It’s such a perfect day, I’m glad I spent it with you.’ His short message suggested Lou’s appeal was far-reaching.

It is often overlooked that for many years Lou was unacknowledged as a creative talent. The Velvet Underground did not achieve commercial success at the time. For years I was the only person I knew who owned a Velvet Underground album, although it seems everyone jumped on the bandwagon, later on, claiming that they had always followed them. Lou’s great legacy as an artist was nearly lost after he left The Velvet Underground suddenly following an acrimonious dispute with the band in 1970. He spent the first forty eight-hours asleep, plagued by nightmares, as if in post-traumatic stress. That autumn, he became a typist in his father’s accountancy firm, something singularly unimaginable. He planned to make it as a poet but his music career was resurrected by devotees of his ground-breaking songs, potential collaborators like David Bowie.

I called Macy.

I’ll give you £545,’ I said. When bartering, the psychological importance of the opening bid cannot be overestimated. It acts as a mental anchor for the sale price. The key is to start with a precise figure rather than a rounded one. This tends to throw the other party.

There was a pause. Macy was clicking away at his calculator.

That’s Seven-forty,’ he said. Don’t jerk my chain, dude. I couldn’t take less than fifteen oh oh.’

I slowly raised my offer and each time Macy had to calculate it into dollars. The anchor seemed to hold and we settled at £833. I felt pleased with the deal. This was cheap for a major item of celebrity memorabilia. If he had put them on eBay, he might have expected to get twice that.

I began collecting celebrity memorabilia by accident when in 1991 I moved into a house where Steve Marriott had lived. Steve had recently passed away and had left a lot of his knick-knacks lying around. I was staggered at the amounts that a few signed photographs of a dead rock star could sell for or a pair of trousers he had perhaps worn on a TV show. He wasn’t even very famous by this time. His star had faded. He was yesterday’s hero. When Freddie Mercury died later the same year, I was on to the game. Freddie was clearly a big star. I made a tidy sum buying and selling his tennis rackets and feather boas. Gradually I built up my collection of memorabilia to invest in the icons that really interested me. By the time George Harrison died in 2001, I had enough in the kitty to splash out on George’s 1966 A to Z of London.

Let me say a little about our house. Functionalist in style and at odds with its suburban surroundings, it was designed in the 1920s by Sanford Mayo, a disciple of the great Adolf Loos. Each room is a different colour blue, red, yellow, green, white and black. These colours provide the perfect background for exhibits and displays. I have a music studio in a purpose built annex. Although I do not play so much these days, twenty years ago I was with several bands that nearly made it. Royalty cheques still come in from one or two of the minor hits I wrote back then. Some of you might remember Forgotten Who You Were or Nightmares in the Day.

While it would be stretching the imagination to suggest there was a causal connection, Lou’s departure heralded a disturbing series of weird experiences for me. As I sat in my chair in the green room, I developed the sensation that someone was watching me. I felt a shiver creeping up my spine. Josie was still away at a photo-shoot somewhere in France so as far as I knew I was alone in the house. I could see no-one but I could definitely feel a presence. As I went from the green room to the yellow room and from the yellow room to the white room, the eerie sensation of being observed clung to me. The skin on the back of my neck tingled. This prickly somesthesia was most pronounced in the blue room. A winter chill filled the space. It felt as if invisible daggers were punching into the back of my head, in fact not just the back of the head. It felt as though some demon was possessing me. The gaze now was almost physical. The door behind me slammed shut. I thought I could hear cracked laughter from the black room next door. I was terrified. An invisible force pinned me into position against the display cabinet, housing Jim Morrison’s embalmed dragon lizard. I hoped it would turn out to be a dream, but this had all the sharp edges of reality.

When I was about seven, sometimes in winter I would walk home from Martin Appleby’s in the dark. It was about half a mile. Usually my elder brother, Raif would be with me, but on the occasions he wasn’t, I would have to walk home alone. Rudd Naseby, who was in my brother’s class had told me about the bogeyman. The bogeyman came out at night, Rudd said. The bogeyman would follow you home in the dark and when he found a suitable place where no-one was looking, would grab you around the neck and slowly strangle you. One night the streetlights were out and there was no moon or stars. I could hear the regular click-clack of footsteps behind me. They appeared to be getting closer. I broke into a run but the footsteps speeded up too, still getting closer. I was too scared to turn around. I could sense the bogeyman’s piercing gaze. His evil eyes would glow in the dark. I could almost feel his breath on my neck. I would never reach home. I would be there lying dead on the pavement, strangled by the bogeyman. Finally, I plucked up all my courage and stopped in my tracks. I turned around. There was no-one there. Was this the same feeling I had now?

Without warning, the pressure lifted, the room stopped spinning and everything snapped back into place. The light poured reassuringly through the Venetian blinds into the white room and I could hear birdsong from the arbour, that backed onto the green room. It felt as though I had woken from a leisurely siesta. Had I imagined the episode? I walked around the house to see if anything seemed out of place. But, everything seemed as it should be. All the exhibits seemed to be intact. The house seemed particularly tidy. Perhaps this was because Josie was away, there were no random piles of catalogues, unopened mail, and assorted paraphernalia. I tried Josie’s number. I felt that speaking to her might settle me. She would tell me I was being ridiculous, and that everything was all right. She would have a rational explanation for what had happened.

The number you have dialled is currently unavailable, the message said. I thought about phoning her agency but as she was mostly freelance, I did not know which agency to phone. She was doing promotion shots for a new band called Mars A and they were shooting somewhere in France, Provence maybe, or was it Dauphine? I did a search on Mars A, but like a lot of artists these days, the band’s website was short on detail. There were no contact numbers to be found. I sent them an email and kept trying Josie’s number. After the third or fourth attempt, I did not even get the try again later message. The phone was completely dead. I phoned around some of her friends. Ophelia did not know where she was, and I was unable to contact Modeste or Asia. Lesleigh asked me if I’d like to come round. She had just put some lunch on, she said. I declined.

The rest of the day passed with no news about Josie’s whereabouts. She did not phone me and I found myself still unable to contact her. When I took a walk to Waitrose (not exactly the wild side) in the early afternoon to buy some wine, I had the feeling that someone was stalking me, and found myself constantly looking over my shoulder. This feeling was so strong that I instinctively got into character by turning up my collar and putting on my dark glasses (twenty-six dollars in my hand). The checkout girl kept her head down and did not engage me in conversation. As I had not bought any food, perhaps she thought I was a street drinker, or perhaps, as they were expensive bottles, a rich old wino. But, at least, she stopped short of calling the manager.

To stimulate my paranoia, in the early evening, the lights in the house went off unexpectedly. This was a heart-stopping moment. I eventually realised it was a power cut to the whole area. Nevertheless, it left me a little shaky. I made inroads into the second bottle of wine, took several of Josie’s benzodiazepines and went off to bed. I told myself that Josie would be back in the morning and there would be a logical explanation about why her phone was off.

If things went bump in the night, I was blissfully unaware of them. I woke at about five with a thumping head. I got up, found the Paracetamol and checked the phones. There were no messages and Josie’s phone was still dead. I would have looked at Josie’s email and private data but I did not know how to get into her profile. She kept changing her password. Once I had had a shower, I checked my emails but there was no word. Nor was there anything from Macy. I had heard nothing since the money had left my PayPal account. I managed to reach Modeste and Asia on their mobiles, but neither of them even knew Josie was away. They asked me if I was all right and wished me well. Ophelia was unavailable and Lesleigh said she had just opened a bottle of Chablis, did I want to come round? I told her it was a little early for me. I listened to some of Mars A music on YouTube. It was terrible. Why didn’t guitarists learn to play the guitar these days, before they made recordings?

There were more tributes to Lou Reed on Twitter. ‘When Lou said goodbye, his dark eyes seemed to contain an infinite and benevolent sadness,’ Patti Smith said about their recent meeting. ‘Sad to hear about Lou Reed passing. Such a star. RIP Lou, and thanks for giving us Perfect Day for Trainspotting,’ Irvine Welsh said. There were many others, each adding to the sense of loss. I listened to Coney Island Baby and found myself in tears. I brushed the dust off my Epiphone acoustic and gave a heartfelt rendition of Pale Blue Eyes. It felt like I had an audience. I was being watched again. From where I was sitting at my desk in the red room, I was sure someone was just outside the window peering in. I crept over to the curtain and took a look from behind it, but I could see no-one, just the empty street in the distance behind the fence. I got the binoculars out. I could still see no-one, but the sensation of being watched grew stronger. I went from room to room and round the garden and down the street. Wherever I found myself, I felt this silent piercing gaze. By lunchtime, I was panicking. Where on earth was Josie? She would be able to make some sense of it all.

Are you sure you want to report her as a missing person’ Sergeant Lugosi said. ‘Seventy-two hours is not very long.’

I wasn’t sure at all, but I had just wanted to talk to someone about it.

And you did say that she had told you she was going. She might have been delayed. Flights, transfers, all these things are unpredictable.’

But she never turns off her phone. I mean, never!’ I thought of all the times her phone had rung when we’d just started making love.

Mr London. Has your mobile phone never gone offline for some reason? Have you never found yourself in the Middle of Wales without a signal?’

Yes, but…’

Mr London, it may have escaped your notice, but we are very busy in the police without having to chase up every individual whose phone isn’t turned on.’

And I think I’m being stalked,’ I blurted out.

Oh, really, Mr London? And what makes you think that then?’ Sergeant Lugosi said. I had to admit it sounded a little pathetic, a grown man telling a Police Sergeant that someone was following him.

It was only early afternoon, but I thought it might help to call in at The Goat and Bicycle for a pint before going home.

Hiya Milo, long time!,’ Ivo said, from a table by the door.

I tried to ignore him. I had never had much time for Ivo.

How’s Josie?’ he said. ‘I saw her on the High Street yesterday. I waved but I don’t think she saw me.’

That’s impossible,’ I was about to say, but instead, somehow ‘Where was that?’ came out.

She was going into that new phone shop. EE, isn’t it? She was with a tall guy. Looked a bit like you. Thought maybe it was your brother.’

I haven’t got a brother,’ I said. Raif had died in an accident at work several years previously.

Ah, then it probably wasn’t. I’m sure it was Josie though.’

I didn’t like how he leered when he said this.

She had on a red jacket,’ he added. ‘And a short skirt.’

It had crossed my mind more than once over the past few months that Josie might be having an affair. With all the time she spent away, this was certainly a possibility and after all, she was twenty years younger than me and by anyone’s standards, attractive.

I phoned my techie friend, Ram, to ask for advice about computer security and he told me that John the Ripper and Cain and Abel were the password cracker programs that he used and he let me know where I could download them. After several hours of trying, I could still not get into Josie’s profile. Her phone was still dead and none of her friends who had said they would get back to me if they heard anything had done so. Keeping busy seemed to have helped discourage whoever was watching me or I had just become accustomed to the feeling. As soon as it became dark though and I drew the blinds, the pins and needles started up again. It was a different checkout girl at Waitrose, but I was looking over my shoulder all the way there and back. I bought six bottles this time, just in case.

I was so tired, I only needed one of them. I awoke refreshed and ready to get on with business, except there was no business to get on with. Josie’s phone was dead, and all her friends were on voicemail. There were no email updates, just the usual adverts for goods or services, and one from a fellow collector wondering if I might be interested in buying Kurt Cobain’s cigarette lighter. Kurt Cobain memorabilia didn’t interest me. I saw him as a B-Lister. Granted, I had recently purchased Keith Moon’s chainsaw, Brian Jones’s hair-dryer and a jar of Roy Orbison’s tears, but you had to draw the line somewhere.

New York time is five hours behind UK time, but I thought if I left a message on his voicemail, Macy would pick it up when he got up. To my alarm, his phone was dead too. The number you have dialled does not exist, was the reply, yet this was in my phone and had been the number I reached him on two days ago. My own phone rang a few times and each time my heart leapt, but each time it was an unwanted marketing call. Reg, a friend of mine found a way to make money out of these calls. He set up a premium rate number and gave this out every time he had to supply details online, knowing that these numbers would be sold on. Every time he gets an unsolicited call he makes 10p a minute. Sometimes he keeps cold callers talking for ages about their services. Macy finally called late in the evening and told me how I could track the parcel he sent.

I’ve been trying to get hold of you, Macy,’ I said. ‘Your phone’s dead.’

I use disposable cellphones, Milo,’ he said. ‘Burners. Don’t you have them over there yet?’

But the number you gave me worked for weeks,’ I protested.

Sometimes I keep the number, sometimes I don’t. Security issue,’ he said.

Uh-huh,’ I said, adopting a neutral tone.

I’m getting the vibe you didn’t trust me,’ he said. ‘Anyway, the beads are on their way. I’ll let you know if I get anything else. Wonder who’s next to bite the big one, eh.’

We speculated for a while, but my heart was not in it. There was Josie’s absence to worry about. Josie would never go for disposable phones and would probably relinquish her iPhone only at gunpoint. She had left on Saturday morning and I had heard nothing since. It was now Wednesday evening. I called Modeste, Ophelia, and Asia again to check if they had heard anything, but I got the impression from each of them that they were short on sympathy and getting fed up with me phoning. Lesleigh wondered if I might like to come round and watch Friday the 13th with her. She was just about to put the DVD on, she said. I passed on the invitation.

I felt a chilling presence in the room, watching me. I tried to move my head so I could look around but found I could not. My body was completely numb. No matter how hard I tried, I was incapable of moving. The impression that I was being watched intensified. It was very dark. I could not see at all. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could make out the shape of an eye. An eye suspended in space. It did not seem to be attached to any flesh and blood being. I tried to scream, but I could not open my mouth. I tried to wake up, but I was not asleep. Finally, I was able to move. I got up and ran from the room. I did not look over my shoulder. I felt the gaze from the eye on the back of my neck but I did not dare turn around. I’ve no idea what happened but I found myself cowering on a patch of waste ground by the Jewish cemetery, with Lou Reed’s song Magic and Loss running through my head. A crowd of people had gathered. They seemed to be concerned. I could not explain to them that I was the victim of the evil eye. One of them said an ambulance was on its way. I said I did not need an ambulance and staggered off.

Back home, after trundling through the music press sites on the internet, I found out that Mars A were managed by Seamus Dark. Because Dark was something of a self-publicist, it was relatively easy to find a number for his management company, AfterDark Promotions. I was shunted around or cut off by feckless subordinates before I spoke to Seamus, who it turned out was not Irish.

Sorry about Lisa cutting you off there. She’s a mare, work experience. What can I do for you?’

I mentioned the band.

Oh that’s right, Lisa said you wanted to talk about Mars A. Great band, aren’t they? I did good signing them. Single’s at number 39 in the charts, already.’

I wanted to talk to you about the photo-shoot for their new album cover.’

Already taken care of, my son.’

Yes! Josie London is doing them in France, I understand.’

No mate. Didn’t go for Josie London. Her work is, how can I put it, a little restrained. We was looking for something more radical. We went for Bud Olsen, diamond geezer – and France! No France is too twee. So we went for Hamburg. More edgy. Know what I mean.’

So you wouldn’t know where Josie is?’

What are you, some kind of weirdo?’

Perhaps I was a weirdo.

I put the phone down.

The checkout girl at Waitrose asked me why I was wearing two pairs of sunglasses. Was it that sunny outside? Was I alright? I tried to laugh it off and thanked her for her concern.

They say dreams can be the territory for unwelcome upheaval when you are having a difficult time and can add to your disturbed mindset. The odd thing is, I didn’t have any dreams, just the vague impression through my sleeping hours that someone was with me in the room.

Morning sleepyhead,’ Josie said, snuggling up to me. ‘It was late when I got in, so I didn’t wake you.’

Relief and disbelief jockeyed for prime position.

Where have you been? I’ve been trying to phone you day and night.’ I said.

My phone got swallowed by the airport scanner.’ she laughed. ‘I’ll be looking for you to help me with the insurance forms.’

But you weren’t in France on a photo-shoot with Mars A. I checked. Seamus Dark told me he didn’t take you on. ……. And none of your friends knew where you were.’

Who? What? I don’t know why I tell you anything. You never listen to me properly do you? It was Marseilles, not Mars A. I was shooting for Bande A Part. It’s a French film magazine. I phoned you but you didn’t pick up so I spoke to Lesleigh. Asked her to let you know about the phone and not being able to contact me. Didn’t she say?’

She invited me over to hers quite a lot, but no, she didn’t mention it.’

Anyway. ….. What have you been up to? Have you missed me? …….. Oh my word, I can see that you have. I should go away more often. …… By the way, I found this package in the mailbox ……. In the dark, I thought was it for me so I opened it, but it’s for you. …….. It’s some beads with beady eyes on. Are they worry beads? Is it the evil eye? You don’t believe in that, do you?’

I wondered if I might hang them in the hall alongside Muddy Waters’ mojo. Just in case.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Watership Down

Created with GIMP

WATERSHIP DOWN – a cautionary tale by Chris Green

I’m round at Margot’s and her computer isn’t working, Adam,’ Suzy says. ‘We thought you might be able to help.’

Ask her if she has hit the any key again,’ I say.

She says she doesn’t know which key the any key is,’ Suzy says.

Oh! Never mind,’ I say. Clearly, the joke has fallen flat. ‘Look! You’d better put Margot on.’

I had hoped to be getting on with my gardening. It’s that time of year when there are lots of little jobs to be done and this is the only day off I have this week. Perhaps I shouldn’t have answered the phone. This could be a long one.

Hi Adam,’ Margot says. ‘My laptop’s not working.’

Yes, Suzy told me,’ I say. ‘What’s it doing?’

Well, that’s the thing, Adam,’ Margot says. ‘It’s not doing anything.’

Is it booted up?’ I say. ‘Has Windows loaded?’

I’m not sure,’ Margot says. ‘How can I tell?’

There will be pictures on the screen,’ I say. ‘Icons and the like.’

There are no pictures,’ Margot says. ‘There’s just a blank screen.’

Hit a key,’ I say.

Which key?’ she says.

Any key,’ I say. ‘It doesn’t matter.’

I’ve already said I don’t know where the any key is,’ she says.

Try the z key,’ I say.

There’s still a blank screen,’ she says.

Are you using it on battery or is it plugged in?’ I say. ‘The battery might be flat.’

I’ve got it plugged in,’ she says.

Is the power light on?’ I ask.

I can hear Margot in the background asking Suzy where she should look.

I’ll have a look on my PC and check to see if there’s a network problem,’ I say. ‘And I’ll get back to you.’

I realise if the machine isn’t even booting up this is not going to be what is causing the problem but I figure that the matter can wait until I’ve at least planted the potatoes and the carrots. And done some weeding. And perhaps transplanted the fatsia. It’s getting too big for the pot. It needs to go in the ground. Margot probably only wants to get online to buy a pair of shoes or a handbag or something. I expect she can do everything else she needs on her phone. It is probably a gender-specific tech issue anyway. I don’t mean this in a sexist way but I think it’s fair to say that while women are great in the metaphorical driving seat, they are more reluctant to get under the hood when something goes wrong. It could simply be that Margot’s laptop has packed up. The build quality is poor these days. Anyway, she is going to have to wait.

There are more weeds than I thought in the veg patch and I need to tie back the daffodils that have gone over and top-dress the containers on the patio. And it looks as if it is going to rain soon. I decide to ask Ben if he will sort Margot’s laptop problem out. I don’t know why Suzy didn’t phone him in the first place. Youngsters are much more computer literate than our generation are. And Ben only has about three lectures a week on his media course. He has plenty of spare time.

I give him a call from my mobile.

I don’t think I’m going to be able to do anything about it, Dad,’ he says.

Oh, and why is that?’ I say. ‘Too busy deconstructing superhero films?’

My laptop is not working either,’ he says. ‘And the network at uni is down too. There seems to be a serious problem. To be honest, I was surprised to get your call. We’re lucky our phones are working. None of my tutor group’s are. I thought all networks were down. By the way, Dad, while you’re on the phone, could I borrow …….’

The call drops in mid-sentence. I try to call him back but my phone is now dead. No matter. Ben is always trying to borrow something. Usually money.

I find that my laptop won’t boot. Or the tablet. I can’t even interrupt into setup to see what might be wrong. This is not something I’ve come across before. I don’t have the expertise to diagnose what might be causing it. What else might not be working, I wonder? I find I have a dialling tone on the landline but most of my contact numbers are mobiles. All the numbers I try to call come up with an unable to connect voice message. Please try again later.

Finally, I try my old friend, Rick O’Shea’s landline in the hope that he might have an explanation. If anyone knows what’s going on, surely it will be Rick. Before his breakdown, he used to be a Systems Analyst for MI5. I got to know Rick when we were both involved in a campaign to free the wrongly-imprisoned activist, Iskariot Santé. I feel guilty as I haven’t been in touch since then. How long would that be? Two years? Three years? Quite a while anyway. But life moves on. Circumstances change. I believe Iskariot Santé was finally released last week. I wonder what he’s up to. Perhaps Rick will know. But first matters first.

Hi Rick,’ I say. ‘Long time! How are you?’

I know exactly what you are going to say, old buddy’ Rick says. ‘My answer is I don’t have a clue what’s going on in cyberspace. Everything seems to be down. The internet, the outernet, the fishing net, the whole damn watership probably. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before the phones are out too. The exchanges are bound to be run by a digital operating system. Just think, mate, we might be taking part in the last ever phonecall. This could be the end of remote communication, in fact, life as we know it. All it needs is one genius hacker and that’s it, old friend. Bye-bye technology. I’m thinking this could well be the Armageddon virus we’ve heard is on its way. The one that is claimed will be hundreds of times more virulent than Stuxnet or MyDoom.

I assume he is joking. With Rick, it’s sometimes hard to tell.

Suzy arrives home in a bit of a funk. She storms in and starts shouting at me.

What the fuck have you been playing at?’ she screams. ‘Margot and I were sitting around like lemons waiting for you to ring back. Sometimes I don’t know why I bother.’

There is more. I don’t get the chance to get a word in.

The roads are hell too,’ she continues. ‘All the traffic lights are out. I expect someone has drilled through a cable at those road works on Bram Stoker Street. It’s chaos. There are cars careering over the place. There’s a hideous pile-up at the junction of Somerset Maugham Street and Orwell Avenue. ……. And, I couldn’t get the new radio you put in the car to work. You’ll have to have a look at it after you’ve fixed Margot’s laptop. Here it is! I’ve brought it home so you can work on it here. Since you couldn’t find the time to call us back. I don’t know why. After all, it’s probably something simple.’

Yeah! Course! Just like that! Do I let her know now or do I keep her in suspense? Perhaps I could wait until she goes to turn the heating on with the remote control. Wait until Alexa doesn’t turn on the relaxing music for her yoga workout? Wait until she switches the TV on and discovers there are no programmes? We are in the age of the internet of things, Suzy. When the internet goes down, it’s not just your Google that goes, it’s the whole caboodle. I expect Margot would be phoning right about now to find out why she can’t turn her cooker on if she could use her phone. Perhaps she has been to the ATM and found this is no longer working or gone to the delicatessen down the road for her pok choi or matsutake mushrooms and found it’s cash only, if indeed the delicatessen is still able to stay open.

If Rick O’Shea is right, there is far worse to come than a few well-to-do people missing a few home comforts. I’m not sure exactly how worldwide communications work, how the complex mix of satellites and underground cables connects and there is no way to find this out at the moment. The thought occurs that the genius hacker that Rick refers to, whether real or potentially real, would know exactly how it all works and would be able to exploit it to the max. Cyberspace would be just space, no cyber. If he were designing the Armageddon virus then it would in all likelihood be just that. Something that would knock everything out in order to devastate humanity. It would be calculated to blow out all means of communication. With no internet, no TV, no news, no fuel, no movement of supplies, no aeroplanes, no travel, no information on what is happening would be available and there would no time to assess the next step.

Suzy interrupts my reverie to tell me the tumble drier is not working. I hadn’t realised this was one of our smart devices. It turns out I was right. It isn’t. The tumble drier is not working because the electricity has gone off. Suzy looks puzzled. Perhaps she thinks this is a ruse I’ve come up with so I don’t have to fix Margot’s laptop.

I imagine our substation has gone down, love,’ I say. ‘This will have a digital operating system just like everything else. I suppose it’s quite likely that the entire National Grid is now down.’

Suzy’s resolve is wavering. She is coming round to the idea that there might be a real crisis and it is not just me coming up with a series of excuses to get me off the hook. An apology is of course out of the question. Suzy does not do apologies but I can detect a softening of her attitude. She is clearly uneasy. I am uneasy. It is impossible not to have a bad feeling about what is happening. It might just be a power cut but if you put everything together, it feels like something more sinister. This is the stuff of apocalyptic TV thrillers, the stuff of nightmares. And here it is on the doorstep. What if it is happening everywhere? How would we know? When would we know?

Out in the street, a crowd of people is gathering. A selection of our neighbours, who have barely spoken to one another in the past, are massing outside the Robinsons’ at number 42. Some are gesticulating with their phones, others clutching small electrical appliances that have presumably stopped working. I think they’ll find no community repair café is scheduled for this week.

As we approach, we pick up garbled snippets of the of conversation, references to the tech items that are now dead with suggestions of conspiracy theories creeping in. It is fascinating to witness how a group of people, who in the normal run of things have little to do with one another, interact. Their awkwardness with one another. The jostling for position in the street hierarchy. At least, it would be fascinating if the situation were not so grave.

As if that weren’t enough. I can’t get my Audi TT started,’ Pearson Ranger from next door but one is saying. What a shame, I’m thinking, and after all that polishing too.

It probably has electronic ignition,’ May Loos says. ‘My daughter’s moped won’t start and there’s nothing electronic about that.’

We’ve got beer if anyone would like one,’ Mrs Robinson says. ‘Or wine if you’d prefer. Could you bring some drinks out, Tony?’

Does anyone have any idea how widespread the power outage is?’ the Benedict Cumberbatch lookalike from number 48 says. ‘That’s what we need to establish.’

No way of finding that out, is there?’ Basil Fawlty says, still desperately trying to bring his Samsung Galaxy to life. I wonder how long it will be before he throws it to the ground and stamps on it.

It could be terrorists,’ the young reporter with the acne who lives across the street says. ‘Looking for a headline.’

On the other hand, it might just be a localised problem, don’t you think?’ Ted Drinker says. ‘Probably nothing to worry about. We’ve had power cuts before.’

I spoke to my sister in St Kitts on the house phone not half an hour ago,’ Joan Armatrading says. ‘Well, perhaps it was a little longer. Maybe an hour. Two hours tops.’

But things have moved on since then,’ the Buddy Holly lookalike from the big white house with all the building materials in the garden says. He looks around for support.

It was bound to happen one day,’ Wet Blanket Ron from number 13 says. ‘I’ve been expecting something like this. I’m only surprised it didn’t happen sooner.’

It’s most probably a coup d’état,’ Major Tom says. ‘This is exactly the way a coup would happen. Take out all means of communication. Take out the power. When I was in Zimbabwe ……..’

You think there might be something strategic about disabling my daughter’s moped then?’ May Loos interrupts.

Probably unrelated,’ Major Tom says. ‘Have you checked the plugs?’

What we need is a plan,’ Tony Robinson says. Wasn’t he the fellow who played Baldrick in Blackadder?

Food and medicines will quickly run out,’ Wet Blanket Ron says. ‘Mine already have. My fridge is empty and I took my last anti-depressant earlier.’

We must be able to defend ourselves,’ Major Tom says. ‘We’ll need guns.’

Good, that’s a start,’ Tony Robinson says. ‘What have we got, guys?’

I wouldn’t normally share this with you but I’ve stockpiled odd bits of artillery over the years in my shed,’ Major Tom says. ‘And I know where we can get ammunition.’

I have an air rifle,’ Buddy Holly says. ‘I use it to scare the pigeons away. It’s quite powerful. You may have noticed a few dead pigeons on my lawn.’

A sudden chorus of phone tunes breaks out. Burglar alarms and car alarms start up. A veritable cacophony. Lights everywhere come on. Major Tom’s military radio crackles. Pearson Ranger’s Audi TT springs into life.

I have a message on my phone,’ the Benedict Cumberbatch lookalike says.

So have I,’ Joan Armatrading says. ‘It’s from my sister in St Kitts. Oh, wait! I have another one. ……. It’s quite long.’

I have one too. It’s about the shutdown. We probably all have the same message. I’ll read it out, shall I?’ Tony Robinson says. ‘It says:

You have just experienced a PlanItEarth technology shutdown. Not a lot of fun, was it? It was calculated to cause maximum disruption. Until you start using resources responsibly and show some restraint on the size of families, similar shutdowns will occur worldwide regularly at ever-shortening intervals. There will be no warning beforehand. Nor will there be any announcement of how long each might last for. It could be minutes, hours, days or weeks. Resign yourself to a number of technology shutdowns.

There’ll be air disasters,’ Wet Blanket Ron says. ‘Planes will fall out of the sky.’

Rail crashes and pile-ups on motorways,’ Benedict Cumberbatch says.

There will be robberies and looting,’ Mary Loos says. ‘Law and order will collapse’

We’ll need to get a generator,’ Pearson Ranger says.

Wait! There’s more.’ Tony Robinson says.

You will now be thinking you can prepare for these shutdowns but whatever backup plans you come up with will be of no use. We have every contingency covered. We can suspend or disable everything including batteries and generators. We appreciate that many people may die as a result of these actions. This is regrettable. But it is a small price to pay. At PlanItEarth we can see to be no other way to our planet and with it humankind. This message will appear on all digital platforms including personal computers and television channels when you switch them back on and will stay in place for ten minutes.

Instructions on how to use resources responsibly will be broadcast regularly and reactions carefully monitored.

This communication has gone out simultaneously to others around the globe in all major languages.

For some reason, the name Iskariot Santé comes into my head. I find myself wondering what he’s up to. Perhaps I’ll give Rick another call.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

O Sole Mio

osolemio

O Sole Mio by Chris Green

Sophie and I wonder why, at around the same time every Saturday evening, the ice-cream van makes its way up the Close. At about seven-thirty, we hear twenty seconds of O Sole Mio as the van comes around the corner. The initial chime is followed by another ten-second burst of the Neapolitan classic as it nears the top of the Close. Each time, the van stops outside the last house. Back in the summer, the visits did not need an explanation. Clearly, people were going to buy ice-cream on a hot day. But on a cold wet November evening, why Bocelli’s Ices would even come out, let alone make a detour up this quiet cul-de-sac is puzzling. No-one is going to want ice-cream on a night like this.

He’s probably selling drugs, don’t you think?’ Sophie says.

If he is selling drugs, he is hardly going to advertise the fact with a chiming ice-cream van, is he?’ I say.

The ice-cream van would be perfect cover,’ Sophie says.

In July, possibly,’ I say. ‘But look at it out there. It’s like the end of the world.’

I disagree,’ Sophie says. ‘It’s exactly the opposite. July would be more difficult. But only those who know about his drop are likely to come out to the van on a night like this.’

I suppose doing deals this way would save all the time spent sitting around inspecting the goods and sampling,’ I say. ‘There would be no chit-chat. It would just be a straightforward exchange of money and drugs.’

My point exactly, Ben,’ Sophie says. ‘Mr Bocelli is probably able to fit in three times the number of drops.’

So, how would it work in July, when all the families in the Close want ice-creams?’

I suppose the ones in the know would say something like, can I have an extra flake with that. Or perhaps they hang back until the others have bought their ice-creams.’

I wonder who lives at the end house,’ I say ‘We’ve had no reason to go up there, have we?’

We could ask Annie,’ Sophie says. ‘She’s bound to know. She knows everything that goes on around here.’

Who is Annie?’ I say. I haven’t spent as much time getting to know the neighbours as Sophie.

She’s the one with the cats who sits in her front garden all day.’

……………………………………

The numbers go up one side of the Close and down the other so that you must mean number 27,’ Annie says. ‘The one with the big brown truck on the drive.’

Yes, that’s the one,’ Sophie says. We have been curious about the truck since we moved in back in the summer. It somehow doesn’t fit in with the floribundas, the manicured lawns and picket fences.

That’ll be the Morrisons.’ Annie says. ‘Jimmy and Pam. To be honest, I don’t know much about them. Although I’m often outside in the garden, I never see them. They keep themselves to themselves. You’ve probably noticed that the old truck doesn’t move. Why don’t you take a wander up there and have a scout around? See what you can find out.’

The place is pretty much as Annie suggested. There are no signs of habitation. The curtains are drawn, top and bottom. The space at the front is laid to paving with mature weeds poking through. The truck is a left-hand drive American Ford F100 pickup, in other hands probably a classic, but this one doesn’t look cared for or even roadworthy. There is a tall fence around the side of the house which blocks out the space to the back. Perhaps, after all, there is no-one in residence. Perhaps the ice-cream van calls around for the benefit of a family at one of the other houses at the top of the road.

Sophie and I decide to think no more about it. It isn’t as if an ice-cream van coming along our road on a winter’s evening, whether bringing drugs or not, is a matter of life and death. If we choose to, we can take a peek out of the window to see what is going on when it calls next Saturday. Until then there are more important things to think about like when my winter socks, the new battery for the smoke alarm and my book on modern philosophers from eBay will be delivered. And Sophie is expecting her quarterly watercolour magazine and a new sports bra from Etsy.

But, when on Wednesday morning at 2 am, we are woken by the strains of O Sole Mio as the Bocelli’s Ices van turns the corner, our curiosity is raised once more. It is difficult to come up with a plausible explanation.

I thought I was dreaming,’ Sophie says. ‘But I’m not, am I? You heard it too.’

We go over to the window. The ice-cream van is all lit up, waiting at the end of the Close, outside number 27.

Let’s go and get one,’ I say.

What?’ Sophie says.

An ice-cream.’

But I’m not dressed.’

You can sling a coat on and some loafers. Come on! If he’s not selling ice-creams, we can call his bluff.’

We make our way up to the van. The engine is idling and when we arrive, Mr Bocelli is playing with his phone. He doesn’t seem surprised to see us and makes no remark on how we are kitted out.

Can we have a double rum and raisin and a double mint choc chip, please?’ I say.

Flake or no flake?’ Mr Bocelli says.

Sophie casts a knowing glance in my direction. Perhaps she was right. Perhaps this is how it’s done.

Oh, go on then!’ I say. ‘I’ll have a flake with mine.’

Why not?’ Sophie says.

With his back to us, it is difficult for us to see exactly what Mr Bocelli is doing but when he has finished, he hands us two splendid looking ice-creams.

That will be ninety-six pounds,’ he says. ‘Cash or card?’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

The Shipping Forecast

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The Shipping Forecast by Chris Green

I am listening to the Shipping Forecast when the phone rings. Not that I am a seafarer. I don’t have a boat or even live by the sea. It does not matter that much of the detail goes over my head. I find the poetry of the teatime forecast captivating. All those lyrical names like Lundy, Dogger and Fastnet. Rockall, Viking and Cromarty. German Bight. I do not want to be interrupted. I am not expecting a call. I leave the phone but it keeps on ringing. On the basis that it must be important, I finally answer it. No one is there. Another of those automated calls. When I put the receiver down, all the lights in the house go out.

The laptop goes over to battery so the Shipping Forecast continues uninterrupted. In fact, it is more atmospheric listening to it in the dark. It is easier to concentrate. Perhaps this is something to bear in mind for the future. It could be my imagination but the reports from coastal stations seem to be clearer. Even Stornoway and Lerwick have good prognoses for later.

At first, I put the outage down to a more widespread power-cut. We have had one or two of these since the November storms. But I can see the lights from neighbours’ houses are still on. Dan isn’t a very good electrician so I figure it is probably down to something he has done, or not done, when he fitted the new sockets under the stairs. We only used Dan for the work because he was Ellie’s cousin. He was a fairground worker before he became an electrician. He is in what is referred to as the gig economy. I do not have a number for Dan so I will have to wait until Ellie gets home from her class. Meanwhile, I can practice some tunes on my duduk. Light My Fire needs a little work. Then I can have a go at Mary Jane. And perhaps, Marrakesh Express. Omar feels this would sound good on the duduk.

Without warning, two tall dark figures dressed in black let themselves in through the back door. I can’t see who they are. Paranoia takes over. I don’t imagine they have come to listen to me playing the duduk. Over the years I have seen one or two noir films about unsuspecting victims being taken off for interrogation so I feel I know more or less what to expect. They will threaten me a little, perhaps point a gun at me, tie my hands behind my back, blindfold me and bundle me into the back of an unmarked vehicle. They will take me to a dark basement somewhere a twenty minutes drive away, tie me to a chair and leave me to stew for a while. Later on, the principal interrogators will arrive. For simplicity let’s say they will be Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta lookalikes. They will tell me they know I know why I am here so I might as well come clean. They will ignore my protestations of innocence, threaten me some more and perhaps club me round the head.

Why are you sitting in the dark, playing that flute thing, Dad?’ Matt says. ‘By the way, this is Andy.’

Hello Mr Lorenzo,’ Andy says. ‘That flute thing is a duduk, isn’t it?’

Oh, I see,’ Matt says, having tried a few light switches. ‘The electrics have gone. What happened?’

With a sense of relief, I explain the chain of events.

That’ll be a trip switch,’ Andy says. ‘Unusual for all the rings to go at once though. ‘Where’s the consumer unit?’

I show him. He puts the switch back on. I thank him and think no more about it.

The following day, I am listening to the Shipping Forecast again when the same thing happens. The phone rings, I answer it and the lights go out. Once again two dark figures appear out of nowhere.

Hi, Matt. Hi, Andy,’ I say.

This time it is not Matt and Andy. It is a pair of gangsters and they appear to have read the script. They threaten me a little, point a gun at me, tie my hands behind my back, blindfold me and bundle me into the back of an unmarked vehicle. They take me to a dark basement somewhere a twenty minutes drive away, tie me to a chair and leave me to stew for a while. Later on, the principal interrogators arrive. Pulp Fiction’s Jules and Vincent lookalikes. They tell me they know I know why I am here so I might as well come clean. They ignore my protestations, threaten me some more and club me round the head.

If I knew why you’d brought me here, I’d be completely co-operative. I’d tell you everything you want to know’ I say, taking the initiative. ‘But as it is, I have no idea.’

OK. We’ll try it another way, shall we?’ Vincent says. ‘Let’s start at the beginning. You’ve been listening to the Shipping Forecast.’

Regularly, Mr Lorenzo,’ Jules says. ‘We know because we’ve been keeping tabs on you.’

But you don’t have a boat,’ Vincent says. ‘So tell me, Mr Lorenzo. Why have you been listening to the Shipping Forecast when you don’t have a boat?’

I find it relaxing,’ I say.

You find it relaxing, do you?’ Jules says, coming at me with the butt end of his pistol. ‘Let’s see if you find this relaxing.’

Now, why do you like listening to the Shipping Forecast when you don’t live by the sea?’ Vincent says.

It’s like a mindfulness meditation,’ I say. ‘I just like listening to those mystical names. Shannon, Lundy, Sole, Fastnet.’

And why exactly is that, Mr Lorenzo?’ Jules says. ‘Why do you like those mystical names? It’s to find out where our shipments are coming in, isn’t it?’

So you can intercept them,’ Vincent says. ‘Like your people did with the last shipment three weeks ago. That didn’t go down to well with the boss.’

What shipment?’ I say. ‘What are you talking about?’

Our shipment from Morocco, Mr Lorenzo, as if you didn’t know,’ Jules says. ‘You somehow found out that we have been sneaking coded instructions about our drugs drops into coastal stations’ reports on the teatime shipping forecast for the benefit of our runners. And you have been listening in to crack the code.’

I don’t know what you are talking about,’ I say. ‘I know nothing about any drugs.’

And obviously, clever though you might be to crack the code, as you don’t have a boat, you too must be part of a larger operation,’ Vincent says. ‘So you’re going to give us names.’

What about those two young bucks that arrived the first time we called round for instance?’ Jules says. ‘The ones dressed in black.’

We would have taken them out then,’ Vincent says. ‘But the boss said, deal with you first. But we can always call back.’

Perhaps Mr Lorenzo needs a little more time to think about it,’ Jules says. ‘Let’s leave him to sweat for a couple more days. I think he might decide to be more talkative then.’

With this, they are gone. It takes me a while to spot it but I notice Jules appears to have left his phone. Can I somehow reach it? Is it perhaps a trick? Are they trying to find out who I might contact? I need to be cautious and if I ever get out of this hell hole, I need to be more careful about how I operate. Perhaps there is another way to find out about future shipments from Morocco to make sure my people are in position to intercept them.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Dog Gone

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Dog Gone by Chris Green

It is Friday evening. Zoot has gone out with his friends and Stacey and I have the house to ourselves. Outside there is the persistent drizzle you often get at the end of a working week when you’d like to go for a walk on the hill. Not that we go for a walk on the hill that often since the dog died. Once in a while, we make it to The Belted Galloway and sit in the garden with a pint or two. This gives us a pretty good view of the common. It’s probably a mile there and back. Just the right amount of exercise. We did talk about joining the gym but decided to put it on hold. I might get the bikes out of the shed instead, once Man with a Van has collected the old mattresses. Then we will be able to go a little further afield, perhaps as far as The Pallbearers Arms.

While we wait for a break in the drizzle, we are watching a documentary about obesity in taxi drivers. There seems to be very little on in the seven o’clock slot to entertain us these days.

What’s the date?’ I ask Stacey. The linking of taxi drivers’ obesity with road accidents is jogging my memory.

May 26th,’ she says.

Oh shit! I think Geoff said he was going to kill himself round about now. When we spoke, he said if Abi wasn’t back in two weeks, he was going to end it. …….. Or was it three weeks.’

When did he phone?’

I can’t remember. I thought I’d get the chance to check him out before he did it, but with Gnarls having to be put down, it just slipped my mind.’

You’d better ring him then,’ Stacey says, taking a large pull on her brown ale.

Although she has never said as much, I get the impression that Stacey is not keen on Geoff, even though she has never actually met him. ‘Your friend Geoff called she will say if she comes home to find he has left a message, in the same tone she might use if it was the Yorkshire Ripper that had called.

As the dialler is ringing, I try to piece together Geoff’s distressed phonecall. Abi had left him for a Bulgarian plastics entrepreneur and he had lost his job at the fishing tackle museum. He was anxious about the bank repossessing his house and was being driven mad by the round the clock drum and bass music from his neighbours. His doctor had put him on anti-depressants but the anti part seemed not to be working. And to cap it all his ulcer had flared up again. He could take no more.

Hang on,’ I had said, ‘I’ll give you a list of things worth living for. Pick any letter.’

B’ he had said.’

OK. The Beach Boys, Breaking Bad, big boobs, barbecues, BB King …….’

He was dismissive of all my suggestions, even big boobs. They got in the way he said. He ranted on for a bit and said he would give Abi two weeks, or was it three weeks, and if she wasn’t back, he was going to run his car into the side of a truck. Not any old truck mind you, he had one particular truck lined up. A DHL Iveco Stralis, I seem to recall. If I were so inclined, this is not the way I would want to do it. An overdose or a lethal injection would be much more comfortable. But Geoff seemed to be quite determined about the collision and always one to concentrate on the detail, as well as the vehicle, he had worked out a date and time.

There are a lot of self-help sites on the internet,’ I remember saying.

He said he could not connect to the Internet since he had gone with CheapNet. I remember feeling a little guilty that I had recommended CheapNet. After I suggested it, however, we had nothing but problems with CheapNet. I finally cancelled our contract with them just two days ago, having become exasperated by the slowness of the connection and the language barrier when dealing with their helpline in Turkmenistan. Now we are with FreeSurf, which of course is not free but it does seem quite speedy.

At the time, I did not take Geoff’s suicide threat too seriously. But perhaps I should have. He is not picking up. Am I too late?

I think I ought to go round to see if things are …… all right,’ I say to Stacey, who has finished her brown ale and is now opening a bottle of advocaat. I have to admit that I have no idea what I will do if things are not all right.

I get the Fiesta out of the garage, tie the front bumper back on and set off, wondering if I am over the limit. True, Stacey drank the lion’s share of the Belgian cider earlier, but there is always that risk. Geoff’s place is about fifteen miles away, so just in case any police might think a brown Fiesta with no front number plate, a dent in the side and the bumper hanging off looks suspicious, I decide to go the back way.

The Fiesta coughs and splutters as it makes its way up Prospect Hill. At the summit, perhaps summit is an extravagant description for a rise of a hundred feet, a cyclist in rain-drenched Day Glo Lycra eases past me. The Fiesta coughs and splutters as it makes its way down Prospect Hill. Its days are numbered. I have seen a lovely little Daewoo for sale, but what with the extra hours at the balloon repair workshop and Zoot’s problems with his Maths teacher, I have not had chance to look at it. I resolve to make time over the weekend.

Ashoka’s, the new store on the roundabout has a board saying 20% OFF SNAKES. I make a mental to note to check if we need one. Perhaps it didn’t say snakes, but you never know. Ashoka’s seems to sell just about everything. Someone at work bought an Alan Titchmarsh garden gnome there. They have a whole range apparently, Monty Don, Diarmuid Gavin, even Percy Thrower. BUY ONE GET ONE FREE, says another sign, although I cannot make out what this is for. Inflatable Buddhas, perhaps.

I have to wait at the temporary traffic lights in Long Lane where they are rebuilding the railway bridge. The lights have been there for months, if not years. How hard is it to strengthen a bridge? I try to get something on the radio to distract me. There is a choice between teeny pop, Wayne Rooney’s Desert Island Discs, Brahms, or a discussion on downsizing. I switch it off. We were forced to downsize a year ago when Stacey’s eldest, Irie, moved in with Mojo. Irie’s money from her job at Morrisons had helped keep us afloat. It does not seem likely that Zoot will ever pass his GCSEs let alone be in a position to leave home. But perhaps I am being a little unfair. He is only seventeen.

The lights change and I drive on. The Fiesta seems to run along nicely so long as I stay in third gear and use the wipers sparingly. ALL NIGHT HAPPY HOUR the sign outside The Bucket of Eels says. I remember that Geoff and I used to play skittles there years ago. When it was a real pub, with a choice of twenty real ales, with expressive names like Feck’s Original and Old Badger. Before it was taken over by Wicked Inns. The year Geoff and I were on the team, The Bucket nearly won the County Skittles League, losing narrowly to The Pig in a Poke in the final match. Admittedly the season was quite short that particular year as only four pubs entered, but we were proud of our achievement.

In the four years I have been with Stacey, I have only seen Geoff two or three times. When you are in a relationship, there is a tendency to neglect old friendships. Geoff and I speak on the phone occasionally and agree to go to the dogs or go fishing but something always comes up. It is probably ten years since we went to the dogs, and nearly as long since we went fishing. What a strange contrivance time is. It does not seem to follow a linear course, certainly not when viewed retrospectively. The memory constantly plays tricks. On the one hand, Geoff’s cry for help phonecall, if that is what it was, seems like it had happened months ago. Could it have really been only two or three weeks? On the other hand, it seems only last year that Geoff and I went boating in France to celebrate his forty-fifth birthday, and my divorce from Donna. But now Geoff is fifty-one or perhaps it is fifty-two, as he is two years older than me. The folding of time, the inability to identify the correct order of events relative to one another is something that becomes more worrying with age. Temporal confusion will presumably happen more and more with each passing year. I will have to accept it, along with receding gums and decreasing libido. I am dreading being fifty. This is only a few months away. Fifty is a watershed. Did hitting fifty mark the beginning of Geoff’s decline, I wonder?

Even if one should feel the inclination to end it, there are the ethical implications to overcome. Committing suicide in western culture is regarded as a crime and in Christianity a mortal sin. Not that Geoff was particularly religious, but he had been brought up as a Catholic. I try to speculate how suicide might this affect one’s life after death status? Because you are in essence taking a life, do you go to hell? Purgatory? Are you perhaps allocated a shabby damp basement in Rotherham with fifties furniture, a shared kitchen and the lingering smell of yesterday’s cabbage?

My mobile rings, breaking me out of my reverie. Perhaps Geoff has got the number and is phoning me back. Why do I always put the thing on the passenger seat? Now it has fallen down the side. I have to pull over to retrieve it. It is not Geoff, but Stacey asking if I can pick up some eggs, and if I pass an off-license, a bottle of ouzo. I tell her I will lookout for a farm shop, but it is unlikely that they will sell ouzo. ‘Pernod will do,’ she says. ‘Just a small bottle.’

Before Gnarls was put down, Stacey would buy a bottle of Lambrusco with the shopping and this would last her a week. Gnarls was a sweet dog. He was a cocker spaniel retriever cross. He was just seven years old. An inoperable tumour. His passing has affected Stacey badly. She has all his doggy toys lined up on the mantelpiece and she keeps getting his basket out from under the stairs. Last week I got home to find her cuddling his blanket.

I arrive at Geoff’s, having passed nowhere that sells comestibles. The Fiesta retches and rattles as I bring it to a stop outside the house. I notice immediately with a degree of alarm that there is an estate agents board in the front garden. SOLD by Jackson and Pollock. Has it been more than three weeks since Geoff’s phonecall? Why didn’t I phone back sooner? Maybe there would have been something I could have done. My heart racing. I get out of the Fiesta and look around. There is no car on the drive. Is Geoff at this very moment ramming it into the side of the truck? Or has he already done so? The yard is tidier than I remember it. There are no dismantled motorcycles. And where are the geese? Maybe I got the date wrong and it was May 16th or something and things have moved on. I fear the worst. I feel sick in my stomach. There is an eerie silence.

Not sure exactly what I am expecting to discover, I sidle over to look in the front window. A translucent waxy green film is forming on some of the bricks around the front door. I remember in an earlier conversation Geoff referring to this. In his paranoia, he wondered if it might be radioactive. Perhaps Geoff had been on the slide for a while and I had failed to notice.

At this moment, a blue Seat with tinted windows approaches and pulls in. Geoff and Abi step out, looking fit and tanned.

Hello Al,’ says Geoff, striding over to shake my hand. ‘Long time. What are you doing out here?’

I am lost for words. Eventually, I mutter something about the phonecall, three weeks ago. ‘I thought I might have been too late’

Have you started smoking the wacky-baccy again, Al? What phonecall? Anyway, three weeks ago Abi and I were in Dubai. Had a brilliant time as it happened. Magnificent architecture! You should go. Tell you what Al; I think that our life is starting to take off. When Abi and I got back from Dubai, we found we’d had a big win on the premium bonds and decided we would sell up. Fantastic, eh? House was on the market for less than twelve hours and we got a cash buyer offering the full asking price. What about that? From Bulgaria, he is, some sort of entrepreneur.’

I am flabbergasted.

Good thing you caught us. We’re moving next week. Anyway, how are you, must be six months at least. You better come in and have a drink.’

Fine,’ I say. ‘Just a little bit shell shocked.’

Last time we spoke you sounded pretty desperate,’ Geoff says. ‘I was quite worried about you. Thought you might do something silly. The bank didn’t repossess your house in the end I take it.’

I kept saying that Geoff should phone you to make sure you were all right,’ Abi says.

No really. I’m fine,’ I say.

And how’s Stacey?’ Geoff says. Although he has never met her I have formed the impression that Geoff in some way disapproves of Stacey.

I stay and have a beer with Geoff and Abi while they show me a VideoSpin film that Geoff has put together consisting of photos of staggering post-modern skyscrapers.

Those are the Dubai Emirates Towers, that’s the Burj Al Arab Hotel, and that is the Etisalat building.’

These are punctuated with photos of dramatic mosaics and water features from the Dubai marina. He has even dug out some authentic oud music for the soundtrack. I feel it is a little self-indulgent. I don’t imagine that they listen to a lot of oud music in Dubai these days. I am relieved Geoff is in good spirits but at the same time, confused. I can think of no explanation for the misunderstanding and Geoff offers none except that I seem to have been overdoing it lately. As soon as it seems courteous to do so, I take my leave.

I decide to drive back along the main roads. It is late. There won’t be any police on the roads at this time of night. I am making good progress and have just passed the Crossroads Motel when the phone rings. It is Stacey. She sounds excited, but before I can make out what she is trying to tell me the line goes dead. Probably my battery. I keep forgetting to charge it. Whatever it is will have to wait. Up ahead there is a blanket of flashing blue lights. As I draw closer, acutely aware that an old car doing forty-five in third might seem a bit conspicuous, I see that there has been an accident and that all the emergency services are in attendance. A car has driven into the side of a truck. A DHL Iveco Stralis. My mind races. What on earth is going on? Why is there so much strangeness in my life?

When I get home Stacey is still up. She has found a bottle of homemade fig schnapps and is watching Celebrity Big Brother on catch-up. Anne Widdecombe has just been evicted, which leaves Ayman al-Zawahiri, Paul Gascoigne and Vanilla Ice in the house.

I’ve just bought a dog on eBay,’ she says. ‘How was Geoff?’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

 

Invisibility

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INVISIBILITY by Chris Green

I discovered I could make people invisible. I found out by accident when I was working at the Ministry of Science and Technology. The Board refused to believe my evidence and summarily dismissed me. They could not see what was staring them in the face, or in this case not. They claimed it was a trick. That I was a cheap illusionist trying to get one over on them. There was no room for charlatans in the Ministry, Sir Fred Jessop said. But it seems to me, it was simply that they didn’t want something this important to get out. They wanted to keep the discovery under wraps. They were scared of the implications. Presumably, they were acting on instructions from on high. Their paymasters were people whose interests it was to make sure people were visible.

But perhaps the world should be made aware of my discovery. Things can only move forward when knowledge is shared. It’s not as difficult as you might imagine to make someone invisible. No specialist training is necessary. No background in Nuclear Physics or anything like that is needed. No scientific equipment is required. None of this quantum stealth invisibility cloak nonsense that the American military has been looking into is involved. No secret wisdom from reading the Upanishads. Nor any wand-waving Harry Potter mumbo-jumbo. It seems you just have to put the intention in place with sufficient emphasis and the victim vanishes.

After my initial success making one or two of my colleagues in Room 404 invisible, I held back for a while. After all, this was so groundbreaking that I could hardly believe it was happening. And if it was, what if it was something that only worked in a controlled scientific environment like the lab on the fourth floor of the Ministry? Eventually, I felt I had nothing to lose by testing it out elsewhere. Firstly, I tried it on my cat, Ralph. It worked a treat. Ralph disappeared. As soon as I got the chance, I tried it out on to the annoying next-door neighbour. The Manchester City supporter with the Cairn Terrier who was forever having barbecues on warm summer evenings. He too vanished. Next, it was the Conservative candidate who came around to canvas for votes in the upcoming County Council Election. Gone, in a flash. Just like that. These results were encouraging. Clearly, I was on to something.

As yet, invisibility was not permanent. So far as I could tell, it lasted from between two to three hours. Before I knew it, Ralph was back for his meaty chunks and my next-door neighbour was once again lighting the coals and cranking up the Country music ready for a barbecue. I’ve no information about exactly when when the Conservative candidate re-appeared but he must have because he was duly elected.

Perhaps my method needed a little tweaking to get it to last longer but for the time being, I reasoned that two or three hours ought to be sufficient time for many of its potential uses. At least the more nefarious ones. It would be enough time, for instance, for a burglar to rob the average house, probably quite a large house or perhaps several houses. It would be enough time for someone to sneak into a big match or an event without a ticket. It would also be useful to some old lag who wanted to get out of prison. Now I was out of work, at least I had a marketable product. At a later date, perhaps I could aim higher.

Griffin, the protagonist in the H. G. Wells novel, having made himself invisible, was unable to make himself visible again. This despite considerable efforts to do so. I found myself with a different problem. Although I was able to make others disappear, I was not yet able to make myself invisible. It seemed this was going to be the biggest challenge of all. Rosicrucians, Theosophists and The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn had all claimed success here. They maintained that with practice, you could become invisible by learning to spiral your personal grid to a higher frequency.

Was I trying too hard, I wondered? Was I putting too much pressure on myself? I went to see Dr Hopper. He must have felt it was something to do with the drugs because he put me on some different ones. Take four of these three times a day, he said. At least, I think that’s what he said. When you added the mg up, it did seem quite a large figure but they worked a treat. Dr Hopper seemed to have cracked it. My ex-wife walked straight past me on the High Street. Maddie had never done this before. She was never exactly warm and welcoming but up until now, she had always acknowledged me when we met accidentally. And when I called round to ask my friend, Geoff, if he wanted to go for a drink at the Cat and Fiddle, he told me he could not see me today. Geoff could not see me. The driver of the black BMW with the tinted windows who drove straight at me when I was crossing Gulliver Street obviously couldn’t see me either. It seemed that at last I was invisible.

There is a good chance I can make you invisible too. I am going to call in at the Community Resource Centre later to see if I can hire their hall to hold Invisibility classes. Who knows where this could lead? What is it they say? Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved