Sven of Halmstad

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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. ‘Where have you been?’

What about the Scott McKenzie roundabout and …..’

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

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

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

Arnold Schwarzenegger,’ Nancy says.

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

Why all the cameras?’ Nancy asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Schachelwirt?’

The Austrian restaurant and takeaway.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

 

 

Little Dissing

littledissing

Little Dissing by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guy,’ I say. ‘Call me Guy.’

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

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

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

Time travel then,’ I say.

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

I see,’ I say. ‘Any thoughts on that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lara!’ he calls out.

He spots me.

Who the fuck are you?’ he shouts.

I ask him who he is.

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

You mean Lara?’

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

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