It Doesn’t Matter Anymore

itdoesntmatteranymore

It Doesn’t Matter Anymore by Chris Green

I have just taken delivery of a large pot of gloss sealer when the call comes through on the burner. I was not expecting to be back in action so soon. I was hoping to finish off some painted ornamental stones, a hobby I’ve taken up to keep me mellow and mindful in between assignments. Art therapy, I suppose you would call it. Then perhaps spend the weekend with Sakura in Juan-les-Pins. But this is the way it is with sleeper agents. A few weeks of leisure in quiet surroundings followed by what might be weeks of uncertainty, dicing with death.

I send Sakura a text message saying I’ve been called away on business and then I turn off my personal mobile. I do not go into detail. I tell her, it’s a last-minute thing and my phone will be out of range for a while. Sakura doesn’t know what I do for a living. She thinks I’m a reclusive writer. When the time is right, I will tell her but for now, it’s best to observe the security procedures that go with my position. In my world, everything is on a need-to-know basis.

Although I have been signed up for three years, I have never met Ж, the head honcho of Department Z but rumours circulate. It is said Ж is famous for his riddles. Perhaps they help him diffuse the seriousness of the business we are in. He tells me I am to rendezvous with Buddy Holly at Gloucester Services on the M5 in Southern England. I don’t imagine that Buddy Holly is his real name. For that matter, I’m not sure that Buddy Holly was Buddy Holly’s real name.

I have no difficulty in finding my contact. I can see right away why Ж referred to him as Buddy Holly. With the trademark thick black spectacles, charcoal nineteen-fifties suit and slim red tie, he is the spitting image. I expect him to pick up a Stratocaster and start belting out Peggy Sue at any moment. He doesn’t. With the Department’s bear’s paw handshake, he introduces himself formally as Ћ. We sometimes never get to be on last name terms with our associates, let alone first names. The degree of familiarity depends on the level of security needed for a particular operation. This one is Category X, the highest category. There will probably not too many opportunities then to discuss the durability of Winsor and Newton acrylics here or the new exhibition of Cornish Modernists that is starting at Tate St Ives. Significant upheaval must be taking place.

A phonecall from Ж establishes what we are being assigned to investigate. It is indeed a biggie. North of Gloucester, he tells us, it is no longer getting light in the mornings as it should in April. The further north you go, the later the dawn is. In Birmingham, the clouds peel back after 9 and by the time you get to Sheffield, the dawn chorus arrives around 10:15. He says it is a mystery what might be causing this. Surprisingly not everyone in these areas has even noticed the anomaly and for some reason, it is not being reported in the press. Not even the weather-obsessed Daily Express is covering it. The implications are huge. Our remit is to find out what is happening and why it is happening.

I can’t help but be curious as to why I have been selected as I do not have a scientific background. Certainly not one in Physics. My background is in the Arts. Literature to be specific, magical realism. I can conjure up a carnivorous jungle or a bottomless well out of nothing. Talking cats are a speciality. So why has Ж selected me? Perhaps that is it. Perhaps it is precisely because of my creative credentials. But, surely Ж should know, magical realism is not the same as sci-fi. The essence of the puzzle would seem to sit easier with the latter. I don’t know how I should interpret it but Ћ says he only reads sci-fi. He tells me he has been recruited from Black Ops. To put it crudely, he eliminates people.

I find I can’t get on with addressing my companion as Ћ. Sometimes all this cloak and dagger seems too oppressive. I tell him I’ll call him Buddy instead. It seems only fitting. He says he will reciprocate by calling me, Ray. On account of the Ray Bans I’ve taken to wearing on assignments I assume. Or perhaps it is an allusion to Ray Charles.

Where do we begin on this one?’ I ask. ‘Everything seems a bit vague. To add to this, there’s the oddity that apparently people are split on whether anything is happening. Some say it is dark in the mornings but yet others say it isn’t. In fact about fifty-fifty according to the report I’ve just downloaded.

Fifty two-forty eight to be precise, Ray,’ Buddy says.

I might be wrong but those numbers seem to be familiar,’ I say.

I thought I’d heard them somewhere too,’ Buddy says. ‘But I can’t place where. Anyway, best we start asking some people what’s going on. Let’s see how their experiences differ as we move north.’

It hasn’t been a sudden thing, by any means, bab,’ Les Yardley tells us in Wolverhampton. ‘For the last two years or so, every morning things have been just a little greyer than they were the day before. Not the kind of thing you notice at first, mind, particularly in winter but when spring comes round you think to yourself, hang on, the streetlights are still on. It is still dark. The trees aren’t coming into leaf and the birds aren’t singing.’ Father McKenzie in Stafford is more emphatic. He says it has been so dark that businesses have begun to move out. All the automotive assembly plants have now gone. The queues at the church food banks, he says, are colossal. In a word, the future’s looking grim. May Loos in North Norfolk tells us it doesn’t get light until the afternoon and when it does, it usually rains. But, she says, oddly enough, the people in her parts don’t seem to care. They seem to like it this way. It’s as if it’s what they always wanted. Either this or they haven’t noticed that all the other cars they meet on the A149 have their lights on all day and the big skies over the county reflect the title for that erotic novel everyone was reading a while back.

It’s a strange situation. I realise it is part of the human condition that everyone sees things differently. A Rothko painting, for instance, might be seen by some as blots of blurry colour, perhaps painted by a myopic child but to others, it is a transcendent statement, a work of true genius. But even so, it is difficult to explain the staggering variation in existential perception Buddy and I are coming across as we make our way up-country. As the figures suggest, opinion about what, if anything, is happening is split down the middle. Although it now seems more people are able to detect that there has been some sort of change for the worse, whether it be the delayed dawn, the increased rainfall or the astonishing job losses. Many of those we speak to tell us it is now a rarity to see a smile on the street. Children no longer play in the parks. Perhaps if you were to take stock now, the numbers might now come out at seventy-thirty.

I tell Buddy that while some of the people we are speaking to will inevitably be prone to exaggeration, the North is not at all how I remember it. It is a shadow of its former self. It is as if the colour has been drained from it, its vital energy sapped. Buddy agrees. He’s only been up this way once before but the thing that struck him then was how friendly people were. They don’t seem so friendly now. They are sullen, dispirited. Like those matchstick figures in those Lowry paintings, he suggests.

We drive on, still puzzled by what exactly our mission might be. How on earth could our respective fields of expertise be put to any use in this bizarre situation? There’s possibly not going to be much need here for a parallel universe filled with kites or, for that matter, all that ordnance Buddy has brought along. What course of action are we meant to take? We decide for the moment to hold off in reporting back. Perhaps there is something we have not yet grasped about where our skills might come in.

We arrive in the north-east, Tyne and Wear. It is lunchtime. The streets of Sunderland are still dark. There is a steady drizzle. A queue of drenched downtrodden looking locals are queueing outside a boarded-up Morrisons supermarket. Word is going around that there has been a delivery and it will open its doors soon. They will be able to buy bread and maybe potatoes.

This is all down to a big mistake we made two years ago, kidder,’ a thick-set man tells us. Despite the wintry drizzle, he is decked out in builders-cut jeans and t-shirt. ‘In that voting malarkey. We thought we was being canny by saying we wanted out. Thought it would stop the flow of foreigners. That’s what The Sun was saying. They were giving out free copies of The Sun at Morrisons. And then there was that red bus with all that bollocks written on the side. Parked it in the square over there, they did. Anyway, we can’t go back now, can we? If only we could. I guess it doesn’t matter anymore. ……. Wait a minute! …….. You’re Buddy Holly, aren’t you? Not Back to the Future or something is it?’

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

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GUN

 

gun2018

GUN by Chris Green

Gary Bilk works as a tyre technician in Camborne, an old mining town in Cornwall. Most evenings after work, he picks up his girlfriend, Suzi Foxx from outside HairCraft salon and takes her to The Cock Inn. They have a bite to eat, play pool, darts or dominoes and chat with the regulars about rugby. Most girls that Gary has known have found the pubs he likes to frequent a little unsophisticated. They have shown little interest in rugby, or darts, or dominoes for that matter. Because of this, his previous romances have never lasted long, but he has been seeing Suzi for several weeks.

Gary himself does not play much rugby these days. After all, he will be forty soon and rugby is a game for younger and fitter men. But, he likes to go and watch his team, Camborne RFC, especially when they are having a good run. They are currently having a bad run, due to the loss of their fly-half, John Scorer and their blind-side flanker, Trev Padstow. No one is sure what happened to the pair. They mysteriously disappeared halfway through the season. Camborne have only won one game since.

Having been thrown out of his accommodation over rent arrears, Gary is staying at his friend, Curnow’s, this despite Curnow supporting Camborne’s great rivals Redruth RFC. Suzi’s flatmate Tamsyn apparently does not like the idea of Gary staying over. The flat is too small for that kind of thing, she says. So, after their chilli con carne or chicken and chips and a pint or two of cloudy Cornish cyder at The Cock, once or twice a week, Gary and Suzi get their rocks off in his Mitsubishi Lancer. He has made it more comfortable with a duck feather duvet and pillows, a can of California car scent and a DVD player with cinema surround sound.

It is on one such occasion in the car park behind Tesco that a gun falls out of Suzi’s handbag. At first, Gary thinks it is her phone that has dropped down between the seats. Suzi often loses her phone. It is not until after they have finished their business in the back seat that he realises that it is a handgun. Handguns are quite unusual in Cornwall. Gary has never seen one before. This is the type he understands from the movies to be a semi-automatic pistol.

Fucking hell, Suzi!’ he says. ‘What’s going on?’

Oh. Don’t worry about that,’ Suzi says. ‘It’s …… only a toy. It’s a present for ….. my colleague, Hannah’s son, er, Vincent. He will be ten next week.’

Gary picks it up. It does not feel to him like a toy gun. It seems too heavy and has too much detail. He remarks on this.

They are very realistic these days, aren’t they?’ Suzi says, taking it from him and slipping it back in her bag. ‘But, I suppose that is the point.’

But…..,’ he begins.

Suzi does not let him finish. She is practised at the art of distraction. When it comes down to it, she finds Gary is the same as all other men she has been with. They might just as well have an on-off button.

While Suzi has not been in the habit of lying to him, the incident begins to sew the seeds of doubt in Gary’s mind. On the way home, after dropping Suzi off, he is unable to rid himself of the thought that it might have been a real pistol and that Suzi may be concealing something sinister from him. What does he really know about her? He knows she is twenty nine – or thereabouts. She has a fleur-de-lys tattoo on her thigh and she is a Gemini. She takes more of an interest in sport than most women do and even seems to understand the rules of rugby.

He knows nothing about her background. He has a vague recollection of her saying early on in their relationship that both her parents were dead although he cannot be sure. You don’t take in everything that someone says early on in a relationship because you are more concerned with getting your own biography across. He knows from her accent that she is not from Cornwall but he is not good at placing dialects and she has never offered any details of her origins. She appears to have no children and has never mentioned any brothers or sisters. On occasions, without being specific, she has alluded to former lovers and so far as he can tell, she is not without sexual experience. But for a woman of …… let’s say thirty three, Suzi Foxx comes without obvious baggage.

When Gary goes to pick Suzi up outside HairCraft the following day, she is not there. Normally she is outside waiting for him. He waits impatiently on the double-yellows just down the road but still she does not arrive. He decides to park the Lancer and go in to remind Suzi that he is here. Maybe one of her hair appointments arrived late or something. He might get the opportunity to check out Hannah at the same time and ask her about Vincent and his birthday. A gun does seem to be a strange kind of present in these days of drug gangs and terrorism.

I’m sorry but we don’t have anyone called Suzi working here,’ the alarmingly young receptionist says. ‘I’m Teegan. Can I help?’

Gary realises he has never actually been into the salon before. Suzi always had him wait outside. ‘Is Hannah here then?’ he asks, out of desperation.

We have no-one called Hannah here either,’ Teegan says. ‘You could try the PoundStretcher shop next door.’

Gary tries her phone. It is switched off. It is nearly half past six. He makes his way to The Cock Inn. He is not sure what the misunderstanding is, but doubtless Suzi will turn up there, full of apologies.

No Suzi, tonight then, Gary?’ Big Hank says. Hank is the one who arranges the monthly country and western nights at The Cock. Once a month he dresses like Roy Rogers and rides to the pub on his horse and tethers it up outside. You can’t be done for drink-driving with a horse, he says each time. The joke is now a little stale.

I expect Suzi will be in later,’ Gary says.

Like that, is it?’ Jago says. Jago is the dominoes champion at The Cock. He is possibly the only one who understands the scoring or perhaps he makes up the rules as he goes along. All that Gary knows is that he has never beaten him.

She’s trouble, that one,’ Hank says.

Better off without her if you ask me,’ Jago says.

No one’s asking you,’ Gary says.

The guys are right, Gary. I don’t think you can trust her,’ Bodmin Bob the barman says. ‘I saw her at Newquay Airport today. She was catching a flight. Düsseldorf, I think it was.’ Bodmin Bob has just returned from London, having done business there. While everyone agrees that Bodmin Bob is dodgy, no one is quite sure what his business is. Some think he is a fraudster while others think he is a drug dealer. There is even speculation he might be a people trafficker or a hit man. No-one can explain why he is working as a barman at The Cock.

Gary can’t remember Suzi mentioning any plans to go to Germany. While he has to admit he sometimes switches off when she is talking, especially if he is watching a game, he is almost sure he would have remembered something like that. While he still wants to think the best of Suzi, what with the gun and the hairdressers and now this, it is becoming increasingly difficult. He doesn’t want to lose face here in the bar though. Not in front of Big Hank and Jago. He would never live it down.

Ah, I’ve just remembered,’ he says, in a flash of inspiration. ‘Suzi’s sister Heidi lives in Düsseldorf. And it’s her son Vincent’s birthday tomorrow. He will be ten. I remember her buying the present for him.’

That’s nice,’ Hank says. ‘What did she buy him?’

He is about to say a gun, but catches himself. ‘A rugby shirt,’ he says instead. ‘A Phil Scrummer number 8 jersey.’

They play a lot of rugby in Düsseldorf, do they?’ Jago says.

She should have bought him a gun,’ Hank says. ‘Ten year old boys like guns.’

After leaving The Cock, Gary drives round to the address that Suzi has given him for her and Tamsyn’s flat. He knocks loudly. He is determined to find out what is going on and if he can’t get the information from Suzi, then he will be able to get it from Tamsyn. The burly wrestler type that answers the door is visibly unhappy at being disturbed by a drunken dolt, claims no knowledge of the pair and instructs Gary to leave forthwith before he punches his lights out. His girlfriend’s web of lies appears to be extending.

Over the next few days, Gary keeps a low profile. There is no word from Suzi Foxx and her phone stays switched off. He is disappointed, embarrassed and angry. He does not like being made a fool of. He keeps his distance from Curnow, and at work, he indignantly greets customers and changes their tyres with extreme prejudice. He steers clear of The Cock Inn. He doesn’t even go along to Big Hank’s Country and Western night. He gives Camborne RFC’s final home game of the season against Redruth, said to be the fiercest rivalry in rugby, a miss. He isn’t even aware of the mysterious disappearance of Camborne winger, Will Wilson, before the game. Missing Will’s dynamic runs, Camborne lose by a single point and as a result, face relegation.

Curnow has found that people in this neck of the woods usually have the courtesy to knock when they come round to visit. Equally, SWAT team raids are unusual in Cornwall. So, he is doubly shocked when early one morning such a team forces its way into his house using a battering ram.

Hands in the air!’ the officer with the Breaking Bad beard screams.

Where is she?’ the one wearing Men In Black sunglasses hollers.

Who?’ Curnow asks. This meets with a blow to the head from the one with the Die Hard facial scars.

What’s the fuck’s going on?’ Gary asks, emerging groggily from his room. This meets with a blow to the head from Samuel L. Jackson.

We’re looking for Clara Hess. That’s who,’ Jean Claude Van Damme yells. ‘Now! Where is she?’

Who? What?’ Curnow says. He appears to be adjusting to his new role of crime suspect quickly.

We know that she has been at this address, knucklehead,’ Breaking Bad beard shouts. ‘Keep your hands in the air.’

The other four begin to roam, methodically trashing the place, tipping over furniture, tossing Curnow’s belongings here and there, as if Clara Hess might be hiding behind the bookcase, in the closet, under the settee, in the fridge.

Why are you wrecking my flat?’ Curnow says. ‘We have never heard of the person you are looking for. Where did you get this information?’

Aha! We have your friend Robert Trescothick in custody, birdbrain, and he has been very helpful,’ Breaking Bad beard sneers.

Who?’ Gary says.

Robert Trescothick, asshole.’ BBB says. ‘You might know him better as Bodmin Bob,’

Gary does not see Bob as one to co-operate with the police but then you never know, do you? There’s not a great amount of subtlety with this bunch. And, of course, they may have caught Bob red-handed doing whatever it is that he does. But who is this Clara Hess, and where does she fit in? He reflects that it is safer if for the moment he pretends he does not know Bodmin Bob. This is a miscalculation. It earns him a hefty blow to the midriff from Die Hard, who has just returned to the fray.

Look here, smartass,’ he says. ‘You have two choices. Come down to the station and tell us what you know or come down to the station and we turn off the cameras and the tape and give you a good kicking.’

At this point, Gary wants to mention solicitors, but a fist in the windpipe prevents him. There is a sudden crackle on Breaking Bad beard’s radio, an unintelligible voice barks something through the static. Die Hard turns around. BBB hollers something in a cryptic language that probably only armed officers are able to understand. It seems to hail a change of plan. Without further explanation, the SWAT team vanishes.

Did all of that really happen?’ Curnow asks.

It certainly feels like it did,’ Gary says.

Must have got the wrong house, don’t you think?’ Curnow says.

Gary is not so sure. He does not mention it to Curnow but he has the growing feeling that Suzi Foxx and Clara Hess might be one and the same. He is not even sure any more about Curnow. When something like this happens you do not know what to think. To take himself off the radar, he decides to go to stay at a local bed and breakfast until it all blows over.

When later on he sees the headline in The Cornishman, CAMBORNE RUGBY STAR FOUND DEAD ON BODMIN MOOR he begins to suspect the SWAT team’s inept raid might have been in connection with this. The report says the body of Will Wilson is believed to have been lying in the undergrowth for several days before being discovered by a local man out walking his dog. …… Wilson is believed to have been shot several times by an automatic pistol ….. Police are combing the area …… They are also investigating whether there might be a connection with the disappearance of Camborne’s other two rugby stars earlier in the season. …. No trace of them was ever found …. Anyone who might have any information that might be of help in tracing the killer is being asked to contact ………

The next few days bring some startling disclosures. Two more bodies are found on Bodmin Moor, fitting the description of John Scorer and Trev Padstow, the two missing Camborne rugby stars. Bodmin Bob is released without charge. Curnow along with Clara Hess and several others whose names are not familiar face are arrested and face charges of murder or conspiracy to commit murder. It is all over the papers. At work, they are all talking about it. There is much speculation about the possible motive. Rumours are rife. A rival rugby team, Redruth or Launceston perhaps? The Devon Mafia? A European takeover? Everyone seems to have heard a whisper somewhere.

Gary does not know how to respond. In a way, he feels very close to it all. He might have seen this coming with Suzi Foxx or Clara Hess or whoever she was, but never in a million years would he have suspected his friend, Curnow would be involved. Curnow Trevanian, the skinny lad from Tolcarne, a gunman? Unthinkable. He has known Curnow since his school days. He cannot bring himself to look at the Cornishman report and especially not the pictures of them being taken into custody.

Hands up mister,’ says a small voice behind him, as he is leaving work.

Gary turns around to see a young lad pointing a gun at him, a semi-automatic pistol. The boy is laughing. Out of the corner of his eye, he catches a glimpse of Suzi Foxx wearing a summer print dress walking towards him.

Hello Gary,’ she says sheepishly. ‘Put that thing away, Vincent! …. It’s all right, Gary. It’s not a real gun, but they look so realistic these days, don’t they? …….. Hey! I’m sorry about all the trouble that I’ve caused you. I know I shouldn’t have lied about everything. The thing is I couldn’t tell you much before because ……… Well, if you’d like to come round to my new flat later, I’ll tell you then. ……. Oh, by the way, this is my son, Vincent.’

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Moondog

moondog

Moondog by Chris Green

All Airbnb hosts have different ideas about promoting their space and a different interpretation of hospitality. Emphasis might be on the style of the rooms, the location of the property or even the size of the breakfast they offer. Each let has a different vibe about it, dependent to some extent on the owners’ personalities. The top-floor apartment in the Somerset village is one of a succession of lets Birgit and I have taken in order to explore southern England.

Perhaps we ought to take a closer look at reviews before we book but even then you can never rely on the accuracy of the comments. Suffice to say, ahead of our visit, we are not sure what might await us as the only photo of the accommodation on the site is the lovely view from the window. It is clear though from the off that Ray and Susan’s let is going to be more quirky than the others.

Birgit is on a dairy-free diet and has stopped off at the farm shop down the road from the accommodation to buy some fresh fruit and soya milk. They have left the key under a ceramic pot for us so I let myself in. Ray hears me and comes to greet me. He is a tall man in his mid-fifties with a receding hairline. He is wearing a floral waistcoat and has a silver tenor saxophone around his neck which strikes me as a little unusual.

I hope you like Moondog,’ he says.

I am not sure who or what he is referring to but to be polite, I answer, yes, of course.

Good,’ Ray says, and we leave it at that. As we make our way upstairs, he starts talking about trees. Do I think the shellbark hickory requires clay or loam soil, he wonders? I shrug. I do not know much about trees. He tells me you can eat the nuts of the shellbark hickory. I make an encouraging remark about the Picasso-patterned stair carpet. Susan is nowhere in evidence.

As I walk into the apartment, the first thing that hits me is that the walls are painted bright red and decorated with a collection of Abstract Expressionist paintings by New York artists. Pollock, De Kooning, Yamamoto, Rothko. Not originals of course but nonetheless, in the context of rural Somerset, dramatic and unexpected. Perhaps I do not register any surprise but if I do, Ray certainly doesn’t appear to notice it.

I’ll leave you to it,’ he says dismissively and with this, he is gone.

Birgit arrives with her provisions and I let her in. We laugh a little about how odd the flat is. The multicoloured tiled floor, for instance, is on several levels like a series of steps, something to be aware of in the night perhaps. However, it is not the accommodation that we came for. We do not plan on being indoors much during our stay. It is June and after all, we are only here for one night. We are moving on to Dawlish in the morning to explore Devon.

Once Birgit has changed outfits a few times, we take advantage of the warm evening sunshine and go for a drive in the beautiful Somerset countryside. Although it is reputed to be flat as a pancake, we manage to find some hills and fine hills they are. The Quantocks. We stop off for a bite to eat and a drink at a pub in Dunster and arrive back at about ten.

The cat that is slinking about the front garden looks to me like an ocelot, but surely it can’t be. Perhaps it is an overfed Bengal or something. In any case, there is no-one around to ask. There is no sign of our hosts. We get ourselves settled and potter around making more remarks about the unusual layout of the apartment. In our kitchenette, I look for glasses for our nightcap. I find the Warhol print cupboard is packed with Brillo pads. Boxes on boxes of them. Eventually, I find two orange Penguin book-cover cups, both of them novels by Clifford Font.

At first, I think it is the knocking of old-fashioned plumbing that wakes me. Then I realise the rhythmic drumming sound is interspersed with snatches of violin and oboe. Birgit is awake so I ask her. She says she can’t hear anything.

It must be in your head,’ she says.

But it’s really loud,’ I say. ‘How can you not hear it?’

There’s nothing,’ she says ‘Go back to sleep.’

The sound continues. This is not the saxophone but Ray might play any number of other instruments. But surely not all at the same time. And there’s definitely a lot going on here. Some strange minor chords on the piano. Lots of percussion. Bells, voices. It’s strangely hypnotic. Isn’t that a foghorn? Might this perhaps be the mysterious Moondog, whoever or whatever Moondog is?

When Birgit drops off, I key in a search on the tablet. I discover Moondog was a blind American composer, street musician, poet, theoretician and inventor who from the late 1940s lived and worked for thirty years in Manhattan. He recorded dozens of albums, all of them difficult to categorise. Amongst his friends in the music world were Philip Glass, Leonard Bernstein, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. Moondog was heavily into Nordic mythology and built an altar to Thor in his country home in New York State. His long white beard and long white hair gave him a distinctive appearance, along with the Viking cloak and horned helmet he wore to protect his head because his blindness meant that he kept walking into things. He moved to Germany in 1974, where he claimed to have been in spiritual communication with Beethoven.

My curiosity raised to stratospheric levels, I creep downstairs to see where the weird music is coming from. I suppose I’m expecting to find Ray slumped in a chair in some kind of comatose state listening to it on his Bang and Olufsen hi-fi. Perhaps he has old Moondog LPs on vinyl. Surprisingly, no-one seems to be around. I cannot make out the source of the music now. Suddenly, I notice it is quiet. There is no music. ……… It occurs to me that Birgit could have been right. Maybe there never was any music. It might just have been in my head. But, if this is the case then I must be losing my marbles.

I spend a fitful night, dreaming of moons and dogs but at seven thirty, Birgit is up and ready to go. She says she is ravenous. I tell her I’m not sure that Ray and Susan are up. She says she is certain she heard someone moving about downstairs so we make our way down to the breakfast room. It is Susan who greets us. Long red hair and long red Bohemian dress aside, Susan’s appearance is surprisingly conventional.

The breakfast room has half a dozen bright paintings on the wall. David Hockney in style I feel although Birgit thinks they are more Matisse than Hockney. We cannot make out the signature on any of them. I ask Susan. She tells us they are her work. I congratulate her and tell her I like them a lot.

Very different from the Abstract Expressionist works upstairs though,’ I say. ‘I expect those are Ray’s choice.’

Don’t you like them?’ Susan says.

I love them,’ I say.

Anyway, I adore them too. I like all styles,’ she says. ‘I chose all the works in the house. Ray doesn’t care much about art.’

With a view to perhaps mentioning the strange sounds I heard in the night, I tentatively ask Susan where Ray is.’

Ray is in New York,’ she says. ‘He went last Thursday. He’s at a Moondog Appreciation event. Then he’s going to look at trees. Apparently, they have a lot of woodland in New York State. He says he will be back next week.’

Over breakfast, I scan the reviews for our Dawlish accommodation. One guest mentions that she feels the place might be haunted. I’m not sure I like the thought of that.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

STRANGER

stranger2

STRANGER by Chris Green

Each time I go to Carwydden Cove, the ragamuffin stranger is there, lurking in the shadows. Major Tom, my salt and pepper schnauzer sometimes barks excitedly as we approach. He has a habit of running up to strangers to introduce himself, so I throw a stick to distract him. Something about the spectral figure suggests that he wants to be alone and I am intruding on his space. At first, I found his baleful presence intimidating but I have come round to the thinking that there must be an innocent explanation for his being on this remote stretch of beach every evening.

If he were a fugitive from justice or a paedophile, he would surely have been caught by now. Besides, if he were the latter, this would hardly be the place to come. Few children venture down to this rough shingle. Carwydden is primarily a dog beach. Perhaps he is an erstwhile mariner or a solitary poet. Whichever, he is so well camouflaged that if you were here for the first time, you would not notice him. He seems to be able to find shadow where there is none.

If I found the stranger particularly disturbing, I could easily take Major Tom for a walk up the other side of the cove. But, since my retirement, I have become a creature of habit. In fact, if I’m honest, I like to walk this way because Amy and I used to come here when we were courting. The Spring of 1961, it would have been when we met. We were sixteen. Spurs were top of the league. If I put my mind to it, I can still name the entire first team. Wooden Heart was at number one on the pop charts. Amy was a member of the Elvis Presley fan club. I took her to see Flaming Star at the Gaumont, or was it Blue Hawaii? I was more of a Cliff fan myself. The Young Ones and Summer Holiday. They were great tunes. Anyway, one time when I had my short back and sides at Reg Cropper’s, I had gotten something for the weekend and we fumbled about behind a clump of rocks. Yuri Gagarin was in space at the time I remember. Ever since then, I’ve felt an attachment to this beach. Amy, bless her heart, died three years ago from complications after a routine procedure. I was inconsolable. That’s when I got Major Tom to keep me company, what with the children grown up and long gone. But I always think of Amy when I walk this way.

I drop news of my sightings casually into my daily conversations around the village. Mrs Nancarrow in the Post Office says she sometimes goes to the beach with her pastels but has never seen him. Nor has Spike at the garage where I have the Kia serviced. Barbara from the Age UK shop, who knows everything that goes on around the area, hasn’t heard anything. My neighbours Breok and Merryn have not seen him, and my other neighbours Jack and Vera suffer from an intermittent deafness and often do not understand what I am saying. Mushtaq in the general store where I buy Major Tom’s James Wellbeloved says he hasn’t got time to go to the beach since Nasim started working at The Eden Project. No-one seems to have caught sight of my man of mystery but me. I wonder if P. C. Trescothick might know something, but after the incident with Major Tom and the sheep, I do not like to draw attention to myself.

I keep an eye on the local newspaper. I start going to the library in the nearby town to look at back copies. I remember the days when I used to take Adam and Alice there after work on a Monday when the library was open late to give Amy a break. I recall we did this for several years in our kermit-green Deux Cheveaux. I would take the opportunity look at the local paper while they were choosing their Roald Dahl or Stig of the Dump. There never seemed much to report in those days. It was a quiet backwater.

The South West Examiner today describes a different world. A serial killer who has preyed on female cab drivers has been apprehended. There is controversy over a Dial a Drink scheme being introduced where alcohol can be delivered to your door 24 hours a day. There is a story about a dancing goat that you can hire for parties and another about a woman who crashed her car while teaching her dog to drive. There are reports of chilling attacks on pensioners and a piece about nightclubs and bars being issued with cocaine-torches, that door staff can shine into clubbers faces. Microscopic particles of the drug glow green. Clubbers? The only club there used to be around here was the United Services Club. Perhaps, to boost its readership, the paper now concentrates too heavily on sensationalist stories. My friend, Mark Friday tells me some of the news might even be fake, probably most of it. He says that they lift their stories from internet sites. Whether or not this is the case, there are no reports of a furtive interloper living on a shingle beach in my neck of the woods.

Outside the library, I bump into Chas.

‘Well, fuck me on a Friday, Frank! Good to see you, mate. It’s got to be a year or two,’ he says. Chas is tilting a little. I imagine he is no longer on the wagon.

I agree it has been a long time. In fact, I haven’t seen Chas since Amy’s funeral.

He quickly confirms my suspicions about the drinking.

I’ll tell you what old mate,’ he says. ‘Come and have a beer with Lenny and me later. We’ve started going to The Francis Drake.’

The Francis Drake?’ I say. ‘You can’t be serious.’

The Francis Drake as I remember it is a bit select. Amy and I had had our silver wedding celebration there. Silver Service. Thirty pounds a head back then. Adam was going through his punk phase at the time and came in his bondage gear with his orange hair and full regalia of safety pins, embarrassing us all. It would have been hard at the time to predict that he would become a science teacher in Cumbria. Pillar of the community, married with two children and a Ford Focus. Alice’s career path has been a tad unusual. After passing her City and Guilds in the unlikely subject of Dog Grooming, she opened a Dog Spa in the Cotswolds with her friend Terry. Terry, I should add, is female. Probably no grandchildren there. I suppose my main regret is with the family so far-flung, the only time I see them is at Christmas. It can get lonely with just your own company all day long. Alice suggests I join a dating agency but I tell her I’m too long in the tooth for all of that.

Chas’s voice brings me out of my reverie.

All the other pubs around here have been turned in bistros, Frankie,’ he says. ‘You know, posh nosh for the grockles.’

But The Francis Drake is the most exclusive of all the places around here,’ I protest, looking him up and down. ‘Surely they wouldn’t let you in your tatters.’

You don’t get out a lot, Frank, do you?’ he says. The Francis Drake went into a downward spiral in the nineties. Fortune Inns, you might remember, went bust. It was empty for yonks. No one wanted it. Till The Flynns took it. Doesn’t do food any more. Well, you can get scotch eggs and crisps. Cheapest beer around here though. ….. All the holiday people go to The Buccaneer or The Jolly Slaver for their t-bone steaks or salmon in white wine sauce.’

Whole new world, isn’t it, Chas?’ I say. ‘Seems determined to leave us behind. Remember Rose Trevillick? I’ve just read in the paper that she has been fined for feeding the ducks in the park. What is going on?’

Chas does not remember Rose. Or the park.

Lenny’s doing well,’ he says. ‘He’ll be really pleased to see you. Keeps talking about the time the two of you took the boat out around the headland that really bad winter.’

Although they are both a little younger than me, I have known Lenny and Chas for over twenty years. The three of us worked shifts together at the china clay factory. Worked might be seen as a euphemism in Chas’s case. He spent most of the time at the factory avoiding it. There is no getting away from it, Chas has always been a rogue. A fabulist too. When you first meet him, you might listen to his stories with rapt attention. Junior billiards champion of the South West. A trial for Plymouth Argyle FC. Original guitarist with the Manic Street Preachers and he had a fling with Kate Bush. To look at Chas, all eighteen stone of him and not an inch over five foot five, you would have to say that this seemed unlikely. After a while, you would take anything Chas said with a pinch of salt.

Lenny, on the other hand, has always been someone on whose word you could rely. He is perhaps impressionable but, unlike Chas, he is as honest as the day is long. If, for instance, Lenny were to tell me the stranger on the beach was Lord Lampton, the peer who in the mid-eighties murdered his wife and then disappeared then I would be looking out for the droves of newspaper hacks who would be on their way. The thing is, Lenny is quite likely to come up with a story like this. Lenny’s hobby is investigating unsolved local mysteries.

Seated outside The Francis Drake, I settle Major Tom down with a pork pie and a bowl of Guinness, and Chas, Lenny and I begin to catch up. Chas tells me that he is back in the music business managing a Kinks tribute band called The Kunts – with a K. He says they are fantastic musicians and the singer looks just like Ray Davies.

Only a question of time before they make it,’ he says.

You don’t think maybe the name might be a problem,’ I say. ‘I mean, the punk era was 30 years ago.’

Not at all mate,’ Chas says. ‘The name’s awesome.’

But they will be on the tribute band circuit, won’t they?’ I say. ‘There’s a kind of respectability involved when you book a band at the local community hall.’

You know what, Frank?’ he says. ‘You worry too much.’

Chas tells me he has not had a proper job since he was laid off at the china clay factory. He signs on at two different addresses, does cash in hand felt-roofing, and sells knock-off goods and pirated DVDs at car boots. I recollect Ted at the butchers telling me he bought a box of DVDs at a car boot and that he wasn’t able to play them. Chas is so indiscreet. He spends the next ten minutes reeling of a catalogue of scams that he has been engaged in. He has no scruples. No wonder Irene divorced him.

His mobile rings. Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple. This gives Lenny the opportunity to tell me about a missing person mystery he has been working on. Ricky Geist, the Cornish actor who he says was on the verge of a career in Hollywood disappeared without trace nearly twenty years ago.

You probably don’t even remember him, do you?’ Lenny says.

I tell Lenny I have a vague recollection of someone with a name like Ricky Geist in a series called Shooting Script or something similar.

That’s the one,’ Lenny says, apparently thrilled that I can remember. ‘Ricky played Matt Black in Shooting Script. And he was in You Never Can Tell on the BBC. Not the main character admittedly but the feeling was that his star was in the ascendant. Then, just when Hollywood was considering sending its scouts over to sign him up, he disappeared. To this day, Ricky has never been found.’

I see,’ I say. I begin to wonder….. What if? Surely it couldn’t be him. Could it? I decide to hear Lenny out before interrupting.

But, over the last few months, I’ve heard there have been one or two sightings of him here in the south-west,’ he continues. ‘It’s all a little vague but who knows, perhaps it is just a question of triangulating the locations of the sightings and anticipating his next move.’

Does Chas know?’ I ask.

No. I haven’t told Chas,’ Lenny says. ‘You know what he’s like. He would ridicule the idea.’

Chas returns from his phone call, grinning all over his face.

Sorry guys,’ he says. ‘I’ve got to love you and leave you. I’ve got a date tomorrow. Better have an early night. ……… Oh, go on then! I suppose there’s time for another pint.’

For the rest of the evening, Chas regales us with a treasury of apocryphal tales. There is no chance now to tell Lenny about the mystery man on the beach so I arrange to see him the next day.

Not being used to drinking so much, I have just about recovered and taken Major Tom for a quick walk along the river bank when Lenny calls round late the following afternoon. We both blame the excess on Chas.

He’s always been that way,’ Lenny says. ‘Difficult to have just a pint or two when Chas’s around.’

Hardly likely to change now, is he?’ I say. ‘What’s this band he was talking about?’

There is no band,’ Lenny says. ‘He was just winding you up.’

What about his date then?’ I say.

Well, he seems to be seeing her today,’ Lenny says. ‘At least that’s what he says. But you can never be sure with Chas.’

Another Kate Bush perhaps?’

Lives in a fantasy world, doesn’t he?’

Always has, always will.’

Swift half?’

Why not? Hair of the dog.’

We stop off at The Francis Drake. The bar is empty. Errol, the landlord explains how he bought the place for a song, put on tap a good selection of strong ales and farmers’ cider and within a few weeks business was booming, but lately, the pub has been going down the pan. Errol blames it variously on the unnecessary restrictions on the strength of beers and ciders, the recent road closures and Brexit.

Chas Filcher is probably my best customer,’ he says. ‘And he’s seeing this new woman today, he tells me.’

Not going to bring her in here, is he?’ Lenny says.

No. I don’t believe he will,’ Errol says. ‘He said he was taking her to the races.’

Lenny and I take our beers outside and I begin to explain about the stranger on the shore. I can sense his excitement growing.

And you reckon this down-and-out might be Ricky?’ Lenny says.

I couldn’t say for sure,’ I tell him. ‘But judging by what you’ve been telling me, I think there’s a good chance it could be him.’

Well. What are we waiting for?’ he says. ‘Let’s go before someone else discovers him.’

We get into the Lenny’s Hyundai and head towards Carwydden. It is a good mile and a half from the car park down to the beach and as we make our way over the rugged terrain, Lenny chatters excitedly about his successes. His investigations have helped to locate half a dozen missing persons now and is proud of his achievements. He says it has given him a new lease of life. For once, he feels valued.

We arrive at the spot where I would normally find the stranger lurking in the shadows. I am about to point him out when I discover to my dismay, he is not there. He is nowhere to be seen. This sends me into a spin. I do my best to reassure Lenny that he will be around somewhere. We spend the next half hour scouring the shingle beach and surveying the nearby cliff paths but there is no trace of him. Not a single thing to suggest he has ever been there. I feel a burning sense of embarrassment having brought Lenny all the way out here. My apologies along with my insistence that he was here forty eight hours ago land like a lead balloon. Lenny tells me it doesn’t matter but his disappointment is palpable. As we stroll back to the car, he says with what I feel is an air of forced cheeriness, a chuckle even, that he will carry on looking for Ricky Geist. But, I get the impression he no longer requires my help to do so.

Tabloid tendencies have apparently taken over at the South West Examiner. The paper has taken to populating its pages with mindless trivia at the expense of major news. Readers are often left in the dark about important issues. The editorial staff, if indeed there are any, seem slow to pick up on big stories even when they occur close to home.

So, it’s not until a couple of days later that I discover that Lord Lampton’s battered body has been found on a nearby beach. Police are working with witness statements, the article says and are expected to make an arrest soon. I barely have chance to digest the news before the police come knocking at the door. It isn’t P. C. Trescothick and his new lad either. This pair are not from around here. They look as if they might mean business. I find to my horror they are here to arrest me for Lord Lampton’s murder.

Detective Sergeant Blunt, the tall one with the tattoos, reads me my rights.

I protest my innocence. They are quick to counter this. They tell me they have irrefutable evidence.

Witnesses from all over the village say you’ve been asking them questions about the stranger down on Carwydden beachBlunt says. ‘Mrs Nancarrow says you’ve asked her many times if she knew who the stranger was.’

Except he wasn’t a stranger, was he?’ Blunt’s colleague with the facial scar says. I did not catch this one’s name but he certainly looks like a bruiser.

I was looking for Ricky Geist,’ I say. ‘We thought the stranger on the beach might have been him.’

Would that be the same Ricky Geist who has just won a BAFTA for the acclaimed Channel 4 drama, Disappeared Without Trace?’ Facial Scar says.

What?’ I say.

Don’t you read the papers?’ he says. ‘Best Actor in a Leading Role for Disappeared Without Trace.’

Lenny, who I have always trusted implicitly wouldn’t play a prank like that on me, would he? How would even have known that I knew nothing about Ricky Geist and why did I pretend that I did? What could he gain from the deception? Unless ….

Let’s get back to the murder investigation,’ Blunt says. ‘Spike Mulligan from Trewethin’s Garage tells us you offered him money to do the deed. He says he should have come and told us at the time what you were planning but he was worried he might get detained because he had a record.

I am flabbergasted. I’ve known these people for years. Why are they incriminating me?

And your neighbours, the Duckworths tell us you kept going to Carwydden Cove looking for him,’ Blunt continues. ‘With someone called Tom.’

Major Tom,’ I say. ‘Major Tom is my dog.’

Yes, that would explain it, ‘ Blunt says. ‘Jack and Vera weren’t very clear about exactly who Tom was.

Errol and Wendy Flynn from The Francis Drake say that they heard you in their bar talking to Lenny Nice about your murder plans,’ Facial Scar says. ‘Lenny tells us that you’ve been talking about it for weeks. And we have CCTV of you doing a reccy on the area with Lenny. Lenny says you made him drive you out there at gunpoint.

Lenny, probably the most honest man in Cornwall. Lenny, my long-term partner representing The King Billy in darts tournaments. Lenny, who I saved from drowning on that trip around the headland years ago. Something is not right here. Lenny is the last person you would expect to be a backstabber. What in Heaven’s name is going on?

But, Lenny has an alibi,’ Blunt says. ‘He was with Chas Filcher at the time it happened. He says he was with him all weekend. They were fishing.

That can’t be right,’ I say. ‘Have you spoken to Chas? What does Chas say?’

Chas confirms they were fishing,Facial Scar says. ‘He also says that he doesn’t know you.’

Chas and Lenny both doing the dirty on me is not something I could imagine possible. I’ve known the pair of them for twenty years. Then, there are all the other people from the village, who have pointed the finger. People whose houses I have visited, people who have called around for drinks at Christmas, people I have chatted to in the pub. But mostly, Chas and Lenny. With friends like these, as the saying goes. ……….

Now that we’ve got all that cleared up, it’s a ride down-town in the back of the car for you,’ Blunt says. ‘As you won’t be getting bail, wed better drop the dog off at the RSPCA.’

One of the worst things about getting old is that you need lots of naps. I must have dropped off reading the Examiner. It’s here on my lap open at the story about dangerous sinkholes. Thankfully, there doesn’t appear to be anything in the paper about a body found on the beach. It might be an idea though to pop down to Carwydden later with Major Tom to make sure. Perhaps Lenny might like to come. I’d better call him to make sure he hasn’t got the hump with me. To my great relief, the Examiner has nothing about Lord Lampton or the police, just the usual rubbish about celebrity indiscretions and a story on transgender bus drivers. Fake news most of it, my friend, Mark Friday says. I don’t know where that horrible dream came from. Perhaps it was those new tablets Dr Chegwyn put me on for my arthritis.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Another Time and Place

anothertimeandplace

Another Time and Place by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something like that,’ Saga says.

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

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

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

 

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

 

Hunky Dory

hunkydory

Hunky Dory by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I like this one,’ Ed says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Normality, you mean,’ Ed says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s get out of here,’ Suzy says.

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

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

On The Origin Of On The Origin Of Species

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Who is this Eloy deJesus?’ asks Kimberley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kimberley is on the Wikipedia entry for Charles Darwin now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved