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

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The Early Worm Catches The Bird

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The Early Worm Catches The Bird by Chris Green

You’re telling me you found it in the car park and you thought you’d just plug it into your workstation,’ says Frank Flint. ‘It’s a fucking data stick. What did you suppose it might be doing lying there in the car park of a high-security organisation like this?’

I had an idea that this was coming. Sir Frank Flint, MBE does not call you into his office for a chat about the weather.

You’ve heard of Stuxnet, right?’ he continues.

I haven’t,’ I tell him. Should I ask him if it is an internet service provider? Perhaps not.

The CIA or Israeli Intelligence left random memory sticks with logos in Iranian script printed on them outside their nuclear compound at Parachin. One of the operatives working on the Uranium Enrichment Programme there apparently expressed the same kind of curiosity that you have shown. He picked one of them up and plugged it in.’

I’m tempted to ask whose side we are supposed to be on at this point, but I don’t.

The Stuxnet worm that was on the data stick got to work on the programmable logic controller,’ he continues. ‘And destroyed a large chunk of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. The rootkit the stick contained rendered it undetectable to Windows.’

I’m not sure whether it’s in my best interests to express admiration. Surprise or shock horror might be better.

So why do you think that our network might have suddenly crashed?’ he says.

Stuxnet?’ I ask.

No it is not fucking Stuxnet. If it were Stuxnet, we might be able to do something about it. We don’t know yet what it is, but Mr Kusnetsov is coming in later to help us find out. Tech support tell me with some degree of certainty that whatever it is originated on this stick.’

I know exactly what’s coming. Sir Frank just wants to humiliate me a little more first. In fact, were the positions reversed, I would probably do the same.

Summarily dismissed, I gather up a few belongings from my desk and make my way home. Over the next couple of hours, as I listen to the news on the car radio, similar glitches are reported at telecoms firms and at a government base. There are it seems a number of people losing their jobs because they were curious about flash drives they found in works canteens, car parks or railway carriages.

Maria may view it a little differently, but I am not bothered by the prospect of having time on my hands. I am not one of these career-minded people who are always looking for new openings, which is probably just as well as my CV will have been dealt a blow by my dismissal. I can use the time to brush up my saxophone playing while Maria is at work. She does not like me running through my Charlie Parker tutorial in the evenings. But for me, Bird is the greatest.

Maria is not overjoyed by the news of my dismissal but she says it will give me the chance to do the jobs around the house that I’ve been promising to do, like clear out the attic and mend the garden fence. In no time at all, she has written a list. I didn’t realise so many things were broken and nearly everything we have needs repainting. There are curtain rails to be fixed, light fittings that need replacing, paving slabs that need laying, the old harmonium needs to go to the tip and the dead cat needs burying. The conservatory too features quite heavily. It’s a wonder that it’s still standing. Perhaps Maria is over-reacting. I can always tell when she has the hump though because she slinks off to the art room and puts her Sparklehorse CD on. It calms her down, she says.

Next morning, after Maria has gone off to work, I bury the cat at the bottom of the garden. This is probably the most urgent task on the list. The rest can wait until later. Then, I watch the news while I assemble and polish my instrument. It is a Selmer Prelude alto, which while it is not a professional sax, does give a lovely rich sound. The celebrity newsreader who has just married the celebrity chef makes reference briefly to yesterday’s computer glitches but quickly moves back to their main story, the child abuse scandal that is rocking the political world. I turn it off and get started on the intro to Cool Blues. This is one of my favourite of Bird’s tunes and I am anxious to get the embouchure right.

After several attempts, I feel that I have got the feel of the first few bars, perhaps not with the panache of the master, but the tune is recognisable. I make myself a cup of tea. After lunch, I move some furniture around, line up some cans of paint in the spare room and hide the harmonium behind some dust sheets in the shed. I am then able to make some progress on the solo of Bird of Paradise before Maria gets home. Maria is pleased with my day’s work. After dinner, she lights the scented candles in the bedroom. I make a mental note to go on to the Agent Provocateur website.

The following day I manage to get the first wall of the spare room painted. There is no sense in hurrying these things. I then have time for a good run through of Night in Tunisia. It is quite a complex tune, one that is going to take a lot of practice. I’ve read that Bird used to practice up to fifteen hours a day, not on this one tune of course. I turn next to Lover Man. The slow tempo of this makes its fingering easier to master. It sounds good.

I would have liked to have lived in the 1950s, with the slower pace of life. Things must have been much simpler before digital technology took over our lives. There were no needy netbooks and tablets and no attention-seeking smartphones. People talked to each other, face to face. You probably even had proper friends and not just Facebook friends. You would not have had to press 1, 2, 3,4 and 5 on your keypads every time you made a phonecall and then be put be on hold listening to Orinocco Flow over and over again for twenty minutes before you were put through to the wrong department. Or be called day and night by robotic machines wanting to handle your mis-sold insurance claim.

Most of all, though, in the 1950s everyone would have listened to jazz. Swing, Bebop, Hard bop, cool jazz, modal jazz, there was a type to suit every mood. Even on the estate where I grew up, they would have been listening to Duke Ellington or Miles Davis, Chet Baker or Stan Getz. You would have gone down to the Palais on a Saturday night and danced to a jazz band. You would have met your partner there. The music was special which is why it is so enduring.

I am just putting the instrument away when I hear Maria’s car pull up. I quickly open the paper at the jobs pages. Maria storms in. She appears to be a little flustered.

The roads are gridlocked,’ she says, throwing her heavy bag down. ‘And those traffic lights at the Longditch roundabout were completely crazy.’

They are always bad there,’ I say, giving her a hug. ‘Its a wonder there aren’t more accidents.’

They were going off and on like a strobe light,’ she says, pushing me away. ‘There was just this endless chorus of car horns and drivers getting out of their cars and shouting at other drivers. I was there for ten minutes, too frightened to move.’

Probably water has got into the works or something,’ I say.

She breezes through to the kitchen. There is a clatter of dishes and I hear the microwave go on.

You could be doing this,’ she calls through to me.

I’ll do dinner tomorrow,’ I say.

And, when I was in the hairdressers,’ she says, her voice raised above the rumble of the microwave. ‘Louise was saying that the bloody trains have stopped running, something to do with signalling failure.’

There’s always something, isn’t there?’ I say. ‘I expect they will sort it out.’

She huffs loudly and goes on upstairs to change. She puts her head around the door of the spare room. She doesn’t comment on my progress. I see little prospect of a scented candle after dinner tonight.

It is 10 am and I am in the middle of Bye Bye Blackbird when the phone rings. At first, I leave it, but it carries on ringing. On the basis it might be important, I answer it, the saxophone still around my neck.

Hello. I’m Brice Cromer from the Gazette,’ says the voice. ‘Am I speaking to Brendan Rogue?’

Yes, you are,’ I say. Instantly I have reservations about acknowledging my identity, but what’s done is done. I swing the instrument behind my back.

And until two days ago you were working for the security organisation who don’t like to be named,’ he says. I imagine he thinks the description is humorous. The joke, however, is a little stale.

What is this about?’ I say in as challenging a manner as a mellow musician can muster.

It’s being reported that you are responsible for their little computer problem,’ Brice says.

He is referring to the data stick episode. How would he have got hold of the information and connected it back to me? It seems unlikely that any of my colleagues would have offered it voluntarily. They are a tight-lipped bunch and everyone as straight as a die. I can’t imagine how I got the job there in the first place with my record. They must have had a work experience student working in HR that day. I put the phone down. In case Brice calls again, I leave the receiver off.

I can’t concentrate on Bye Bye Blackbird any longer. I need a quiet place to think. I get the roller and brushes and resume painting the spare room. I seem to have a talent for digging myself into a hole. Ever since I was a boy I have landed myself in trouble by doing a succession of remarkably injudicious things while at the same time drawing attention to them. The expression hiding in the light comes to mind, not a great idea. Why did I get thrown out of school for smoking dope when none of my contemporaries did? How did I get into stealing cars before I was old enough to drive? Why did I always get arrested on protest marches? Did I even know what I was protesting about back then? Was it the need to be noticed? Perhaps I would never change. Perhaps I was born for trouble.

Before I know it, I have finished two more walls in blue planet. I am going to use Tibetan gold as an accent colour on the fourth wall, a combination I have seen on a design programme on television. I am planning now on finishing the room today. When Maria comes home she will be impressed by my achievement. After dinner, she might even light the scented candles again.

Maria arrives home unexpectedly at lunchtime. Is she checking on me, I wonder? Have I broken my word so many times that she feels she needs to monitor my progress? She clumps up the stairs. She has not even taken her boots off. Something is amiss.

Why are all those reporters outside?’ she demands.

W’what!’ I splutter. I had not imagined that this would happen so soon.

I go to the master bedroom to take a look. There are about a dozen of them on the driveway, big burly bastards with microphones and notebooks at the ready. There is also a TV camera crew, jostling for position. Perhaps I was too preoccupied with my musings to have heard the disturbance. But how could I have possibly missed them? Admittedly, getting the bell to work is one of the jobs on Maria’s list that I’ve not got round to yet, but, surely one of the hacks would have worked out that the bell wasn’t working and hammered on the door. Perhaps I was away with the fairies.

To my surprise, Maria agrees to go to the front door and keep the press busy while I dart out the back. She cannot know what I am up to. Can she? I grab my canvas messenger bag and make a run for it. Fortunately, my Jeep is parked in the back lane. I hadn’t planned it this way, but now time is probably short. I check my texts. ‘Guinness tastes better in the afternoon,’ says the one I am looking for. It is time to get started.

My next step is to find the locations where I am to deposit the rest of the flash drives. There are twenty-four in all to carry out the cyber attack, each bearing the deadly DuneWorm which regardless of platform will burrow into your system like an Alaskan mining drill. I have the map here showing the favoured targets. These I am told have been selected to cause maximum disruption. Others will be delivering the same message elsewhere round about now.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

You Never Can Tell

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You Never Can Tell by Chris Green

Annie and I are sitting in a café called Lemon Jelli sipping peppermint tea. The space is laid out to look like a continental bar with comfortable seating and 1930s French travel posters on the wall. We have come to Newton Abbot for the market. Annie is shopping for shoes. The flimsy ones she bought last week have not lasted well.

How old do you think I am?’ says a swarthy stranger sitting on the table next to us. ‘Go on! Have a guess!’

We have not registered his presence up until now. We exchange glances. By the tone of the question, we assume that he is probably older than he thinks he looks. In truth, with his hair greased back like a fifties icon and his short-sleeved plaid checked shirt, he looks about seventy four.

Sixty?’ Annie says, diplomatically.

No,’ he says, smiling. ‘I’m seventy four. I don’t look it, do I?’

No, you don’t. You must live a healthy life,’ I say, turning away and hoping to end the conversation.

It transpires that he lives in Torquay, but he comes from Somerset, Taunton to be precise. Taunton is about sixty miles north of Torquay. He used to be married but is not anymore. He says he doesn’t want to talk about this. He has an eighteen year old daughter, but he doesn’t see her very often except on birthdays and Christmas. She lives in Somerset somewhere but he doesn’t specify where. He used to be an electrical engineer with a company that makes microwave ovens but he retired early at sixty four after his triple heart by-pass.

What’s Torquay like?’ Annie asks, before I can stop her. ‘We were thinking of going there one day while we’re down here.’

Torquay is great,’ he says. ‘I like living in Torquay. A lot of people say bad things about it, but really its very nice. I know there are lots of druggies, hanging around the streets, but you get that everywhere now, don’t you? I don’t take drugs. I never have, well, only prescription drugs for my heart condition. I’m on twelve different sorts. That’s why I don’t drive anymore. I nearly crashed the car and thought, sod this for a game of soldiers. So I sold the car. That was nine years ago. I’ve got my bus pass of course. I can get around with my bus pass. That’s how I got here today. On the bus. It’s a good service from Torquay to Newton Abbot. And I can get to Exeter and Teignmouth. I can even get back to Taunton, but I don’t like to do that often. You can’t live in the past, can you? You’ve got to move on.’

I start to realise the conversation is going to be a more of a monologue.

Torquay Man doesn’t like gambling either.

It’s another addiction, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘You can bet on anything, these days, can’t you?’

Anything,’ I agree. ‘The Christmas number one, the Christmas number two, the discovery of life on Mars, the Pope to break a leg skiing, The Finnish Wife Carrying Championship…..’

My humour is lost on him. He is not listening. He begins to talk over me.

I still bet on horses,’ he says. ‘But I don’t stay in the bookies anymore, I put my bet on and then leave. If I stayed and the horse won, I would probably put the money on another horse and it would probably lose. Sometimes I come here to go to the races. I do like to see the horses running around the track and Newton Abbot is one of the best summer jumps courses.’

I didn’t know there was a racecourse,’ Annie says.

It’s just up the road. Are you staying around here?’

Teignmouth,’ I say, giving Annie a conspiratorial wink. We are actually staying in Dawlish, a few miles north of Teignmouth, but do not want Swarthy Stranger to get wind of this, just in case he finds out where we are and decides to call in.

Ah Teignmouth!’ he says. ‘I lived in Teignmouth for a while. In the 1980s. It was a nice place back then. Clean white beaches. Trips around the bay. But now it’s all street drinkers. In the bus shelters. On the prom. On the pier. Everywhere, they are. It’s all right to have a drink, but some people don’t know when to stop, do they? My Uncle Albert was one who liked a drink. I would say to him when he’d had a few, like, Albert, I’d say, I can’t understand a bloody word you’re saying. ……. I used to drink too, mind you, back in the day, when I came back from Aden. Saw some terrible things out there, I did. Make your hair curl. I was a Scammel driver in the Sappers, you know. You don’t hear them called Sappers anymore do you? You wouldn’t believe it now, would you? But all those years ago I was in the Royal Engineers.’

I don’t think it can be anything we say, because Annie and I aren’t been given the opportunity to say very much, but something seems to darken his narrative. A free-floating malice creeps into the monologue. What we took as the friendly banter of a lonely old man becomes a platform for his intolerance and bigotry. The idle youths that hang around the shopping centre ought to be rounded up and sent to boot camps in the Bristol Channel. Benefits scroungers should be put to work cleaning out the sewers, and immigrants should be turned back at Dover or shipped to concentration camps in the Channel. Prisoners should all be put on treadmills and the treadmills linked to the National Grid. It is if he has just read a year’s worth of Daily Mail headlines.

I am now hurrying to finish my peppermint tea and Annie is putting on a few of her scarves and cardigans. Torquay Man can see we are getting ready to leave.

Just one more story before you go,’ he says. ‘You’ll want to hear this one.’

Another time,’ I say, and with this we are out of the door and walking along Queen Street in the direction of the car.

What an awful man!’ I say to Annie. ‘You didn’t have to encourage him so much.’

I thought, at first, he just needed someone to talk to,’ Annie says. ‘It’s not easy being old and lonely with nothing to look forward to and time slipping away.’

But he didn’t even seem to have time for his family,’ I say. ‘Anyway, let’s get out of here.’

We are parked in the multi-storey car park, a few streets away. We normally avoid these, but when we arrived in Newton Abbot this morning we found ourselves corralled into it. We cannot get near it now. The streets on the approach to the car park are cordoned off. Ahead of us, there is a carnival of flashing blue lights, as police cars, fire engines and ambulances line the streets. People meander this way and that in confusion. No-one seems able to tell us what is going on. Rumours are circulating about a there being a bomb and some local residents have been evacuated.

The first I knew about it was these two men in flak jackets in my back yard,’ the lady in the unseasonable raincoat with the black and white cat on her shoulder says. ‘They said I had to leave right away. I asked them what was going on and all they could tell me was that they had their orders.’

East Street and Tudor Road are closed off, bloody pigs everywhere.’ the man in the orange boiler suit and the Jesus beard says.

They’re shutting down the market,’ the man with the Sticky Fingers t-shirt and the battery of nasal jewellery says. ‘Can you imagine. The market never shuts. This is Newton Abbot.’

We can’t get anywhere near the multi-storey,’ I say.

There’ll be a few hundred cars in there at a guess,’ the corpulent traffic warden with the limp says. ‘God help us if that goes up.’

Probably another suicide bomber, like the one in Plymouth last week,’ the thick-set man with the bull terrier says.

I didn’t hear an explosion,’ Unseasonable Raincoat says.

You don’t always hear them these days,’ Jesus Beard says. ‘They have silent bombs.’

A new task force in army fatigues arrives to move us back further.

Could you tell us what’s going on, please?’ I say.

What about my market stall?’ Sticky Fingers says. ‘I didn’t lock it up. I got thousands of pounds worth of rare albums there.’

I think I may have left the iron on,’ Unseasonable Raincoat says.

All comments are greeted with a taciturn silence from the surly militia. Methodically they kettle us like protesters at an anti-capitalist rally.

Get your hands off me,’ Jesus Beard yells.

He is forced into a doorway and handcuffed.

This provides the incentive for rest of us move back behind the barricades. These guys are serious about security.

You might imagine that emergency situations like would be tense, but in reality very little happens. Soon, because they can do nothing about it, people accept the situation and start drifting away. Dog Walking Man is probably miles away with his bull terrier and Sticky Fingers Man has probably found a welcoming pub, somewhere where he can tell his tales of the glory days with the blues band that never quite made it.

I expect Lemon Jelli is full up now,’ I say to Annie. ‘They’re probably all going there.’

Do you want to go back?’ Annie asks.

We take a look at each other and decide to give it a miss. We listen to the busker making his way through the Paul Simon songbook instead.

Shame about the shoes,’ I say.

‘We can get some in Exeter tomorrow,’ Annie says.

Eventually, without any explanation, we are given the all clear. It takes half an hour or so to get out of the car park and then we find ourselves in a formidable queue of traffic. Everybody is trying to get out of Newton Abbot. Annie is on her iPhone, trawling the news sites to find information about the incident.

It says here that explosives experts were called to two suspect packages found in the town centre,’ she reads from the Exeter Express and Echo website. ‘This prompted a large area to be evacuated. Both devices were detonated safely in controlled explosions. Police are looking for an elderly man with a swarthy complexion and slicked-back hair who was seen acting suspiciously near in the vicinity earlier today. There are reports of a man fitting this description at both of the crime scenes. More details will follow as the information comes in.’

You think it was him?’ Annie says.

It does sound like it, doesn’t it?’ I say.

Shouldn’t we let the police know?’

Let them know what? That we had a conversation with a seventy four year old man from Torquay. Besides, he’s not still going to be at Lemon Jelli now, is he,’ I say. ‘He’s long gone.’

Do you think that this was the one more story that he was going to tell us?’ Annie asks.

You mean like he might have wanted us to turn him in?’ I say. ‘I guess we’ll never know.’

Who would have thought?’ Annie says. ‘He’s not what you think of when you think of terrorists.’

It goes to show that you never can tell,’ I say. ‘Terrorists don’t all have big beards and unpronounceable names.’

He never did say his name, did he?’

But he was definitely clean shaven.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

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Now You See It, Now You Don’t by Chris Green

The arbiters of taste are notoriously fickle. While The Moody Blues were cool in 1968, if you listened to their music a few years later, you would be considered a bit sad. But if anything their musical powers had grown. Their tunes became even better. Perhaps this was the problem. They became too musical. They no longer fitted in. As in other fields, fashions in music are fleeting. A case of now you see it, now you don’t.

I didn’t pick up on The Moody Blues again for years. In fact, it was the week before last. I came across a couple of their albums on CD in the CLIC Sargent charity shop. In Search Of The Lost Chord and On The Threshold Of A Dream. Not casual purchases, you would have thought. Perhaps the owner had died and their CD collection was part of a house clearance.

Mike Pinder is not a household name, but perhaps he ought to be. He was a pioneer, introducing the mellotron, the pre-runner of the keyboard synthesiser, to the musical world. Before he formed the Moody Blues, Mike worked as a tester for the company that invented the mellotron, so he knew the difficult instrument well. He subsequently introduced the instrument to The Beatles, a popular combo of the time, who used it to great effect on Strawberry Fields Forever and then on virtually every recording they made until their breakup. Despite the instrument’s ethereal sound being such an emblem for the times, The Moody Blues were the only band to regularly use it on stage.

But …… What I am doing back in ………. 1968? Somehow I’m back in 1968, listening to In Search Of The Lost Chord. …… I am used to the year being 20 something. ….. 2019, wasn’t it? Isn’t it? How can 1968 be happening now, as if it is present time? In sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch actuality. …… I haven’t seen Yvette for over forty years. She is exactly how I remember her. Mia Farrow hair, flared jeans and cheesecloth smock. What is Yvette doing back in 1968? How did we come to be here? ……… We are in a large murky room lit only by a single red light bulb suspended from the ceiling. There are something like twenty people crowded in here, sitting around on beanbags and cushions. Incense and patchouli compete with the acrid hash smoke, that hangs in the air like captured stratocumulus. Someone has just passed me a joint and I am smoking it. I do not know him, or is it her. In the haze, it is difficult to tell the gender beneath the crusty hair and the Afghan coat. House Of Four Doors is playing, with the volume on the Super Dansette record player turned up. As I look around, I think I recognise one or two of the others in the room, but I can’t put names to the faces. Things were like that back then. People came and went. We were eighteen. ……… In this scenario, we are still eighteen.

The expression, the Lost Chord refers to a song by Arthur Sullivan,’ Yvette says.

Who?’ I say, passing her the joint.

Arthur Sullivan. You know. From Gilbert and Sullivan.’

Ah,’ I say. I find it difficult to imagine that The Moody Blues would have listened a lot to Gilbert and Sullivan.

Sullivan wrote the music at the bedside of his brother Fred when he was dying. The words come from a verse by Victorian poet, Adelaide Procter,’ Yvette says. She was always the clever one. Straight ‘A’s for Yvette. I always struggled with my grades.

Ah,’ I say.

It is about a divine chord that she hears when playing the organ that she cannot find again and imagines she will only rediscover when she reaches Heaven.’

Now you see it, now you don’t,’ I say.

The song about Timothy Leary flying his astral plane is now playing. I want to remark that people don’t write songs about Timothy Leary and astral planes anymore, but the place I want to make this comment from is fading fast. The idea about what I should regard as now is retuning like a random radio scan.

Across the room, or perhaps it is from across the universe, it is difficult to focus in on scale, they are talking about a story by the writer Jorge Luis Borges called The Garden Of Forking Paths.

The story is about the construction of a labyrinth that folds back upon itself in infinite regression,’ an adenoidal voice says. ‘All possible futures happen simultaneously, man’

Man says that this can be explained by quantum mechanics, man.

Yeah, like Einstein said it, man,’ says someone else. ‘Or was it the other guy? Dirac. Paul Dirac.’

No-one seems to know, but the conversation rolls around like thunder in the hills.

I continue to have difficulty working out who is who. It does not help that everyone in the room, male or female seems to be called man. No, wait, one of them is called Buzz and another is called Doggo.

Doggo begins to talk about Schrödinger’s Cat. It is both dead and alive apparently. I lose the drift as other conversations begin to drift in and out, just as my consciousness is doing. Someone has turned the LP over. Voices In The Sky begins. The mellotron sounds like a symphony orchestra.

Am I really here?’ I ask Yvette.

She thinks this is a strange question. She puts her hand on my forehead as if feeling my temperature. She laughs and tells me I shouldn’t get so stoned. Perhaps Yvette is still living in this time as her present time. Perhaps she has not grown up yet. I cannot remember if we saw each other much after 1968, or even at all. Perhaps she has not left the room yet. …….. Perhaps I have not left ……. I want to be able to feel that I have lived long enough to understand reality. But now I’m not sure that I have lived long enough. What if I’m only eighteen? ……. I might be imagining the irregular shift patterns of the job at the kaleidoscope repair shop. I might be imagining those years of living with Fabula and the twins in the Stroud valleys. I might be imagining Dr Alkerdahji’s diagnosis. Or, all this might still be in the future. …… Or, what if everything is happening simultaneously as in man’s story? Perhaps John Lennon was right and nothing is real. Might all of our experiences be an illusion? The universe could be a mental construction, a great thought rather than a great machine. After all, if matter is energy condensed to a slow vibration, then we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. Life is a dream, and we’re the imagination of ourselves.

I remember something about quantum theory that I saw, or am one day going to see, on television, or perhaps I am watching it now. It is known as the double-slit experiment. In the experiment, when scientists watch a particle pass through two slits in a barrier, the particle behaves like a bullet and goes through one slit or the other. Yet if a person doesn’t watch the particle, it acts like a wave. This means it can go through both slits at the same time.

Now you see it, now you don’t.

Dr Alkerdahji tells me I am improving. It is a good sign, he says, that the hallucinations are becoming less frequent. So long as I keep taking the medication, I might even be able to return to work at the kaleidoscope repair shop in a week or two. I am in CLIC Sargent again, looking through the CDs. £1 for A Saucerful Of Secrets and £1 for Dark Side Of The Moon. Another house clearance probably. Fashions in music are fleeting but somehow Pink Floyd always managed to circumvent the arbiters of taste. Roger Waters is not a household name but ………

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Everyone is Dead

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Everyone is Dead by Chris Green

Everyone is Dead,’ the headline poster outside the newsagents reads. You can’t miss it. It is in big bold capitals.

What can it mean? How can everyone be dead? I am alive for a start. The person who put the notice up could not have been dead. They must have put it there as a joke. Fake news. In poor taste for sure. But against my better judgement, I’m intrigued. What if there is some substance to it? Even if it is an exaggeration.

I stop the car and get out to take a look. The newsagent’s door is wide open but there are no customers in the shop and no-one behind the counter. I call out but I get no reply. Concerned now, I explore the place, downstairs and upstairs. There is definitely no-one around. Not even looters taking advantage of the empty shop. Could the person who put the notice up be the killer? Some deranged egotist perhaps.

There are no copies of any newspaper around to explain the headline. Is it stating that everyone locally is dead? Or is it suggesting some disaster has occurred that has wiped out the entire human population? Or there has been an outbreak of a deadly disease for which there is no cure? Or perhaps the scaremongers were right about 5G. ……. This is ridiculous! Insane. Why am I going down this road? What am I thinking? I admit I don’t follow the news closely but I am not aware of any catastrophic event that might have been on the horizon. Although, it has been very hot the last few days. Much hotter than usual. Forty degrees yesterday. And it’s shaping up to be another scorcher today. Some folks cannot take the heat. People up and down the country have been moaning about it. Even so, no matter how hot it became, there would be survivors. I recall Andy Mann at work mentioned something a while back about an asteroid being on its way. A dirty great big one, he said. And it could hit us. But it can’t be that. I would have heard something or felt the impact as something like that crashed into the Earth. There would be far more evidence of devastation.

My heart is going nine to the dozen. I am shaking, sweating. …… I must get a grip. This is what Alex, my support-worker is forever telling me. But I don’t know what to think. I am racked with uncertainty.

I might be imagining it but it seemed the roads were deserted when I drove into town earlier. I can’t recall seeing another moving vehicle. Yet it seems even quieter now. There is a deathly silence. My phone isn’t working so I can’t call home and I can’t even call Alex for re-assurance. This is scary. It no longer seems like a misunderstanding or a joke. I need to go home and check that Daryl and Hannah aren’t dead. They were alive when I left earlier. But that was a few hours ago. Although, they weren’t exactly chatty. When I said see you later, there was no reply from either of them. There again, teenagers aren’t always communicative.

Some people are lying in the road outside the Co-op store. They are not moving. It is possible, even likely, they are dead. I am desperate to get home now so I don’t feel I can stop to check. Instead, I drive around them. There are dozens more strewn across the pavement at random intervals. Quite likely they are dead too. There are no signs of life. What cataclysmic event has taken place? Could this be the apocalypse? I am finding it difficult to breathe. I feel dizzy, out of control. I am beyond terrified. Is this it?

I hear some commotion up ahead. Several people dressed in green jumpsuits with the Extinction Rebellion logo jump out from a bus shelter. They hoist a banner that reads There is No Planet B. They have movie cameras and sound equipment. I also notice a small camera attached to the back seat of my car.

Cut!’ the tall one with the megaphone calls out. ‘I think that’s a wrap, guys.’

The people on the road and the pavement begin to get up.

Megaphone man comes over to the car. I wind the window down. To my surprise, he offers me a sheet of paper and a pen.

You did very well, buddy,’ he says. ‘Much better than the others. Now if you’ll just sign this, we will go ahead and use the footage in our film.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Black Hats

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Black Hats by Chris Green

Promise and I are looking out onto a rocky outcrop in Es Calo de Sant Agustí in Formentera. We are sitting under a sun-bleached parasol outside a small café in the secluded bay. We are staying a hostal nearby. Beyond the pier, a handful of fishing boats rock gently in the shimmering sea. The afternoon sun is beating down on this modest paradise. We have not ventured far today. Most people here are having their siesta at this time of day. We had ours this morning, twice.

Formentera has been described as Ibiza’s shy little sister. For centuries it was adrift from the rest of the world, unknown and unvisited, a desert island made almost uninhabitable by pirate raids from the African coast. Accessible only by boat, it has submitted to tourism less than other Mediterranean islands. Pink Floyd pitched up here in the nineteen seventies but little else has happened since. Our sleepy resort seems especially tranquil. It is a small fishing village on the east of the island at the foot of La Mola mountain. It is built around a tiny pier where slipways carved into the rock slant to allow boats to be beached. It encourages indolence. You are already where you want to be. But we may take the bus to the hippy market at El Pilar de la Mola tomorrow. Promise thinks she might be able to buy some lapis lazuli earrings. It doesn’t look far on the map. I wonder if I might buy a hat. A Sevillano perhaps with a band or a black Cordobes.

We are the only people left at the café. Through the shutters of a window nearby, we can hear soft violin music playing. It has a melancholy air. Do violinists feel sad when they play like this or does playing sad music make them feel happy? The sun goes behind a cloud but only for a few seconds. It is the only cloud in the sky. As Promise and I sip our glasses of anis del toro, we watch a pair of feral cats scrapping over someone’s leftover escabeche, a few tables away. The singing waiter who seemed so convivial at lunchtime has not been around to clear the mess up. Might he be the source of the violin music?

I had a cat that liked listening to Vivaldi,’ I tell Promise. ‘His favourite was the Double Violin Concerto in D. RV511. He used to sit on the arm of the settee purring, his back arched confidently, his head tilted slightly upwards, a picture of contentment.’

Really?’ she smiles. ‘RV511, eh?’

I had to make several trips to the music library to build up my Vivaldi collection.’

You’re winding me up.’ she says.

She pushes my shoulder with both arms, nearly upending my blue metal chair.

No. I’m not. ……… You’re probably wondering what my cat was called. His name was Dave. He was black with a discrete patch of white under his chin. Forget T. S. Eliot! Dave is a proper name for a cat, don’t you think?’

Promise agrees Dave is a great name for a cat, much better than Skimbleshanks or Macavity, and definitely better than Shaun or Simon. Apparently, she knows people that have called their cats Shaun and Simon.

Another favourite of Dave’s was Largo from Winter from The Four Seasons. He would stretch out in front of the fire and roll over to have his tummy rubbed.’

A bit like you then. Except it’s not really your tummy you want rubbed, is it?’

Dave was not keen on jazz. If I played Charlie Mingus or Miles Davis, he slunk off to the kitchen. If I put on The Velvet Underground’s White Light White Heat, which I didn’t that often, he spat and snarled.’

I don’t blame him,’ said Promise. ‘I might spit and snarl if you put that on.’

When Tara was about sixteen, she played CDs by metal bands with names like Gutworm, and Fleshcrawl. Dave didn’t like that at all. He used to claw at the window trying to get out. Music clearly affected his mood. …… Dave disappeared last year. Just like that, one day there, the next gone. I was beside myself for weeks. He was like a member of the family.’

It seems remarkable I only met Promise a month ago. We hit it off straight away and despite both being married, began a clandestine liaison. We were perhaps less than discreet and it was not long before her husband, Craig began to suspect something was going on. He followed us on one of our assignations but rather than tackle us head-on, paid a visit to my wife, Chantelle. Without listening to whatever limp excuse I might try to come up with, Chantelle threw me out. The double-whammy was that Chantelle’s father, Trent Madison was my boss. He fired me. Craig meanwhile took to sulking in their spare room. Promise said she could not stand the atmosphere. He watched her every move and made sarcastic comments every time they met in the shared space. Out of spite he took the scissors to one of two of her dresses. She had to get away. We decided to escape to the quietest place we could find, take time out, and try to work out what we should do. After three days on Formentera, we still have no plan of action.

Formentera wasn’t our first choice but there were plenty of flights to Ibiza and Formentera was just a short boat ride away. Our cab from the airport, an old red Fiat that kept breaking down, took us through a patchwork of pine plantations and uncultivated scrub. The ten kilometres took over two hours. Javier kept us entertained with self-deprecating jokes and let us share his empanadas. As we approached the east of the island, we were treated to an array of brightly coloured shacks, with bohemians buzzing around on funky mopeds with didgeridoos on their back, evidence of Formentera’s hippy heritage.

It is late September. Despite the blistering heat, this is considered to be out of season. The locals tell us they expect the weather to break soon. We have not come across any Brits. The few tourists there seem to be German. The locals took us to be German at first, which is unusual. Mediterraneans have an uncanny knack of spotting where you are from before they hear you speak. I have dark skin, so it must be Promise’s blond hair and startlingly blue eyes that throws them. Although they might get Promise’s blond hair and startlingly black sunglasses most of the time. I am probably the only one who has seen her blue eyes lately.

I met Promise inauspiciously at ETB. She was having a new set of tyres fitted to her Tigra for its MOT, and my Toyota had just picked up a puncture. Our fascination for the AutoCar magazines on offer in the reception area was short-lived, which meant that my gaze met hers and vice versa and we struck up a conversation. The conversation began with camomile tea. Promise was disappointed that the drinks dispensing machine suppliers had overlooked its popularity. Camomile tea led on to a wider discussion of beverages and before we knew it we were at a wine bar sharing a bottle of red. The speed at which our relationship developed shocked us both. We were both touching forty, although I was touching it from the wrong side. For our first arranged date, we watched a Senegalese quintet play a lunchtime session at The Jazz Bass. See what they’ve done there, bass/base. I hadn’t until Promise pointed it out. Our second date was at Promise’s. Craig was away and I suppose that was where it really began. I stayed over and we took the next day off work and had lunch at Soups On and went to see a Spanish movie, El Hombre del Sombrero Negro, at the arts centre.

A German couple in their fifties wearing walking boots and crumpled fatigues place themselves at a nearby table. They take off their matching khaki rucksacks and place them on the table. With an exchange of grunts, they pass the remains of a two-litre bottle of water between them. The woman makes a facial gesture to suggest that the water is warm. They both turn and look towards the café, as if this might make someone appear. I try to tell them that probably no-one is going to serve them. They do not understand my English, or in fact my German, es gibt keine herum. Not a good translation, or perhaps not a good accent. I make appropriate gestures. They ignore the gestures. Perhaps they think I am crazy. The woman takes out an H and M cigarette pack and lights one. We return to our cultural divide. Out in the bay, an incoming boat sends a gentle ripple of water towards us. A clump of cirrus cloud is forming now in the northern sky. A black dog is playing in the surf. It does not appear to have an owner.

When I was little, I had a dog,’ says Promise. ‘You’re probably wondering what my dog was called.’

No,’ I say.

I know you are, really. He was called Murphy. Murphy’s a good name for a dog, don’t you think?’

Great name for a dog, Murphy. Better than Graham. I know someone who has a dog called Graham,’ I tell her.

Listen, will you? Murphy kept running away, so I bought a dog whistle.’

A Day in the Life by The Beatles is one of my favourite tunes,’ I say.

And I’m supposed to guess the connection,’ Promise says. ‘What’s that got to do with Murphy?’

I’m told that between the final crashing E major piano chord and the backwards tape loop, there is an ultra high-frequency sound that alarms dogs. ….. I tried it out on Dave but he is completely un-phased by it. He just carried on grooming himself, or sleeping, or whatever he was doing at the time.’

I suppose it’s all down to the frequency of the sound,’ Promise says.

I suppose so,’ I say. ‘Dave seemed to be most in tune with the sound of the fridge door opening. In D minor, I think.’

But what about Murphy? Don’t you care what happened to Murphy?’

I expect he kept coming back when you blew your dog whistle.’

We walk around the bay. It is now late afternoon. There are a few more clouds in the sky and a stiff breeze coming in off the sea. It will be dark around seven and we are looking for somewhere to have our evening meal. If we time it right we will catch the sunset. We pass two mature agave plants. They have magnificent flower stalks several metres high.

It is an agave Americana,’ I explain to Promise. ‘It’s sometimes called the century plant because of the time before it flowers. In actual fact, it is nearer to twenty years.’

Still, that is a long time to wait.’

It stores up enormous food reserves in its leaves, flowers, and then dies.’

That’s sad.’

In Mexico, they make a drink called pulque by cutting off the flower head and collecting the rising sap, as much as a thousand litres per plant! They distill pulque to make the spirit mescal.’

That’s like tequila, isn’t it?’ Promise says. ‘That’s deadly.’

Mescal’s more so. And it has a worm in the bottom of the bottle which you can eat.’

Yuk.’

Some say it’s an aphrodisiac.’

If you’re not sick first.’

And others claim it is a hallucinogen.’

But it’s just a marketing gimmick, right?’

Probably. Most people who are going to drink the stuff are macho lunatics, so why not take it to the max?’

We watch a pair of seagulls dive in and out of the water. Quickly the whole flock catch on that something worthwhile is happening below the surface and the air is alive with squeals.

Seagulls are very clever,’ I say. ‘They learn behaviours, remember them and even pass on behaviours, such as stamping their feet in a group to imitate rainfall and trick earthworms to come to the surface.’

Has anyone ever told you, you’re a bit like Google,’ Promise says. ‘You have an answer for everything.’

Thank you,’ I say.

I never said it was an attractive quality. You can be a know-all sometimes. I bet you were one of those nerds that were always top of your class that no-one wanted to play with.’

For the record, I was always near the bottom,’ I say. ‘And I had lots of friends.’

I had a dream last night that I was lost,’ Promise says, after we have finished our gazpacho manchego.

The remains of the sunset turns from red to indigo on the western horizon.

It is nighttime and you and I have gone for a drive and the car is not handling well. I’m not sure which of us is driving, but the car is going all over the road. There are tramlines and potholes, and barriers where there should not be. I think that it’s you and me in the car but I’m not sure as your identity keeps changing. One minute it is you and the next minute it is someone else. We are on the outskirts of town in a place that is half familiar but at the same time, it is not. The dream narrator says I have been there many times before. I recognise the places although they have changed, and try to bring to mind what they are called. There is no-one else about. It is as if there is actively no-one about, like an energy of there being no-one about. Like you can feel before an electronic storm. It is high up and I can see over a precipice where it is light. It is a yellow-orange light and it has sharp edges. Everything is cast into silhouette by the glow. I can hear the hum of distant traffic but it has a strange echo like you get in the cinema. The whole dream has this rumbly echo. I am scared.’

I see a break in her narrative and start to relate my recurring dream about the man with the black hat who wants to steal my fly-fishing rod.

Shut up for once and listen,’ she says. ‘Now you have gone off with the car and I am alone or I have gone off with the car or there was no car and I am walking around in a big old stone building that I do not know. I think I have been in the building before, but I don’t know now what it is. It has many floors and stairways that only go up one floor at a time and I am walking along a long dark corridor and a hollow voice says you should not be here. I have to get out of the building but I cannot as the stairs do not take me to the exit and I keep coming back to the same place and I’m frightened and when I do get out of the building I am even more lost and now there is a dark wood. The wind is whistling through the pines. Over here says a voice and then a man in a black hat grabs me from behind and ties me up and I am unable to move. I think I have been kidnapped. ……. And then I wake up. And you have your arm around me. What do you think it means?’

I don’t know baby,’ I say, wondering if I should get back to explaining my recurring dream. I decide against it.

We arrive back at the hostal. We have had quite a lot of wine and we lurch up the stairs and fall onto the bed. We left the windows open when we went out and the shutters are now rattling. It seems that the locals were right, the wind is getting up. A storm is brewing. Who would have thought this afternoon that the island’s weather could change so quickly?

We lie on the bed, silent for a while, listening to the wind.

What do you want?’ Promise shrieks, suddenly. ‘We have to behave like grownups sometimes, you know. Everyone wants something from someone. What do you want from me?’

This has come out of the blue. I am taken aback. I think about a reply, but I’m not sure where to pitch it. I want love, affection, approval, understanding, and lots of sex. I’m not sure this is the appropriate answer. By the time I have composed a suitable reply, she has passed out.

I lie there for a while wondering what she might be trying to say. Is there something I have missed? She has been behaving strangely this evening. The lightness of our usual rapport has been absent. Do I not listen to anything, she said. You are completely self-obsessed, she said. Am I solipsistic? Are we all solipsistic? Am I so unused to emotion being expressed? Perhaps we have had too much to drink. The Fundador brandies after the meal were probably a bad move. Have I misjudged the intensity of our relationship? Could it be I have made a mistake investing so much faith in Promise? Should I maybe have stayed with Chantelle? Could I have stayed with Chantelle? Could we have made up? It crossed my mind I had probably been self-obsessed most of the time with Chantelle, constantly putting up a front or dismissing her suggestions to hide my insecurities. These thoughts go round and round in my head before finally, I fall asleep.

I wake at 5 a.m. with a head like a Birkenhead building site. Hard rain is pounding against the window. It is still dark. A rumble of thunder is followed a second or two later by a flash of lightning that lights up the room. Promise is no longer with me in bed. …… She is nowhere in the apartment. I open the window to the balcony. The driving rain forces me back. Why on earth would Promise have ventured out in this? It would be suicidal to go out in this. She must be somewhere in the building. I call out her name over and over but get no response.

Our hostal only has about eight rooms and most of these seem to be vacant, probably due to the early end to the summer season in Formentera. There are no night staff so I am unable to ask if anyone has seen Promise. I put on my parka and begin a search. It is still dark and the powerful rain makes it even more difficult to see but I manage to make round it to Punta Grossa where Promise sketched the rocks on the first day we were here. She could see faces in the rocks, she said and pointed some out. She told me how Salvador Dali used the figures he saw in the rocks at Cadaqués, when he was a boy, in his later paintings. Despite all logic, I call out her name in the hope that she might have come here. Even if she were here, she probably would not hear me. The waves crashing against the rocks sound like an avalanche. I am wondering already if I will ever see Promise again.

As I push against the wind, a succession of images of the past few weeks flash through my mind, snippets of our brief time together. The time we caught the wrong tube from Victoria late at night and ended up in Brixton. We got home just in time to see the sunrise. The time at The Black Hat Café when Promise knocked a bottle of wine over and it went all over the waiter. Somehow she managed to get us a free meal because a little of the wine had spilt on to her dress. The way she smiled when introduced to someone. The warmth of her skin, the touch of her fingertips. The way she flicked her hair back when she was excited and the way she bit her bottom lip when she was nervous. The time I remarked how organised she was, and she said ‘I write down tasks after I have done them so I can cross them off my list.’ All this gone.

A slither of daylight appears on the horizon, beneath the banks of black clouds. I carry on around the coast to Racó de s’Anfossol, where Promise and I sat on a bench looking out to sea. I took photos of the sunset. For a moment, I think I see the silhouette of a figure in a black hat and go over to investigate, but it is a rock sculpture. There are several others nearby. Balancing rocks on one another is a local pastime here.

By 8 o’clock, I have searched the bay area and I am absolutely drenched. The hostal reception is now open. Serafina who has just started says she has not seen the senora today but says she will ask the others later. What others, how much later, I enquire. Serafina is the only person we have seen behind the counter since we have been here.

She was talking with man in black hat two days time.’

Two days ago?’

Si, two days ago. You were in sleep, I think’

Black hat, you say?’ I think back to the phantom figure I saw earlier but dismiss the thought.

Senor, senora has iPhone? You could call her perhaps.’

Why hadn’t this been the first thing I thought of? Admittedly, there hadn’t been much of a signal on this end of the island. I phone her now. Through the open door, I can hear the opening bars of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly theme start up, so Promise has not taken her phone. For some reason, Promise has allocated me this ring-tone. What is it with black hats? Serafina goes through the motions of looking in the rooms that are unoccupied and knocks up the two gay Germans in the room across the corridor from ours. They don’t seem pleased to be disturbed. There is no sign of Promise.

All manner of possibilities raise their heads. I really do not know all that much about Promise’s history. Does she have any enemies? Who is the man in the black hat? Has she been kidnapped by hippies? Does she have suicidal tendencies? Or has she just walked out on me? Had I missed clues? Were there signs I should have spotted? If someone was planning a disappearance, they would be likely to go about it in a systematic way. The same applies to finding someone who has disappeared. Blind panic will get me nowhere. I need to be methodical.

I check the room. She appears to have taken nothing. Her money and passport are here. All her clothes so far as I can tell are all still here along with her floral tote bag. Her makeup, her toiletries, her jewellery are all still here. The only thing I cannot account for are her sunglasses. Why would she just take her sunglasses in the middle of a raging storm? I check her phone. It is a relatively new phone. She only has a few numbers on it. Craig trashed her old one – with extreme prejudice. Apart from the call from my number just now, there are no calls in or out from the last three days. Contacts contains several of her friends whose names I am familiar with but have not met, her doctor and dentist, Ticketmaster, and Donald Finch. Is that the Donald Finch, the Wizard of Weird?

There are just ten messages received and sent, all about a week ago. I note that all of my texts seem to have been deleted. There is an exchange of messages with her friend Cadence about the dialogue from Pulp Fiction. You know what they call a quarter pounder with cheese in Paris, Royale with cheese, etc. Is this some kind of secret code I wonder, before dismissing the idea. Promise talks about movies a lot. She used to teach Film Studies. I understand Cadence was her colleague at the technology college. Still very odd, though, not a very girly conversation. And, there is a message from Donald Finch which says cryptically, the man with no name wears the black hat.

All in all, I don’t have a lot to go on. Is it time to call in the police? Or would they just laugh at me saying something sarcastic like: ‘Dios mío, ella se ha ido por seis horas, es mejor que Interpol contacto.’ Although my Spanish is passable, it would be difficult to convey the gravity of the situation. How many British couples have a row after drinking too much in a Spanish bar and get separated? I’m not even sure there is a police station on the island.

When someone has gone missing, do you stay where you are hoping they return or do you go looking for them and risk missing them if they return? There are strong arguments for both. Clearly, if there are more than two parties involved, the remaining parties can make an arrangement and you can take both courses of action. But here there are not more parties, there is only me, and I am beginning to get a very bad feeling about everything concerning Promise’s disappearance. Easy explanations are out of the window. It is as if some occult force is at work.

It is 11 o’clock before I come to a decision. The storm has now blown over and the wind has died down. There is a calm and it is as if the storm never happened. Waiting here in the hope that Promise may return also as if nothing has happened is driving me nuts so I think I may as well go the hippy market in El Pilar de la Mola as we talked about. It is a longshot but I’ve nothing better. I discover that for some reason there is no bus to the market today and begin to walk. I have a map.

I am heading inland. It is mostly uphill through a wooded area. After a few hundred metres I run into Jesus with a guitar across his shoulders where the cross should be.

Buenos dias senor.’

Buenos.’

I show Jesus a photo of Promise that I have on my phone. It is a full face one, complete with sunglasses that I took yesterday. ‘¿Has visto a esta mujer?’

Probablemente ha sido llevado a S’Espalmador por los cultistas,’ he says.

Que?’

She has probably been taken to S’Espalmador by the cultists.’ he says, in English ‘Los Elegidos, The Chosen Ones.’

His delivery is so deadpan, it is hard to tell if he is joking.

Where?’ I ask.

S’Espalmador, it is an island to the north of Formentera. At low tide, you can wade across to it. es deshabitada tal vez.’

He lights a joint, takes a pull on it and offers it to me. I take it. Things can’t get much stranger, can they?

He sits down on a rock in a clearing and starts playing a tune. I’m not sure I know it at first then I recognise the line, don’t think twice it’s alright.

Perhaps she needed to get away from you to find herself. Did you think of that,’ Jesus says, when he has finished playing.

I hand him back the joint. I have not smoked dope since about 1941 and it may not have been so potent back then. My thoughts are racing like a chariot while time itself has come to a standstill. Everything around me is changing colour and dissolving into fractals. It takes me a while to respond to Jesus’s question, if indeed it was a question.

What?’ I say.

She may have thought you were robbing her of her spirit,’ he says and with this starts strumming again. This time, it is Cat Stevens’ Wild World. The same sort of theme really, goodbye and good luck with your new life. I thought I was Promise’s new life.

What is Jesus trying to do and why is he doing it? Does he know something about the situation that I don’t, or is he just playing with my head? I have the joint back now. The jangling guitar chords are echoing around my head, doing cartwheels and somersaults. It is as if a small orchestra is playing. After another toke, the landscape takes on the appearance of a blurred impressionist painting but at the same time, has sharp clear edges. I am transported back to a time before the big bang. What is this stuff we are smoking?

There is another tune coming from my pocket. I finally realise it is my phone from back in the twenty-first century. My heart stops. It will be Promise calling to let me know what has been happening. But it is not Promise, I see from the display. It is Chantelle. Calling from the old planet. What kind of conversation can I have with Chantelle over such distances?

I am talking to Chantelle but I have no idea what I am saying or what she is saying. I’m not even sure if it is friendly or unfriendly; I left these concepts behind on Earth. We talk about something or other for several minutes, but afterwards, I have no recollection of what it was. When we have finished talking, I am alone again. There is no sign of Jesus. He has vanished.

A trickle of holidaymakers in cars and on mopeds pass me on their way to the hippy market and some of them beep their horns or wave in a friendly manner. The sun is nearly overhead already. The chirping of cicadas reverberates in the still air. I remember reading that this is the mating call of the male and can be heard by the female a mile away. Ahead, in the distance, I can see colourful hints of a festive gathering, but as I move towards it, it seems to get further away. A bent old crone in widow’s weeds appears out of nowhere and approaches me. Up close, her skin is like leather and her wrinkles look as though they might have been furrowed by a shoemaker.

You’re looking for the girl, aren’t you?’ she says. ‘You’re looking for Promise.’

I wonder if I have unwittingly entered the twilight zone.

Have you seen her?’ I blurt out.

She’s no good, you know,’ the crone continues. ‘She’s trouble, that one. Sold her soul to the devil, she has.’

It is hard to see what connection there might be between this hysterical witch and Promise.

Do you know where she is?’ I ask, resisting the urge to grab her by the throat.

Harpy ignores my question and carries on with her tirade. I stride off purposefully to put distance between this nonsense and me. When I was very young I remember having nightmares about a hag like this. Night after night I would wake up in a sweat. I hear her ranting now until her chatter gets drowned out by the sound of music from beyond. The music is getting louder but I don’t seem to be getting any closer. They are playing Dark Side of the Moon. I recall that Dave loved Pink Floyd. I can picture him clearly, on the rug in front of the fire, purring contentedly when I put this on. I might not get the chance to mention Dave’s love of classic prog-rock to Promise. I seem to be going backwards in time and space. I may never reach the market in El Pilar de la Mola.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

TIME

time2019

TIME by Chris Green

Time is a bitch. You never know quite where you are with it. Einstein, bless him,
argues that the distinction between past, present and future is an illusion, albeit a stubbornly persistent one. This morning as I go through the mail, I begin to appreciate the great man’s uncertainty. These bills are the same ones as yesterday, electricity, phone and pet insurance. Exactly the same. And there’s an identical postcard of an Agadir beach at sunset from Rick and Sammi.

When set against the bigger issues of political corruption, terrorist bombs, and the war in the Middle East, a duplication of personal correspondence is not a big deal. Puzzling, yes, but I do have a large green recycling bin. More importantly, I’m running late. It is 8.15 and the traffic on Tambourine Way will be horrific if I don’t hurry. I scrape the ice off the Skoda’s windscreen and give it a few squirts of de-icer. I put a Johnny Cash CD into the player while the inside windows start to de-mist, and move off into the February frost.

I have a sense of déjà vu as I flash the headlights at Pedro, in his SUV on Solitaire Street, and again on the dual carriageway when I find myself behind a learner bus driver keeping to 30 where you could easily be doing 50 or 60. Does this learner bus driver come this way every day? My progress is further impeded by an accident at the Scott McKenzie roundabout. As I edge through the flashing blue chicane of police vehicles, I notice that the two battered cars seem to be the same two cars as in the accident two days ago, a white Mercedes and a black BMW. The impact of the collision has buckled both cars irreparably, as it had in the previous accident. I shudder. The coincidence is way beyond that presented by chance.

I arrive at Sanctuary Inanimate Pet Crèche and Counselling Service where I work. I greet Boris and Gerhard. I can’t help but notice that the cyber dog that was collected by its owner the day before yesterday is already back. There is also a familiarity about the headline War Dims Hope for Peace in Boris’s tabloid. Admittedly inanimate pet care is a repetitive line of work but the conversation Gerhard is having with Major Churchill about his pet rock seems identical to the one earlier in the week. After Gerhard puts down the phone I tackle him about this.

He looks at me challengingly and says, ‘what are you talking about? I have never spoken to Major Churchill before. And this may be just a job to you, but the Major’s pet rock does seem to be pretty sick.’

I think of taking up the point. Yes, it is just a job to me. Unlike Gerhard who sees a visit to the dentist as a bit of an outing, I have seen a bit of the world. But I keep quiet instead. What is the point? One pearl of wisdom that comes with age is that past glories count for nothing. I am here, and it is now. My life has taken a bit of a nosedive. Like Orson Welles, I seem to have lived my life backwards, if not quite in the sense I am about to.

Over the days that follow I have a permanent sense of déjà vu. Everything in my every day has happened previously. I have the same conversation with Spiro about West Ham’s problems in defence, spend the same hour chatting to my daughter, Promise on the phone about the dangers of putting too many personal details on Facebook, watch Groundhog Day again on DVD, and buy another new metal detector from The Army and Navy Surplus Stores. The hours on my watch are still going forward but the date is going backwards. The presidential election comes round again and they bring the old president back, and that family entertainer that we all once liked is prosecuted again for entertaining children in an inappropriate way. All the papers on the news-stands each day are yesterday’s papers.

At first, I imagine that it must be a huge practical joke, admittedly one with a formidable amount of complicity. Whilst I do not advertise my predicament in case people think I am a basket case, no one I speak to displays any sense that anything is wrong with their own temporal world. There is nothing in the papers or on the news to suggest anything irregular in the cosmos. Just the usual reports on war, politics and celebrity indiscretions. It appears that I am alone in my renegade perception of time, although there is a short item in The Morning Lite calling for a twenty five hour day. NASA scientists have apparently researched this and found that participants in the experiment benefited by the increased levels of melatonin. The findings it says would come in handy if astronauts go to Mars. A Martian day it points out lasts for 24.65 earthly hours.

There are a number of contradictions of logic involved in whatever it is I am experiencing. My days are still moving forward in a linear fashion. I go to work, come home, go to the pub, walk the dog, watch the rerun episode of Spender on ITV3, and go to bed as normal, but when I wake up the next day, it is the day before yesterday. Each day, I become a day younger. This aspect of my condition is, of course, something that at sixty three I should be pleased about; instead of a creeping decay, there will be a gradual rejuvenation. In a world that places excessive emphasis on artifice, this is what millions of people dream of. Zillions of pounds every week are spent by slavish consumers on a staggering array of products promising the reversal of the inevitable. The consentient sorcery of keeping flowers in full bloom is the central tenet of our belief system.

If I am reliving the past there is plenty for me to look forward, or backward to. I have on balance enjoyed my life. There are all of the special places I have been with lovers or friends that I have felt I wanted to go back to sometime. All of the times I have said or thought, I’ll always remember this. Things that just could not be captured on film. I reason I will also know when to expect the difficult times, like the divorce from Monique, Sebastian’s fatal illness, and the bankruptcy hearing. Painful though it will be, I can be ready for these episodes. And I can go on to experience youth with a wise head. What was it Oscar Wilde said? Youth is wasted on the young?

Despite these deliberations, the sequential upheaval continues to be both disconcerting and disorientating. After a week or so of going over the same ground, I decide to seek professional help. I find myself limited by the need to arrange an appointment for the same day. The medical profession does not operate this way. There is no point in my making an arrangement for any time in future, and clearly, I cannot make an appointment for last week or last month. Similarly, I am unable to arrange to see a priest, a mystic, a philosopher, or even a time traveller at a few hours notice. The Auric Ki practitioner that I do manage to see at the community centre at short notice talks about meridians and explains that there might be blockages on the layers of my energy field. Over a dozen or so sessions she says she can balance my chakras and time will move forward again. I try to explain that she might need to do this in one session and she suggests if this is my attitude, then I should go elsewhere.

I begin to wonder what would happen if I do not actually go to bed. Will the day progress normally to the next, or will I at a certain point be flung back to the day before? It seems that despite my predicament, there is still an element of free will about my actions so I buy a wrap of speed, from Sailor, a friend of a friend in the Dancing Monk public house.

This is wicked gear,’ says Sailor, so named I assume because of his abundance of tattoos. ‘It will keep you busy for fucking days.’

Good,’ I remark. ‘I may need it to.’

I see the exercise as a demonstration of free will, and not therefore merely a duplication of what happened on the corresponding day a couple of weeks previously. At my age, I am not really a late night person and have not taken drugs since my youth, so I am not sure what to expect.

Despite taking the whole wrap of wicked gear with four cans of Red Bull and playing some kicking music, I drift off at around 5 or 6, anyway before daylight.

……………………………………………………………………

When I wake up I am not sure where I am. Everything around me looks foreign, almost alien. In a conversation that must be puzzling to my companion, Song, I establish that this is the balcony of one of the upper floors of an apartment block in north-eastern China. It is 1988 – the year before Tienanmen Square. I have gone back seventeen years. Song and I are filming the spectacular estuary of the Songhua Jiang below for a travelogue for Sky TV. It seems the Chinese authorities are keen to promote tourism in the area. It is a Sunday morning and from our high vantage point, Song and I can see for miles. It is late August, near the end of the rainy season, and while the rainfall this year has been concentrated mainly in July, much of the flood plain is still underwater. Around the swollen river basin acres of lush green landscape luxuriate. Song points toward a flooded football field to our right, saying that despite the pitch being waterlogged the locals are about to turn out to play.

We are used to a bit of water. We have long tradition. Chinese invent football in the Han period over two thousand years ago,’ he says. ‘Is called Cuju. Means to kick a ball.’

Song goes a little deeper into the history of cuju in the region and says that he feels the water football game would look great on film, with a commentary about the history of the game from its Han dynasty roots. I nod my agreement. I am not surprised. Through classes in Tai Chi back in, well, there is no other way to say this, back in the twenty first century, I developed an interest in Sino culture. I came to understand that the Chinese invented practically everything from paper and printing to gunpowder and aerial flight, and most advances in science and medicine can be attributed to them.

I feel distracted. The future seeming like the past takes some getting used to. While I am conscious of my vitality, I have the strange sensation that I am also an observer of my life.

A boat carrying a team decked out in carnival colours chanting something patriotic is coming up the river. It is hot and humid and a dank haze hangs suspended above the water as if waiting for an impressionist painter. The regressing part of me is trying frantically to get a handle on what is happening. According to the log, I am keeping to help with later editing of the film, I have been in the Peoples’ Republic for ten days and am scheduled to be there for another ten. I am missing Monique, Sebastian and Promise. Song says that the phone lines will not be down for much longer but I know in my world they will be down until my arrival, so I will be unable to phone home.

Sebastian is six and Promise is five. It will be Promise’s birthday soon. Then she will be four. She will stop going to school. Before long, I will be reading her bedtime stories and taking her to nursery. It is curious to comprehend that my life going backwards means to all intents and purposes that everyone’s life around me is also doing so. I can only experience their past.

Filming in China goes back day-by-day as the day approaches that I arrive on a flight from Heathrow to Beijing. During this time I ponder my situation continually. When Song says, ‘see you tomorrow’, I know I had already seen him tomorrow but I will see him again yesterday.

I contemplate the age-old question as to whether we control our destiny or follow a preordained path. This seems all the more pertinent to my circumstances. Am I just reliving events in a life that I have already experienced or could my new actions or thoughts as a person coming from the future have any effect? And how will I know whether they do?

More immediately I am concerned as to why time for me has gone back seventeen years rather than the more conservative day at a time that I came to accept. I am anxious to avoid such a dramatic leap happening again. The only clue I have is that I had tried to stay awake at night to find out why time was going backwards.

I begin to become anxious about sleeping and visit one of the four thousand acupuncturists in Harbin. I also buy various traditional Chinese remedies from a 114 year-old herbalist named Ho Noh at the local market. Not that Ho instils any confidence. He does not look as if he had ever slept. But I am particularly concerned that the flight on which I was to arrive in Beijing comes in at 5 am local time. There seems to be no way of rescheduling the flight and reducing the risk of more temporal upheaval.

……………………………………………………………………

And indeed there isn’t…. When I become aware of consciousness again I find myself on stage at a Pink Floyd concert. I have some difficulty at first working out the time and place but conclude that it is The Wall tour around February 1981 and this is one of several concerts at Wesfallenhalle, Dortmund in what was then West Germany. What is once again West Germany. I am a sound engineer, and it appears that the tape loops for The Wall have been mixed up with those from Dark Side of the Moon. I suspect I have programmed something incorrectly into the console. Roger Waters is storming around the stage set with a face like thunder and some of the band stop playing.

Back at the hotel, I have a call from Astrid from the house in Rheims.

You seem upset baby,’ she says. ‘Is something not good with you?’

I tell her that I have just been sacked by Pink Floyd management. It seems better than saying I have just been jettisoned through space and time from The Peoples’ Republic of China.

Why?’ she asks. ‘They seemed so nice at the party in Paris.’

A long story,’ I reply, intensely aware of two different life forces, the present, and the future in reverse. You cannot expect to have much of a conversation about space-time continuums in an international phonecall to someone, whose first language is not English.

You could come down if you want,’ Astrid said. ‘I have missed you, you know. The only thing is I’ve got Monique staying. Have I ever mentioned my friend, Monique? I’m sure you would like her. She came yesterday.’

It occurs to me that unless I travel the 400 odd kilometres between Dortmund and Rheims by yesterday I will never even meet Monique. It also occurs that I can’t anyway because I have spent yesterday in Dortmund with Pink Floyd. In a devastating flash, having travelled back to before they were even contemplated, I realise I will never see my children again, or for that matter, Monique.

Before The Wall tour starts, or after The Wall tour starts, I spend a month seeing the new year out and the old year in, with Astrid at the house in Rheims. Astrid is a freelance photographer who does shoots for Paris Match and Marie Claire, specialising in quirky subjects like Sumo wrestlers, dwarfs and circus performers. She is successful and works more or less when she chooses to. We make love, morning, afternoon and night, paint, walk along the Vesle, go to galleries, concerts, and French films without subtitles.

During this time I go to see a hypnotherapist and give up not smoking. Almost immediately I find myself getting through a pack of Gitanes a day. It is a revelation to me to discover that one session can change the habits of a lifetime.

With Astrid in Rheims I go with the flow, seize the moment, and try not to think about the disappearing future, about the first time Monique and I saw the Grand Canyon a morning in May, or looking down at The Great Barrier Reef through a glass-bottomed boat, walking amongst the mystical stonework of the sun temple of Machu Picchu or watching the spectacular patterns form in the Sossusvlei sand dunes in Namibia, the sun’s reflection on the water in the Halong Bay in Vietnam, about Promise’s wedding, or Sebastian getting in to Oxford, sadly just a month before his fatal illness took hold. I do not think of the excitement of my novel being published or the acclaim I received for the first feature film I directed. I certainly do not think of the months in The Jackson Pollock Recovery Home, the job at Don Quixote or about anything else that happened after my breakdown. The future is history. And the future from a normal chronology of events will now never be. I will not have to endure that period of time later in life when those around you are slowly dying off. Those senior years when if you see a friend you haven’t seen for a while, their news will be that someone else had died. Back in the future when I was sixty three I recall that this had already begun to happen. My parents had died and, of course, Sebastian had died. Also, in a few short months, my friend Giorgio had died from liver cancer, Jacques had died from a heart attack, and Marianne had died from complications during surgery.

I feel I can live with going back a day at a time, and being aware of what will happen next is not a huge problem. With Astrid, life seems easy. I am twenty six years old and it seems that this is a time for pleasure. Each day the mystery of our attraction unfolds as we know less about each other. An affair lived backwards is very exciting. The fascination increases day by day, the first time you will get a mutual invitation, the first time you will go away together, the first time you will get or buy a present, the first time you will have breakfast together, the first time you will undress one another, working toward that glorious, breathtaking moment when your eyes will first meet, when intuition and desire will form an immaculate, unstoppable, mystical union, that split second when love is heaven-sent.

……………………………………………………………………

Astrid becomes Francesca in Barcelona, then Isabella in Rome. In between, there is Natalie in New York, and before I know it I am twenty three. These years are wild and exciting. I go to parties with painters and dine with divas. I work on a film with Antonioni and play with Led Zeppelin. Keith Moon crashes my car and Marc Bolan throws up in my jacuzzi. In a wave of hedonism, I just soak up all the pleasure that is available and cannot recall when I last tried to exercise free will. I have gone with the flow, allowing my youth and libido free rein.

Time going backwards is by now the most normal thing in the world to me. Déjà vu has become so commonplace that it is now unnoticeable. I am no longer surprised that news items and soap opera plots unfold backwards. But I am sometimes made aware of echoes of a future life. A persistent voice in my head seems to narrate stories concerning an older person. The voice is familiar, and comes from within, but while it seems it belongs to me and has some sense of self, at the same time I feel a sense of detachment. I have recollections of having lived through many of the episodes, but they exhibit themselves like false memory.

This older person seems to have experienced considerable misfortune. He found his crock of gold early and bit-by-bit has seen it disappear. As a result of the dispossession, he has suffered some kind of nervous collapse. He lives a lonely life, works in inanimate pet care, drives a brown Skoda and listens to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Even if this were to be my own future, it is neither tangible nor attractive. It seems to me that as my life is moving irrevocably in reverse, nothing is to be gained by taking possession of a character surrounded with so much sadness. So the more that it happens, the more I try to block out the voice.

It is often said that when you are young, life is a timeless flight, but as you get older time seems to fly by like it has been turned to fast forward. I find that as I grow younger a similar thing is happening. Months fly by. One moment it is August and the next it is April and another summer is gone. Christmases and birthdays are closer together. No sooner am I twenty three than I am twenty two, and then in what seems the blink of an eye, twenty one.

……………………………………………………………………

After, or before, an especially profligate drinking session, with a group of Dutch football supporters, in a bar in the red light district of Amsterdam during the World Cup, I make the decision I am going to fundamentally change the way I live. We have consumed bottle after bottle of genever as Holland lose to West Germany. We continue our drinking into the night, inconsolable that Johann Cruyff, despite being the finest footballer in the world, will never lift the trophy.

The binge is just the last in a long line of testimonies to guileless self-deprecation. I am unhappy with myself. I have begun to feel that my youthful comportment is frivolous and empty. My behaviour is inconsiderate and hurtful, and I despise the person I am becoming – or have been. I frequently catch myself saying really immature things, and acting badly towards those around me.

What brings matters to a head is a chance meeting at Amsterdam bus station with Faith, a friend of my mother’s. Faith is dressed in a miscellany of chiffon wraps, scarves, bead chokers and jangly jewellery. She carries a tote bag with a yantric design on it and has rainbow coloured braids in her hair. Faith greets me with a warm hug, which brings with it an assault of patchouli.

What are you doing here?’ she says. ‘Where are you going?’

I’m not sure where I’m going,’ I say. ‘Because it seems to be more a case of where have I been.’

In that moment I have a profound sensation of being disengaged from time.

In the 1960s both Faith and my mother will live on the fringes of a bohemian lifestyle. My father, a man ensconced in the decorum of the professions, will not. He will go to the races and Rotary Club dinners, while my mother and Faith will metaphorically burn their bras and go on demonstrations. It is not hard to see how they will grow apart and the disagreements and separation that will be the backdrop to my early life will arise.

Time present and time past are perhaps present in time future,’ Faith continues. ‘And time future is contained in time past. If all time is eternally present all time is unredeemable.’

Where does that come from?’ I ask.

Those are the opening lines from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets,’ she replies, looking me in the eye. It is an English teacher kind of look. I look away.

When I am younger my mother will try to educate me in poetry, but I will prefer The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. I will get an appallingly bad grade in English by reading none of the books. My father will not notice because I am too unimportant to be of any significance.

But, if you do not know where you are going, you should not be at the bus station. Why don’t you come and have some lunch with me?’ Faith says. ‘I live in Haarlem.’

The bus arrives and we take it. Haarlem is just a few miles. I open up to Faith. I explain I haven’t seen mother since I was twenty six and then only briefly. She looks puzzled so I tried to explain a little of my predicament.

She quotes T. S. Eliot at me once again.

We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.’

I began to wonder if T. S. Eliot might have shared my sequential dysfunction.

On the journey, Faith tells me about the community in which she lives, all the time emphasising how happy she is. The community, she says, support one another, share everything, and work together towards a common aim. It seems idealistic, naive even, but I can see that Faith appears to be happy and feels she has found what she is looking for. Her view of life seems to be in marked contrast with my own.

We arrive at Haarlem. A lengthy explanation about eastern philosophy and the middle way sees us outside Faith’s house.

BEWARE OF THE GOD,’ says the sign on the front gate.

Which God?’ I ask.

It does not matter,’ she replies. ‘How about a Retriever?’

……………………………………………………………………

I come round in the playground of The Frank Portrait Primary School. I am wearing short grey trousers, grey flannel shirt and a blue blazer. I am fighting with a boy called Jon Keating. No!…..Wait! …… I AM Jon Keating. ‘Keating needs a beating, Keating needs a beating’ they are chanting, this swathe of little grey monsters. ‘Keating needs a beating.’ They empty my blazer pockets, and one of them, Nolan Rocco I think it is, takes my wristwatch. How will I know what time it is now?

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved