Now

now

Now by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So just how bad is it, Ron?’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

It Ain’t Necessarily So

itaintnecessarilyso

It Ain’t Necessarily So by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sergeant Golfer seems less than impressed with my story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

SHOOTING SCRIPT

shootingscript3

Shooting Script by Chris Green

1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It is easily done,’ he countered.

Catherine was determined she had not been mistaken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2:

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

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

‘No,’ Dennis said.

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

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

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

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

‘Any questions,’ the man said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Is she sure?’ asked Dennis.

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

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

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

‘Blimey!’ Dennis said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Come again.’

Mulholland Drive’

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

3:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘And psychological dramas.’

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

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

‘I guess I’ll have to,’ Matt said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Either that or X Files,’ Matt said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soon there would be a blank screen.

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

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

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved