Strangers When We Meet

strangerswhenwemeet

Strangers When We Meet by Chris Green

How many miles do you need to have the same car in your mirrors before you become suspicious? How many turnings before alarm bells ring? Emma Fox has no idea, but the black SsangYong appears to be tailing her. At times right up her rear bumper. SsangYongs are quite common, but not that common. It is not a car that stands out. She is only able to identify the badge because she recently took one for a test drive. But she is sure this is the same car that drew up behind her when she left work and having taken the same circuitous route, it is still here as she nears home. She makes a note of the registration plate. She pulls into her drive. The SsangYong stops outside but eventually drives off. Emma is unnerved.

Matt is overseeing a gas pipeline construction contract in Norway and the phone link is a bit hit and miss, so she is unable to share her concern with him. At least, that’s the story. Matt would probably tell her she was imagining things, anyway. Perhaps he might bring up other instances where she has over-reacted. Like the many occasions she had called him to say she had blown the house electrics when it was just a tripped switch. And the time she thought the telephone engineer had come to rob them. Easy mistakes to make when you have a hundred other things to think about.

Emma settles down for the evening, cooks herself a pasta meal and tries to forget the matter. She does not mention her pursuer to her friend, Madeleine, when she calls to ask Emma about getting tickets for the Janacek recital at the music festival next month. They chat about what plant food is best for dahlias, the new drama releases on Netflix, and whether they should have axed Snow White in support of the BLM protests. Where would it end? Would White Christmas be next? They arrange to meet up at the weekend. Matt’s absence is not discussed.

Emma settles down to watch Leif Velasquez’s adaptation of Phillip C Dark’s, Strangers When We Meet. The review says, although the narrative features an unreliable narrator and jumps around to take in shifting viewpoints and multiple backstories, those familiar with Dark’s work should be able to work out what is going on. Kurt Bedding gives a stellar performance as the roué who is travelling incognito to meet his lover in San Sebastian and finds himself in the seat next to her husband on the plane. Emma has always felt that her life features an unreliable narrator and jumps around to take in shifting viewpoints and multiple backstories. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what is what and who is who. The pressures of modern life, Madeleine keeps telling her, when she brings it up. Anyway, Emma likes Kurt Bedding. He is easy on the eye. All is well. The world keeps on turning.

She is startled to find the black SsangYong behind her again the following morning. It appears to have been waiting for her outside and it tails her for the three miles from home to Crosby Nash Estate Agents in Bath Road where she works, even when she takes an unscheduled detour through the industrial estate. And it is there again when she goes out to show a buyer a three-bedroomed property in St Marks on the other side of town.

On her lunch break, she notices the tall dark stranger in a Peaky Blinders cap who she saw lingering outside her office earlier is now looking in a lingerie shop window next to the ATM where she is taking out cash. She is on heightened alert. Each time she thinks she has shaken him off, he appears again. He passes the window of the coffee shop where she takes her lunch no less than three times. He is outside the hairdressers when she calls in to book an appointment. He is in Tesco Express when she is buying her groceries. She can’t be sure if this is the driver of the SsangYong, but it seems likely. He has the same build and wears similar dark clothes. Has she just become over-sensitised? She does not think so. Something is happening here and she doesn’t know what it is. She considers approaching him and coming straight out with it, but she has heard too many terrible stories about what crazy obsessives are capable of. Should she perhaps report it to the police? Would they take her seriously if she did? Or would they tell her she was being paranoid? Whichever, she is spooked.

She is puzzled now why anyone would be following her. She lives an uneventful life. She is law abiding. She is solvent. She has no debts. She is not having a clandestine affair. Perhaps she should be. It seems to be the fashion. She is not aware that she has any enemies. In the estate agents’ business, there is always the danger that a disgruntled purchaser might feel they have been sold a pig in a poke. But Emma feels that when conducting viewings, she has always been scrupulously honest in her appraisal of the property, sometimes to the detriment of the sale. Well, there was the place in Old Park Street, but that didn’t go through. And the apartments in Market Street that had been built without planning permission. But she wasn’t to know that. In any case, Crosby Nash had put her under a lot of pressure to get these sold. But even if there had been any instances of mis-selling, you would have thought anyone with a grievance would make a complaint through the proper channels. Not try to put the fear of God into you or run you off the road.

While her friends and colleagues appear sympathetic to her plight, Emma wonders if any of them suspect that Matt is not really overseeing an oil pipeline project in Norway. That instead, Matt is overseeing Amy Darling, and has been doing so for a long time. If they do suspect, they seem to be keeping it to themselves. At least Emma hopes this is the case. She wouldn’t like to think they were talking about her behind her back. Sometimes, she realises, you have to make up stories to cover yourself. The secret is to remember who you have told what to.

Penny from the tennis club suggests it could be a simple case of mistaken identity. That her pursuer believes her to be someone else.

You read about a lot of cases like that in the papers,’ she says. ‘There was a case of a Taylor Swift lookalike being stalked only last week.’

I suppose so,’ Emma says.

A lot of thirty-something women wear their hair in long-front graduated bobs like yours,’ Penny says. ‘And I expect most of them buy clothes and accessories from Debenhams and Next.’

I buy most of my clothes online, these days,’ Emma says. ‘It’s so much easier.’

I expect your lookalike has got herself into a scrape,’ Penny says. ‘With some underworld figures. If she is a celebrity, it’s probably something to do with drugs, don’t you think?’

But whoever it is has hardly been subtle,’ Emma says. ‘There would be more discrete ways to tail her or me. He clearly wants me to realise that he is there. Why doesn’t he just approach me? There must be more to it, an element of intimidation. He wants me to be frightened. And in turn, I don’t approach him because I am frightened.’

Come to think of it,’ Penny says. ‘You look a little like May Welby who plays Kylie Slack in Partners in Crime.

Who?’ Emma says. ‘I don’t watch any of the soaps, Penny.’

Well, of course, neither do I,’ Penny says. ‘But I’ve caught glimpses of one or two now and again. May Welby. Check her out, Emma. I think you’ll see what I mean.’

Emma recalls she may have seen an episode or two in the past without realising it. Perhaps Matt had had it on or maybe it was just there in the background. She has become a little absent-minded lately. It is sometimes difficult to tell what happened when. She was saying to Madeleine only last week, or was it yesterday, how mixed up things could become. Sometimes she is so confused, she wonders if she is someone else. I’m not feeling myself today, she might say. She wonders whether it might be something to do with the tablets Dr Hopper prescribed for the problems she was having with her balance. Perhaps she will stop taking them.

When she gets home, she takes a look at an episode of Partners in Crime on catch-up. She can see straight away there is a slight resemblance to May Welby. On certain camera angles, if you just caught a glimpse, you could be excused for doing a double-take. The Kylie Slack character though is rough and ready and her mannerisms and diction are a long way off. The series is set in the fictional suburb of Doleford in a fictional East London, a grim area where even the police appear to be crooks. The script of Partners in Crime demands that May Welby’s character lacks sophistication. You could not imagine Kylie Slack growing dahlias or going to a Janacek concert. And they probably wouldn’t let anyone called Kylie join Emma’s tennis club. Then it hits her like a blow from the big Irish boxer that Matt used to watch. There is the startling similarity between the actor playing the part of the Partners’ enforcer, Nick Cole and her stalker. He is the spitting image. Not only this, but one of the current storylines involves Nick harassing Kylie Slack. Apparently, Kylie has dumped him for two-timing her. He is doing everything he can to intimidate her. He is a nasty piece of work. He has keyed her car and trolled her on social media. He follows her in the street and shouts abuse at her. He tails her in his car, in this case, a beaten up old black Mitsubishi. Kylie is debating whether she should get an injunction. She decides that first, she will have a word with Doleford Police.

Emma too feels it might be time to get the constabulary involved. Penny insisted it would be the right thing to do. Even if nothing comes from it, at least it will then be on record.

Do you realise how many people tell us they think they are being followed?’ Sergeant Filcher says. ‘Hundreds. And that’s not to mention the dozens of cases we see of copycat behaviour. It seems that many people find it hard to distinguish between what’s happening on their TV screens and real life. Boundaries have become blurred. If we investigated each and every one of the reports we get about people who imagine they are being stalked, we would be run ragged. We would have no officers left to deploy on the weekend riots. Now, where would that leave us? Is that what you want, lawlessness on our streets? And, Miss Fox, if you don’t mind my saying so, you are a very attractive young woman. You can hardly blame this fellow for wanting to get close to you. If I weren’t a married man ……….’

Emma leaves in disgust. This is not the type of reaction you expect from an upstanding officer of the law. This sort of thing might happen on television, but surely not in real life. She wagers Sergeant Filcher wouldn’t have been so insulting if she’d been a man. Or, for instance, if Matt had been there with her. Matt is a Black Belt in Krav Maga, the martial art that doesn’t concern itself with the opponent’s well-being. There again, she herself is glad Matt is no longer around. He didn’t concern himself a great deal with her well-being. She is well rid of him. She is much better off with …..

Emma is on her way home. The storm has passed now and the sun is coming out. She is pleased to see that the SsangYong is no longer following her. Instead, she is in the SsangYong. The man with the Peaky Blinders cap is driving. He seems quite friendly. He smiles at her and makes easy conversation. Why wouldn’t he? It’s coming back to her now. His name is Sebastian.

Has anyone ever told you, you look a little like May Welby?’ Sebastian says. ‘You know, the actress. I’ve been meaning to mention it since we started going out.’

I’m not sure I know May Welby,’ Emma says. ‘What has she been in?’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Shooting Script

shootingscript3

Shooting Script by Chris Green

1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is easily done,’ he countered.

Catherine was determined she had not been mistaken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2:

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

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

No,’ Dennis said.

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

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

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

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

Any questions?’ the man said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is she sure?’ asked Dennis.

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

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

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

Blimey!’ Dennis said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come again.’

Mulholland Drive’

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

3:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And psychological dramas.’

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

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

I guess I’ll have to,’ Matt said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Either that or X Files,’ Matt said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soon there would be a blank screen.

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

The Shipping Forecast

theshippingforecast

The Shipping Forecast by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hi, Matt. Hi, Andy,’ I say.

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

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

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

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

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

I find it relaxing,’ I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Bad Karma

badkarma

Bad Karma by Chris Green

Eight million pounds give or take, Des Hattersley’s Lotto win set him up with a life of leisure. Being single with no family or close friends to speak of, Des did not have to share his winnings. His new found wealth enabled him to give up his position as a Parking Enforcement Officer with the Metropolitan Borough Council, give notice on his tenancy with Harry Rogue Associates and leave Rotherham behind. With fond memories of Torquay from childhood holidays thirty years ago, Des headed for the Devon coast.

With his meagre traffic warden pay, Des had not been able to afford to run a decent car. He had a series of rusty Rovers and battered Fiats. But now he could buy any model he wanted. He chose a red Lexus LC Coupé. In the wake of the child sexual exploitation scandal, he had once put a ticket on one of these belonging to a visiting dignitary parked on double yellows outside Rotherham railway station. Ever since that day he had wanted one. It was a performance car designed to take your breath away. The Lexus however took a little getting used to. With all the smart technology on board, it felt like NASA command centre. And with a top speed of 167 mph, it was a little quicker than his Fiat Panda. But he soon found himself cruising around Torbay.

The next step was to find a suitable house. The five-star hotel he booked himself into while he was settling in Torbay was comfortable but it was important to have his own space. After a summary tour of west-country estate agents, Des settled on a large detached property in the exclusive Ilsham Marine Drive. At £1.2 million, Giles Hornby-Wallis assured him he was getting a bargain, what with the recently installed swimming pool and property prices in the area expected to rise by ten per cent over the next twelve months.

Karma Lacroix was what is often referred to, for lack of a gentler expression, as a gold-digger. Karma hung around Torquay’s nightspots keeping an eye on the cars that the clientele drove up in. She could tell right away that the man in his late thirties in the ill-fitting seersucker suit who drove up in the Lexus Coupé would be a pushover. He had that look of innocence about him. This was a naive man. She could sense it. But he was clearly filthy rich. Given her powers of persuasion and a little patience, he would be hers. He would be able to bankroll her and, after a decent period of time, join her growing list of penniless ex-husbands.

Des had had little experience of gold-diggers back in Rotherham. Rotherham was not a place where there was a lot of gold. Des certainly didn’t have prospects of any. The only connection with the world of wealth was when he was ticketing around Rotherham Town Hall during a licencing meeting. He was flattered therefore when Karma came up to him in CoCo and put her arm through his.

Where are we going afterwards?’ she said.

Des was taken aback. He was not used to women taking the initiative. He was not used to women, let alone attractive women like Karma. It was years since he had had a proper girlfriend. He looked around to see if she might have mistaken him for someone else. He finally managed to stammer something non-committal.

You could always come back to mine,’ she said. ‘That is if you would like to. Or perhaps we could go back to yours. I’ve brought an overnight bag.’

Things moved along quickly. Karma was practised in the art of seduction and having moved in with Des, within a matter of days got him to propose. After the private wedding, the joint account was a formality and Karma went on a spending spree, taking in London, Paris and Milan for her new wardrobe.

A boat would be nice, Des,’ Karma said. ‘You can’t live in Torbay and not have a boat. I saw a lovely Sunseeker Manhattan for sale. A fifty-two footer. You could probably get it for around half a million. Maybe less.’

I know nothing about boats,’ Des said.

You could learn,’ Karma said. ‘Then we’d be sail over to the continent. We could visit Jacques in Cap D’Antibes. Perhaps we could even buy a place in the South of France. Nice is nice.’

Within a month, they were sailing to Cap D’Antibes aboard the Vanilla Sky. Within two months they were in the notaire’s offices signing the contract for a villa in Juan-Les-Pins. Within three months, Karma was shacked up with with Jacques in Des’s new villa overlooking the Mediterranean. Des, meanwhile, was in custody in Nice following a heated domestic dispute.

It wasn’t even his fault he was arrested. In a drunken rage after a night out, Karma had attacked him with a Gauloises ashtray. He had expressed his disapproval of her constant flirting. He was defending himself, trying desperately to hold her back. As he tightened his grip on her, she began screaming and shouting. It was unfortunate that two gendarmes were passing as she ran from the house. Her accusations of assault convinced the officers he was the aggressor, a violent sexual predator. His protests of innocence fell on deaf ears.

It has been said that incarceration can be character building. Des quickly discovered that languishing in prison in a foreign country was a great leveller. How could he have been so charitable, so trusting, so gullible? Looking back on it now, he could see that from the outset, Karma had been using him, abusing him and robbing him blind? There was no real need for the boa constrictor. Or the gold-plated iPhone. And she had sold the Cartier diamond necklace he bought her almost straight away. How could he have fallen for her lies? How could he have believed that someone like Karma would really be a big fan of Geoffrey Boycott? She didn’t even know what a straight drive was. Or that her family used to breed whippets? She hadn’t even heard of the Kennel Club. From the very beginning, she had strung him along and he had fallen for it, hook, line and sinker.

………………………………..

You should have contacted me sooner,’ Sebastian Dark of Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed, Solicitors said.

I would have,’ Des said. ‘But the French police wouldn’t let me. They told me I had to use their representative. A Monsieur Dupont. I’m not sure what Monsieur Dupont’s position was. But he wasn’t much help. That’s why I’m still in here.’

Well, it’s not good news, Mr Hattersley. Over the past week, there have been major withdrawals from your accounts. The total withdrawals amount to, let me see. Ah yes, four million in all as near as dammit. Not to put too fine a point on it, you have been cleaned out.’

You’re telling me Karma has taken all my money.’

In a word. It would seem so, yes.’

I see. It all begins to make sense now. ……. But I still have the properties and the boat, don’t I?’

H’mmm. Not the boat, I’m afraid. That appears to have been sold and, of course, the two houses are in joint names. We’ll have to contest that one. And I’m not sure there’s an easy way to tell you this. I received notification through the post this morning that your wife has filed for divorce on grounds of adultery.’

Her Adultery.’

No, Mr Hattersley. That’s not how it works. Your adultery’

But I’ve never so much as looked at another woman.’

Apparently, her solicitors have photographic evidence to the contrary.’

So, what can we do about it all, Mr Dark?’ Des said. ‘Can we get any of the money back? Can we take her name off the deeds? Can we counter petition on the divorce?’

One thing at a time, Mr Hattersley. Firstly, we need to get you out of there.’

It is often thought that the party that holds the power will always be the one that holds the power. But others might argue that eventually, over time, things have a tendency to even themselves out. Some even believe that destiny will take care of things. But perhaps it is best to channel your energies into bringing about the change you want.

Over the few days that he had been locked up, Des had built up a determination to reverse the downward momentum that had gone hand in hand with meeting Karma. Des had always seen things in terms of good and bad, black or white, right or wrong. There was no middle ground. Good generated good and bad generated bad. This view needed revising. His love for Karma had turned to hate, a bitter hate that went deep down into his soul. He wanted revenge. He was a man, not a mouse. He needed to call on the same resolve that had once enabled him to win Rotherham Parking Enforcement Officer of the Year by issuing a record number of tickets over the Christmas period, a time when traditionally traffic wardens held back. No holds barred.

It now seemed obvious. Oppose the divorce. This would be straightforward enough and delay matters. Then, in the interim, get rid of Karma. Not personally of course but employ a hit man. As next of kin, assuming that she had not yet thought of making a will, Karma would die intestate and everything would revert back to him. Time was of the essence.

If you can get me out of here,’ Mr Dark,’ Des said. ‘I may have some ideas of how to go about sorting this out.’

Through Sebastian Dark’s protestations to the French authorities, Des was released the next day. He found there were a surprisingly large number of English-speaking private investigators based in the south of France. Perhaps the weather suited people of this persuasion. Perhaps the market here was more lucrative for gumshoes. Perhaps there was simply a higher demand for their services than back home.

Nick Carr, Private Investigator, Licensed and Bonded agreed to tail Mrs Hattersley. He confided that he knew people that would be prepared to intervene, should this be required.

For a fee, anything is possible,’ Carr said.

You mean …..?’

Indeed! Just say the word and it will be done.’

The intervention sounds good,’ Des said. ‘Cuts out all the crap. In fact, don’t even bother tailing her. Let’s get on with the hit as soon as possible.’

As long as you’re sure,’ Carr said. ‘But, remember! Once this is set in motion, it is not something that can be cancelled.’

I’m sure,’ Des said.

They discussed fees and made arrangements for the handover of the cash. Des was sad he would have to sell the Lexus but this seemed the safest way to raise the required fifty thousand without disturbing what was left of his finances..

Erase all your computer search history,’ Carr said. ‘Then no written communication and no emails. No phonecalls or texts between us except on these single-use burner phones. Three for you and three for me. And take a holiday. Act normally. Phone a friend or two to say how much you are looking forward to getting away for a few days.’

It seemed very cloak and dagger to Des. He was used to everything being out in the open. But perhaps this attitude had contributed to his downfall. Clearly, there were grey areas, shady deals and hidden agendas to consider if you were to get by. Secrecy was certainly an important factor when doing business with the Midi underworld.

As instructed, Des took a plane to Stockholm to avoid being linked to the impending hit. He booked into the Hilton. Here there would be sufficient records of his stay to give him an alibi when the hit happened. His being in Stockholm would look like a legitimate city break, the type of leisure pursuit a man of means would be likely to entertain. He spoke freely to hotel staff and told them he expected his wife to join him in a few days. He took the precaution of posting date-sensitive selfies at key landmarks on social media throughout his stay.

News of Karma’s death reached Des over dinner. A simple message, All done. Ditch the phone. Stay put for now. Leave the day after tomorrow.

A call from Sebastian Dark cut Des’s celebrations short.

I’m afraid there has been a complication, Mr Hattersley,’ he said. ‘You will have probably heard by now that your wife met with an accident. To add to this sad news however, there are, how can I put it, some complications. It appears she did not die intestate. She left everything to her brother, Jacques.’

What exactly does this mean, Mr Dark?’ Des said as he tries to work out the ramifications.

As things stand, it means, Mr Hattersley, that you have no money and you and Jacques Lacroix are the joint owner of two properties.’

I don’t understand. You mean that Jacques was her brother and not her lover.’

It would appear so, Mr Hattersley. And from what I gather I’m not sure the two of you are going to see eye to eye.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Nevermind

nevermind

Nevermind by Chris Green

Growing up was never going to be easy for me. I could see from an early age that my parents were simply too distracted to put effort into raising a family. In the circles in which they moved, parenting was not fashionable. They immersed themselves in a series of leisure interests, none of which involved having a youngster in tow. Perhaps it was a generational thing. In the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties, attitudes to family life in society were changing. As a result, I missed out on Santa’s Grottos, pantomimes, seaside outings, board games and skateboarding.

Busy pursuing a series of unsuccessful band projects, Dad was absent a lot of the time but Mum was hardly there at all. After years of talking about movie stardom, she finally left for Hollywood when I was nine, destined to become a film extra in a series of low budget B-Movies. Dad called it a day on performing with bands. It was obviously not going to make him a fortune. From this point on, he began to focus on building his vast record collection and growing a long beard. He looked like some kind of shaman or Eastern mystic. Does he have hidden powers, Phil Dark asked me one time, is he a soothsayer? Eddie Whitlock, who I used to play football with, referred to him as Mephistopheles. It slowly dawned on me that Dad was a bit weird.

I was never sure exactly what he did for a living but it was not a nine to five at the office. As far as I could tell, it involved a lot of sitting around in our smoke-filled front room with groups of dazed-looking people listening to loud music. Whatever it was, he put in very long hours. Clearly, this paid off. He always seemed to have large wads of tens and twentys in rubber bands. From time to time, he would peel off a couple of notes and tell me to go down the arcade or something. I quickly became adept at losing money on the machines. School was never of much interest to me and Dad didn’t even insist that I attended. I’m not sure I missed a lot.

By the time I was fourteen, Dad’s collection of albums extended around all four walls of the front room and beyond. It must have run into thousands. This was before the digital age. In Dad’s world, even the then-new medium of CDs was frowned upon. As for cassettes, he said, you might as well be listening through polythene. It had to be vinyl. He insisted the sound vinyl gave was richer. He was eclectic in his tastes and enjoyed everything from reggae to Nepalese gong music, heavy metal to acid jazz, The New York Dolls to The Third Ear Band. He had everything. The Velvet Underground, The Dead Kennedys. The Psychedelic Furs. He had to my reckoning no less than nineteen Captain Beefheart albums. And probably the only Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs album in existence

While it would be wrong to say I liked all the music he played. Frank Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy and Throbbing Gristle’s The Second Annual Report, for instance, were hard to get into. But Dad’s collection provided me with a musical education way beyond that which I would have got from my peers or by listening to the radio. In the normal run of things I would never have heard be-bop jazz, roots reggae or Creole. And I would have probably only heard the punk they played on Radio 1 and not the gritty New York stuff. Dad was keen for me to show an interest. He actively encouraged my appreciation of music. When he wasn’t too busy, he would take time out and like a history teacher, take me through his collection.

This is Chuck Berry,’ he might say. ‘This is where rock music began. The intro of Johnny B. Goode changed everything. And this is Dick Dale who pioneered the surf guitar sound.’

Or another time, ‘This is Nirvana, son. It’s called Nevermind. You won’t come across this for another ten years. But then you will hear it a lot. There are others too.’

I didn’t take much notice of the ten years bit at the time but I wish I had. If had I taken it in, it may have helped me later on.

Given there was little else happening around the house, I developed a keen interest in music. I discovered a lot of it sounded brilliant, especially on the kit that Dad had set up, the Lin deck, the powerful Quad amp and the massive Kef speakers. Music from all genres. It was also not too shabby on the Sony music centre he bought me for my bedroom. I was becoming hooked. Sometimes we both had our systems on full blast. It must have been hell for the neighbours.

I don’t mind you playing my albums,’ he said. ‘So long as you are careful. But whatever you do, don’t be tempted to play this one.’

With this, he drew out an album with a plain matt black sleeve with no writing or artwork.

Naturally, I asked him why. Was it dangerous? Was it illegal? He did not answer my questions.

Seriously,’ he said, to emphasise the point. ‘Don’t be tempted to play it. It would not be a good idea.’

He ignored further protestations and gave me the look that I knew from experience meant business. I put the matter to the back of my mind. No doubt one day I would find out what the record was but for now it didn’t matter. There were plenty of others to get my teeth into.

Inspired by Dad’s collection, and through the twentys, he continued to slip me every couple of days, I began a collection of my own. Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, The Ramones, Def Leppard, Was Not Was, Nick Drake, Jacob Miller. I liked a lot of different types of music. I felt I was ahead of my peers at school, who were still listening to the likes of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet.

Although he had given up gigging, Dad still had some of his guitars hanging around and with my new-found interest in music, it seemed only natural that I should learn to play. The Gibson I plugged in didn’t make sweet sounds right away but after a few days practice, I began to get the hang of it. With a view to perhaps forming a group, I began to write songs with my friend, Charlie. Charlie had been playing longer than me and knew more than just a few chords. He could even play keyboards and read music.

By this time, Dad had met Debbie. At last, there was someone who seemed to like his Karl Marx beard. I had felt for a long time the beard had held him back in the romance stakes since Mum left. There was so much beard and it was so unkempt. Not every woman would want to wake up to that. But Debbie clearly didn’t mind. With a new spring in his step, he started to go out more often taking Debbie to exhibitions and concerts. This meant I often had the house to myself. Charlie took to coming around and we began to put together new songs. Charlie was impressed by Dad’s huge collection and we would go through it and play our favourites on the new Bang and Olufsen hi-fi Dad had bought to impress Debbie.

On one of Charlie’s visits, I went out to get refreshments and when I returned, I found him collapsed on the floor. I tried to bring him round by slapping him and shaking him but he did not respond. Had he taken something, he shouldn’t, I wondered? Had he suffered an attack of a mysterious life-threatening condition he had not told me about? I checked his pulse. It seemed to be pulsing and so far as I could tell, he was still breathing which was lucky. I sure as hell wasn’t going to give him the kiss of life. I would never live it down. I called an ambulance. They asked me who he was. They asked me what had happened. I said I didn’t know. The paramedics tried to bring him round. They seemed to become more and more flustered. One of them talked urgently to a colleague over the radio. Evidently, Charlie’s condition was serious. I went with the crew in the ambulance as it rushed him to hospital, alarms sounding.

While I was waiting in Littleton General for news, I got an angry call from Dad.

I told you to leave that album alone,’ he shouted down the phone.

Which album?’ I said.

The one I told you about,’ he said. ‘The black album. I found it in its dust jacket on the floor. …… At least, you didn’t play it. ……. You didn’t play it, did you? No, of course not. You couldn’t have. Otherwise …..’

I suddenly realised he was talking about the black album. As it happened, I hadn’t even thought about it for years.

Without saying where I was or what had happened to Charlie, I told Dad I had more important things to think about and hung up. But, might Charlie have played the album while I was out? Could there be a connection between this and his collapse? Dad had been very definite that I should not play it. There had to be a reason. But this was absurd. It was a ridiculous idea. What was I thinking? It couldn’t realistically have had anything to do with it.

I kept out of Dad’s way for a few days and he was pre-occupied with Debbie’s birthday preparations and he appeared to forget all about the episode. Charlie meanwhile recovered, but he did not come around much after this. I don’t know if this was down to Charlie or whether it was down to me but we never got around to discussing what had actually happened that day. Meanwhile, I found a new writing partner, Jilli who I discovered I could quite happily give the kiss of life to if needed. Things moved forward rapidly as they tend to do for teenagers.

You may not have heard of The Lenticular Clouds but in 1987, for one week in July, our single, Out of Time was in the charts at number 39. Also we recorded an album that we felt might have cemented us in the annals of rock history had it sadly not been shelved by the record company after an alleged wrangle with our manager, Larry Funk. The master tapes of Up in the Clouds mysteriously disappeared. We re-recorded the songs from the album but with poor facilities and wholesale changes in our line-up, they didn’t come out the same. Given the poor quality of the recording, this too was shelved. By the end of 1988, I found I was the only surviving member of the original band. Charlie, Vince, Hank and Freddie had all left, along with Jilli.

Out of the blue one day, I remembered the Nirvana disc that Dad had shown me back in 1981. The one he told me I would not come across for another decade. Why the anomaly had not troubled me before, I cannot say. Perhaps I had never been big on mindfulness. Like Mum and Dad, I was too easily distracted, unable to concentrate on one thing long enough to get to the bottom of it. But surely this was a biggie. How had I let this one go? It occurred to me now that there might be others like Nevermind, other items in Dad’s collection that denied temporal logic. Albums that Dad owned that rightly belonged to a future time. Hadn’t he suggested this was the case when he first mentioned it? How or why this might be, of course, was a different matter. Perhaps Phil Dark and Eddie Whitlock had been right and Dad did have special powers. Might the curious black album that he had made all the fuss about be part of the weirdness as well? It was time for me to investigate.

I did not confront Dad with it immediately but when he and Debbie had gone to see an art-house film at the cinema, I looked through the shelves for the black album. He had moved it but I eventually found it. I slowly took it out of its sleeve. There was nothing written on the plain black label. I placed it carefully on Dad’s new Linn Axis turntable and lowered the arm. I think I knew what I expected to hear but at the same time, I refused to believe it. Sure enough, it was Make Believe, the opening track from The Lenticular Clouds’ original album. The fist song Charlie and I wrote. I tried to get my head around how this could have happened. We had not even recorded it at the time that Dad first showed me the disc. But in a way it made sense because this was on the same occasion that he showed me Nevermind, which would not be available for another ten years. There was no rational explanation for this either. Perhaps there never would be. Dad refused point-blank to explain. What was the point, he said? I never listened to him and anyway, I would not understand. While I was not an expert in these matters, I had worked out that the passing of time was in a sense illusory. There was no tomorrow. Every time I had woken up it was today. But you could play around with concepts for evermore. This was abstract thinking. It did not help towards understanding. Why are life’s mysteries so tantalising?

It was anything but straightforward but I managed to track down Mum in California. I wished I hadn’t bothered. It was distressing. She didn’t seem to know who I was let alone what the score was with Dad’s music collection. Nor did she seem interested in talking. It sounded as if she wanted to get back to her bottle. Why are family units so dysfunctional?

Coda

I left home shortly after this. I left the music business behind and moved away from Littleton to sort my life out. I travelled for a year or two and ended up in New Zealand where I joined a sheep worshipping cult. This did not work out. Sheep worshipping is not for everyone. It is not all it is cracked up to be. I had a breakdown. On my recovery, I struck up a relationship with my psychotherapist’s daughter, Naida. We got married and now have two teenage children who are hopefully better adjusted than I was when I was growing up.

These days, I find it is far easier to stream music. You no longer need to build up a collection. It’s all out there. Apart from The Lenticular Clouds album that is. You may have some difficulty finding this. Nevermind, should you want to, you can stream all of Nirvana’s stuff. And as Johnny B. Goode was sent into interstellar space on the Voyager mission a while back, it is quite likely that aliens from some distant place are heading this way to see what else we have to offer. They are probably ready for Dick Dale’s surf guitar classics and Captain Beefheart’s nineteen albums. They are probably even ready for Impaled Northern Moonforest and Compressorhead. And who knows what they might bring to the table?

So far as I can make out, Dad’s record collection gradually got replaced by CDs and later, digital. I think Debbie was keen to free up the space. I never asked how much he got for it but it must have been thousands. The beard has gone too, I gather. Now and again, I try to recall how strange life was back then. But, it all seems so long ago, I sometimes question whether it happened at all. Memory is not always a reliable servant. I don’t know if I can say for certain that temporal order has been restored or whether it was ever breached. Perhaps its best to be mindful and be on the look out for more surprises, just in case.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

JAZZ

jazz

JAZZ by Chris Green

She came into Birth of Cool and asked if we had an original New York Prestige yellow label vinyl pressing of Webster Young’s For Lady. The precision of her request startled me.

Featuring Mal Waldron on piano and Paul Quinichette on tenor sax,’ I said. ‘Mellow album. We have a copy on CD.’

We had sold two or three CDs in the last year. Trumpeter, Webster Young’s 1957 tribute to Billie Holiday was becoming a classic; its smooth, lyrical lines latterly compared to those of Miles Davis. On release though the album had been overlooked. For a vinyl copy you would be looking at at least £500, and although we had some rare vinyl, we had nothing that rare.

That’s the one,’ she said. ‘But I do want it on vinyl.’

I explained its rarity and told her I could take her phone number and put out feelers. Meanwhile, she was welcome to browse the vinyl in the fifties selection. She might find something else she liked. I had Paul Quinichette’s On The Sunny Side and Thad Jones’ After Hours from the Prestige back catalogue as LPs. She smiled and thanked me. I thought I detected a trace of Spanish in her pronunciation. Her smile held a hint of flirtation. She flicked back her long dark hair and as she did so, her breasts rose up in the sleeveless chemisier she was wearing, offering a glimpse of cleavage. This girl was stunning.

She was a breath of fresh air. Birth of Cool’s customers tended to belong to the older age group and were predominantly male. Market research suggested that young urban males were drawn towards Indie Rock and young females went for R and B or Pop, neither of which we stocked. Young girls, in particular, seemed phased by the ambience of a specialist jazz shop. On the occasions that we did get a female under thirty, it was for the latest Gregory Porter CD or perhaps, something from Sadé’s back catalogue, and for reasons that I cannot explain these girls tended to be quite plain. This was strange really because on the occasions I had been to Ronnie Scotts or Boisdale Canary Wharf, I had been struck by the number of babes on display. Perhaps these beautiful young women went to these places because their boyfriends liked jazz and they did not themselves buy jazz records.

I watched her as she made her way through the albums, picking up one or two to read the sleeve notes. Although by this time I was serving another customer, I could not take my eyes off her. Her short skirt hugged her hips and shapely bottom and showed off her long tanned legs. As I bagged up the new customer’s Duke Ellington sheet music, I noticed that she had written her number on the pad on the counter. Her name was Maria.

I had been learning Spanish ahead of a holiday I was loosely planning in Spain. I thought I might go to Sevilla or Cordoba to take in the architectural treasures of the Moors’ Golden Rule. Since Easter, I had been attending evening classes at the local college. As Maria was leaving, I plucked up the courage to chance a little. I was serving an elderly customer with a Cleo Lane boxed set at the time, so it could easily have been embarrassing if Maria did not understand me.

Yo le llamaré tan pronto como encuentre el álbum. Hasta la vista,’ I called out. I hoped that the grammar was right, This was the area that I was having trouble with. I still did not know of course that Maria was Spanish.

Espero volver a verle pronto. Hasta luego,’ she said, as she blew me a kiss. ‘Besos.’

I was smitten.

The following day I was listening to Ghost of a Chance, by Zoot Sims, the first recording on which he had played soprano sax, in my opinion, a seriously underrated instrument. I had the volume turned right up and was singing along.

Cracking tune,’ said a voice in a thick Irish accent.

I turned around. Beside me was a short stocky geezer in a checked overcoat. Under his arm, he had a quantity of what I could see at a glance from the logos on the covers were old Prestige recordings. There must have been about twenty-five in all. He laid them down on the counter. I went through them. The sleeves appeared to be in good condition. There were albums by Billy Taylor, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane – and Webster Young’s neglected masterpiece. I did everything I could to hide my excitement.

I picked them up at an auction, so I did,’ he said. ‘What will you give me for them?’

I looked him up and down, mostly down. I was over six foot and he was about five foot four. He seemed a little fidgety. He did not look as if he was expecting much. I took one or two of them out of their dust jackets and inspected them.

Second-hand jazz record prices are at an all-time low,’ I said.

Not that low, to be sure,’ he said, hoping to gain some ground. ‘I’ve seen some of your prices.’

I’ll tell you what,’ I said. ‘I’ll give you twenty pounds for the lot. And you’re getting a very good deal.’

He grimaced, but to my delight accepted without trying to barter. I imagine he was heading to SportingBet three doors down.

I tried the number Maria had left right away. The phone rang and rang. No reply. No voice mail. To hide my disappointment I put For Lady on the Denon in the back of the shop and went back in to listen. What a sound! Vinyl provided a warmth and immediacy in its sound that digital could not match. Webster’s mournful muted trumpet sounded as if he were in the room, playing just for me. I could see why Maria wanted this record. It was sublime. When the album had finished and I had flipped it a couple of times, I tried the number again. There was still no reply. I tried phoning Maria every hour or so for the next two days. I realised that this was bordering on the obsessional, but I could not stop myself. On the third morning when I tried, I got the message, the number you have dialled is not available or not in service, please check the number and try again. I was devastated.

I started to keep the shop open late, listening to the best of the new releases I’d ordered along with classics from Miles or Mingus. I even bought some new Quad ESLs. Their three-dimensional sound was awesome. I played Webster Young. I lived with the hope that Maria might call in again. She did not. Sometimes people would trickle into the shop around seven on their way home from work and buy a few discs. They would chat about the music they liked and we would compare collections. It was good to have some company. It was certainly preferable to being home on my own.

Geraldine had left back in April. We had irreconcilable differences. She felt I spent too much time in the shop. I felt she spent too much time at the shops. Geraldine had never liked jazz much anyway. Perhaps I should have realised this from the beginning when I took her to see the legendary Herbie Hancock at The Roundhouse in Campden and she complained all the way home on the tube, that he seemed out of tune. She described Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics magnificent set at Cargo, as a ‘bunch of buglers all playing different tunes’. John Coltrane she said sounded like someone treading on a cat. Certainly, I should definitely have registered our incompatibility by the time she took my clarinet to CLIC Sargent. It had been hard, at first, to adjust to the drop off in home comforts. I missed her chicken tetrazzini and her aubergine parmigiana, but on the plus side I was now spared The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, and I was allowed to play my alto sax around the house and rescue my piano from the shed.

One afternoon I was in the shop listening to Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers with Wayne Shorter on tenor and Lee Morgan on trumpet while I was looking through some CCTV footage, following an incident outside Guy Coventry Gun and Sports Shop next door. Birth of Cool’s premises were in a downtown location, so it was not unusual for the police to ask me to check something for them. The Big Beat finished with the alternate take of It’s Only a Paper Moon. Apart from Tupac’s black BMW parked on the double yellow line, the cameras had not picked up anything suspicious, so I was about to switch back to live pictures. It was then that it occurred to me to look through the footage for the day Maria came into the shop. At least this way I would be able to see her again. I had the date and time etched into my memory, Monday, June 11th at 11:11 am, so I typed this into the machine and let the playback run. One or two customers came into the shop during the grainy footage, but to my alarm, there was absolutely no sign of Maria. I ran the footage again, adding a little time to both ends of the search. Still, it did not pick up Maria. What was happening? Had the Vigilant malfunctioned? Had I got the time wrong? I didn’t think so. The machine had picked up the customer I had sold the Duke Ellington sheet music to, and the one I had sold the Cleo Lane boxed set to. Could I have imagined the encounter? My heart was beating like an express train and I felt nauseous. I locked up the shop and went across the street to see Aziz in the pharmacy to see if he would let me have some valium.

I cannot be doing that,’ he said. ‘Islam forbids it.’

I pleaded with him but to no avail.

You must be pulling yourself together,’ he said. ‘Now please go, before my manager comes.’

Aziz would have been more accommodating a year or so ago. He had even offered to sell me skunk on one occasion. But, since he had joined the Muslim Brotherhood, he had changed.

I settled on a bumper pack of Kalms Day Tablets. I took handful right away. I went home and took the rest with a tumbler of Johnnie Walker. I may have refilled the tumbler. I did not go into work the next day.

When I went back in, I called in the engineer to check out the Vigilant recorder. He did some tests but could find no fault. He made a few adjustments to the focus on the cameras to justify the exorbitant call out fee. I got the feeling that he saw me as a weird jazz buff who had lost his grip on reality. I wondered if he was not right.

Maria haunted my unconscious. Night after night I went to sleep and there she would be, a nocturnal temptress. She featured in all my dreams. Some were easier to interpret than others. In one, she was on stage at The Hideaway Club playing the oboe and the instrument turned into my penis. In another, I was eating a bowlful of over-ripe peaches from her lap. In one of the more difficult ones, I was on a golden beach listening to Desafinado. Dolphins were playing in the surf. Maria, who I had met on a balloon trip, was rubbing olive oil into my back and talking in sultry Spanish. A man with a limp and a shamrock in his hair was selling doughnuts. He was dressed in a harlequin suit. Dwarf camels, as small as cats, were frolicking around pyramids that Maria and I had made in the sand. The scene changed to a crowded market place and a hooded figure riding a jet black quad bike and waving a dead fish was chasing me past stalls selling saxophones and clarinets. He was shouting at me in a language I did not recognise. I shouted back in a language I did not recognise. It was dark and I was trying to find my car. I could not remember what make of car it was or where I had left it, but the car had Barcelona plates. There was a large moon low in the sky and shapes of a craggy landscape were in silhouette. I was running. I had a battered leather suitcase in my hand. I had not packed it properly and Maria’s clothes were spilling out onto the cobbled stone street. I made an effort to look back but I knew the scene was disappearing. I realised that I was dreaming and I had the feeling that I had had this dream before, but as someone else. There was a faint light ahead, but this too was becoming fainter and more distant. I woke up in a sweat.

Weeks went by and I went through the motions of running Birth of Cool. My heart was not in it. I did not buy any new stock, and the number of customers dwindled. I now kept a bottle of Johnnie Walker out the back and went through to see how it was getting on regularly throughout the day. Caleb, a friend who I sometimes jammed with, told me I should stop moping around. I should get out more. It was easy for Caleb to say this, with his outgoing personality, and a seemingly endless procession of women wanting to go away for the weekend with him in his Winnebago. However, at the end of August, I decided to go for it. I closed the shop for a week and took a holiday in Barcelona. I had no idea which part of Spain, if any, Maria might be from, but for some reason, I had got it into my head that she might be from Barcelona.

Forty degrees was hotter than I was used to. I could not stop thinking about Maria as I ambled around the Barri Gòtic, looking for shade. Time and time again I thought I spotted her in the crowds, but it was just my imagination. I half-heartedly started to practice my Spanish in shops and tapas bars, but we were in Catalonia and I had difficulty in making my Castilian Spanish understood. I had even more difficulty understanding Catalan, which is to all intents and purposes a separate language. In the end, I stuck to English since everyone seemed to know I was English anyhow. How is it that people in Mediterranean countries always know where you are from before you even speak? August is probably not the best time to visit Barcelona. The streets are teeming and the pavements are like barbecue coals. Everywhere you go you have to sidestep African street vendors selling fake Gucci and Prada merchandise. It was good to get back to my backstreet hotel and the hum of the air-conditioning. On the evenings I didn’t fall asleep through exhaustion, I went to the Harlem and Jamboree jazz clubs. The Spanish have a drink called Fundador.

Everything about the plane bringing me back from Barcelona seemed anomalous. The cabin had unfamiliar livery, the crew were dressed in unfamiliar uniforms and I did not recognise any of the passengers from the outbound trip. I wondered if I was on the wrong flight, but the senior flight attendant assured me that we were going to the right airport. There seemed to be more turbulence than you might expect over the Bay of Biscay and the flight arrived a few hours late. In fact, I was asleep by the time we landed. I thought no more of it, but as I was driving home from the airport, little things seemed out of place. There seemed to be a number of new road layouts, the road signs were all in a different font, and the car radio wasn’t picking up my pre-tuned stations. I could not put my finger on what was happening, but little details in everyday life did not match those that I had grown used to. Tupac’s BMW was not parked on the double yellow lines outside, in fact, there were no double yellow lines outside, Guy Coventry Gun and Sports Shop had become a nail bar, and the cycle repair shop had been replaced by a Bulgarian supermarket and the railway bridge had disappeared.

Eventually, my birthday, September 11th, came around. It had been three months to the day since Maria had entered my life. I had dug out some of my favourite tunes and was playing Charlie Parker’s version of Out of Nowhere, when out of nowhere as if on cue Maria walked through the door. She was wearing a cream trouser suit and a dark blue floppy straw hat. She had a small travelling bag over her shoulder. The suit looked a bit crumpled, but she looked divine. My heart skipped a beat. I would be able to present her with the Webster Young LP. I would be able to take her in my arms and make love to her.

Maria, however, was not smiling. She had a serious look about her. Hesitantly she came over to the counter. I sensed that something was wrong. I turned the music down.

Quiero que matar a mi marido,’ she whispered.

Matar – kill, marido – husband. My brain worked it out slowly.

You want me to kill your husband?’

Sí. Me gustaría usted hacer esto,’ she said. ‘I would like you to do that.’ She looked me right in the eye. It seemed that her proposal was serious.

W – why do you want me to kill your husband,’ I stammered.

I will start at the beginning. Kyle has always been a very jealous man. Three months ago he came back from a business trip and found some tickets from The Jazz Café by the side of the bed and accused me of having an affair.’

From the way she had flirted with me earlier, I could appreciate how he might be worried. I said nothing.

I had been out with my friend, Yvette, but he didn’t believe me,’ she continued, her voice becoming a little shaky. ‘He completely lost control, called me a bitch and a whore and he took off his belt and beat me savagely. He stamped up and down on my phone so I couldn’t contact anyone and kept me in a locked room. Worse still, he would come in sometimes in the middle of the night and rape me. Es un bestia abominable. He does not deserve to live.’

She was crying now. I put my arm around her to comfort her.

But why me?’ I said.

I don’t know. I just thought of you. You seemed to care.’

There was a silence while I tried to assess the situation. Care I might, but murder was not something I had ever in my life contemplated, even in my darkest moments.

Why don’t you call the police?’ I queried.

I did call the police. As soon as I escaped from the house, I called the police. From a phone box. They were not interested. They treated it as a domestic matter,’ she said. ‘They took some details but I could tell they were not taking me seriously. Eventually, I ran out of coins.’

I was being drawn into the front line of Maria’s troubled life. It struck me there was a significant gulf between selling hit records and being a hitman. I had not bargained for complications like this in my ardent fantasy. I felt I had stepped into a nightmare. I told her I couldn’t give her an answer right away. This was something that needed careful consideration. Inasmuch as it was here and now, the experience in the existentialist sense was ‘authentic’ but there was an edge of the surreal about it. This world was out of kilter. My head was spinning.

Can I come and stay with you?’ Maria asked, pleadingly. ‘And we can talk about it.’

How could I say no? Given time, I reasoned I might be able to talk her round. After all murderous intent is not a rational state of mind. Maybe we could go away for a few days to lift her spirits, and she would have time to reconsider. We could perhaps go on the Eurostar to Paris and catch some of the programme from the Quai Jazz Festival. Once we had got to know one another better she would hopefully stop talking about murder. She didn’t. Once we had made love, she got right back on to it.

In the perfect murder,’ she said. ‘the murderer either has a trustworthy witness who can provide an alibi, or has no apparent motive and leaves no incriminating items or physical evidence at the scene of the crime.’

I could see that the trustworthy witness who could provide an alibi might be a problem. The no apparent motive was now quickly vanishing and DNA might be an issue regarding covering one’s tracks. Anyway I wasn’t considering it, was I? I had to bring forward the Eurostar idea.

We will go soon, cariño,’ she said. ‘Once my husband is out of the way.’

In this baffling world where there were new road signs, no digital radio stations, no double yellow lines outside my shop, a Bulgarian supermarket where the cycle repair shop should be, and someone who was invisible on CCTV staying with me, I discovered another anomaly: there were no trains. I do not mean that there were no trains running on the line over the old railway bridge, or even that the Eurostar service had been suspended; there were no trains anywhere. You would have thought something this important would have been newsworthy. I tried searching on Dogpile but could find no reference to trains, or the lack of. Perhaps there had never been any trains. I thought of asking Maria about it, but of course, she might not know about it because she had been kept in a locked room. I went in to ask Aziz, who I noticed was now clean-shaven.

There have not been any trains for months,’ he laughed. ‘Since the debacle over the franchises.’

Maria kept on pushing the idea of murder. Each time I came up with a plan for our escape, it encountered an obstacle. For instance, Maria did not have a passport and she had left all her papers behind. And after we had made love, she would once again return to the subject of killing her husband.

I can get into his electronic calendar,’ she said one time. ‘I can find out where he will be and when he will be on his own.’

What about leaving DNA?’

The next day she said, ‘One idea I have is a fast-acting poison that will simulate a heart attack.’

You have to be able to get to him to administer the poison. There’s the problem of leaving DNA, still. DNA is a real bugbear when it comes to planning murders. And what about CCTV cameras?’

This might not be an issue. Were you able to see me on your CCTV cameras?’

No, but …..’

You must have realised that some things are not the same as in the world that you are used to,’ she said. ‘You will surely by now have noticed subtle differences.’

Are you saying that this is not the real world?’ I asked, dumbfounded.

This is not an imaginary world, querido,’ she said. ‘To most of those around you, this is everyday just as they’ve always known it, but you have, as it were, crossed over from another temporal space.’

Am I able to return to the old reality, to cross back over?’

You might be able to return the way you came, but first, you have to understand how you arrived here. Only you can do that.’

And supposing I could return, would I be able to take you back with me to the real world.’

It is not the real world, mi bello, any more than this one is an imaginary world.’

But would I?’

No-one can say. There are no records of such matters.’

This was about as clear as mud.

I slipped out to the shops once or twice to help kit Maria out and to get our day to day supplies, but we couldn’t go out together for fear of her being seen. In fact, she couldn’t go out at all. She was in essence still a prisoner. I had been able to get Caleb to look after Birth of Cool for a few days, but he was becoming suspicious about what was going on. Caleb would be in the old world, with the gunshop next door to Birth of Cool, the one with the railway bridge – wouldn’t he?

Maria and I couldn’t hide out forever. We needed a resolution. There were two options: either I kill her husband, or we find a way to cross back over. First, you have to understand how you arrived here, Maria had said. I tried to think this through. The weirdness had begun when Maria first arrived in the shop back in June. But the day to day did not change too much until I returned from Barcelona. I had initially noticed big changes on the plane. When I had visited Barcelona I had been so preoccupied, I had scarcely taken in anything about the city, other than where the landmarks in the Gothic centre were, and the location of one or two jazz bars. Apart than that, all I knew that was that Barcelona had held the Olympics a while back and had a better than average football team. And weren’t there some connections with Picasso and Salvador Dali? I decided it would be a good idea to do some research on Dogpile. It was a long shot, but the hope was that it might throw up some links between the city and transmigration. Was this the right word? Clearly not! I found out that Barcelona was the sixteenth most visited city in the world and the seventh most important fashion capital in the world. I discovered that drivers in Barcelona were considered among the worst in the world, with an accident occurring in the city every nineteen seconds, this rising to one every sixteen seconds on a Friday. All very interesting from a cultural point of view, but not exactly the kind of information I was looking for.

On my return, security at the airport I recall had been lax, in fact non-existent. It seemed I was off the plane and straight into the car. I could not even remember picking up my case. Then there had been the missing motorway turn-off and the unmarked road that took me past the new logistics warehouse. Where were the old army barracks I should have passed? There were the changes I found on my return to my street to consider and to cap it all the mystery regarding the trains. I felt I could no longer be certain of anything.

Caleb phoned me to tell me he was sorry to leave me in the lurch but he had to go off to teach a weekend workshop in Experimental Jazz in North Norfolk. Ornette Coleman, John Zorn, The Cinematic Orchestra, that sort of thing, he said.

I’ll be alright on my own,’ Maria said. ‘There’s your film noir collection to explore. I can watch The Postman Always Rings Twice, and if I get bored I can repot your Phoenix Roebelenii.’

So, on Saturday I went in to open up Birth of Cool. Apart from the tree that was blocking the road and the new arthouse cinema that had opened across the street, everything seemed normal. I soon got into the swing of things, put on a Cool Jazz compilation and waited for the Saturday shoppers.

I did not recognise him right away, but something was familiar about his features. He had slipped in unnoticed and was browsing the CDs in the Be Bop section. He was a thick-set man, a little shorter than I was, perhaps five foot ten. He had short brown hair that was thinning on top. He wore a shiny grey suit and an open-necked shirt with a chunky gold chain around his neck. I moved around to take a closer look, being careful not to attract his attention. My heart stood still. This was definitely Maria’s husband, Kyle. I had been shown the photo often enough. This was the man Maria wanted me to kill. It was a shame Guy Coventry Gun and Sports Shop was no longer next door. I could have prepared for the encounter. What was he doing here? I kept my eye on his every movement. He did not look as if was about to attack me. He was not giving this impression at all. He appeared to be genuinely looking for a Jazz CD. He smiled at me, made his way over to the Hard Bop section and picked up a Horace Silver CD to look at the tracks. There was no one else in the shop now but the two of us. He ambled over to the vinyl section, a long rack holding a few hundred albums. He seemed in no hurry, flicking methodically through the discs. I busied myself sorting out the clutter that Caleb had left around the till area, casting furtive glances in Kyle’s direction now and then. Looks can be deceiving, but he did not look like a violent man at all and, I noticed, he did not wear a belt. I began to have doubts about Maria’s story about the beatings. She hadn’t had any bruises when she came to stay. It also began to seem questionable that anyone could be locked in a room for three months, and in our sexual relations, she had not shown the reticence you might expect from a victim of rape. Vacillation took hold.

Having selected a couple of Chet Baker CDs, White Blues and One Night in Tokyo with Harold Danko, Kyle came slowly over to the counter. Now was make or break time. Should I grab the Leak amplifier and smash him over the head with it? The moment passed.

I don’t suppose you ever come across the New York Prestige yellow label vinyl pressing of Webster Young’s For Lady featuring Mal Waldron on piano and Paul Quinichette on tenor sax,’ he said, in a quiet well-spoken voice. ‘I’ve been looking for it for ages.’

I was shaking.

No,’ I finally managed to say, ‘It’s quite rare, isn’t it.’

I’ll just take these then,’ he said, with a polite smile. ‘But if you ever do come across it though, would you be good enough to let me know?’ He handed me his business card, Kyle Clancy – Futures Trader, and slid his credit card into the machine. I was gripped by indecision. The bronze statuette of Louis Armstrong that I used as a paperweight was close at hand. This could deliver a savage blow. Should I or shouldn’t I? How could I kill someone who might well be innocent of any wrongdoing? How could I face Maria if I didn’t take this golden opportunity? Once more the moment passed. Kyle took his CDs and left with a cheery wave.

See you again,’ he said.

The mysteries were multiplying. What was I to believe? What would happen next? For all I knew Kyle might at this very moment be on his way round to my house to do unspeakable things to Maria. Anything was possible. I phoned home, using the code I had agreed with Maria. She was to let it ring four times, and wait for me to ring again a few seconds later. She was to answer on the third ring. She didn’t. Could it be that she hadn’t heard the phone? The Bose Cinemate home cinema system could be quite loud. Maybe she was making her way through my film noir collection.

I shut up the shop and rushed back home. The house was empty. There was no sign of Maria. All her clothes were gone from the bedroom. She had vanished. She did not appear to have left a note. Kyle had not had time to have spirited her away. There were no signs of a struggle. She must have left of her own volition. But why?

I noticed too the Webster Young LP was gone. What was it about this world-weary collection of tunes that had made it so sought after? Certainly, there were beautiful passages of light to punctuate its bleakness, and the counterpoint between Young’s trumpet and Paul Quinichette’s tenor was outstanding, but was it worth all the upheaval it seemed to be causing? After a settling pint of Johnnie Walker, I tried to assess the situation on a point by point, best guess basis.

My life had been normal up until three months ago when Maria came in and asked for the LP.

I was now in some kind of alternative reality at the mercy of unpredictable developments.

I had been completely obsessed by Maria at the expense of all else.

Maria may have had supernatural powers, or be a fraud.

I had resisted the opportunity to kill Kyle.

Kyle may have been a fraud.

Nothing made any sense.

I was bewildered.

I was drunk.

I think it was Alexander Graham Bell who said, ‘When one door closes another door opens, but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.’ So it was I made the decision to try to forget about Maria, put the whole episode behind me, and get on with my life. I wrote out a shopping list and wondered about buying a dog. Later that day, out of the blue, I had a phonecall telling me that I’d won First Prize in a raffle. I didn’t even know that I’d entered a raffle. All I had to do, the girl on the phone said, was turn up at the airfield and do a short training course. Was there a hint of Spanish pronunciation in her voice? Or just my imagination again?

You will then be treated to a three-course lunch,’ she said, ‘before making the drop.’

The drop,’ I remember thinking, ‘what drop?’

My brain had for some reason thought she had been talking about a balloon ride, which would have been a more usual raffle prize than a parachute jump. What made me go ahead with the jump, I cannot say. I was terrified of heights, but the girl sold the idea well, talking about the enjoyment and the exhilaration of skydiving. It was a static line parachute, she said, which opened automatically, so I did not have to worry. It seemed churlish to refuse.

I put on my best metaphorical brown trousers and went along. Jumping out of the plane was among the scariest moments of my life. I blacked out for a split second. Once I regained consciousness, however, I found the experience oddly exhilarating. A static line jump from 3,500 feet from the moment you leave the plane to the moment you hit the ground should take about three minutes. Mine took over an hour. Albert Einstein once said, ‘Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.’ I would have accepted this as the explanation, but my watch confirmed that an hour had passed. An hour in which I was able to play over in my head the events of the past few months and put them in perspective. An hour in which I had time to consider my desert island discs, should I ever be invited on to the show. An hour in which I was able to remember the whole plot of Inception.

One the way back home, to my astonishment, I noticed that the road signs had been changed back to their original font, and the car DAB once again picked up the pre-tuned stations. Jazz FM was running a Blue Note special. When I got back, Tupac’s BMW was once again parked on the double yellow lines outside my shop, Guy Coventry Gun and Sports Shop was open again and the railway bridge was back. A train zipped across it. Aziz was just leaving the pharmacy. He waved.

Hi Aziz,’ I shouted across the road. ‘It’s good to see that you’ve grown your beard again. I couldn’t get used to you clean shaven.’

The following day, I spruced up the shop a little. I sorted out the old stock and put some items in a Sale bin. I took down the out-of-date notices for the summer jazz festivals and put some colourful new displays in the window. I had just made myself a cup of lemon and ginger tea and put on some Miles Davis when a pair of tall men in badly fitting blue suits walked in. They appeared uncomfortable in the surroundings. They did not look like they had come in to buy jazz.’

We would like to ask you some questions relating to the murder of Kyle Clancy,’ said the one with the pencil moustache, flashing an identity card. ‘We would like you to accompany us to the station.’

This was not what I had in mind about one door closing and another opening. Perhaps Alexander Graham Bell had just lived in a very draughty house.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Darkness on the Edge of Town

darkness

Darkness on the Edge of Town by Chris Green

1:

Tim Soft is walking home along Marlboro Street. He feels he has had a wearying day at the office. He wishes it were Friday, but it’s only Tuesday. A vintage Chevrolet Impala pulls up alongside him, one of the ones with the harmonica front grille and the big tail fins. Tim notices that it has recently had a door replaced. The replacement door is pink while the original colour of the car, so far as he can tell in the advancing dusk, is blue. It’s unusual to see an American car on the streets these days, he reflects, but they do look good even with mismatched doors. Tim is a big fan of Americana, American cars, American music, American films, Breaking Bad and of course, Twin Peaks.

A pale-skinned man with a lean angular face leans across the bench seat and winds down the passenger side window. He has a wavy nineteen fifties-style quiff and a long scar running down his left cheek. Bruce Springsteen’s, Darkness on the Edge of Town is blaring out, a song Tim remembers from back in the day when he was sharing a house in Slumpton with Sid Hacker and Susie Q. That all seems a long time ago now. He likes to think he has matured since then. He likes to think he is more successful now. The Chevy driver turns The Boss down and in a gravelly voice asks for directions to Twin Peaks. How strange is that? He even looks like a Twin Peaks character. He has a faraway look in his eye and may be on drugs, Tim feels, probably hard drugs. But surely he must have misheard him. It’s easy to experience a degree of dissonance after a long day in a noisy publishing house staring at an iMac Pro.

Sorry,’ he says. ‘Where did you say?’

The driver looks him up and down menacingly. For a moment, Tim thinks he might be about to leap out of the car, grab him by the lapels and force him up against the wall.

Quinn Street, buddy,’ he says, finally.

Was this what he said originally, Tim wonders? It would be good to clear this up but he is not going to ask. It would not be a good idea to question the ruffian’s powers of diction. He decides to put the misunderstanding down to a mondegreen and try to forget all about Twin Peaks.

Tim is sure Quinn Street came up in conversation recently but can’t remember how or why. Was it maybe in connection with Razor Ramirez, a notorious local drug dealer, who he heard might have moved into this part of town? But then, why would the dude in the Chevy be asking him. He is wearing a smart suit, albeit without a tie. He remembers finding out that Marty Quinn was a local councillor in the nineteen eighties, since disgraced for his kerb-crawling conviction but he doesn’t imagine that the dude will be interested in local history. Nervously, Tim explains the directions as the driver revs the Chevy’s engine impatiently.

Past the entrance to the park, second left, left again, then …… third right,’ he says, hoping that he has got this right.

2:

When Tim gets home, he finds Judy is flustered. She looks dishevelled. Her make-up is smudged. He’s not sure but it looks like she might have been crying. When he had phoned her from work earlier to find out if he needed to get anything on the way home, she had cut him short saying there was someone at the door. It had seemed inconsequential at the time. He had thought no more of it.

Are you OK?’ he asks.

Judy appears to hesitate before she replies. Tim puts the hesitation down to her being upset. Now he comes to think of it, she has been a bit up and down lately and very prickly. At times he has felt he is treading on eggshells. He is no longer sure how to react.

What’s wrong?’ he says, putting his arm around her. ‘Who’s upset you? ……… Was it something to do with whoever was at the door when I phoned?’

Judy pushes his arm away.

I had just got home from the …… hairdressers,’ she says, doing her best to avoid his gaze. ‘And someone …….. called round …… for you.’

Who?’ he asks. Having been married now for nine years, Tim does not get many casual visitors.

Big guy, black leather, slicked back hair,’ she says. ‘He had a …… a piercing stare. He said I’m looking for Tim Soft. I told him you weren’t here but he didn’t seem happy about it.’

Tim is taken aback. He’s pretty sure he doesn’t know anyone like the fellow she is describing. Not these days, anyway. One hoodlum lurking in the area was odd enough. Surely it is unreasonable for another one to appear so soon. This is a quiet suburban estate. He wonders whether Judy is making it up. But, why would she?

He was …… very threatening,’ Judy continues. ‘I asked him what he wanted to see you about and he said you would know.’

I wasn’t expecting anyone,’ Tim says. So far as he knows he does not owe money and can’t think of anyone he might have upset recently.

He had a strange accent,’ Judy says. ‘Foreign, yet not foreign. He looked like someone out of that David Lynch show you made me watch. The one with the man from another place and that ridiculous talking tree.’

Another reference to Twin Peaks. Working in publishing, Tim is of the belief that the fictional world should stay where it belongs, whether this be the written page, cinema or television and not spill over into real life. Especially now that he has completed the graphics and layout for the Twin Peaks illustrated publication and put it to bed.

The thing is, Tim, he said he was going to call back,’ Judy adds. ‘Perhaps we ought to go out.’

Good idea,’ Tim says. ‘What about that new bar?’

3:

After his third bottle of Double Bastard at The Sizzling Squid, Tim still feels nervous about returning home. Normally Double Bastard relaxes him but he has a bad feeling about something. He is not sure what but something is not quite right.

Surely no-one is going to call round after ten,’ Judy says, looking at her watch. Her three glasses of Albanian Shiraz seem to have calmed her. Tim suspects she may also have secretly taken one or two of the happy pills that Dr Ranatunga prescribed. Perhaps Dr Ranatunga might have been a little remiss. They appear to make her behaviour unpredictable.

But what if our caller is lying in wait?’ he says. ‘I think I’ll just have one more beer.’

We can’t stay out all night,’ Judy says when Tim returns from the bar. ‘Are you coming?’

Even though it is a short distance, chivalry dictates that Tim not allow Judy to walk home alone but chivalry has never been his strong suit. Especially after nine years of marriage. Besides, he now has another beer to finish.

I’ll be right behind you,’ he says.

Tim does not believe he has ever seen anyone quite so tall as the forbidding figure he suddenly finds standing over him. At first, he thinks the huge fellow must be some kind of hallucination brought on by the Double Bastard but the hallucination refuses to go away. The colossus stands silently, a good seven feet tall, not seven feet from him, staring fixedly in his direction. He is formally dressed. Like a club steward. Or perhaps even the giant in Twin Peaks. More likely a club steward though in this situation. Whoever it is, the big fellow seems unhappy about something. What has he done to upset him? Maybe it is time for him to leave. He might even be able to catch up with Judy.

4:

Tim makes his way unsteadily through the night. As he turns into Viceroy Terrace, up ahead of him, he spots the Chevy with the mismatched door. Right outside his house. His initial instinct is to make himself scarce. No sense in looking for trouble. He could perhaps drop in on his brother, Tom. He owes him a visit. There again, Tom’s partner, also called Tom seems to have taken a dislike to him. Tom and Tom probably wouldn’t appreciate him calling round drunk at ten o’clock at night. And, of course, there is Judy to consider. She might be in danger and it would be all his fault. For that matter, she might even already be bound and gagged in the back of the car. He steels himself and strides purposely up the street towards the vehicle. It has its engine running, Bruce Springsteen’s Point Blank blaring through the open window. As he gets closer, the driver gives a final rev of the engine and the car pulls away. Tim cannot see Judy inside the car but it occurs to him that the thug might have bundled her into the boot. This is the kind of thing that would happen in Twin Peaks.

He unlocks his front door. The house is in darkness. Not a good sign. He calls out Judy’s name. There is no reply. Frenziedly, he darts around the house looking for her. Surely she would be home by now even if she had taken a detour through Lark Park and along Chesterfield Avenue. Yet, she is not home. He dials her number but to his dismay, he hears her phone ringing in the next room. Why doesn’t she ever take the thing with her? What’s the point in having a mobile if you leave it at home?

He rummages around looking for clues. He does not know quite what he is looking for. He takes a look at her phone. There are several missed calls other than his. The phone does not record the caller’s number. He scrolls through the numbers she has dialled. He doesn’t recognise any of them. But then, he can hardly remember his own number. He opens up the Camera Roll folder. Flicking through, he sees that one of the photos looks like the hoodlum who was driving the Chevy. He can’t believe it. How can this be? He takes a closer look. It is a photo of him. There is no doubt about it. There’s the Chevrolet Impala in the background. And there’s another. In this one, he is with a group of people at some kind of outdoor event. He doesn’t like the look of them one bit. Here’s a selfie. Chevy Man has his arm around Judy. What is that all about? Is she having an affair? With that hoodlum? Should he have noticed some warning signs? Were there some clues he might have spotted. He comes across a random address scribbled on a scrap of paper by her laptop. Razor, 66 Quinn Street. Surely this can’t be right. How on earth would she know Razor? Then it dawns on him. She must be buying drugs. It’s the only explanation. If she is buying drugs, it would help to explain a few things. This would explain the happy pills. Her mood swings. How had it all come to this? He begins to wonder if perhaps he might have become too involved with the fictional world of Twin Peaks and taken his eye off the ball.

5:

Whatever Tim’s feelings might be at this moment in time, Judy is to all intents and purposes, missing. Unless she was on her way to meet her supposed lover when she left the pub and he was on his way to meet her when he sped off, it would appear she is not even with him. So there must be another explanation. Tim has a dilemma. Should he sit and back and thank his lucky stars that he has caught her out in her deceit? Or, should he set about finding what has happened to her just in case it is something calamitous? Clearly, he can’t report her to the police as a missing person. Given the circumstances, they would just laugh at him. He could phone around the numbers on her mobile to see if anyone has an idea where she might be but once again, given the circumstances, he would be subjecting himself to ridicule. He could take a trip round to 66 Quinn Street. Probably a longshot and wary about the hostile reception he would be likely to get, he decides to give it a miss. All he can do, he feels, is sit tight and see what happens. Judy’s phone rings. Unrecognised number says the display and when he answers it, the caller hangs up. Weren’t mobile phones designed to simplify life?

6:

When one parameter in your life changes, you often find that everything else changes. Perhaps it is linked in some way to chaos theory or a variation of the domino effect. When it is a negative development you might throw in the expression, slippery slope. Tim’s life seems to be on a downward run. When he goes into work the following morning, sleep-deprived and hungover, he finds himself summoned to his boss’s office. His work lately has not been up to scratch, Carson Gaye tells him and the work on the Twin Peaks publication, in particular, was shoddy, full of mistakes that should have been corrected before it went to print. His services are no longer required. He is sacked.

When Tim gets back home Judy still hasn’t returned. There are more missed calls on her phone from the same unrecognised number as the previous evening. Tim is now convinced that something untoward has happened. He is about to call the police when, to his puzzlement, they arrive mob-handed on his doorstep. They have not come about Judy’s disappearance however but to search the house for drugs. Detective Sergeant Badger shows him the warrant, issued that very morning. Acting on a tip-off, he explains. When asked the routine question, is there anything that shouldn’t be here, Tim tells him that he is wasting his time. Of course, there are no drugs in the house. D. S. Badger laughs and tells him that everyone says that but in his experience, it usually means the opposite. Tim continues to remonstrate as burly officers in fatigues begin to turn the house upside down.

Here it is, guv,’ the one with the buzz cut and the neck tattoos says, slitting open a sealed package the size of an airline bag that, like a magician, he appears to have pulled out from underneath the staircase.

Good work, Scuzzi,’ the Sergeant says. ‘That’s what we’re looking for.’

Badger tells Tim it is probably the largest cache of crystal meth he has ever come across. How can this have happened, Tim wonders? Crystal meth is something he thought only existed in Breaking Bad or spoof documentaries about fictional rock bands. The police must have somehow planted it. He suggests this is a set-up, breaking into a rant about police malpractice. His protests go unheeded. He is cuffed and taken down to the station to be charged.

While Tim is waiting for his solicitor to arrive, he feels that not even his brother Tom’s friend, Wet Blanket Ron could match the speed of his change of fortune. In just twenty four hours, he has managed to go from happily-married, devil-may-care, graphic designer living in a plush house on a well-positioned estate to paranoid, estranged, international drugs smuggler confined to a foetid cell, looking forward to a long stretch in Wormwood Scrubs or Belmarsh. Surely not even Ron could claim such a rapid fall from grace.

Is it Murphy’s Law, Tim wonders, that states that when you think things cannot get any worse, they do? Something along those lines, anyway. Is it Smith’s Law that suggests that Murphy was an optimist? While Tim is trying to remember exactly which of the amateur philosophers stated what, still believing in his heart of hearts that things can’t really get worse, he learns that Judy’s mutilated body was found earlier in the canal. Estimated time of death, Inspector Dawlish Warren from the Homicide and Serious Crime Command informs him was between midnight and 6 am this morning. The Inspector takes it a step further and tells him that he is the prime suspect. Can he account for his movements between those times?

7:

Tim’s solicitor introduces himself. ‘Dario Chancer of Gallagher, Shed and Chancer.’

Thank God you are here, Mr Chancer,’ Tim says. ‘I’ve been going crazy in this bloody place.’

OK. Let’s get straight down to it then, Mr Soft,’ Chancer says. ‘This drugs business first, I think. What’s the story with that?’

I’ve no idea where the package came from,’ Tim says. ‘The police must have planted it.’

Some work to do there then,’ Chancer says. ‘The police don’t often admit planting evidence. At least not voluntarily. Now! I think it might be easier to try and build a case around the drugs being your wife’s. After all, I understand Judy Soft is dead. She won’t be able to argue. For a small consideration, I think we might be able to get a few witnesses to testify to Judy’s drug activities, if you catch my drift. ……… Which brings us on to the murder. First question I have to ask you is, are you guilty? Did you kill Judy?’

Of course not,’ Tim says.

So you’ll have an alibi for last night,’ Chancer says. ‘Someone who can confirm where you were between midnight and six?’

Not exactly, no,’ Tim says. ‘I was at home on my own, worrying myself silly.’

Not so good. It would certainly make our job easier if you did have an alibi,’ Chancer says. ‘Still! We can work on one.’

‘Do you have any suggestions, Mr Chancer?’

Well. Let me see. … H’mm. …… I wonder. Listen! You might think this is a little unconventional but I’ve used it once before and it seemed to work then. ……. Do you happen to watch Twin Peaks by any chance?’

As a matter of fact, I do. I’m a big fan. I …….. ‘

Then you will be familiar with a character called Garland Briggs.’

Of course. Major Briggs was abducted by aliens.’

That’s right. He was sucked up into a vortex.’

Indeed. But how does this help?’

You could say that at 11 last night, you were walking home when you were suddenly sucked up off the street by a vortex and not returned until, let’s say to be on the safe side, ten this morning. And you can’t account for the time spent in the other place. It’s all a bit of a blur. Perhaps you might come up with some gobbledegook about the white lodge or the black lodge and perhaps throw in a dwarf or two and a talking tree for good measure. Now! Just one thing. You haven’t told them anything so far, have you? You know. Anything that might incriminate you?’

No. I’ve said nothing. I was waiting for you to get here.’

Good! Only if you had, it would be difficult to say that the alien abduction had just slipped your mind.’

You don’t think that perhaps, it’s a bit …… far out for a defence, then.’

We could back it up with some testimonies from expert witnesses.’

Expert witnesses?’

Hardcore Ufologists. And maybe a die-hard Twin Peaks fan.’

But, the thing is I didn’t do it, Mr Chancer. I didn’t kill Judy. I’m innocent. Not only that I want the bastard who did kill her brought to justice.’

But as you’ve told me, Mr Soft. You don’t have an alibi. You haven’t had much experience of the judicial system, have you? No alibi translates as guilty in a court of law.’

8:

In HM Prison Wakefield where Tim Soft is serving his thirty year stretch, he is allowed no visitors. Even the prison warders are vetted before they can enter his cell. He has been well and truly removed from society. But, if you were a fly on the wall in his cell, you just might hear Tim humming Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. It appears to be an obsession. There are no posters of Rita Hayworth, but you would find the walls of his cell covered in posters of vintage Chevrolet cars. Another obsession. Then there is all his arcane talk about extra-dimensional connected spaces, the black lodge and the white lodge. Psychiatrists have been unable to penetrate the dark deluded world that Tim inhabits.

Some might argue that he was unfortunate to get a prison sentence at all as by many people’s reckoning, he could be considered insane. As it happened, Tim changed his story daily during the trial and kept changing his plea. He did not seem to know what time of day it was and on occasions, could not remember his name. But, as is often the case, his eventual plea of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ failed to impress. The court did not believe that he had been abducted by aliens or that he was being instructed by a talking tree. No-one was listening. It was felt that his crimes were too serious.

The court heard how Tim had weaved a web of deceit and treachery, taking in all those who had the misfortune to come into contact with him. He had pretended to be a respectable citizen while in reality, he was running a ruthless drugs empire. Countless casualties lay in the wake of his underworld activities. How he managed to get with his duplicity for so long was a mystery. By the time of his trial, even his friends and family were lining up to testify against him. His brother Tom explained how, as a boy, Tim used to torture the family pets, and not just the gerbils and hamsters. The court heard how his long-suffering wife, Judy had been the victim of his abuse for years. On that fateful night, Tim had gone on the rampage, killing two men in The Sizzling Squid in cold blood before brutally bludgeoning Judy to death and dumping her body in the canal. No matter how unbalanced he was, he was not going to get away with a soft sentence in a rehabilitation facility.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Blackjack

blackjack

Blackjack by Chris Green

I open the front door to discover a large package on the doorstep. I did not hear anyone deliver it while I was getting ready to for work, or see anyone from the window. It’s huge. What can it be? I try to think of something I might have ordered. Something three feet by two that might warrant zebra-patterned wrapping. I can think of nothing I am expecting except a Keigo Higashino novel from Amazon and this would take up no room at all. More likely, it is something Promise has ordered. Promise is having a lie-in. It is her day off.

But, if for whatever reason we did not hear the courier, why has the package been left there in full view of the street and not taken back to the depot or deposited with a neighbour? I take a look at the address label. It is addressed to Darius Spayne. Him again. The Spaynes, Darius and Rosalind apparently, lived at our address previously, but not recently. The Spurlocks have lived here since then. And the Wilburys. The Spaynes must have moved out five years ago. We never found out who exactly they were or what their forwarding address was. Promise and I are occasionally reminded of their existence by a phone call asking for one or other of them. We have often thought that this in itself is strange as twice since we have been here we have changed our phone number.

The parcel has no return address nor does it appear to have a postmark. This suggests it must have been delivered by hand early this morning. Or possibly during the night. But why? As I continue to examine it, Stanislav Ruby from the black and white gabled house on the corner walks by carrying a fox. Perhaps it’s his dog but it looks like a fox. I call out to him and ask if he saw anyone arriving with the package. He mutters something about blackjack which I do not catch because at that moment my phone rings. I am instructed I need to get into work PDQ to handle an emergency. As I take the package inside, I can’t help but notice it is remarkably light. I shout upstairs to Promise that I have to dash and I am leaving it with her. I assume that she will deal with it but when I return home from a hard day at the research establishment, the package is still where I left it. What has Promise been doing all day?

I didn’t know what you wanted to do with it,’ she says.

Well, we may as well open it, don’t you think?’ I say.

Why is it so light?’

Let’s find out.’

Inside the large box is a smaller box, this wrapped in jungle-themed paper and inside of that one is another, this one in Mondrian print paper. We exchange looks of perplexity. What kind of bizarre pantomime is it that the Spaynes are involved in? Like a set of Russian dolls, each box reveals a smaller box, Sergeant Pepper album cover wrapping, Statue of Liberty paper wrapping, Psalm 23 wrapping, etc. until finally, ten minutes later, we arrive at the smallest one, a plain black box three inches by two. The box is empty. I shake it vigorously to make sure but nothing comes out. This surely is an elaborate prank but why? Who could possibly gain from it?

Empty the box may have been but as the evening wears on, inside of me the feeling grows that by opening it, a sinister force has somehow been unleashed. I know its irrational but I can’t rid myself of the unsettling sensation that the air around me has changed. Pins and needles creep up my spine. It feels as if there’s something other just out of sight. A demon gnawing at my consciousness. A slow train with an unmentionable cargo coming around the bend. I mention it to Promise and ask her if she feels anything. Has she noticed anything strange since …… since ….. the box? She denies that she has but I can sense that she feels that something is out of kilter too. She seems unable to concentrate on the plot of the Nordic noir we are watching on Netflix. Several times she has to ask me who one of the regular characters is. She doesn’t seem to realise that the private detective has arranged the abduction of the protagonist’s wife so he will need his services to find her.

The air of menace does not go away. Consecutive disturbing dreams keep me on edge through the night. Shadow dances of the kind you can never quite remember but nevertheless leave you terrified. Dark landscapes in which you are alone and lost. Vehicles out of control. Chilling reminders that something is wrong. Again and again, I wake in a cold sweat.

I finally get up at seven thirty. Promise seems to have already left the house. Sometimes she has to start work early. As you can imagine, hours can be unpredictable in the dizzy world of doily design. She probably realised I was having a restless night and didn’t want to wake me. While I am waiting for the kettle to boil, I take a look outside the front door. To my alarm, there is another package on the doorstep, albeit this time a smaller one. This one is matt black. It too is addressed to Darius Spayne. I go to pick it up but it is so heavy I cannot lift it. Although it can’t be more than six inches by four, it refuses to budge. Even if the contents were solid lead or even tungsten, it should not be so heavy. Rhonda Valée from number 27 saunters by trilling an aria from La Boheme. I ask if she noticed a courier struggling up the path to deliver my new parcel. She calls back something but I think it is in Welsh. Chick Strangler jogs past and I mention it to him. Annex J, he says without stopping. I’ve no idea what he’s talking about but then Chick has been a bit strange since his accident.

As I can do little about the black box at the moment, I decide to go to work and try to put it all from my mind. Things will work out. They always do. The Little Book of Mindfulness that Promise keeps by the side of the bed says it’s a question of positive thinking. I select Captain Beefheart’s Greatest Hits on my device and set off in the Seat. Crippling headaches plague me through the day but I somehow manage to weather the storm and arrive home in one piece at the usual time. The matt black parcel is still on the step and Promise is not yet home. I sometimes forget how demanding the cut-throat world of doily design can be. The competition these days is intense. It’s no longer a question of selecting a symmetrical pattern and a suitable substrate. But, when Promise hasn’t returned home by six thirty and her phone is switched off, I’m thinking there must have been an unforeseen glitch at the studio.

The phone call asking to speak to Mr Spayne comes as a surprise, more so as it is on my mobile. Previous calls for the Spaynes have all been on the landline.

I’m sorry. This is not Mr Spayne’s number,’ I say.

Darius Spayne,’ the caller says, undeterred.

May I ask who is speaking?’ I say. I find it is always best to be polite at first. This offers options as to which way you wish the conversation can go. What I’m looking for from this particular caller, of course, is information about the Spaynes and hopefully the rogue deliveries. In this case, however, there are no options. The caller hangs up. They do not leave their number.

To distract myself while I am waiting for Promise, I do a little research on the internet. Spayne is a surprisingly common name. There are hundreds of them on the electoral register and although there are a few Darcys, Darrels and Darrens, there appears to be no-one named Darius Spayne. Nor is there a Rosalind Spayne. The pair do not appear to exist. So, what is going on?

I probably should have realised that the police don’t consider a person missing until they have been gone for seventy two hours. They will not even take details until then. Nor, Sergeant Ramsbottom tells me with an unwarranted air of impatience, do they deal with nuisance phone calls. It is with some reluctance that I decide to hire the services of Max Tooting, Private Investigator. But I feel that time is of the essence and Max comes recommended, not least by his flyer that comes through the door in the free paper which highlights Max’s astonishing success rate. I make an appointment to see him the following morning.

Although there is a black Jaguar XJ parked outside, I find Max Tooting’s offices are situated above a surgical appliance store. A little less salubrious than the flyer led me to believe. Tooting is a tall man, probably in his mid-fifties. He is dressed in a plaid suit that looks like it was made for a smaller man, perhaps a younger man. Unusual too, I can’t help thinking, to find a P.I. with blue hair. Max greets me warmly and shows me into a small room shielded from the outside world by a black roller blind. The room is lit by a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Hip-hop music is playing. Loudly. On a chunky wooden desk in front of us are a miscellany of desktop computers connected by a Spaghetti Junction of wires to a phalanx of peripherals. Max apologises for the mess and mentions something about this being a temporary location while he waits for his new premises to be decorated.

He sits me down amongst the clutter and clears a seat opposite. A lop-eared house rabbit nuzzles against his leg. He seems undeterred. I idly wonder what might happen if bunny chews through some of the cables.

Max turns the Jay-Z track down and begins to run through his fee structure. A little more expensive than the flyer led me to understand. He swallows a couple of Ibuprofen caps with a glass of water. At least, I think it’s water.

Bad back,’ he explains, straightening his posture. ‘Operation Desert Storm.’

Presumably, this was before he decided on the blue hair. I give him a brief low-down on my two issues. On the basis that it might be easier to solve, I then go into greater detail on the Darius Spayne phone calls and the bizarre deliveries.

H’mmm. Darius Spayne, you say,’ he says.

That’s S P A Y N E,’ I say.

Give me a moment,’ he says. ‘Let me just try something.’

He reaches over to one of the computers, keys in a search and in no time at all he has images of lots of different Darius Spaynes on the screen. Although his hardware looks to be old school, it clearly packs a punch.

How did you manage that?’ I say. ‘Google came up with nothing.’

This is what I do,’ he says. ‘I’m an investigator, remember. But, before we get carried away, there are fourteen of them and we don’t know which one it might be. It would be easier if there were just one.’

I suggest we leave this for now and move on. I elaborate on the heavy parcel on the doorstep.

Perhaps I should take a look,’ Max says. ‘Things are not always what they seem.’

I agree he should take a look, not least because it would be good to get some fresh air. It’s beginning to feel a little close in here.

We’ll go in your car, shall we?’ Max says.

OK,’ I say. ‘I’m parked around the corner in the High Street.’ Perhaps it is not his black Jaguar outside after all.

As we move off, Max takes a small dispenser compact out of his pocket and pops two purple pills. ‘Malaria,’ he explains. ‘East Africa.’

We arrive at the house and see the ominous black package is still there. I tell him how I imagine it must contain some kind of heavy metal, possibly even a dangerous one. One of those with a long name you can never remember when you are watching quiz shows. Yet, without flinching, Max is able to lift the black box. He hands it to me. Instinctively I flinch as he does so. I am expecting it to floor me but I find it is indeed light as a feather. I am completely unable to explain this turnaround. What magic has Mad Max managed to perform right here under my nose? I feel embarrassed. I put the parcel down and it blows down the street on the breeze.

Max repeats his maxim, ‘things are not always what they seem. ……. Now, tell me about this other matter.’

As I tell him about Promise not returning home from Dolly’s Doilies, he plays distractedly with his phone. I am beginning to wonder if he is actually listening to me when the device lights up and starts vibrating loudly.

Promise is nearby,’ he says. He hands me the phone. On the screen, I see a selection of pictures of Promise captured in a number of different locations, none of which I recognise. Each of the images has a date and time. The latest seems to be a mere two hours ago.

What’s happening?’ I say. ‘How did you get these?’

I’m an investigator, remember’ he says. ‘I’m paid to uncover things.’

But how…….?’

If I told people my trade secrets, I would be out of business,’ he says. ‘No-one would come to me.’

So what now?’ I say. ‘Where is Promise now?’

So I take it you want me to stay on the case,’ Max says, reminding me once more of his fee structure.

It suddenly occurs to me that there might have been a black Jaguar in the most if not all of the pictures of Promise. Maybe the same black Jaguar that was parked outside Max’s office. Also, perhaps earlier Stanislav Ruby had not said blackjack but black Jag. And Chick Strangler had not said Annex J but an XJ.

I can’t remember exactly who it was that said it but I remember someone important insisting that there is only one reality.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Twinned with Area 51

twinnedwitharea51

Twinned with Area 51 by Chris Green

Warchester – Twinned with Area 51, the sign said. This ought to have triggered alarm bells but it didn’t. Area 51 was just a remote place in the US that I had heard reference to in random conversations. At the time, I knew little about the clandestine goings-on there. Ignoring the yellow and black notices of some clandestine activity that took place behind a barbed wire fence, I drove on into the centre of the town. I was not planning to spend much time in Warchester. I was just using it as a stop-off so what could possibly go wrong?

Warchester seemed quieter than you might expect for a town of its size but I put the lack of people down to the heavy rain we had had earlier in the day. On the plus side, it meant I had no trouble parking the car close to a nice looking café called Dreamland. There was no signal to be had on my phone but this did not surprise me greatly. Coverage was not so comprehensive back then and my network had been having problems. As I ate my mid-morning breakfast, some soft jazz music played, Theolonius Monk or Bill Evans perhaps. A middle-aged couple on a nearby table discussed the previous night’s night’s episode of The X Files and across from me, a geeky man with blue glasses was doing the Guardian cryptic crossword. There was nothing I could consider out of the ordinary. It was not until I got outside and found that my car was no longer there that I got the feeling that things might not be going to plan.

……………………………………….

The bizarre conversation that was going on in Warchester police station did nothing to ease my concerns.

‘Where was it again that you said the craft landed, Mr Spayne?’ Sergeant Sargent was saying.

‘Up by the reservoir,’ the man in the cream windcheater raincoat in front of me at the desk told him. ‘I was out walking Trevor.’

‘And Trevor is your dog, I take it.’

‘No,’ Mr Spayne said ‘Trevor is my ferret. My dog is called Fenton. He’s a terrier. Fenton is a good name for a terrier, don’t you think? Much better than Fido or Rover. I used to have two dogs, Sergeant but sadly now I only have the one, Fenton.’

‘To save time, Mr Spayne, I won’t ask what your other dog was called,’ the Sergeant said.

‘Oh, that’s all right, Sergeant. I’m not in a hurry,’ Mr Spayne said. ‘My other dog was called Flynn. Flynn was a retriever. He died last ……. ‘

‘So let me get this right, Mr Spayne, you were out walking …. Trevor when you saw the little green men emerge from the landing craft.’

‘That’s right, Sergeant, except they weren’t little, they weren’t green and they weren’t men. More like big black blobs.’

‘Mr Spayne. I do appreciate that you may feel that you have witnessed something strange but I’m wondering if the police are the right people to deal with this particular matter,’ Sergeant Sargent said. ‘Is it your belief perhaps that these …… aliens have committed a crime?’

‘I was coming to that, Sergeant but you kept interrupting me,’ Mr Spayne said. ‘These black blobs tried to abduct Trevor. They were after my ferret. Abducting a ferret is a crime, is it not?’

I had been waiting a few minutes now and was anxious to talk to someone. ‘I have a real crime to report,’ I said.

Mr Spayne seemed equally keen to continue with his science fiction story. Landing craft. Big black blobs indeed. What a load of twaddle!

Eventually, Sergeant Sargent managed to placate Mr Spayne with the promise that he would look into the attempted ferret abduction and he left. I joked that perhaps Mr Spayne’s elevator didn’t go right to the top but he just shrugged. Maybe there were a lot of crazy people around those parts. I began to tell the Sergeant about my stolen car.

‘We don’t do any of that stuff here, he said. ‘Car theft is with a ……. private contractor. You could have phoned the details through to them.’

‘No phone signal,’ I told him.

‘Ah yes. That can be a problem around here. You may have noticed there are no phone shops. They don’t do seem to do very well in Warchester. Look. As you’ve been kept waiting, I’ll log your information into CarCrime’s page for you.’

I gave him the details and he keyed these in. Chat was minimal, but I did not feel particularly chatty anyhow.

CarCrime will be in touch,’ he said.

‘When do you think that might be?’ I asked.

‘Difficult to say,’ he said. ‘If you don’t hear from them by ……….’

Should I stay or should I go? I wondered. I didn’t think I wanted to be there. I couldn’t imagine for the life of me why the directions I was given had sent me this way in the first place. There must have been a more convenient place to break the journey, closer to the motorway. But what was done was done. I could have hired a car and been out of here in no time at all. But, I would have still had to return to Warchester when they found my car. I decided it was best to hang around until I heard something. I asked Sergeant Sargent about hotels. He told me he was not a travel agent but directed me to an establishment down the road.

……………………………………….

I found myself at the curiously named Paradise Ranch Hotel. The lobby, although large was theatrical like a 1920s black and white film set but disarmingly dark. A lugubrious man dressed formally in a long-tailed coat and a dress shirt greeted me. He was long and lean, perhaps six foot six tall and moved slowly. He had a dome-shaped forehead which served to emphasise both his age and his baldness. He stopped short of saying, ‘we’ve been expecting you.’ But as his deep voice echoed around the calignous space, his presence felt menacing in an occult kind of way. He handed me the key to Room 109 which he told me was on the third floor. The lift was ancient and instead of floor numbers on the four buttons, there were strange runic symbols. Another theatrical frill, surely. I assumed they must equate to Ground, First, Second and Third but still I hesitated a little before pressing the top one. As the lift ascended, I had a sense of foreboding. I couldn’t help but wonder why Room 109 was on the third floor.

Room 109 must have been the only hotel room I’d taken that had no window. As a result, it felt claustrophobic. An unpleasant aroma pervaded, organic, yet at the same time oddly metallic. To add to this, there was a disturbing background hum, a low pitched sound that appeared to be all around me. I remembered reading that our ears have trouble determining the direction low frequencies are coming from. This is why you can hear the bass from the Reggae DJ down the road from a long way off yet have no idea which house it’s coming from. I tried to get online but no luck. Nor was there a phone signal. How would I know when they had found my car? I needed to get down to some research about what went on in this town. I made my way down to the lobby to ask about it and to see if perhaps I could change rooms but the horror film character had disappeared, I rang the bell on the desk and waited around but no-one appeared.

How had I got myself into this odd situation? Why was all this happening? I had had plans for a fun weekend. I needed to take stock. My head was doing cartwheels. I really needed to get on the internet to find out more about Warchester. What, for instance, was it that went on at the place with the barbed wire fence that I had passed on the approach road? The one that I foolishly had taken no notice of. Was it a surveillance centre? Was it a research establishment? How could I get any information about it? There must be a library in town. They would have computers and they would be bound to have stacks of reference books, then this would all begin to make sense.

……………………………………….

I managed to find the library without too much trouble but it was boarded up. Closed Until Further Notice, said a sign. Cutbacks, I supposed. They were happening all over the country. But, why were the post boxes on the main street all sealed up and why were there no public phone booths? Everything about the town seemed wrong. I made my way back to Dreamland café. At least there were signs of normality here when I had dropped by earlier, although now I thought of it, the coffee had tasted a little bitter. Perhaps I was now looking for further anomalies and shouldn’t get too carried away. I could ask the proprietor what was going on.

Alas, I found that the shutters were down. Dreamland had closed for the day. Strange, it was only 1:30. Perhaps it was siesta time in Warchester. This may not have been the Mediterranean but everything else here seemed out of kilter. I considered asking a stranger on the street for information but looking around me there was no-one about I could ask. I’d only seen three or four people since I’d left the hotel and each of these had looked a little creepy. One or two shops had sign-writing in a strange alphabet but these too seemed to be closed. No Conspiracy Theorists Here read a notice in the window of a Cancer Research charity shop. At least it was open. I was about to go in to look around when I was accosted by two sturdy police officers. This pair were altogether different to Sergeant Sargent. They were dressed in urban camouflage gear and they had guns.

‘Get your ass over there!’ ordered the one with the gallery of face tattoos.

There was really no need as the one with the shaved head and the funky badge on his tunic, brandishing the handcuffs was already escorting me by the collar in the direction of the armoured vehicle parked on the corner. I was terrified but also baffled. If they had wanted to pick me up so badly, why hadn’t they done so when I arrived in Warchester or at the police station when I had gone in to report my stolen car? If they wanted me out of the way, why had they taken my car? I would have been long gone by now.

The one with the face tattoos tied my hands behind my back and blindfolded me. They uttered a few more threats and threw me into the vehicle. In the short journey that followed, I tried to retrace my steps since I arrived in Warchester. To see if anything fell into place. I had noticed very little as I was driving in. I had had no reason to. I was not aiming to be in Warchester very long. The first thing I could remember was the sign. Twinned with Area 51, it had said. Hadn’t I once half-watched a television programme about it on Channel 4? There had been something about the Moon landings having been filmed in Area 51. And, hadn’t an alien spacecraft landed nearby? Weren’t they reported to have captured the aliens? I seemed to remember some excited geeks in woolly hats banging on about all the things that were kept hidden from them. But this was all I can dredge up from the depths. I’d never been good with documentaries. Short attention span.

……………………………………….

We arrived at our destination and I was roughly bundled up some steps and into a building and taken up in a screaky stop-start lift. Because of the blindfold, I could not be sure but I was pushed into what felt like a dark room. I could smell the same disconcerting aromas that I had been able to in the hotel earlier. Might this be the same hotel, I wondered? Might this be Room 109 again?

‘Why don’t you tell me who you are?’ I spluttered.

No response.

‘What have I supposed to have done.’

No response. These paramilitary cops did not seem to engage much in conversation.

‘Why don’t you tell me why I’m here?’ I continued.

There was a lot of shuffling around as if they were rearranging furniture or something. And then they were gone. The door closed behind them.

‘Just tell me what it is you want from me,’ I shouted after them.

‘You might as well save your breath,’ said a voice from behind me. A soft female voice.

‘What? …… Who?’

‘I kicked off a bit when they first left me here,’ she continued. ‘No-one came. ……… And before you ask, I don’t know why they’ve brought me here either. I only came to Warchester because I was told there was a Farfetch designer outlet here.’

‘And I’m guessing there isn’t,’ I said.

‘No bloody shops at all, are there?’ she said. ‘Unless you count that joke shop.’

‘Joke shop?’ I said.

‘The one that sells the quicksand and the chocolate teapots,’ she said.

Was this going to be another of those surreal exchanges that ended up going nowhere, I wondered. But, thankfully things quickly moved on. While we were both bound and blindfolded, we worked out that with a little effort and ingenuity, we would be able to free one another. As we were doing so, realisation began to take hold. This was all part of the plan.

‘I’m Maddie,’ she said, meeting my gaze. A powerful surge of electricity seemed to pass between us.

‘I’m Jon,’ I said. ‘Jon Straight.’

‘Right, Jon,’ she said. ‘I don’t imagine you’ve been bending spoons or have walked through any walls lately. So, any teeny weeny suspicion about why you might be here? ‘

‘Same reason as you, I’m hoping,’ I said.

Arguably circumstances played their part but I was instantly taken by Maddie’s breezy personality. I was surprised that you could actually buy floral dungarees like the ones she was wearing but she was certainly attractive.

……………………………………….

‘So that’s how the two of you met,’ Simon says. ‘Cool.’

‘Yes. son. The Mystery Adventure Weekend Dating Service. Although, neither of us expected that the adventure part would be so ……. surreal. We thought it might involve a little orienteering or white water rafting or something. We certainly didn’t expect to be spending the time in a nightmare place like Warchester. I still don’t know how they did that. It’s not on the map, you know?’

‘Oh well,’ Simon says. ‘You can’t have everything. But, do you know what? I think Mum’s still got those floral dungarees.’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

 

THE END

theend2

The End by Chris Green

At first, the sound is little more than an intermittent background hum. I put this down to tinnitus. But, the hum does not go away. Over a period of a few days, it becomes more pervasive. Eventually, it is a permanent drone. On her return from her counselling conference up country, my partner, Nisha tells me she can hear it too. What can be causing it, we wonder. The fridge freezer perhaps? An electrical overload? An alarm from an outbuilding? …… It is none of these.

What about Charlie’s radio transmitter?’ Nisha says. ‘That’s not far away.’

Charlie’s ….. uh, shed was the first thing I thought of,’ I say. ‘But there’s nothing at all coming from there. I’ve been round a couple of times. Charlie seems to be away on holiday.’

We live in a detached house in a quiet rural area so we conclude it cannot be noise from a building site and it is too loud to be from distant traffic.

I discover that others are hearing it too. Mrs Oosterhuis in the cottage down the road says it is upsetting her Mikey. Mikey is her Jack Russell. Bill and Gill who live at The Old Rectory say it keeps them awake at night and Ron and Anne at Rose Nook say they have taken to wearing earplugs. The animals at the nearby Rescue Centre are behaving strangely too, the dogs especially. It’s not just Mikey who has taken to yelping and whimpering. Animals sense something is wrong. Mr Chislett in the newsagents says the humming sounds like a swarm of bees. A plague of locusts suggests the lady in front of me buying her equestrian magazine. She tells us about her experience in Egypt in the eighties. We debate as to whether the hum has a constant frequency or whether it oscillates. I tell it sounds like the E chord at the end of A Day in the Life played at full volume and without the fadeout. The pair look at me blankly. Whatever its pitch might be, we agree it is getting louder. When I go in to pick up my prescription at the surgery, the customers waiting in the reception area are talking about the hum, describing it variously as a buzz, a thrum, a rumble. The pharmacist says that some folk have taken to wearing industrial ear defenders when they go out. He tries to sell me a pair.

Everyone now seems to be hearing it but no-one knows what it is. There is nothing on the news about it and nothing in the papers, just the usual blather about indiscreet arms deals, political brinkmanship and celebrity indiscretions. Why is it not being reported? Someone must know what is causing it. I trawl through the conspiracy theory sites online. I feel there is bound to be something there like there is with weather manipulation or chemtrails. Even if it’s just an unsubstantiated theory, someone will have come up with an idea about what is going on. But to my astonishment, there appears to be nothing, not even the token suggestion by a sci-fi fan that it might be a big black monolith beaming a signal to mankind. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might think that people had been posting prolifically but the posts had been systematically taken down.

Try not to become neurotic about it,’ Nisha keeps telling me. ‘It will probably disappear just as unexpectedly as it started.’

I think she is wrong. I have a sense of foreboding about it but I know what she will say if I share this thought with her.

I decide to go to see my friend, Vic on his houseboat. Vic often knows about things that are going on that others don’t. He is a mine of information, a veritable WikiLeaks. But this time even Vic is flummoxed. He too is concerned about the background drone. He says he has taken to playing Pearl Jam and Queens of the Stone Age to drown it out. But he tells me he has not been able to come up with anything about its source, perhaps it’s an invisible alien landing craft hovering in the sky waiting for the right moment to invade.

Aura in the New Age shop that has opened in the village says each of the planets has its own vibration. She demonstrates the different frequencies with a series of cosmic tuning forks. Each fork, she explains, tones to the precise frequencies of each planet’s orbit around the Sun. None of them, however, match the hum. Perhaps the orbit of our celestial body is slowing down, she says. Ravi, the leg spinner in the Lower Dickley cricket team says at first he wondered if it might be a universal Om, but Om has a positive vibration whereas the sound we can hear has no such qualities. If everyone can hear it, it could be a force for unity, says Interfaith minister, Desmond Haynes. I think he’s clutching at straws. It’s more likely to be confirmation that things are falling apart. Look at the state of the world. Where is the contentment?

…………………………

My phone’s gone dead,’ Nisha says. ‘Right in the middle of my call to Astrid.’

It probably needs charging,’ I say. Technology seems to have it in for Nisha. She constantly experiences these kinds of difficulties. Last week it was the timer on her tablet, before that a virus on the cooker. Perhaps it was the other way around although she manages to lock her car keys in the car even though it should be impossible. It’s a good thing she has someone around to fix these things.

I’ve just charged the damn thing,’ she says, thrusting the Samsung at me. ‘Not ten minutes ago.’

You’d better try the landline,’ I say. No-one I know seems to use a proper phone these days. I wonder why we still pay for the service.

A few seconds later Nisha reports back that the landline is dead too. As if somehow it’s my fault.

That’s a bugger,’ I say, worried that the day might now take a turn for the worse. ‘I’d better go online to see if there is any information about a fault.’

As I say it, I realise that there is not going to be any internet either. The lights on the router are flashing red. I try for about twenty minutes but it will not reboot.

Next door, Mrs Oosterhuis has no phone or internet either. Nor do Ron and Anne. Our daughter, Lucy comes around in a panic to see if our TV or internet are working. Hers are not.

Everything seems to be down around our way, internet, phones, TV, the lot’ she says. ‘And it’s chaos on the roads too. None of the traffic lights are working and no-one knows who has the right of way. And there’s been a massive pile-up at the Jim Morrison roundabout.’

Predictably our TV isn’t working, nor the radio. Just static on both. The omnipresent hum though seems to be louder. The cups on the kitchen work surface are beginning to vibrate. It’s as if the source is getting closer.

What do you think it is, Dad?’ Lucy asks.

No-one seems to have any idea what’s causing it,’ I say.

I’m scared, Dad. It’s all a bit Black Mirror, except it’s for real.’

Seeing my puzzled look, Lucy explains that Black Mirror is a satirical sci-fi series.

Staying put and doing nothing doesn’t seem to be an option. Out here in the sticks, we feel isolated. We need to find out what is going on. The only way to see how far the communication outage has spread and maybe find out what is behind it would be to go to Chesterbridge, the nearest large town. This is thirty miles north. We set off in the Range Rover. As expected, the car radio is full of static but as we make our way along the road the ubiquitous hum strengthens. There is very little traffic on the road, just the odd military vehicle from the base at Edgemoor.

It’s the middle of the afternoon,’ I say. ‘What the fuck has happened to everyone?’

It certainly wasn’t like this coming from Milton Sodbury just now,’ Lucy says. ‘Hence the pile-up at the roundabout.’

Milton Sodbury is a small town to the south. The traffic chaos that Lucy encountered coming from Milton Sodbury will be down to the failure of computer systems, running traffic lights, satnavs and other tech devices. So why the absence of traffic on the road to Chesterbridge? It’s an A road. There seems no logic. As we drive on in watchful silence, we see that vehicles have been abandoned by the side of the road. Every hundred yards or so there’s an abandoned set of wheels, a car, a van, a lorry ……

Ought we to be heading this way?’ Nisha says, finally. ‘I don’t like it one bit.’

I don’t like it much either,’ I say ‘But we’ve got to do something.’

That was a dead bear we just passed,’ Lucy says.

Common sense suggests we should not be doing this. Everything about the journey seems portentous. It is getting noticeably colder now and although it is only two o’clock, it is already getting dark. The phrase, devil and the deep blue sea, springs to mind.

Let’s turn back,’ Nisha says, as we pass an overturned motorhome.

The hum was one thing. Once you established that there was a perpetual hum, you could learn to live with that as a norm but this is getting weirder and weirder. We don’t know what to expect next. What manner of devastation is taking place?

Look up there!’ Lucy screams, suddenly.

It takes me a little while to realise that it is a plane falling out of the sky. I can’t imagine what else I think it might be. Clearly, it’s much too large to be a bird, it’s the size of a Boeing aircraft, for Heaven’s sake. But here it is plummeting rapidly on a trajectory to a spot the other side of Brickley Hill. It’s going to crash. Hundreds of people will be aboard and they will die. They will probably be screaming.

My mind is a blur. I can’t remember the exact chain of events but I am no longer in the Range Rover driving to Chesterbridge. My narrative has moved on. I am now in…. I am in…… Where am I? I realise I am alone. Where are my ……. my family…..Where are the people in my…… in my stor……. my….….stery…. mystery? A deathly silence pervades the ravaged landscape. The hum has ……. stopped. There is no hum. I’m not sure if it’s the future or the past. But, it can’t be either. It must always be now. I just can’t put it all together at the moment. It feels like a kind of limbo. What has happened to the hum? Perhaps Desmond Haynes was right and the hum was the very thing that was holding the familiar world together.

The landscape behind me seems to be disappearing as if someone is rolling up a carpet. Amongst the devastation before me, a black crow is calling. A harbinger of doom? Up ahead in the distance is a large ramshackle structure, a depository of some kind perhaps. There is nowhere else to go. So, with a degree of trepidation, I approach the derelict building.

You are not going to like it in there, old man,’ says a gangly figure in torn black clothes. He has one eye missing and a shock of jet black hair hanging down one side of his pale face. He seems completely out of context.

Why?’ I ask.

I am just telling you that you will not like it,’ he says. I look him up and down. His form seems insubstantial, his features other-worldly, ethereal. Reason and logic seem to have broken down. What is this place?

But, there is nowhere else to go,’ I say. ‘Nowhere! Look around!’

Exactly!’ he says. ‘You’ve hit the nail on the head, old man. There is nowhere else to go and there’s no going back, is there? This, my friend, is it.’

What do you mean? Who are you?’

Questions, questions. There’s no time for questions, old man.’

Where are Nisha and Lucy?’

Your wife and daughter will have gone to another ……. terminal.’

What is in there? What is in this …… terminal?’

Nothing!’

Nothing?’

Emptiness. A void. Non-existence.’

You mean……’

Yes, old man. Your time has come. This is The End.’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved