Tequila Mockingbird

tequilamockingbird

Tequila Mockingbird by Chris Green

When Max turned out the light last night, he assumed he would wake up in the morning, pull back the chintz curtains to let in a little light and listen for a few moments to the birds singing in the back garden. Apart from a small corner in front of the greenhouse where the turf was recently lain, the lawn would look in pretty good shape. He would feel proud about the work he had put in over the winter months. He would tell Cheryl that she had another twenty minutes in bed and that he would bring her a cup of Earl Grey before he left for work. She would turn over and pretend to go back to sleep.

Max would then have a shower and a shave and make his way downstairs for his bowl of Honey Nut Clusters in front of the BBC News. Through overexposure to this daily doom and gloom, the impact of the news stories would be slight. He would wait for the weather report before leaving to catch the 7:45 train which would be 13 minutes late. He would pick up a copy of the Metro, check to see if Leyton Orient had won their evening fixture and try to avoid conversation with the other passengers, each entrenched in their own private universe, while the train made its way slowly along the familiar route westwards through the sad suburban sprawl to London Bridge.

Expectations, of course, can sometimes turn out to be unrealistic. The first thing Max notices when he pulls back the curtains is that the birds are not singing in the back garden. There are no birds. More critically, there is no back garden. Instead, where the raised beds and the greenhouse at the bottom of the garden ought to be, there stands a row of ramshackle mud huts. They look like remnants of a civilisation in a poor Central American country where they build out of adobe. He stares aghast at what he sees, rubs his eyes and tries to think of a plausible explanation. None comes to mind. He turns to wake Cheryl. Cheryl is not there. He shouts downstairs. There is no response.

Max concludes she must have already got up and gone out. This is unprecedented; Cheryl does not start work until nine thirty and likes her lie-ins. Anyway, surely he would have heard her in the bathroom. He toys with the idea that he might be in the wrong house, that something irregular has happened, something he cannot remember. He goes to the landing. The gaudily patterned purple stair carpet that Cheryl persuaded him was modish confirms that he is at home. Cheryl has curious tastes, favouring bright colours while he himself prefers muted, more subtle shades.

He’s at home, Cheryl is not, the garden has been built on. He feels a rising panic about what might have happened. Whatever it is, he needs to face up to it. His therapist, Otto frequently tells him that his reluctance to acknowledge a problem and surmount it are among his principal weaknesses. Otto says action is needed to affect any given situation. With Otto’s words ringing in his ear, Max goes downstairs. A glance around seems to show that, apart from Cheryl, home comforts are still in place. The big OLED TV is still there along with the red leather settee and the John Lewis bookcase with its modest library of modern fiction. The drinks cabinet seems to be fully stocked with the crystal decanters that have, since he moderated his intake, fallen into disuse. His prized original photograph of the 1966 England World Cup winning team, a gift to him from Sir Geoff when he worked in PR, still hangs on the wall.

He checks the kitchen. This seems to be pretty much as he remembers it. Lots of pans and kitchen gadgets, blenders, mixers and a sink full of dishes. There are, however, no Honey Nut Clusters in the larder. He reasons Cheryl must have finished them off and put the box in the recycling bin before she went out. Unusual though because Cheryl favours Fruit ‘n’ Fibre and he notices there are still three full packets.

Determined not to be phased by the unfolding mystery, Max sits down with a bowl of Fruit ‘n’ Fibre and goes to turn on the news. In the face of adversity, routine is important. The TV though has no sound or picture. The light indicating that the TV is not in standby is displaying, but none of the channel numbers he keys in brings any response. He checks the aerial, pulls the plugs out of the wall, twice, finally gives the set a clout with his fist. Nothing. He tries the phone. No dialling tone. His mobile. No signal. The laptop. No broadband connection.

‘Obstacles are there to be overcome,’ Otto is fond of telling him when he is being obstinately negative about a setback. ‘If you do everything in the right order and keep the momentum going,’ Otto says, ‘things should turn out right.’ With this in mind, Max sets off purposefully for work. He finds himself at the station just in time to catch the 7:45 which, unusually, seems to be on time. He is also able to grab a window seat. He notices several passengers in his carriage are talking on their mobile phones, so he gives his another look. Still no signal. To distract himself, he picks up a copy of The Metro. He sees Leyton Orient lost 5 -0 at home to Crawley Town and now are at the foot of the table and relegation is now looking very likely. Crawley’s new striker, Jesús Zapata scored a hat-trick.

As the train pulls out of Dartford, Max’s thoughts turn once more to the appearance of the adobe huts at the bottom of the garden. While there might be rational explanations for all of the other anomalies, this is the hardest to explain. The birds in the garden might just have gone to another garden to offer their serenade. Perhaps he hasn’t filled the feeders lately. The remote control for the television might need new batteries. This was something he didn’t check. His mobile phone probably simply packed up. It was a cheap one. But how could a row of gardens disappear wholesale and a row of mud huts just appear in their place overnight?

He does not want to think it but Cheryl might have simply left him. He would be devastated but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility. They have had a few disagreements of late, in fact, they had a little contretemps the previous evening. Cheryl suggested they might go to the retail park at the weekend to look for some new parquet flooring for the study. Cheryl’s brother, Bro had told her he would be able to lay it. Bro lived in Staines, a two hour drive away. This meant that he would probably want to stay for the duration and probably expect to smoke that awful smelling stuff he smoked. Max told her, perhaps a little forcefully, that he was not keen on the suggestion. After a little wrangling, they agreed to postpone Bro’s visit and perhaps look for some new curtains for the spare room instead. They had then settled for the night. Max read twenty eight pages of the latest Harlan Coben thriller and Cheryl read twenty four pages of her Jodi Picoult. They had a brief exchange of views on caravans, hydrangeas, and soap, then lights out. All was well, Max felt. But perhaps he had been mistaken. Perhaps all was not well. Perhaps Cheryl was still mad at him for his petulant reaction to her parquet flooring plan.

‘Twenty years of marriage is never without its ups and downs,’ Otto has made a habit of telling him. ‘Let her believe that she is the one making the decisions.’

Flawed reasoning, Max now thinks. Cheryl seems to be using this tactic on him.

He notices that the usual array of familiar faces seem to be absent from the train this morning. But, there again, it is possible that some of them might have missed the 7:45 because for once it was actually on time. But, today’s passengers do not conform to the profile of commuters he has become accustomed to. There are a disproportionate amount of flamboyant Hispanics on the train. And to his alarm, more of them get on at Belvedere and again at Abbey Wood. He does his best to tell himself that a few more Latinos than usual on a crowded train hardly constitutes an invasion, and may not have any connection at all with the adobe mud huts in the back garden. Perhaps the babble of Spanish has been a consistent feature on this line but he has not noticed it before. One can become desensitised to many things that form the background to daily life. Like the traffic furniture you pass every day on every street: you don’t notice it, but you probably would notice if it weren’t there.

Max is still gathering his thoughts when his train slows down and comes to an unscheduled stop just outside Plumstead. A train travelling in the opposite direction slowly comes into view. Max gazes out of the window as the carriages pass by. To his horror, he sees that in the second or third carriage, in the corresponding window seat, there is Cheryl, large as life, in her emerald green Crombie. She is talking to three sturdy figures in sombreros. He bangs on the window, but in the second or two that she is visible, finds himself unable to attract her attention, although his actions do attract the attention of his fellow passengers. A grey man dressed in a blue pinstripe business suit makes a motion to summon the guard. A man in his late forties with a fifties haircut grabs his arm. A nurse with a name badge bearing a formidably long name makes comforting gestures with her hands. A swarthy figure in a poncho looks at him menacingly.

‘It’s my wife,’ Max yells to all but no one in particular. ‘she’s on the other train.’

‘Pull yourself together,’ says the grey man in the blue pinstripe.

‘You a loony or something?’ says the man with the fifties haircut.

‘Take deep breaths,’ says the nurse with the badge.

No sabes lo que está pasando, ¿verdad?‘ says the swarthy figure in the poncho.

‘And they’ve built adobe shacks in my back garden,’ screams Max.

‘Get a grip,’ says the blue pinstripe.

‘Give him a slap,’ says the fifties haircut.

‘Imagine a sunset,’ says Nurse Zwangendaba.

Te preocupa que tu esposa tenga un romance,‘ says the poncho.

‘You’re off at the next station,’ says a massive guard, grabbing him by the lapel. Isn’t Hernandez a Spanish name, Max wonders as he is heaved against the window? Hernandez has a scar like a zip across his forehead and a remarkable big black droopy moustache. His build and his grip suggest that he might come from a long line of club bouncers.

On the platform of Woolwich Arsenal station where he finds himself, Max makes the decision to take a train back home. Cheryl will have been making her way back home on the other train when he glimpsed her. Perhaps she took the day off work and went out early to buy the new curtains from somewhere up West.

The revolving display on the platform notifies him that the next train is due in seven minutes. Max has never stopped off at Woolwich Arsenal before. The station he notices is of a pleasant design in steel and glass. But despite this, isn’t it a little Spanish looking? On the opposite platform, he can see a refreshment facility, its large illuminated advertising space given over exclusively to chilli, tortillas, and burritos. A poster for Cerveza Dos Equis has the caption, ‘Happy Hour is the hour after everyone from Happy Hour has left’. There is also an advert for Tequila Mockingbird. What on earth is that, he wonders?

Max takes out his phone once again to phone the office to say that he will not be coming in. He is sure that Roy Neptune will understand. Ted Drinker is always taking time off with his marital problems. Still no signal.

Along his platform beside a poster advertising a bullfight at the Plaza de Toros, a group of men dressed in dark charro suits begin to belt out a spirited Mariachi tune on guitars and a trumpet. It sounds to Max like La Bamba but could be some other upbeat Mexican song. ‘Construimos chozas de barro en su jardín,’ they seem to be singing. Something about a garden maybe. Max’s Spanish is not good.

The train duly arrives and Max jumps on. He finds a seat and begins to take deep breaths, hoping this will calm him. He tries to visualise a mountain stream, a still lake, a white temple. His efforts bring him no solace. Instead, his consciousness teems with menacing images of adobe mud huts. His discomfort grows as once again the carriage seems to fill up with Hispanics at Abbey Wood and Belvedere and he finds himself peppered with swift snatches of Spanish being barked into iPhones and Blackberrys. He feels as if all the air is being sucked out of the carriage and has difficulty breathing.

To his further distress, the train makes several unscheduled stops either side of Plumstead, and by the time he reaches Dartford, Max is desperate. He feels dizzy and is sweating profusely. He stumbles from the carriage, leaving a clutch of boarding passengers reeling in his wake. He badly needs some element of normality to reassure him. He must find out if Cheryl is back home. He frantically tries all of the phone booths at the station one by one, but each one has been vandalised. Dartford station has become lawless. A band of vaqueros is now raising the Mexican flag near the ticket office.

He spots a trainspotter alone at the end of the platform. He has noticed him taking down numbers on several previous occasions at the station. The fellow, who bears a passing resemblance to Jon Sergeant with an earring and a few days growth is now keying something into his mobile phone. Probably this is his new way of taking down train numbers, a digital version of Ian Allan.

Max summons up his courage and approaches him and asks if he can borrow the phone. It is an emergency, he says. The trainspotter, whose name Max discovers is Norman, clearly does not get a lot of company and seems pleased to have someone to talk to. Norman begins to regale Max with random information about Dartford station. Did Max know for instance that the original station building had an Italianate design? That the station is unique because, despite its location outside Greater London, London residents with Freedom Passes (but not regular Oyster Cards) can travel to and from the station. Or that this station is where Mick Jagger and Keith Richards bumped into each other by chance, an event that resulted in the formation of Rolling Stones.

Eventually, the information dries up and when Max prompts him again Norman hands him the phone. Max dials the home number and when there is no reply, Cheryl’s mobile number. No reply here either. It goes to Voicemail and Max leaves an incoherent message which would probably puzzle even GCHQ. It certainly seems to puzzle Norman, who in case anyone is watching is now making loony gestures with his index finger to his forehead. The only other number Max knows off the top of his head is Otto’s, so he dials this. He does so now without much hope as Otto has wall to wall appointments most days, but at least, he will be able to leave a message with his receptionist, Heidi. To his amazement, Otto himself answers.

Max outlines his predicament, his description of the day’s events delivered in an unpunctuated Joycean stream of consciousness.

‘Slow down,’ says Otto. ‘Just tell me step by step.’

Max explained about the adobe huts.

‘Uh hu,’ said Otto.

And Cheryl’s disappearance.

‘Uh hu.’

Max listens patiently as Max tells him about passing Cheryl in the train on the way to work, about the Mexicans on the train, the Mariachi band at Woolwich Arsenal and the vaqueros raising the Mexican flag.

‘We’ve been over all this before,’ says Otto finally. ‘You remember a week or two ago you came in when the Granaderos were outside your house and the Bank of Mexico cancelled your credit card. I diagnosed it then as ‘Brief Psychotic Disorder Without Obvious Stressor.’ I told you to look it up on the internet and you said you would. You have been taking your medication haven’t you?’

Max makes a grunt. He has not as it happens.

Otto tries another tack.

‘These are delusions brought on by irrational stress about a hypothetical event,’ he continues. ‘I realise that you’ve become anxious about The World Cup. But it doesn’t start for another month. And even if both teams get through the first stages, England aren’t scheduled to play Mexico until the semi-finals. It’s not a sentiment that in my professional capacity I often espouse but you’re going to have to get a grip. It’s only football, after all.’

‘Its only football,’ Max repeats. ‘It’s only football. And England might not even play Mexico….. So you don’t think that any of this happened?’

‘No,’ says Otto. Well, obviously, I can’t be certain about Cheryl. She has been rather, how can I put it, patient, through your little episodes, but I think you’ll find that there has not been a Mexican takeover and that when you get home that there will be no adobe huts in the back garden.’

‘So you think Cheryl may have left me,’ says Max leaping at once on the negative part of Otto’s remark.

‘No, of course not,’ says Otto. ‘But you need to acknowledge that your delusional states do put her under a lot of pressure sometimes. You have to start to appreciate that.’

‘So none of this happened and the World Cup isn’t for another month and England probably won’t even have to play Mexico,’ says Max.

‘That’s right,’ says Otto. He is about to add that Max should be more worried about England having to play Brazil or Germany, but he feels this would only add fuel to the fire.

‘You have to stop thinking about football,’ he says, instead. ‘Anyway, Max, it will be the cricket season soon.’

Max notices that the vaqueros have disappeared and the union flag is once more aloft, fluttering gently in the breeze. He thanks Otto, and Otto reminds him of his appointment on Friday. Feeling his burden had been lifted, he hands the phone back to the confused trainspotter and, not thinking about football, he makes his way along the Latino-free platform. There are nineteen missed calls on his mobile phone. He texts Cheryl to say that he was on his way home.

From the station, it was just a short walk. It is a warm day and the birds are singing. There is not a cloud in the sky. Wait. Is there just one tiny little cloud on the horizon? Is it coming this way? Max thinks it might be. It will be the cricket season soon, Otto said. The cricket season soon.

When he arrives home, to his alarm he finds a line of dusky women dressed in bright saris in the hallway, weaving a colourful piece of silk fabric on a giant loom. He cannot even get in the front door. He wonders how long it is until first Test Match starts. He can‘t remember when England last beat India at Trent Bridge.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

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Weatherman

weatherman

Weatherman by Chris Green

I shouldn’t be writing this. The organisation I work for is very conscious about security. And rightly so, when you consider that we control the weather. Security is so tight that I don’t know who runs WeatherCorp. I was head-hunted online by them through an anonymous encrypted email. They had heard about my skills and felt they could use them. Initially, I did some research to try to find out who might be behind it and discovered that both the Americans and the Russians had weather manipulation projects on the go but curiously it was the Swiss who were the most advanced in the field. This in a way made sense as their tourist industry would collapse without snow. I decided that all things considered it probably didn’t matter who I was working for so long as they were able to use my skills for the greater good.

As it is risky to share sensitive information over the internet, I get my instructions through the Wessex Examiner. Normally these appear on Page 9 or Page 10. They are, of course, coded, buried in the body of random news stories. Occasionally, the instructions appear in a story on one of the earlier pages of the newspaper and once or twice I’ve even found them hidden in a cryptic crossword clue. In these days of cybercrime, our organisation needs to be prudent in case they should fall into the hands of unintended recipients. If the wrong people should stumble upon the messages and work out what is really going on, we would be in trouble.

The tools of my trade include a meteorological wand, an industrial atomiser and a bespoke selection of powerful projectiles. I also have access to a wide range of medicinal compounds. With these, I am able to get most jobs done. I can redirect the clouds, produce scattered showers, bring in a cold front or create a pressure drop to create localised flooding or conjure up tidal winds. Chances are, without realising it, you have at some time or other been a victim of one of my atmospheric disturbances.

I look through today’s copy of the Examiner. I am principally on the lookout for typos. These are not really typos, of course. The errors are put in there deliberately. Ah! Here we are! On Page 9. In the story about hospital closures. They have spelt casualty as causality. And here on page 10, a missing letter, explosion spelt as exposion. I’m not sure but I think this means I may have to use more than my meteorological wand. I may have to cause an explosion which produces gale force winds to disrupt an as yet unnamed event. I will have to wait until tomorrow’s paper to find out where and when I have to do this. But this is more exciting than just having to stir up a squally shower or bring in a cold front. This is proper weather.

WeatherCorp has no explicit political agenda but as disruption is one of the main aims of the programme, I sometimes detect a little bias creeping in. On the whole, though, I like to think that a balance is achieved with the work that I do. It’s not all derangement and insurrection. Sometimes I have to bring about sunshine in order to facilitate a life-affirming experience, a charity fête or a chocolate festival. Occasionally, things do not go according to plan. I might accidentally bring about a thunderous downpour for an open air concert instead of the required blanket sunshine or a warm clear night for an inner-city riot. Experimental technology is never perfect.

My psychiatrist, Malachi McCool doesn’t understand. He thinks I’m crazy but what does he know? Only last week he was telling me about the freak storm he was caught in on the way to his kickboxing class, the same storm that I helped to arrange to delay the take-off of the politician’s plane. I rest my case.

‘Why do you think you have been chosen for the weather manipulation programme, Kenny?’ he is fond of asking me. He hopes that if he discourages me enough I will give up my role but then where would we be?

‘It’s obvious, isn’t it?’ I tell him. ‘It’s because I have the rare capability and focus necessary for such vital work. Only a handful of people are able to do what I do, you realise. We’ve been hand-picked.’

‘What about your colleagues in this secret organisation?’ he asks. ‘You have met the others at WeatherCorp, I take it.’ Is this his way of casting doubt on the process? Or is he suggesting that we cannot be trusted with such an important job as manipulating the weather? It’s hard to know with Malachi. He has a habit of playing mind games.

‘In the interests of security,’ I say. ‘I haven’t met the others. But I’m certain that they are just as focussed as me. We can all be trusted with the great responsibility that rests on our shoulders. After all, there’s a lot at stake.’

Sometimes I question why I am seeing Malachi McCool. It’s not as if there’s anything greatly wrong with me. I began seeing him after Cazz moved out of our narrowboat last year. I was distraught. Even the strongest people sometimes need support. At least, that’s what Malachi’s advert said, so I gave him a call and although he seemed to be in a bit of a dither, he said to come along. Cazz didn’t seem to be able to grasp the importance of my work. She said it was selfish that I had the TV tuned to the new weather channel twenty four seven. Not even true. JustWeather goes off the air at 10 pm. Listening to the Shipping Forecast was also vital and I couldn’t help it that it was on at the same time as Home and Away. I can’t imagine why she wanted to watch that rubbish anyway. She said I ignored her for days on end, but I often used to take her out. We went to the Meteorological Office once and the Science Museum. She said we argued constantly. Admittedly, I did occasionally shout at her if she hung the washing too close to the anemometer on deck but I felt we got along fine most of the time.

Malachi disapproves of my use of cannabis. He feels it makes me paranoid. He keeps pushing this idea that I might be suffering from deep trauma brought about by a disappointment, or some such. He says that while I am basically honest, there is a deep-rooted desire to be deceitful. He feels that I have developed selective memory to repress some unpleasant truths. In order to bury events from the past, he says, I have become a fantasist. To be honest, I can’t remember what I might have said to him from one session to the next. Memory is not my strongest suit.

While he is out of the room, ostensibly taking a call from his darts coach, Alessandro, I discover a little red notebook on his desk and pocket it. It’s not a report, exactly. It’s too flowery for a report. It’s as if he’s writing a short story. I find I’m automatically looking for a typo as if I’m reading the Wessex Examiner. As I read it, parts of what he’s written seem oddly familiar. In fact, I distinctly remember some of it. It’s eerie. He’s writing about me. All he has done is changed my name.

………………………………………………….

Kenny Cope wasn’t in the habit of lying but when he met Renée, all this went out the window. Somehow, Kenny could not help himself. He told Renée he was single when in fact he was married, albeit not living with his wife, Wendy. That he was married might not have mattered had he not found himself so smitten with Renée that on their second date, he proposed to her. Renée, herself also smitten, accepted. Never one to let the grass grow under his feet, Kenny ignored the obvious danger and went straight ahead and arranged the wedding. None of the carefully selected guests at the ceremony knew of any just cause why he and Renée should not be joined.

Kenny’s deceit might not have come to light so easily had he not been a public figure. Kenny was a TV weatherman and a household name, a personality much loved up and down the country for his genial manner and straightforward approach to weather presentation. So, when the shit hit the fan, it spread more widely. Although there were plenty of people willing to stand up in court to give him a character reference, Kenny was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment for Bigamy. The tabloids went to town on him. Bringing down a public figure is pretty much their raison d’être. Not content with the bigamy scandal, they delved into his private life and came up with evidence of his recreational drug use, credit card fraud and tax evasion.

Prison loves to humiliate a disgraced public figure and Kenny Cope was no exception. The inmates of Belmarsh belittled him mercilessly. He was only able to get through the day to day by taking more and more of the vast array of drugs that, thanks to drone drops, were freely available in Belmarsh. Meanwhile, his family were hounded by the press and he received no visits during his stay. His months behind bars slowly began to take their toll. Kenny Cope couldnae cope, as they say, north of the border, he was a broken man.

On release, he found himself with two fewer wives and a colossal solicitor’s bill. With what little money that remained from the sale of the marital homes, he bought a narrowboat which he moored on the Bridgewater canal. Here he gradually withdrew from the world. For a short while, he was befriended by a woman called Cazz, whose appetite for skunk weed matched his own. But as Kenny gradually descended into paranoia, he imagined he was being sent secret messages through the Wessex Examiner about manipulating the weather. He developed an unhealthy obsession with cloudbusting and bought a congress of meteorological paraphernalia. This was altogether too weird for Cazz. She upped and left.

Originally Kenny had answered my classified ad in the Wessex Examiner. ‘Even the strongest people sometimes need support,’ the ad began. Apparently, he did not read or misinterpreted the rest of it, about me being a Psychology Research Fellow looking for case studies for a thesis. Acting on impulse, he phoned the number and came along to see me, in the hope that I could help him.

I detected from the outset that Kenny was a hopeless case torn between raging paranoia and self-destructive impulses. While he clearly wanted me to be able to help, I could see that I would be up against it. With little now to distract Kenny and a seemingly endless supply of skunk to smoke, with each visit, he seemed to have become more and more delusional. He had become a disciple of some imaginary guru who wanted to put the world to rights by creating catastrophic weather events.

It became clear that I was not getting through to Kenny, either in what his issues were or what my role was. So, in one session, I surreptitiously drew attention to a notebook in which I had sketched out a few thoughts. I could see that it had piqued his interest so, excusing myself, I left him alone with it, in the hope that he might take it away and read what I had written and take stock.

………………………………………………….

I know I’ve not been thinking straight lately and I’d be the first to admit that my memory is not as good as it was. But, a lot of what Malachi says here seems familiar. I can vaguely recall those reckless days when I fell for Renée and conveniently forgot that I was still married. Most red blooded males would have done the same. Renée had that kind of allure. And it’s not as if Wendy and I were living together at the time, we were divorced in all but name. Although I have tried my best to shut them out, I can also still recall the terrible beatings I used to get in Belmarsh. And, yes, drugs were freely available. Everyone was taking them, even the screws. On low wages and anxious to supplement their income, the screws were the suppliers. They would arrange for drones to drop the drugs in the prison yard.

But by no means all of what Malachi has put down rings true. A lot of it simply doesn’t add up. After all this time, he’s still questioning my abilities, suggesting that I am unable to bring about what he refers to as catastrophic weather events. Does he not realise that I have a proven track record? Or is he just in denial? I don’t trust him. Perhaps it’s time to take some action of my own. A pre-emptive strike, as it were.

………………………………………………….

I take a look out of the window. The storm clouds are still overhead, the streets are flooded and the torrential rain doesn’t look like it is going to stop anytime soon. I phone Ravi. ‘I’m sorry I’m not going to be able to get over to your snake charming class at the community centre today,’ I say.

‘Oh deary me! Why is that, Malachi,’ he asks? ‘You have not had trouble with the cobra I lent you, I hope.’

‘It’s the floods, Ravi,’ I say. ‘Have you not looked outside?’

‘It is odd that you should say that, my friend’ Ravi says. ‘We are having brilliant sunshine here. Not a drop of rain all day and the forecast is good. The community centre is only about four miles from you as the crow is flying. I wonder what can be happening.’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Call Wyatt On The Western Front

callwyattonthewesternfront2

Call Wyatt On The Western Front by Chris Green

Penny hits the button on the bedside clock. 4:33 AM. We’re hardly going to get up and answer the door at this unearthly hour, she thinks. No matter what is going on. She tries to drift back off but again the doorbell rings. She turns over to give Matt a nudge. But, he’s not there. Then she remembers. Matt is away at a Scriggler conference. Matt is a writer. You may have read him. Matt Black. Mystery stories. A little like Stephen King. Love him she might but if Penny is honest, perhaps not as good as Stephen King. Maybe that’s Matt at the door now, she thinks, having returned unexpectedly for some mysterious reason. Perhaps he has lost his keys again and is locked out. But surely, if this were the case, he would phone her. The doorbell rings yet again. The Mozart tune was a novelty when they first fitted the thing but now she finds it irritating.

She checks the clock again. 4:35. She wasn’t imagining it, it really is that early. Whatever the commotion is about, she thinks, it’s not going to be good, is it? She doesn’t like being alone in the house in the early hours at the best of times. Why does Matt need to go away so often? Perhaps it might have been different if they had had children. Even though it’s not her fault, does he still blame her? He seems to find any excuse to be out of the house these days. It should be Matt answering the door, when it’s dark. It’s a man’s job.

The tune starts up again. Her heart is thumping. Her mouth is dry. She braces herself. She takes a look out the bedroom window. It is still dark. The streetlight in front of their row of suburban villas has been out for several days so she can see very little. She pulls on her dressing gown and makes her way down the stairs. She peers through the spyglass in the front door. She can’t see anyone. Gingerly, she eases the door open. She takes off the security chain. Still she can see no-one but her attention is drawn to the package on the front doorstep. She picks it up and examines it. It is addressed to her, Penny Black. But, there is no indication who it might be from. It is square, well, cubic. Matt is always correcting her on her use of simple mathematical terms. A circle and a sphere and all that. The parcel is about ten inches, each way. Retro wrapping, brown paper, string, sealing wax. She tries to remember what she might have ordered from Etsy or Amazon recently. Something perhaps that might warrant period packaging. Whatever it is, why in God’s name, she wonders, has a courier delivered it at this time of the morning?

Suddenly, standing there in front of her is a man in a military uniform. She nearly jumps out of her skin. The soldier is standing just three or four feet ahead of her on the garden path. He can’t have appeared out of thin air. Was he there just now, when she first opened the door, she wonders? Lurking in the shadows of next door’s zelkova tree, maybe? Penny doesn’t know much about soldiering but she knows this is an old type of military uniform, First World War perhaps. He looks like someone from The Passing Bells that she watched recently. He looks as if he is trying to say something. His mouth his moving but she can’t hear what he is saying. The silence echoes. He is a ghostly presence, his figure almost transparent. She is terrified. This is the stuff of nightmares, the kind of thing that should stay in the netherworld where it belongs. Not sure what to do, she ducks back into the relative safety of the house. From round the front door, transfixed, she keeps the spooky soldier in her gaze. Then, before her eyes, his form disappears, bit by bit, like a digital picture breaking up when the Wi-Fi signal drops.

………………………………………

Matt is surprised to get her call or perhaps he is just alarmed that Penny is hollering down the phone at him.

‘What … t’time is it?’ he stammers.

Penny hollers down the phone some more.

‘I can’t make any sense of what you are saying,’ he says. ‘Slow down, will you?’

He’s probably had a late night. These mystery writers’ conference booze-ups can go on until the early hours.

‘There was a soldier at the door in one of those khaki uniforms,’ Penny says, more slowly. ‘You know. The ones with lots of buttons and epaulettes.’

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ he says. ‘I’m getting something about an old soldier at the door.’

‘Yes, Matt,’ she says. ‘A soldier. First World War. Dressed like the ones in Birdsong.’

‘Are you sure? What would a soldier in First World War uniform be doing at the door?’ he says.

‘Well! He was, Matt’

‘He didn’t have a gun, did he?’

‘I can’t remember if he had a gun,’ she says. ‘But he was scary, Matt. Like something out of a horror film.’

‘Where is he now?’

‘He’s gone. He disappeared just like that. You know, like when the TV goes funny. Pixelates. Is that the word I’m looking for?’

‘What the blazes are you talking about?’ he says.

‘And he brought a parcel,’ she says. ‘It was wrapped up in brown paper and string.’

‘A parcel?’ he says. ‘What was in the parcel?’

She realises that in her panic she never got around to actually opening the parcel. She put it down somewhere and got on the phone to Matt. She goes and searches for it in the hallway by the front door and on the path outside but it is nowhere to be seen.

‘Are you still there?’ says Matt.

‘I can’t find the parcel now,’ she says. ‘It’s gone.’

‘Are you all right?’ he asks. ‘Look! Stay put. I’m going to come back right now. I’ll be an hour or so.’

………………………………………

Penny can’t explain why she goes back to bed because there’s no chance that she will be able to sleep after an experience like she’s had. But, remarkably, she does. For five hours. When she wakes, it is 9:45. But, there is no sign of Matt. She realises the rush hour traffic can be bad, especially since they built the relief road to supposedly improve traffic flow, but he should have arrived by now. The conference centre is less than fifty miles away. She tries his mobile. He has a hands-free in the SUV. He should be able to answer.

‘The number you have dialled has not been recognised,’ says the message. Perhaps there is something wrong with the auto-dial. She keys the number in this time. Same message. Her sense of unease returns and when, moments later, she hears the doorbell, this becomes full-scale panic. She trembles with fear. She just knows it’s going to be bad. Perhaps it’s another spectral revenant or maybe it’s someone come to tell her that Matt has been killed in an accident at that notorious roundabout.

With trepidation, she opens the door and there is her neighbour, Lacey Tattler, clutching the brown paper parcel from earlier.

‘Are you OK, Penny?’ says Lacey. ‘You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.’

‘No. It’s all right,’ says Penny. ‘It’s just, er just that I wasn’t expecting you.’

‘No need to be like that,’ says Lacey. ‘Anyway, I found this by the hedge at the front. It’s addressed to you.’

‘You didn’t ….. you didn’t see who delivered it, did you, Lacey?’ she says.

‘No, I didn’t. I don’t know why it was left there,’ says Lacey. ‘I did try calling round earlier, but you didn’t answer.’

Penny is not sure how to play this. She doesn’t want to give too much away. She doesn’t want Lacey thinking she’s losing her marbles. It will be all around the neighbourhood in no time. Bilberry Avenue is a close-knit community.

‘I must have dropped off,’ she says. ‘I didn’t sleep too well last night.’

‘Oh dear! Is something wrong?’ says Lacey, fishing. She has probably noticed that Matt’s car has not been around for a couple of nights. ‘Anything I can do?’

A horse-drawn Red Cross ambulance like the ones in Parade’s End comes along. Its livery bears the scars of battle. The horses look to be on their last legs and the driver looks shell-shocked and exhausted. A rational explanation is difficult to conjure up. This appears to be a moving, three-dimensional image, not a projection. It really is a horse-drawn ambulance complete with the cippety-clop rhythm of hoofs along the street. As the ambulance trundles past, it flickers disturbingly from full colour to monochrome and back again. Penny is petrified. She waits for Lacey to comment but astonishingly she does not seem to have noticed it. Not for the first time today, Penny begins to doubt her sanity.

The anomalies are mounting up. She feels she’s too old to be imagining things that aren’t really there and too young to be doolally. She’s forty three years old, for God’s sake. Something apocalyptic is happening here. Why is she thinking that the Red Cross ambulance might be taking Matt to hospital after an imagined accident on the Western Front? That can’t be right. After an accident at the magic roundabout, perhaps? This is still absurd. But, where has Matt got to? She needs him here. She can’t make sense of this new world with its random strangeness alone. Being a writer, Matt might be able to shed some light on what is happening.

Lacey is going on again about the parcel like there is nothing wrong with the universe. Penny thinks she wants her to open it so she can see what’s inside. She’s afraid to open it. She’s afraid of everything that is happening around her. Why can’t Lacey see that there has been a colossal slippage in reality? She no longer cares what Lacey thinks of her, there are more important things to attend to. She gives her a summary thankyou and although she just wants to throw the confounded package as far as she can away from her, instead she takes it inside.

………………………………………

Penny is fearful of what might be inside the parcel. She turns it over and over in her hands. It seems inconceivably light. She has a sense of dark foreboding. But, she must open it. It has to be done. There’s no backing out now.

She has never opened a package sealed with red wax before. Instead of breaking the seal, she cuts through the coarse string with kitchen scissors and gradually unfolds the brown paper wrapping. Inside is a tightly sealed cardboard box. She manages to prise it open. It appears to be completely empty but she has the uneasy feeling that something is escaping, something ethereal. She is not normally susceptible to such mumbo jumbo but she can sense the atmosphere in the room begin to change. At first, she tries to tell herself that after everything that has happened, she is on heightened alert for weird. But, she definitely does feel something, a presence if you like. Someone or something is with her in the room. Something threatening and hostile. Not so much a physical presence perhaps, but something in the air. She finds it difficult to breathe. She’s burning up. She feels ……. faint.

………………………………………

‘Sergeant Wyatt on the front desk at Western Street police station took a call from the neighbour at 10:17, Sir,’ says P. C. Watson, reading from his notes. Watson is new to policing and is anxious to make an impression. ‘One Lacey Tattler. She felt something strange was going on. Sergeant Wyatt sent a patrol round but there was no response when they called at the premises. An entry team was subsequently sent round but Penelope Black was already dead by the time they gained access. That was at 11:19. The body was taken away at ……’

‘Thankyou for the history lesson, er, Watson,’ says the world-weary Detective Inspector Holmes. ‘Watson? Is that really your name?’

‘Yes, Sir,’ says Watson.

‘I see. Well, lad. I am aware of the details,’ says Holmes.

‘Sorry, Sir. I was just asked to stay on the scene and bring you up to speed when you arrived.’

‘Well, Watson. Things have moved on a little since then. Our crime scene people handed the forensics over to the M.O.D. I’ve just been talking to a fellow there. Brigadier something or other. Mustard gas, he reckons.’

‘Isn’t that what they used in the trenches in the First World War, Sir?’

‘Yes, that’s right, Constable. Deadly stuff, mustard gas. Killed thousands. The curious thing is, lad, Mrs Black’s husband, Matthew was found dead in his car, just up the road. The same thing. Mustard gas. In case you want to make a note that was at 12:39.’

‘That is a bit weird, Sir. …….. Look! I was nosing around the house a bit before you got here and I couldn’t help noticing all these boxed sets they’ve got. Parades End, Birdsong, Gallipoli, The Crimson Field, Our World War, The Passing Bells.

‘And?’

‘They are all First World War TV dramas.’

‘Ah yes, I see, Constable. Good thinking.’

‘Do you think there might be a connection, Sir?’

You mean, Those who use the sword shall die by the sword.’

‘No swords here,’ says Watson, looking confused.

‘It’s from the Bible, Watson. Jesus said it. When Peter cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear. I was using the expression metaphorically.’

‘Meta what, Sir?’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

The Cats of Ronda

thecatsofronda2

The Cats of Ronda by Chris Green

If you visit the historic city of Ronda in southern Spain, you are likely to notice that the cats scurrying around under the tables at alfresco restaurants for scraps are slender. While you are wondering whether to toss them the skin from your monkfish, what you may not be aware of is that despite their being small in stature, these Andalusian felines possess age-old mystical powers. It is thought that the cats of Ronda originated long ago in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians knew a thing or two about the magic of cats. The ones that made the millennial odyssey through North Africa and came over during the Moorish invasion were probably the pick of the bunch. Down through the centuries, their progeny may have inherited their ancestors’ numinous gift.

On my occasional trips to Spain, I had not come across them. It was not until one evening over dinner during a stay in the fabled city that I began to notice them.

‘That one is called Layla,’ said the stranger in the white linen suit, pointing to the small black cat at the foot of my table. We were outside a small restaurant just down from Hemingway’s famous bullring. ‘She likes slices of grilled squid. I think that if you tipped your plate up and let her have those pieces you have left, you would in some way benefit from a modicum of good fortune.’

‘Ha! You think it’s as easy as that,’ I said, to humour him, more than anything else. Why was this roué wearing that thick gold earring, I was thinking? It looked ridiculous on him. He was much too old for such adornments.

‘Try it, my friend,’ he said. ‘What have you got to lose?’

I felt I was due some good fortune. Things had not been going well of late. The very reason I had come to Ronda was to get over a failed business venture and put a jaded relationship behind me. The sunshine of Andalusia was a big attraction and Ronda, being some distance away from the teeming crowds of the Costa del Sol, seemed to have a special appeal.

Still a little concerned that my fellow diners would disapprove or that the waiter might come over and read the riot act, I slyly slid the slices of squid to Layla. She gathered them up and took them to a darkened corner of the courtyard to feast on them. The stranger meanwhile finished his Mojito cocktail and got up to leave. He shook me by the hand and, with a glint in his eye, said, ‘Layla will remember you now, my friend. You should be on the lookout out for a pleasant surprise.’

I took this with a pinch of salt. Spain, just like anywhere else today, was overflowing with charlatans. But, when I got back to my room at Hotel Farolito, there she was, waiting. A vision of loveliness. Long black hair, little black dress and a smile like daybreak. At first, I assumed I had walked into someone else’s room. I was about to apologise and take my leave when I thought to check the number of the key I had in my hand. 101. It was the right room. No doubt about it. This was Room 101. I was searching for a rational explanation and mumbling something incoherent, when she said, ‘I thought you wouldn’t mind, querido, if I joined you. I’ve put my things in the wardrobe. I hope that is all right.’

While it seemed fortunate that I had booked una habitación doble, first I had to allay my fears that this was a set-up. When you have been down on your luck for a while, it’s only natural to be a little suspicious of serendipity turning up unannounced. Especially in such a dramatic way. Besides, the shady character in the white suit who had promised the good fortune was hardly the sort you would buy a second-hand car from.

‘I’ve read about you and seen your picture in the paper, cariño,’ she said.

This was strange because the only time I could recall being in the papers was when Jimmy Jazz Enterprises ceased trading. Perhaps she was thinking of someone else, I suggested.

Somehow we got over our uneasy start and before long, we were getting along like a house on fire. A man can never be certain of a woman’s motives, but Isabella presented a convincing case that her intentions were honourable. She spent twenty four hours reassuring me in the nicest possible way, after which time I was too enamoured to care.

We talked a little about cats during this time, as you do. Isabella maintained she knew little about them but I was able to do some basic research on my laptop. I found out about the cat’s place in Egyptian society. Cats it seemed were a symbol of grace and sang-froid and because they possessed mystical powers they were considered sacred. As a result, for over a thousand years, Egyptians, the most advanced civilisation on Earth worshipped a succession of cat deities, the most powerful of these being Bastet, Mihos, Sekmet and Mekal. It was important for citizens to own a cat and well-bred felines were exhibited in shows. When a cat died the family would go into mourning and prized animals were often mummified.

I don’t know how we ended up going to the restaurant I had been at the previous evening. It’s possible that it might have been Isabella’s idea. I was not sure what to expect. While I had mentioned the strange encounter to her in passing, I had kept my cards close to my chest with regard to the detail. This time, it was late, nearly eleven, and there was no sign of the stranger in the white suit, but there were plenty of cats still skulking around. Towards the end of our fried calamari in tartare sauce starter, a slinky white one, so white it was almost luminous, came over and sat expectantly at the foot of our table. My thinking, perhaps helped along by the second bottle of wine, was, if black cats, traditionally thought of as a bad omen, brought such bounteous good fortune, then who knew what delights white ones might bring. I tossed a couple of the fried rings down and the cat gobbled them up.

‘You really shouldn’t have done that,’ said a dark figure emerging out of the shadows. He had long, uncombed black hair and was wearing skin-tight black trousers and a ripped black t-shirt with white lettering in an unfamiliar script. He could have almost been auditioning for the part of Bob in Twin Peaks.

‘You will regret it,’ he said as he stepped into the light, his sinewy tattooed face trembling with menace. He continued in Spanish. ‘No todos los gatos de Ronda traen buena fortuna. Ese gato es malo. Muy malo.’

A bad one? I wanted to challenge him on this. Who was he? How did he know the cat was bad? He clearly intended it to be a short conversation. He said I would find out soon enough. Muy pronto. Adios, amigo. He was gone like a thief in the night. He probably was a thief in the night. He was certainly not Santa Claus.

My attention had been so totally taken up with Twin Peaks Bob that I had not noticed it. But, when I turned back around, I couldn’t help but notice it, There was no-one at my table. To my alarm, Isabella too had vanished. I looked frantically around but she was nowhere to be seen.

‘Did you see where the woman who was sat with me went?’ I called out to the young couple at the only other table that was occupied. ‘La señora? Has visto?’

‘No había mujer. Estabas solo,’ said the man. ‘Hasta que ese hombre llegó.’

No matter how absorbed with one another they were, how could they have not noticed Isabella?

‘What about the man who came up to us?’ I said, ‘El hombre de negro.’

They had not noticed him either. Were they blind, or something?

None of the staff at the restaurant or any of the neighbouring bars could shed any light on what had happened. I didn’t say anything about the cats, as I was still thinking that there might have been some kind of chicanery and clearly, I couldn’t go to the police. I went back to Farolito hoping against hope that Isabella might be there. She was not. I spent the night worrying about her and about what the man in black had said. Was something terrible going to happen? When would it happen? Could he merely have been referring to Isabella’s disappearance? Maybe I was taking a pessimistic view, but I thought not.

What made me decide to return to the restaurant the following lunchtime, I cannot say. Maybe I thought Isabella might re-appear but quite honestly I had to admit I was clutching at straws. I had not been there in daylight before and although there was the distinct possibility that I was courting danger, there was the possibility that revisiting it might offer some clues as to what was going on. When strange things have occurred there is a natural urge to solve the mystery. I realised that I had either been badly distracted or woefully unobservant because I did not even know what the restaurant was called. As I approached in the light of day, I could see the sign, in bold lettering. It was called Los Gatos de Ronda. This somehow put a different complexion on things. The restaurant was a celebration of the contribution of the cat to Andalusian culture.

If I hadn’t been staring so intently at the display graphics, I might have been aware of the rider of the Kawasaki motorcycle bearing down on me. I might have stepped out of the way and avoided the accident which left me with multiple head injuries. Dr Hernandez thought it was too early to tell if there would be lasting brain damage, but he said I needed to stay in hospital for three or four days so they could keep an eye on me.

While I was lying there, the question I kept turning over and over in my mind was whether there was any justifiable reason to connect the Kawasaki ploughing into me with my having fed calamari to the white cat. No matter what the madman in black had said, such a proposition seemed to belong to the world of hocus-pocus. For one thing, I was not superstitious. I never had been. But, there again, rational thought seemed somehow to have jumped ship at Malaga. Whether there had been a causal connection or not, I could not deny that the accident happened in the wake of his warning. Or earlier that Isabella had appeared shortly after the lounge lizard had said something good would happen.

When you are in hospital, time hangs heavy on your hands, in foreign hospitals, even more so. You hear all this chatter going on around you in a foreign language. Admittedly my Spanish had improved of late, and I could make out some of what was being said, but I felt I needed to talk to someone in English. Out of the people on the ward, Javier was the only one who could speak good English. He had spent many happy months, he told me, as a marketing manager for a biscuit manufacturer in Ashby de la Zouche. He was gay, he said but sadly it was not yet fashionable to be gay in North Leicestershire so he came over to Ronda, where there were more opportunities to meet like-minded people. Javier’s tale of how he came to be in hospital was a strange one indeed.

‘You are probably not going to believe this,’ he said. ‘I’m in here because I fed the wrong cat at a restaurant. A tortoiseshell tabby. It looked hungry and I offered it some of my carabineros. A thug dressed like Benito Mussolini shouted something threatening at me and shortly afterwards I was viciously attacked by a Cambodian monk with a prayer wheel.’

I told him about my experience with the Twin Peaks Bob figure warning me something bad would happen after I fed the white cat and afterwards the Kawasaki running into me. Then I told him about feeding the black cat and the fellow in the white suit predicting good fortune followed by my finding Isabella in my room.

‘That’s uncanny,’ he said. ‘I shared my halibut with an Egyptian Mau cat. Pope Francis appeared out of nowhere and said I had done a good thing and would be rewarded and I found a Marlon Brando lookalike in my room.’

‘Early Marlon Brando, I trust,’ I said.

‘I take your point,’ he said. ‘It was The Wild Ones era Marlon Brando. The Godfather version wouldn’t get me going.’

‘So you are saying there is something of a pattern.’

‘Absolutely,’ he said. ‘Fernando over there fed some of his mackerel to a Siamese and was rewarded with a Euro millions win. But after he let a short-haired Burmese have some of his crayfish, he was struck over the head with an Abba statuette by a dwarf in a wheelchair.’

‘Astonishing,’ I said.

‘I believe the whole ward is full of people who have met with misfortune after feeding cats,’ he said.

‘What do you think is going on?’ I asked him.

‘You must have read about the special powers of the cats of Ronda by now,’ he said.

I confided that I had found out a little.

‘Well! Clearly, there are two distinct groups of cats,’ he said. ‘One group uses its special powers for good and the other uses them for evil.’

‘Good is usually associated with those that are group minded and evil by those who have broken away, isn’t it?’ I said. ‘Civilisation is based on rules and conformity.’

‘But this is all subjective. There are different thought systems, different cultures, different religions,’ he said. ‘There is no consensus.’

‘That’s right,’ I said ‘But, within each of these the notions of good or bad are based on conformity.’

‘I can see what you are saying, but this is still a simplistic view,’ he said. ‘Animal instincts promote survival and aggression.’

‘And in our scenario, we are talking about both people and cats,’ I said. ‘So how does it work?’

‘I can’t explain the supernatural elements,’ he said. But, I think that we ourselves might have a bearing on what happens to us. What each of us considers good or bad comes into play. For instance, I have always gone for hunky men like Marlon Brando, so it’s only natural that my visitor should look like Marlon Brando and I was brought up as a Catholic, hence Pope Francis. On the other hand, I have never liked military uniforms, hence Mussolini. Mussolini was obsessed by military uniforms.’

‘So far, so good,’ I said. ‘But, what about the Cambodian monk attacking you with a prayer wheel? How does that fit in?’

‘Good point,’ he said. ‘I can’t work that one out. Anyway, it was just an idea. I think perhaps we have a long way to go before we come up with a solution.’

‘It probably doesn’t help being in hospital,’ I said. ‘We can’t even get the internet in here.’

‘I’ll see what Pedro can find out,’ he said. ‘He has an iPhone.’

Unfortunately, this was the last conversation I had with Javier. Dr Hernandez wouldn’t tell me but I think Javier may have been discharged early. I never did find out who Pedro was.

My injuries must have been more serious than first thought, because each time I asked when they were going to let me go home, Dr Hernandez told me that I was not ready yet, but as long as I kept taking the medication, he was optimistic that it would not be more than a month or two. During this time, I had dozens of conversations about the cats of Ronda. They followed a similar pattern throughout, some good experiences mixed with some bad experiences, all of these happening after they had fed cats. Luis found himself on a paradise island but was then bitten by a poisonous snake and Maria Elena landed a modelling contract but was badly scarred when a UV light exploded. Diego was hit by a train. Diego seemed to have missed out on the good experience or perhaps he just couldn’t remember. I think they had put him on extra strong medication on the basis the injuries he sustained from the collision. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it was but I couldn’t help but notice that everyone on the ward seemed to experience complications with their recovery and be kept in for longer than you might expect.

Juan Pablo didn’t think that Dr Hernandez was a real doctor or that we were in a real hospital. He thought that we were being held captive against our will. I told Juan Pablo not to be a fool. Of course we were in a real hospital. They gave us medication every day to make us better, didn’t they? In the end, Dr Hernandez had to restrain Juan Pablo once or twice, which was not at all pretty.

Eventually, I was discharged. It was a fine day and once I had got my bearings and checked back in at the Farolito, I went along to Los Gatos de Ronda. I sat there all afternoon but the strange thing was, despite the menu now consisting entirely of fish dishes, I didn’t see a single cat. What on earth could have happened to them all, I wondered? After my third Alhambra Mezquita, I plucked up the courage to ask the proprietor where all the cats were but he did not seem to know what I was talking about. He told me he had only recently bought the restaurant. He did not even know why the place had been named Los Gatos de Ronda, he said, it was a ridiculous name.

‘I have a painter coming in to change the sign,’ he said. ‘I’m going to call it La Cocina de Pescado.’

I was not sure of the exact translation but it was to do with fish. Something about it was definitely fishy. …… Perhaps all of it.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Oleander Drive

oleanderdrive

Oleander Drive by Chris Green

The black Mitsubishi has been parked there for several days now. Les Rubio first noticed it on Monday, when he came back from a business lunch at The Whistle Blower. The big SUV has been there in the same position, on the opposite side of the road fifty yards from his house, day and night. It has not moved once. The tinted windows have made it difficult for him to get a clear view inside but from occasional sorties to the park with his dog, Murphy, he has noticed that the two suspicious looking characters occupying the front seats are not always the same ones. They seem to be working in shifts. But, whichever pair is skulking behind their newspapers, they seem to be watching his house. What else could they be doing in this quiet suburban neighbourhood? Who else would they be watching? This is a select residential area. House prices start at about half a million.

There are only a handful of houses in Oleander Drive and the others are all occupied by respectable families. It’s a little difficult, Les feels, to imagine they would be looking out for Brice Shipley, who goes off to work at his dental practice at 8:30 sharp every morning or his wife Sally who so far as he can tell spends her time putting together the parish magazine. Equally hard to suspect Mr Masterson, the headmaster at St Sampson’s or Mrs Masterson who puts the little Mastersons on the red bus to Acme Academy every morning. And, as far as he knows, Dr Pilsner’s house has been empty for a while now. Les feels he is definitely the square peg in the round hole, here in this enclave.

The pair surely cannot be private detectives paid by Grace to see if he has another woman dropping by. Les and Grace have been separated for months. In any case, chance to get his rocks off would be a fine thing. He has been too busy trying to find ways to settle the galaxy of outstanding bills she left him with, not to mention having to deal with the descent into darkness that follows a break-up, when it was your decision or preference. At the same time, he has had to keep up with the changes to his way of life that the new government has brought in. They seem to have got it in for entrepreneurs and small businesses. All the forms you have to fill in and all the things you have to register for. Tax returns and VAT receipts. Are they kidding? This is not his forte. He is a wheeler-dealer. He’s been so snowed under by all the bureaucracy he hasn’t even had time to put the house on the market.

It’s equally hard to conceive that they might be hitmen, hired to eliminate him. He hasn’t, so far as he knows, upset anyone. He conducts business in a straightforward way. He might be a bit behind with his paperwork but that would be no reason for HMRC to send in the boys and even if this were the case, surely one marksman would be sufficient. It wouldn’t need Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta to put the bullet through his chest, or wherever it is professional hitmen choose to aim. And the hitmen would hardly be hanging around. They would have made the hit by now and gone back to their lonely hotel rooms to wait for instructions on further missions.

Les has become so paranoid, though, he’s not driven in to his warehouse for the past few days in case they tail him. Granted, he can do much of his day-to-day work at home over the phone or online. He is fortunate too that he can ask his oppo, Zak to step in for a pick-up or a delivery, like the fake Alibaba rugs or the bogus Sennheiser sound equipment that arrived yesterday.

‘You’ve got a bit of skirt up there, ain’t you, Mr Rubio?’ Zak said when he told him he wasn’t coming in.

‘I wish,’ he said. ‘Look, Zak! I will be in soon. In a day or two. Three, tops. Definitely Friday.’

‘I can come over if you like and we can go over things,’ said Zak.

‘You’d better stay away, Zak,’ he said. ‘I’ve got the …… Zika virus.’

He thinks it best not to let them see someone like Zak visit him. Zak is more Trotters’ Trading than reputable entrepreneur. He wouldn’t look right in Oleander Drive. He’s from Toker’s End. That’s the other side of the tracks. The Mitsubishi men would pounce on him straight away.

‘I thought you only got that Zika thing in Brazil,’ said Zak.

‘It has spread, mate, Haven’t you heard?’ Les told him. ‘But don’t worry. I think I’m on the mend now.’

…………………………………………

On one of this reccies with Murphy, Les manages to get a better look inside the SUV. They have the windows wound down and he can almost make out the men’s features. Just a feeling he has, but they do look like they might be police. They have police sunglasses and police haircuts. Beyond that though he is at a loss. There are so many facets to police work these days it’s pointless to speculate which squad these might be from. He recalls being woken by the resonant thrum of the police helicopter hovering over his house on Wednesday night. He pulled back the curtains and could just make out its shape above the back garden. It was so black it was practically invisible, but certainly not silent. His friend, Jimmy Jazz says it was probably a Chinook. The modern police see themselves as a military unit, Jimmy says. It’s to do with all those movies.

Les phones his friend, Robyn Constable downtown to see if she knows what might be going on. Sergeant Constable has helped him out several times before for a small consideration and makes sure a blind eye is turned to his nefarious schemes. Les does not like to think of it as bribes. It’s a bit like paying insurance premiums. Sergeant Constable does not think of it as bribes. It’s just another aspect of police procedure in these troubled times.

‘I’m being watched night and day,’ Les tells her.

‘That doesn’t sound good, Les,’ she says. ‘For a man in your position.’

‘It’s not anything to do with your …… officers, is it?’

‘I’ve not heard anything,’ she says. ‘But you better fill me in with a few details so that I can check if we’ve got the word out on you. No guarantee I will be able to stop it if its another squad, though, you understand.’

‘Two men dressed in dark clothes. Parked up in a black Mitsubishi outside my house. Round the clock, 24/7,’ Les says. ‘They do look like they might be plain-clothes, if you know what I mean. But it’s not always the same two.’

‘What are you saying, Les?’ she laughs. ‘Do we look different to others? Is it the prognathous jaw, or the third eye, perhaps? I tell you what. I will ask around and let you know if there’s a match. Your payment is due by the way.’

‘Again?’

‘Every three months, Les. The payment is due every three months. Unless of course you want me to…’

‘No it’s OK. I will get it to you. Just find out about these guys, please.

‘They might, of course, be security services, Les. Had you considered that?’

Sergeant Robyn Constable has a point. They could be from the nearby spy base, the so-called listening centre. There are thousands of people working at the base. Les has often wondered what they find for them all to do all day. Perhaps this is part of their outreach programme. Might it be something to do with the dodgy domain names he bought, the ones with the sensitive addresses? This is the kind of thing that perhaps might be of interest to intelligence services. But there again, given the nefarious things that go on in cyberspace, would the security services be especially excited over the innocent purchase of a few domains with names like bombisrael(dot)com? There was, of course, the domain he purchased that actually had gchq in the name.

Les hasn’t set up websites on any of the domains. He wouldn’t know how to. He just bought the domain names for his amusement after coming back from The Whistle Blower one night. There was a pop-up ad for buy one get one free offer on domain names. He bought forty eight of them for the price of twenty four. He bought them purely to see how far he could go with the names before someone would try to stop him. No-one did. He realises he shouldn’t have done it, but when you are drunk sometimes these crazy ideas come into your head, and he was very drunk, he recalls. Grace had not long packed her bags.

To cut a long story short, Les Rubio spent time in la-la land. Whisky and gin, along with his appointed psychiatrist Dr Pilsner’s powerful prescription drugs, temporarily got the better of him. He was in such a bad way, he feels lucky now to have pulled through. It was a mistake to stock those cheap spirits from China. You never know what you are drinking and God knows what the pills were. Perhaps he just took too many. It’s so easy to get a digit wrong when you are under stress. He might have taken ten a day rather than one a day. He wonders what has happened to Dr Pilsner. He hasn’t seen him around since his discharge. Perhaps he has taken a sabbatical to write a primer on anxiety disorders or taken a lucrative teaching post in his native Vienna or something.

Whoever the mysterious emissaries in the Mitsubishi are, if they want him, why don’t they just come and get him? What are they waiting for? Surely they don’t imagine he’s armed and dangerous. And why he wonders are they drawing attention to themselves? There must be subtler ways to spy on him. What about drones? Or a rotation of cars parked in different places. A plain white van. Bogus workmen digging up the road. There must be any number of ways for surveillance operatives to look anonymous, even in an exclusive residential area like Oleander Drive. Perhaps he should have driven normally past them a moment ago, then they would have followed him and then they would have to have it out. At least then he would know what was what.

Les is astonished that the well-to-do neighbours haven’t said something to him about it all. It’s not as if the surveillance could have escaped their notice on such a quiet street. Jarvis Heckler lives in the large detached house opposite where they are parked. He is a retired civil servant and he is always outside washing his Jaguar or manicuring his box hedges. You would have thought he would have been around or at least gone over and had a word with them. And the Mitsubishi is practically parked outside Stacey Aragon’s house. She is forever asking him about Grace and when she might be coming back, waiting to see what his reaction is. There only has to be an unexpected conversation in the street for Stacey to be rustling her Cath Kidston curtains to see what’s going on. But somehow the parked vehicle seems to have escaped her attention. Has she gone away to see an ailing relative or something, Les wonders? Why have none of the neighbours registered the intrusion to their settled lives? Perhaps they have all gone off to see ailing relatives. Might they all be in collusion? Maybe the mystery men in the car have phoned them all and got them all on side with the assurance that it will soon be over and they will be gone.

…………………………………………

Today is Friday and Les Rubio does have to go in to the warehouse and the men in the Mitsubishi are still outside. He drives slowly past, hoping that they will realise that he has spotted them and they will realise that he will be expecting them to follow him. So they won’t. Reverse psychology. He thinks that it is the original pair casting a furtive glance over their red-tops, the ones he spotted on Monday. To his relief, no-one tails him and there is no black stakeout vehicle waiting to intercept him at the warehouse. Inside the premises, everything seems to be as it should be. He logs into the computer, half expecting to find some gremlin in the system or some horror in the inbox, but there is nothing. Everything seems to be running smoothly. There are even some new orders. He takes a look around the stock. The silver saxophones are still in the storeroom along with the multicoloured Gucci handbags. The Alibaba rugs and the new sound equipment are there. He needs to get on to moving some of the internet TVs later to make room for the Japanese clarinets that are arriving.

Zak arrives in his beaten up old van, the one he uses to ferry his band, Corpse around. They are death metal or thrash metal or some kind of metal, Les can’t remember which. Zak keeps asking him to go along to gigs but he is delaying this particular pleasure. He comes in with his headphones on, singing along to some crashing guitar chords. With an air of distraction, Les greets him.

‘Whatcha, Mr R,’ says Zak, taking off his phones. They look suspiciously to Les like one of the sets that came in yesterday, but he lets it go. ‘You recovered from the Zika bug a bit quick.’

‘Well, you know, Zak. I do keep myself in shape,’ Les says, puffing out my chest and holding his stomach in. ‘Takes more than a virus to get the better of me.’

‘I drove by your place on the way in, Mr R.’

‘But you live in Toker’s End.’

‘I know. I took a bit of a detour. I was going to call in to see how you were, but there were dozens of Old Bill around.’

‘What?’

‘Old Bill. You know, the bizzies.’

‘What? Outside my house?’

‘Difficult to tell, Mr R. There were shitloads of candy cars around and more of them seemed to be arriving, so I didn’t hang around to find out. Some funky shit is going down, I’d say.’

‘Come on! We’d better go and see what’s happening.’

‘Are you sure, Mr R. What if……. You know ….. All right. We’d better go in the van, then. Incognito, like.’

‘No. It’s too late for that now. Get in the Merc!’

Over the three mile journey, traffic is slow. The atmosphere is strained. Conversation is sporadic and staccato.

‘How many police cars, Zak?’

‘Lots of them. ……. Wasn’t that a red light, Mr R?’

‘Can’t you stop blowing that in my face, Zak? What do you put in those….. joints?….. Wait. Pass it here! It might help.’

‘It’s called Northern Lights, Mr R.’

‘That’s skunk, is it?’

‘The best. ….. Are you OK, Mr R?’

‘I’ve not been thinking straight lately, Zak. I’m not sure what is real and what is not.’

‘I wouldn’t worry too much about that, Mr R. Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.’

‘I don’t know if I’m in a state to make decisions anymore.’

‘I can’t help but notice that you have seemed a little weird recently, Mr R. In fact, you’ve not been the same since Grace left.

‘Is it that noticeable? Tell me, Zak! Why am I going into the lion’s den?’

‘I think if it were me I might be doing a runner or at least lying low. ……. Didn’t you see that woman in the Toyota pulling out?’

Despite the advice, indecision persists. The Mercedes makes it way westward and before they know it they are approaching Oleander Drive. They are greeted by a battery of flashing blue lights. Police vehicles are everywhere. A bustling crowd has gathered to watch the unfolding drama, including a pack of press reporters and a TV crew. Amongst the confusion, it is difficult to ascertain what exactly is going on. As Les and Zak push their way through the mêlée, it slowly becomes clear that a handcuffed man is being led kicking and screaming by a pack of burly police officers to a riot wagon.

‘Mad doctor. Multiple murder. Motive unknown,’ says a disarmingly young reporter, bringing the new arrivals up to speed. ‘I’ll have my own byline.’

‘The thing is, they had been watching his house for days,’ says another whippersnapper, with a bag full of hi-tec accessories. ‘They were on to him a week ago and waiting for him to return home. What they didn’t know was that he was there all the time. This one is going to run for days.’

‘And night by night, he managed to get into his neighbours’ houses and murder them in their sleep,’ says the first one, as he keys the story into this phone. ‘Right under the noses of the surveillance team.’

‘Dr Pilsner,’ Les manages to say. ‘That’s Dr Pilsner. What…..’

‘Dr Pilsner. Yes, that’s his name,’ says the whippersnapper. ‘He’s a psychiatrist, apparently. This is going to sell some papers. They’ll fly off the newsstands. Do you live around here by any chance?’

 

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

ThinkTank

thinktank2

ThinkTank by Chris Green

I have an incoming call on my cassette recorder. Yes, I do mean my cassette recorder, a 1980 vintage Hitachi. A few months ago getting a call on anything but my phone would have phased me, but lately I am becoming used to technology around me behaving strangely. I live round the corner from the secret monitoring base, and my son, Gregg, works there. I don’t know what he does exactly. He will never tell me. My sister, Agnes suggests he might be developing a new edible listening device.

Why, you are wondering, do I still have a cassette recorder in the house? Technology has moved on. What is wrong with CD or mp3? When I moved to Goldfinger Mews, CD was the first media I had problems with. I would be driving home in my Rambler listening to an acid jazz CD and suddenly The Brand New Heavies would be replaced by Why Don’t We Do It In The Road or Hava Nagila. Mp3 files would simply play Morse Code. I do not use my PC any more, because the content of my documents gets changed by a mysterious third party and the virus checker complains every time I switch the machine on. On the positive side I can pick up an awful lot of stations from all over the world on my satellite dish. Infiltration from CGHQ is getting worse. Last week when I turned the hoover on, it started talking to me in Russian.

By pressing a series of buttons on the cassette recorder, I succeed in answering the call. It is Billy Golding. He wants to know if I will go for a drink later. I tell him I will meet him at The Whistle Blower at seven, so long as he doesn’t go banging on about Gaia. I had that from Jimmy Lovelock last week and I had the helicopter hovering over the house for hours afterwards.

Sometimes Ellie and I go walking on the stretch of barren land that surrounds the secret base. Even before you pass the last row of town-houses adjacent to the complex, you can hear the banks of cameras whirring. Every month or so an anonymous contractor digs great trenches in the land that leads away from the grey towers of the base. I’ve never seen the crews that carry out the cabling work. I’m told by my neighbour, Eddie Hubble, who is a keen stargazer, this takes place at night under huge portable floodlights. The light pollution from it makes it impossible to see anything in the northern sky, he tells me.

I am not a conspiracy theorist. I do not believe that Prince Philip was behind Diana’s death or that 9/11 was planned by George W Bush, but there is definitely a lot going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about. Are bees disappearing because radiation from mobile phones is interfering with their navigation system? Are there only one hundred cod left in the North Sea? Many questions remain unanswered. Julian Assange still has a lot of work to do if he ever gets out. Why for instance is the idea that the Earth is living system where organisms and their inorganic surroundings have evolved together, so problematic for anyone, that searching for Gaia in WebCrawler cripples your computer.

Daisyworld is a planet the same size as Earth, orbiting a sun just like ours. In the beginning, it is entirely covered by an equal number of dormant seeds of black and white daisies. The black daisy, is better at absorbing light for photosynthesis than the white daisy. The white daisy’s petals are better at reflecting light than the black daisy, so it can avoid overheating and dying. The temperature of Daisyworld warms up as time passes. The seeds germinate into plants. The black daisies are more efficient at photosynthesis than the white daisies and so they suppress them. Because the black daisies are so good at absorbing light, there are so many of them that they heat up the entire planet. Due to the high temperatures, the white daisies are now able to suppress the black daisies since they are better at reflecting away the sun’s light and so prevent themselves from overheating and dying out. The white daisies are so successful that they spread throughout Daisyworld, but now the planet is covered with white daisies, so that so much heat is reflected away that the temperature begins to drop. And so it goes on.

I am on my way now to The Whistle Blower now. I am driving round the long way as there are roads closed off because of the protests against the badger cull. My Satnav is chattering away in German and I am being tailed by a big black BMW. No, wait! I think its a tank.

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved