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All About Jazz

allaboutjazz

All About Jazz by Chris Green

All About Jazz tends to be quiet in the afternoon. After the lunchtime rush, things do not pick up again until the evening. We are a small establishment down a side street on the edge of town. If you were driving along the main road out of town, you might not know we were there, unless you happened to spot the sign saying All About Jazz – Open Lunchtime till Late, Live Music at Weekends. My partner, Jazmin bought the lease last year with her inheritance. She saw the advert in the local paper and liked the idea of the place because of its name. I was a little dubious about the idea, not just because of its poor location but because, at the time, I knew nothing about jazz or running a bar. My objections were ignored. In no time at all, she was arranging professional photoshoots for the publicity material.

Many of our regulars are seasoned jazz buffs. The afternoon lull gives me the chance to listen to a selection of tunes. I am able to study album cover notes to see which musicians play on which tunes. Jazz players are often not household names so it seems a good idea for a rookie jazz bar proprietor to build up his knowledge. I am able to pick out passages that I can refer to, an improvised saxophone break, a change of time signature or perhaps a hidden piano melody. There’s not much point in claiming to be being a jazz fan if you don’t appreciate the subtle nuances of the form. You might as well listen to Olly Murs or Sam Smith.

Jazmin likes to get out in the afternoons so I often take the opportunity to relax in a comfy chair with an iced coffee and a good book, Haruki Murakami, Philip C. Dark, that kind of thing. I like a little quirkiness. Life can be too serious. There’s nothing better than a gentle read with some old standards playing softly in the background. I am doing so when the tall man in the light-coloured suit walks in. I have not seen him before. He has a dark complexion, not black, not white, not even brown but a colour you just can’t put into words, and slicked back hair with a quiff that seems to defy gravity. He has a facial scar and a thick gold necklace. He could easily be auditioning for a David Lynch film. Louche is not quite the word I am looking for but it is close. He orders a large Plymouth gin and bitters. He is of indeterminable race. His accent is impossible to place. For all I know, he might be from Mars.

He starts talking to me about security cameras. Although he looks nothing like a rep, it seems he might be trying to sell me a new CCTV system. Either that or he is trying to rob me. More likely trying to rob me. But, it transpires security is just a random interest. A passing topic of conversation. After we have moved on to necromancy and The Twilight Zone, he takes his drink and goes over to sit at a table by the window. All the time that he is here, I feel unaccountably on edge. Being a jazz bar, we get plenty of oddballs passing through, but there is something different about this one. Something unexplainable, sinister, threatening. It is not just his unusual choice of conversational topics or the spooky way he maintains eye contact yet appears to remain aloof. His very demeanour carries with it an air of menace. I am not one for a lot of mumbo jumbo but I can detect a dark aura around him. When he is in the room, it feels like the air in the room has changed.

After he has gone, his presence oddly remains. I find myself looking around to see if he is still lurking in the bar somewhere. In one of the booths perhaps. I check to see that he is not crouching in one of the alcoves or hiding behind the pillar. I take a look in the toilets, the gents and the ladies several times. I make my way outside and wander up and down the street to make sure he has really gone.

The stranger comes in again the following day at the same time and once again orders a large Plymouth gin and bitters. We speak about GCHQ, rock formations and doppelgängers before he once again takes his drink over to the table by the window. Once again, I experience the same feeling of unease while he is in the bar without being able to explain why and the same feeling that he is still present after he has gone. When Jazz comes back from the printers, she notices that something is wrong.

‘I had a strange fellow come in,’ I tell her. ‘He spooked me a bit. …… But it’s probably nothing to worry about.’

She tells me about an offer they have at the printers on giclée prints. ‘They can do A3 posters for us for …..’

I am no longer listening. I have drifted off.

A pattern begins to develop. The stranger comes in every day at the same time. He always wears the same light-coloured suit. At no time does he introduce himself or explain his mission. He always orders the same drink, Plymouth gin and Angostura bitters. On each visit, he guides the conversation, changing the subject at will, without warning. We speak about cave paintings, psychiatrists, and remote viewing or, string theory, hot air balloons and Don Quixote before he takes his drink over to the window. He always takes the same seat at the same table. On the first few occasions, I entertain the idea that he is waiting for someone but no-one ever joins him. Perhaps he is looking out for someone on the street, not that many people pass this way unless they are coming into All About Jazz.

‘I can always tell something is bothering you, honey, by the music you play,’ Jazmin says, as we are locking up one night. ‘Do you realise you played Guy Bloke’s Improvisation for Balalaika, Bass Guitar and Strimmer three times tonight, all nineteen minutes of it? No wonder everyone was gone by half-past ten. What were you thinking?’

‘Did I? I must have been ….. distracted,’ I tell her.

‘You’ve been ….. distracted quite a lot lately. Sometimes I think we live in separate worlds.’

The same thought has occurred to me but I do not say so.

‘And we haven’t made love for nearly three weeks,’ she continues.

‘Is it really that long?’

‘Yes, it is that long. If I didn’t know you better, I’d think there was someone else. …….. Look! Let me know if I’m wrong but I think this strange mood of yours started when that weird fellow began to come in. The one you told me about who talks about NASA, Twin Peaks and rubber plants. Does he still come in every afternoon?’

‘Yes, he does, Jazz. 3:15 on the dot. But it feels like he’s here all the time, now. It’s as if he never goes away.’

‘Right! I’m going to be here tomorrow afternoon. I can easily rearrange my hair appointment and I can pick up the gilcée prints anytime.’

…………………………….

‘You told me he comes in every day at the same time. 3:15, you said.’

‘He has done for the last three weeks, yes.’

‘Well, my sweet, it’s half past three and he’s not here.’

‘Perhaps he’s been held up.’

‘Or perhaps made up. A figment of your over-active imagination.’

‘If you don’t believe me, have a look at the CCTV.’

‘I did. This morning. It wasn’t switched on.’

‘You’re probably doing something wrong. I’ll have a look at it later.’

‘But you have to admit you have been behaving rather strange lately. Perhaps you ought to see someone. There’s a new holistic ….. ‘

‘Give him a few more minutes. I’m sure he will be here.’

‘What’s his name? If you’ve been talking to him for three weeks, you must have found out something about him.’

‘He’s never mentioned his name. He talks about robotics, firecrackers and necromancy. Or …..’

‘California, cloning and black holes. I know. And you never bring any subjects of conversation up? Like, who are you? What do you do? Why do you keep coming into our bar?’

‘It doesn’t work like that. You’d have to be with him to realise how he can just take you over. He takes your will away, like a psychic vampire.’

‘Wassup,’ says a deep voice beside us.

It is N’Golo. N’Golo is an African drummer who sometimes sits in with bands here at weekends. He likes to drop by in the afternoon for a lemongrass tea. He is wearing a kaftan, brightly patterned trousers and jangling Berber jewellery.

‘Your djinn friend not here today then, bro?’ he says.

‘You mean gin, N’Golo.’

‘No. I mean djinn. Juju. The man in the white decks. That man is bad-bad.’

‘How can you tell, N’Golo?’ I say. ‘As you know, I am not one for a lot of mumbo jumbo.’

‘I just know, bro.’

‘But how? I get a bad feeling when he’s here. In fact, even when he isn’t here. But, I can’t explain it. And Jazmin here wants to know.’

‘Hear di smell. Many ways to sense it. Everybody is different. But it’s not how or why, it just is. He’s djinn, trust me.’

I have been reading up on jazz and it all began in New Orleans. The word comes from the Creole patois, jass, referring to sexual activity. In the late 19th century. European horns met African drums and jazz music was born. Jazz inherited all the magic of the African continent. The heart of darkness. Voodoo. Djinn. Juju. While the rest of America was stomping their feet to military marches, New Orleans started dancing to voodoo rhythms. It may be nothing. But voodoo, djinn, juju or whatever you want to call it and jazz are inextricably linked. And our bar is called All About Jazz. So, it should be all about jazz. We could educate people on the history of jazz. To the seedy jazz joints, dens of vice probably all of them. To the progress of the new music through Buddy Bolden, Nick LaRocca, Jelly Roll Morton. We could hold classes, workshops. We could bring people to the town to learn about jazz. The nuts and bolts of jazz. Its cultural constituents, the brass band parades, Mardi Gras, downtown Creole, dirty music, corner saloon dances. The nitty-gritty bare bones elements of Jazz that you do not find in the safe little bubble of Smooth Jazz. Smooth Jazz! Isn’t that an oxymoron?

Jazmin is less than enthusiastic about the idea. She thinks I’m going off on one. The Jazz that it is all about she feels is her. She wants it to stay that way. She insists it stays that way. It was her money that set us up, she says. She can be a bully at times. Oh well! Perhaps people don’t need to know where jazz originated or if they do they can just go online or read Casey Gasher’s book, Basin Street.

…………………………….

In moments of despair, one can fall prey to a mindset which tells you that the current set of circumstances has always been so and will always be so. But, this is not the case. Things do change. As the great mystic philosopher, Lars Wimoweh was fond of saying, change is the only certainty. After a few days of the tall stranger not showing, his presence, imagined or not, begins to fade. I no longer feel distracted. Mindfulness returns. I manage not to accidentally play Guy Bloke’s Improvisation for Balalaika, Bass Guitar and Strimmer or any other jazz track featuring a strimmer. I am able to start conversations on topics that I am interested in, rhythm, harmony, syncopation. I feel the sap rising. I manage to heal the rift with Jazmin in the nicest possible way. Things go swimmingly at All About Jazz. The Simon Somerset Quintet play a spirited Saturday night set and Giles Davis weaves his mellow magic on his muted trumpet through Sunday afternoon.

It is comforting to get a bad episode out of the way. Jazz thinks so too. She feels it is good that I’ve got a grip and pulled myself together like her holistic counsellor, Ike Murlo said I should. My ….. difficulty was harming business, she says. Little by little, Jazz begins to trust me to hold the fort in the afternoons once more.

But although Ike Murlo tells me that the crisis has passed, that I’m over the worst, sometimes I seem to still be visited by lingering uncertainty. That nagging doubt that surrounds an unresolved mystery. I realise I should know better but each time I am outside having a smoke, and I catch a glimpse of a tall figure in the distance, I imagine it to be the dark stranger in the light-coloured suit coming to get me. Suddenly, nearly everyone in town seems to be above average height and be dressed in light-coloured suits. Ike Murlo tells me that such a frequency illusion is quite common and even comes up with some numbers to back it up. Apparently, it is known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. It does not help to be aware of this. And sometimes even the ones who dress normally now come across as suspicious, I tell him. He assures me this will pass, but just in case perhaps I should see him twice a week.

…………………………….

Jazmin has gone to pick up some posters for the summer jazz extravaganza we are planning. I did try to get her to book Guy Bloke as a headliner but she thinks he is too avant garde. Well, you can’t have everything. I’m sure that Guy doesn’t mind too much. He has plenty of other gigs lined up. Meanwhile, I am relaxing in the bar. Suddenly aware of someone in my space, I look up from my Philip C. Dark thriller. He is not the usual type that we get in mid-afternoon. He is wearing an oatmeal checked three piece suit but his coarse features do not go with the suit. They belong to someone from out of town, a long way out of town. Over the hills and far, far away. The chimerical stranger makes a remark about the music that is playing in the background, Scott Walker’s Tilt. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I realise, but I find it relaxing. He orders a pink gin.

‘That’s gin and Angostura bitters,’ he says. As if I didn’t know.

He starts talking about …… CCTV cameras. He seems to know a lot about them. I am still trying to get a grip, mumbling incoherently as the conversation moves on to necromancy and The Twilight Zone.

 

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

CHEKHOV’S GUN

chekovsgunChekhov’s Gun by Chris Green

Having signed off my latest story, I am on the lookout for characters for a new one. A writer’s mind is never idle. Even though Jodie and I are on holiday in a small seaside town in Norfolk to catch up with her family, the search is on. In the shop next to our cottage, the fishmonger gets up to take the delivery of fresh fish at about six thirty and starts throwing crates around the yard, waking us up. He has a weather-beaten face with deep creases from years of hard fishmongering. But, I have my readers to consider. A story about a small town retailer would not be in keeping with the Philip C. Dark brand. My stories usually revolve around time shifts or altered states, not matters you could ease into a tale about the price of fish.

John, the ageing caretaker for our group of holiday-lets comes by to see how Jodie and I are getting on with the cooker. He says that it has been on the blink. On the blink? We hadn’t realised it worked at all. It’s an odd looking piece of kit. Perhaps the newer models haven’t reached these remote parts yet.

‘It’s the timer that’s broken,’ John the Caretaker says. ‘You have to turn it this way and then that way to get it working.’

John is ineffectual, apologetic. He looks as if he has been trying to become invisible all his life, not the kind of character you could fit into a speculative fiction or a psychodrama.

The couple in the holiday apartment across from us with the two point three children, the Debenhams shopping bags and the Ford Focus are also non-starters. How could you create intrigue in a story about them? Ditch-water and dull are words that spring to mind.

Lord Nelson grew up around these parts and as we make our way through the town, everywhere we look, we are reminded of this. Even though the nearest harbour is a few miles down the coast, here they are proud of North Norfolk’s maritime heritage. We have a cup of tea and a light breakfast in the Trafalgar Café on the seafront. As they throw chewed balls for their excited dogs, the early morning dog walkers down on the shingle beach look exactly like early morning dog walkers on shingle beaches look the world over. Nothing for the story there. Neither do the ramblers on the coastal path provide inspiration. In their expensive padded waterproof jackets screaming with logos and identical uncomfortable-looking heavy boots, they are clones of one another. It probably isn’t their fault. Years of relentless leisure-wear promotion featuring sporty looking models in expensive padded waterproof jackets screaming with logos and uncomfortable-looking walking boots has put pressure on them to conform to such rigid sartorial uniformity.

The man in the brown SuperDry windcheater looking out to sea with snazzy binoculars regales us with a story about two Polish men who drowned out there because they were calling out for help in Polish. He says that the onlookers did not understand that they were in trouble. They thought they were just waving to them and started waving back. Perhaps I could save this anecdote up for later. Meanwhile, I need a punchy opening and some quirky characters.

While the fiction writer must recognise the importance of Chekhovian realism, he must also be aware that nobody wants to read about someone whose actions are predictable. A successful character in fiction requires an element of contradiction. Oxymoronic inconsistencies are necessary to create unforgettable characters, the honest thief, the philanthropic murderer, the frightened hero. When drawing a character in a short story it is vital to establish their complexity. You must do so quickly. What better way to hint at latent duality than in the initial description?

Names are often a good starting point. A well-chosen name can go a long way to suggesting the type of person, the type of story or even the content of the story itself. Dickens understood the importance of names. Think Ebeneezer Scrooge, Wackford Squeers, Harold Skinpole. As does Martin Amis. Think Clint Smoker, Spunk Davis, Lionel Asbo. I have a long list of names lined up for possible characters. Chadwick Dial, Guy Bloke, Lars Wimoweh ………

The old man with the big green beard walking down Station Road has potential. Most men around his age in these parts do not have big green beards. I’ll pencil him in as Tom Esso. Tom Esso will have an unusual background. A circus performer, maybe, or wayward scientist or necromancer. Perhaps he had an illustrious career as a Naval spy in war-torn Asia before double-crossing the wrong people. Perhaps he lives in a yurt or is Lord Lucan. But this is to jump ahead. He could be any of these. There is no point in getting into plot detail yet but I will keep Tom Esso in mind.

While Jodie is doing the rounds of the shops with her sister, I find myself chatting to the man pushing the yellow cart along the sands. He is collecting debris that he finds on the beach. Amongst the assorted food wrappers, he has miscellaneous discarded plastic, several umbrellas, a raincoat, a dead seabird and a Nike trainer in his cart. He says he goes back and forth along the three mile stretch twice a day. I tell him I’m Philip C. Dark, the writer. He says he has not heard of me. I tell him not to worry, not many people have.

‘I’m looking for some inspiration for a story,’ I say. ‘I bet you meet some odd characters around here.’

‘I certainly do,’ he says. ‘There’s a fellow who comes down early in the morning in Naval uniform to practice his martial arts. First time I saw him waving his sword about, I was a little worried. But, he’s OK. Is that the sort of thing you are looking for?’

‘Uhu,’ I say, making a mental note.

‘And there’s the old lady with the leopard print coat who comes down, to feed the dolphins,’ he says. ‘Except that there aren’t any dolphins. She has bats in the belfry but I think she’s safe.’

‘Uhu.’

‘Oh, and there’s a couple of weird musicians, buskers I suppose you’d call them. They come down on a Sunday afternoon. The fellow plays the bagpipes and the woman plays the sitar.’

‘Bagpipes and sitar,’ I say. ‘That’s an odd combination.’

‘They have a raccoon, at least that’s what I think it is,’ he says. ‘It dances to the music.’

‘That sounds like a bit of a tourist attraction,’ I say. ‘I expect it draws the crowds.’

‘Local people seem to make an effort to stay away,’ he says ‘Round here, you see, folks mostly like sea shanties. Now, if they were to play some sea shanties, they’d be in business.’

‘Perhaps it’s hard to play sea shanties on bagpipes and sitar,’ I say, as I try to visualise the image of Rob Roy and Rani struggling to adapt their musical style to the work songs of merchant sailing vessels. Meanwhile, I am already writing the duo into my narrative.

‘Perhaps you could take a didgeridoo along,’ he says, with a straight face so I can’t tell whether he is joking or not. ‘I noticed they have a couple of nice didgeridoos for sale in the window of the charity shop up the road.’

The idea of the trio does add to the possibilities. I passed the British Heart Foundation shop on the way down and, although I can’t explain why I was tempted then to pop in and buy one of the didgeridoos.

‘Jodie and I will come down and have a listen to them tomorrow,’ I say. ‘We’ll bring the family.’

So, I have Tom Esso, Rob Roy and Rani in the bag. Between them they can add colour to the story but I am still looking a central plot to tack the pieces on to. I need an apocalyptic theme, an eerie backdrop, an unexplained emergency, the trademark elements of the Philip C. Dark brand. Where will I find the Hitchcockian McGuffin, the psychological uncertainty, the unexpected twist?

We have been to visit Jodie’s family in these parts many times now and the streets of the small seaside town are familiar. I make my way back to our cottage via British Heart Foundation taking a short cut off Nelson Street but unfortunately, they have sold both the didgeridoos.

‘A lady came in earlier and bought them both,’ the Saturday girl says. ‘She said they were for a present for her husband.’

Could it be Jodie, I wonder as I start to wander back to the cottage? Might I have mentioned the didgeridoos to her earlier?

As as I make my way along Victory Street towards Temeraire Terrace, everything that has over the years become so familiar begins to look different. There is little traffic on the roads and what cars there are all seem to be vintage models. Is there a classic car rally, perhaps? I haven’t seen one advertised. The health food shop has disappeared, along with the electrical store with the display of digital devices in the window. The cinema has changed its name and is now showing a Greta Garbo film. There are a number of horse drawn vehicles on the approach to the farriers. Farriers? There wasn’t a farriers here when I passed by earlier. And none of those game birds were hanging up outside Biggs Butchers.

When I arrive at the cottage, the door is open. Inside, John the Caretaker is fiddling with the controls on the cooker. He appears to be in a panic.

‘The timer is playing up big time,’ he says. ‘It seems to have gone back to 1935.’

Epilogue:

To paraphrase the principle of Chekhov’s Gun:

A writer should not introduce a dodgy cooker in the opening paragraphs of a story unless it is going to be used to to good effect in the story.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

 

Time and Tide Wait for Norman

timeandtidewaitfornormanTime and Tide Wait for Norman by Chris Green

Good Lord! There’s Liz Boa. I haven’t seen Liz since…… Well, since she left Grace and Favour, where we both worked. That must have been, what? Ten years ago? She went off to live in Ireland. Skibareen, I believe. Strange choice, I thought but her partner was a psychologist. Or was it a ventriloquist? Anyway, something like that and he had a job over there. …… No. Wait. He was in shipping and it was a three year contract in Cork. That was it. …….. There was always something simmering beneath the surface between Liz and I. Given different circumstances, who knows what might have happened? We came close on one or two occasions and even met up after work but we held back because we were both married.

What’s Liz doing here in Newton Abbot? She has looked after herself well. She doesn’t look a day older than when I last saw her. She still looks about thirty nine. She’s moving around the platform now. She hasn’t seen me waving. She doesn’t appear to be getting on this train. Should I get off and have a word with her? I could always catch the next train to Plymouth. There are plenty of them going that way and my appointment with the publisher isn’t until eleven thirty.

Before I have chance to act on my impulse, Liz boards the train that has just pulled in on the adjacent platform. She is heading north. I am still speculating what she might be doing in these parts when I hear a familiar voice beside me.

‘Hello Phil,’ the voice says.

It takes me a while to realise that the figure in the crimson Paul Smith suit is Andy Mann. In fact, in the end, he needs to prompt me. Andy and I used to play Sunday league football together many years ago. This, of course, was before I became lazy and my girth started to broaden. And, as you do, Andy and I lost touch. What is he doing here? When I moved down here to Devon, I hadn’t expected to see anyone from back home. After all, Scarborough is three hundred miles away. First Liz and now Andy. What are the odds?

‘Hi Andy,’ I manage to say finally as he sits himself down beside me. ‘I didn’t recognise you for a minute.’

‘I haven’t changed that much, have I, Phil?’ he laughs.

I don’t quite know how to respond to this. The thing is, that apart from the Paul Smith suit, Andy still looks the same as he did back then. Not a day older. Well, perhaps a day or two, but he certainly looks trim. He has obviously been eating his five a day and getting to the gym regularly. Ten a day, maybe along with a morning swim and an evening run. Or perhaps he has made a pact with the Devil.

‘No,’ I say. ‘You are looking well, Andy.’

‘Well, I do my best. None of us is getting any younger, Phil. Still working on that newspaper, are you?’

I have to think hard to bring to mind what he might be referring to. I conclude he must mean the Whitby Gazette. I was a sub-editor there for a short while. Now, that was a long time ago. Nineteen eighties, I’d say. Surely I’ve seen Andy more recently than this.

‘I’m a writer now,’ I say. ‘Short stories and novels. My pen name is Philip C. Dark. You may have come across something of mine. Time and Tide Wait for Norman, my last collection of short stories sold well. In fact, I’m just off to see my publisher now to discuss some amendments to my new novel, The Knee of the Idle.

‘Hey! A novelist. That’s fantastic, Phil,’ Andy says. ‘I’m pleased for you. You’re not on holiday down here, then?’

‘No, Andy. Shelley and I moved down earlier this year,’ I say. ‘We live in Topsham. By the river.’

‘Good Lord! That’s just up the road from me. I’m in Exeter. We’ll have to meet up for a drink. I’ve just done some business in Newton Abbot and now I’m just off to Totnes to look at a car. A vintage Apparition. From a fellow from up north, as it happens. Brent Struggler.’

‘Brent Struggler! Do you know what? Brent Struggler was the name of the guy that I bought my Marauder from. Back in Scarborough. It must be the same guy. There can’t be two car salesmen with a name like Brent Struggler.’

‘I wasn’t aware of him until I moved down south. But I’m sure you are right. Brent is definitely from those parts. I’ve spoken to him a few times now. It’s a small world Phil, isn’t it?’

‘How long have you been living down here then, Andy?’

‘I came down about seven or eight years ago. I had a trial with Exeter City.’

‘Seven or eight years ago?’

‘About that, yes. It was just coming up to the General Election. 2010, it would have been.’

I start to do the maths. Andy Mann would have been forty something at the time of the trial. I realise Exeter City are in one of the lower leagues and not able to recruit young talent so easily, but still ……

Perhaps Andy has sold his sold his soul to the Devil after all. I feel suddenly strange being in his company. I avoid his question about whether he is a character in any of my books. I imagine he is joking, but with a writer, the familiar does have a habit of slipping into the narrative now and then. I continue to make superficial conversation with Andy about the issues of the day while I try in vain to come up with a plausible explanation for the apparent slippages in reality. I can’t concentrate on anything he is saying. Words bounce around in my head and rogue thoughts float in and out. I feel light-headed. As we pull into Totnes station, I feel pleased that he is getting off the train. I offer him one of my business cards. With an old friend, it seems like the polite thing to do. He takes it, shakes me firmly by the hand and tells me he will call me. He will take me for a night out, he says, in Exeter.

……………………………………………………

I think the train may have come off the track once or twice between Totnes and Plymouth or taken an unscheduled detour because when I arrive, it is half-past three in the afternoon. Perhaps I fell asleep and have been going backwards and forwards on the same train for several hours. Time is all over the place and no-one at the station seems to be able to explain what might have happened. They just look at me as if I am mad. My brain is certainly doing somersaults, my clothes are a mess and I seem to have lost my phone. I’m not sure what to do but I don’t want to get back on a train so I start walking into the city looking for a place to have a snack and a cup of tea.

I went to Rex Cardiff’s funeral, so I know that he is dead. I listened while his close friends delivered heartfelt eulogies. I watched the pallbearers lower the wooden box into the ground. So, what is he doing here at Costa Coffee in Plymouth? Living and breathing. And by the looks of it enjoying a double espresso. I do a double take but there’s no mistaking Rex. He has looked exactly the same since the first time I met him. He has the same 1970s haircut, the same round glasses and the same brown leather bush hat. Those are probably the same pair of shiny looking skin-tight jeans from back then too. And, of course, he has the ubiquitous Sainsburys carrier bags, three of them inside one another apparently, to carry around his hip flask, his paperback books, his soldering irons and his Tom Waits album. It is Rex Cardiff’s voice, though, as he holds forth about the history of the Isle of Wight Festival, that really gives the game away. That strident articulation of flowery language that he is using to familiarise the unsuspecting stranger in Costa with one of his favourite topics. His BBC voice has the faintest trace of Scouse vowels to dampen it, the legacy of his three years at Liverpool University reading Oceanography, he once explained. Rex was the inspiration for Reuben, a character in my short story, Wolf in Cheap Clothing. I can see the stranger is feigning interest in Rex’s monologue but at the same time seems anxious to get away. I want to get away too.

Seeing Liz Boa and Andy Mann, unexpectedly, out of context and untainted by the passing of time was, to say the least, unnerving. Seeing Rex, long since dead and buried, is in all its implications, terrifying. As my tea cup crashes to the floor, I am conscious that my body is making involuntary movements. People are staring at me. How can they know what is wrong? How can they know that the man with the loud voice three tables down is supposed to be dead? His voice is echoing around the walls. The room is spinning. The floor is where the ceiling should be. I feel I am going to pass out.

I find myself on a bench on Plymouth Hoe near the imposing statue of Sir Francis Drake, looking out onto the Sound. How long have I been here, staring into the beyond, I wonder? The water in the historic bay, silver against the stacked cumulostratus, seems still as if there is no tide in these parts. The ship on the horizon, moving slowly from side to side, is little more than a dab of battleship grey. There is barely a sound, save for the blackbird’s song from a nearby tree. This situation should be calming but I can’t shake off the feeling that something is very wrong. How can I dismiss the unlikely series of events leading up to this? Is there a common thread that links the sightings of Liz, Andy and Rex? And where does Brent Struggler fit in?

‘You only have yourself to blame for your …….. fragile state of mind,’ says a tall man, who appears out of nowhere. ‘What goes around, comes around.’

I don’t recognise him. Yet, at the same time, something about him is disturbingly familiar. He wears a scuzzy seersucker suit several sizes too small. He has an unsightly scar leading up to his forehead. He walks with a limp and wears an eye-patch over his left eye. Where, I wonder, can I possibly know this reprobate from?

‘You don’t appear to know who I am, do you, Phil?’ he says. ‘But, you should. Oh yes! You definitely should. You should know me very well.’

‘I have the feeling that I ought to recognise you,’ I say. ‘But, I can’t for the life of me work out where from.’

‘You should know me like a father knows a son,’ he continues. ‘I’m practically family. After all, Philip, I am your brainchild.’

‘N n n norman,’ I stammer. ‘You’re Norman? From my story, Time and Tide Wait for Norman?

‘Bravo, Philip! You’ve got it at last. Norman Norman. Your very own creation. I’m like flesh and blood and that should have counted for something. But, look how you treated me. Take a good look at me, will you? You made me half-blind. You gave me a limp. You made me wear these ill-fitting clothes. You gave me these hideous features. All in the interest of a story. Not only that but your title, the one that you thought was so clever, was misleading. Time and tide didn’t wait for me, did they, Philip? You subjected me to humiliation after humiliation. You were merciless. Wouldn’t you agree that it is payback time?’

I am scared. What’s written on the page should stay on the page and not leap into the everyday. I look anxiously around me, wondering what is going to happen next. It is then that I spot the brightly coloured Wessex Theatre Company van.

It takes me a few more moments to register that this is the direction that Norman came from. Didn’t I also see the same van earlier on my way to Costa Coffee? And somewhere else too? Might it have been Newton Abbot? Suddenly, everything seems to fall into place. I only wish I had realised at the time that Liz, Andy and Rex were actors too. Surely, I should have picked up on the niggling little things about them that did not add up. The whole business appears to have all been an elaborate set-up. I think I know who is behind it. If you are ever invited to be the guest reviewer of the literary pages of the Wessex Courier, be careful what you say about other writers’ works. Some, it seems, will stop at nothing to exact their revenge.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Rainy Day Women

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Rainy Day Women by Chris Green

How many roads must a man walk down, wonders Dylan Song? He feels he has been trudging around the streets of Dalmouth for ages, yet he still can’t find the café where he is due to meet Frankie Lee. He seems to be going round in circles and getting nowhere. Perhaps he should not have left the car in the car park, then he would have been able to drive around slowly, keeping an eye out for the place. There seem to be a few streets without double yellow lines and at this time of year, plenty of spaces, so he could have easily nipped in once he had found the place. Or better still, he should have bought a map. To add to this, there is next to no wi-fi coverage here in Dalmouth. Why does he always imagine that things will be simple when they never turn out to be? Due to the nature of his quest, he could not use his phone to call anyone even if he were able to get a signal because of the security implications. Who is the Frankie Lee he has to meet, he wonders and why on earth are they meeting in the small coastal town of Dalmouth anyway? For that matter, who are the people he is working for? So many questions.

The early morning February drizzle has now turned to rain. At least Dylan Song had the foresight to wear his Drizabone overcoat. This will protect him against hard rain, torrential rain even. But, he can’t keep walking around hoping for the best. Maybe he took the name of the road down wrong or something. The thin man with the pill box hat selling newspapers outside the Tesco Metro looks as if he might be familiar with the area.

‘Do you know where Grand Street is,’ he asks?

‘Sorry, guv. Not heard of it,’ says the thin man. ‘Where is it you are looking for?’

‘The Bean Me Up Café,’ Dylan says.

‘No. That’s a new one on me,’ says the thin man. ‘You sure you got the right name?’

Dylan shows him the piece of paper that it is written on, along with the name of the street.

‘Don’t know it, I’m afraid, guv, but if you want a good cup of tea you could try the Silver Saxophone Café on Fourth Street.’

Surely there is not a café called the Silver Saxophone, he thinks. Does he mean the Silver Kettle, perhaps? Anyway, he doesn’t want a cup of tea. He wants information from someone called Frankie Lee.

He asks two rain-drenched women waiting in the queue for the Number 2 bus and the man in the trench coat selling The Big Issue outside of Peacocks but none of them have heard of Grand Street or the Bean Me Up Café. Dylan thinks it would be a good idea to try the library. He can log on to a computer there to find what he is looking for. But, he finds that since the cuts, Dalmouth Public Library is only open on Tuesday morning and Friday afternoon, and it is Thursday. A pretty poor service, he thinks, for a town of 12,000 people. It suddenly occurs to him that he may have even got the name of the town wrong. This might explain why he cannot find The Bean Me Up Café. As he recalls, he did take down the details in a hurry. It would be an easy mistake to make. There are several rivers coming down from the moors, each meeting the sea at a town ending in mouth. Might it be Drainmouth he is looking for? On the Drain estuary, Drainmouth is just fifteen miles along the coast, just past the historic village of Touchwood.

Apart from being a favourite place for invasions in years gone by, Drainmouth is mainly famous for its annual Jazz Festival which takes place each February. Out of character perhaps for the otherwise sleepy town, the festival attracts some of the bigger names in international jazz. As Dylan drives along the coastal road he sees advertising for the festival everywhere, banners, posters and roadsigns. The local radio station is broadcasting live from the event. Today is the first day. The headliner is Belgian saxophonist, Toussaint Thibault and at the weekend, The Milton Chance Quintet are playing.

His worry now is that when he finds Bean Me Up, he is going to have missed the rendezvous. He was supposed to be meeting Frankie Lee at 11 and the midday news is now coming on the radio. As he drives across the road-bridge over the estuary into Drainmouth, his phone springs into life. This is the first time he has had a signal today. The area has the worst coverage in the whole country, the chatty traffic control officer told him when he picked up his car. One after another, a dozen or so messages ping. He decides these can wait. He is still looking out for Grand Street, when a call comes in. It is not a number from his phone contacts but he takes the call.

‘Jones here,’ says the voice. He cannot recall having heard Mr Jones’ voice before, yet somehow it is familiar. It sounds muted, as if it is coming from far away. But at the same time, it seems very close. ‘I’ve just had Lee on the phone. I’ll overlook the breach in security for now but where in God’s name were you?’

‘Mix up with the towns,’ says Dylan Song. ‘I am in Drainmouth now, on my way to the café.’

‘Well, Song! Let’s get down to it then. Time is of the essence. We know that there is a jazz festival taking place in Drainmouth but some other very strange things are also going on. Your mission is to find out what these are, how they might be connected and who or what is behind them. Lee has the details. She will assist in anyway she can.’

She? Did Mr Jones say, she? He had assumed that Frankie Lee was a man.

‘You’ve got that, then,’ says Mr Jones. ‘You’re on to it.’

‘Yes, I think so. Something is happening and you don’t know what it is,’ says Dylan Song. ‘Do you, Mr Jones?’

‘Exactly!’ says Mr Jones. ‘Now I’ve told Lee she has to wait at The Bean Me Up Café until you get there, so get your arse down there PDQ. And no more slip-ups.’

He parks the car and takes a look at the street plan in the car park. Grand Street is close by and fortunately, the rain has stopped. Although it is still early in the day, there is a bustle about the place as animated groups of colourfully dressed people file through Drainmouth’s higgledy-piggledy streets.

Dylan Song finds Frankie Lee at a table outside the Bean Me Up Café. Her table is under a striped awning and sheltered from the rain. She is drinking a posh coffee, a doppio ristretto or something. Although they have not met, he realises who Frankie is straight away. He was told to look out for a blonde and this woman is blonde but she also has that mystifying blend of charisma and aloofness that you find sometimes with people working in covert operations, that unexplainable curiosity and otherness that makes for a successful psi investigator. In a word, she seems like someone who can find things out. Dylan Song orders a banana pancake, sits himself down and introduces himself.

‘So, what’s it all about,’ he says?

‘You are familiar with jazz and its characteristics, I take it,’ Frankie Lee says.

‘I have a few Bill Evans CDs,’ he says. ‘And the odd tune by Miles Davis, but I wouldn’t say I was an expert.’

‘Jazz is, of course, a broad church but basically, it uses syncopation,’ Frankie continues. ‘Rhythmic stresses are placed in the music where they wouldn’t normally occur. Improvisation and deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre make the music unpredictable. Jerky and smooth at the same time if you like. This is kind of hard to get your head around but it looks as if jazz might be spilling over into real life here in Drainmouth.’

‘I couldn’t help but notice a little merriment and frolicking on the streets,’ Dylan says. Look at those guys over there. They are really going for it.’

‘That’s not quite what I mean,’ Frankie says.’According to the regulars at The Jack of Hearts, the tide didn’t come in at all last night.’

‘But it is a pub,’ Dylan says. ‘They probably had a lock-in to sing sea shanties or whatever it is

they do round here and had one or two too many.’

‘That’s as maybe,’ Frankie says. ‘But the landlord tells me the tide is coming in like a freight train this morning.’

‘He’s probably mad as a hatter.’

‘Maybe. But, there are other odd things going on. You may not have noticed it yet but all the clocks in the town have stopped. Now, this in itself might have a simple explanation if they hadn’t all stopped at different times. Take a look at your wristwatch.’

‘It has stopped. Five to twelve. That’s about the time I arrived here.’

‘Mine says 11:11.’

‘And look! The one in the café says 3 o’clock.’

’12:35 on that one. That’s about right, isn’t it?”

‘How long do you think we have?’

‘I don’t know. The traders at the market say it has been raining ……… time. Minutes and seconds falling from the skies, they are saying. Something is definitely wrong here.’

‘It is an odd place, isn’t it?’ says Dylan. ‘There are one or two mysteries for us to solve.’

‘But connected, wouldn’t you say?’

The barista brings Dylan Song’s banana pancake over. A familiar tune is playing inside the Bean Me Up Café. In a strange time signature. Dylan Song racks his brain but he can’t make out what it is and he feels it would be helpful to know.

‘You’d better be quick with that pancake,’ Frankie Lee says. ‘It’s time to go.’

As they leave to make their way through the town, they are sucked up into the carnival atmosphere. Jazz is playing everywhere. Dylan is overwhelmed by the confusion of tunes on offer. It is hard to separate one from another. He can even hear a Salvation Army band playing a Dixie tune. That’s the band, he thinks. Trombone, tuba, piano, bass, percussion. That’s the one.

‘Time’s up, Mr Jones,’ says a familiar voice. ‘Please, can you answer the question.’

The answer comes to him. ‘Rainy Day Women Numbers 12 and 35,’ he says. ‘The track on the album, Blonde on Blonde where Dylan uses a Salvation Army-style brass band is Rainy Day Women Numbers 12 and 35.’

‘Correct, Mr Jones,’ says the smiling host. ‘Congratulations! You have got all the questions right on your specialist subject, The Songs of Bob Dylan. You have won the South West Quizzer of the Year 2017.’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part 4

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The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part 4 by Chris Green

I thought that I had put the character of Wet Blanket Ron to bed. I had written three stories in the Wet Blanket Ron series and I felt that this was probably enough. No writer wants to keep going over old ground. But every now and again one or other of my readers would ask the question, ‘when is there going to be a new Wet Blanket Ron story?’ One particular reader on a site called looksee.com, where I sometimes posted, read my stories on the train to break up her long commute. She had put in regular requests for a reprise. Ron was her favourite fictional character, she said. ‘Please give the hapless loafer another outing.’

It became harder and harder to resist the idea. I suppose this is how J. K. Rowling must have felt with her Harry Potter stories. To persist with such a weak premise for so long, I can only assume she was utterly inundated with requests for yet another episode in the life of the smug boy wizard and found her publishers leaning heavily on her to deliver one.

Every writer bases his characters, at least in part, on someone from real life. Even the most unlikely characters have their origins in the real world. Hanibal Lecter, the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs, for instance, was based on the murderous gay Mexican doctor Alfredo Ballí Treviño. Basil Fawlty, the volatile hotelier in the sitcom was based on Donald Sinclair, proprietor of the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay. Don Draper, the Lothario ad-exec in Mad Men was inspired by Dan Daniels, the creator of the Marlboro Man. The Very Hungry Caterpillar was based on a real life caterpillar that was very hungry, and so on. I originally based the character of Wet Blanket Ron on a ne’er do well I knew called Dale Loveless.

I have found that authenticity pays dividends when plotting a new story. So long as there is a degree of realism present, readers are able to identify with what is happening in the narrative, however fantastical the premise might otherwise be. In order to get some inspiration for the task ahead, I thought I had better bite the bullet and try to find out what he had been up to. I hadn’t heard from Dale in a very long time. What cruel misfortune, I wondered, had befallen Dale since we last met? What grave injustice had he been the victim of recently? There was sure to be something suitably downbeat to use as source material.

When I last heard news of Dale, it was looking as though he might do a stretch in prison for smuggling Swiss watches into the UK. He had, of course, been a mule but with his record, it was unlikely that he would be able to convince the court that this was the case. In the last instalment of the Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron, for which I had required a surreal scenario, I had fictionalised this episode into an unwitting Wet Blanket Ron smuggling packets of time out of Greenwich Observatory. I had left a bit of a cliffhanger but had not gone back to this.

Assuming that Dale had been sent down, it was probable that he was out by now. While I had no contact number or address for him and could find no references to him on social media, I figured that Annette Lard would know. She was one of the very few people that had stood by him through thick and thin. I think they grew up together or saw the same psychotherapist or something. I went in to see Annette in BestBet where she worked.

‘Hi, Annette. You keeping well?’ I said.

She was. I left it at that. I did not want to go into the ins and outs of Annette’s chaotic life.

‘I don’t suppose you’ve seen anything of Dale Loveless,’ I said.

‘Sorry, babes,’ she said. ‘I haven’t seen Dale for a while.’

‘He’s probably still in prison, then,’ I said.

‘No. He’s out, at least he was. He came in and put a ton on Can’t Lose at 10 to 1 in the Wetherspoons Handicap Chase. Let me see, that would have been back in February. Can’t Lose fell at the second to last. It looked as if it was going to romp home as well.’

‘I guess that sums Dale up,’ I said.

‘I guess so. He had his head in his hands all the way through the race. It was as if he never expected it to win,’ she said.

I wondered if Pete Free might know where Dale was hiding out. Pete had known Dale for even longer than I had. I believe they had been in college together. Or perhaps not been at college together. I think this was in the days when being at college was different from actually attending lectures. I called in at Pete’s place on the off-chance he might know where I might find Dale. Pete invited me in and before I knew it he had given me a large spliff to look after. I hadn’t smoked in years and by the time I left, I was completely off my head. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember much of the conversation we had had but I think the gist of it was that he hadn’t seen Dale, had no desire to see Dale and had no idea where I might find him. Oh, and that our universe was a hologram, and we were floating inside of it.

‘Does Dale know you’ve been writing about him?’ asked Misty Silver, the manager of the Emmaus charity shop in the High Street where he had once worked. It was an innocent enquiry on her behalf, but, no, Dale didn’t know.

‘Would he recognise his character anyway?’ I said. ‘Most people don’t recognise themselves. Either that or they think a more favourable character in the story is based on them.’

Did Dale perhaps think of himself as a Dry Blanket Ron? Could I have written his character to be cheerier and less accident prone? I explained to Misty that this would have taken some of the edge out of the plots. There would have been considerably less drama in the first story for instance if Ron had not been knocked down by a hit-and-run driver in Black Dog Way and if Ron’s wife had not run off with his best friend, Frank while he was in hospital or if he had not contracted norovirus while he was in there and had not been evicted by his unscrupulous landlord, Kostas Moros when he was discharged. This is the way popular fiction works. The reader expects things to go wrong. Ups and downs are necessary in drama to create tension. War and Peace would have died a death if it had been called Peace and Peace. No-one would have turned out to see Romeo and Juliet if the Montagues and the Capulets had got along. Where The Wild Things Are wouldn’t have captured a child’s imagination if the things weren’t wild. And so on.

Perhaps this was the answer. In the absence of any new material, I could adapt one of the classic plots from literature. Ron’s farm could be engulfed by a dust cloud and he could struggle to take his starving family across country to California. Ron could traipse around Dublin bars for twenty four hours while his wife was unfaithful. Ron could wake up one morning transformed into a large verminous creature. He could steal a fast car and crash it and get twenty years in prison and escape as a washerwoman to reclaim his family seat from the weasels. Realistically, though, none of the famous novel plots was a contender.

There continued to be no word on Dale Loveless. I wasn’t getting anywhere with inspiration for my story. I needed another example of Dale’s misfortune to rival the classic of his being attacked by a swarm of wasps on his wedding day, Friday 13th May, bitten by a shark on their belated honeymoon and mugged outside the court at their divorce hearing. This tale of woe had fitted perfectly into my second Wet Blanket Ron story. To try to locate Dale, I even managed to get my friend in the police, Sergeant Robyn Constable to look him up on the police computer but he had disappeared from their records. I asked Robyn if this was unusual and she said that it was unheard of. The police computer was very thorough with access to thousands of databases. Perhaps he had changed his name or something, she suggested.

I was on the verge of giving up the idea of a new Wet Blanket Ron story. After all, it wasn’t as if I had committed to the project. I didn’t have a publisher breathing down my neck. I could easily get on and write something else. I wasn’t short of ideas. There was the one that was forming about time standing still and the one about the devastation caused by all the world’s computer systems going down simultaneously. But I suppose, deep down, I was rather fond of my creation, not least because of all the fans Ron seemed to have online. It would have been nice to give Wet Blanket Ron a final outing.

It happened out of the blue. As a compassionate human being, it wasn’t the news that I wanted to hear, but when Marlin Snider phoned me at six in the morning, I knew that something was wrong. I hadn’t seen Marlin since the Cocteau Twins reunion concert. He did not beat around the bush. He came straight out with the details. To re-appropriate the celebrated Oscar Wilde quote, to get knocked down once on Black Dog Way might be regarded as misfortune; to get knocked down twice on Black Dog Way looked like carelessness. Dale Loveless, it appeared, was both unfortunate and careless. It was unfortunate too that the accident occurred on the one day that ambulance drivers were on strike. Because of the delay, Dale died in the back of a cab on his way to hospital. But, it’s an ill wind, and all that. The accident has given me some ideas for my Wet Blanket Ron story.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

The Way We Were

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The Way We Were by Chris Green

It was Monday morning and I was not particularly pressed for time. I was off work as a result of an old Pilates injury flaring up. I had been told to rest. I was sorting out some matters that in my busy schedule at the kite repair workshop I never got the chance to attend to. I had updated all of the firewalls, spyware programs and virus checkers on the computer, cleaned the hard drive, and found five friends on Facebook. I had arranged for a tree surgeon to come and take a few feet off the weeping willow in the back garden, contacted the council about the broken streetlights, booked the car in for its MOT, and cleared the mouldy vegetables from the back of the carousel. Although my partner, Danuta, was on the face of it very thorough in cleaning the house, the kitchen cupboard seemed to be one area that escaped her attention.

I spent the rest of the morning watching a welcome repeat of The History of the Harmonica on one of the new Freeview Channels, and over a light lunch, a special report on the prisoners’ strike. This was now into its fifth day with no signs of the prisoners’ demands for an extra £5 per week and a shorter working week being met. ‘The cost of drugs has gone up loads,’ one prisoner who was interviewed had said as justification for their action. ‘Why don’t we just beat the bleep bleep out of them?’ a warden had said not realising that he was on camera. In summing up the presenter, Giles Trevithick took the view of Foucault that perhaps prison was part of a larger carceral system that could not fail to produce offenders, and did nothing to offer a place in society for them if they reformed. It was surprising only that standoffs such as the current one did not occur more frequently.

I had just switched over to the Fishing Channel to watch the semi-finals of the Mid Wales Regional Angling Championships when there was a knock at the door. I was not expecting anyone so, at first, I let it go, but Alan, our Giant Schnauzer, started barking feverishly, so I got up to answer it. Perhaps it was Danuta, home early from her part-time job at the Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre, I thought, but then, she would have a key. Unless she had forgotten it. She had been in a bit of a fluster this morning after Alan had vacated on the hall carpet. ‘You should take him for more walks,’ she had shouted up the stairs. I reminded her that I had been told to take it easy; Dr Shipman had been quite specific on this point.

I found the key and opened it. Standing at the door was Eddie. To say I was shocked would not be an adequate appraisal of the situation. I hadn’t seen Eddie since I was twelve years old. Not since the incident with the cat…… I did a quick calculation. This would have been 1966. The thing was the Eddie that stood across the threshold with a football under his arm still seemed to be twelve years old. He even wore the same red Manchester United football shirt that I remembered with long sleeves and the number 11 on the back and the same green and white Gola Harrier trainers that he had been so proud of back then. He hadn’t changed a bit. He still had the same lank ginger hair and freckles. And the small mark over his left eyebrow where Nick had punched him outside our house and the blood had run down his face. Dad had had to take him to hospital to have four stitches. This definitely seemed to be the very same Eddie. The same gap between his front teeth which seemed too large for his mouth and made him look a little goofy.

Hi,’ he said in a blasé fashion as if he had seen me yesterday. There was no hint of surprise or curiosity on his face. He did not seem to notice that I had changed. That I was over forty years older, with a fuller figure, less hair, and some unsightly facial scars.

Wanna come down the rec,’ he asked.

Eddie had always been the one to organise the kick-arounds. He was the one who owned the football. If his team was losing or if he was having a bad game, he would just say ‘it’s my ball’ and head off home with it, leaving me and Mart and Malc and whoever else was playing stranded. Before that, he had been the one who had the Scalextric or the train set. He was the one whose house we would be able to go round to. He was an only child so his parents had a tendency to spoil him. He was always the first one to have the new trainers or the new football shirt or the new Kinks LP.

Eddie was bouncing the ball now with some vigour, clearly waiting for a reply. I thought perhaps that going to the rec was a little impractical as the rec he was referring to was three hundred miles away. And of course, there was my Pilates injury to consider. I asked him to come on in for a minute, hoping that the improbable situation would somehow resolve itself.

He came in and made his way through to the kitchen. I offered him a glass of Tizer. He remarked on the groovy new bottle. This was the first sign that he might be noticing a time warp.

The phone rang. I let it ring a while thinking perhaps it would make Eddie feel that he was being ignored if I took the call. The phone kept on ringing and Alan started barking at it, so I went into the front room and answered it. It was Danuta to tell me that she would be working late. Magda and Kinga had not turned up for work and things were pretty manic at the Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre. Fridge magnets had apparently featured on a lifestyle programme on Sky and there was a bit of a run on them. She had to go, she said, as there was a queue of people at the desk wondering what would be the best thing to put on their Smeg. I did not get the chance to tell her about our visitor. I wondered momentarily whether Danuta might be having an affair. This was the third time this month that there had been a television-led demand for fridge magnet advice. I dismissed the thought. If she were playing away there would be other signs, like lingerie catalogues coming through the mail, or new bottles of perfume appearing with inappropriate names like Bitch or Hussy. I made a mental note to phone the centre later to see who answered. Meanwhile, I had to get back to Eddie.

On returning to the kitchen there was no sign of Eddie, just an empty glass on the work surface by the fridge. I quickly scurried around the house, then the garden, but there was absolutely no trace of him. He had vanished.

I did not think I would be able to concentrate on the Mid Wales Regional Angling Championship, so I decided to pop to the supermarket to buy some garbanzo beans and some taboule. I had also noticed when I was cleaning out the carousel that we were getting a little low on guacamole and cactus leaf strips. Although Waitrose was not far, I decided to drive. I had recently, against all advice, bought a Chrysler PT Cruiser. The Honest John website had likened it to ‘a Ford Prefect on steroids’, and this was one of the better reviews. Now, even the novelty of its retro styling had worn off, which is why I had got it so cheap. It seemed to get from A to B though, albeit with alarming under-steer on corners.

I had not seen Ros since the spring of 1974 when we had had a brief fling. So imagine my surprise when there she was at the delicatessen counter. With her shoulder length reddish blond hair and flirtatious smile, she was unmistakeable. She was exactly as I remembered her. She had not changed one bit. Her eyes still sparkled the way that they had and she still wore the same pale blue eye shadow and a light coat of black mascara around them. Everything about her seemed suddenly familiar. She even had on the same cheesecloth top that I had bought her from Jean Machine and a pair of flared FU’s jeans with a wide Biba belt. I remembered our first date. We had gone to see The Way We Were, and half way through I had said, ‘this film is rubbish, let’s go back to my place’ and to my surprise, she had agreed.

Back then she was studying to be a chef and around May time, she had found herself with a heavy schedule of exams. With Ros busy revising, I had time on my hands and one night went to the Uzi Bar and come home somewhat worse for wear with a barmaid called Lola. Ros found out that I had slept with Lola when she came round next day and found a bracelet in my bed. I had not heard from her again.

However despite the intervening years, she now appeared to instantly recognise me. And despite my erstwhile infidelity, she greeted me with a big hug and seemed keen to ‘catch up’. Still in a state of disbelief, I struggled hard to find the right words to say, in fact, any words at all. When finally I managed to ask her what she was doing now, she said she was studying to be a chef and had a heavy schedule of exams.

I don’t know if Ros became distracted by the range of Scandinavian furniture and modern art prints in the store or if she was just spirited away, but during the time the delicatessen assistant was weighing out my pitted green olives and taramasalata, she disappeared. I searched the store high and low and even got the shift supervisor to ask for her on the tannoy, but there was no sign.

As I drove away from the store my head was in turmoil. I ran through a red light by Marcello’s All Day Breakfasts, narrowly missing a Murco tanker, and almost mowed down an old lady and her Jack Russell on the zebra-crossing by the Fat Elvis Burger restaurant.

I had read enough of the self-help books that Danuta brought home from the community library to know that I had to pull myself together and get a grip. Perhaps Louise L. Hay or James Redfield had not expressed it exactly in these terms but this seemed to be the general gist of their message. I put my Brian Eno CD on to relax me and tried breathing deeply as I had learned in Yoga. I pulled in by the stretch of water by the leisure centre and sat there for a few minutes, listening to the calming cries of the coots and the moorhens. I closed my eyes and tried to gather my thoughts. I told myself that whatever was happening I was not in a life-threatening situation. Everything could be resolved in fifty-five minutes. This according to someone, whose name escaped me, was the amount of time it should take to adjust to a new situation over which you had no control.

I stretched my legs with a gentle stroll around the park, gradually gaining my self-control. A few joggers were out taking their early evening exercise and one or two people were out walking their dogs. When I noticed that the black collie-retriever bounding towards me looked a lot like Barry, my first thought was that I must have been daydreaming. A lot of dogs look alike. I made a quick calculation. Barry would be about 35. He would surely have died years ago. The dog barked excitedly as he approached. He nuzzled against my leg and then stood on his hind legs with his front paws against my chest, licking my upper arm affectionately. I quickly identified the heavily chewed black leather collar and the gouge on his neck where the fur was missing, the result of Barry’s tussle with a Staffordshire Bull Terrier in the car park at The Gordon Bennett. In the next instant, we heard a loud whistle and Barry went bounding back across the park. I called out to the disappearing figure of Janice in the distance. Janice seemed not to hear. I called again. She did not look around. She was perhaps a hundred yards away but I felt sure it was her, even though she had to the best of my information moved to France shortly after we’d split up in 1983. The tie-dyed green denim jacket and the hennaed hair gave it away. This was how Janice would have looked in around 1983. She had a Walkman on. Probably, although I could not be sure, the one that she used to listen to her Joni Mitchell cassettes on. I stumbled on a patch of rough ground, and before I knew it, she and Barry were getting into the blue Chevette estate that we had bought together at the car auction. I remembered us bidding nervously. Neither of us knew much about cars. We had bought it for £550. I hadn’t seen a Chevette in years; they were not renowned for their durability. This one though seemed to be running well. It moved away with a healthy purr. I looked back. My car was parked too far away to think about driving after her.

The irregularities of spacetime were disturbing. Supernatural forces should remain in the realm of the imaginary. But this temporal upheaval was seemingly real. It was happening, now, and to me. I was scared. I felt like vomiting, my hands were shaking, and I was sweating like a Brazilian on the Victoria Line. Had I unwittingly uncovered a portal for parallel worlds, been sucked into the hypothetical wormhole? I had read about such things in Asimov and J. G. Ballard short stories and, but not given them much credence. It took a good deal of Pranayama breathing and another fifty five minutes of consolidation before I could get up from where I was now crouching. People were coming up to me and asking me if I was all right. A gnarled old crone with a bichon frise attempted to call an ambulance, a scarecrow with a limp offered me a pull on his hip flask, and a rangy Goth with a hair lip tried to sell me some ketamin.

No amount of deep breathing, philosophical principles or stress management techniques could have prepared me for my next encounter, however. Returning to the Chrysler and noticing that the fuel gauge was low, I stopped at the BP filling station to fill up. There, at the adjacent pump, someone was putting fuel into a black Fiat Uno. I recognised the registration plate instantly. It was the Fiat I had owned in 1997. It took a split-second, while I did a double take, before I recognised that the figure in the brightly coloured paisley shirt and combat fatigues bore an uncanny resemblance to me, as I would have looked around fifteen years ago. A lot slimmer and with considerably more hair. This was genuinely scary. I felt a chill run the length of my spine. This was not like looking at old photos of oneself or a video; this was watching a real living, breathing human being in real time. Wasn’t it? Reality was a fragile concept it seemed. Albert Einstein had called reality, ‘an illusion but a very persistent one’. But even this statement suggested there was room around the edges of reality for leakage. Facing myself over a few feet of garage forecourt defied any rational explanation. I was frozen to the spot; I couldn’t move.

I watched as my doppelganger slowly fed the fuel into the tank. I studied his mannerisms and his gestures in slow motion and one by one acknowledged them as my own. I recognised the flick of the neck, the squint against the light showing the lines etched on the forehead, the nervous shifting of weight from one foot to the other as he stood. I remembered buying those cream Converse Allstars cut-offs from a car boot. My heart raced and I felt a tightness in my chest. No doubt about it; the individual I was looking at was me. Amidst the inner turmoil, rational questions like ‘why hadn’t my 1997 personification noticed that the petrol was a little pricey?’ or ‘did the Fiat run on unleaded?’ tried to find a place in my consciousness. These were powerfully swept away by wave upon wave of blind panic as I sensed my whole life might be collapsing into a single moment.

He replaced the nozzle in the pump, and as he did he appeared to look right at me, or right through me. I couldn’t decide which. Could it have been that he did not recognise me? Or to look at it another way, should that be I did not recognise me – now that I was older. No one really knew exactly what form their ageing would take. It was not something you would give a lot of thought to. But of course, Eddie had recognised me, and Ros had recognised me,despite my having changed significantly. And my smell must have been the same to Barry, although this was conclusive. Barry had always been quite a friendly dog.

My other swivelled round. I thought he was about to come over. What would he do? Introduce himself? What would I do? I felt my legs buckle. This was not like one of those dreams where you dream about a past episode and the texture of the scenario as it unfolds is surreal. This was in clear focus in the here and now. I was watching me in an everyday situation in broad daylight. He did not come over. He seemed to hesitate in mid stride and turned to walk in the opposite direction towards the BP shop.

I was not very good on dates but I determined that in 1997 I would have still been with Mizuki. We were very happy back then in our second-floor apartment overlooking the park. At weekends, we would take the children to the pool or go walking in the woods. I remembered Mizuki and I went to see As Good As It Gets at the Empire and realising how happy we were. Our contentment was of course not to last. I had been to see Mizuki’s cherry tree in the park recently. Someone had tied a ribbon around it with a bow. It had made me feel neglectful of her memory. I had lost touch with Sakura and Reiko a long time ago. They would have left school by now. At least, none of them were in the Uno parked at the neighbouring pump; their presence would have cranked my present nightmare up another notch.

My other emerged from the shop with an evening newspaper. I read the headline. It was about Diana’s death. Something about a mystery white car in the Alma Tunnel. As he passed he seemed to look directly at me, or through me again. He could not have been more than twenty feet away. He got into the car. As he wound down his window I detected a hint of recognition….. I didn’t detect a hint of recognition….. I wasn’t sure. My mouth opened to call out to him but no words came. He drove off. The exhaust from the Fiat was still blowing, just as I remembered it. I put the pump back without having put any fuel in the car and set out to follow him.

He turned left down Hegel Avenue. I used to live on the Philosophers’ estate. I had lived there for over fifteen years, and it occurred to me that wherever we were headed was a run that I probably had made many times. I thought back to the types of journey I would have made in the Fiat in 1997. Mostly on account of the Fiat’s unreliability these would have been short journeys. To and from work. To the shops at Kirkegaard Court. Where would I have been likely to have been going at six thirty in the evening? It must have been after I had been made redundant from Gadgets and Gizmos. I usually didn’t finish there till late. Perhaps I was going to visit Mick or Charlie. They both lived in the Schopenhauer Court flats. I might have been going to pick Mizuki up from the Sushi restaurant where she worked. I tried to recall if she had her own car back then. Memories of her came flooding back once again. We passed the Occam’s Razor pub where we used to sit out on summer evenings for a couple of halves of Old Poets.

The exhaust of the Fiat in front of me was now belching out black smoke. We seemed to be heading back on ourselves as we forked right into Rousseau Gardens. A Brimful of Asha (On the 45) read a poster outside The Codfather takeaway. This surely was an old poster. Shouldn’t they have taken it down? We passed the Mahatma Gandhi Primary School where Sakura and Reiko used to go, and then right at the Karl Marx roundabout. It began to dawn on me where we were headed. Usually I would have turned left at the Karl Marx roundabout, taking me home along Darwin Road. Turning right meant we were ………..

I woke up in the Lewis Carroll Memorial Hospital. I had sustained multiple head injuries in the accident. I could not remember very much about the actual collision, but after a few sessions with Dr. Trinidad, I recalled a little about the events leading up to it. An overweight elderly man driving an ugly black Chrysler had been tailgating me. It was a model I had not seen before. It was shaped like a hearse and its registration plate was in an unusual format.

I had first noticed this sinister character with his receding hairline and unsightly facial scars at the BP filling station. My attention was drawn to him because he was behaving very strangely. He stood there at the pump pointing the fuel hose into the air. He stared at me the whole time I was filling up. For a second, I thought he seemed familiar but I could not place where I might have seen him. The more I contemplated this, the more I imagined I had been mistaken. I put my imagined recognition down to the intensity of his gaze.

When I pulled off he got into his car, without putting in any fuel in, and started following me. He kept his distance at first. I took a right at the Karl Marx roundabout into Nietzsche Avenue and ducked into Spinoza Crescent to make certain that he was really tailing me. He was closer now. I slowed down to give him the chance to overtake but he stayed behind. I sped up trying to lose him, but the Fiat was not very fast. The last thing I remember I was driving down Descartes Drive. He was right behind me, driving like a madman.

… heading for Descartes Drive, where years ago I had been rammed by an old maniac in a forties style gangster getaway car. About fifteen years ago. I had been trapped in my …. Fiat Uno.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

STATION

station2

STATION by Chris Green

Platform One of Dark Hollow railway station isn’t where Matt wants to be. His train has never been this late. And where are the other passengers? It is now seven o’clock and he has been on the platform for an hour and a half without seeing a soul. Admittedly, Dark Hollow is a bit of a quiet backwater but in the six weeks he has been working at the research base here, Matt has never known the platform to be completely empty. It is usually buzzing at this time of day, with people on their way home from work.

For that matter, where are the other trains, the ones going up the line to Everwinter? Even if there are delays on the southbound track, surely there should have been a northbound train or two in the time he has been waiting. He puts away his paperback of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and gets up to check the timetable on the wall. According to this, it ought to be the busiest time of the day. Half a dozen trains are scheduled to stop. Something is badly wrong.

He tries to phone Mandy to let her know that he is going to be late, but his phone does not have a signal. He takes the battery out and the sim card and puts them back in. He fiddles around with Settings. Still, there is nothing. No wifi, nothing. It is Friday, so Mandy will probably be setting off for her Pilates class about now. Matt remembers that he has often seen a taxi waiting outside the station. It will be expensive, it is a long journey, but it will be worth it. He takes the exit to investigate. There is no taxi waiting today. But, there is a phone box. He can phone Mandy on her mobile and find out what is going on. If she is in the middle of her spine stretches or leg circles and does not answer, he can phone Doug or Pete. One of them will surely have a handle on what is going on. He discovers to his alarm that he has no change, but it looks as if the phone will accept cards. He inserts his Santander card, but the machine spits it out. He tries his other cards. The same thing happens.

The streets are empty, no people, no vehicles anywhere. The air is gripped by a Simon and Garfunkel silence. Has Dark Hollow been evacuated in the time he has been waiting in the station? Matt considers walking back to the base, but it is getting dark now, and it is coming on to rain. The base is nearly a mile away and even though he might be able to contact someone from there, as he does not have to work tomorrow he does not feel the inclination to retrace his steps. Perhaps next week he will start driving to work like his colleagues. In truth, he is a little scared by the idea of going back to the underground base at night. It is quite a sinister place at the best of times. He has not yet discovered what its actual function is. All he knows is that the information he handles is classified.

He goes over the footbridge to the other platform where the station office is situated. The door is locked but it submits easily to a gentle nudge from his shoulder. He tries the phone. It is disconnected. After a few deep breaths to calm himself, he decides there is nothing to be gained from panicking. There is probably a simple explanation. Meanwhile, there is nothing to do but to stay put. He can sleep on the bench in the waiting room. If a train turns up in the night then all well and good but if not, whatever emergency situation is causing the delays is certain to be sorted out by morning.

He has a night of fitful sleep, plagued by dreams of searching for missing cats and being trapped at the bottom of dried up wells. This is only broken only by an announcement over the public address system that the 5:29 train to Ramwood, calling at Fool’s Marsh and Little Holbeck and Cat Town would be 11 hours and 41 minutes late, due to an irretrievable loss. The 5:29? This is his train from yesterday evening. Clinging to the hope that the 11 hours and 41 minutes has elapsed, Matt wearily makes his way on to the platform to see what is going on. But really, the excuses they come up with for train delays. Irretrievable loss, what is all that about? And the announcer. Cat Town. Surely he means Chatton.

The platform is empty. Overnight, clumps of weeds have sprung up between the paving. A few of the station’s windows have been broken and there is some fresh graffiti. It is in a language that he does not understand. To his greater astonishment, the railway tracks have disappeared. For as far as he can see in both directions up and down the line there are no tracks. It is as if the line has been closed for years. The space has been taken over by bramble and bindweed, burdock and bracken. There are prize winning marsh thistles and even some sizeable sycamore trees growing.

Matt feels a surge of panic rise up in him. While he is aware that the work he does at the base might be sensitive, none of his training has prepared him for any eventuality like this. The prospect of a rational explanation appears to have vanished. Anxiously he investigates the area outside the front of the station. Here again, things have changed since yesterday. There is random debris strewn on the tarmac, a buckled bicycle wheel, a torn rubber boot, a shattered picture frame and a washing up bowl. There is broken glass on the pavement here and there and a build up of litter in the gutter. Yet, there is no sign of life. The streets are in the grip of the intimidating mute stillness they were yesterday.

Mandy must be worried sick by now. Either that or she is thinking he is having an illicit affair. Perhaps she thinks that he has run off with her friend, Lucy again. It was last Christmas, but Mandy doesn’t seem to have completely forgiven him for his transgressions. He needs to get back to reassure her, and soon. He takes the phone out again, but now it won’t even power up. How is he going to get back home? Back to reality? Also, might whatever has happened here be happening everywhere? Might what was accepted by everyone as reality yesterday now be gone forever?

Back on the platform of the station, Matt spots the lone figure of a man in the distance. He is a few hundred yards along the track, or what yesterday would have been the railway track. Today it is a veritable jungle. The man has a stick and is beating back the bracken. He seems to be searching for something. The railway track perhaps? Disorientated Matt might be, and terrified, but at least, he has not lost his sense of humour. He chuckles. Slowly he makes his way through the undergrowth. He can hear a faint voice. The man is calling out something, a name maybe. Perhaps he has lost his cat. Or his parrot. Or his pig. Or his monkey.

With each step, the vegetation becomes thicker until it is so dense it threatens to envelop him. The more Matt moves towards Doctor Dolittle, the further away he seems to get. Doctor Dolittle grows fainter and fainter as if he is evaporating. Finally, he vanishes altogether. Was he nothing more than a phantom, Matt wonders. ………Is he losing his mind? At least, the station was some sort of base, a place of relative safety. He turns around to make his way back there. To his horror, the station has completely disappeared. He is faced with a new terrain. He cannot even work out where the station might have been.

Matt stumbles through the wilderness, in search of something, anything, that will offer hope of escape from this surreal nightmare. He successfully avoids the swarm of wild bees that comes at him, but he does not see the gap in the ground cover until it is too late. There is nothing he can hold on to. He finds himself at the bottom of what seems to be a dried up well. The air is chilling and has the smell of damp earth, mould, moss, lichen. He is dazed. He tries to pick himself up. His legs feel weak and his shoulders, arms, and chest hurt from the impact. He tries to examine the grazes on his arms, but he cannot see his body at all. He looks up. He is only able to see is a thin slither of daylight.

He is now shaking with fear. How is he going to get out of here? The gap is narrow and the walls are sheer. There is no way he will be able to scale them. And surely the chances of someone happening by in this wilderness are minuscule. Is this it, then? A slow lingering death? He will never see Mandy again. He will never again touch her soft skin or taste her sweet lips. Nor Lucy’s, for that matter. He will never make that trip to Venice. Or see the final episode of Breaking Bad. He will never own that small jazz club that he has dreamed about. He will never live to see Crystal Palace win the Premier League. ….. Well, no change there then.

‘Hello! …… Matt!’ calls an echoey voice from up above.

‘God, am I glad to hear a voice,’ Matt shouts back.

‘I’m sorry that you fell down the well,’ says the voice. ‘I should have covered it up. Are you OK?’

‘Get me out, can you please,’ shouts Matt.

‘Don’t worry. Don’t worry. I will soon have you out of there. Let me go and get some rope.’

‘No. I don’t need any dope. I just want to get out of here.’

‘Rope! I will throw down a rope for you. ……. Just hang on there a moment.’

With this, the stranger goes off. Matt is nervous that he is not going to return. But, he is given little chance to indulge his dark despair. In no time at all the man is back and has secured a length of rope. He tosses it down. Matt catches it and climbs up to daylight.

‘I really am sorry about that, Matt,’ he says. ‘I hope you don’t mind. I’m Haruki Murakami. I noticed that you were reading a book of mine, back there at the station.’

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. Yes I was, I love it.’

‘Now! Matt! I’m doing some research round here for a new novel. It has the usual themes, murder, sex, war, jazz music from the nineteen fifties, lost cats and, of course, dried up wells, but this time there are going to be some English characters. It has a protagonist who works in covert operations, has a dark foreboding character, dreams of owning a jazz bar and is having a clandestine liaison with his wife’s friend. I do apologise, but you seem to have walked into my novel.’

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved