Be Here Now

beherenow

Be Here Now by Chris Green

1:

‘I recommend you listen to two hours of Einaudi each evening,’ says Dr Hopper. ‘His soft piano music is perfect for quiet contemplation. You will notice a remarkable improvement in just a few days.’

‘Two hours of Einaudi?’ I repeat. ‘But I like listening to experimental jazz on my iPod, when I go jogging around the heath in the evening. John Zorn, The World Saxophone Quartet, The Kilimanjaro DarkJazz Ensemble, this sort of thing.

‘And cut out the jogging altogether,’ Dr Hopper continues. ‘Exercise is no good at all for relaxation. No wonder you feel so stressed out. You need to be still. Focus the mind. Get some Rothko prints on your walls to focus on.’

I point out that Rothko had suffered aneurysm of the aorta as a result of his chronic high blood pressure and committed suicide, overdosing on antidepressants. I watched a series recently on the tragic deaths of 20th Century American painters.

‘Did he now? H’mm interesting…. All the same, his paintings instil a sense of calm. His aim was to relieve modern man’s spiritual emptiness. Take my word! You will sleep much better with the influence of Rothko’s paintings and Einaudi’s music. Try some Gorecki some evenings as well. The Third Symphony is a good place to start’

‘Isn’t that The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs?’ I say.

‘That’s the one,’ he confirms. ‘Not sorrowful at all in my opinion, though, quite uplifting in fact. I like to listen to it when I am driving to the surgery. Now, let’s see. What else can we do? I expect you’ve got a houseful of unnecessary consumer durables, probably a 60 inch TV, a laptop and a kitchen full of white goods and gadgets. Am I right?’

I nod.

‘Be a good thing too if you get rid of those too. Clear the house a bit. Too much clutter is one of the principal causes of stress. What colour are the walls of the rooms in your house?’

I conjure up a mental image of each of the rooms, in turn, a mishmash of orange, pink and purple and explain that Sandy and I don’t have a unifying colour scheme.

‘Best to paint them all blue then,’ he says.

I have not seen Dr Hopper before. He is new to the practice, and I am beginning to feel his approach to medical matters is a little unconventional. My usual practitioner, Dr Bolt is on sabbatical. Dr Bolt would have blamed my symptoms of stress on the long hours I put in at the charity shop, written a prescription for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and left it at that, but Dr Hopper seems determined to pursue a more holistic approach.

‘Phones are the worst thing for stress,’ he continues. You are constantly on edge in case they ring and so you never get to completely relax. Mobile phones are producing a race of neurotics. I get half a dozen people in here a week suffering from various neuroses and I ask them, have they bought a new mobile phone recently, and the answer is invariably yes. I take it that you have just bought a new smartphone.’

‘Last week,’ I tell him. ‘A Samsung Galaxy. It does just about everything but I still can’t work out how to make phone calls with it.’

‘You need to get rid of it,’ he says. ‘You can leave it with me if you like and I will send it to Africa.’

Why do the people of Africa need these pocket neuroses, I wonder. Aren’t their own lives already stressful enough? But I keep quiet.

Over the course of the consultation, Dr Hopper tells me to avoid red meat, red peppers, red cabbage and red wine, in fact, anything red. He tells me where I can find an Auric Ki practitioner and where the nearest Buddhist meeting is. He even gives me the contact details of a group of Yogic flyers.

When I get home Sandy is hoovering the lounge carpet, a Mashad design in a mixture of reds blues and purples, which now given Dr Hopper’s insight, does seem to clash with the orange and yellow geometric pattern of the wallpaper. Sandy is always very thorough with the Dyson, so I escape to the kitchen, to try a cup of the jasmine oolong tea that Dr Hopper recommended and am struck by just how much clutter there is. It is quite a large kitchen with enough space for a dining table, but possibly not two. How long have we had the second one, I wonder? It does make it hard to get to the sink. All the work surfaces in the kitchen are covered in blenders and toasters, slicers and grinders, squeezers and juicers, coffee machines and waffle makers.

‘Why do we need three microwaves?’ I shout through to Sandy, but she is now cleaning up behind the brocade settee with one of the new attachments she has bought for the Dyson and she does not hear me.

While looking for the kettle to boil water for my tea, I find an arsenal of new kitchen devices, an ice cream maker, a yoghurt maker, a salami slicer. I don’t know what many of the gadgets are. Is this an avocado flesh remover or a fish descaler? The competition for the most useless kitchen device seems to be fierce. The drawers are crammed so full of pea podders, tin openers, knife sharpeners, garlic crushers and mango stoners that I can hardly get them open. I begin to realise that I might have a little trouble persuading Sandy that de-cluttering the home is a remedial imperative. Most days boxes from Amazon arrive, with more prospective chaos and confusion, and some days when I come home from work early, I find a collection of catalogues from couturiers piled up on the mat in the vestibule awaiting Sandy’s approval.

Clearly what I need is a strategy. While I am sipping my soothing cup of jasmine oolong, I weigh up my options. I could start moving things that we do not use up to the loft, except that the loft is already full of things we do not use, and the garage too. I could accidentally cancel the home insurance, disconnect the intruder alarm and arrange a burglary. Too risky. And there would be the guilt and the stress of being found out. I could, of course, come right out with it and say that Dr Hopper has given me three months to live if we do not embark on a life laundry.

Sandy comes into the kitchen.

‘How did you get on?’ she asks.

‘Dr Hopper says that I have to give up jogging,’ I begin.

‘What! After I bought you that new Le Coq Sportif jogging suit and those Nike trainers. Why’s that?’

She seems to be suffering from post-hoovering tension, so I proceed cautiously. I decide to leave the Einaudi part until later. I picked up The Essential Einaudi from the specialist classical music shop on Morricone Street, along with a couple of Philip Glass CDs that he recommended. Sadly, Gorecki’s Symphony of Sad Songs was out of stock.

‘And he thinks we might benefit from living more simply,’ I continue. Including her in those benefiting might help to get her on board with the idea of a life laundry at a later date. ‘And perhaps get a nice painting or two.’

‘It was a doctor you went to see, wasn’t it? she says. ‘Not a shaman or an art dealer.’

Sandy puts on her FatFace coat dismissively. ‘I’m going to Homebase to buy a new lava lamp for the alcove in the study,’ she announces. ‘I might have a look at the sales too. Can you think of anything we need?’

‘Forty litres of moonlight blue silk paint,’ is on the tip of my tongue, but I judge that the moment is not the right one.

It does not matter, because while Sandy is out at the shops, a trip that I judged from past experience of the January sales will take all afternoon, I find some blue paint in the shed. In no time at all, I have done a passable job in rag rolling the walls of the spare bedroom. Although the room is in estate agents’ terms, compact I feel it could serve, at least temporarily, as a meditation room. Sandy has been trying to get me to decorate the room for months, and while we have not decided on the colour scheme, I feel she will soon grow to like the calming effect of blue. I am pleased to find that there is sufficient space in the loft to accommodate Sandy’s exercise bicycle, the sunbed, the standard lamp and the writing desk, which breaks down quite easily. I then turn my attention to an internet search for the recommended art work. I discover a surprising number of Rothko prints available on eBay so I order several, all of which are enigmatically titled Untitled. I feel better than I have in weeks. I have no headache or nausea or anxiety. My body feels relaxed and my breathing steady. I can hardly wait to try out the Einaudi.

Sandy returns at about six and asks me to help her in with the bags. Accessorize, Blacks, Blue, Cargo, Clarks, Debenhams, Habitat, Heals, Homebase, Holland and Barratt, Jigsaw, John Lewis, Marks and Spencer, The Body Shop, Waterstones, and White Stuff, I think, but I may have missed a few.

‘I’m exhausted,’ she says. ‘The shops were a nightmare. No evidence of austerity. I tried phoning you but the number was unavailable. Can I smell paint?’ From her tone, I detect an air of disapproval and can see trouble ahead.

2:

I meet Anisha at Transcendental Meditation classes at the community centre. We hit it off right away. We have so much in common; we both adore the music of Einaudi and Gorecki and love Rothko’s paintings, and we are both drawn towards the colour blue. Besides this, we both feel that jogging is pointless and both dislike experimental jazz. Anisha says that it sounds as if all the musicians are playing different tunes at different tempos. I agree that this just about sums it up. Anisha has also resisted the idea of having a mobile phone or even a landline and does not own a computer or a TV. It is through Anisha that I become properly introduced to the concept of minimalism as a lifestyle. Zen is a word she frequently uses.

‘Less is more,’ she is fond of saying.’An over-abundance of possessions breeds discontent. I feel free from the worries of acquiring and maintaining things that I don’t really need.’

Anisha does not ask me to move in with her immediately but at the end of February when she finds out I am sleeping in the spare room at home, she suggests it. Since her daughter has been at university, she says she misses the company and while she is at one with herself as she puts it, she would love to have a soulmate. Not that moving in with Anisha involves very much on my part. I take two holdalls of clothes, a toothbrush, my meditation mat, and a book of Haiku verse. And of course, my small collection of ambient CDs.

The interior of Anisha’s house is decorated entirely in complimentary shades of blue. Even her Rothko prints are primarily blue. The plan of the house is uncompromisingly minimalist with no bookcases, shelves or chests of drawers. All the hard furniture is built-in and the storage is behind false walls. The house is so tidy, one could be forgiven for thinking that no one has been living there. The bedrooms have foldaway beds. The living room has a blue rug and a solitary vase in one corner with a single artificial blue bloom. The kitchen shows no evidence of its culinary purpose. Even the kettle is tidied away. The only sound one can hear comes from a subtle water feature in the Japanese garden behind the contemplation room.

‘Hidden storage and a sense of order,’ she explains are the key. ‘All clutter is a form of visual distraction. Everything in our vision pulls at our attention at least a little. The less clutter, the less visual stress we have.’

She does not need to convince me. She is preaching to the converted.

Each evening after we have tidied away the wok, we listen to Einaudi in the music room. We sit in silence and let Ludovico’s trance-inducing melodies calm us. Sometimes we give each other massages with essential oils and twice a week make tantric love on the low deco bed. We both share the belief that it is beneficial to have a routine. We still go to Transcendental Meditation classes on a Monday evening. By diving within as he describes it, TM apostle, David Lynch says you can experience the field of silence and bliss and harness the enormous reservoir of energy and intelligence that is deep within all of us. This is exactly what Anisha and I are finding too. TM gives us stillness, serenity, and peace of mind. We discuss other approaches to spiritual awakening with our friends, Dream and Echo, who we met at the Monday classes. We find that they go to Tai Chi on a Tuesday, Angel Readings on Wednesday, Crystal Healing on Thursday, and Astral Projection on Friday. We briefly consider joining Dream and Echo for perhaps one of the extra classes but decide that it would be a mistake to allow our social calendar to become too crowded.

One evening, while Anisha and I are listening to Dolce Droga, I suggest that we buy a baby grand piano and learn to play. I have seen a second hand Yamaha at a reasonable price, I tell her. From Anisha’s reaction, you might think I was suggesting playing an Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers CD.

‘Where would we put it?’ she screams. I can see what she means. It would be a difficult item to hide away.

This is the closest I have seen her to becoming agitated. As a compromise I suggest we might buy a small keyboard instead. She sulks all the way through Giorni Dispari. She is clearly against the idea of anything that takes up surplus space so I do not mention the subject again.

In May, I find I have to go back to the marital home to pick up some important papers. There have been changes. Gary, a soft furnishing salesman Sandy met when she was shopping in the Avarice Retail Park, has moved in. The house now resembles a DFS warehouse, but with all the furniture crowded into about a tenth of the space. The hallway is an obstacle course and the front room barely navigable. I find the clutter deeply upsetting and feel physically sick. I can’t even get into the study to find my papers. Sandy says that she will get Gary to clear some stuff and I can come round again another time. I very nearly stop at The Black Hole Inn on the way home for a Carlsberg Special. Fortunately, the New Age radio station I have taken to listening to while driving puts on a particularly soothing piece by Brian Eno just as I am coming into the car park.

With the arrival of summer, Anisha and I make the decision that we will both work part time so we can enjoy the shade of the Japanese garden through the long afternoons. After all our needs are few, it isn’t as if we need the money. Mindfulness is the key. Through the quiet contemplation offered by the garden, we feel we can harmonise the spirit with the essence of all things. We can in the words of the great Ram Dass, be here now.

This works well through June. Listening to the gentle trickling of the water feature we feel calmer and more centred day by day. The heat of July, however, seems to increase my libido and I find myself wanting to make love more frequently. Anisha is determined to that we should stick to the routine of Wednesday and Saturday evenings. ‘Breaking routine is not healthy,’ she says. One Wednesday evening she insists that it is too hot for any activity and that she wants us to wait until the heatwave has finished before we resume our passions. I consider trying to remind her of what she said earlier about breaking a routine being unhealthy but I let it go. It is never good to have an argument so late in the day.

A couple of evenings later that I feel the urge to go jogging and ask Anisha if she would mind.

‘Jogging,’ she yells. ‘I thought you hated jogging. I suppose you’ll be wanting to listen to experimental jazz next.’

I think it best not to tell her that I have been listening to a Mulatu Astatqe and The Heliocentrics CD in the car.

By way of an apology, I bring Anisha a large spray of blue carnations which I hope might heal the rift. She, in turn, apologises for shouting at me. It seems that things are back on an even keel. That afternoon, we sip valerian tea and listen to the soft cascading of the running water in the garden. The occasional fluted warble of a blackbird provides us with music. We cook a nourishing vegan stir-fry in the wok and settle down to listen to Einaudi. Later that evening, I find that the flowers I bought her have been tidied away.

3:

Before my initial visit to Dr Hopper, I had suffered from all the classic symptoms of stress and paranoia. I was forever anxious that the phone would ring or worrying that the computer might have a virus. Had I installed the latest anti-spyware? Was the firewall up to date? Anisha had steered clear of these things. She wouldn’t even have known what a firewall was or how to send a text message. At home, Sandy and I were always on the go and there was no space. It seemed that we forever waiting for a service engineer to come for one of the electrical items that had gone wrong, or choosing this item from a new range in a catalogue or sending an item back that had been wrongly described at Amazon. The hedges needed clipping or the lawns needed mowing. The house insurance needed updating or the one of the cars’ MOT was due. The HD TV needed retuning because there were fresh channels or we had to go shopping because there was a new coffee jug in House of Fraser. Life was too short for all of this nonsense.

Since my initial de-cluttering and the very first meditation classes, I have been able to think more clearly. Even my early experiences of Einaudi and Rothko in the blue room brought about a positive change in my thought patterns. I have fallen in easily with Anisha’s obsession with harmony and things being in their proper place.

‘Be empty, be still. Watch everything. Just come and go.’ is a favourite piece of Zen wisdom of hers.

With this as my mantra, I have found living in her space calming. I feel safe. I like order and tidiness.

But now and again, I have this nagging feeling that we are missing out on something. Maybe just once in a while, it would be nice to listen to some music that has words. Or occasionally, watch a film. Is there any room for growth with the unremitting stasis of a strict routine and everything in place? Perhaps there is no need to have everything apart from the Rothko prints hidden away out of sight. The incident with the flowers has made me realise that too much is being hidden. Not just around the house, but on a personal level too. There are too many secrets. Perhaps in the months we have been together, Anisha might have opened up a little about her background and her life before we met. What, for instance, has become of her daughter who has gone off to university? She never talks about her and there are no signs of her around the house. I do not even know her name and Anisha has never once mentioned the father. Admittedly I do not talk a great deal about my past, about Sandy, or for that matter Lucy or anyone else before Lucy. And of course, I have no children. But considering all the diving within that we have been doing, it does seem bizarre that so little about Anisha’s past has surfaced. If the relationship is going to continue to work, I have to find a way of bringing things out into the open.

An opportunity arises the next day. I have just finished raking the gravel in the garden into its wave pattern and Anisha has just brought out the Tibetan tea on a flower tray. I decide to try a gentle enquiry.

‘What is your favourite childhood memory?’ I ask.

Anisha looks at me as if I have just rapped her around the head with a rifle butt. …. After I have cleared up the broken cup, I go to find her in the meditation room. By then, she has stopped crying. I put my arms around her and she responds by putting her arms around me and we stay this way for some time.

‘I’m sorry for my outburst,’ she says, finally. ‘Things have just been getting on top of me lately.

I have been wondering for a little while if we might benefit from a holiday. Something to take us out of ourselves. I recall that Dr Hopper singing the praises of Mundesley, a quiet backwater in North Norfolk with spectacular views and miles of deserted sands. He goes there every year and describes it as the perfect place to relax and be in the present moment. As I massage Anisha’s shoulders, I suggest it. I tell her about Mundesley’s blue flag beach, its rural location, the bordering fields, and its proximity to the picturesque village of Trunch. To my great surprise, she says that she will think about it.

When I get home from work a few days later, Anisha tells me she has been to the doctors. She has never mentioned going to a doctor before and, given her views, I assumed that she had always avoided medical practitioners, preferring instead new age remedies to tackle ailments. I wonder momentarily if she might be pregnant. This might explain her recent mood swings. How would I feel about being a father? I’m not sure. First thoughts are that the wheels on the bus going round and round would put substantial pressure on our minimalist lifestyle.

‘I’ve never told you this but there’s a history in my family of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,’ Anisha says. ‘So I phoned for an appointment with Dr Bolt at the local practice, but he is on paternity leave, so they gave me an appointment with Dr Hopper. He’s a new doctor, I think. Quite young with green hair. Anyway, he was very understanding and once I had given some background details, he told me that I had nothing to worry about. My behaviour is perfectly normal, exemplary in fact. Rituals are healthy and to be encouraged and that my life sounds very harmonious. He was pleased to hear that I did not overdo the exercise or go jogging.’

I decide there is nothing to be gained by telling her about my earlier visit to Dr Hopper.

‘He approves of Einaudi,’ she continues. ‘In fact, he lent me a new CD. And he feels it is good that I am a vegan. But he told me to be careful of red peppers and red cabbage.’

‘Which we don’t eat anyway,’ I say.

‘He suggests I might need a holiday, a change being as good as a rest. He said he knows just the place and you’d never guess where he goes every year with Mrs Hopper.’

‘No,’ I lie. ‘I probably wouldn’t be able to guess.’

‘Go on! Guess!’ she prompts.

‘All right, Poland.’ I say. It is good to see that she is being playful. The meditative life can be a little intense at times.

‘Now you’re being facetious. They go to Mundesley, in North Norfolk,’ she beams excitedly. ‘Dr Hopper describes it as a quiet backwater with spectacular views and miles of deserted sands. He says he thinks I would enjoy it there. He says that there is a meditation centre nearby and a Reiki practitioner in the village. So, I think we should go. This is synchronicity, don’t you see.’

I agree that it is an astonishing coincidence.

‘How did you hear about Mundesley?’ she asks.

I am prepared for this. ‘My parents used to take me to Cromer,’ I lie. ‘Just a few miles up the coast.’

I go on the internet at the library and do a search on Mundesley to make sure that it is going to be quiet enough for us at the end of September. I discover little of any note happens after the end of the summer holidays. All of the accommodation in the area appears to be vacant and I have no trouble in finding us a small cottage in between Mundesley and Trunch with a super-king sized double bed and a French window which opens out onto the patio. It does not have a TV or a telephone I am told by Margery Gedge when I enquire. And it is, she confides, a long way from a shop, so we would need to bring provisions. It sounds perfect.

4:

The cottage is pretty much as it was described, compact but offering peace and quiet in beautiful scenery. Tranquil and secluded were the favoured terms in the brochure Mrs Gedge sent. The cottage is built of Norfolk flint and has a small flagged patio with a cherry tree. The rooms are small but quite tidy. Even so, Anisha manages to find a few items that need putting away, kitsch ornaments, pictures of boats, and the rubber plant. There is enough room under the stairs for most of the unsightly bric-a-brac, but the glass fronted bookcase with its collection of Danielle Steel and Dick Francis paperbacks does not fit and she has to cover it with a throw. We read through the visitors’ book and notice the cottage had been occupied infrequently over the summer months. Among the comments was one from a Sandy and Gary, saying kitchen poorly equipped, no cappuccino machine and only one microwave. We are briefly taken aback but reading on we notice that this pair are from Essex, so it must be a different Sandy and Gary.

Sadly there is no CD player to play the Debussy CD I bought Anisha for her birthday. Although Debussy is a bit of a departure for her, she seems happy with the present, and she has even read the cover notes about the composer and the pentatonic scale. Having no meditation music in the evening worries Anisha a little at first, but we just cannot face the thought of going to Cromer to buy a player. Cromer would be bustling with fractious shoppers and unruly day trippers, probably a pensioners coach trip or two, and nowhere to park. Instead, we listen to the silence and gaze at the Rothko painting we’ve brought along.

Experimental jazz is not something that I expected to find much of in North Norfolk but on Monday when we are in the store in a nearby village to buy rice and vegetables, I notice a flyer in the window for JazzNorfolk. An experimental jazz workshop is taking place at the Overstrand Parish Hall at 10.30 on Thursday. It is only a small poster that blends in with the rest of the ads in the window so I do not think that Anisha notices it. I realise that it is likely that she would disapprove if I tell her about it and express a wish to go to such a function. Before we came away, I had been playing a Groove Collective CD in the car and began to realise how much I had missed the edgy unpredictability of contemporary jazz. I have not told Anisha of course. I have however managed to introduce Erik Satie into our small repertoire and had slipped in a Ravel piano piece one evening but there is perhaps a long way to go before she stops thinking of radical artists like Groove Collective as the devil’s music.

We fall into a daily ritual of a morning walk along Mundesley’s endless stretches of beach, our bare feet sinking in the soft sand. Apart from the occasional dog walker most days, we have the beach to ourselves. Anisha seems particularly relaxed on the walks and once or twice begins to open up about her past. I discover her daughter’s name was Gaia. She went off to university in Vancouver and is living close to Anisha’s ex-partner, Gideon. Gaia has not replied to any of her letters for nearly a year. Anisha finds this upsetting, which is why she has never mentioned it to me. While it is encouraging that Anisha has started to confide in me, each time I try to dig deeper she clams up. I am only able to find out snippets of information. She once owned a Coventry Eagle bicycle and liked to go cycling in the country. She was a girl guide young leader and had been good at netball. But I still do not know where she grew up or if her parents are alive. This does not bother me I realise as much as it should. I wondered if Anisha’s apparent lack of baggage was not part of the initial attraction. She had no past for me to wrestle with.

As the week goes by, I find myself wanting to go to the experimental jazz workshop more and more. It is so tempting. An opportunity too good to miss. Overstrand is just a mile or two up the coast. The late-night improvisation sessions after hours at Ronnie Scott’s all those years ago go through my head. All you had to do was take along an instrument and you could join in and play some avant-garde jazz. I used to take along my bass clarinet. I was not very good but that didn’t seem to matter. None of the musicians at these sessions would be playing in tune anyway. This was the heyday of free jazz with its contrapuntal tempos, polyrhythmic drumming, honking saxophones, washboards, bass clarinets and muted trumpets. You might get a band made up of two basses, violin, and kazoo. Someone came along one time with a conch shell into which he’d drilled a mouthpiece and played a cracking duet with someone else on musical saw. I remember a composition of mine for slide guitar, clarinet and garden strimmer. My favourite unusual improvised instrument from those sessions was Ronnie Scott’s floor polisher. We had the blues player, Big Bill Broonzy on floor polisher one time with Memphis Slim on hatstand.

All Tuesday and Wednesday, I try to think of a way that I might be able to slip out for a few hours to go to the workshop. Anisha and I do everything together so she is unlikely to go off on her own to the hairdressers or the shops for the day as Sandy might have done. I wonder if I might go on an errand to get some runny honey or some Greek yoghurt and pretend that the car has broken down in Overstrand and that I am waiting for the AA to come. Not that I have a phone to phone the AA, or any means to let Anisha know.

‘I’m just going out to buy you another birthday present,’ I could perhaps say ‘It’s a special surprise.’

Or what about a sudden toothache and the nearest dentist would be in Cromer. Or I could, of course, come right out with it, say I am going to the workshop, and face the consequences.

On Thursday morning, we are pacing briskly along Mundesley beach, bright and early. The wind has turned round to the east and it feels bitterly cold. It is nearly ten o’clock.

‘Not a day for being outside,’ the lone dog walker on the beach called. ‘Come on Tarquin!’

A dishevelled schnauzer stops sniffing the clump of seaweed that has been detaining it and moves on to inspect a piece of driftwood. Anisha and I agree that on a day like this we ought to be indoors and draw our coats around us in a demonstrative shiver.

‘Wind’s coming off the North Sea,’ the dog walker shouts back. ‘It’ll be raining cats and dogs by midday. Leave it, Tarquin!’

We feel a few spots of rain. We quicken our pace until we are almost jogging. Out of the blue, Anisha says ‘ I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we go along to that experimental jazz workshop in Overstrand?’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

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The Moons of Uranus

themoonsofuranus

The Moons of Uranus by Chris Green

‘Look, Sean! There are some avocets,’ says Mara, excitedly. ‘They are avocets, aren’t they?’

Mara turns and notices that instead of looking out of the window at the expanse of estuary they are passing, Sean is studying his train ticket.

‘You’ve been poring over that ticket for about ten minutes,’ Mara says. ‘Is there a problem with it?’

‘Has it been that long?’ Sean says. ‘No. No problem, dear.’

‘Don’t you want to see the wading birds?’ Mara says. ‘This is the best time to see them. The tide’s just going out. Look! There’s a curlew.’

‘Sorry,’ Sean says. ‘I got distracted. I’ve not noticed it before but there’s lots of interesting information on a train ticket. For instance ….. ‘

‘You’ve been getting …… distracted a lot lately,’ Mara says. ‘We don’t have many days out together. You could at least try to enjoy it.’

I am enjoying it,’ Sean says. ‘It’s just …… ‘

‘I couldn’t help but notice you were studying the menu at the station café earlier, long after we had ordered. And we only went in for a cup of tea. You’re behaving rather strange lately. What’s the matter with you?’

‘It’s always worth knowing what a railway station café has on offer,’ Sean says. ‘This particular menu was well presented on good thick card and nicely laminated. And it was set in an unusual typeface. I was trying to work out what the font was. I think it might have been ……’

‘And I could be wrong but it looked to me as if you were counting the ceramic tiles on the kitchen wall yesterday. What was that all about?’

Sean is about to tell her that there are 5,096 one inch squares, made up of 104 blocks of 49. But, he stops himself. He doesn’t want to admit to Mara that he is aware he has become more anal of late. He can’t put his finger on what might be causing it but he finds he becomes interested in unlikely things that just a few weeks ago, he would not have given a thought to. He has to find out all he can. It’s like a compulsion. He can’t seem to help himself.

While Mara was away on a training course recently, he caught an episode of One Man and His Dog on the BBC and before he knew it, he was binge-watching all the episodes that were available on catch-up TV. Twenty four of them in all. He had to take a day off work to fit in all his viewing. He even took a trip around the local countryside to take photos of sheep and then made a collage of the best shots in the design program on his iMac. Then, for no apparent reason, he became fascinated by Quoits. He read up on the rules and the history of the sport and became familiar with the names of all the top players. He even joined one or two Quoits forums. Which somehow led him to snooker. After watching hours of the Masters tournament, he started to think about the trigonometry of the shots. In an attempt to calculate the precise angle of Neil Robertson’s long shot to the top right-hand corner pocket, he replayed the shot over and over on iPlayer. But then he became distracted by the design of the TV remote control and wanted to know how it worked so he dismantled it and could not get it back together again so he had to buy a new one on eBay. Even that was not straightforward because it led him into researching the history of PayPal.

Mara is quite often away on training courses. Apparently, there is a lot of tuition required these days to become an administrative assistant. New systems and the like, Mara has explained. Having so much time on his hands, though, is part of Sean’s problem. It wouldn’t be so bad if the children were still around but David is at Essex reading Computer Science and Debbie has moved in with Harry. Every day, Sean finds he needs to explore more subjects that he has not previously been interested in. In great detail. He feels the need to amass the information quickly, cramming he supposes you might call it, worried that if he doesn’t find out, he might die without ever knowing. Then, of course, while he is busy researching, he becomes fascinated by something else and finds he needs to understand this too. He hadn’t realised, for instance, that the cravat had enjoyed such a colourful history or that there were so many species of snails. Social media doesn’t help. How could he not be interested when he gets intriguing posts about Tuvan throat singing? Or the moons of Uranus? The Uranian moons, he discovers, are all named after Shakespearean characters. There are twenty seven of them. Twenty seven is apparently a significant number. It is the cube of three, the trinity of trinities. It is the result of a prime reciprocal magic square of the multiples of one seventh. It is the first composite number not divisible by any of its digits. There are twenty seven bones in the human hand. There are twenty seven books in the New Testament. Land mass makes up twenty seven percent of the planet Earth. Mozart was born on twenty seventh of January and wrote twenty seven piano concertos and twenty seven concert arias. Dark matter is thought to make up twenty seven percent of the universe. Then, there is the Twenty Seven Club. And, something else, oh yes, Sean and Mara have been married for twenty seven years.

‘You haven’t heard a single word I’ve said, have you?’ Mara says, interrupting his train of thought. The train is now pulling into their station.

It’s true. He realises he hasn’t been all that attentive. For the latter part of the journey, he has been busy counting the electricity pylons that line the track. There have been twenty seven of them, including some of those snazzy looking T-shaped ones by the Danish designer whose name escapes him.

‘Something about the work on the road bridge, was it, Mara?’ he says. This he feels is perhaps worth a try. It is a likely topic of conversation. They have frequently discussed the slowness of progress on the bridge widening scheme in recent weeks. On a bad day, it can take as long as half an hour to get across and they can’t remember when they last saw anyone actually doing any work. This is the reason they have taken the train for their day out today.

‘That was five minutes ago.’ Mara says. ‘We passed the bloody bridge five minutes ago, Sean. What I said was, it would be nice to have lunch at that whole-food place by the cathedral. Why don’t you ever listen?’

‘Sorry I was ……’

‘I know. You were ……. distracted,’ Mara says. ‘Look, Sean! I’ve been pretty tolerant but I think it’s time you went to see someone about this ……. distraction. Doctor Hopper, perhaps.’

‘I’m not sure about that,’ Sean says. ‘Besides, I normally see Doctor Bolt.’

‘Doctor Hopper’s better,’ Mara says. ‘He adopts a more holistic approach. Doctor Bolt will just say ah yes in that supercilious way he does and write a prescription for more pills. ……. By the way, are you still taking those ones he gave you for your ……. anxiety? …… Pira…. Para ….. Pramira….. Oh, what were they? You know, the ones with the long complicated name. …… Didn’t we discover they were a new experimental drug?’

A haunted look of realisation spreads slowly across on Sean’s face as it dawns on him that his random fascination for unlikely subjects started when he began taking the Piradictamyl27.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

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

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

Bunny Boiler

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Bunny Boiler by Chris Green

I hadn’t seen Glen Manley for nearly twenty years, so it was a bolt out of the blue to find him in front of me at the checkout at Sainsburys. When I had last seen him, he had said that he and Sadie were moving to France. They had inherited some land in the Medoc. Before his fatal accident Sadie’s father, Gaston Chevalier had been a name in the equestrian world, bloodlines and the like. I got the impression that Glen was seduced by this opportunity for social advancement.

Over the years, I had thought of Glen occasionally, well to be honest more than occasionally, but only as a distant star in my firmament. We had had a tempestuous affair when we were in our early twenties. I had nearly moved in with him, before I found out he was also sleeping with my friend, Louise. But all this happened a long time ago. Water under the bridge and all that. While I would not say that I had carried a torch, I did have a soft spot for him.

At first, I was not sure that it was him and had to do a double-take. I did not want to embarrass myself. He had put on a few pounds and had a little less hair, but I have to say, he still looked hunky in his checked shirt. Perhaps he had taken up sports or something. Not that he was the sporty type when I knew him. We used to smoke dope in his flat and listen to The Joshua Tree and Appetite for Destruction. We went to see Gaye Bikers On Acid and Pop Will Eat Itself at a festival in Finsbury Park, I recalled. Bands seemed to have more anarchic names back then. I couldn’t see either of these getting on The X Factor.

As Glen was loading his wine onto the belt, I took the opportunity to strike up a conversation.

‘Having a party, Glen?’ I said. ‘Am I invited?’

He turned around and for a second or two looked spooked. You do not always recognise someone immediately when they appear out of context. I could practically hear the cerebral activity that was taking place behind those sparkling brown eyes as he struggled to identify me. I was worried for a moment that I too had put on a few pounds.

‘My God! Heather, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘Hey, it’s great to see you.’

‘You’re looking well,’ I said, looking him up and down, mostly down I’m ashamed to say.

‘Well, you know,’ he said. ‘You have to make an effort. None of us are getting any younger.’

‘How’s Sadie?’ I said, as a follow-up, hoping I wasn’t being too transparent by my tone. My own long term relationship with Pete was at the stage where you might describe it on social media as ‘it’s complicated’. Of course, I wanted Glen to say that Sadie was history. He was enjoying being a bachelor again, could he take me out for dinner sometime. But this is not what he came out with.

Perhaps the bouquet of flowers he was unloading from his trolley should have provided a clue, but there could have been a number of explanations for these. I could not have known that Sadie had been in hospital. How the conversation might have progressed without my faux pas is hard to say but I’m certain that it closed its scope a little. He told me they had sold up in France when Sadie became ill and I told him I had two grown up children, Charles and Eddie.

‘Eddie is a girl by the way,’ I said. ‘Anyway, they have both gone off to university, to opposite ends of the country. To get away from me, I think.’ Did it seem like I was inviting him to come round, I wondered? I hadn’t mentioned Pete at all in the conversation

‘See you later,’ he said all too casually after he had packed away his shopping.

Although it seemed on the surface that he couldn’t wait to get away, this only served to hide his embarrassment at feeling attracted to me. It was clear to me that he was fighting it. I could see it in his body language. I only had a few items and I left the store just in time to catch a glimpse of him driving off in his black Audi. He had a personalised number plate, 6LEN. An easy one to remember.

While I assumed that as Glen was shopping locally so he must live close by, I didn’t imagine that I’d see the car again so soon. The following day, I found myself behind him at the London Road traffic lights. He did not see me in my grey Focus. He seemed to be playing with the controls of his in-car hi-fi or whatever it is that men do to relieve the boredom when they are stopped at lights. I pulled the sunshade down anyway. I thought it would be interesting to follow him to see where he was heading. I did not know what he did these days for a living, so I used my imagination about what he might be up to. I followed him several blocks keeping a discreet distance, during which time he was a film director, a stockbroker, a heart surgeon, a cabinet minister and a spy. Perhaps he might be too conspicuous to be a spy, driving an Audi with a cherished number plate. In fact, all these ideas were a bit frivolous, Glen had always been an opportunist, what you might call a fly by night. I couldn’t see him putting in the hours for a professional career.

Along Albion Road he signalled to pull in and I too pulled in, several vehicles behind him. He got out and a woman in a floral printed dress got out of a red sports car a little ahead of him and came towards him. I was shocked to see how he greeted his new friend. A passionate kiss in broad daylight by the side of the road, and off they went off arm in arm. He was cheating on Sadie and with her only just out of hospital. What a cad! This must have been who the flowers were for. The lavish arrangement had seemed altogether too vibrant for a get well soon bouquet.

It is difficult to explain why but there is something attractive about a blackguard. Since time immemorial women have fallen for absolute swine, and it seemed I was no exception. Glen’s apparent profligacy only added to his appeal. I was smitten. Maybe it was visceral or maybe it was hormonal, but I found I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I found it difficult to concentrate on anything. Several times a day at work I forgot what I was meant to be doing. I would forget who I was talking to on the phone and have to ask. My work colleagues remarked that I seemed distracted, what I needed was a girls night out. I told them I didn’t think that was what I needed. They laughed. My boss, Michelle called me in to ask if anything was wrong. The enquiry over, the meeting turned into more of a dressing down.

‘Blue Heaven is a niche PR company,’ she said. ‘We can’t have our representatives calling important clients Glen, when they are not called Glen.’

‘I was just having a bad hair day,’ I said. ‘It won’t happen again.’

‘That was Vaughan Conti of Conti and Conti you realise. This is a six-figure contract.’

‘Shall I send him and email to apologise?’ I said.

‘I think you should take a few days leave to sort things out,’ she said. ‘Go away somewhere to clear your head. The Cotswolds are very nice at this time of year.’

With time on my hands, I found myself thinking of Glen more and more. I read Fifty Shades of Grey in the garden and it turned into Fifty Shades of Glen. When Pete and I made love, which wasn’t often these days, I found myself fantasising about Glen taking me in the back seat of his car or roughly over the kitchen table. Sometimes he would tie me up and sometimes he would let me tie him up.

By following his car in my anonymous looking grey Focus, I found out that Glen lived in a barn conversion just out of town. There were not many cars on the road, so even in the Ford, I had to keep a safe distance. I made several visits to Grange Rustique see what I could find out. The salmon pink Mini that was always parked outside was presumably Sadie’s. My National Trust binoculars came in useful. I was able to keep an eye on the place for hours. Sadie didn’t go out at all, but then if you are still convalescing, you would want to take it easy at home.

I also discovered Glen worked at a construction site. He wasn’t a brickie or an electrician or anything like that. He went to work smartly dressed and seemed to come and go as he pleased. He was project manager or site manager or whatever these are called. They were building a new block of bespoke luxury apartments called Kensington Towers which the hoarding said would be ready for Christmas.

While finding out his phone number was easy, finding him on Facebook proved to be a little harder. There were a number of Glen Manleys so it took me a while to find the right one. His profile picture showed him on the beach in a white T shirt. It might have been taken a few years ago but he did look yummy. There were a number of other photos. I scrolled through them. None of them showed Sadie. I was encouraged by this. He had 104 Facebook friends. I didn’t recognise any of the names. Sadie, it seemed didn’t use Facebook, which I thought was unusual because often it is the other way around. A lot of my friends spent hours on Facebook while their husbands or partners didn’t bother with it. Pete had never shown an interest in it. He referred to it as wastebook. The joke was by now wearing a little thin.

I noticed that Glen’s musical tastes had changed. He now liked downtempo and sensual lounge music. I tried listening to Lemongrass and De Phazz on youtube and found to my surprise that I liked them too. I had not heard much of this type of thing. It didn’t get on to Radio 2 playlists and at home Pete usually played Bruce Springsteen or Eric Clapton. I also found Goldfrapp and Thievery Corporation and some of Glen’s other choices to my taste. These were promising signs for our blossoming relationship. Soon we would be going to dimly lit jazz clubs and taking off to the coast for dirty weekends. Later on depending on how things went I might even get to boil his bunny. I began to look up rabbit recipes on my iphone. Delia Smith made a delicious rabbit pie. I also found that Mary Berry’s recipes included a sumptuous rabbit stew.

I arranged to meet my friend Azora for coffee. Azora was a psychologist and we had known each other for about ten years. She knew that I was prone to occasional flights of fancy. She would be able to put my situation in perspective. Over cappuccino and caramel cake at Carluccio’s I shared my news.

‘You were lovers twenty years ago, Wow,’ she said.

‘Probably nearer thirty years, come to think of it,’ I said, calculating how long I’d been with Pete and considering Charles and Eddie’s ages.

‘And this old flame, this blast from the past is still hunky?’

‘He’s divine. He’s aged well,’ I said. ‘He’s like that Italian actor, you know the one I mean.’

‘Sylvester Stallone?’

‘No, definitely not Sylvester Stallone. The one who was in La Dolce Vita.’

‘Before my time, I’m afraid, sweetie,’ said Azora laughing.

‘Marcello Mastroianni’

‘And this Glen knows all about your ….. fascination.’

‘Not exactly, but he will soon. I think perhaps when we met in the supermarket he was just shy.’

‘He doesn’t sound shy. What about this other woman?’

‘I don’t know about her yet. I think that’s the next thing I have to do.’

‘My advice is steer clear,’ said Azora, ‘but I suppose you know what you are doing.’

Psychologist, she may have been, but I don’t think that Azora really understood what I felt. So, I didn’t tell her I had made a few silent calls from my anonymous number just to hear his voice. More often than not though my calls went straight on to voicemail.

Sadie was absent from Glen’s social media circles, but I could not see Glen’s new friend amongst his Facebook friends or photos either. Maybe she too didn’t bother. Or was Glen trying to keep their relationship secret? Perhaps she too was married. I phoned Blue Heaven and told Michelle I needed a few more days off. I had taken a turn for the worse I told her and I was about to go to the doctors. I bought some large black sunglasses and a floppy hat and used the time to tail Glen. I became very good at concealing the Focus in parking spaces between other grey cars. Whether they were marketed as wilderness, windspray, evening haze or monument about half the cars on the street were grey. I also became adept at following two cars behind him once I had an idea where he might be heading. Tailing someone it turned out was remarkably easy. Whenever he stopped I took photos with the generous zoom on my pocket Nikon.

Several times he left the construction site to go to an address in Chelsea Square. He stayed for two to three hours. I assumed he was visiting his new friend. Perhaps she wasn’t married. Or perhaps she was married and they used this apartment as their love nest. I felt hurt but at the same time, I felt excited. It was as if it were my own secret tryst, as if I were alone with Glen. I fantasised about what this would be like, trying to arouse sense memories from our time together.

Each time Glen visited Chelsea Square the front door would be opened by the entryphone mechanism and I could see suspicious movement behind a window on the ground floor. After this, the Venetian blind was drawn. On my third visit I plucked up my courage and crept up to the window and peered in through a small gap in the slats.

What I saw was not what I had expected to see. Glen was in a steamy embrace with a different woman. This was not his new friend, this was a new new friend. The man was shameless. Just like he had cheated on me all those years ago, he was still cheating. He was cheating on his cheat. My shock at my discovery, however, was tempered with excitement. If I planned things right I figured I could be next. After I had followed him back home, I booked myself in at Wax Factor for a complete beauty treatment and Hair Today for a style overhaul. Next time he went to the supermarket for his wine I would be there in all my finery. He would not be able to resist.

After my hairdresser, Aria had told me about her holiday in St Lucia, she asked me if I had any holidays planned and we got into a conversation about Glen.

‘It’s a shame you can’t take a course in being a mistress,’ she said. ‘Then you’d be able to see how to get the best from the situation.’

I told her I didn’t think I needed a course. I knew what I was doing.

‘A friend of my brother’s says he thinks of women like library books,’ she said. ‘He takes one out for a couple of weeks, returns her and takes another out.’

‘Then I’ll need to make sure that Glen wants to renew me,’ I said.

Aria told me to be careful.

At the supermarket, Glen was putting the Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon into his trolley, when I surprised him.

‘I prefer Merlot,’ I said. ‘Had you thought of that?’

‘Heather,’ he said. ‘Wow, babe. You look fantastic. Are you going somewhere nice?’

‘Only if you are taking me somewhere nice,’ I said.

He seemed to fiddle with the loose change in his trouser pocket while he thought it over. ‘I can’t right now,’ he said finally. ‘But we could meet up for a drink later, if you are not doing anything, that is.

I was not doing anything. I gave him my number. I had already written it out on some scented notepaper.

We went out to dinner and before I knew it we were spending long weekends away, during which he took me to clubs I thought I was much to old for to listen to music I thought I was much too conventional for. We made love in ways that I had never dreamt possible. One time he even took me to his house. I said that I did not think it was a good idea, what about Sadie? He just said that it would be all right. At the house, the salmon coloured Mini was gone and there was no sign of Sadie. I wondered where she might be. Had she gone way perhaps to convalesce? Had she even been in hospital? It was not that Glen lied about her during any of our clandestine meetings, he never once mentioned her. The only time that he had spoken about her was in Sainsbury’s that first time. Each time I brought her name into the conversation, he changed the subject. He did not mention any of his new friends either and of course I could not tell him I knew about them. He never referred to our relationship of old, or to Louise who he had dumped me for all those tears ago. The past it seemed was taboo.

Azora phoned me. I suspect that she had an inkling that I hadn’t followed her advice.

‘How’s it going? she said. ‘How’s Marcello Mastroianni shaping up?’

‘It’s going well,’ I said. ‘Everything’s fantastic between us. Glen opens new doors for me.’

‘I’m pleased to hear that,’ she said. ‘As you know, I had my doubts.’

‘But it does look as if Pete might be moving out,’ I said, giving her something to work with. Psychologists don’t like it if you don’t have a problem. ‘We haven’t spoken for days and he’s packing things in boxes.’

‘That’s a shame,’ she said. ‘You’ve been together a long time.’

‘We haven’t been happy together for years,’ I said. ‘My affair just gave us the excuse to take the next step.’

‘But your Italian stallion is married too, isn’t he? What has happened there?’ said Azora.

‘Its a mystery. He doesn’t talk about her,’ I said. ‘It does seem a little odd, I know, but he doesn’t acknowledge the past at all.’

‘Sounds dangerous to me,’ she said. ‘I do hope you know what you are doing, Heather’

‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘I’ve got it all under control.’

I hadn’t.

Towards the end of our third weekend away, an idyllic couple of days soaking up the sun in Brighton, I sensed that Glen was nearing his boredom threshold. Not only was he was eyeing up all the girls on the beach, he was making secret phonecalls. On our last night there he disappeared in the middle of the night and next morning at breakfast refused to say where he had been. He smelt too of an unfamiliar perfume. It confirmed all my suspicions that I was dealing with a pathological philanderer. He was always moving forward, planning ahead. To my chagrin when we had gone to the house, there had been no sign that he kept rabbits or pets of any sort. I also felt it was unlikely that I would get another invitation to Grange Rustique. I would have to think of another way to wreak my revenge.

The billboard wasn’t originally my idea, but I was surprised by just how many revenge websites there were to offer suggestions. Working in PR, I had built up a network of creative contacts, so it was easy to get a forty-eight by fourteen feet design made up. Glen was so narcissistic, photos of him were plentiful. I was spoiled for choice as I also had an array of secret shots to pick from. I chose a head and shoulders portrait. THIS MAN IS A DIRTY LYING CHEAT WITH A SMALL PENIS in bold red type looked quite dramatic beside it on a white background. Within days, there were three hundred billboards over five counties telling this to the world. The best of it was that I managed to pay for the whole set with his credit card.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

MISSING

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Missing by Chris Green

Not wishing to start the day just yet, I listen to the springtime chirping of the birds outside the window while I piece together the events of last night. The concrete that seems to be lining my head lets me know I had a fair bit to drink. I got in late from a celebration of my team’s promotion. It was altogether a good night. In order not to wake anyone when I got home, I took the day bed in the downstairs study. Ellie has not been sleeping well lately, stress at work and the like, and I thought I might be a little restless. Also, it gave me a chance to be able to look at the photos of the evening on my phone. Probably best not to share all of these with Ellie, I thought.

It gradually occurs to me that it has been light for some time. I take a look at my watch. It’s eight o’clock. I wonder why no one is up. It’s Friday, a work day and of course a school day as well, but it certainly seems very quiet upstairs. Thomas is sometimes a little slow in the morning but Maddie is normally bouncing around by now. And Ellie herself has to be at the office by nine. She ought to be up and about.

Being self-employed, getting up at a specific time doesn’t matter so much to me. My colleague, Duke is flexible. He doesn’t mind opening up once in a while, so I can roll in when I like, or not at all. Duke is a handy fellow to have around. His main role is that of a fixer. Sometimes a bit of good honest persuasion is needed in my line of work and not many people would argue with Duke.

I’d better get the others up, though.

‘Anyone about,’ I call up the stairs as I do my ritual morning stretches.

There is no response.

‘Come on guys, rise and shine,’ I holler, in between my ritual morning yawns.

There is no response.

I decide I’d better go and take a look.

I make my way up the stairs trying to think of a novel way of waking them up, perhaps with a fake phone call or perhaps a sarcastic comment about their laziness. I look in Maddie’s room first. Maddie is the youngest. She’s four, no, wait, she’s five. Thomas is seven. I push the door open slowly waiting for Maddie to ask who is there. She doesn’t. Is she having a sulk about something? I poke my head round the door, leaving open the option of a boo type gesture, but there is no sign of her. The room is tidy and her bed is made. It does not look as if it has been slept in. Our bedroom reveals the same scenario. Tidy and bed apparently not slept in. Ditto, Thomas’s room.

There must surely be a rational explanation. Have they gone to stay with a friend? Has something just slipped my mind? Was there part of a conversation that I missed before I went out yesterday evening? Just a hint that they might have been going somewhere for the night. This seems unlikely. We are creatures of habit, well, Ellie perhaps more than me. In her world, these type of arrangements need to be made weeks in advance.

I didn’t have much contact with any of them yesterday, but they were around at tea time and I didn’t go out until half past seven. They were still here then, weren’t they? I remember now, I did go out a little early to stop off at the betting shop on the way to the pub. But still, this would have been nearly seven. Well, more like six I suppose. But, if something had happened, surely Ellie would have phoned me. I had my phone on. I’m sure of that. I got that call from Darius about the new shipment while I was at The Blind Monkey.

It is of course theoretically possible that they’ve all got up, dressed, used the bathroom, had breakfast and that Ellie has made the beds and taken the children to school very early, without waking me. Theoretically possible, but unlikely. I am a light sleeper even after a skinful and anyway Ellie’s yellow Fiat is still parked on the drive and all their coats are all still hanging up in the hallway. So whatever has happened, happened before I got home.

So what does this mean? I can’t think of anything that would have made Ellie leave me. Quite the reverse. We have been getting on rather well lately. Certainly as well as you can expect after eight years of marriage. Obviously, there have been one or two ups and downs over the years but surely, that’s all water under the bridge. If Ellie had left me, then you would have expected at the very least a note, explaining how she saw things. A list perhaps of unforgivable misdemeanours os which I have been completely unaware. This is what usually happens, isn’t it? Isn’t it? I don’t know. It’s never happened before. Even after Ellie discovered I was seeing Tracey. But, this is the way it happens in TV dramas.

At a glance, it doesn’t seem that anything is missing. Even Ellie’s handbag is still on the kitchen table where she has a habit of leaving it and it weighs about the same as it usually does. About ten kilos. What am I worrying about? I can just phone her. She never goes anywhere without her phone. It’s never out of her reach. I speed-dial the number. It doesn’t even go onto voicemail. ‘We are unable to connect you at this time. Please try again later,’ is the message.

……………………………………

Twenty five minutes on hold, listening to Suspicious Minds, waiting to speak to an officer does nothing to instil confidence in police procedure. Once I’m put through to a real policeman, Sergeant Filcher does nothing to restore my confidence either. He sounds as if he is on diazepam medication and at the end of a twelve hour shift. I give him an account of the sequence of events since I last saw my family, but his interest in their disappearance is slight. Perhaps families go missing in Norcastle every day.

‘It’s only been a couple of hours,’ he says. ‘Perhaps your wife went to Asda on the way to school or something. Have you thought of that?’

‘Of course. But she never shops at Asda.’ To be honest, I’m not sure where she shops.

‘Have you checked the school? They have breakfast clubs and things these days.’

I haven’t checked the school, but to save time, I tell him that I have.

‘Look, Mr Black. If we investigated every family that changes its arrangements then there would be no officers available to catch the real criminals. Anyway, they’ll be down again next year.’

‘What are you talking about?’ I say.

‘Your team, they’ll be relegated again next year,’ he says. Sergeant Filcher must be a Blues supporter. The Reds beat the Blues with a goal in the very last minute of the very last game to secure promotion, at the Blues expense. I am anxious to not let Sergeant Filcher’s animosity get in the way of our conversation.

‘You’ll get on to looking for my family then, will you Sergeant?’ I say.

‘If your wife hasn’t turned up by, let us say, tomorrow evening, then call us again,’ he says. ‘Meanwhile, phone round your friends and relatives, will you! Goodbye, Mr Black.’

It can be difficult to convey the gravity of a desperate situation to others when you are the only one who realises it, so I sit down and think about how I am going to handle it. It may be wishful thinking but it is eminently possible that Ellie might walk in through the door at any time with an explanation that I have not hitherto considered. Or that she might phone. ‘Sorry,’ she might say. ‘I had no way of letting you know, but …….. ‘ I have no way of telling if such a scenario is a long-shot or not. Sergeant Filcher is probably right. It has only been a matter of hours. Perhaps I should leave it for a bit. There’s no point in treating it as an abduction or a murder investigation just yet. Perhaps Ellie’s just having a sulk. There again, he might be wrong. Uncertainty is often the worst. Given time, I could probably come to terms with the despair, but isn’t it the hope that is the problem? There again, perhaps I don’t care as much as I once did.

I don’t think Ellie ever puts her phone on silent, so, as I did not hear it ring when I dialled it earlier, I can assume that it is not in the house. In which case, she probably still has it with her. I try ringing again, but get the same message, ‘We are unable to connect you at this time. Please try again later.’ I decide to make my way through the contact numbers that Ellie has written down in the pad by the phone over the years. Friends, relatives, extended family, hairdresser, former hairdresser, former hairdresser’s friend’s cat-sitter. I keep the conversations as casual as I can. It is important to find out if anyone has seen Ellie but, at the same time, I don’t want everyone knowing our business. I don’t want people to think that I’m losing control. Reactions to the news of my family’s disappearance range from, ‘I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.’ to ‘Oh dear, what have you been up to, now?’ No-one seems to take it seriously. You would think that there would at least be some concern for Thomas and Maddie’s welfare. The closest I get to concern is from Ellie’s friend, Shannon, who is worried that I may have buried them in the back garden. Shannon has always disapproved of me.

Around midday, as I am coming to the end of the list, the house phone rings. It doesn’t often ring. We only use our mobiles these days. I am on it like a shot but it is a call from a telemarketing company offering a unique service to block unwanted telemarketing calls. A robot called Carl begins to tell me how the service works. I swear at him and slam the phone down. No sooner have I sat down, than the house phone rings again. Once again, I am on it like a shot but it is another call from a telemarketing company offering a unique service to block unwanted telemarketing calls. A robot called Craig begins to tell me how the service works.

I’m going up the wall, trying to think back over the last few days. Have there been any signs of restlessness, excitement, anxiety? Have the children been behaving in a secretive way or doing anything unusual? I suppose I have been out quite a lot lately but it seemed that everything was as it always was, work, school, mealtimes, staggered bedtimes.

I check our paperwork box files. Nothing seems to be missing. The passports are still in the safety deposit box and no money is gone from the joint account. I cannot get into Ellie’s account as I do not know the password, so I have no way of finding out if she has made a large cash withdrawal. I go round opening drawers and take a look in cupboards and under cushions. I do not know what I might be looking for. Am I really expecting to find a nicely typed page of A4 that will explain the disappearance, or even a scribbled note? I unearth some of the things that Ellie has kept to remind her perhaps of the good times; the programme for the Opening Ceremony of the World Cup (I’d forgotten she came along to that),both the Happy Anniversary cards I sent her when I was away, the postcards and letters I sent her from before we were married. I begin to feel a little guilt-ridden. Could I have been more caring? Should I have taken more notice?

In terms of solving the mystery, though, I am getting nowhere. Is abduction a possibility? What should I be looking for? There are no signs of forced entry. There are no obvious signs of a struggle, no furniture out of place, no scuff marks on the carpet. Everything seems as it always has been. I really don’t feel I’m going to come up with anything meaningful staying around the house.

……………………………………

As I’m locking up, I see Frank Fargo at number 66 is mowing his lawn. Since his retirement, Frank is home all day and he’s always looking out of the front window. He must see everything that goes on around here. Some sort of writer now, I believe. Spy stories or something, I think he said.’

‘Hi Frank,’ I say. ‘Sorry to bother you, mate, but I wonder if you happened to see anything last night. For instance, Ellie going off with Thomas and Maddie.’

‘Lovely children aren’t they,’ he says. ‘And you wife is looking, uh, very fit. Yesterday evening, you say. No. I don’t think I did. I saw you go off in your cab. That must have been about seven thirty three, and then nothing. Of course, I do go to bed quite early. I like to turn in about nine.’

‘What about your CCTV cameras?’ I say. ‘Do you think they might have caught something?’

‘No. I’m afraid the device that records the footage has died,’ he says. ‘Went down a couple of days ago, as it happens. I’m waiting for SlowTech or whatever they are called to come out and fix it. I thought when the doorbell rang that it might be them.’

‘So, you haven’t seen anything suspicious?’

‘Well. Now you come to mention it. Tony Demarco from number 72 has been unloading a lot of stuff into his lock up garage lately.’

‘Tony Demarco. Is he the one with the big yellow van?’

‘That’s the one. I’ve never quite been able to work out quite what he does, But I think he’s some kind of wheeler dealer.’

It’s a strange phenomenon, but when there is a mystery like this, everyone suddenly seems to be acting suspiciously. All the people I spoke to earlier about Ellie’s disappearance are probably hiding something. Even Sergeant Filcher. Especially Sergeant Filcher. He is hiding something. Frank Fargo is definitely hiding something. He must have seen what happened. And Tony Demarco must have had something to do with it. The guy who comes round to clean the windows is probably in on it too. Even the lad who delivers the flyers for the community centre events is a suspect, and certainly the Avon lady is a bit dodgy. The whole thing is a conspiracy. Everyone knows what is going on but me. I don’t like being in this position. I have a reputation to maintain.

……………………………………

I leave it for forty eight hours then call the police again and after I have badgered them for a bit, they agree to come round and have a look. After I’ve cleared a few things away, a detective with a forensics man comes along and spends an hour or so going over the place. They ask a few questions but I can tell their hearts aren’t in it. It is just a job to them. They don’t say much about what they are doing or whether they have found anything but as I hear nothing more, I assume they haven’t found anything.

I call the station just in case and when Sergeant Filcher says as far as he knows they’ve turned up nothing, I suggest they might put out a newspaper plea. He tells me he doesn’t make those kind of decisions but he will run it past Inspector Boss, but he thinks he knows what the answer will be. They have their reasons for keeping cases like mine out of the press.

‘And what might those be?’ I ask. His low-key approach does not do it for me. Does he not know that I have a certain standing in the community? If my family have been abducted, I want every officer out combing the streets looking for them.

‘You clearly do not understand police procedure, Mr Black,’ he says. ‘You’ve been watching too many crime dramas, on TV, I expect. For the time being at least, this is being treated as a matrimonial dispute.’

‘You think that we had a row in the middle of the night and Ellie walked out and took the two children without even taking her handbag, do you?’ I say.

Look, Mr Black! There is no reason to suppose that Ellie and the children have been abducted. There is absolutely no evidence to support this. Or any other line of enquiry that might constitute a serious crime.’

‘For all you know, I could have killed them and dumped the bodies in the canal,’ I say.

‘Now you are just being facetious, Mr Black,’ he says. ‘We will monitor the case, and if anything develops we will, of course, let you know. Oh! By the way, I see your team has had to sell its star players.’

Half-heartedly I take it to the Gazette. Everyone is saying that it is an avenue that should be explored. Well, when I say everyone, I suppose I mostly mean Majid at the off-licence. His family had a similar experience. The editor of the Gazette, Burford Quigley decides that it warrants no more than a few column inches on page five. Not even a picture. Perhaps I forgot to let them have a photo.

……………………………………

As the days pass and weeks turn into months, I become less and less hopeful. Occasionally there is an alleged sighting but none of these comes to anything. Friends of mine sometimes drop by to take advantage of my hospitality and from time to time friends of Ellie’s phone to find out if there has been any news, but they do this less and less frequently as the months go by.

Ellie’s best friend, Lois is the only one who phones regularly.

‘Hi Matt,’ she will say. ‘Any news?’

‘No,’ I tell her.

‘I can’t understand it,’ she will say. ‘Ellie used to tell me everything and she never once said anything about leaving.’

I tell her that she is very kind, but there’s probably nothing she can do.

‘But, you must get very lonely there all by yourself,’ she will say. ‘Why don’t you come round and I will cook you dinner? Or I could come over.’

Lois is the most attractive of Ellie’s friends and she is recently divorced. Although the offer is tempting, it wouldn’t seem right, would it?

‘Maybe another time,’ I say.

‘No-one would need to know if that’s what you are worried about,’ she says.

The letter that arrives contains five random six by four photos. There is no message to accompany the photos and the address on the front of the envelope is printed on a sticky label in the anonymous Times New Roman font. The communication does not actually suggest that it is from Ellie, but, equally, it does not suggest that it is not. One photo is of a younger looking Ellie in front of The Bell in Tanworth in Arden in Warwickshire. Although I cannot remember the specific shot, I could have easily taken this photo. I can recall Ellie and I going there about ten years ago to see the singer, Nick Drake’s grave. Northern Sky was always one of her favourites. I like Pink Moon. There is a photo of Ellie with Thomas and Maddie in a rowing boat on the lake in the local park. I presumably took this one.

Who took the other photos is less clear cut. They are of me and Tracey. I had almost forgotten about Suzie. It must have been the year before last. Who could have sent these random pics and what exactly are they trying to say? There is not even a blackmail note. Come to think of it what use would that be anyway. All in all the communication makes no sense. It is difficult to make out the postmark on the envelope. I think about it for a while and then decide to call the police. I decide to hold the three of me and Suzie back. A plain clothes policewoman comes over to collect. She looks about thirteen.

‘I’ll get the forensics team to examine these closely,’ she says. She writes a receipt, to my surprise in joined-up writing, and takes the envelope and photos away.

I hear nothing more from the police regarding the matter. When I enquire it appears that the package has gone missing. I begin to wonder if the youngster that came round was a real policewoman. Perhaps, in my confusion, I called the wrong number or something and someone is playing a joke on me.

‘Isn’t it unusual for evidence on a case to go missing?’ I say.

The duty officer, whose name I don’t manage to catch, says that he has had a good look but can find no reference to the case I am speaking about.

‘The disappearance of my wife and children,’ I say, angrily.

He puts me on hold again. I am subjected to ten minutes of Suspicious Minds and when he comes back on he says he has no record of this.

‘Would you like to go over it again?’ he says.

‘I would like to speak to Sergeant Filcher,’ I say.

He tells me that Sergeant Filcher is currently on sick leave.

……………………………………

I cannot say for sure that I am being followed, and it’s only occasionally that it happens, but once or twice lately when I’m driving out to see clients, I notice there is a dark blue Tiguan with obscured registration plates on my tail. It appears out of nowhere a couple of blocks from where I live. On the occasions that I go a roundabout route, the Tiguan does the same. Duke tells me I am being paranoid.

‘It’s not the bizzies, Matt,’ he says. ‘They mostly drive Fords.’

‘Why do you think we’re being followed then, Duke?’ I say, squinting to try and make out who is driving the Tiguan, but it has tinted windows and the sun shade is down.

‘Is it the same one?’ he says. ‘There are a lot of them about and they are nearly all dark blue?’

‘It looks like the same one,’ I say. ‘Tinted windows and sun shade down.’

‘It’s just one of those things,’ he says. ‘Tiguans have a tendency to tail you. I’ve noticed that before. And they all have tinted windows but still the drivers drive with the sun shade down.’

Is he serious or is he just having me on? Perhaps they are tailing Duke.

Later, in The Blind Monkey, Lois asks me what is wrong. She says I seem worried about something. I tell her about the Tiguan tailing me. She echoes Duke’s thoughts. She has noticed it too, she says. Tiguan drivers have a habit of tailing you. Like red sky at night, shepherd’s delight or the grass is greener on the other side, it is one of those commonplace assertions that despite you wanting to think otherwise, keep proving to be right. Where on earth did she get that from? Is she in collusion with Duke?

Oh! Did I not say? I have started seeing Lois. Two or three times a week, and perhaps the occasional weekend. And she has started to stop over. Well, I can’t be expected to live like a monk, can I? Besides, what would people think if Matt Black couldn’t get a girl? They might think I was batting for the other side.

……………………………………

I think that the Tiguan driver might be a private detective. I read on the internet that the car of choice for private detectives is a VW Tiguan. Apparently nearly all private eyes in the UK drive a Tiguan and their favourite colour is dark blue. A survey has shown that this is the least conspicuous car on the road, followed by a grey Tiguan and a grey Ford Focus. Why would a private detective be following me? Might it be because of Lois? Or for that matter, Duke?

Something else has been bothering me. I’m sure it’s nothing, but I can’t help but be a little concerned with the speed with which Lois has dispatched the children’s things to the garage and the amount of Ellie’s things she took to the tip last week.

‘Ellie won’t need this,’ she kept saying.

Six carloads in all she took, including nearly all of Ellie’s clothes and, it seemed, quite a lot of her personal papers. It is one thing Lois making room to move some of her things in so that she can stay over but another her taking over the house. I mentioned that this might be happening to Duke but he just laughed.

‘Now, you really are becoming paranoid,’ he said. ‘Why can’t you ever enjoy something for what it is?’

……………………………………

Not wishing to start the day just yet, I listen to the springtime chirping of the birds outside the window while I piece together the events of last night. The concrete that seems to be lining my head lets me know I had a fair bit to drink. I watched the match on Sky. It was a tense affair with a lot at stake. The Reds were finally beaten by a last minute goal by ex-Blues striker, Joe Turner and are now relegated. To make matters worse the Blues are promoted. I think that Lois was a bit shocked at the level of my support for the Reds, but she did manage to stop me before I actually put the hammer through the TV screen at the end of the match. I don’t think she likes football a lot. This doesn’t bode well.

The phone rings. It is an ebullient Inspector Filcher. He has the air of a man who is on ecstasy and has just been told he will live for ever. He reminds me in great detail about the match last night, what the result means for my team and what he said a year ago. Surely he has not phoned up to tell me this. Surely he cannot get so much pleasure at another’s misfortune.

‘And, what about the Blues?’ he adds. ‘Ironic or what!’

I am about to put the phone down when he says that he too has been promoted. He asks me if I will come down to the station but says he is not going what it is about over the phone. Has he been handed back the case? Have there been developments?

‘Who was that?’ says Lois. She is already dressed.

‘It was Filcher,’ I say.

‘I thought that you said he was….. off the case,’ she says.

‘He was. But he’s back. There may have been developments. He wants me to come down at the station.’ Lois seems suddenly nervous.

‘That’s …… great news,’ she says, although her body language tells a different story. Her muscles tense and the colour drains out of her face.

‘I think I’ll phone Duke,’ I say. ‘Get him to look into it.’

‘No! Don’t do that,’ she says.

‘Why not?’

‘I can’t really say.’

‘But I’m bound to find out.’

‘All right. ……… Are you ready? It was Duke that helped Ellie move her things out that night, a year ago. While you were at your football do.’

‘Duke? Never. He wouldn’t do that.’

‘Well, he did. You are so unobservant you didn’t even realise that Ellie was seeing Duke’s brother, Earl. Didn’t you think it was suspicious the way she used to dress to go to Pilates?’

‘But she didn’t take anything. Not even her car’

‘She took lots of things. As I said, you are really not very observant. And, let’s face it, the Fiat was a wreck. You know she kept on at you to get her a new one.’

‘But, why did she do it? I mean, go off with Duke’s brother like that behind my back. We were getting along fine.’

‘She said she was fed up with your lies and deceit. And the sordid little affairs. And the football. Constant football. Day and night.’

‘What about the children? What about Thomas and Maddie?’ ‘

‘Ellie says that you never took any notice of the children. She said she was surprised you could even remember their names.’

‘What about you, Lois? If I’m so terrible, why did you keep chasing after me?’

‘Chasing after you? That’s a laugh. Well, you’re so stupid, perhaps I’d better explain. I started phoning you, initially to report back to Ellie. It was amusing, playing with you like that. Then, a month ago, out of the blue, I was given notice to move out of my flat, so moving some things in here seemed the easy option. You weren’t exactly resistant to the idea. You didn’t think this was a permanent arrangement did you? But that business last night with the match on the TV. Well, that was the final straw.’

I believe that it is time I got a word in to present my side of the case, but Lois’s tirade is not yet finished.

‘And the thing is,’ she continues, ‘you just don’t see it. You always think you are right. You bend the truth to suit you. Black is white. Up is down. You are the most self-absorbed person I’ve met. Your way of seeing things is so far removed from the way things are that it might as well be a parallel universe.’

‘OK! OK! You’ve made your point. So, how does Filcher fit into all this? What is it he wants to tell me?’

‘I’ve no idea,’ says Lois. ‘It wouldn’t have been that hard to find your family. It’s not going to have taken the police a year. Anyway, I imagine Filcher knew that Ellie had gone off with Earl, or something like that. That’s why he fobbed you off. If you had been a bit more resourceful then you could have found them yourself.’

‘But Filcher went off sick. What was that all about?’

‘Probably just overwork. Rising crime rates and all that. Sometimes they have to deal with proper crimes, you know. Well. You do know. You’ve been on the wrong side of them yourself once or twice in the past. In fact, what you and Duke are doing now isn’t exactly legal is it? Perhaps Filcher wants to catch up on what is happening there.’

I am slowly running out of places to take the discussion.

‘What about the photos?’ I say. ‘Who sent the photos and what happened to them?’

‘I don’t know who sent the photos,’ she says, ‘or what happened to them. For all I know, it might have been Ellie having a laugh. ….. And, before you ask, I don’t know who has been following you either. Perhaps that’s just something else that you’ve made up.’

‘But you agreed with Duke about the Tiguan. You said that …… ‘

‘Ah, Duke! We are back to Duke. Your trusted right-hand man, who would never double-cross you. Get a life, will you! Do you think that you can trust anyone in your line of work.’

‘I’m going out now,’ I tell her. ‘When I get back, I want you gone.’

‘No problem. I couldn’t stay a minute longer.’

As I slam the front door, I see that Frank Fargo is painting his picket fence.

‘Hello,’ he calls out. ‘Nice morning!’

‘Morning Frank,’ I say. I’m not in the mood for Frank. It’s a pity I parked the car on the street and not the drive.

‘Your new ….. girlfriend is very pretty,’ he says. ‘Lois, isn’t it?’

‘What!’ I say.

‘Very nice. Your new girlfriend.’ He has put down the brush now and is coming over.

‘I expect you saw her yourself,’ he says, ‘but I noticed your wife, uh, Ellie, round here yesterday.’

‘No. I didn’t see her.’

‘She was in a dark blue Tiguan. With a big burly black fellow. He looked a bit like your man, Count. I think they might be moving into number 96. …….. You’ll be able to see a bit more of the children then, I expect. Lovely children.’

‘What!’ I say again. I am dumbstruck.

He is not finished yet. ‘I hope you don’t mind me asking but what is it that you and Count do exactly?’ he says. ‘It’s just that I’m writing a new story. It’s a bit of a departure from my spy novels and it has a pair of small-time underworld characters in it, so I was curious as to what type of activities bring in the money.’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Dog Gone

doggone2

DOG GONE by Chris Green

It is Friday evening. Zoot has gone out with his friends and Stacey and I have the house to ourselves. Outside there is the kind of persistent drizzle you often get at the end of a working week, when you feel you’d like to go for a walk on the hill. Not that we go for a walk on the hill that often since the dog died. Once in a while if the mood takes us we shuffle down to The Belted Galloway and sit in the garden, which gives us a pretty good view of the common. We agree this is about the right amount of exercise, probably a mile there and back. We did talk about joining the gym, but we’ve decided to put it on hold for now. I might get the bikes out of the shed instead, once Man with a Van has collected the old mattresses left over from the car boot. Then we will be able to go a little further afield, perhaps as far as The Pallbearers Arms.

While we are waiting for a break in the drizzle, we are watching a documentary on Channel 5 about obesity in Hull taxi drivers. There seems to be very little on in the seven o’clock slot to entertain us these days. We had to give up the soaps because we weren’t getting anything done.

What’s the date?’ I ask Stacey. The linking of taxi drivers’ obesity with road accidents is jogging my memory.

May 26th,’ she says.

Oh shit! I think Geoff said he was going to kill himself round about now. When we spoke, he said if Abi wasn’t back in two weeks, he was going to end it. …….. Or was it three weeks. …… I’m sure he said the 26th.’

‘When did he phone?’

‘I’m not sure. I thought I’d get the chance to check him out before he did it, but with Gnarls having to be put down, it just slipped my mind.’

You’d better ring him then,’ says Stacey, taking a large pull on her brown ale.

Although she has never said as much, I get the impression that Stacey is not keen on Geoff, even though she has never actually met him. ‘Your friend Geoff called she will say if she comes home to find he has left a message on the answerphone, in the same tone she might use if it was Harold Shipman that had called, or the Yorkshire Ripper.

As the dialler is ringing, I try to piece together Geoff’s distressed phonecall. Abi had left him for a Bulgarian plastics entrepreneur and he had lost his job at the fishing tackle museum. He was anxious about the bank repossessing his house and was being driven mad by the round the clock drum and bass music from his neighbours. His doctor had put him on anti-depressants but the anti part seemed not to be working. And to cap it all his ulcer had flared up again. He could take no more.

‘Hang on,’ I had said, ‘I’ll give you a list of things worth living for. Pick any letter.’

‘B’ he had said.’

‘OK. The Beach Boys, Breaking Bad, big boobs, barbecues, BB King …….’

‘He was dismissive of all my suggestions, even big boobs. They got in the way he said. He ranted on for a bit and said he would give Abi two weeks, or was it three weeks, and if she wasn’t back, he was going to run his car into the side of a truck. Not any old truck mind you, he had one particular truck lined up. A DHL Iveco Stralis, I seem to recall. If I were so inclined, this is not the way I would want to do it. An overdose or a lethal injection would be much more comfortable. But Geoff seemed to be quite determined about the collision and always one to concentrate on the detail; as well as the vehicle, he had worked out a date and time.

‘There are a lot of self help sites on the internet,’ I had said.

He said he could not connect to the Internet since he had installed CheapNet. I remember feeling a little guilty that I had recommended CheapNet. Since I suggested it however, we have had nothing but problems with Cheapnet. I finally cancelled our contract with them just two days ago, having become exasperated by the slowness of the connection and the language barrier when dealing with their helpline in Turkmenistan. Now we are with FreeSurf, which of course is not free but it does seem quite speedy.

At the time, I did not take Geoff’s suicide threat too seriously, but perhaps I should have. His phone is ringing. He is not picking up. Am I too late?

I think I ought to go round to see if things are …… all right,’ I say to Stacey, who has finished her brown ale and is now opening a bottle of advocaat. I have to admit that I have no idea what I will do if things are not all right.

I get the Proton out of the garage, tie the front bumper back on and set off, wondering if I am over the limit. True, Stacey drank the lion’s share of the Belgian cider earlier, but there is always that risk. Geoff’s place is about fifteen miles away, so just in case any police might think a brown P Reg Proton with no front number plate, a dent in the side and the bumper hanging off looks suspicious, I decide to go the back way.

The Proton coughs and splutters as it makes its way up Prospect Hill. At the summit, perhaps summit is an extravagant description for a rise of a hundred feet, a Bradley Wiggins lookalike in rain drenched day-glo lycra eases past me. The Proton coughs and splutters as it makes its way down Prospect Hill. Its days are numbered. I have seen a lovely little Daewoo for sale, but what with the extra hours I have been working at the balloon repair workshop and Zoot’s problems with his Maths teacher, I have not had chance to look at it. I resolve to make time over the weekend.

20% OFF SNAKES, announces a sign outside Ashoka’s, the new store on the roundabout. I make a mental to note to check if we need one. Perhaps it hadn’t said snakes, but you never know. I have heard that Ashoka’s sells just about everything. Someone at work bought an Alan Titchmarsh garden gnome there. They have a whole range apparently, Monty Don, Diarmud Gavin, even Percy Thrower. BUY ONE GET ONE FREE, says another sign, although I cannot make out what this is for. Inflatable Buddhas, perhaps.

I have to wait at the temporary traffic lights in Badgeworthy Lane where they are rebuilding the railway bridge. The lights have been there for months, if not years. How hard is it to strengthen a bridge? I try to get something on the radio to distract me. There is a choice between George Osborne’s Desert Island Discs, a dour orchestral piece by Brahms, or a discussion on downsizing. I switch it off. We were forced to downsize a year ago when Stacey’s eldest, Irie, moved in with Mojo. Irie’s money from her job at Morrisons had helped keep us afloat. It does not seem likely that Zoot will ever pass his GCSEs let alone be in a position to leave home. But perhaps I am being a little unfair. He is only seventeen.

The lights change and I drive on. The Proton seems to run along nicely so long as I stay in third gear and use the wipers sparingly. ‘ALL NIGHT HAPPY HOUR,’ says the sign outside The Bucket of Eels. I remember that Geoff and I used to play skittles there years ago. When it was a real pub, with a choice of twenty real ales, with expressive names like Feck’s Original and Old Badger. Before it was taken over by Wicked Inns. The year Geoff and I were on the team, The Bucket nearly won the County Skittles League, losing narrowly to The Pig in a Poke in the final match. Admittedly the season was quite short that particular year as only four pubs entered, but we were proud of our achievement.

In the four years I have been with Stacey, I have only seen Geoff two or three times. There is a tendency to neglect old friendships when you are in a relationship. Geoff and I speak on the phone occasionally and agree to go to the dogs or go fishing but something always comes up. In fact, it is probably ten years since we went to the dogs, and nearly as long since we went fishing. What a strange contrivance time is. It does not seem to follow a linear course, certainly not when viewed retrospectively. The memory constantly plays tricks. On the one hand Geoff’s cry for help phonecall, if that is what it was, seems like it had happened months ago. Could it have really been only two or three weeks? On the other hand it seems only last year that Geoff and I went boating in France to celebrate his forty fifth birthday, and my divorce from Denni. But now Geoff is fifty one or perhaps it is fifty two, as he is two years older than me. The folding of time, the inability to identify the correct order of events relative to one another is something that becomes more worrying with age. Temporal confusion will presumably happen more and more with each passing year. I will have to accept it, along with receding gums and decreasing libido. I am dreading being fifty. This is only a few months away. Fifty is a watershed. Did hitting fifty mark the beginning of Geoff’s decline, I wonder?

Even if one should feel the inclination to end it, there are the ethical implications to overcome. Committing suicide is in western culture regarded as a crime and in Christianity a mortal sin. Not that Geoff was particularly religious, but he had been brought up as a Catholic. I try to speculate how suicide might this affect one’s life after death status? Because you are in essence taking a life, do you go to hell? Purgatory? Are you perhaps allocated a shabby damp basement in Rotherham with fifties furniture, a shared kitchen and the lingering smell of yesterday’s cabbage?

My mobile rings, breaking me out of my reverie. Perhaps Geoff has got the number and is phoning me back. Why do I always put the thing on the passenger seat? Now it has fallen down the side. I have to pull over to retrieve it. It is not Geoff, but Stacey asking if I can pick up some eggs, and if I pass an off license, a bottle of ouzo. I tell her I will look out for a farm shop, but it is unlikely that they will sell ouzo. ‘Pernod will do,’ she says. ‘Just a small bottle.’

Before Gnarls was put down, Stacey would buy a bottle of Lambrusco with the shopping and this would last her a week. Gnarls was a sweet dog. He was a cocker spaniel retriever cross. He was just seven years old. An inoperable tumour. His passing has affected Stacey badly. She has all his doggy toys lined up on the mantelpiece and she keeps getting his basket out from under the stairs. Last week I got home to find her cuddling his blanket.

I arrive at Geoff’s, having passed nowhere that sells comestibles. The Proton retches and rattles as I bring it to a stop outside the house. I notice immediately with a degree of alarm that there is an estate agents board in the front garden. ‘SOLD,’ it says by Wilson and Love. Has it been more than three weeks since Geoff’s phonecall? Why didn’t I phone back sooner? Maybe there would have been something I could have done. My heart racing, I get out of the Proton and look around. There is no car on the drive. Is Geoff at this very moment ramming it into the side of the truck? The yard is tidier than I remember it. There are no dismantled motorcycles. And where are the geese? Maybe I have got the date wrong and it was May 16th or something and things have moved on. I fear the worst. I feel sick in my stomach. There is an eerie silence. No hint of the neighbours’ drum and bass music.

Not sure exactly what I am expecting to discover, I sidle gingerly over to look in the front window. A translucent waxy green film is forming on some of the bricks around the front door. I remember in an earlier conversation Geoff referring to this. In his paranoia he wondered if it might be radioactive. Perhaps Geoff had been on the slide for a while and I had failed to notice.

At this moment a blue Seat with tinted windows approaches and pulls in. Out step Geoff and Abi looking fit and tanned.

Hello Al,’ says Geoff, striding over to shake my hand.’ Long time. What are you doing out here?’

I am lost for words. Eventually I mutter something about the phonecall, three weeks ago. ‘I thought I might have been too late’

Have you started smoking the wacky-baccy again, Al? What phonecall? Anyway, three weeks ago Abi and I were in Dubai. Had a brilliant time as it happened. Magnificent architecture! You should go. Tell you what Al; I think that our life is starting to take off. When Abi and I got back from Dubai, we found we’d had a big win on the premium bonds and decided we would sell up. Fantastic, eh? House was on the market for less than twelve hours and we got a cash buyer offering the full asking price. What about that? From Bulgaria he is, some sort of entrepreneur.’

I am flabbergasted.

Good thing you caught us. We’re moving next week. Anyway, how are you, must be six months at least. You better come in and have a drink.’

Fine,’ I say. ‘Just a little bit shell shocked.’

Last time we spoke you sounded pretty desperate,’ says Geoff. ‘I was quite worried about you. Thought you might do something silly. The bank didn’t repossess your house in the end I take it.’

I kept saying that Geoff should phone you to make sure you were all right,’ says Abi.

No really. I’m fine,’ I say.

And how’s Stacey?’ says Geoff. Although he has never met her I have formed the impression that Geoff in some way disapproves of Stacey.

I stay and have a beer with Geoff and Abi while they show me a Videospin film that Geoff has put together consisting of photos of staggering post-modern skyscrapers.

‘Those are the Dubai Emirates Towers, that’s the Burj Al Arab Hotel, and that is the Etisalat building.’

These are punctuated with photos of dramatic mosaics and water features from the Dubai marina. He has even dug out some authentic oud music for the soundtrack. I feel it is a little self-indulgent of him, and I don’t imagine that they really listen to a lot of oud music in Dubai these days, but I am relieved Geoff is in good spirits. At the same time I am confused. I can think of no explanation for the misunderstanding and Geoff offers none except that I seem to have been overdoing it lately. As soon as it seems courteous to do so I bid my leave.

I decide to drive back along the dual carriageway. It is late. There will not be any police on the roads at this time of night. I am making good progress and have just passed the Crossroads Motel when the phone rings. It is Stacey. She sounds excited, but before I can make out what she is trying to tell me the line goes dead. Probably my battery. I keep forgetting to charge it. Whatever it is will have to wait. Up ahead a blanket of flashing blue lights lights up the sky. As I draw closer, acutely aware that an old car doing forty in third might seem a bit conspicuous, I see that there has been an accident and that all the emergency services are in attendance. A car has driven in to the side of a truck. A DHL Iveco Stralis. My mind races. What on earth is going on? Why is there so much strangeness in my life?

When I get home Stacey is still up. She has found a bottle of home made fig schnapps and is watching Celebrity Big Brother. Ayman al-Zawahiri has just been evicted, which leaves Paul Gascoigne, Katie Price and Stephen Hawking in the house.

‘I’ve just bought a dog on ebay,’ she says. ‘How was Geoff?’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved