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

bunnyboiler

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

missingpic

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

 

Trust

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Trust by Chris Green

Following the split with his long-term partner, Darci, Nick Easter feels at a loose end. He cannot face the idea of singles nights and has heard nothing but horror stories about dating agencies. He does not want to go down to The Gordon Bennett to be asked ‘where’s Darci’, or be encouraged to ‘have another’ to drown his sorrows at The Cock and Bull. He wants to avoid anyone putting a sympathetic arm around his shoulder and coming out with clichés like ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea’ or ‘everything happens for a reason’. Worse still, he can imagine Dirk Acker or Ugg White asking if they can have the all clear to ask Darci out. After all, she is an attractive woman. He is also determined not to go to pieces and take to the bottle as he did when he split up with Roz. He thinks it best to avoid The Gordon Bennett and The Cock and Bull and other places of temptation altogether. He decides instead to join The National Trust.

When Nick receives his pack through the post he discovers that The National Trust offers more than visits to stately homes and landscaped parks and gardens, the Trust runs a smorgasbord of organised activities as well. You can go horse riding, cycling, canoeing, running, geocaching whatever this is, stargazing and even surfing. Because of his inexperience and his general fitness level, Nick feels that he might be best starting off with some organised walks. November is too late for the rutting stag walk, and the red squirrel walk is too far away, but still there are a selection of interesting looking options within an hour or two’s drive.

Not wanting to look out of place on his first walk. he buys Berghaus Explorer walking boots, a range of waterproof jackets, and two trekking poles from GO Outdoors. So that he will come across as a seasoned National Trust member, he also orders a rucksack, a walking stick, binoculars, a torch, an umbrella, hand-warmers, a multi-tool, and a selection of hats for all weathers from the NT catalogue. His fellow walkers will all have these. All that is left is to get a good selection of OS maps and to make them look a little weathered.

Nick feels that the May Hill Countryside Walk at just seven miles will be a good introduction. Suitably attired, he strides out from May Hill common on the Gloucestershire-Herefordshire border on a cold Saturday morning. By keeping close to the National Trust guide and listening carefully he hopes to be able to pick up some of the language that walkers use. There are about forty people on the walk, most of them couples. Even those who are not paired up seem to be on familiar terms with each other. He feels a little sad that he is alone. He wishes he had a partner.

He had hoped that he and Darci might get married, but each time he had suggested it, she had been dismissive. He hadn’t actually got down on one knee and proposed or anything like this, but it was clear from her attitude that she was more of a free spirit than he was. As he is trekking through the woodland, he replays a typical conversation in his head.

‘Just think. We could be like this every day, if we got married,’ he had said.

‘We would be under each others feet all the time,’ she had said. ‘We see plenty of each other.’

‘But if it were a sunny day on a weekend, we could just get up and go,’ he had said.

‘But I may not want to,’ she had said. ‘It’s important to each have our own interests. We need to be able to do things separately.’

‘But I don’t want to do things without you,’ he had said.

‘Well I do like doing things without you,’ she had said.

‘And if we got married there would only be one set of expenses,’ he had said.

They had this conversation or an approximation of it at regular intervals. The last time he had tacked on to the end.

‘And of course, there’s the tax relief.’

This had been the final straw for Darci. She felt that reducing her status to that of an Inland Revenue Tax Code was insulting. How could he say he loved her. There again he hadn’t said he loved her – ever. This as another issue. In retrospect, Nick could see where she was coming from. He did seem to have a remarkable talent for saying the wrong things, and for not saying the right things. He thinks he now realises that men and women have different ways of looking at things.

After a mile or so, Nick notices that one of the group seems to be lagging behind slightly. She is one of the younger of the walkers. She is probably in her mid-thirties and when she flicks her hair back off her face is quite attractive. She is on the tall side of average and her slim fitting jeans show off her shapely legs well. But shouldn’t she probably be wearing a thicker jacket for trekking at this time of year, especially in the woods where the sun never shines, and sturdier footwear? Pumps are no good. He holds back, waiting for her to draw level. He has the feeling that he recognises her from somewhere and then it hits him.

You’re from the health food store,’ he says. ‘The one in Ledbury.’

That’s right,’ she says. ‘Organics. When you were crumpling up your map back there, I thought perhaps I’d seen you before.’

Savannah, isn’t it?’

Very good memory you have.’

‘I’m Nick, Nick Easter.’

‘Hi, Nick. Good to meet you. Thank you for hanging back.’

‘That’s OK. I could see you were struggling a little. That was quite a steep climb back there.’

‘I know I’m a bit of a slowcoach,’ she says. ‘Tom and Sarah, my friends up ahead there come on these adventures every week, but I’m quite new to it.’

Nick feels comforted by this but does not admit that he too is new to it. This would take away his advantage.

As the main party forge ahead, Nick and Savannah discover that they have a mutual interest in cricket, and although Savannah doesn’t know the name of the England captain, they chat merrily about the sound of leather on willow on a sunny Sunday afternoon, regretting that it is now November.

Over bowls of spiced parsnip soup in the café, Nick is introduced to Tom and Sarah. Tom holds forth about walking in the Lake District, and how a digital SLR camera is better for panoramic shots than an automatic while Sarah texts all her family and friends on her iphone. Eventually, Tom and Sarah go off to buy some cards in the souvenir shop. Nick takes the opportunity to ask Savannah if she will meet him next week for the Woodchester Park Woodland Walk.

‘It says in the Trust Handbook that it is a scenic walk around five lakes,’ he says. ‘But it does include some steep gradients.’

Savannah is not sure about the gradients.

‘There is the option of a five mile walk, if you prefer,’ he says.

She does prefer.

‘Perhaps we could take a picnic,’ says Nick.

Savannah brightens at the mention of this. Nick makes a note to buy a picnic blanket from the Trust shop before he leaves.

All week Nick looks forward to seeing Savannah on Saturday, keeping a keen eye on the five day weather forecast. It looks as if they might be lucky. The high winds are scheduled to finish on Friday afternoon and the torrential rain is not forecast until Sunday. From Wednesday onwards, he packs and repacks his rucksack. By Friday evening, it is bursting at the seams and he hasn’t even put the picnic blanket in yet. He takes out the lighter of the two extra jackets and repositions the umbrella and the waterproof over-trousers. He probably won’t need the polar torch so he packs an extra fleece instead in case Savannah gets cold. And an extra pair of thick socks. He decides finally he will have to pack the picnic separately, so he takes a late night trip to Blacks to buy a shoulder bag.

He takes the laptop to bed and reads up on Woodchester Park so he has facts at his fingertips for the walk. Woodchester House, the great gothic mansion around which the park is built, has featured twice in Most Haunted Live and again on Ghost Hunters International. It was also the setting for the BBC production of Dracula. There are horseshoe bats in the park, along with sparrow hawks, green woodpecker and tawny owl. While they are walking through the woods they must also keep an eye out for sedge, Solomon’s seal and stinking hellebore among the flora, although he imagines that late November may not be the best time to spot these.

Nick waits for thirty minutes in the NT car park. The guide goes on ahead with the group but there is no sign of Savannah. Just as he is about to call it a day, Savannah drives up in her blue Fiat 500. She steps out and apologises for being late.

‘ I had a job finding the place,’ she says. ‘I’m not very good with maps.’

‘That’s OK,’ he says. ‘I’ve only just got here myself. I think the others might have gone on ahead. But don’t worry, I’ve got a map.’

He waits for her to open the boot of her car and take out her rucksack and walking boots and perhaps a waterproof jacket to go over her thin fleece, but she does not. All she has with her is a flimsy hemp tote bag.

‘Come on then,’ she says. ‘Shall we get started? We might be able to catch them up.’

‘Are you going to be all right in Converse trainers?’ he asks.

‘I’ll keep to the dry bits,’ she says.

Nick doesn’t say that he does not think there will be too many dry bits.

They set off in the direction that Nick saw the walkers take. They climb steeply through thick woodland. Nick becomes nervous about the lack of grip of Savannah’s canvas shoes on the wet leaves. After a few skids, she slips and falls. He helps her up. This is the first bodily contact that they have had. Nick feels excited by it. He is not sure how Savannah feels, but she did not appear to resist.

As they near the top Nick begins to find the weight of his rucksack a struggle. They reach a clearing and stop to look down at the lake. It begins to drizzle. The picnic blanket seems a little superfluous now. They exchange glances and press on. Neither of them wants to be the first to suggest they turn back. On the path down to the boathouse Nick maintains over and over that this rain was not forecast. They could shelter in the boathouse, but having consulted his sodden Best One Hundred Wildlife Walks Nick says it is accessible only by boat. Eventually the driving rain that sets in forces them to return to the car park. The trekking umbrella offers little protection and they get soaked.

Having dried off a bit with the bank of beach towels Nick has brought, they share the picnic in the intimacy of his car.

‘These four bean salad wraps are delicious,’ says Savannah. ‘Did you make them yourself?’

Nick is pleased he took the cellophane wrappers off and repacked them in paper bags. ‘Sorry they are a bit squashed,’ he says. ‘It must have happened when the shoulder bag fell onto the rocks at the bottom of the hill back there.’

‘And this mango and pineapple smoothie is divine. It’s much nicer than the ones we sell in Organics.’

They move off the subject of food and Nick asks politely after Tom and Sarah. Savannah explains that she does not see a lot of them, they tend to go further afield, Offa’s Dyke, The Peak District and the Lakes. They had just taken her under her wing after she had split with Conor. Nick’s heart leaps. He has not wanted to broach the subject of her relationship status directly, in case it might be in a relationship or its complicated. When Savannah offers him her phone number, he feels that he is in with a chance.

Tyler Armstrong, the lothario in the office tells him that it is not good form to appear too keen, so Nick leaves it until Tuesday to phone. But he phones on Wednesday, Thursday and twice on Friday. He discovers that Savannah has a busy schedule of hair washing, cat grooming and getting milk in before the shop closes. She always seems to be in the middle of something. He arranges to pick her up on Saturday to take her to Croome Park. It is a much shorter walk, he says, and they can have a lunch at Croome Court restaurant afterwards. He drops in a bio about Capability Brown, but she has not heard of him. She hadn’t realised that gardeners could be the stuff of legend.

If he and Savannah are going to have a relationship, he must take account of what she wants. He must not make the mistake he made with Roz. He tries to remember their conversation. It must be ten years ago now that she had dumped him.

‘When are you going to get in into your thick head that I don’t want to go and watch Bristol City play football every week,’ Roz had said.

‘Well I suppose we could go to watch Bristol Rovers,’ he had said. ‘Or Swindon Town.’

This had been the final straw for Roz. Nick had by and large avoided the mistake with Darci. He had not taken her to football games. They had gone to watch Gloucester play rugby instead, but even here, he found that Darci did not always want to go. He resolves to be more considerate with Savannah. He will take her to farmer’s markets and craft fairs and perhaps they can take up ballroom dancing or yoga. He won’t even invite her to his old school reunions and definitely won’t take her along to Hornby, Mills and Nash dinners. Quantity surveyors can be so dull when they have get togethers.

On their way to Croome, Nick pulls into Go Outdoors and he buys Savannah a pair of tan Helly Hansen Forester walking boots to go with the pink North Face insulated jacket and the Jack Wills woolly hat, he bought her off Amazon. He is going to leave the rucksack until next week. He doesn’t want to load her down too much. He doesn’t mind doing the carrying for the time being. Feeling that he is just trying to buy his way into her pants, Savannah resists the purchase a little, but Nick insists.

‘You must have the proper gear for walking,’ he says. ‘You will find it so much easier. Why don’t you keep them on, then your feet will be used to them by the time we get to Croome.’ With this he gets the Saturday shop assistant, who looks about fourteen, to put her trainers in a bag. During the rest of the journey to Croome, she speculates meanwhile what it might be like letting Nick into her pants; although he is a bit controlling, he does have an athletic build. From a certain angle, his profile reminds her of Hugh Jackman.

The weather holds up nicely as Nick and Savannah make their way leisurely around the lake. This is as good as it gets in early December. From his bevy of guide books, Nick feeds her historical information about the Earls of Coventry, Neo-Palladian architecture, landscape gardens and the temples and pavilions in the park like a seasoned tour guide. They stop to feed the swans with wholemeal bread that Nick has brought.

‘Did you know that swans mate for life?’ he says. It is an innocent reflection.

‘Not at all like humans then’, she says, with more of an edge. ‘How many people do you know that have been together for more than five years?’

‘Certainly not my family,’ he says. ‘What about you? You must know some. What about Tom and Sarah?’

‘Tom and Sarah are probably the only ones that I can think of. All my other friends are in and out of relationships every couple of months. I never know who to address Christmas cards to.’

Nick was hoping that this was not the case. He was hoping that Savannah represented a world of normal people with stable relationships. It would be a shame though to take it to heart and spoil a lovely day. He will just have to try a little harder than others have.’

After a late afternoon lunch at Croome Court, and a couple of halves at The Crown Inn at Shuthonger they go back to Nick’s and warm themselves up before an open fire that Nick has prepared. They make cautious small talk over the new James Blunt album, before shedding their clothes and getting comfortable for the night. He has bought condoms and she has brought a toothbrush. She doesn’t leave until noon the next day.

Despite the euphoria of the weekend, with the festive season looming, Nick feels a creeping despondency. It is supposed to be a time of happiness, but he finds the emotions thrown up by Christmas disturbing and bewildering. Perhaps it goes back to his childhood. Most of all he does not want to spend Christmas with either arm of his family. He is also desperate not to spend Christmas alone, nothing could be worse. Lots of differing perspectives compete for space in his head. If he is honest he would like to spend Christmas with Savannah, but it is early days. He hardly knows her. After all, they have only slept together once and you can’t tell all that much from the first time. What is she really like? What do you look for in a partner, someone who is like you, someone who is different, someone like you but different, someone who is different but like you, someone to make up for your shortcomings, anyone at all to stop you from feeling lonely? How closely does the person you end up choosing match what you are looking for anyway?

Out of the blue Darci phones. She wants to know what he is doing for Christmas. Perhaps she is feeling the same way. Perhaps she does not want to spend it alone and maybe she does not want to spend it with her family as she and Nick have split up. They have spent the last five Christmases with Darci’s family. He tells her he does not know yet but he has had an invitation. She says she does not know yet, but has had an invitation. Amongst barbed pleasantries, they both fish around for information but the conversation ends with both of them none the wiser.

Nick instantly worries that Conor might be doing similar checking up with Savannah. While Savannah has not talked a lot about Conor, from what he has picked up they were together for a long time. Savannah has said that sometimes she has to work late at Organics and that Nick doesn’t need to phone her every night, but now he feels he needs to speak to her more than ever. He is not due to see her until Saturday when they are going to explore Dirham Park and it is only Tuesday. He phones. She does not answer. When she doesn’t answer on Wednesday or Thursday either, his sense of optimism tries to tell him it could just be that Savannah’s hair might be particularly tangled this week, the cat may have chewing gum in its fur or the shop may have sold out of milk and she has had to drive to the supermarket, but his sense of pessimism tells him she could be in the throes of ecstasy beneath a panting Conor.

What forms the basis of trust, Nick wonders? Can you trust someone that you have just met? Can you trust someone if you have been with them a long time? Maybe you trust someone you have just met because you haven’t been with them a long time. What are you trusting them with? What exactly constitutes breaking trust? There are probably no meaningful statistics about faithfulness in relationships, but over time, few survive intact. The modern world puts so many things in the way of fidelity.

It is Friday night and Nick has given up on reaching Savannah. He has been trying all evening but her phone goes on to voicemail. He is about to go to bed when his phone rings. It is Savannah.

‘Sorry to call so late,’ she says. ‘You’ve probably been ringing me haven’t you. My phone says I have a lot of missed calls.’

‘I tried once or twice earlier,’ says Nick. He does not say that for the last hour or so he has been a small step away from coming round to make sure that Conor’s car was not there, not that he would know what Conor’s car looked like.

‘Sorry, I didn’t hear the phone, says Savannah. ‘It was in the inside pocket of my new insulated jacket. Look, I know we are seeing each other tomorrow but I just wanted to ask what you are doing for Christmas.’

‘I’ve got no plans,’ says Nick. ‘But I was hoping I might be able to spend it with you.’

‘I’ve got a week off and I thought we might go to Santiago de Compestela,’ says Savannah.

‘Santiago de Compestela,’ Nick repeats.

‘Yes,’ says Savannah. ‘It’s in Spain.’

‘You mean the pilgrimage walk, but I’m not a Catholic.’

‘Neither am I, but Trip Advisor says that you don’t have to be. It says it’s for those who want to get away from the Disney Christmas.’

‘Isn’t it about five hundred miles long?’

‘Yes, but we could just do a bit of it and save the rest for later,’ says Savannah. ‘I’ve even ordered a Survivor rucksack on Amazon. What do you think?’

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

The Life and Times of Chadwick Dial

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The Life and Times of Chadwick Dial by Chris Green

‘It’s him,’ screamed Eve. ‘It’s Chadwick Dial. Look!’

Eve Laszlo and I were aboard a coach on its way to Bath. We were going to see a new band called Oasis play at the Bath Pavilion. We had stopped off at Stroud to pick up more passengers. Through the window, wandering around the bus station, was the unmistakable figure of Chadwick Dial. Once you’ve seen him you would recognise him straight way if you saw him again, like you would recognise Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster. Dial reminded me somehow of the child snatcher from Bedknobs and Broomsticks. But with his Quasimodo stoop, his facial scar, his missing eye and random strands of matted hair coming out from all corners of his head, arguably a less attractive version.

For a moment it looked as if he was going to get on the coach. It was touch and go. Eve was freaking out.

‘That bastard held me prisoner,’ she was yelling. ‘He kidnapped Ross and Alex.’

Everyone on the coach was looking round. Although I had heard nothing but bad about Chadwick Dial, I wondered if she might be overreacting. I had seen him now and again in The Black Hole, a pub where I occasionally went for a drink, but I had always given him a wide berth. I had not known Eve long. The incidents she referred to had happened some time before, when her teenage children were younger. Eventually I managed to calm her.

Chadwick Dial did not get on the coach. He slunk off somewhere to sniff a drainpipe or whatever it is that one eyed hunchbacks do. As we pulled away, Eve apologised for her outburst. She went on to explain why she had been so angry. She told me that Dial was a friend of her ex husband’s. When they were going through divorce proceedings and she had custody of the children, Dial helped Jackson Laszlo to abduct them. He locked Eve in a room for three days while Jackson Laszlo took them out of the country. She did not get to see them again for months. Even then she and the children had to go to a women’s refuge for their safety. Dial was never brought to book for his part in the escapade.

Despite the episode on the coach, Eve and I were able to enjoy a pleasant couple of days in Bath. I did not normally go for loud rock bands, but Oasis were a revelation. They played I Am The Walrus, encouraging comparisons with The Beatles and a song called Wonderwall. It was clear that they were going to be very big. After Bath, we spent a few days on the North Devon coast, where Eve told me a little more about her experiences of Chadwick Dial. She was obviously very frightened of him. Getting it out in the open though seemed to help to ease the tension.

We went back to the home we were building in rural Gloucestershire and life moved on as life does. Eve was unpredictable from day to day but I became used to her mood sings and occasional outbursts. She clearly had her demons, but then don’t we all? We did not however have another conversation about Chadwick Dial. I had no reason to bring the subject up and Eve seemed to have let go. As we did not go to The Black Hole, I never came across Dial in the time Eve and I were together. Gradually he faded from my consciousness.

Eve and I parted a year or two later, but the anecdotes about Chadwick Dial do not end there. Since then I have heard a regular trickle of unpleasant stories about him. It appears that everyone who has ever met him has a tale to tell. He killed Kester Jaynes’s mynah bird. He stole Bryan Harrington’s classic Humber Super Snipe and managed to wreck it. He drugged and raped Denise Felch’s teenage daughter, Kylie.

‘Why was he never caught?’ I asked her. ‘It’s not like he’s hard to spot.’

‘You wouldn’t believe just how slippery he is,’ she said.

‘It wouldn’t be so bad if he were an honest to goodness criminal,’ said Lee Hale after Dial had conned him out of his winning lottery ticket. ‘It’s the contemptibility, the slyness, the deceit.’

These stories are repeated over and over. Dial has robbed, cheated, double crossed and generally taken advantage of everyone who has had the misfortune to have known him. I came across him one time in The Belted Galloway. He was trying to sell the drugs he had stolen off Glassy Eyed John. I told him that I didn’t do drugs. He glowered and skulked off muttering something unsavoury about Eve.

Did Dial’s ugliness have a bearing on the development of his character or had he moulded his character to match his unsightly demeanour. No one seems to know for certain how his disfigurements came about, but it’s easy to speculate as to how he have incurred them, It has been suggested the eye injury could have come from his being hit in the face with a cricket ball at school, but it could just as likely to have been someone giving him a good honest clout with a cricket bat. In fact a blow from a blunt instrument of some kind represents the more satisfying explanation. The facial scar might too have been retribution for something untoward. It is difficult to come up with an explanation for the random tufts of hair that sprout here and there from his head. There have been suggestions that the stoop is just an affectation to get sympathy. Who knows? Perhaps the truth is that no-one cares how the injuries happened.

With most villains you tend to hear something positive about them, however small, to balance out the bad. In his spare time, for instance, Charlie Manson supported a children’s charity. Adolf Eichmann was kind to dogs. Colonel Gadaffi was a keen landscape painter. That type of thing. Usually, nothing is black and white. But Chadwick Dial appears to have no saving graces. Condemnation of him is absolute. He may or may not be guilty of murder, but deaths are definitely attributable to his actions, my friend Dewi Davies’s for example. I was deeply saddened when I found this out unexpectedly one day from a colleague at work.

Dewi Davies, on a trip down from Wales, ran into Dial in The Black Hole or it may have been The Frog and Nightgown. After taking him for drinks all night, Dial got Dewi to give him a lift to a house party on the other side of town. Dewi had some coke and Dial helped him get through this. The two of them got into an argument over a girl Dewi was making a move on. By this time everyone at the party was well bashed and the argument quickly got out of control. Dewi went to leave, but Dial and some other revellers, who saw the Welshman as a stranger, stopped him in his tracks. At Dial’s instigation they began jumping up and down on the bonnet of his Sunbeam Alpine.

Dewi eventually managed to get them off. He put his foot down for a quick getaway. He was well wasted and angry. His erratic driving drew the attention of a police patrol. They gave chase, sirens wailing and blue lights flashing. Dewi tried to shake them off. Unable to control the powerful car on a bend, Dewi ended up driving into a stone wall. He died on impact.

Bringing things up to date a little, I caught up with Jackson Laszlo a week or two back in The Black Hole. He asked me if I had seen Eve recently. Apparently she had disappeared. I said that I hadn’t but she was good at doing that, disappearing. He agreed, adding that she suffered from a borderline personality disorder and at times when she was down, he felt she might be considered to belong to that widely interpreted category vulnerable adult.

‘Anything might have happened to her,’ he said.

I recalled the times that she had run off for days without a word.

‘It’s probably nothing at all but all the same I am worried,’ he said.

I thought it best not to mention that the episode when he had abducted the children might have helped to bring about her condition, or at the very least not have been sympathetic to it. I judged that this was not the right time to attribute blame for Eve’s vulnerability.

‘Surely Ross or Alex would know where she is,’ I said, instead.

He said that he hadn’t seen Ross or Alex for several months.

I said that this was not unusual for grown up children. My own were the same. By and by we got on to the subject of Chadwick Dial.

‘Don’t even mention his name,’ Jackson said. ‘When I was away last year I let him house-sit, while I was in Portugal. When I returned the house was empty. Everything was gone. The bastard cleaned me out. After all I had done for him. The neighbours said they thought that I had just moved out without telling them. One morning two large furniture vans called and the removal men took everything. The police can’t even trace the removal vans.’

None of the tales about Chadwick Dial however compares to the shocking story that is unfolding on today’s news. Dial, the reporter is saying, is behind an evil cult based in a commune in the borderlands between England and Wales. He falsely imprisoned, tortured and raped a cadre of vulnerable women, telling them he had God-like powers and if they disobeyed him he would unleash a supernatural force, which would inflict painful and horrible deaths on their families. Dial is a master manipulator who used violence, fear and sexual degradation to control the women he held captive. They were imprisoned in the disused farm buildings on the site. They were completely isolated from the outside world, until last week one of them managed to escape from the compound. Dial, she said, had told his victims that if they followed him he would show them a better world, but if they had bad ideas then their souls would burn in Hell. The investigation into the human remains found in an outhouse at the site continues. Comparisons are already being made with the Fred and Rosemary West killings of two decades ago.

My mind goes back to the sad day that I heard about Dial’s role in Dewi Davies’s death. When Wayne told me about it, he had no idea that I even knew Dewi. He thought he was talking about a complete stranger. He did not know that Dewi and I had once been close. Why would he? As far as he knew, Dewi was someone who had come up from Wales and Dial had dragged along to a party that he was attending. He did not know that Dewi and I had once shared a house in Stoke Road. Dewi was a warm, generous guy, the kind that would do anything to help. He may have been down on his luck but he deserved better.

I think back to that trip to Bath twenty years ago when Eve Laszlo and I saw Dial through the window of the coach. I thought then that Eve was being over dramatic. How could someone who looked like Dial did be a threat. You would be able to spot him a mile off. You would steer clear of him. How wrong I was. I realise that Eve and I didn’t part on good terms back then, but I do hope that she is OK.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

PHILANDERER

philanderer2

PHILANDERER

Although I have lived in the same town most of my life, I almost never bump into anyone from my past. This is surely beyond the realms of coincidence. I remarked on this to Suzi only this morning. She said we were always coming across people I knew, but could not come up with any examples. ‘Why does it matter anyway?’ she continued. ‘You don’t need to see those people. You can’t live in the past, you know.’ To save another argument, I let the matter go but I am sure that I am right.

When I was younger I led a fairly gregarious life. How can it be that I never come across any old friends or acquaintances, or for that matter, lovers? Littleton is after all not a large town. I go to the same supermarkets, retail parks and the same venues for entertainment as everyone else in the town, but it appears that everyone that I have known steers clear of the places at the times that I visit. Have all my friends and old acquaintances moved away maybe? Am I so out of favour with all my exes that they are all avoiding me. Or am I just completely out of sync?

Imagine my surprise then, when I find Rosie Higgs in front of me at The Merchant Of Tennis. Rosie was the first affair I had when I was married to my first wife, Anna. I haven’t seen Rosie for over thirty years, yet she is instantly recognisable.

‘Rosie! How are you?’ I say, holding out my arms, anticipating she might fall into them.

‘Bobby?’ she says, taken aback. She takes a step backwards to look me up and down. Perhaps I am not so instantly recognisable these days.

Rosie looks devastatingly good. She has aged well. I haven’t. I feel old and overweight.

‘Now that it’s summer I thought I might try to shed a few pounds on the tennis courts,’ I say to her, secretly hoping she might say that I don’t need to, ‘so I came in to buy a new racket.’

‘You’ll certainly shed a few pounds if you shop here,’ she laughs. I had forgotten that she had a quick wit. There are other things you notice first with Rosie and she has certainly not lost these. She is wearing a low cut floral summer dress.

‘You must come round and have a game on our court,’ she says. ‘John is away on business at the moment.’

This is pretty much how it all started before. Alan, or whoever it was she was seeing back then was out of town. The first problem Rosie and I encountered was that Anna wasn’t out of town. Word must have somehow got around about our date at The Black Hole and before I knew it my wife had poured a pint of beer over my head. Guinness if I remember rightly. Rosie and I had to sneak around and meet in less fashionable places from then on. Eventually I moved out of the marital home and got a flat. Rosie came round a few times but gradually we lost touch.

‘That would be nice,’ I say. ‘Are you any good?’

‘At tennis, you mean,’ she says. ‘You ought to know, Bobby. I’m good at everything.’

My recollections are that she is right. She was certainly good at the important things.

‘Aha,’ is the best I can manage.

‘Why not come over this afternoon,’ she says. ‘I’ll get the Pimms ready.’

If I’m going to have an afternoon of Pimms and tennis, and Lord knows what else, I decide while I’m in town I’d better have some lunch. A healthy option one. There’s a new vegetarian place I’ve noticed just off the Colonnade, Au Naturel, it is called.

I have to do a double take. I can’t be sure, but at first glance the woman behind the counter, with the blonde hair cut into a bob, looks the spitting image of Roz, who I started seeing after my second marriage, to Carol, broke up. That would be over twenty years ago. Roz was studying for a degree in Catering Management. Last I heard she had married and gone off to The Bahamas, or was it Bermuda. I don’t want to make it look like I’m staring at her, but at second glance she still looks like Roz.

Roz and I were going along fine back in the day, until one night Rosie turned up unannounced at the door. It was difficult to explain what she might be doing calling round at eleven at night. But I managed to concoct something I recall, and everything might have still been OK, had Roz not caught Rosie legging it down the fire escape one morning, three weeks later. Roz had decided to skip class and surprise me by calling round early to see me. Rosie as it happened had called round unexpectedly late the previous night and decided to stay. When Roz rang the doorbell at 9am we were still in bed. Someone from the ground floor flat inadvertently let her into the building as they were leaving for work. I heard the echo of voices and quickly worked out what was happening. Roz was on her way up the stairs to my top floor flat. The fire escape seemed a good way to smuggle Rosie out, but unfortunately Roz caught a glimpse of her through the third floor landing window. Maybe it wouldn’t have been quite so bad had Rosie not been still struggling to get her blouse buttoned up.

Time it appears though is a great healer, because the woman behind the counter of Au Naturel greets me warmly.

‘Bob,’ she says. ‘I was wondering when I’d see you. I moved back here last year and opened up this little bistro with the money from my divorce settlement. I was sure sooner or later I would bump into you. You didn’t seem the sort to move on.’

‘No. I’m still around. I’m living in Duke Ellington Avenue now,’ I tell her. ‘With my partner, Suzi,’ I add.

‘Really?’ she says. ‘That’s just around the corner from me. I’m in Charlie Parker Close. You’re not still ……… philandering, are you?’

‘No,’ I say. ‘Suzi and I are quite settled.’

‘Oh that’s a pity,’ she says. ‘Because since Frank and I split up, I’ve ….. well, I’ve been at a bit of a loose end.’

There is then a sudden lunchtime rush, which cuts our conversation short, but after I have finished my butternut squash risotto, Roz gives me her phone number and I tell her that I will give her a call if I too find myself at a loose end. If all the wrangling with Suzi continues, I feel I might find myself at a loose end soon. But it is better not to put all my cards on the table.

I’m thinking now that it would be impolite now not to take some flowers round to see Rosie, so I call in at Back To The Fuschia. Now, this is just too weird. There is Saskia, arranging bouquets of gardenias and peonies. Saskia and I had had a fling ten years ago, after I’d split up with my third wife, Linda. But, for Saskia to be here is impossible, not least because she is dead. A rare blood disease with a long name. I went to her funeral. But if she is dead, no-one seems to have told her. This is definitely Saskia. Those smouldering brown eyes are surely unmistakable. I am completely freaked out.

‘Rob,’ she says. ‘How good to see you.’

I mumble something incoherent. I am not at my best seeing dead people come back to life. It’s all a bit ‘roll away the stone.’

‘Are you all right, Rob?’ she says. ‘You’ve gone a little pale. I expect that you are surprised to see me, aren’t you? When was the last time?’

How can I say that the last time I saw her she was in a wooden box?

Saskia tells me she has bought a house in Bix Beiderbecke Drive with her new partner, Shaun. I can’t help but make the observation that Bix Beiderbecke Drive is quite close to the cemetery. She goes on to say that she met Shaun at a Living Dead concert. This seems apt. I wonder if Shaun realises he might be living with a zombie.

I try desperately to keep up my end of the conversation, without putting my foot in it, in the hope that an explanation for her resurrection might emerge. I tell her about my new Dacia Duster, my collection of garden gnomes, and the stars that play with laughing Sam’s dice. I am conscious that I am burbling. I am anxious to get out of there to take stock. I pick up a bunch of something or other, orchids I think, and hand them to Saskia in the hope that she will work out that I am in a hurry.

With my receipt she hands me a card with her address and phone number on and says that I must call round, in fact she is having a little soirée tomorrow. Why don’t I come along? Shaun would love to meet me. The name on the card I notice to my confusion and horror is Honey. Oh My God! This is not Saskia. I have mixed her up with Honey. Easily done, I suppose. Honey must have been around the same time as Saskia. And after so many, they all blend into one. To hide my embarrassment, I make my exit.

I am just putting the flowers in the back of the Dacia, when I hear a familiar voice. It is Suzi. She has just come from Cutting It Fine. I imagine she has had her hair done, it’s a different colour or something, so I tell her that it looks nice.

‘You’ve bought me flowers,’ she says. ‘Orchids. My favourite. How thoughtful. I expect you felt guilty after this morning’s …… words, didn’t you?’

There’s nothing I can say. I hand the flowers to her and she thanks me with a kiss on the cheek.

‘Guess what,’ she continues. ‘You know you said you never bump into any of your old friends. Well, I just bumped into Brad Lee and told him what you said about never seeing anyone, so he said he might pop round later for a drink and some supper.’

Doesn’t she realise that it was Brad who broke up my fourth marriage, to Dawn? That it was Brad telling Dawn about my liaison with Janice so that he could take advantage of the situation that had put the final nail in the coffin. He had always fancied Dawn. Or is this just Suzi getting me back for a recent indiscretion. I cannot remember anything specific. There was Heather of course. But that was a couple of months ago. I thought taking Suzi to Paris for the weekend would have cancelled that one out, but it is so difficult to keep track of the day to day politics of relationships.

‘Hey,’ says Suzi, suddenly. ‘Isn’t that your friend, Saskia in the flower shop? The one you have the pictures of. I thought you told me she was dead.’

‘Saskia. Where? …….. No! That’s not Saskia,’ I say. ‘Saskia’s dead.’

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved