Strangers When We Meet

strangerswhenwemeet

Strangers When We Meet by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I suppose so,’ Emma says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Mario and Lorelei

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Mario and Lorelei by Chris Green

Lorelei Love possesses a rare talent. She knows that things are going to happen before they do. As a result of her premonitory powers, Lorelei’s life has been alternately comforting or frightening, depending on what is scheduled to happen. Unfortunately knowing something is going to occur does not give Lorelei powers to prevent it. Try as she might to take steps to avoid something unpleasant, she has not found a means to do so. She has however developed her persuasive powers to prevent too much disappointment or distress. Sometimes destiny needs a helping hand.

Lorelei Love is not a clairvoyant or fortune teller. She cannot tell which horse is going to win the Derby, or if there is going to be an earthquake. She only knows what is going to happen in relation to her. If she were to put a bet on a horse, she would know if she was going to pick up money later on, and if the earthquake was going to affect her daily life, then she would know about it. Otherwise, she has the same faculties as those without the gift.

Today, the first Friday in April, her day will be alternately tiresome and exciting. Tiresome that she knows she is going to be waiting twenty minutes in the tailback on the Buena Vista bypass, exciting that she knows she is going to meet Mario Van Horn in the tropical fish department of the pet superstore on the retail park at three o’clock, even though she never goes there and has no interest in tropical fish. She knows with equal certainty that, although he is a complete stranger, with just a fleeting glance in her direction, Mario will make her heart skip a beat. In short, she knows that Mario Van Horn will sweep her off her feet.

Mario Van Horn does not possess such a talent. Dashing and debonair he might be in his dark blue suit, but he comes across as preoccupied. He has been told he can be unaccommodating and unresponsive. Casual and dispassionate are also terms that have been thrown at him. In the studio where he works as a producer, musicians that he is recording say that he is oblivious to how they would like to play. He takes the edge out of their music. He makes whatever they play sound like the famously bland band, Keane.

Mario is often not aware that something has happened even after it has. It was not until his decree absolute arrived on the mat that he realised his wife, Ursula had started divorce proceedings. He had thought that she was on holiday with her friend, Sharita. Try as he might, Mario has found himself unable to redress his shortcomings. An army of life coaches, psychologists and consultants have become exasperated at his inability to change. They all say his aloofness is astonishing. He could be a textbook study for a new condition.

It is three o’clock on the first Friday in April and Mario Van Horn has absolutely no idea that he is glancing in Lorelei Love’s direction, let alone that his glance is making a lasting impression on her. He is so unobservant that he has not even grasped that he is in the tropical fish department in the pet superstore. He has only stepped in there to buy a house rabbit for his sister in law, Mercedes, who will be nineteen on Sunday.

Lorelei Love leaves the pet superstore with a warm glow, brought about by Mario’s loving gaze. She understands that he has been too shy to approach her, but she knows this will not matter. She sits in her yellow Mini Cooper with the black stripes and waits for Mario to leave and get in his car. She knows this is a black Toyota Auris with a 69 plate. She knows that she is going to follow him home, even though she already knows where he lives. She knows that within a week she is going to be spending nights there.

Mario’s awareness of fate is non-existent. When, having stalked him for days, Lorelei calls round to his house, he still does not recognise her.

Are you the Avon lady?’ he asks. ‘I’m afraid that Ursula has gone away.’

He is surprised by the kiss. It is not the type of apologetic peck on the cheek you might expect from someone selling beauty products door to door, who has accidentally called at the wrong house. It is a passionate take your breath away all-out assault on his face. It is the type of kiss you might expect from an aroused lover. It is the type of kiss that in a raunchy film might serve as a prelude to the participants ripping off each others’ clothes. Having established that she is not the Avon lady and finding that things are happening down below, Mario responds with wild abandon. He is not at all sure what is happening or if what is happening is happening to him. But despite this uncertainty, in no time at all, they are upstairs and are ripping off one another’s clothes. A little later, after a bout of bountiful coupling, he asks her name.

Lorelei Love,’ she says.

Well, Lorelei Love,’ says Mario Van Horn. ‘That was ….. unexpected. I don’t know what came over me. I’m not usually so …… forward,’

I do hope that isn’t so,’ says Lorelei. ‘I was hoping we might do it again soon.’

I think that it was possibly the most unusual experience of my life,’ says Mario.

I knew that this was going to happen, so there was no point in fighting it,’ says Lorelei Love.

I couldn’t help but notice that you weren’t fighting it,’ says Mario. ‘I’m Mario Van Horn by the way,’

I know,’ says Lorelei.

You do?’

I think I probably know everything about you.’

It is the third Thursday in May. Lorelei Love is now living with Mario Van Horn. As long as she takes the lead, she gets what she wants. She is happy with this arrangement. She has shown photos of Mario to her friends and her colleagues at the advertising agency, and they all think that he is a dreamboat. It is disconcerting that Mario doesn’t always notice that she is there, but there are small signs that he might be changing. Once or twice lately he has greeted her with kisses when she has got in from work. As she drives home from the office along the Santa Rosa Boulevard, she wonders if today is going to be one of those days. This is an odd sensation for Lorelei because she feels she should know definitely one way or the other. Perhaps Mario will not even be home. Maybe he will be mixing muzak at the studio, or perhaps it is his sister in law, Portia’s birthday and he has had to take an animal round. Lorelei is not accustomed to such uncertainty. She is sure though that it will pass.

Mario has noticed that there are more house plants to water and the washing machine is nearly always on. The kitchen is filling up with cookery books and kitchen utensils that he does not know the names of. The red wine has been replaced with white. Pink paperbacks with titles in handwritten script and cover illustrations of smiling young women in white chiffon are appearing on the bookshelf. There is no longer room in the wardrobe for all of his dark blue suits. There is a chess game going on with the bottles in the bathroom. He has noticed that Lorelei is around the place more than she used to be, in fact nearly all the time. Did she ask if she could move in? Did he say she could? Should he ask her if she asked him when she gets home from work?

Mario finds it a little worrying that Lorelei tends to be right all of the time, but on balance, he enjoys her company. Lorelei wears raunchier lingerie that Ursula did, laughs heartily at his badly told jokes, and is unexpectedly good at solving those tricky popular culture allusion clues to finish the Guardian cryptic crossword on a Saturday. And he likes the way she sometimes surprises him in the shower. He wonders if he ought to clear some of his old equipment out of the garage to make room for Lorelei’s Pro Trainer All In One Gym and maybe paint over the grey in the spare room with a brighter colour. Blue perhaps.

Mario starts to prepare the ingredients for an omelette. He will remember to put the peppers and mushrooms in this time. The one last Thursday was a little bland without them.

Anyone home,’ choruses Lorelei. She knows that Mario is home because the Toyota is parked in its usual way across both parking spaces on the drive. The music that is playing, while it still has a discernible melody, has traces of dubstep and acid jazz. It is a departure from the bland overproduced middle of the road music she is used to him playing while she is out of the house. ‘I like the music. What is it?’

Oh, that’s one I made earlier,’ says Mario. ‘While you were at the hairdressers.’

I haven’t been to the hairdressers. I’ve been working,’ says Lorelei.

Oh, that’s right,’ says Mario. ‘While you were at the travel agents.’

Ad agency,’ says Lorelei. ‘I work at AdAge. Its an ad agency. Remember, you picked me up from there. You remarked on what a clever play on words it was.’ She is secretly pleased that although one or two things seem to have changed lately, Mario still retains hints of his heedlessness. Detachment is part of his charm.

I’m just making us an omelette,’ he says. ‘Afterwards, I thought we might go out to the greyhound racing. You keep telling me how much you like dogs.’

Did I say that?’ she says. Watching a bunch of skinny mutts chasing an electric rabbit around a gravel track has not been not on her radar. She was budgeting for a quiet night in with a bottle of Prosecco and a scented bath. Then perhaps Mario could give her a massage with the new oils she had bought. She hopes she is not witnessing a change in the dynamic of their relationship. With the dimming of her prescience, is Mario attempting to take over the decision making?

It is the second Saturday in July. Lorelei Love comes home from the hairdressers to the sound of Sufi music. Are there whirling dervishes in the front room, she wonders. Each day this week she has come home to increasingly unusual music. Each time she has asked Mario what it is, it has been ‘something that he mixed that day’. On Monday it was garage punk, on Tuesday it was psytrance. On Wednesday it was psychedelic rock, on Thursday it was trip-hop.

What is it today?’ asked Lorelei yesterday.

Steampunk animé with a touch of drum and bass,’ said Mario.

The melody has all but disappeared,’ said Lorelei.

Mario Van Horn, Lorelei realises, is changing. He doesn’t even wear his dark blue suit any more and he hardly ever shaves. And why does he wear sunglasses around the house? While she understands that two people in a relationship tend to mould each other to some degree, she is not sure that the changes are going in the right direction. She remembers making a casual comment a while back that they probably didn’t get out enough but Mario seems insensitive to her interests. Over the past week, she has been treated to a twenty-twenty cricket match, a rugby sevens tournament, an orienteering workshop and a strip show. Although Mario claims they had discussions regarding plans for these evenings out, she has no recollections of these.

Accustomed to knowing in advance what is going to happen, each day now she is racked with anxiety about what is going to take place. Surely not another night at the dog track, or a rock-climbing weekend. There were times in the past when she felt the burden of knowing what was going to happen was an irritation. It weighed heavily on her shoulders, but this was compensated by its comforts. Why is it she is no longer able to call the shots? Has she lost the gift of prescience completely?

Mario doesn’t know what is wrong. Lorelei no longer wears raunchy lingerie and has stopped surprising him in the shower. He has even painted the spare room purple for her and put up some shelves to accommodate her growing self-help book collection. Surely it can’t be his comment about her putting on weight. He had meant it in a nice way.

I thought we might go to see some Sufi tonight, darling,’ he says. ‘So I put this sampler together to get us in the mood.’

Lorelei registers a robust look of disapproval. Mario thinks she is beginning to seem more like Ursula every day. He turns the music down a little.

We can have a curry,’ he says. ‘Akbar’s has an excellent selection of Punjabi dishes and the cabaret comes on at nine. Authentic qawwali music.’

I hate this awful wailing and I hate curry,’ screams Lorelei. What could she have ever seen in Mario Van Horn? The man is singularly intolerable. How, she wonders had she not seen this situation coming?

We could go to Ping Pong and have some noodle dishes if you prefer,’ he continues, seemingly oblivious to his falling star. ‘They have bamboo music, I believe, That’s quite gentle.’

I hate you,’ she shrieks.

Or we could just go The Black Horse for a pie and a game of darts if you like.’

You just don’t get it, do you?’

You’ll be hungry later on.’

I’m leaving you.’

It is the second Sunday in September. Lorelei Love is pleased to be shot of Mario Van Horn. She is starting to enjoy life again. While her rare talent is still not fully functioning, she is beginning to get her premonitory powers back. Just last week, she foresaw that she was going to meet a tall stranger with blond curls who would sweep her off her feet. And here she is driving along Las Palomas in her new Mini Cooper S Coupé with the roof down to meet DoubleTake.

DoubleTake’s singer, Ben Cool with his blond hair and black suede eyepatch is a dreamboat. AdAge has won the contract to handle the band’s PR. Naturally, Lorelei has volunteered to take personal control of the contract. What she doesn’t realise is that Mario Van Horn has died his hair blond and changed his name to Ben Cool. He didn’t even realise he could sing, until about a month ago when he was recording the overdubs for HashTag’s album, and now look at him. His fifteen minutes of fame beckons. What he doesn’t know is that the agency his management company has hired to handle the band’s promotion is AdAge.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

A Blacker Shade of Blue

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A Blacker Shade of Blue by Chris Green

Tiffany Blue wonders why she is so unhappy. If all the things she is doing are so good for her, she should be in seventh heaven. She gets up at five each morning and does a half an hour’s Tai Chi before her bowl of wholegrain cereal with goji berries and manuka honey. She has a healthy outdoor job working with wildlife. She practices yoga, in fact when her friend Indigo is busy, she runs the class for her.

Tiffany meditates to a CD with sounds of running water. Her apartment is awash with Aloe Vera plants to purify the air. She works out at the gym and she takes a veritable orchestra of vitamins and supplements. She cycles everywhere, well nearly everywhere. When she does take the car, she listens to soothing music, Einaudi, Eno or Enya. She never drinks alcohol. She sees Moon two or three times a week. He buys her flowers and they make love tenderly. They go to Inter Faith services on a Sunday. But still she feels her life is empty. Something is missing.

Growing up in Brixton, Jeremy (Jet) Black was beaten up constantly by his big brother, Brad, and he, in turn, hammered his little brother Harry. It was a dog eat dog world where petty crime graduated easily to serious crime. Hierarchies were decided by the length of prison sentences. Jet moved swiftly up the hierarchy as he always seemed to be the one who got caught. Since he was a teenager, Jet has spent roughly half his life banged up. He is thirty-two.

Since his last spell in prison, a two-year stretch in Belmarsh for aggravated burglary, Jet has decided to go straight. He is tired of the predictable pattern his life has followed, the vicious cycle of get banged up, do his bird, get released, share ideas he learned inside with his crim mates, commit new crimes, get away with things for a bit, get grassed up by one of his crim mates who has already been caught, get nicked, and go back inside. He wants to turn his life around. He is going to avoid The Black Horse and The King Billy and give BetterBet a wide berth. And he is not going to take back up with Tracey. He can’t forgive her for what she said to the police the last time he was arrested. He hadn’t laid a finger on her and there he was facing an extra charge of assault. He might otherwise have got away with eighteen months. Now that he is out, he has also decided to stop taking drugs. He has even stopped listening to rap music.

Jet has got himself a part-time job at the community centre. At the moment, it is a voluntary position, but Gavin, the guy with the ponytail who runs the place, says that if he does a good job there might be an opening. Through a prisoner rehabilitation scheme, he has secured a studio apartment in the converted warehouse by the plastics factory. He has started to paint the place with some paint he was given and has discovered a flair for colour. Under the scheme he has also been able to get free items from the Furniture Project. The bed is rickety, and the settee has a few rips, but they will do for now. The microwave works, and that is the main thing. He has been to the animal shelter and got a rescue dog to keep him company, a black and white collie-retriever cross called Bono. He cannot yet afford to join a gym but he has enrolled in a free yoga class. He is not exactly sure what yoga involves, but he has heard it is very good for you. He has been to one session and although he found it a bit of a struggle he is determined to persevere.

Tiffany feels it might help her state of mind if she tried out new things. She needs some excitement to break up the relentless ennui of new-age austerity. Something a little reckless, something dangerous, something wild and edgy. She shows Moon the programme of headline acts for a hard rock festival. Moon is hesitant. He does not like the idea of hard or rock and together, what on earth is she thinking?

You don’t really want to go to this, do you?’ he says. ‘AC/DC are very loud, you know. And Anvil Of Doom. I don’t like the sound of them.’

You only live once,’ Tiffany says. ‘Let’s get out there and do something to show we’re still alive.’

But it’s all so unwholesome,’ Moon says. ‘We’d be camping out in a muddy field with hordes of degenerate space cadets and filthy grebos.’

Not everyone who goes to a festival is a drug addict, Moon’ Tiffany says.

Grim Reaper. Angel Corpse. Do you really want to see bands with names like that?’ Moon says.

I imagine there are all kinds of new-age activities at festivals,’ Tiffany says. ‘Look! It says here, they’ve got necromancy, neo-paganism, tarot divination, and past life regression workshops. And they have a tattoo parlour. I could get some tattoos done. They have everything at festivals. The music’s probably just an added extra at festivals these days.’

I’m not sure about the tattoo idea,’ Moon says.

I could have a rose tattooed on my bottom. How about that? I think you’d like that,’ Tiffany says.

OK. You win. We’ll give it a go,’ Moon says. ‘But can we go on the Saturday, because I don’t want to miss our crystal reading class on Friday.’

I think we could give crystal reading a miss for once,’ Tiffany says. ‘I haven’t got room for any more bloody stones and to be honest, I do find Prism’s talks a tiny bit boring.’

Prism? Boring? Surely not, Tiffany,’ Moon says. ‘It’s not just about finding out what crystals you need. Don’t you remember last week how Prism showed you that your natal chart was a dynamic indicator for your soul’s path of your healing journey.’

Well, maybe I don’t feel very healed,’ Tiffany says. ‘Oh, I don’t know, Moon. Perhaps I’m just tired.’

Let me give you an Ayurvedic massage,’ Moon says. ‘I’ve got some organic almond oil.’

I think I’ll just have a bath and go to bed,’ she says. ‘I’ve got an early start tomorrow. I have a wood to inspect.’

Jet Black is walking Bono in Long Ridge Wood when he spots her. She is the lady who was teaching the yoga class, the one in the flesh-coloured leotard who was bent double during the warm-up exercises. He would recognise that body anywhere. Not even the Wildlife Trust uniform can hide such a lovely figure. And she has a smile that could bring a dead dormouse back to life.

Tiffany recognises him by his tattoos. She knows that she shouldn’t, but she finds them attractive. And those muscles. She could tell straight away at the yoga class that although he was lacking in grace, he had been to the gym now and again. She had not seen him though at Jim’s Gym. Perhaps he was new to town.

Hello,’ he says shyly. He is not used to talking to attractive women. You do not come across many babes in The Black Horse or The King Billy. And he was certainly protected from such opportunities in Belmarsh. Not even Tracey had been to visit.

You’re not stalking me, are you,’ she laughs. ‘I’ve heard about people like you.’

I’m just taking Bono here for a walk,’ he says. ‘He loves these woods.’

Ancient beechwood and unimproved grassland,’ she says. ‘Maximum biodiversity to provide the basis for a balanced ecosystem.’

That’s a distinctive aroma,’ he says, edging a little closer. ‘What is it?’

That will be the rotting leaves,’ she says.

Not that smell,’ he says. ‘A sweet minty perfume. Is it something you are wearing?’

Oh, that’s patchouli,’ Tiffany says. ‘Do you like it?’

It’s lovely,’ he says. ‘And so are you.’ There! He has said it. There’s no going back now.

Moon is not sure what is wrong with Tiffany. Something must be troubling her. She said that she is busy at the weekend and now she is not taking his calls. In the two years that they have been seeing each other, nothing like this has happened before. She has always been so accommodating. They have always done everything together. He had hoped they might go to a Channelled Angel Reading on Friday night and then have a snack at Give Peas A Chance. Then afterwards they might try out the ginger dusk scented candle, with some soft music. He has called round several times and even spoken to her neighbours but they have not seen her. River who runs the New Age bookshop says he saw her earlier coming out of BargainBooze with a big bag, but that can’t be right.

Tiffany has invited Jet Black round. She has never done such a thing with a stranger before. It is unheard of in the circles she moves in to be so familiar with someone that you’ve only just met. She is not sure what has come over her. Perhaps it is the rugged profile of Jet’s jaw, the pounding testosterone, the rippling muscles and, of course, the tattoos. Perhaps it is the nascent desire for excitement. Whatever it is, she has never had these kinds of feelings before. She cannot recall ever having strong feelings of any kind. She has always just gone with the flow.

She was brought up in a remote rural location. There was no curriculum at the school she attended, and she remained innocent of the ways of the world. She did not rebel as a teenager because she was unaware of what she might rebel against. Life was uneventful. There were no highs and no lows. There was no site of struggle in her neighbourhood. In fact, there were no neighbours in her neighbourhood. Her parents did not bother with television, which was just as well because a lot of the time there was not even a TV signal in this isolated community. There would probably never be a mobile phone signal.

It wasn’t until she went to agricultural college at nineteen that she had her first boyfriend. Dagon was gentle and over a period of several years eased her into intimacy. Inhibited as they both were, sex never became the driving force of their relationship. She couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It was three months before she let Moon over the threshold, and another month before she let him undo the buttons of her blouse. She was in no hurry to move things forward. It wasn’t until six months into their relationship that she finally allowed him to pull down her panties. She was twenty-seven and Moon was only her second lover.

Tiffany is on her third glass of wine and feels light-headed. She has turned her phone off in case Moon calls again. While she doesn’t want to upset him, she wishes he would let her have some space. She had to hide behind the curtain for half an hour earlier. He has gone now. Hopefully, he won’t be back until after Jet has had a chance to pin her to the bed, roughly part her thighs and possess her in a frenzy of unbridled passion. Where, she wonders, are these thoughts coming from? What is happening to her?

Something about meeting Tiffany has put Jet in touch with his gentler side. He spent the previous evening carving a Buddha from a chunky stick that Bono picked up in the woods. He thinks the little wooden icon is the sort of thing a girl like Tiffany would appreciate; he noticed when they met she wore a Buddha charm bracelet. He has even read a little about Buddha on Wikipedia. Buddha seemed a sound guy, honest and trustworthy and full of thought for others. Not at all like Charlie, the self-styled guru in Belmarsh. Charlie, named after Charlie Manson, Jet found out, would stick a knife in your throat or steal the clothes off your back.

When he arrives at Tiffany’s though he finds her three sheets to the wind. This is not at all the welcome he was expecting, but he has had plenty of experience of this condition with Tracey. It usually ended in a fistfight and the kitchen getting wrecked. While he does not imagine this will be the case with Tiffany, he needs to tread carefully. He struggles to remember what they were told in the interpersonal psychology class inside. The dude banged on a lot about listening and passivity.

Would you like a glass of wine,’ Tiffany says, filling up a tumbler for him from the half-empty bottle of Rioja.

No thanks. I don’t drink wine,’ Jet says.

Not even for a special occasion,’ she purrs.

Jet remembers the psychology guy saying that distraction was a useful tactic. You could talk someone down who was about to jump or prevent someone with fists raised from hitting you by taking their mind off their subject. ‘It’s hot and humid in Kuala Lumpur,’ he continues. ‘It says on the news they are having a heatwave.’

I’ve got beer in the fridge,’ Tiffany says, lurching towards the kitchen.

I might buy a guitar when I’ve got some money,’ he says. ‘And learn to play like George Harrison.’

I did think of getting some whiskey,’ she says. ‘I could nip down to the off-licence if you like.’

The psychology guy’s reasoning was clearly flawed. ‘What I’d really like is a cup of tea,’ he says. ‘Why don’t we both have a nice cup of tea.’

On the way home on the bus, Jet feels despondent. It is clear to him that Tiffany has a serious drink problem. He had not suspected this when he met her in the woods. She seemed all sweetness and light then. Perhaps everyone has a deep-seated issue if you look for it. At least Tiffany is not trying to hide it. She is not a secret drinker like some he has known, Kathy for instance. Kathy would hide it everywhere, under the sink, behind the potted plants, in the garage and in with the grass cuttings. He is sure that Tiffany is a lovely person beneath it all. He needs to help her. She deserves that much. Helping her will also help him to convince himself that he has changed.

After the embarrassment of the evening though, he decides to leave it a few days and then call her. Or maybe wait until he sees her at the yoga class. He will ask if she would like to go for a walk on the common with him and Bono. There are no pubs or retail outlets near the common. She will probably be able to tell him what the trees are and the names of the wildflowers. He could even put together a picnic.

Why have you been ignoring my calls?’ Moon says.

Can you not shout please,’ Tiffany says. ‘I’ve got a really bad headache this morning.’

I’m not shouting,’ Moon says. He picks up one of the wine bottles. ‘Perhaps you couldn’t hear them because of the noise from your party.’

Sarcasm is just one more thing that you are not very good at,’ Tiffany says. ‘So why don’t you just shut up.’

What’s got into you?’ Moon says. ‘You have not been yourself lately. Is it all to do with me not wanting to go to this rock festival?’

Why don’t you just go off and find a unicorn or a crop circle or something,’ Tiffany says. ‘Just leave me alone, will you?’

Actual Bodily Harm is not the most serious offence in the lexicon of Offences Against The Person. Jet knows that it carries a maximum sentence of five years, but the charge is broad in its scope. It can refer to quite serious injuries, but it can also refer to just a few bruises. Perhaps Tiffany and Moon were just pushing each other around a little and Moon fell. Tiffany was certainly in a hurry to put a stop to the conversation once she felt that he was prying. But, as Tiffany has no criminal record, she will probably just get a fine, he feels, especially if Moon does not want to pursue the matter.

In Jet’s experience alcohol is at the root of a majority of threatening behaviour, not just physical aggression but verbal abuse as well. God knows, he had threatened enough people when he had been on the pop and Tracey was at her most vicious after a skinful. Before it lost its licence The Prince of Wales on a Friday night could be like Culloden. And, A and E was a who’s who of alcoholics after a darts night at The Caledonian.

Tiffany surely would not have told him to fuck off and mind his own business last night when he offered to come round if she was sober. She might be a bit resentful that he didn’t respond to her come on the other night and in her booze-fuelled haze have seen it as a rejection. Some people he has heard take rejection very badly. Jet realises that Tiffany needs his help more than ever now to turn her life around. He must try to get her off the liquor. An alcohol support group called NewLeaf meets at the community centre. When the time is right, he will suggest that she goes along.

Tiffany does not answer any more of Jet’s calls and she is not at the yoga class. He asks Indigo if she might know where she is.

I haven’t seen her,’ Indigo says. ‘I’ve phoned her a couple of times but she doesn’t seem to be answering.’

I’ve been trying to get her all week,’ Jet says.

It’s not like her at all,’ Indigo says. ‘I’ve known her for years and if she sees that I’ve called she always gets straight back to me. Do you think perhaps something is wrong?’

Look. I probably shouldn’t say anything, but she was arrested last week, says Jet.

Arrested? Tiffany arrested? You’re joking, right?’ she says looking him in the eye.

He does not have the look of someone who is joking.

Yes, for ABH. I think it’s all to do with the juice,’ Jet says.

Juice?’ Indigo says. ‘What do you mean, juice? What kind of juice?’

You know, the sauce,’ Jet says. ‘The booze.’

What?’ Indigo says. ‘No. Never. Not Tiffany. She’s about as teetotal as they come. She doesn’t even drink tea or coffee.’

Well, she may not have used to drink,’ Jet says. ‘But I’m afraid she does now.’

And I can’t imagine her ever being violent,’ Indigo says. ‘Not in a million years. She wouldn’t harm a fly.’

What about this Moon dude?’ Jet says. ‘Do you know anything about him?’

She’s been with him for years,’ Indigo says. ‘Moon’s the nicest person you could ever wish to meet.’

Well, something’s gone badly wrong with the universe then,’ Jet says.

You might not be far off with that,’ Indigo says. ‘There have been some portentous planetary alignments lately. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were roughly aligned with the Sun ten days ago, and Venus and Mars are in alignment again tonight.’

There must be a song there somewhere,’ Jet says. ‘I would like to be able to help Tiffany, so if you do hear anything.’

I know you do. Despite your build and your ….. body art, I can see you are a very sensitive man who is in touch with his feminine side. I could tell as soon as I saw you. You give off a kind vibe.’

His feminine side? This is not something that Jet has been told before. Should he take it as a compliment? Years ago he might have hit anyone who had said this, even if it was a woman. But in the given circumstances, he feels strangely flattered.

Why don’t you come along to my Vipassana meditation class on Thursday,’ Indigo says. ‘I think you’d love it.’

I might just do that,’ Jet says, studying Indigo’s flesh coloured leotard. ‘I think mediation might be exactly what I need.’

Tiffany is with her solicitor, Ray Crooner, a thickset man in his forties wearing a dark blue pinstripe suit that is a size too small and a Tattersall check shirt. Ray has the pallor of a world-weary defence solicitor and his office has that solicitor’s office smell, an odd mix of musk, laser printer toner and disappointment.

It would not be so bad if you hadn’t gone round to your friend Moon’s and beat him up all over again,’ Ray says. ‘He is out of hospital now, I believe.’

Tiffany nods.

We will have to put in a guilty plea and claim mitigating circumstances, but I don’t think that you will avoid a custodial sentence. All we can do is try to limit this to three or six months,’ he says. ‘What would you say we could use as mitigation? Did he hit you? Did he provoke you in any way? Did he crash your car or jump up and down on your iPhone or anything that might warrant retaliation?’

He said that he didn’t like my tattoos,’ Tiffany says.

If it comes to that, I don’t like your tattoos,’ Ray Crooner says. ‘And the judge will almost certainly not like your tattoos What is that one on your forehead?’

That’s the Angel of Death,’ Tiffany says.

Anyway, I don’t think this …. Moon, what kind of name is that anyway ….. this Moon not liking your tattoos is going to get us far in terms of mitigation,’ Ray says. ‘The judge will take one look at those unsightly markings and your ….. barrage of nasal jewellery and make a decision influenced by this.’

Haven’t we got to go to magistrates first?’ Tiffany says.

Yes, we do have to go to magistrates first,’ Ray says. ‘But really, do you think that magistrates are going to look favourably on someone who resembles a degenerate troglodyte. They probably won’t even ask your name or give you the Bible to swear on. They pass cases like yours straight on. I might as well not turn up.’

How about this then?’ Tiffany says. ‘I went to a heavy metal festival where Devil’s Henchmen force-fed me a vicious cocktail of mind-bending drugs and dragged me off screaming to a tattoo marquee. It was like a descent into Hell. While Dark Funeral were playing, Satanic forces took over and before I knew it I was hearing voices in my head telling me to kill Moon.’

Better,’ Ray says. ‘We might just be able to keep the sentence beneath twelve months.’

Jet and Indigo have recently returned from an ashram in Goa, where they have been receiving spiritual guidance from Swami Govinda and buying kaftans for Jet’s new wardrobe. They have moved in together. Jet now gets up at five every morning, takes Bono for a quick walk and does a half an hour’s Tai Chi, before his bowl of wholegrain cereal with goji berries and manuka honey. He now has a healthy outdoor job working with wildlife. He practices yoga, in fact when Indigo is busy, he says he will run the class for her. They meditate to a CD with sounds of running water. Their new apartment is awash with Aloe Vera and weeping fig plants to purify the air. He works out at the gym and he takes a veritable orchestra of vitamins and supplements. He cycles everywhere, well nearly everywhere. When he does take the car, he listens to soothing music, Einaudi, Eno or Enya. He never drinks alcohol.

Do you think we should visit Tiffany in Holloway?’ he says to Indigo, as he mixes the fruit smoothies. It has been on his mind lately that she may not have had any visitors.

Indigo wants him to get back to massaging her thighs. ‘Soon,’ she says. ‘Perhaps we will visit her soon.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Harry and Kate

harryandkate

Harry and Kate by Chris Green

Black cats are supposed to be lucky, aren’t they? Harry Regis thinks so. What he doesn’t realise is that in many cultures, black cats are seen as an evil omen. Most of Europe, for instance, considers the black cat to be unlucky, a harbinger of doom. Fortunate then that Harry lives in the UK. What with the collapse of his kite design business and Meg leaving him for Trevor, a film extra from Billericay, Harry has had a tough time of late. He feels he deserves a break. It is time things started going his way.

So when one evening a black cat wanders through the back door, explores the house and makes itself comfortable on the shag-pile rug in the front room, he sees it as a good omen. He offers the cat a tin of tuna chunks, which it devours with gusto. And some dried cat biscuits he discovers in one of the kitchen cupboards. The saucer of full cream milk is welcomed too. Although Harry leaves the back door open, the cat shows no sign of wanting to leave. It is still there at the end of the evening after he has finished watching Leif Velasquez’s acclaimed adaption of the postmodern thriller, Shooting Script on Netflix. It is dark outside, and his visitor is curled up on the settee, purring gently. Harry thinks it best to put the animal outside. Although it does not have a collar, it does not look like a stray. It has a glossy coat. It is a well-groomed animal. By now, someone will be wondering where their pet has got to.

The following morning, the cat is once again at the back door. It does not wait to be invited in. It rushes past Harry’s outstretched hand and makes a beeline for the kitchen. It seems to be hungry. Surely a handsome-looking cat like this can’t have been out all night, can it? Harry doesn’t have any pressing appointments, so he pops along the road to the convenience store and returns with a box of pouches of gourmet cat food. On the way, he thinks of suitable cat names. Being a fan of the musical Cats, he toys with Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser, Growltigger and Shimbleshanks, but decides they are too fussy. He settles on Lucky. Lucky is the obvious name for a black cat.

Serendipity seems to work straight away. No sooner has he fed Lucky his gourmet turkey treat than the phone rings. It is Ben Maverick of Maverick Leisure Services offering him the job as General Manager of the new Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre that is opening on the industrial estate. While fridge magnet advice may not have the prestige of kite design, it is a step in the right direction. He needs to keep Lucky around and as he will be out of the house now in the daytime, he fits a cat door so that the cat can come and go.

Kate Dunning-Kruger believes that every cloud has a silver lining. So when she loses her job in marketing with BestFone in their rationalisation drive, she is sure something will turn up. When she is selected to promote a new weather phone app, her faith seems justified. She is over the moon. The new app, she is told, does not merely predict the weather, it can change localised weather conditions. It was created by a whizz-kid in California and cloned by a fourteen-year-old computer geek from Devon. Kate does not need to know how Elements works but, she is told, it has been successfully trialled in one or two places around the county. She is one of a small team who are to start a promotion campaign from a discrete office on Palace Park Industrial Estate. They are hoping to roll the revolutionary new app out nationally soon to those who can afford it. It is by no means going to be a freebie. But before it can be rolled out, she is told, there are cybersecurity issues to overcome. Their IT consultant who goes by the unlikely name of Max Acker is working on these.

Kate is recently divorced and although there are pitfalls in getting involved with anyone new so soon, she can’t wait to get dating again. Her friends wonder if perhaps she is too eager. She might end up making the same mistakes. They point out that Bill was arrogant, self-centred and lazy. She should take her time and concentrate on her own well-being. Kate explains that as a thirty-something single female, there is only so much you can do in a small town. Everything seems to be geared up to couples. And besides, now she has a new job, she will be able to work on her self-confidence.

Kate finds her office housed in a new prefabricated block on the estate, alongside the Bikini Museum, the Mulatu Astatke School of African Dance and The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre. An interesting selection of enterprises, she thinks, entirely different from working in the corporate environment at BestFone on the fifth floor of the city block, alongside the insurance brokers and tax consultants. Further along the avenue are Balalaika Tuition Centre, Mojo Filter Bicycle Hire and a tall featureless matt black building which has no windows. Nor does it appear to have an entrance. No lettering or insignia to suggest what it might be. Palace Park is a strange environment.

She begins to learn about the new weather app. Although it is in its infancy, there are already reports of its success. Charlie Dixon apparently used it to bring fine weather for the Exeter race meeting when it was raining in the rest of the county. Nick Carr conjured up a torrential downpour to bring a close to a village cricket match when his team were in a losing position to force a draw. The result ensured that his team, Dartmouth Royals retained the title for another year. It appears the app can be activated at short notice. Early indications suggest it works best when activated at short notice, but it now needs to be tested further afield.

Kate discovers the estate is a busy little area. The bikini museum is incredibly popular, there are lots of comings and goings at the newly opened hedgehog sanctuary and The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre does a roaring trade. Following a favourable article in one of the Sunday supplements, fridge magnets are enjoying a revival. It will be a while though before Kate is fully occupied as Max Acker keeps finding more glitches in the Elements app.

On her third day at work, when Kate is outside smoking her mid-morning cigarette, she catches the manager of The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre arriving with a new delivery. He looks like a nice fellow, the type that would be kind to cats maybe. And, of course, Bill has left her with four of them.

Hi! I’m Kate, she says. ‘I’ve just started working at Elements.’

Really? I started here last week as it happens,’ he says. ‘I’m Harry, by the way. Harry Regis.’

You seem to be doing well, here Harry,’ Kate says. ‘Lots of interest in fridge magnets, these days, I gather. I can see you are busy, but perhaps one day when you have a quiet moment we could hook up for a coffee at Cuppa Joe along the way there. I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet.’

Sure,’ Harry says. ‘And maybe a bite to eat. We could meet up one lunchtime. It has been mad here lately with all the new editions coming out. Everyone wants fridge magnets. But there are so many magnets on the market that people don’t always know which designs to go for. The rare album cover ones are popular, of course, and the royal residence ones. They never go out of fashion. We’ve got some new Bake Off magnets and we’ve just had the new Peaky Blinders set launch. And believe it or not, the French symbolist poets magnets are popular too.’

I believe you, Harry,’ Kate says. ‘I’ve always found truth is stranger than fiction.’

Harry and Kate catch up for lunch at Cuppa Joe the following Monday. Not wanting to talk shop, by way of making conversation Harry mentions that he had a new cat called Lucky. Kate has no shop to talk. Max Acker has found a new problem with the app. She wonders if it was ever going to be ready to roll out. Max seems to spend more time trying to chat her up than he does working. Unsuccessfully. He is much too old and she just hates those floral shirts he wears not to mention the way he invades her personal space. Coronavirus may be over and done with, but hasn’t he heard of social distancing?

A new cat?’ Kate queries. Might Harry be the caring type? This is not something she could ever say about Bill. In the flesh too, Harry is much hunkier than Bill. Toned physique and a manly beard. And he has a managerial position. Something that Bill had never had. Bill had only occasionally had a job.

Yes. A black cat,’ Harry says. ‘It just came in one evening and stayed. Lucky is good company too. I was starting to find it lonely in the big house after Meg moved out. We’d been together for ten years.’

Better steer the conversation back on to cats, Kate thinks. We don’t want to dwell too much on Meg.

Cats are excellent company,’ she says. ‘I have four little darlings, Sylvester, Smokey, Tigger and Dave. You must come round and meet them one evening.’

Over their pasta lunch, Harry and Kate discover they have a mutual interest in Scrabble, owls, donating blood, and Game of Thrones. They both like listening to Kings of Leon and Queens of the Stone Age. Harry saw Queens of the Stone Age at Finsbury Park in 2018. With Meg.

Time for some more cat chat, Kate thinks. ‘Does Harry know that Isaac Newton invented the cat door?’ she asks. Harry doesn’t, but he does know that cats spend 70% of their time sleeping and about 15% grooming. He found this out when he was looking for a cat basket for Lucky. The conversation moves on to dogs and other animals. The Lion King leads them to other films they have seen. Although he prefers action thrillers, Harry concedes that he has a secret admiration for Nora Ephron romcoms. Oh no, Kate thinks. He’s going to start talking about Meg Ryan and that will bring us back to the other Meg. She tells him instead that she has a soft spot for Quentin Tarantino films. She has seen them all but Kill Bill is her favourite. Meg’s name doesn’t come into the conversation again. Not that she is interested enough to ask, but she wonders if it is short for Megan, or Meghan. Best to let the matter go.

After lunch, as they walk up the road together, Kate points out the featureless black building.

I’ve been wondering what happens in there,’ she says.

You’ve heard of White Stuff,’ Harry says. ‘Well, that building there belonged to Black Stuff. While everyone associated White Stuff with coke, and although it was a little naughty, liked the idea, everyone associated Black Stuff with coal and didn’t go for it.

Wasn’t Black Stuff tar?’

Whatever! The brand name didn’t work. No-one wanted to buy their stuff. They went broke.’

Probably just not promoted very well,’ Kate says. ‘These things make a difference.’

To be honest, a lot of these businesses are here today and gone tomorrow,’ Harry says. ‘It’s like pop-up land on some of these out-of-town developments. I mean, look! The Pet Rock Counselling Service. How long is that going to last? What’s happening at your place, by the way? Is this new app going well?’

It’s not ready yet,’ Kate says. ‘At the moment, I’m just twiddling my thumbs.’

Teething troubles, are there?’ Harry says. ‘It’s only a phone app, isn’t it? What’s so complicated? What does it do?’

I can’t tell you that yet,’ Kate says. ‘It’s still at the development stage but I’m told there should be a beta version soon.’

Anyway, let’s do this again,’ Harry says.

Perhaps we might go out for a drink, one evening,’ Kate says.

I’d like that,’ Harry says. ‘Since Meg left …….’

You must come around and meet my cats,’ Kate interrupts. ‘How about tomorrow?’

As he drives to work, the following morning, Harry is pleased but somewhat surprised to find that the sun is shining. The storm that went on until the early hours was a violent one, rattling the doors and the windows of the house. Lucky was so frightened by the driving rain and howling wind that he snuggled up to him the whole night. Several inches of rain must have fallen in a few hours. The builder he called about the water coming through the bathroom ceiling seemed puzzled by his call but said he would pop round after five.

To Harry’s amazement, there is not so much as a puddle on the roads. How could a storm be so localised? As he makes his way through the morning commute, he gradually notices that a black BMW with tinted windows and the personalised plate, ACK3R seems to be following him. It tailgates him along Electric Avenue. It seems to be doing its best to force him off the road. Harry has the feeling he has seen this car before. Was it perhaps parked outside Elements where Kate worked? Didn’t she mention someone called Max Acker in connection with the app she is working on? That instead of getting on with work, he is always on her case?

At the Princes Street lights, Harry swings into the left-hand lane cutting up a delivery van to turn into Duke Street. Boxed in, the BMW cannot make the manoeuvre. It carries on straight ahead, towards the industrial estate. Harry dives into the superstore car park where he takes a moment to compose himself. Who exactly is this maniac who was trying to run him off the road? Why was he doing it? He googles Max Acker on his phone and discovers that Max is a fictional character that features in half a dozen stories by the author, Phillip C Dark. Several sites confirm this. Phillip C Dark, it appears, is a speculative fiction writer.

Speculative fiction, Wikipedia suggests, is a broad category of fiction encompassing genres with certain elements that may or may not exist in the real world, often in the context of supernatural, futuristic or other imaginative themes. If the Max Acker tailing him is fictional, then what are the ramifications? Where does that leave him, Harry Regis? Does he, Harry not exist in the real world? Does Kate not exist in the real world? These are not matters that he has had to grapple with up until now. In the flesh has always meant in the flesh. Yet here in the superstore car park, Harry suddenly finds himself in the throws of an existential crisis.

If it turns out he is fictional and at the mercy of his creator, then anything could happen. He has no control over it. He has no free will. What if his creator decides to kill him off? Just when things with Kate were looking up. He has Kate’s number and decides to give her a call before it’s too late. He feels he needs there to be some element of reality to cling to. He is not sure what he is going to say to her. She is likely to think he is going mad. There is no reply. Harry fears the worst.

Further research reveals that despite his work being categorised as speculative fiction, which can often be doom-laden, many of Phillip C Dark’s stories have happy endings. Why would this not be the case? Readers like a happy ending. Happy endings sell books. A majority of fiction in any genre has a happy ending. The author usually arranges the climax to make it look as if all hope is gone before coming up with an unexpected turn of events to save the day. This is known as the denouement. Climax and denouement are key elements of dramatic tension.

In any case, although Max Acker is not a common name, this does not mean there is just the one Max Acker. It’s a big world out there. There are likely to be many Max Ackers. Most likely, Phillip C Dark just picked the name at random. As he watches the shoppers come and go, Harry wonders why he is even thinking this way. He pinches himself. Here he is in time and space, sitting in his car in the car park, to all intents and purposes a sentient being. He must send his paranoia packing. Having placed great importance on the black cat appearing on his doorstep, he feels the need to go home to reacquaint himself with reality. His reality. Work can wait.

As Harry parks outside his house, he spots Kate at the front door. She has Lucky in her arms and is stroking him.

I hope you don’t mind me calling around like this,’ she says. ‘But I heard that Max was out to get you. When you weren’t at work, I became worried something might have happened. I thought I’d better check you were all right. This is a lovely cat you’ve got, by the way. Lucky, isn’t it?’

Harry notices the front garden has dried up already. Perhaps there hadn’t been as much rain as he had imagined.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Ten Twenty-Four

tentwentyfour

Ten Twenty-Four by Chris Green

You may not have heard of Trethowan. Most people haven’t. It is a tiny hamlet, remote even by Cornish standards. Although I keep hearing that providers are investing millions to tackle poor reception in rural areas, I have no phone signal where I am staying at Cosy Cottage, a rural retreat, accessible only along a windy track. I only pick up the voicemail message from Unknown Caller when I come into range the next day. There is no spoken message, just a background track which sounds like footsteps in the rain.

I put it down to a phone in someone’s pocket accidentally dialling my number. Although I do not use the phone much, the unknown caller could be a casual acquaintance or a trades-person I have contacted in the past. The odds that the keypad itself could hit eleven digits in the right order to correspond with a mobile phone number are ten to the power of something astronomical.

I think nothing more of it, but to my alarm, the same thing happens again the next day. It is a carbon copy of the first. Both calls were made at 10:24 p.m. by an unknown caller and both times the message consists of footsteps tramping in the rain, lasting for one minute thirty seconds. This really spooks me. It is not something that can have happened accidentally. This is way beyond the realms of coincidence. Something is not right.

I listen carefully to the calls several times, playing them back through the car’s speakers. It sounds like a single set of footsteps. The tread is rhythmic and purposeful. There is the suggestion of waterproofs rubbing together, perhaps from a jacket or pair of wet-weather trousers. It has been raining heavily on and off for days here in Cornwall. The calls may not have been from Cornwall of course. Why would they have come from Cornwall? I know few people here. They could have come from anywhere. Alaska, China, anywhere, although I cannot recall having contact with anyone so far-flung. I think I detect a suggestion of light traffic on a wet road in the background, but I am not sure. There are no voices to be heard on either recording.

The man in the dark suit and the Men In Black sunglasses standing outside the village post office in Chenoweth looks distinctly out of place. I give the sinister figure a wide birth but as I walk past, he barks out something in a foreign language. Whether or not he is addressing me, I cannot tell. Then I notice another figure in a dark suit with even blacker sunglasses talking into a phone outside the twelfth-century church. How is it he can get a signal around here when I am not? He is pointing in my direction.

I don’t aim to stay and find out what these outsiders are doing in this sleepy backwater. I double back over the stone bridge where my Golf is parked and dive into it. It is not a fast car but after some cute manoeuvres, I lose the black sedan that I find following me up the narrow muddy country lanes. I have been here for several days and have become used to the lie of the land. My pursuers clearly have not.

Nothing seems to make sense. Why am I being hounded? I have come down here to do some writing. To put the finishing touches to a story about fly-fishing in time for publication next month. And to spend some time with my partner, Ellie. She’ll be here later. She was supposed to arrive yesterday but was delayed. Ellie is in advertising. Precise arrangements can be difficult as project times often overrun with television campaigns.

Perhaps these interlopers, whoever they are, have confused me with someone else. If they want me, why don’t they just confront me directly? Why would they make their presence so obvious? Are they just trying to frighten me? If this is the case they are succeeding. I am terrified.

When I get back to the apartment, I find to my relief Ellie is there. I explain to her what has been happening. She is not impressed. I am a little disappointed. I was hoping she might be more understanding and supportive.

So you had a couple of strange voicemail messages,’ she says. ‘I get lots of them. I don’t know why but that’s the way it is with phones these days.’

But the two calls were identical, and at exactly the same time on consecutive nights,’ I protest.

Even less reason to be concerned. It’s just a technical glitch at Vodafone.’

O2,’ I correct her.

OK. A gremlin at O2. I’m sure these things happen all the time.’

What about the men in the village?’ I say.

Two men wearing shades. In a holiday destination. Don’t you feel you are being a little over-sensitive?’

But it wasn’t sunny,’ I say. ‘They chased after me in the black sedan.’

Oh, come on now! If professionals were tailing you, don’t you think they might have managed to keep up with you on these slow roads? They turned off. They were going somewhere else. The world doesn’t revolve around you, you know.’

I guess not,’ I concede.

Anyway,’ she says, putting her arms around me. ‘Aren’t you pleased to see me?’

Of course.’

So! Where are you going to take me? What delights does the back of beyond have to offer?’

I tell her that there is not much going on out of season.

I know a place,’ she says. ‘The one that was named after that Daphne Du Maurier book’

Jamaica Inn?’

No, not that one. The other one.’

We drive a few miles to The House On The Strand. We take Ellie’s car just in case. No-one follows us. Since we were last down here, The House In The Strand has been converted into a gastropub and has a French chef.

I have Boudin Blanc in Leeks and Mustard Sauce which turns out to be sausages in cream and Ellie has Battered Cod with Marie Rose Sauce and Chick Pea Fries which looks very much like fish and chips. The presentation is nice though and the Pistachio Mascarpone with Milk Chocolate Port Truffle, and the Dulce de Leche Creme Fraiche with Almond are both delicious. The second bottle of Shiraz is even better than the first. While we are trying to decide who is the fittest to drive back, Ellie goes off to the Ladies.

I have almost forgotten about the earlier traumas. Perhaps Ellie is right. Perhaps I do occasionally indulge a little paranoia. I am looking forward to a few days relaxation with her now. We can wine and dine and make love. We can investigate the historic Kernow of St Piran. Tintagel and the Arthurian legend. See that new sculpture of the King with Excalibur at the castle. We can swim in the sea and perhaps hire a boat to explore the rugged bays. We can take in the beautiful landscape. We can visit the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens of Heligan. The Minack Theatre. St Michaels Mount. Cornwall has plenty to offer.

Ellie often spends a few minutes powdering her nose, so at first, I am not concerned when she doesn’t return. But after ten minutes I begin to worry. She has never spent quite this long. She has taken her handbag, so I give her mobile a ring. While mine is working fine here, she seems to have hers switched off. My next thought is that she may have gone out to the car. I go over to the window and take a look outside. Her Polo is still in the car park. She is not in it.

A waiter comes over, concerned perhaps that we are trying to do a runner. Frantically I explain the situation to him. He asks me to calm down and offers to send a colleague to the Ladies to investigate. His colleague returns. Ellie is not there. I am beside myself. My paranoia comes flooding back, this time with interest. Perhaps the lady has just gone for a walk to clear her head, the maître d’ says, pointing out that we have had quite a lot of wine. And the second bottle was 13.5%. Just then my phone rings. Thinking it must be Ellie, complete with an explanation, I answer it. It is not Ellie. There is no-one on the other end. All I can hear are the familiar footsteps in the rain. It is not raining outside. It is 10:24.

Who Is This?’ I yell into the phone. ‘Why do you keep phoning me? What Do You Want?’

The caller does not respond. The footsteps continue, their dull trudging rhythm regular as a metronome.

Everyone in the pub is looking at me. I don’t care. It seems unlikely that the caller will respond, but like a madman, I keep shouting into the phone. After an eternity, the call ends. The display says that the call has lasted just ninety seconds.

I turn my attention back to Ellie’s disappearance. I begin to ask other diners if they saw anything. Having witnessed my behaviour on the phone, they are reluctant to cooperate. Several of them are already asking for their bills. None of the few left saw Ellie go to the Ladies and no-one saw her leave the establishment. No-one saw anything suspicious. They are of the view that we have had a lover’s tiff, Ellie stormed off and that I called her on my mobile and started shouting at her. The maître d’ is asking me to leave. He threatens to call the police. There is no need. There and then, the constabulary arrive as if they had just been waiting up the road, four officers in blue fatigues, all built like Bulgarian shot-putters. They issue stock commands from the police lexicon, all of which suggest I should not move. The press arrive. Legions of them. What is going on? Surely the crime rate around here cannot be so low that a small disagreement in a pub can warrant so much attention. But as they put the handcuffs on and lead me away to the patrol car, the paparazzi snap away like I’m a disgraced celebrity.

I have not been in this position before, but police custody is probably the same the world over. You are bundled into a cell, probably drunk, by burly officers, and subjected to maximum indignity and discomfort for the duration of your stay. The cell probably has concrete floors and walls, with bars on one side so the duty officer can keep an eye on you and a wooden bench for you to sober up on. It probably smells of urine, body odour and vomit. In all these ways the one in which I find myself at a remote location in Cornwall might be seen as typical.

What may be different here is that there is country music playing, loudly. Very loudly. This cannot be with the motive of settling the prisoner in. It can only promote thoughts of self-harm or worse. Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry is followed by Waiting Around to Die and the daddy of them all, Merle Haggard’s Misery and Gin. The pounding in my head makes me think I may have had a lot more and didn’t I start off with a pint of beer? This is not the time to be listening to Achy Breaky Heart and I believe they have turned it up. Do they know how much I hate country music? Is this a special programme for my benefit? Eddy Arnold’s Make The World Go Away is now playing, over and over. They must have left it on repeat and left me to stew. Is this perhaps a technique learned from Guantanamo Bay?

Everything is escalating out of my control. I lie down on the bench to try to temper the bouts of nausea. Hard though it is, I try to arrange my chaotic thoughts into those of reason. My captors didn’t seem concerned with charging me so much as just banging me up. This is odd. Police like their procedures. Perhaps they are not real police, but villains.

I am concerned about what might be happening to Ellie. She must have been abducted too. If I can be detained like this, then perhaps she is too. God forbid! Ellie likes her creature comforts. I like her to have her creature comforts. I do my best to ensure she has her creature comforts. I love Ellie more than anything in the world. But to get back to my situation, if she too is being held, she is not going to be available to bail me out. How am I going to get out of here to help her get out of wherever she is? Will I ever see her again?

As the night wears on, my mind returns to the footsteps. That haunting repetitive sound keeps thumping away in my head. What is it about those footsteps? From somewhere at the back of my consciousness, I dredge up a faint recollection of an advertising campaign that Ellie was involved with a year or so ago, a series of television adverts. They were filmed in black and white with a retro man trudging home through sludgy snow late at night. He is looking forward to his cup of hot drinking chocolate and as he does so a red glow forms around him. There are no words or music on the ads, just the hypnotic sound of the footsteps and logo of the company in the corner of the screen.

Could Ellie be responsible for my predicament? Might she have made those phonecalls from an unregistered phone, arranged the men in black and the car chase? Having raised my paranoia levels, it would be easy for her to get me drunk and then disappear. She is in a position to recruit actors to be paparazzi and brutish policemen. It would be like casting an advertising campaign. But here’s the coup de grâce. More than anyone, Ellie knows how much I hate country music. But why would she do this to me?

Oh! My! God! Might Ellie have discovered that I slept with her friend, Charlotte, when she was away at that conference last year? I wondered what she had the hump about when she came back from Pilates last Thursday. Pilates normally relaxes her. I heard a while back that Charlotte’s friend, Sophie had started going to the class. I am aware that Sophie can be spiteful. She must have spilled the beans about our clandestine liaison.

Ellie would have realised that tackling me about it there and then would have met with my denial. Nevertheless, she must have thought, no smoke without fire. Keeping her discovery to herself then would then have given her the chance to quietly plan her revenge. To further humiliate me, she may even be making a film of my entire Cornwall odyssey. In all probability, I am being filmed right now. Movie cameras are so inconspicuous these days, indistinguishable from the CCTV cameras we are so used to seeing every day, like ….. that one over there.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Puff the Magic Dragon

puffthemagicdragon

Puff the Magic Dragon by Chris Green

Before he met Prism, John Straight seemed destined for success. He had a Degree in Business Management from a top university, a big black BMW with bull bars and he was willing to travel. In a word, John’s future looked rosy. He was the son of Sir James Straight, the Somerset cider magnate. He enjoyed a privileged upbringing in the country, went to the best schools and never had to struggle. As an only child, he was cosseted. Not only did he have his own motorised BMX, he also had his own BMX track, six acres of it. He went on cultural summer camps in Europe every year. By the time he was eighteen had been to more countries than most adults. On finishing at Goldsmiths, his parents put down a large deposit on a house for him, a stylish four-bedroom barn conversion near Nether Stowey. At twenty one, he seemed to have it all going for him.

But, like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, John Straight was a little worried about his future. He did not feel he was yet ready to settle down. He supposed one day he would have to knuckle down, get a job and become a responsible citizen, but could this not be delayed for a while he thought about it? John’s fate was perhaps changed forever, the day he met Prism at a party in Taunton. He was introduced to Prism and Prism introduced him to Molly.

These little beauties will loosen you up,’ Prism said.

John was not sure what she meant. He felt he couldn’t be much looser. After all, he had no plans. He was very much going with the flow. But Prism looked sexy in her skimpy dress and she had a persuasive way about her.

Take three of them,’ she said. ‘And the world will seem a different place.’

What are they?’ he asked, looking in a puzzled manner at the three purple pills she had put into his hand with Nintendo etched on them.

Molly,’ she said. ‘Ecstasy. MDMA.’

And loosen him up, they did. Three hours in, the feeling of well-being was so strong, John knew this was how he wanted things to be. This was a wonder drug. He began to understand why it was referred to as Ecstasy. A deep sense of love, peace and understanding flowed through him. He was inside the music and the music was inside him. He was the music. The music was him. His limbs moved effortlessly like he was discovering them for the first time, his body in perfect rhythm with the cosmos. He felt a powerful rush of energy and a profound connection with everyone at the party. They were all lovely people. Even Razor McNeish was lovely. Why had he not seen this before? The feeling went on and on. This was altogether more pleasurable than getting mullered on Somerset cider at a family bash to celebrate a new vintage or throwing up after a night of beer-boarding in the students’ union bar. And the skunk that his friend Frank had brought round recently had not even hinted at this kind of euphoria. This was Heaven.

We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream,’ Prism said, later, after they had made love for the third time.

More Molly-fuelled weekends with Prism followed. Concerts, parties and more intimate gatherings. Molly even made shopping more fun, especially in the big Beamer. Specialist loudspeaker shops were John’s favourite. With the right equipment, it was astonishing how loud your music could be. Meanwhile, Prism moved herself in and the house at Dulverton soon pulsated day and night with the latest tunes at frightening volume.

We are like the spider,’ Prism said. ‘We weave our life and then move along in it.’

Move along in it, they did. With neither of them going out to work, they had plenty of time to indulge themselves. But the mind is like a mad monkey. It is restless, capricious; fanciful, inconstant, confused and uncontrollable. It constantly wants to move on to something else. Things, therefore, can never stay the same. They do not always change for the better. Little by little, John and Prism’s lives began to move in a different direction. Charlie started coming round to the house with Molly and then Charlie came round instead of Molly. Whereas Molly might be described as gentle and easy going, Charlie was anything but gentle and easy going. Charlie was urgent and aggressive. The mood around the house changed. The unpredictability the Peruvian marching powder brought with it meant John and Prism frequently argued and fought. She stormed out, came back and stormed out again, over and over. He told her to get out, chased after her and told her to get out again.

Worse was to come. Henry started to visit. Henry the Horse, Smack, Scag, Heroin, whatever you want to call it. John was curious to know what it was like. You didn’t have to inject it, he discovered; you could smoke it. The first hit was wild but you were forever trying to repeat this. Smoking it was no longer enough. By the time you became disappointed with the hit you were getting, you were hooked. Henry wanted your body and soul. Henry was hard-edged and desperate. Henry took no prisoners.

The upbeat dance music was gradually replaced by downbeat grunge music. Prism had been agreeable to Charlie coming round. She had been able to take Charlie in her stride. Cocaine was upbeat, exciting, even if it did make you talk bollocks. The point was you always felt you were talking sense. But from the outset, Prism disliked Henry and eventually moved out for good.

John began to wallow in self-pity. Henry was now permanently in residence. All John’s actions in one way another revolved around the demon drug. His parents were disgusted with the direction his life was taking and cut off his allowance. The debts quickly piled up. Had he not crashed the Beamer one night after a trip to look for Henry, he could have sold it to bail himself out and perhaps buy some time until he got himself back on his feet. But the vehicle was a write-off. To make matters worse he was being prosecuted for dangerous driving and possession of a Class A Drug with Intent to Supply. Not that he had any intention of selling any but the huge quantity of heroin the police found in the car was sufficient to justify the charge.

………………………………….

It’s all going pear-shaped, isn’t it, Mr Straight?’ John’s solicitor, Sebastian Dark of Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed says.

It does seem a bit unlucky. All coming at once.’ John says. ‘Look! I don’t suppose you’ve got any gear.’

Gear?’

Yes. Crack, smack, spice. Anything at all.’

Can we treat this matter seriously, Mr Straight? Now, look! We’d better put the house on the market, for starters, don’t you think?’

I’m afraid we’re not going to be able to do that, Mr Dark.’

Oh, and why is that?’

It burned down last night,’

It burned down? How did that happen, Mr Straight?’

I arranged for someone to set fire to it.’

You arranged for someone to set fire to it?’

Yes. To get the insurance money.’

For Heaven’s sake, Mr Straight. The house wasn’t insured. You told me yourself the day before yesterday that the house insurance had lapsed. Your bank account is frozen. Your Direct Debit payment bounced. You’re broke, remember!’

I know that, Mr Dark but I made the arrangement with the arsonist last week and I was so strung out, I forgot to cancel the arrangement.’

Murphy’s Law doesn’t come close to taking account of your ability to bring about disaster, does it, Mr Straight?’

Then I thought I would be in when he came round, you see but I had to go out.’

Let me guess. To get some heroin.’

That’s right. I thought I might be able to call in a favour. Glassy-Eyed Dave owed me one. But it didn’t work out. Then I came home to find that, well not to put to fine a point on it, there was no home. Just a smouldering heap of rubble. …… Are you sure you haven’t got anything in your desk drawer? Not even enough for a hit.’

Not even a puff of the magic dragon, I’m afraid,’ Sebastian Dark says. ‘But what I do have is one of my brother’s books of short stories. It’s in the cabinet over there.’

Oh great! I’ll settle down and read for a bit, shall I? That will be much better than a fix. That will sort out the cold turkey.’

What you probably don’t realise, Mr Straight is that my brother is the science fiction writer, Philip C. Dark. No doubt you have heard of him but had never made the connection. Now, you will very likely be able to find a wormhole in one of Phil’s stories to offer you a passage to a more favourable situation. Why don’t you give it a try? It’s not as if you’ve got a lot to lose.’

The solicitor hands John the book, The Logic Mines of Őjj 9. He begins to read and suddenly ……………….. somewhere in the distance, John hears the haunting sound of a brass instrument. He edges the dune buggy closer. In front of a bank of brightly coloured pods, a tall slender figure with purple hair is playing a transparent saxophone. He has a small cat on his shoulder. John is not sure he has met him before yet he does seem oddly familiar. He wonders if perhaps he saw him playing at last year’s God Election celebrations. Overhead, the usual flock of winged serpents is circling. It is twilight. Both moons are already out. It is a fine evening. All is well. He has his pipe of green herbs to look forward to. Things are as they should be in John Straight’s world.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Pulp Friction

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Pulp Friction by Chris Green

Nancy fancies Tafelspitz and I haven’t had Wiener Schnitzel for a long time, so we are going to treat ourselves. Things have been a little fraught since our Schnauzer, Max had to be put to rest. Respiratory disease, very sad at the end. Max was more than just the family pet. He went everywhere with us. We feel we deserve a break from our grieving. A movie on Netflix and something nice to tickle our taste buds. Nancy and I are fond of Slovenian food and also like the occasional Serbian Pljeskavica but Austrian cuisine is our favourite. Perhaps we can follow the meal with our favourite dessert, Kaiserschmarrn.

We discover that Schachelwirt in the High Street, the only Austrian establishment in Darkwell no longer offers a delivery service. As the engine of the Fiat blew up a month ago, I get the Lambretta out of the shed, dust it off and make my way downtown. Nancy can’t see why I keep putting off getting a new car. She keeps mentioning a Skoda she has seen for sale in Harmonica Drive. I keep delaying going to see it. This has been a niggling source of friction between us. I’m waiting for the right opportunity to tell her that I recently made an injudicious investment in a Ponzi scheme and funds are low. This coming on top of diminishing returns in the pulp fiction publishing house that I am involved with. Nancy probably isn’t aware of this either. I hope my new collection of surreal stories sells well and the money soon starts coming in otherwise I may have to come clean.

On the way into town, slap bang in the middle of the Scott McKenzie roundabout, I come across a huge featureless black block. How can I have not noticed it before? It is colossal, probably eighty feet tall. As a writer with his head in the clouds, I realise I get distracted from time to time. But surely something of this magnitude ought to be unmissable. The block appears to be vibrating, giving off a loud, low-pitched hum. Inevitably, it brings to mind the monolith in the Stanley Kubrick film.

Seeing a mysterious black slab in an unexpected place however is one thing, but it is not going to come up with our Austrian meal. I can just imagine what Nancy will say if I go home and say, sorry I got distracted by a potential catalyst for evolution.

Have you seen that great big black slab at the roundabout?’ I ask Jürgen in Schachelwirt while I am waiting for the food. ‘Has it been there long?’

Nein,’ Jürgen says.

At first, I wonder if he means nine days or nine years before realising that he means no. Either it hasn’t been there long or that he hasn’t seen it. Despite the language barrier, I establish that both are the case. He hasn’t seen it and therefore doesn’t know how long it might have been there.

Returning with the takeaway, I am relieved to see that the roundabout is not teeming with angry monkeys throwing bones into the air. Or puzzled lunar scientists looking skyward. But from a writer’s point of view, their absence is, at the same time, disappointing. In 2001, those two scenes were pivotal. They helped move the narrative along. Despite the lack of Kubrickian connections, though, I am curious about what the mysterious slab might be. And more than a little unnerved by its sinister aspect. So, why is such an imposing artefact not attracting any attention? Motorists are negotiating the roundabout as if the monolith is a standard item of traffic furniture.

It is not often that one has the chance to see Doinzetti’s L’elisir d’amore in an English suburban setting. But here, outside the electricity sub-station on Magnolia Street, the opera is being performed, by a troupe of multiracial cross-dressers no less. They are called CDSO. A large billboard advertises them as WOKE, BAME, LGBT. I try to recall what the acronyms stand for. Acronyms seem to be taking over our lives. Is WOKE an acronym? Whatever! L’elisir d’amore has long been one of my favourites. I pull the scooter up alongside to take in the carnival of colour.

Conscious though that our Austrian delicacies in the carrier on the back of the bike will be getting cold, I can’t afford to hang around. Nancy does not share my fondness for Gaetano Donizetti. She doesn’t like Italian opera. She prefers Richard Strauss. She is always playing Der Rosenkavalier. She would be unlikely to accept a Donizetti-related excuse for my lateness. I expect she has the plates in the oven on the scalding setting in readiness for the feast. Along with the puzzle of the strange black block, I can investigate the background to this operatic oddity later. There is bound to be an explanation somewhere on the internet.

To get the food home swiftly, I ignore the tantalising glimpse of a flying saucer over the Toker’s End flats and the curious sight of Ironman talking to Shrek at the bus stop outside the Palace cinema that recently closed down. It’s a pity the old picture houses are going out of business, the new multi-screens don’t have half the atmosphere. Why is there a dancing brown bear outside outside BiggerBet? No time for this now, but where is all this strangeness coming from, I wonder as I turn into our street? Has The Game started up again on Channel 19?

Nancy, who knows about these things, tells me that, thankfully in her view, The Game has not started again, nor has The Lark on KTV. People do not go for the candid camera stuff anymore, she says. I do not pursue it. If I go into detail, she will only say I’m imagining things. Best to enjoy our fine food along with the new Austrian blockbuster Nancy has chosen and leave my investigation until the morning.

Google tells me the performance of L’elisir d’amore is one of a series of stunts designed to change attitudes to minorities and promote LBGTQ+ awareness (what is Q+) in the provinces, where attitudes have not kept pace with those in the big cities. It claims that nineteen-sixties levels of sexism and homophobia are still present in parochial towns like Darkwell. It says bigotry is rife here and derogatory terms like shirt-lifters and rug-munchers are still used freely. Why single out Darkwell? The town appears quite liberal. Gaz and Sebastian seem to have an active social life. They often tell us about the wild parties they’ve been to, and I believe we even have a Rainbow Festival Weekend in Darkwell these days.

The dancing brown bear is part of a bizarre new advertising campaign, Barney the Bear Bets at BiggerBet. Be Like Barney the Bear. A betting bear! Smacks of desperation, that one. Is there perhaps a Creatives strike? On a local Facebook page, I find out that the flying saucer is simply someone’s expensive new drone. This model of drone has been mistaken for a UFO in many locations around the country, it says. Once you take the trouble to look beyond conspiracy theories, you find there is often a simple explanation to many of life’s mysteries. This is not to suggest that conspiracy theories are a bad thing. For the writer of fiction, they can be a useful device. I’ve often resorted to them to add a little colour to a story. Conspiracy theories were central to Twinned with Area 51, Grassy Knoll and Black Fiat Uno. And where would my Phillip C. Dark series of stories have been without them?

A search for black slab comes back with nothing of particular interest but monolith is more successful. Using Kubrick as a starting point, it makes suggestions about the possible purpose of a pulsating black block. A power source perhaps, or a transmitter of some sort. Nothing though about why there is such an artefact at the Scott McKenzie roundabout. This is going to require another trip into town.

The trip has to wait until the afternoon. Nancy has an early appointment at Curl Up and Dye, which is in the opposite direction. I drop her off and wander along to The Dream Store in Serendipity Street. The Dream Store is like a library for ideas to help artists, writers, Alice in Wonderland aficionados and random fantasists out when they are struggling for inspiration. A postmodern repository for the unconventional, a kind of leftfield Google. You find all kinds of crazy stuff here. It is run by the guy that put together The Kaleidoscope Repair Manual whose name escapes me. I head for the Random Plot Generator section.

To my puzzlement and alarm, the Random Plot Generator section has been replaced by a giant mural of John Travolta in his Pulp Fiction suit dancing with a classical figure, a moving statue. Pulp Friction, it says. I’m not well versed in Classics so I’m not sure who the Greco-Roman figure is supposed to be. The dolphin behind the desk has no information. Why is there a dolphin behind the desk? No simple explanation is forthcoming. Logic seems to have temporarily gone AWOL.

Back on the street, I realise I may have been mistaken. It cannot have been a dolphin at the desk. This is a step too far. A dolphin needs water. No amount of artistic licence can work around this idea. But the giant mural of John Travolta dancing with the classical figure has potential. There is plenty of scope to slip it somewhere into a plotline. Perhaps even into the short story I’m presently writing. I file the idea away for later.

You often hear it said that you have to separate fact from fiction, but it is not that simple. Science recognises that everyone sees things differently, selecting some stimuli while ignoring others. Cultural background, preconceived notions and psychological state all play their part. Painters and writers are, of course, prone to cognitive exploration. Seeing things in a different way is central to the art of creativity. Homing in on things that others don’t see is their bread and butter. But there must be limits to how removed from everyday reality they are. Even though reality is a slippery customer, there has to be common ground, things that cannot be open to conjecture. Their existence is absolute, indisputable, The black slab on the Scott McKenzie roundabout is such a bold image that it surely cannot be merely a figment of my overactive imagination.

I meet Nancy from Curl Up and Die. The Viennese Bob style suits her much better. I always felt her Romy Schneider cut was a little out of date. I tell her she looks good. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about women, it is that complements are a good idea after a hairdresser’s appointment. Failing to say the right thing usually has dire consequences.

I suppose we’re going off to see your pulsating black slab now,’ Nancy says, not hiding her disapproval. Or that she has not taken well to wearing the helmet on the back of the Lambretta.

If that’s OK,’ I say. ‘It’s pretty dramatic.’

Perhaps afterwards we could have lunch at that new Slovenian bistro by the Raincoat Museum,’ she says. ‘Rachel has been telling me they do a divine Idrijski Žlikrofi.’

Halfway along Tambourine Way leading to the Scott McKenzie roundabout, diversion signs are in place. The road ahead is completely blocked off. Highway maintenance vehicles of all shapes and sizes line the road. An army of highway workers slowly goes about its business, whatever this might be. Most of them seem to be standing around waiting for instructions. I pull up alongside a swarthy passer-by in a chunky army-style jacket. He is weighed down by a battery of cameras and binoculars. He looks as if he is on a serious mission.

It wasn’t like this yesterday,’ I say, pointing to the roadworks. ‘What’s going on?’

It’s been like it for weeks, guv,’ he says.

What about the Scott McKenzie roundabout and …..’

The Scott McKenzie roundabout?’ he says. ‘Where have you been? They replaced that with a junction and traffic lights a year or two ago. After the big pile up. Don’t you remember?’

The monolith. That great big black slab I saw yesterday. What’s happened to that?’ I say.

I don’t know what medication you’re on, mate,’ he says. ‘But I’ve got to get on. I’m hoping to come across Captain America. Or Willy Wonka. I don’t suppose you’ve seen them. Apparently, they are in the area. Along with Darth Vader and The Terminator, what’s his name? The Austrian one.

Arnold Schwarzenegger,’ Nancy says.

Yes, Arnie. That’s him,’ Chunky Jacket says. ‘A lookalike obviously.’

Why all the cameras?’ Nancy asks.

I gather you guys aren’t aware that MovieMax is offering a chance to win a holiday in Hollywood,’ he says. ‘You have to get photos of two of these movie characters out and about. It’s a promotion for MovieMax cinemas. They are opening a new one in Darkwell. Anyway, once you’ve got the photos, all you have to do is answer a simple movie-related question.’

Well, I saw Ironman and Shrek yesterday,’ I say. ‘At the bus stop outside the old Palace cinema, as it happens. There’s irony. You might want to take a look around that part of town.’

I know where you mean,’ he says. ‘I’d better get on to it.’

What’s the question, by the way?’ I say. The idle thought passes through my mind that the question might be something to do with the monolith in 2001. This turns out not to be the case.

They are asking, what do they call a quarter pounder with cheese in Paris?’ he says.

H’mmm. That’s a line from Pulp Fiction, isn’t it?’ I say. ‘OK. Refresh my memory. What do they call a quarter pounder with cheese in Paris?’

They call it Royale with Cheese,’ he says in a passable John Travolta accent. ‘They wouldn’t know what the fuck a quarter pounder is. They’ve got the metric system there.’

Of course,’ I say. ‘I remember it well now. But before you go, tell me! How would I have got to Schachelwirt in the High Street yesterday evening?’

What’s Schachelwirt?’

The Austrian restaurant and takeaway.’

There is no Austrian restaurant and takeaway in the High Street.’

What about the new Slovenian bistro?’ Nancy asks. ‘It’s by the Raincoat Museum.’

That’s easy,’ he says. ‘You just go back along Tambourine Way the way you came and turn right. Oh, look! There’s Harry Potter.’

He’s looking this way,’ I say. ‘He’s waving his wan……….

I fancy Tafelspitz,’ Nancy says. ‘I wish there was an Austrian restaurant in Darkwell.’

Well, there isn’t,’ I say. ‘Never has been. Never will be.’

Shall we go to Slovenian bistro by the Raincoat Museum then?’ she says.

I really ought to finish this story first,’ I say. ‘Perhaps we could go afterwards.’

© Chris Green 2020: 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 persistent drizzle you often get at the end of a working week when 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, we make it to The Belted Galloway and sit in the garden with a pint or two. This gives us a pretty good view of the common. It’s probably a mile there and back. Just the right amount of exercise. We did talk about joining the gym but decided to put it on hold. I might get the bikes out of the shed instead, once Man with a Van has collected the old mattresses. Then we will be able to go a little further afield, perhaps as far as The Pallbearers Arms.

While we wait for a break in the drizzle, we are watching a documentary about obesity in taxi drivers. There seems to be very little on in the seven o’clock slot to entertain us these days.

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.’

When did he phone?’

I can’t remember. 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,’ Stacey says, 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, in the same tone she might use if it was the Yorkshire Ripper that had called.

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 remember saying.

He said he could not connect to the Internet since he had gone with CheapNet. I remember feeling a little guilty that I had recommended CheapNet. After I suggested it, however, we 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. 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 Fiesta 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 Fiesta 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 Fiesta 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 cyclist in rain-drenched Day Glo Lycra eases past me. The Fiesta 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 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.

Ashoka’s, the new store on the roundabout has a board saying 20% OFF SNAKES. I make a mental to note to check if we need one. Perhaps it didn’t say snakes, but you never know. Ashoka’s seems to sell just about everything. Someone at work bought an Alan Titchmarsh garden gnome there. They have a whole range apparently, Monty Don, Diarmuid 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 Long 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 teeny pop, Wayne Rooney’s Desert Island Discs, 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 Fiesta seems to run along nicely so long as I stay in third gear and use the wipers sparingly. ALL NIGHT HAPPY HOUR the sign outside The Bucket of Eels says. 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. When you are in a relationship, there is a tendency to neglect old friendships. Geoff and I speak on the phone occasionally and agree to go to the dogs or go fishing but something always comes up. 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 Donna. 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 in western culture is 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 lookout 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 Fiesta 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 by Jackson and Pollock. 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 Fiesta and look around. There is no car on the drive. Is Geoff at this very moment ramming it into the side of the truck? Or has he already done so? The yard is tidier than I remember it. There are no dismantled motorcycles. And where are the geese? Maybe I 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.

Not sure exactly what I am expecting to discover, I sidle 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. Geoff and Abi step out, 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,’ Geoff says. ‘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,’ Abi says.

No really. I’m fine,’ I say.

And how’s Stacey?’ Geoff says. 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. I don’t imagine that they listen to a lot of oud music in Dubai these days. I am relieved Geoff is in good spirits but at the same time, 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 take my leave.

I decide to drive back along the main roads. It is late. There won’t 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 there is a blanket of flashing blue lights. As I draw closer, acutely aware that an old car doing forty-five 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 into 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 homemade fig schnapps and is watching Celebrity Big Brother on catch-up. Anne Widdecombe has just been evicted, which leaves Ayman al-Zawahiri, Paul Gascoigne and Vanilla Ice in the house.

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

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

 

Bad Karma

badkarma

Bad Karma by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

Where are we going afterwards?’ she said.

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

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

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

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

I know nothing about boats,’ Des said.

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

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

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

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

………………………………..

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

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

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

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

In a word. It would seem so, yes.’

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

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

Her Adultery.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You mean …..?’

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

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

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

I’m sure,’ Des said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

PHILANDERER

philanderer2019

Philanderer by Chris Green

I have lived in the same town most of my life yet 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 maintained we often come across people I know, 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 I’m 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 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 everyone I have known steers clear of the places at the times I visit. Have all my friends and old acquaintances moved away? 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. She takes a step back to look me up and down. Perhaps I am not so instantly recognisable these days.

Rosie looks devastatingly good. She has aged well. 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 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 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 rented 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 recollection bears this out. 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 I’d better have lunch while I’m in town. A healthy option one. There’s a new vegetarian place I’ve noticed just off the Colonnade called Au Naturel.

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 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 9 a.m. 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, 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 this little bistro with the money from my divorce settlement. I was sure I would bump into you sooner or later. 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.’

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 it would be impolite 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, hoping 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 gather I am in a hurry.

With my receipt, she hands me a card with her address and phone number on and says I must call round. As it happens, 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. My fling with 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. She thanks me with a kiss on the cheek.

Guess what,’ she continues. ‘You know you were saying 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 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 2019: All rights reserved

Phone BIll

phonebill4 

Phone Bill by Chris Green

I read somewhere that over half of all the people in the world have never received a telephone call. Sometimes I wish I was one of these. The phone should be a comfort but it can also be a curse. Unwanted calls can outnumber the ones from family and friends. Every day, for instance, Bill phones me up from Swindon to try to sell me solar panels. It is, of course, a scam. While the numbers he comes out with are designed to look favourable, the solar panels would never be mine. His company, BiSolar just want to use my roof so that they can generate electricity to sell back to the grid and keep their directors in the lap of luxury. Bill is fully aware by now I have no intention of taking up BiSolar’s offer.

I also read that more than half the people in the world have never made a telephone call. In these days of fibre optics and satellite communication, this is a difficult statistic to believe. But whoever these people are, Bill compensates for them. Bill sits in a cubicle making calls all day. Although he must have targets to meet, I have reached the conclusion that he keeps ringing me because he is lonely. He needs someone he can talk to. He talks about the weather, his arthritic hip and Swindon Town’s problems in defence. Sometimes he gives me a tip for the 3:30 at Catterick or the 4:15 at Fontwell Park, but invariably his horse falls at the thirteenth or comes in second to last. I sense that there is a black cloud hanging over him while he is talking. I can see it poised inches above his head waiting to deposit rain. I haven’t the heart to tell him not to keep calling. For all I know, I might be his lifeline. Tracey always used to say that I had good listening skills. Had I thought of becoming a counsellor? This was, of course, before our great falling out.

Linzi is another caller from this surprising global minority. She too phones me almost daily about compensation for mis-sold PPI. She must know by now that I have never taken out PPI. I didn’t even know what PPI was until she started phoning me. Mostly though, Linzi wants to talk about which carpet she should buy for the lounge. Or what she should do about her son’s truanting from St Bartholomew’s. Linzi sometimes sounds off about her husband Derek’s drinking. I dare not tell her that Derek is probably an alcoholic. No-one should be getting through two cans of Special Brew during an episode of Emmerdale, even if it is an extended episode to build up the tension before the murder of another tractor driver.

Some days, Barry phones to tell me my life insurance has lapsed. It actually lapsed back in 1996, but Barry’s company, ZZT or some hopeless acronym at the tail end of the alphabet, is still hopeful that I might resume the payments. Barry is keen on golf and gives me detailed accounts of his bunker shots and his new putter. He updates me on his handicap, 44, I believe at last count. Although I know next to nothing about golf, I am sure this is not good. My friend, Geoffrey has a handicap of 19, and he has a wooden leg.

Wednesdays are the worst. I’m not sure why this should be so but no sooner have I got home from my shift at the packaging plant than the phone starts to ring. One call follows another throughout the afternoon. Sometimes it is Linzi first and sometimes it is Bill. For some reason, Barry’s call usually comes in the middle. Oh! I haven’t mentioned Martin yet have I? Each Wednesday, Martin phones to see whether I have changed my mind about the double glazing offer. UltraGlaze can do all my windows for a little over £3000, he says. Each time he points out that his competitors would charge up to a thousand more and they would not offer a twenty-year guarantee. Once this little charade is out of the way, Martin likes to talk about his tropical fish, which are prone to an encyclopaedia of diseases. After he has run through the latest casualties, we move on seamlessly to his amateur dramatics. The Empty House Players are doing a production The Likely Lads and he is playing Bob. He is from Streatham and is having trouble with the Newcastle accent. Each week he gives me a progress report on this and we have the same conversation about what the pub names were in the TV series. We take it in turns to name The Fat Ox, The Black Horse, The Drift Inn, and The Wheatsheaf. Martin is possibly the most tiring of all the callers. It’s a good thing he only phones once a week.

What have you been doing? Your phone’s been off all afternoon,’ Diane says, angrily. ‘She’s not there is she?’

No. I told you, Diane. Tracey moved out last month.’

But she’s still got her stuff there.’

Hardly anything, and as you have seen its all packed away in the spare room.’

H’mm. Then what has been going on? You can’t have been on the phone all afternoon.’

It is Wednesday, Diane. You know that everyone calls on a Wednesday.’

You don’t have to answer the phone, do you?’

If I didn’t answer it, then I wouldn’t be talking to you now.’

Why don’t you have caller display, like everyone else?’

Probably because CheapNet don’t do caller display. It was you that suggested CheapNet.’

It wouldn’t be so bad if you got another mobile. Or got the old one repaired.’

It’s beyond that I think. They don’t like being immersed in buckets of bleach.’

But why don’t you just put the phone down when these people ring?’

Well, you know how it is, once you get talking.’

These are salesmen, Clive. They keep you talking and before you know it you’ve bought a brussels sprout farm, or a time-share in Turkmenistan or, knowing you, Beyonce’s underwear or something.’

Diane and I have been seeing each other for several months now. We met at that supermarket pub. Oh, what’s its name? The one that is not Wetherspoons. I was minding my own business, quietly drowning my sorrows having just had a row with Tracey. Diane was on a girls night out. She became upset about something one of her friends said about what she was wearing and came over to join me. Do I look like a slut to you, she said. I said no, you don’t and somehow we ended up spending the night together. These things happen. You can’t plan everything in life. Life’s what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. Someone famous said that. I can’t remember who. Not that I ever have. Make plans that is, but the following day Tracey having put two and two together, packed her bags and left. Her plan hasn’t changed. She has shared it with her solicitor, Mr Doonican and he keeps writing me letters regarding the sale of the house. I suppose I can count myself lucky that Tracey and I did not have children.

Diane is a few years older than me. She is divorced and lives on Canal Street. She has a fluctuating number of teenage children. They keep moving out and moving back in again, depending on their fitful relationships, their finances and their oscillating states of mind. I blame Kites. You can buy anything over the counter there and they even have a delivery service for their research chemicals and plant food. There’s one called Herbal Haze that the kids seem to like and another called Blue Cheese. And of course, the old favourite Go-Caine. Riley, the eldest is probably the worst. But Randall and Regan are nearly as bad and a couple of weeks ago we even found Rhiannon calling God down the great white trumpet after a binge on something. Rhiannon is only fifteen. It’s no wonder that Diane wants to come over and spend so much time at my house.

OK, I get your point,’ I say. ‘I’ll change my phone number. I will call CheapNet as soon as I’ve put the phone down.’

I’ll be over in twenty minutes’ says Diane. ‘It’s bedlam here with Ryan’s hip hop music. …… Do you want me to wear anything special?’

No. just come as you are,’ I say.

I’d better not do that,’ she laughs. ‘I think I ought to put some clothes on first. I’m in the bath, lover.’

I explain that I am receiving nuisance calls and CheapNet are quick to change my number. Everything is in place within twenty four hours, phone, internet, the whole caboodle. Other providers might take weeks and still charge a colossal admin fee, but CheapNet charge nothing for the service. They even have a Welsh call centre, and in answer to my query, Dewi explains that CheapNet would be offering the Caller Display facility within a matter of weeks.

There are no missed calls when I come home from working late on Friday and Diane and I are able to enjoy a pleasant weekend at the seaside, the only interruption being when on Sunday morning, Diane gets a call that Riley has been arrested in the early hours for Affray. She handles it very well. She does not rush back to bail him out or anything like that. It is not entirely unexpected, she says. Diane has a measured approach, she takes things in her stride.

I get home from an early shift on Monday and am looking forward to an afternoon nap. I put the tiredness down to the late nights we had over the weekend. But, no sooner have I got through the front door than the phone rings. It is quite a pleasant melody. Mozart I think. Or is it REM? Much better though than the old ringtone. I am thinking it must be Diane calling. She is the only one who has my new number. I wonder what she might want. I hope it’s not about Riley. We had enough about his troubles yesterday. Perhaps she has just left her keys in my car or something. I pick up the phone and am greeted by Bill’s familiar voice.

The Robins didn’t do so well at the weekend, did they?’ he says. He means Swindon Town. This is their nickname. Swindon lost four one at home to Crewe, after being one nil up with twenty minutes to go. This apparently ruins their chances of promotion.

I am too taken aback to respond or even to ask how he got hold of my new number.

He is quite happy to guide the conversation. He tells me his hip has been giving him gyp over the past few days. He thinks he may need a replacement.

I’m sorry to hear that,’ I say.

But being on a zero hours contract, I don’t know how I am going to be able to afford the time off work.’

That sucks,’ I say. I do not tell him that at the packaging plant, I do not have any kind of contract. Job security does not seem to be something that is on their agenda.

But I do have some hot tips for you,’ he says. ‘And you will get good prices if you get in quick.’

I have to say, Bill, your horses have not done so well lately,’ I tell him.

These two will,’ he says. ‘Have you got a pen handy?’

Oh, go on then. Fire away!’ I say. The question of how he got my new number is fading. I must be a soft touch.

In the 3:30 at Pontefract, Forgive and Forget,’ he says. ‘And in the 4:15 At Market Rasen, Cold Call.’

I’d better get the laptop out and get on to BetterBet,’ I say.

I almost say ‘Speak to you tomorrow, Bill. I’ll give you a ring,’ but manage to catch myself. Why would I want to phone Bill?

Forgive and Forget falls at the first. I reason that Cold Call will probably do the same. But, what makes me think of betting on Brave New World instead, I don’t know. It has no chance. It is thirteen years old and has yet to finish a race. It probably has only three legs or something. What makes me put £50 on the nose is something I cannot begin to comprehend ……… but Brave New World storms in at 100 to 1.

No sooner have I got the notification from BetterBet than the phone rings. It is PPI Linzi ringing to talk about her troubles.

Without giving me the opportunity to ask how she has got hold of my new number, Linzi begins to update me on her husband Derek’s drinking, a bottle of Bacardi during last Friday’s EastEnders special, six pints yesterday lunchtime. Half a bottle of ……. I gently put the receiver back in its cradle.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

It’s Not Unusual

itsnotunusual

It’s Not Unusual by Chris Green

1:

Because of my vertigo, crossing the Severn Bridge has always been a problem for me. On account of my phobia, as I live in the south of England, I don’t tend to visit Wales. I don’t even know any Welsh people. I once worked with a Dewi Davies who came from Merthyr Tydfil. We used to call him Davies the Dark Side on account of his half-empty outlook on life. And at college, I had a friend called Rhys who came from Plwmp. But, this was a long time ago. Admittedly, I used to fancy Catherine Zeta Jones when she was younger and I went to see Manic Street Preachers a couple of years back. But on the whole, Wales is a foreign country to me.

I went to bed last night at ten, read a few pages of my Ian McEwan novel and put out the light, thinking normally in English. It came over me in the night. Everything changed. Wales came flooding in. This morning, I appear to be thinking in Welsh. It’s all leeks and lava bread, St David’s Day and daffodils. I am thinking in familiar terms of Llandindrod Wells and Bets y Coed and places with strange sounding names I’d never heard of. I feel the impulse to greet people with Alright or Wha? I want to address them as bach, start each statement with What it is or I’m only saying and end sentences with look you or see. And raise glasses and say Iechyd Da. We’ll keep a welcome in the hillsides.

It’s disconcerting that I can’t run this past my partner, Lorelei. She is at a psychotherapists’ conference somewhere up north. She specifically said she couldn’t be contacted. Back-to-back meetings and seminars, she said. If I were of a suspicious nature, I might suspect she was having an affair.

I must try to see the whole episode as an overblown dream and move on. There’s no time to dwell on it. No time even for a shower. I need to get to work. I have to pick up my colleague, Barry Sadler on the way. We car-share and it is my turn to drive him in this week. I haven’t noticed it before but I see the road signs at the Scott McKenzie roundabout are now displayed in English and Welsh. The Town Centre sign at the Macmillan Street junction also says Canol y Dref. And how long has that statue of Owen Glendower been outside the entrance to the Churchill Street park, I wonder?

Lorelei probably didn’t mean she couldn’t be contacted at all. After all, it is a little early for her to be in conference. On the basis she’ll probably still be in the breakfast room of the hotel reading The Guardian and sipping her Macchiato, I phone her. It goes straight to voicemail. I leave a garbled message about missing her.

When I arrive at Barry’s, he is waiting by the kerb. He seems agitated. He looks at his watch. Perhaps I am a few minutes late. He goes to get into the car but I step out. He looks at me disapprovingly. I can see he wants to get going but feels something might be wrong.

Are you OK, Dan?’ he says. ‘You look a bit …… dazed.’

Just a strange start to the day, Barry,’ I say ‘Nothing to worry about though, butty bach. I’ll be fine.’

As long as you’re OK. Shall we get going? It’s nearly eight-thirty.’

What it is, mate, have you noticed anything, h’mm …… different on the streets lately?’ I say once we are on our way.

No. Same as it ever was,’ he says.

Nothing, say, more Welsh?’

Ah, I see,’ he says. ‘That’s where the butty bach came from, is it? Well, no I can’t say I have, old buddy. In fact, I was only saying to Sharon just now that nothing ever seems to change around here. It’s so boring. The same old, day in, day out. We’re thinking of a holiday to get us out of the daily grind. A bit of a break. We’re thinking Mexico or somewhere exotic.’

Look you!’ I say. ‘Isn’t that Anthony Hopkins? Over by there. Walking the Welsh Terrier.’

It looks nothing like him,’ Barry says. ‘What’s wrong with you today, man?’

Sorry. Not Anthony Hopkins. I meant the other fellow. Richard Burton.’

Richard Burton’s dead.’

Are you sure, mate? Well, if it’s not him, he’s the spitting image of him.’

He’s been dead for over thirty years. Look. I’m getting worried about you. Something’s wrong, isn’t it?’

I manage to blag it until we get to the office. I don’t mention Wales being the new favourites to win the Rugby World Cup or draw attention to the billboard we pass advertising the Tom Jones concert at the football ground.

2:

My co-workers seem to be worried about me. My line manager, Harvey Golfer wonders why I have sent him an email about the Ffestiniog railway. I tell him it wasn’t intentional, it must be a glitch in the software. He gives me a strange look and is about to express his disbelief when his phone rings. Back at my desk, Lee Cooper who sits opposite asks me to stop humming Delilah. I tell him I wasn’t aware I was. I find myself humming I’ll Never Fall in Love Again instead. Lee draws my attention to this straight away.

And don’t you dare start on The Green Green Grass of Home,’ he says.

Susie Dee tells me I’ve just printed off twenty four copies of the Welsh flag. I laugh it off and tell her there is nothing to worry about. I had a bad night but I will be OK after a strong cup of coffee. Susie doesn’t want to let it go.

You’ve been acting strangely all week,’ she says. ‘Is there anything I might be able to do to help?’

No really, Susie, I’m fine,’ I say, trying to ignore the fact that she is now leaning over my desk in her low-cut plunge top.

It’s all right, Dan,’ she says. ‘You can stop the pretence. I know exactly what’s been bothering you. It’s not unusual, you know. It happens all the time.’

What?’ I say. ‘What’s not unusual?’

Well, a little bird told me Lorelei has left,’ Susie says. ‘She has gone off with an esoteric book publisher from Swansea Bay. People break up with one another every day, Dan. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last. My Greg ran off with Twinkle, a glove designer from Saffron Weldon. I know it can be hard at first and can make you crazy ……’

But I …… you ….. what? …..’

I can see you are upset, Dan. It’s only natural. What you need is some female company. So I wondered if you would like to come round for a bite to eat later. Perhaps we can share a glass or two of wine to celebrate, I mean commiserate.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Pub

pub

Pub by Chris Green

1:

You’re probably wondering why the pub is called The Skydog Slaver aren’t you?’ Nigel Slough says.

As it happens, I am not. I have been coming here for several weeks. At first, I may have been curious about the name but now I just take it for granted.

I’m just going to take Murphy for a walk,’ I might say to Stacey. ‘And then I may pop in at Skydog.’ Sometimes I refer to it simply as The Slaver. Either way, the name slips off the tongue as the most natural thing in the world. I felt the same way when I used to drink at Pizza Burning. I didn’t wonder why it was called Pizza Burning. In the end, I found out but pub names are pub names. They have always been somewhat removed from sensible everyday language. The Bull and Spectacles, The Cat and Custard Pot, The Swan with Two Necks. You can get away with any mad name. I noticed the other day there’s a pub called The Job Centre.

I wouldn’t want you to think of me as an alcoholic. But Murphy is an Irish Setter. He needs a lot of walks and walking Murphy is thirsty work. One of the disadvantages of going to pubs during the day though is that you are likely to be preyed on by the pub bore. Nigel Slough is the pub bore at Skydog. Regulars give him a wide berth.

Go on then, Nigel,’ I say. ‘I can see you are dying to tell me the story.’

When you listen to Brown Sugar, you probably think Mick Jagger is singing skydog slaver knows he’s doing alright,’ Nigel says.

I’d always heard it as scarred old slaver,’ I say. ‘But I could be wrong.’

It’s what’s known as a mondegreen,’ Nigel says.

Is that right?’ I say.

No. It’s not right. That’s the point,’ Nigel says. ‘But in America, Mick now sings skydog slaver in that verse to humour those who think it ought to be skydog slaver. Anyway, that’s the reference. That’s how this pub was named. I just thought you’d like to know.’

Uh uh,’ I say.

Pointing out that I recently discovered Pizza Burning is a misnomer of Beast of Burden would only prolong the conversation.

Scuse me while I kiss this guy is another mondegreen,’ Nigel says, undeterred.

I can tell he has an encyclopaedia of misheard lyrics at the ready but Murphy has finished his bowl of Guinness and is anxious to leave.

Back in the car, I put on my Major Lance compilation CD. Major was his real name, by the way, not a title. He is still a big hit on the Northern Soul scene. While, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um is playing, it occurs to me that Nigel is probably the way he is because he is lonely. If he had a partner he would, in all likelihood, be completely different. He is not altogether unpresentable. He wears bold-checked shirts with dark chinos and is only a little overweight. A few sessions at the gym would sort this out. He might be the wrong side of forty but if he didn’t wear those old-fashioned aviator spectacles and had a more stylish haircut, he would probably brush up quite well.

If Nigel had a partner, of course, he would be able to share all his factoids with her and not save them up for unsuspecting tipplers at Skydog. But I feel I should be a little sympathetic. Perhaps we all have a tendency to hold forth on things that interest us. I’m sure that on occasions, I have bored people silly waxing lyrical about Northern Soul. After all, it appears not everyone is interested in the history of the Prestatyn Weekender or which Little Anthony and the Imperials B-sides are popular. And most people have never heard of Archie Bell and the Drells.

I recall Stacey telling me recently that her friend, Lottie was lonely. She had just broken up with her partner, Nick. They had been together for fifteen years. Nick ran off with Tina from the tanning shop.

Perhaps we could invite Nigel and Lottie round for dinner,’ I say to Stacey. ‘They are both at a loose end. You never know, they might hit it off.’

That’s not like you, Roger,’ Stacey says. You don’t normally show much concern for other people’s welfare. Are you sure you’re feeling alright?’

I just thought it would be a nice gesture.’ I say. ‘Everyone needs somebody.’

Well, Lottie did seem a bit down in the dumps when I saw her at yoga. She could do with a bit of TLC. What’s he like, this Nigel?’

Considerate. Witty. Knowledgeable. On the whole, I would say he’s pretty entertaining. All the guys at The Slaver like him.’

It’s just that I thought I remembered you saying he was a bit of a bore.’

No. You’re thinking of Trevor. Trevor is really tiresome. Trevor just goes on and on about nothing.’

Stacey invites Lottie around for Friday evening. I’m not sure she has mentioned that Nigel is coming but she says she has. In the meantime, I manage to drop a couple of hints to Nigel about the dress code for the occasion and mention in passing that perhaps his hair could do with a trim. I also suggest he limits his pop-culture references as Stacey is a little old-fashioned. Time being of the essence, I decide we will have to accept the aviator specs for now.

2:

This asparagus and Parma ham bruschetta is lovely, Stacey,’ Nigel says. ‘Did you know that bruschetta dates from the time of the Roman Empire? Olive growers used to bring their olives to a local press to taste their freshly pressed oil using a slice of bread. Roman cuisine was more sophisticated then people realise. They included olives in entrées and dressed their salads with oil of the highest quality. It was also the basis of their sauces and they used it in different kinds of dough or pasta.’

I’m wondering if, having taken aboard my hint about avoiding pop-culture references, he is overcompensating with historical references.

Speaking of oil,’ Lottie interrupts. ‘Have you seen the film, Bohemian Rhapsody, Nigel? What made me think of it is that line, I sometimes wish I’d never been boiled in oil.’

I get you,’ Nigel says. ‘Good one, Lottie. You mean the misheard lyric for, I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.’

That’s right,’ Lottie says. ‘Did you know that’s what’s known as a mondegreen?’

Little darlin’, I feel the acid’s slowly melting,’ Nigel says

Happy as a rafter in the market place,’ Lottie says.

The ants are my friends, they’re blowing in the wind,’ Nigel says.

Sweet dreams are made of cheese,’ Lottie says. ‘Who am I to diss a brie?

I always heard are you going to Scarborough Fair as are you going to starve an old friend,’ Stacey says, not wishing to be left out.

What have I started here? I try changing the subject to Northern Soul but to no avail. Nigel and Lottie have their own agenda. They move on seamlessly to not many people know that trivia. I feel left out. Not even my story about the police raid at the Edwin Starr concert at Wigan Casino sparks interest.

On the plus side, Stacey seems happy. She feels her dinner party is going well. Even the slightly overdone steak and parmesan involtini does nothing to dampen her spirits. Nigel and Lottie are so enamoured with each other they would not have noticed if it had been served cold. They probably would not have minded if Stacey had dished up cabbage pie with broccoli. At the end of the evening, they go off together arm in arm.

3:

Each time I pop into Skydog with Murphy for a refresher now, I cannot help but notice that Nigel is not there. He seems to have stopped coming in altogether. Lottie must have him on a tight rein. I had not noticed it before but without Nigel, I have no-one here to talk to. None of the regulars seem to be interested in Northern Soul. If I didn’t know better, I would say they were going out of their way to avoid me. Barry no longer offers me racing tips and Gary no longer offers to share his porky scratchings with Murphy. And Dave, the landlord has started charging me full price for Murphy’s bowl of Guinness when I know he gets it from the dregs. I think I may have to start drinking at The Dalek in Pain. Dalek in Pain? I wonder how they arrived at that name. Perhaps, like Skydog Slaver and Pizza Burning, it’s another misheard lyric from a Rolling Stones song.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

The Early Worm Catches The Bird

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The Early Worm Catches The Bird by Chris Green

You’re telling me you found it in the car park and you thought you’d just plug it into your workstation,’ says Frank Flint. ‘It’s a fucking data stick. What did you suppose it might be doing lying there in the car park of a high-security organisation like this?’

I had an idea that this was coming. Sir Frank Flint, MBE does not call you into his office for a chat about the weather.

You’ve heard of Stuxnet, right?’ he continues.

I haven’t,’ I tell him. Should I ask him if it is an internet service provider? Perhaps not.

The CIA or Israeli Intelligence left random memory sticks with logos in Iranian script printed on them outside their nuclear compound at Parachin. One of the operatives working on the Uranium Enrichment Programme there apparently expressed the same kind of curiosity that you have shown. He picked one of them up and plugged it in.’

I’m tempted to ask whose side we are supposed to be on at this point, but I don’t.

The Stuxnet worm that was on the data stick got to work on the programmable logic controller,’ he continues. ‘And destroyed a large chunk of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. The rootkit the stick contained rendered it undetectable to Windows.’

I’m not sure whether it’s in my best interests to express admiration. Surprise or shock horror might be better.

So why do you think that our network might have suddenly crashed?’ he says.

Stuxnet?’ I ask.

No it is not fucking Stuxnet. If it were Stuxnet, we might be able to do something about it. We don’t know yet what it is, but Mr Kusnetsov is coming in later to help us find out. Tech support tell me with some degree of certainty that whatever it is originated on this stick.’

I know exactly what’s coming. Sir Frank just wants to humiliate me a little more first. In fact, were the positions reversed, I would probably do the same.

Summarily dismissed, I gather up a few belongings from my desk and make my way home. Over the next couple of hours, as I listen to the news on the car radio, similar glitches are reported at telecoms firms and at a government base. There are it seems a number of people losing their jobs because they were curious about flash drives they found in works canteens, car parks or railway carriages.

Maria may view it a little differently, but I am not bothered by the prospect of having time on my hands. I am not one of these career-minded people who are always looking for new openings, which is probably just as well as my CV will have been dealt a blow by my dismissal. I can use the time to brush up my saxophone playing while Maria is at work. She does not like me running through my Charlie Parker tutorial in the evenings. But for me, Bird is the greatest.

Maria is not overjoyed by the news of my dismissal but she says it will give me the chance to do the jobs around the house that I’ve been promising to do, like clear out the attic and mend the garden fence. In no time at all, she has written a list. I didn’t realise so many things were broken and nearly everything we have needs repainting. There are curtain rails to be fixed, light fittings that need replacing, paving slabs that need laying, the old harmonium needs to go to the tip and the dead cat needs burying. The conservatory too features quite heavily. It’s a wonder that it’s still standing. Perhaps Maria is over-reacting. I can always tell when she has the hump though because she slinks off to the art room and puts her Sparklehorse CD on. It calms her down, she says.

Next morning, after Maria has gone off to work, I bury the cat at the bottom of the garden. This is probably the most urgent task on the list. The rest can wait until later. Then, I watch the news while I assemble and polish my instrument. It is a Selmer Prelude alto, which while it is not a professional sax, does give a lovely rich sound. The celebrity newsreader who has just married the celebrity chef makes reference briefly to yesterday’s computer glitches but quickly moves back to their main story, the child abuse scandal that is rocking the political world. I turn it off and get started on the intro to Cool Blues. This is one of my favourite of Bird’s tunes and I am anxious to get the embouchure right.

After several attempts, I feel that I have got the feel of the first few bars, perhaps not with the panache of the master, but the tune is recognisable. I make myself a cup of tea. After lunch, I move some furniture around, line up some cans of paint in the spare room and hide the harmonium behind some dust sheets in the shed. I am then able to make some progress on the solo of Bird of Paradise before Maria gets home. Maria is pleased with my day’s work. After dinner, she lights the scented candles in the bedroom. I make a mental note to go on to the Agent Provocateur website.

The following day I manage to get the first wall of the spare room painted. There is no sense in hurrying these things. I then have time for a good run through of Night in Tunisia. It is quite a complex tune, one that is going to take a lot of practice. I’ve read that Bird used to practice up to fifteen hours a day, not on this one tune of course. I turn next to Lover Man. The slow tempo of this makes its fingering easier to master. It sounds good.

I would have liked to have lived in the 1950s, with the slower pace of life. Things must have been much simpler before digital technology took over our lives. There were no needy netbooks and tablets and no attention-seeking smartphones. People talked to each other, face to face. You probably even had proper friends and not just Facebook friends. You would not have had to press 1, 2, 3,4 and 5 on your keypads every time you made a phonecall and then be put be on hold listening to Orinocco Flow over and over again for twenty minutes before you were put through to the wrong department. Or be called day and night by robotic machines wanting to handle your mis-sold insurance claim.

Most of all, though, in the 1950s everyone would have listened to jazz. Swing, Bebop, Hard bop, cool jazz, modal jazz, there was a type to suit every mood. Even on the estate where I grew up, they would have been listening to Duke Ellington or Miles Davis, Chet Baker or Stan Getz. You would have gone down to the Palais on a Saturday night and danced to a jazz band. You would have met your partner there. The music was special which is why it is so enduring.

I am just putting the instrument away when I hear Maria’s car pull up. I quickly open the paper at the jobs pages. Maria storms in. She appears to be a little flustered.

The roads are gridlocked,’ she says, throwing her heavy bag down. ‘And those traffic lights at the Longditch roundabout were completely crazy.’

They are always bad there,’ I say, giving her a hug. ‘Its a wonder there aren’t more accidents.’

They were going off and on like a strobe light,’ she says, pushing me away. ‘There was just this endless chorus of car horns and drivers getting out of their cars and shouting at other drivers. I was there for ten minutes, too frightened to move.’

Probably water has got into the works or something,’ I say.

She breezes through to the kitchen. There is a clatter of dishes and I hear the microwave go on.

You could be doing this,’ she calls through to me.

I’ll do dinner tomorrow,’ I say.

And, when I was in the hairdressers,’ she says, her voice raised above the rumble of the microwave. ‘Louise was saying that the bloody trains have stopped running, something to do with signalling failure.’

There’s always something, isn’t there?’ I say. ‘I expect they will sort it out.’

She huffs loudly and goes on upstairs to change. She puts her head around the door of the spare room. She doesn’t comment on my progress. I see little prospect of a scented candle after dinner tonight.

It is 10 am and I am in the middle of Bye Bye Blackbird when the phone rings. At first, I leave it, but it carries on ringing. On the basis it might be important, I answer it, the saxophone still around my neck.

Hello. I’m Brice Cromer from the Gazette,’ says the voice. ‘Am I speaking to Brendan Rogue?’

Yes, you are,’ I say. Instantly I have reservations about acknowledging my identity, but what’s done is done. I swing the instrument behind my back.

And until two days ago you were working for the security organisation who don’t like to be named,’ he says. I imagine he thinks the description is humorous. The joke, however, is a little stale.

What is this about?’ I say in as challenging a manner as a mellow musician can muster.

It’s being reported that you are responsible for their little computer problem,’ Brice says.

He is referring to the data stick episode. How would he have got hold of the information and connected it back to me? It seems unlikely that any of my colleagues would have offered it voluntarily. They are a tight-lipped bunch and everyone as straight as a die. I can’t imagine how I got the job there in the first place with my record. They must have had a work experience student working in HR that day. I put the phone down. In case Brice calls again, I leave the receiver off.

I can’t concentrate on Bye Bye Blackbird any longer. I need a quiet place to think. I get the roller and brushes and resume painting the spare room. I seem to have a talent for digging myself into a hole. Ever since I was a boy I have landed myself in trouble by doing a succession of remarkably injudicious things while at the same time drawing attention to them. The expression hiding in the light comes to mind, not a great idea. Why did I get thrown out of school for smoking dope when none of my contemporaries did? How did I get into stealing cars before I was old enough to drive? Why did I always get arrested on protest marches? Did I even know what I was protesting about back then? Was it the need to be noticed? Perhaps I would never change. Perhaps I was born for trouble.

Before I know it, I have finished two more walls in blue planet. I am going to use Tibetan gold as an accent colour on the fourth wall, a combination I have seen on a design programme on television. I am planning now on finishing the room today. When Maria comes home she will be impressed by my achievement. After dinner, she might even light the scented candles again.

Maria arrives home unexpectedly at lunchtime. Is she checking on me, I wonder? Have I broken my word so many times that she feels she needs to monitor my progress? She clumps up the stairs. She has not even taken her boots off. Something is amiss.

Why are all those reporters outside?’ she demands.

W’what!’ I splutter. I had not imagined that this would happen so soon.

I go to the master bedroom to take a look. There are about a dozen of them on the driveway, big burly bastards with microphones and notebooks at the ready. There is also a TV camera crew, jostling for position. Perhaps I was too preoccupied with my musings to have heard the disturbance. But how could I have possibly missed them? Admittedly, getting the bell to work is one of the jobs on Maria’s list that I’ve not got round to yet, but, surely one of the hacks would have worked out that the bell wasn’t working and hammered on the door. Perhaps I was away with the fairies.

To my surprise, Maria agrees to go to the front door and keep the press busy while I dart out the back. She cannot know what I am up to. Can she? I grab my canvas messenger bag and make a run for it. Fortunately, my Jeep is parked in the back lane. I hadn’t planned it this way, but now time is probably short. I check my texts. ‘Guinness tastes better in the afternoon,’ says the one I am looking for. It is time to get started.

My next step is to find the locations where I am to deposit the rest of the flash drives. There are twenty-four in all to carry out the cyber attack, each bearing the deadly DuneWorm which regardless of platform will burrow into your system like an Alaskan mining drill. I have the map here showing the favoured targets. These I am told have been selected to cause maximum disruption. Others will be delivering the same message elsewhere round about now.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

Black Hats

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Black Hats by Chris Green

Promise and I are looking out onto a rocky outcrop in Es Calo de Sant Agustí in Formentera. We are sitting under a sun-bleached parasol outside a small café in the secluded bay. We are staying a hostal nearby. Beyond the pier, a handful of fishing boats rock gently in the shimmering sea. The afternoon sun is beating down on this modest paradise. We have not ventured far today. Most people here are having their siesta at this time of day. We had ours this morning, twice.

Formentera has been described as Ibiza’s shy little sister. For centuries it was adrift from the rest of the world, unknown and unvisited, a desert island made almost uninhabitable by pirate raids from the African coast. Accessible only by boat, it has submitted to tourism less than other Mediterranean islands. Pink Floyd pitched up here in the nineteen seventies but little else has happened since. Our sleepy resort seems especially tranquil. It is a small fishing village on the east of the island at the foot of La Mola mountain. It is built around a tiny pier where slipways carved into the rock slant to allow boats to be beached. It encourages indolence. You are already where you want to be. But we may take the bus to the hippy market at El Pilar de la Mola tomorrow. Promise thinks she might be able to buy some lapis lazuli earrings. It doesn’t look far on the map. I wonder if I might buy a hat. A Sevillano perhaps with a band or a black Cordobes.

We are the only people left at the café. Through the shutters of a window nearby, we can hear soft violin music playing. It has a melancholy air. Do violinists feel sad when they play like this or does playing sad music make them feel happy? The sun goes behind a cloud but only for a few seconds. It is the only cloud in the sky. As Promise and I sip our glasses of anis del toro, we watch a pair of feral cats scrapping over someone’s leftover escabeche, a few tables away. The singing waiter who seemed so convivial at lunchtime has not been around to clear the mess up. Might he be the source of the violin music?

I had a cat that liked listening to Vivaldi,’ I tell Promise. ‘His favourite was the Double Violin Concerto in D. RV511. He used to sit on the arm of the settee purring, his back arched confidently, his head tilted slightly upwards, a picture of contentment.’

Really?’ she smiles. ‘RV511, eh?’

I had to make several trips to the music library to build up my Vivaldi collection.’

You’re winding me up.’ she says.

She pushes my shoulder with both arms, nearly upending my blue metal chair.

No. I’m not. ……… You’re probably wondering what my cat was called. His name was Dave. He was black with a discrete patch of white under his chin. Forget T. S. Eliot! Dave is a proper name for a cat, don’t you think?’

Promise agrees Dave is a great name for a cat, much better than Skimbleshanks or Macavity, and definitely better than Shaun or Simon. Apparently, she knows people that have called their cats Shaun and Simon.

Another favourite of Dave’s was Largo from Winter from The Four Seasons. He would stretch out in front of the fire and roll over to have his tummy rubbed.’

A bit like you then. Except it’s not really your tummy you want rubbed, is it?’

Dave was not keen on jazz. If I played Charlie Mingus or Miles Davis, he slunk off to the kitchen. If I put on The Velvet Underground’s White Light White Heat, which I didn’t that often, he spat and snarled.’

I don’t blame him,’ said Promise. ‘I might spit and snarl if you put that on.’

When Tara was about sixteen, she played CDs by metal bands with names like Gutworm, and Fleshcrawl. Dave didn’t like that at all. He used to claw at the window trying to get out. Music clearly affected his mood. …… Dave disappeared last year. Just like that, one day there, the next gone. I was beside myself for weeks. He was like a member of the family.’

It seems remarkable I only met Promise a month ago. We hit it off straight away and despite both being married, began a clandestine liaison. We were perhaps less than discreet and it was not long before her husband, Craig began to suspect something was going on. He followed us on one of our assignations but rather than tackle us head-on, paid a visit to my wife, Chantelle. Without listening to whatever limp excuse I might try to come up with, Chantelle threw me out. The double-whammy was that Chantelle’s father, Trent Madison was my boss. He fired me. Craig meanwhile took to sulking in their spare room. Promise said she could not stand the atmosphere. He watched her every move and made sarcastic comments every time they met in the shared space. Out of spite he took the scissors to one of two of her dresses. She had to get away. We decided to escape to the quietest place we could find, take time out, and try to work out what we should do. After three days on Formentera, we still have no plan of action.

Formentera wasn’t our first choice but there were plenty of flights to Ibiza and Formentera was just a short boat ride away. Our cab from the airport, an old red Fiat that kept breaking down, took us through a patchwork of pine plantations and uncultivated scrub. The ten kilometres took over two hours. Javier kept us entertained with self-deprecating jokes and let us share his empanadas. As we approached the east of the island, we were treated to an array of brightly coloured shacks, with bohemians buzzing around on funky mopeds with didgeridoos on their back, evidence of Formentera’s hippy heritage.

It is late September. Despite the blistering heat, this is considered to be out of season. The locals tell us they expect the weather to break soon. We have not come across any Brits. The few tourists there seem to be German. The locals took us to be German at first, which is unusual. Mediterraneans have an uncanny knack of spotting where you are from before they hear you speak. I have dark skin, so it must be Promise’s blond hair and startlingly blue eyes that throws them. Although they might get Promise’s blond hair and startlingly black sunglasses most of the time. I am probably the only one who has seen her blue eyes lately.

I met Promise inauspiciously at ETB. She was having a new set of tyres fitted to her Tigra for its MOT, and my Toyota had just picked up a puncture. Our fascination for the AutoCar magazines on offer in the reception area was short-lived, which meant that my gaze met hers and vice versa and we struck up a conversation. The conversation began with camomile tea. Promise was disappointed that the drinks dispensing machine suppliers had overlooked its popularity. Camomile tea led on to a wider discussion of beverages and before we knew it we were at a wine bar sharing a bottle of red. The speed at which our relationship developed shocked us both. We were both touching forty, although I was touching it from the wrong side. For our first arranged date, we watched a Senegalese quintet play a lunchtime session at The Jazz Bass. See what they’ve done there, bass/base. I hadn’t until Promise pointed it out. Our second date was at Promise’s. Craig was away and I suppose that was where it really began. I stayed over and we took the next day off work and had lunch at Soups On and went to see a Spanish movie, El Hombre del Sombrero Negro, at the arts centre.

A German couple in their fifties wearing walking boots and crumpled fatigues place themselves at a nearby table. They take off their matching khaki rucksacks and place them on the table. With an exchange of grunts, they pass the remains of a two-litre bottle of water between them. The woman makes a facial gesture to suggest that the water is warm. They both turn and look towards the café, as if this might make someone appear. I try to tell them that probably no-one is going to serve them. They do not understand my English, or in fact my German, es gibt keine herum. Not a good translation, or perhaps not a good accent. I make appropriate gestures. They ignore the gestures. Perhaps they think I am crazy. The woman takes out an H and M cigarette pack and lights one. We return to our cultural divide. Out in the bay, an incoming boat sends a gentle ripple of water towards us. A clump of cirrus cloud is forming now in the northern sky. A black dog is playing in the surf. It does not appear to have an owner.

When I was little, I had a dog,’ says Promise. ‘You’re probably wondering what my dog was called.’

No,’ I say.

I know you are, really. He was called Murphy. Murphy’s a good name for a dog, don’t you think?’

Great name for a dog, Murphy. Better than Graham. I know someone who has a dog called Graham,’ I tell her.

Listen, will you? Murphy kept running away, so I bought a dog whistle.’

A Day in the Life by The Beatles is one of my favourite tunes,’ I say.

And I’m supposed to guess the connection,’ Promise says. ‘What’s that got to do with Murphy?’

I’m told that between the final crashing E major piano chord and the backwards tape loop, there is an ultra high-frequency sound that alarms dogs. ….. I tried it out on Dave but he is completely un-phased by it. He just carried on grooming himself, or sleeping, or whatever he was doing at the time.’

I suppose it’s all down to the frequency of the sound,’ Promise says.

I suppose so,’ I say. ‘Dave seemed to be most in tune with the sound of the fridge door opening. In D minor, I think.’

But what about Murphy? Don’t you care what happened to Murphy?’

I expect he kept coming back when you blew your dog whistle.’

We walk around the bay. It is now late afternoon. There are a few more clouds in the sky and a stiff breeze coming in off the sea. It will be dark around seven and we are looking for somewhere to have our evening meal. If we time it right we will catch the sunset. We pass two mature agave plants. They have magnificent flower stalks several metres high.

It is an agave Americana,’ I explain to Promise. ‘It’s sometimes called the century plant because of the time before it flowers. In actual fact, it is nearer to twenty years.’

Still, that is a long time to wait.’

It stores up enormous food reserves in its leaves, flowers, and then dies.’

That’s sad.’

In Mexico, they make a drink called pulque by cutting off the flower head and collecting the rising sap, as much as a thousand litres per plant! They distill pulque to make the spirit mescal.’

That’s like tequila, isn’t it?’ Promise says. ‘That’s deadly.’

Mescal’s more so. And it has a worm in the bottom of the bottle which you can eat.’

Yuk.’

Some say it’s an aphrodisiac.’

If you’re not sick first.’

And others claim it is a hallucinogen.’

But it’s just a marketing gimmick, right?’

Probably. Most people who are going to drink the stuff are macho lunatics, so why not take it to the max?’

We watch a pair of seagulls dive in and out of the water. Quickly the whole flock catch on that something worthwhile is happening below the surface and the air is alive with squeals.

Seagulls are very clever,’ I say. ‘They learn behaviours, remember them and even pass on behaviours, such as stamping their feet in a group to imitate rainfall and trick earthworms to come to the surface.’

Has anyone ever told you, you’re a bit like Google,’ Promise says. ‘You have an answer for everything.’

Thank you,’ I say.

I never said it was an attractive quality. You can be a know-all sometimes. I bet you were one of those nerds that were always top of your class that no-one wanted to play with.’

For the record, I was always near the bottom,’ I say. ‘And I had lots of friends.’

I had a dream last night that I was lost,’ Promise says, after we have finished our gazpacho manchego.

The remains of the sunset turns from red to indigo on the western horizon.

It is nighttime and you and I have gone for a drive and the car is not handling well. I’m not sure which of us is driving, but the car is going all over the road. There are tramlines and potholes, and barriers where there should not be. I think that it’s you and me in the car but I’m not sure as your identity keeps changing. One minute it is you and the next minute it is someone else. We are on the outskirts of town in a place that is half familiar but at the same time, it is not. The dream narrator says I have been there many times before. I recognise the places although they have changed, and try to bring to mind what they are called. There is no-one else about. It is as if there is actively no-one about, like an energy of there being no-one about. Like you can feel before an electronic storm. It is high up and I can see over a precipice where it is light. It is a yellow-orange light and it has sharp edges. Everything is cast into silhouette by the glow. I can hear the hum of distant traffic but it has a strange echo like you get in the cinema. The whole dream has this rumbly echo. I am scared.’

I see a break in her narrative and start to relate my recurring dream about the man with the black hat who wants to steal my fly-fishing rod.

Shut up for once and listen,’ she says. ‘Now you have gone off with the car and I am alone or I have gone off with the car or there was no car and I am walking around in a big old stone building that I do not know. I think I have been in the building before, but I don’t know now what it is. It has many floors and stairways that only go up one floor at a time and I am walking along a long dark corridor and a hollow voice says you should not be here. I have to get out of the building but I cannot as the stairs do not take me to the exit and I keep coming back to the same place and I’m frightened and when I do get out of the building I am even more lost and now there is a dark wood. The wind is whistling through the pines. Over here says a voice and then a man in a black hat grabs me from behind and ties me up and I am unable to move. I think I have been kidnapped. ……. And then I wake up. And you have your arm around me. What do you think it means?’

I don’t know baby,’ I say, wondering if I should get back to explaining my recurring dream. I decide against it.

We arrive back at the hostal. We have had quite a lot of wine and we lurch up the stairs and fall onto the bed. We left the windows open when we went out and the shutters are now rattling. It seems that the locals were right, the wind is getting up. A storm is brewing. Who would have thought this afternoon that the island’s weather could change so quickly?

We lie on the bed, silent for a while, listening to the wind.

What do you want?’ Promise shrieks, suddenly. ‘We have to behave like grownups sometimes, you know. Everyone wants something from someone. What do you want from me?’

This has come out of the blue. I am taken aback. I think about a reply, but I’m not sure where to pitch it. I want love, affection, approval, understanding, and lots of sex. I’m not sure this is the appropriate answer. By the time I have composed a suitable reply, she has passed out.

I lie there for a while wondering what she might be trying to say. Is there something I have missed? She has been behaving strangely this evening. The lightness of our usual rapport has been absent. Do I not listen to anything, she said. You are completely self-obsessed, she said. Am I solipsistic? Are we all solipsistic? Am I so unused to emotion being expressed? Perhaps we have had too much to drink. The Fundador brandies after the meal were probably a bad move. Have I misjudged the intensity of our relationship? Could it be I have made a mistake investing so much faith in Promise? Should I maybe have stayed with Chantelle? Could I have stayed with Chantelle? Could we have made up? It crossed my mind I had probably been self-obsessed most of the time with Chantelle, constantly putting up a front or dismissing her suggestions to hide my insecurities. These thoughts go round and round in my head before finally, I fall asleep.

I wake at 5 a.m. with a head like a Birkenhead building site. Hard rain is pounding against the window. It is still dark. A rumble of thunder is followed a second or two later by a flash of lightning that lights up the room. Promise is no longer with me in bed. …… She is nowhere in the apartment. I open the window to the balcony. The driving rain forces me back. Why on earth would Promise have ventured out in this? It would be suicidal to go out in this. She must be somewhere in the building. I call out her name over and over but get no response.

Our hostal only has about eight rooms and most of these seem to be vacant, probably due to the early end to the summer season in Formentera. There are no night staff so I am unable to ask if anyone has seen Promise. I put on my parka and begin a search. It is still dark and the powerful rain makes it even more difficult to see but I manage to make round it to Punta Grossa where Promise sketched the rocks on the first day we were here. She could see faces in the rocks, she said and pointed some out. She told me how Salvador Dali used the figures he saw in the rocks at Cadaqués, when he was a boy, in his later paintings. Despite all logic, I call out her name in the hope that she might have come here. Even if she were here, she probably would not hear me. The waves crashing against the rocks sound like an avalanche. I am wondering already if I will ever see Promise again.

As I push against the wind, a succession of images of the past few weeks flash through my mind, snippets of our brief time together. The time we caught the wrong tube from Victoria late at night and ended up in Brixton. We got home just in time to see the sunrise. The time at The Black Hat Café when Promise knocked a bottle of wine over and it went all over the waiter. Somehow she managed to get us a free meal because a little of the wine had spilt on to her dress. The way she smiled when introduced to someone. The warmth of her skin, the touch of her fingertips. The way she flicked her hair back when she was excited and the way she bit her bottom lip when she was nervous. The time I remarked how organised she was, and she said ‘I write down tasks after I have done them so I can cross them off my list.’ All this gone.

A slither of daylight appears on the horizon, beneath the banks of black clouds. I carry on around the coast to Racó de s’Anfossol, where Promise and I sat on a bench looking out to sea. I took photos of the sunset. For a moment, I think I see the silhouette of a figure in a black hat and go over to investigate, but it is a rock sculpture. There are several others nearby. Balancing rocks on one another is a local pastime here.

By 8 o’clock, I have searched the bay area and I am absolutely drenched. The hostal reception is now open. Serafina who has just started says she has not seen the senora today but says she will ask the others later. What others, how much later, I enquire. Serafina is the only person we have seen behind the counter since we have been here.

She was talking with man in black hat two days time.’

Two days ago?’

Si, two days ago. You were in sleep, I think’

Black hat, you say?’ I think back to the phantom figure I saw earlier but dismiss the thought.

Senor, senora has iPhone? You could call her perhaps.’

Why hadn’t this been the first thing I thought of? Admittedly, there hadn’t been much of a signal on this end of the island. I phone her now. Through the open door, I can hear the opening bars of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly theme start up, so Promise has not taken her phone. For some reason, Promise has allocated me this ring-tone. What is it with black hats? Serafina goes through the motions of looking in the rooms that are unoccupied and knocks up the two gay Germans in the room across the corridor from ours. They don’t seem pleased to be disturbed. There is no sign of Promise.

All manner of possibilities raise their heads. I really do not know all that much about Promise’s history. Does she have any enemies? Who is the man in the black hat? Has she been kidnapped by hippies? Does she have suicidal tendencies? Or has she just walked out on me? Had I missed clues? Were there signs I should have spotted? If someone was planning a disappearance, they would be likely to go about it in a systematic way. The same applies to finding someone who has disappeared. Blind panic will get me nowhere. I need to be methodical.

I check the room. She appears to have taken nothing. Her money and passport are here. All her clothes so far as I can tell are all still here along with her floral tote bag. Her makeup, her toiletries, her jewellery are all still here. The only thing I cannot account for are her sunglasses. Why would she just take her sunglasses in the middle of a raging storm? I check her phone. It is a relatively new phone. She only has a few numbers on it. Craig trashed her old one – with extreme prejudice. Apart from the call from my number just now, there are no calls in or out from the last three days. Contacts contains several of her friends whose names I am familiar with but have not met, her doctor and dentist, Ticketmaster, and Donald Finch. Is that the Donald Finch, the Wizard of Weird?

There are just ten messages received and sent, all about a week ago. I note that all of my texts seem to have been deleted. There is an exchange of messages with her friend Cadence about the dialogue from Pulp Fiction. You know what they call a quarter pounder with cheese in Paris, Royale with cheese, etc. Is this some kind of secret code I wonder, before dismissing the idea. Promise talks about movies a lot. She used to teach Film Studies. I understand Cadence was her colleague at the technology college. Still very odd, though, not a very girly conversation. And, there is a message from Donald Finch which says cryptically, the man with no name wears the black hat.

All in all, I don’t have a lot to go on. Is it time to call in the police? Or would they just laugh at me saying something sarcastic like: ‘Dios mío, ella se ha ido por seis horas, es mejor que Interpol contacto.’ Although my Spanish is passable, it would be difficult to convey the gravity of the situation. How many British couples have a row after drinking too much in a Spanish bar and get separated? I’m not even sure there is a police station on the island.

When someone has gone missing, do you stay where you are hoping they return or do you go looking for them and risk missing them if they return? There are strong arguments for both. Clearly, if there are more than two parties involved, the remaining parties can make an arrangement and you can take both courses of action. But here there are not more parties, there is only me, and I am beginning to get a very bad feeling about everything concerning Promise’s disappearance. Easy explanations are out of the window. It is as if some occult force is at work.

It is 11 o’clock before I come to a decision. The storm has now blown over and the wind has died down. There is a calm and it is as if the storm never happened. Waiting here in the hope that Promise may return also as if nothing has happened is driving me nuts so I think I may as well go the hippy market in El Pilar de la Mola as we talked about. It is a longshot but I’ve nothing better. I discover that for some reason there is no bus to the market today and begin to walk. I have a map.

I am heading inland. It is mostly uphill through a wooded area. After a few hundred metres I run into Jesus with a guitar across his shoulders where the cross should be.

Buenos dias senor.’

Buenos.’

I show Jesus a photo of Promise that I have on my phone. It is a full face one, complete with sunglasses that I took yesterday. ‘¿Has visto a esta mujer?’

Probablemente ha sido llevado a S’Espalmador por los cultistas,’ he says.

Que?’

She has probably been taken to S’Espalmador by the cultists.’ he says, in English ‘Los Elegidos, The Chosen Ones.’

His delivery is so deadpan, it is hard to tell if he is joking.

Where?’ I ask.

S’Espalmador, it is an island to the north of Formentera. At low tide, you can wade across to it. es deshabitada tal vez.’

He lights a joint, takes a pull on it and offers it to me. I take it. Things can’t get much stranger, can they?

He sits down on a rock in a clearing and starts playing a tune. I’m not sure I know it at first then I recognise the line, don’t think twice it’s alright.

Perhaps she needed to get away from you to find herself. Did you think of that,’ Jesus says, when he has finished playing.

I hand him back the joint. I have not smoked dope since about 1941 and it may not have been so potent back then. My thoughts are racing like a chariot while time itself has come to a standstill. Everything around me is changing colour and dissolving into fractals. It takes me a while to respond to Jesus’s question, if indeed it was a question.

What?’ I say.

She may have thought you were robbing her of her spirit,’ he says and with this starts strumming again. This time, it is Cat Stevens’ Wild World. The same sort of theme really, goodbye and good luck with your new life. I thought I was Promise’s new life.

What is Jesus trying to do and why is he doing it? Does he know something about the situation that I don’t, or is he just playing with my head? I have the joint back now. The jangling guitar chords are echoing around my head, doing cartwheels and somersaults. It is as if a small orchestra is playing. After another toke, the landscape takes on the appearance of a blurred impressionist painting but at the same time, has sharp clear edges. I am transported back to a time before the big bang. What is this stuff we are smoking?

There is another tune coming from my pocket. I finally realise it is my phone from back in the twenty-first century. My heart stops. It will be Promise calling to let me know what has been happening. But it is not Promise, I see from the display. It is Chantelle. Calling from the old planet. What kind of conversation can I have with Chantelle over such distances?

I am talking to Chantelle but I have no idea what I am saying or what she is saying. I’m not even sure if it is friendly or unfriendly; I left these concepts behind on Earth. We talk about something or other for several minutes, but afterwards, I have no recollection of what it was. When we have finished talking, I am alone again. There is no sign of Jesus. He has vanished.

A trickle of holidaymakers in cars and on mopeds pass me on their way to the hippy market and some of them beep their horns or wave in a friendly manner. The sun is nearly overhead already. The chirping of cicadas reverberates in the still air. I remember reading that this is the mating call of the male and can be heard by the female a mile away. Ahead, in the distance, I can see colourful hints of a festive gathering, but as I move towards it, it seems to get further away. A bent old crone in widow’s weeds appears out of nowhere and approaches me. Up close, her skin is like leather and her wrinkles look as though they might have been furrowed by a shoemaker.

You’re looking for the girl, aren’t you?’ she says. ‘You’re looking for Promise.’

I wonder if I have unwittingly entered the twilight zone.

Have you seen her?’ I blurt out.

She’s no good, you know,’ the crone continues. ‘She’s trouble, that one. Sold her soul to the devil, she has.’

It is hard to see what connection there might be between this hysterical witch and Promise.

Do you know where she is?’ I ask, resisting the urge to grab her by the throat.

Harpy ignores my question and carries on with her tirade. I stride off purposefully to put distance between this nonsense and me. When I was very young I remember having nightmares about a hag like this. Night after night I would wake up in a sweat. I hear her ranting now until her chatter gets drowned out by the sound of music from beyond. The music is getting louder but I don’t seem to be getting any closer. They are playing Dark Side of the Moon. I recall that Dave loved Pink Floyd. I can picture him clearly, on the rug in front of the fire, purring contentedly when I put this on. I might not get the chance to mention Dave’s love of classic prog-rock to Promise. I seem to be going backwards in time and space. I may never reach the market in El Pilar de la Mola.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

The Schrödingers’ Cat

theschrodingerscat

The Schrödingers’ Cat by Chris Green

Each, evening, Mr and Mrs Schödinger liked to walk their salt and pepper schnauzer, Ernst along the Promenade. Mrs Schrödinger would take the opportunity to window-shop in the fashion boutiques while Mr Schrödinger used the time to fantasise about what he would like to do to Hermione Shakespeare in the office where he worked as a designer. Mr and Mrs Schrödinger had not lived in the seaside town in the west of England very long. They came over from their native Austria to follow their leisure interests, there being few opportunities for surfing or yachting in landlocked Linz.

Their evening constitutionals with Ernst took them past a new pet shop that had opened next to the holistic gifts boutique that Mrs Schrödinger liked. In amongst the mice and gerbils in the window of For Pets Sake, there was a picture of four kittens. Good homes were wanted for these said the advert.

I think we should have one,’ Mrs Schrödinger said. ‘Just look at them. Aren’t they adorable? And a cat would be company for Ernst while we are out on the boat. It would help to calm him down.’

Mr Schrödinger felt that Ernst was calm enough. A more placid schnauzer you couldn’t wish to find.

Some schnauzers can be quite vicious,’ he added. ‘George Pagan’s giant schnauzer, Bruiser would bite you as soon as look at you. But Ernst doesn’t even bark at the postman.

As always, Mrs Schrödinger was able to get her own way. The wrong side of forty she might be but she still had potent weapons in her carnal armoury. So long as Hermione Shakespeare remained no more than a twinkle in Mr Schrödinger’s eye, she would be able to retain her power over him. The mackerel tabby kitten duly arrived chez Schrödinger.

You have probably heard stories connecting the name, Schrödinger with cats, not all of these ending well. Perhaps no more than half of them ending well. Let’s dispel the notion that the new kitten will be subject to a thought experiment. This is not going to happen.

Mrs Schrödinger called the kitten, Lucy, even though it turned out to be a boy cat. Lucy quickly settled into a routine of annoying Ernst. There are so many ways in which a cat can wind a dog up and Lucy quickly mastered them. She even added some new ones. She chewed up Ernst’s soft toys, sat on his head when he was trying to sleep and went to toilet in his food bowl. Once or twice, she even managed to get a bark out of the laconic hound. Lucy was, of course, quickly neutered at Vets4Pets but this made little difference to her delinquency. There was no doubt about it, Lucy was a spirited cat.

She has the devil in her, that one,’ Aura, Mrs Schrödinger’s yoga teacher said. ‘Did you know, cats can see ghosts and angels and even demons?’

One evening, when Mr and Mrs Schrödinger were taking a trip around the bay in their boat, Lucy disappeared. When she had not returned by lunchtime the next day, they began to quiz the neighbours. Neither the Nancarrows next door or the Trescothicks across the street had seen her. Rosey Parker who knew everything that went on for miles around said she had heard nothing. Mr Singh who ran the convenience store on the corner seemed completely disinterested.

Your Lucy will be back in a day or two, Mrs Schrödinger,’ Penny Penhaligon in the hairdressers told her. ‘You mark my words. Cats like to go off to explore now and then. It’s in their nature. My Bruce is always going walkabout.’

You haven’t been here long, have you?’ Salty Jack at the Sailing Club said. ‘You’ll discover all kinds of strange things go on down here in Cornwall once you’ve been here a while. Cornwall is the home of mystery and magic.

The plea they stuck onto lampposts around the neighbourhood offering a handsome reward for Lucy’s safe return brought no response, except for a nimiety of bohemian-types collecting for new-age charities.

Mrs Schrödinger was beside herself. With the inevitable dropping off of her libido, Mr Schrödinger turned his attention once more to fantasies about Hermione Shakespeare and he even started going in to work early in the hope of wooing her. Meanwhile, without Lucy around, Ernst perked up considerably.

On the fifth or sixth evening, Mr and Mrs Schrödinger had just returned from walking Ernst when there was a hesitant knock at the door. An elderly stranger with a hangdog expression stood across the threshold.

I’m really sorry to have to call, like this,’ he said. ‘My name’s Breok. You may have seen me in passing. I live just down the road at number 55. I’m afraid I’ve found your cat at the bottom of my back garden. I looked at the collar and it had your address on it so here I am. I think the poor animal may have been attacked by a dog or a fox or something. Anyway, the cat was dead so I put it in a box. I don’t know what you want me to do with it. Perhaps you might want to bury it. If you do, I will bring the box round.

Distraught, Mr and Mrs Schrödinger identified the dead cat. It was unmistakably Lucy and Lucy unquestionably dead. Several days dead. Tears were shed, then silence prevailed, as a funereal atmosphere descended on the Schrödinger household. Even Ernst went into a protracted sulk.

The following morning, to their amazement, Lucy came bounding up the stairs. How could this be? The Schrödingers looked at one another, both waiting for the other to come up with an explanation. None was available. It was seemingly impossible. Yet, the cat meowing furiously to be fed was definitely Lucy. Exact same markings, same scratch under the left eye where Ernst had finally reacted to her constant agitation, the same Kittyrama collar with her name and address. There was no doubt about it, this was their cat.

Mrs Schrödinger was ecstatic and Mr Schrödinger was pleased as this meant their normal conjugals might be resumed. The previous day’s humiliation when Hermione Shakespeare had slapped his face could be put to the back of his mind. Ernst, of course, was crestfallen that the cat had returned.

Like its counterpart in the famous thought experiment, the Schrödingers’ cat appeared to be both dead and alive. Perhaps there would never be an explanation.

I said Lucy would be back,’ Penny Penhaligon said when Mrs Schrödinger called in for her weekly trim. ‘My Bruce always comes back with his tail between his legs.’

Why don’t we have a nice cup of tea and you can tell me all about it?’ Rosey Parker said.

I told you mysterious things happen here in Cornwall,’ Salty Jack said. ‘It’s considered the birthplace of myths and legends for good reason, you know. Theres magic in the air. The laws of cause and effect don’t apply here.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

No Elle

noelle

No Elle 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 suggests to me I had a fair bit to drink. I remember 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 daybed in the downstairs study. Elle 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 Elle, 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 Elle 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 around the door, leaving open the option of a boo type gesture, but there is no sign of her. The room is tidy. Her bed is made. It does not look as if it has been slept in. Thomas’s room, the same. Our bedroom, ditto. No Elle.

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, Elle 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 Elle 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 Elle 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, Elle’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 Elle 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 Elle 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 of which I have been completely unaware. This is what usually happens, isn’t it? Is it? I don’t know. It’s never happened before. Even after Elle 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 Elle’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 Elle 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 Elle’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 Elle 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 Elle 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 Elle 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 Elle’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 Elle’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 Elle 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, Elle going off with Thomas and Maddie.’

Lovely children aren’t they,’ he says. ‘And your 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 Elle’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 Elle 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 Elle 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 Elle’s phone to find out if there has been any news, but they do this less and less frequently as the months go by.

Elle’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. ‘Elle 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 Elle’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 Elle, but, equally, it does not suggest that it is not. One photo is of a younger looking Elle 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 Elle 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 Elle 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 Suzie. 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 plainclothes 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 Elle’s things she took to the tip last week.

Elle won’t need this,’ she kept saying.

Six carloads in all she took, including nearly all of Elle’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 forever. 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 Elle 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 Elle 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?’

Elle 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 Elle. 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 Elle 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 Elle 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, Elle, 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 2018: All rights reserved

GUN

 

gun2018

GUN by Chris Green

Gary Bilk works as a tyre technician in Camborne, an old mining town in Cornwall. Most evenings after work, he picks up his girlfriend, Suzi Foxx from outside HairCraft salon and takes her to The Cock Inn. They have a bite to eat, play pool, darts or dominoes and chat with the regulars about rugby. Most girls that Gary has known have found the pubs he likes to frequent a little unsophisticated. They have shown little interest in rugby, or darts, or dominoes for that matter. Because of this, his previous romances have never lasted long, but he has been seeing Suzi for several weeks.

Gary himself does not play much rugby these days. After all, he will be forty soon and rugby is a game for younger and fitter men. But, he likes to go and watch his team, Camborne RFC, especially when they are having a good run. They are currently having a bad run, due to the loss of their fly-half, John Scorer and their blind-side flanker, Trev Padstow. No one is sure what happened to the pair. They mysteriously disappeared halfway through the season. Camborne have only won one game since.

Having been thrown out of his accommodation over rent arrears, Gary is staying at his friend, Curnow’s, this despite Curnow supporting Camborne’s great rivals Redruth RFC. Suzi’s flatmate Tamsyn apparently does not like the idea of Gary staying over. The flat is too small for that kind of thing, she says. So, after their chilli con carne or chicken and chips and a pint or two of cloudy Cornish cyder at The Cock, once or twice a week, Gary and Suzi get their rocks off in his Mitsubishi Lancer. He has made it more comfortable with a duck feather duvet and pillows, a can of California car scent and a DVD player with cinema surround sound.

It is on one such occasion in the car park behind Tesco that a gun falls out of Suzi’s handbag. At first, Gary thinks it is her phone that has dropped down between the seats. Suzi often loses her phone. It is not until after they have finished their business in the back seat that he realises that it is a handgun. Handguns are quite unusual in Cornwall. Gary has never seen one before. This is the type he understands from the movies to be a semi-automatic pistol.

Fucking hell, Suzi!’ he says. ‘What’s going on?’

Oh. Don’t worry about that,’ Suzi says. ‘It’s …… only a toy. It’s a present for ….. my colleague, Hannah’s son, er, Vincent. He will be ten next week.’

Gary picks it up. It does not feel to him like a toy gun. It seems too heavy and has too much detail. He remarks on this.

They are very realistic these days, aren’t they?’ Suzi says, taking it from him and slipping it back in her bag. ‘But, I suppose that is the point.’

But…..,’ he begins.

Suzi does not let him finish. She is practised at the art of distraction. When it comes down to it, she finds Gary is the same as all other men she has been with. They might just as well have an on-off button.

While Suzi has not been in the habit of lying to him, the incident begins to sew the seeds of doubt in Gary’s mind. On the way home, after dropping Suzi off, he is unable to rid himself of the thought that it might have been a real pistol and that Suzi may be concealing something sinister from him. What does he really know about her? He knows she is twenty nine – or thereabouts. She has a fleur-de-lys tattoo on her thigh and she is a Gemini. She takes more of an interest in sport than most women do and even seems to understand the rules of rugby.

He knows nothing about her background. He has a vague recollection of her saying early on in their relationship that both her parents were dead although he cannot be sure. You don’t take in everything that someone says early on in a relationship because you are more concerned with getting your own biography across. He knows from her accent that she is not from Cornwall but he is not good at placing dialects and she has never offered any details of her origins. She appears to have no children and has never mentioned any brothers or sisters. On occasions, without being specific, she has alluded to former lovers and so far as he can tell, she is not without sexual experience. But for a woman of …… let’s say thirty three, Suzi Foxx comes without obvious baggage.

When Gary goes to pick Suzi up outside HairCraft the following day, she is not there. Normally she is outside waiting for him. He waits impatiently on the double-yellows just down the road but still she does not arrive. He decides to park the Lancer and go in to remind Suzi that he is here. Maybe one of her hair appointments arrived late or something. He might get the opportunity to check out Hannah at the same time and ask her about Vincent and his birthday. A gun does seem to be a strange kind of present in these days of drug gangs and terrorism.

I’m sorry but we don’t have anyone called Suzi working here,’ the alarmingly young receptionist says. ‘I’m Teegan. Can I help?’

Gary realises he has never actually been into the salon before. Suzi always had him wait outside. ‘Is Hannah here then?’ he asks, out of desperation.

We have no-one called Hannah here either,’ Teegan says. ‘You could try the PoundStretcher shop next door.’

Gary tries her phone. It is switched off. It is nearly half past six. He makes his way to The Cock Inn. He is not sure what the misunderstanding is, but doubtless Suzi will turn up there, full of apologies.

No Suzi, tonight then, Gary?’ Big Hank says. Hank is the one who arranges the monthly country and western nights at The Cock. Once a month he dresses like Roy Rogers and rides to the pub on his horse and tethers it up outside. You can’t be done for drink-driving with a horse, he says each time. The joke is now a little stale.

I expect Suzi will be in later,’ Gary says.

Like that, is it?’ Jago says. Jago is the dominoes champion at The Cock. He is possibly the only one who understands the scoring or perhaps he makes up the rules as he goes along. All that Gary knows is that he has never beaten him.

She’s trouble, that one,’ Hank says.

Better off without her if you ask me,’ Jago says.

No one’s asking you,’ Gary says.

The guys are right, Gary. I don’t think you can trust her,’ Bodmin Bob the barman says. ‘I saw her at Newquay Airport today. She was catching a flight. Düsseldorf, I think it was.’ Bodmin Bob has just returned from London, having done business there. While everyone agrees that Bodmin Bob is dodgy, no one is quite sure what his business is. Some think he is a fraudster while others think he is a drug dealer. There is even speculation he might be a people trafficker or a hit man. No-one can explain why he is working as a barman at The Cock.

Gary can’t remember Suzi mentioning any plans to go to Germany. While he has to admit he sometimes switches off when she is talking, especially if he is watching a game, he is almost sure he would have remembered something like that. While he still wants to think the best of Suzi, what with the gun and the hairdressers and now this, it is becoming increasingly difficult. He doesn’t want to lose face here in the bar though. Not in front of Big Hank and Jago. He would never live it down.

Ah, I’ve just remembered,’ he says, in a flash of inspiration. ‘Suzi’s sister Heidi lives in Düsseldorf. And it’s her son Vincent’s birthday tomorrow. He will be ten. I remember her buying the present for him.’

That’s nice,’ Hank says. ‘What did she buy him?’

He is about to say a gun, but catches himself. ‘A rugby shirt,’ he says instead. ‘A Phil Scrummer number 8 jersey.’

They play a lot of rugby in Düsseldorf, do they?’ Jago says.

She should have bought him a gun,’ Hank says. ‘Ten year old boys like guns.’

After leaving The Cock, Gary drives round to the address that Suzi has given him for her and Tamsyn’s flat. He knocks loudly. He is determined to find out what is going on and if he can’t get the information from Suzi, then he will be able to get it from Tamsyn. The burly wrestler type that answers the door is visibly unhappy at being disturbed by a drunken dolt, claims no knowledge of the pair and instructs Gary to leave forthwith before he punches his lights out. His girlfriend’s web of lies appears to be extending.

Over the next few days, Gary keeps a low profile. There is no word from Suzi Foxx and her phone stays switched off. He is disappointed, embarrassed and angry. He does not like being made a fool of. He keeps his distance from Curnow, and at work, he indignantly greets customers and changes their tyres with extreme prejudice. He steers clear of The Cock Inn. He doesn’t even go along to Big Hank’s Country and Western night. He gives Camborne RFC’s final home game of the season against Redruth, said to be the fiercest rivalry in rugby, a miss. He isn’t even aware of the mysterious disappearance of Camborne winger, Will Wilson, before the game. Missing Will’s dynamic runs, Camborne lose by a single point and as a result, face relegation.

Curnow has found that people in this neck of the woods usually have the courtesy to knock when they come round to visit. Equally, SWAT team raids are unusual in Cornwall. So, he is doubly shocked when early one morning such a team forces its way into his house using a battering ram.

Hands in the air!’ the officer with the Breaking Bad beard screams.

Where is she?’ the one wearing Men In Black sunglasses hollers.

Who?’ Curnow asks. This meets with a blow to the head from the one with the Die Hard facial scars.

What’s the fuck’s going on?’ Gary asks, emerging groggily from his room. This meets with a blow to the head from Samuel L. Jackson.

We’re looking for Clara Hess. That’s who,’ Jean Claude Van Damme yells. ‘Now! Where is she?’

Who? What?’ Curnow says. He appears to be adjusting to his new role of crime suspect quickly.

We know that she has been at this address, knucklehead,’ Breaking Bad beard shouts. ‘Keep your hands in the air.’

The other four begin to roam, methodically trashing the place, tipping over furniture, tossing Curnow’s belongings here and there, as if Clara Hess might be hiding behind the bookcase, in the closet, under the settee, in the fridge.

Why are you wrecking my flat?’ Curnow says. ‘We have never heard of the person you are looking for. Where did you get this information?’

Aha! We have your friend Robert Trescothick in custody, birdbrain, and he has been very helpful,’ Breaking Bad beard sneers.

Who?’ Gary says.

Robert Trescothick, asshole.’ BBB says. ‘You might know him better as Bodmin Bob,’

Gary does not see Bob as one to co-operate with the police but then you never know, do you? There’s not a great amount of subtlety with this bunch. And, of course, they may have caught Bob red-handed doing whatever it is that he does. But who is this Clara Hess, and where does she fit in? He reflects that it is safer if for the moment he pretends he does not know Bodmin Bob. This is a miscalculation. It earns him a hefty blow to the midriff from Die Hard, who has just returned to the fray.

Look here, smartass,’ he says. ‘You have two choices. Come down to the station and tell us what you know or come down to the station and we turn off the cameras and the tape and give you a good kicking.’

At this point, Gary wants to mention solicitors, but a fist in the windpipe prevents him. There is a sudden crackle on Breaking Bad beard’s radio, an unintelligible voice barks something through the static. Die Hard turns around. BBB hollers something in a cryptic language that probably only armed officers are able to understand. It seems to hail a change of plan. Without further explanation, the SWAT team vanishes.

Did all of that really happen?’ Curnow asks.

It certainly feels like it did,’ Gary says.

Must have got the wrong house, don’t you think?’ Curnow says.

Gary is not so sure. He does not mention it to Curnow but he has the growing feeling that Suzi Foxx and Clara Hess might be one and the same. He is not even sure any more about Curnow. When something like this happens you do not know what to think. To take himself off the radar, he decides to go to stay at a local bed and breakfast until it all blows over.

When later on he sees the headline in The Cornishman, CAMBORNE RUGBY STAR FOUND DEAD ON BODMIN MOOR he begins to suspect the SWAT team’s inept raid might have been in connection with this. The report says the body of Will Wilson is believed to have been lying in the undergrowth for several days before being discovered by a local man out walking his dog. …… Wilson is believed to have been shot several times by an automatic pistol ….. Police are combing the area …… They are also investigating whether there might be a connection with the disappearance of Camborne’s other two rugby stars earlier in the season. …. No trace of them was ever found …. Anyone who might have any information that might be of help in tracing the killer is being asked to contact ………

The next few days bring some startling disclosures. Two more bodies are found on Bodmin Moor, fitting the description of John Scorer and Trev Padstow, the two missing Camborne rugby stars. Bodmin Bob is released without charge. Curnow along with Clara Hess and several others whose names are not familiar face are arrested and face charges of murder or conspiracy to commit murder. It is all over the papers. At work, they are all talking about it. There is much speculation about the possible motive. Rumours are rife. A rival rugby team, Redruth or Launceston perhaps? The Devon Mafia? A European takeover? Everyone seems to have heard a whisper somewhere.

Gary does not know how to respond. In a way, he feels very close to it all. He might have seen this coming with Suzi Foxx or Clara Hess or whoever she was, but never in a million years would he have suspected his friend, Curnow would be involved. Curnow Trevanian, the skinny lad from Tolcarne, a gunman? Unthinkable. He has known Curnow since his school days. He cannot bring himself to look at the Cornishman report and especially not the pictures of them being taken into custody.

Hands up mister,’ says a small voice behind him, as he is leaving work.

Gary turns around to see a young lad pointing a gun at him, a semi-automatic pistol. The boy is laughing. Out of the corner of his eye, he catches a glimpse of Suzi Foxx wearing a summer print dress walking towards him.

Hello Gary,’ she says sheepishly. ‘Put that thing away, Vincent! …. It’s all right, Gary. It’s not a real gun, but they look so realistic these days, don’t they? …….. Hey! I’m sorry about all the trouble that I’ve caused you. I know I shouldn’t have lied about everything. The thing is I couldn’t tell you much before because ……… Well, if you’d like to come round to my new flat later, I’ll tell you then. ……. Oh, by the way, this is my son, Vincent.’

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Hunky Dory

hunkydory

Hunky Dory by Chris Green

Writers of self-help books are fond of telling you that life always offers you a second chance, it is called tomorrow. This is all very well. It’s something you can look forward to. But, what if you could have your second chance yesterday? This would mean that you still had the opportunity to avoid your untimely indiscretion, your unexpected misfortune, your sudden fall from grace. You might be inclined to think that such a proposition falls into the realms of science fiction. Time travel, you might say, is impossible. Ed West certainly thought so. This is until he found himself in a situation he was not able to explain. Déjà vu perhaps but here he was about to make the same mistake he had made previously, namely putting all his money on Jumping Jack Flash, a horse in the Grand National. A horse, destined to fall at the first fence.

This time around, despite Jumping Jack Flash being the firm favourite, Ed has second thoughts about the horse’s chances. Maybe he sees it limping a little as it makes its way down to the start. Perhaps something at the back of his mind tells him that the money might be better spent. He could pay back the money he owes to Frank Fargo and still buy a decent second-hand AppleMac. He could perhaps spend a week at Ron and Anne’s place in the Algarve. He could even take the kids. Did he inadvertently peek at a pop-psych article in the out-patients waiting room and realise that his gambling was causing problems and was something that needed to be addressed? Was there perhaps a write-up about impulsiveness in The Daily Lark? Whatever the reason for his decision, Ed puts the two and a half grand he is about to pass through the grill at BetterBet back into his jacket pocket and walks out of the shop.

Suzy Kew may have glanced at the odd self-help book in the hairdressers at one of her monthly Tuesday afternoon appointments but on the whole, she does not go for this sort of thing. Why would she need to? Friends often remark on her resilience, her unshakable air of self-confidence. She may have made the occasional bad decision. Everyone can be impulsive at times but if you make a mistake you have to live with the consequences of that mistake. This is an important lesson that it is a good idea to come to terms with early on in life. Whining about things never gets you anywhere.

Suzy has never to her recollection read a sci-fi novel. She may have gone to see a Star Trek film at the multiplex years ago with Toby or Tony or whatever he was called. But, if she did, she cannot remember much about it. The suggestion that she or anyone else might be able to go back in time is something she would instantly dismiss as nonsense. There is only one reality, she would say. There is a TV world of course but the things that happen in screened dramas have little to do with everyday reality.

Yet, Suzy finds herself driving the same Honda Jazz she wrote off the day before yesterday when she answered her phone while slowing down at the temporary traffic lights on Serendipity Street. She is in the same stretch of road behind the same truck that she ran into. The odometer reads 11111. She remembers noticing this shortly before the prang and the clock display says 11:11. The same as before. Once again, her phone rings. Although she is completely bewildered to find herself in the same situation, driving the car that by rights should be on its way to the breakers’ yard, she has the common sense this time around not to take the call. Instead, she parks the car a little way along the street. Conveniently, a space has just become vacant outside BetterBet.

She gets out and takes out her phone, just at the moment that Ed West, emerging from the bookies is taking out his. They collide.

Sorry,’ Ed says. ‘I wasn’t looking where I was going.’

My fault,’ Suzy says. ‘I had my head in my phone trying to find out who called me. Would you believe it? It was a wrong number, anyway.’

The same number as just before the accident, she can’t help but notice. The caller then had spoken in a language she did not understand.

You look a little flustered,’ Ed says. ‘Perhaps I might buy you a coffee or something in that café to settle you down’

That’s kind of you,’ Suzy says. ‘A camomile tea would be nice.’

Ed is not sure what camomile tea is but it sounds calming. Although he doesn’t like to publicly admit it, life can be a little too cut-throat at times. Perhaps Suzy will introduce him to a gentler world. Suzy meanwhile is thinking the same. She always puts a brave face on but secretly, the adversity of life often gets to her.

A notice inside the café tells them it has waitress service so they take a table by the window. A Bad Suns track is playing. Disappear Here.

I like this one,’ Ed says.

Bad Suns are my favourite band,’ Suzy says. ‘I went to see them last month.’

Disappear Here is followed by Catfish and the Bottlemen’s Fallout. They both like this one too. Ed tells Suzy, he saw them at Community Festival last summer.

Amazing! What about that? I was there too,’ Suzy says.

REM’s It’s the End of the World as We Know It meets with their approval too. They have both liked REM since their seminal album, Out of Time.

As they wait for someone to come and take their order, Ed and Suzy begin to discover more common ground. They were born in the same year, 1980. Uncannily, they were born on the same day too, February 29th. Both have recently become divorced from partners called Alex, even being represented by the same solicitor, Justin Case of Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed. Both have 2.4 children and own dogs called Bailey. Both follow the band, Franz Ferdinand and are fans of Fargo. Could it be a match, made in Heaven? Or might there already be a downturn in their fortunes? After all, things that seem too good to be true often are too good to be true.

Although the café is nearly empty, no-one comes over to take their order. An elderly couple in matching grey zip-up jackets and a jute shopping bag come in and sit at the next table and immediately a slim young waitress in a black uniform is at their table to attend to them. A tall man with a briefcase and a smart-looking laptop comes in and places himself at a table by the specials board. He too gets prompt attention. His fancy coffee with the chocolate sprinkled on top is in front of him before he’s had a chance to check his emails. Dr Petrovic comes through the door and for a moment looks as if he is going to come over. It can’t be him, Ed thinks. My little problem was all a long time ago. It isn’t him. It is a courier dropping off a parcel.

It is nearly lunchtime and a trickle of new customers come in and have the waitresses scurrying about. Meanwhile, no-one so much as glances in Ed and Suzy’s direction. Why are these people being served before them, they wonder? Why are they being ignored? Is it all part of an elaborate conspiracy? Or could it be something more forbidding? A fresh problem to frustrate their happenstance? They are able to see and hear each other and everyone else around them as you would expect but it appears that for some reason others are not able to see or hear them. They look around desperately in the hope that something will occur to suddenly solve the riddle. Nothing does.

Possible explanations for the anomaly, it seems, might depend on whether you get your science lowdown from Stephen Hawking or from Black Mirror. Perhaps it is a question of quantum mechanics. Perhaps the space-time continuum has been breached. Perhaps they have been thrown into another dimension. Something to do with wavelengths or superstrings. Or, perhaps there is a quirkier explanation. Something out of Kurt Vonnegut or J.G. Ballard, one might feel inclined to suggest. With their reality falling apart and nothing firm to hang on to, Ed and Suzy feel a sense of panic.

Someone called me on my phone just now, didn’t they?’ Suzy says. This means……’

You said it was a wrong number,’ Ed says.

That does not matter,’ Suzy says. ‘It’s important not to lose focus. It shows there must still be a connection with ….. what would you call it? The real world?’

Normality, you mean,’ Ed says.

On the other hand, the caller on that number did sound like he was from another place,’ Suzy says.

Like the queer voice that told me not to bet on that horse, Ed is thinking.

Well Suzy,’ he says, taking out his phone. ‘We have to try something. I’ll give my friend, Pete Free a ring.’

It is not Pete that answers. Pete is from Chudleigh. He has a broad Devon accent. This is not a Devon accent by any stretch of the imagination. Ed does not speak a lot of Russian but years ago he had some Russian neighbours and picked up the odd swear word. From this, he recognises that the guttural voice on the other end is not pleased at being disturbed.

Suzy phones her friend, Kirsty and is greeted by an unexpected voicemail message. This too sounds like it might be a Slavic tongue. They get responses in Russian too from Vince, from Carol and even from Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed.

Russia’s cyber-warfare activities are well documented. There is widespread speculation that Russian signals intelligence have targetted vulnerable websites to influence democratic elections, breached sophisticated banking security systems and enabled fraudulent transactions across the globe. They have also probably interfered with personal information on social media sites for as yet undiscovered purposes. We might find out what these are one day or we might not. But are there any limits to how far these attacks can infiltrate our lives? According to the papers, the Russians are to blame for most things these days, the Brexit vote, the hike in gas prices, the bugs on the new iPhone, the recent snowstorms and for Arsenal slipping down the table. Could their influence in cyberspace possibly spill over into our everyday reality?

I know that they can hack into Facebook accounts and emails and all that,’ Suzy says. ‘But surely they can’t manipulate our day to day experiences like this.’

They’ve been watching us through the cameras in our devices for years,’ Ed says. ‘Who knows what is possible?’

I guess that’s so,’ Suzy says. ‘Things are moving on all the time.’

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the people around us are speaking Russian too,’ Ed says. ‘I’ve only just noticed it.’

You’re right. And look! The logo on the waitress’s uniform says Chekhov’s,’ Suzy says. ‘I’m sure that’s different from when we arrived. Wasn’t the café called Bean Me Up or something like that?’

Things seem to be changing before our eyes,’ Ed says.

Let’s get out of here,’ Suzy says.

Back on the street, Ed and Suzy find things have changed dramatically. BetterBet is now a bicycle repair shop. Next door to it is a waxworks museum. Tesco Metro is now a funeral parlour. Suzy’s car has vanished. There are now no cars on the street. It is unrecognisable. And why are all those soldiers here? What is it they are firing at? What has happened to bring about this madness? Things have spiralled out of control. The situation, they realise, is now grave. How can there be any way back from here? Ed and Suzy worry about what might now happen to the 4.8 children and the Baileys. Luckily, up ahead, they spot the illuminated sign of a new self-help bookshop. It is called Hunky Dory. It has a large double shopfront. It looks as though it might have a good selection.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

DreamCatcher

dreamcatcher2018

DreamCatcher by Chris Green

Matt and Miranda make their way home after a bracing walk by the sea. They are striding out along Roald Dahl Avenue, one of a cluster of roads that are referred to simply as the mystery writers’ estate. All the roads here are named after masters of suspense. Although the morning mist is lifting, the features of the landscape still lack daytime definition.

‘I keep hearing footsteps behind me,’ Matt says. ‘But, when I turn around, there is no-one there.’

Miranda doesn’t respond. Her thoughts seem to be elsewhere. Maybe she has a new tune going round in her head. She and her friends, Harmony and Electra are writing a song cycle for an amateur production at the local theatre. Naturally, Matt tries to be as encouraging as he can but if you were to ask him he might say, ‘don’t expect the show to be opening anytime soon.’

Matt and Miranda are empty-nesters. Their son Ben has recently moved out. Ben is a mobile app developer, a bit of a whizz kid. On the back of the success of an app he designed that records dreams, he has gone out to California to work. But, instead of taking the opportunity to branch out, Matt and Miranda have stayed set in their ways. At least as far as their exercise patterns are concerned. They both belong to the same gym which they never use and most days do the same walk, whether alone or together.

‘Listen!’ Matt says. ‘Can’t you hear the footsteps?’

‘It’s probably just the wind blowing something about, in the derelict hotel site, Matt,’ she says. She is referring to the remains of the Black Rose Hotel, which was almost destroyed by fire last year. The site is fenced off while the insurance investigation is in progress.

‘It’s not that kind of noise,’ Matt says. ‘It’s a rhythmic left foot, right foot leather-soled shoes hitting the pavement kind of noise. It has an echo. Surely, you must be able to hear it.’

‘No, Matt, I can’t hear it,’ Miranda says. ‘You’re imagining things.’

‘I heard the same footsteps yesterday too,’ Matt says, this time with a little more emphasis. ‘On this same stretch of road. When I picked up my pace, the footsteps behind me picked up their pace too, to match my step. When I turned around to look, I heard the phantom feet shuffle as they came to a halt. There was no-one there.’

‘Next, you’ll be telling me you can hear a military band in the distance playing a haunting tune,’ Miranda says. ‘Or that there’s a lion on the loose in Parsons Park.’ Matt has noticed that Miranda is becoming more dismissive of his observations lately. He finds her cutting remarks hurtful. He doesn’t publicly acknowledge the possibility but he feels they might be drifting apart. Miranda seems to be in her own little world. All this amateur dramatics, mixing with people with names like Caramel and Sahara, Gunner and Caspian. But you can’t tell her. She knows best.

They take a detour along New Road. Perhaps it is a shortcut or maybe it’s just a way to stretch the legs but they always seem to go this way. Matt can no longer hear the footsteps. He begins to wonder if perhaps Miranda is right. Perhaps being followed is all in his imagination. Things have been pretty fraught lately, what with the closure of the kaleidoscope repair shop and the fridge magnet advisory centre. His business empire has definitely taken a tumble and now there is uncertainty over the future of the inanimate pet counselling service. These trials and tribulations are bound to have an effect on one’s state of mind. When things are out of kilter, it is easy to imagine things that aren’t there. He needs to take another look at the mindfulness book Miranda bought him as a stocking filler last Christmas.

But, as they turn into Daphne Du Maurier Way, to his dismay, the footsteps start up again. Heavy regular trudging footsteps, keeping pace with his own. Once more, he is unnerved. Once more, he stops and turns around. Miranda grabs him by the arm.

‘Will you stop doing that!’ she says. ‘You’re freaking me out.’

‘But there is something very odd going on, Miranda’ he says. ‘Don’t you ever get the feeling that there’s a secret invisible world just out of reach?’

‘You’re not going to start on that parallel worlds nonsense again, are you, Matt?’ Miranda says. ‘It’s bad enough that we had to buy a house in Stephen King Drive. I really liked that nice semi on the Rogers and Hammerstein estate. Or I could have settled on the one we looked at in Noel Coward Mews, next door to Archimedes and Thredony. It would have been within walking distance to the Lyric Theatre. Anyway, look! Once and for all, there’s nobody following you.’

With this, Miranda strides on ahead. Matt is left looking back at a long empty street. When, a second or so later, he turns back around, he is also looking at a long empty street. Miranda is nowhere to be seen. She has vanished into thin air. There is nowhere she could have secreted herself in so short a time. Yet she is not there. Matt reminds himself this is not a scene from Star Trek. Nor is it a cheap magic trick by a flashy illusionist at the Lyric. A living breathing five foot six woman wearing brightly coloured clothes has disappeared in the open and in broad daylight from a quiet suburban street in a coastal town in England. What manner of sorcery can have brought this about?

Matt’s experience of reporting matters to the police is not a good one. They don’t seem to be willing to deal with anything unusual. When he went in a couple of months ago to report the abduction of Major Churchill’s pet rock, Britannia, they were downright rude. Sergeant Tesco suggested he might try the psychiatric ward at the hospital. He can’t have been familiar with the field of inanimate pet care. Nor does Matt believe Sergeant Tesco was aware that Major Churchill is an influential figure in these parts and could easily bring pressure to bear.

Clearly, he will need to look elsewhere if he is going to find out what has happened to Miranda. But where exactly? It’s a job for a supernatural agency. He wonders if Aunt Julie’s old friend, Lucy Gaia might be able to help. Lucy can commune with spirits, talk with the dead and all sorts. She will surely have suggestions about what might be going on. Matt hasn’t seen Lucy in a few years but he believes her to be a creature of habit. He is sure he will still be able to find her mixing up some magic potion at Pennyroyal Cottage on the edge of the woods.

He discovers to his horror that according to a roaming woodsman, who introduces himself as Pete Free, Lucy has recently been eaten by a bear. Last Tuesday, Pete Free was returning from a mushroom collecting expedition in the woods when he spotted the large brown bear finishing the last bits of Lucy off. Brown bears, Pete tells him, have notoriously large appetites. This particular brown bear had been around the woods for a while.

‘I didn’t realise there were bears around these parts,’ Matt says.

‘There are bears everywhere,’ Pete says. ‘Specially in these ‘ere woods.’

‘Or that they were carnivores,’ Matt says.

‘Bears will eat anything if they are hungry,’ Pete says. ‘Anything at all. Even tough old harpies like your Lucy. And as I’ve told you, brown bears seem to always be hungry.’

‘Poor Lucy,’ Matt says. ‘Do you know what? This isn’t turning out to be a very good day.’

‘So, what shall we do about it?’ Pete says. ‘Do you want to go to the pub?’

‘Why not!’ Matt says. Sometimes a bevvy can be the best course of action when everything seems to be a blur. ‘I’ll get the car.’

On the way to The White Rabbit, he tells Pete Free about Miranda’s disappearance. Pete suggests that there are many ways to skin a cat. Matt wonders what skinning a cat has to do with it.

Matt has not been to The White Rabbit before. It is on the outskirts of the old town five miles away. He seldom ventures out this way. The first thing that strikes him when he walks in is the huge nineteen sixties jukebox. The second is that it is stocked with the best of sixties rock and the landlord likes it loud. While they are waiting to get his attention at the bar, Jumping Jack Flash is followed by Voodoo Child. And the bass on Get Back is like a rocket taking off.

Another thing he can’t help noticing is the room’s shifting sense of proportion. It’s as if the walls are breathing. Even before the first Special Brew, Matt wonders what it is about the lighting that causes those impossibly long shadows or why the mural of the lunar landscape on the far wall doesn’t stay in one place. And where is the fog coming from? His sense of disorientation isn’t helped by Pete Free trying, for no apparent reason, to explain the subtext of the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter. As he casts his glance around the bar, he feels seasick. It feels as if his head is doing somersaults. By now he has all but forgotten about the cat and the skinning and the hungry bear and Sergeant Tesco and it’s as if Miranda was someone from a previous life.

At some point in the explanation, Pete too vanishes. One moment Pete is beside him talking about cabbages and kings and the next he is not. He is nowhere to be seen. Did Matt drift off and miss something?

‘Did you happen to see where Pete went,’ he asks the fellow in the space suit leaning against the bar.

‘What?’ the fellow in the space suit says. Apparently, he cannot hear Matt over Born to be Wild.

‘Pete Free,’ Matt says. ‘He’s disappeared.’

‘Who?’ the fellow says. It may not be a spacesuit after all. It seems to be an illusion brought about by reflections from mirrors behind the bar. Multiple images and superimpositions.

‘The guy who was just sitting here. The one with the big beard and the coonskin cap.’

‘There was no-one sitting there. Are you OK, mate?’

Matt stumbles around the bar in a confused state looking for his companion before deciding it would be best to get out of The White Rabbit.

Outside, he discovers that it is dark. How long has he been in there? With the maelstrom of dark thoughts bombarding his consciousness, it is difficult to see things in terms of the clock. Light My Fire was on a few times and Purple Haze more than once. In a Gadda da Vida alone is twenty minutes long. He takes out his phone to check the time. For some reason, it is switched off. Why is it switched off? He never switches it off. He activates it. There are fourteen missed calls and as many text messages. All but one of the missed calls are from Miranda. But, she has not left a single message. If you phone someone thirteen times, surely you have to leave at least one voicemail. Unless, for whatever reason, you can’t. But at least, Miranda is phoning. ……. Or could it be someone calling from her phone? But still, why no message? The other missed call is from someone called Walter Ego. Walter Ego keeps phoning him. Matt is not sure but he thinks he might have met him back in the day at an inanimate pets conference. Or perhaps it was the fantasy fiction workshop. Whichever, Walter seems to be on his case. He moves on to the text messages. Most of these are enquiries about outstanding kaleidoscope repairs or people wanting advice about fridge magnets. Sadly, none of the texts is from Miranda.

The reason he hasn’t tried to phone her, he can only suppose was down to the way in which she vanished. It seemed to him mobile communication would have no place in the void. He phones her now but the call goes straight to voicemail. In his desperation, he leaves a garbled message. Then another garbled message.

He needs to make his way back home to find out what is going on but he realises he has no idea where he left the car. The White Rabbit doesn’t have a car park, so he must have left the old Opel on a street nearby. The town is shabby, unloved. The railway, which was the town’s lifeline closed back in the nineteen sixties and, having no industry or commerce and no obvious attractions, the town fell into decay. It has yet to be rediscovered and gentrified. But, Matt is sure he can hear a train approaching. He can’t quite picture it but it’s making all those noises you expect from a large locomotive. It would be better if there were tracks and a station for it to stop at but the idea of a train is so powerful, it is coming in track or no track, station or no station. Matt thinks perhaps he can get on it instead of looking for the car.

……………………………….

Ben and his new friend, Rebel are relaxing in his apartment in the San Francisco Bay area. He is explaining to her how DreamCatcher works.

‘Its a bit basic at the moment,’ he says. ‘This is only a beta version of the app, remember, so there’s bound to be a glitch or two. Anyway, what you have just watched, babe, is a recording of Pops dreaming that I made on his phone when I went back home to Blighty last month. The old fella wasn’t even aware I was doing it. Didn’t even notice when I fitted the cap. He had had a few, I think. Mum was away visiting Aunt Julie, or something. ….’

‘More likely the something, I would say.’

Anyway, with the CGI enhancement it’s not too bad, is it? What do you think? And now there’s Silicon Valley finance behind DreamCatcher, and I can put together a team, I should be able to make the graphics more realistic and improve the voice simulation.’

‘That’s your dad? …… Woah! I guess he’s kind of cool in a messed up sort of way. Liking mystery writers and rock music.’

‘Cool? ….. Hey, steady on. I wouldn’t go that far.’

‘On the other hand, I can see why you wanted to cut out. Divorce on the cards, do you think?’

‘Who knows?’ Ben says. ‘But they do say that dreams help to shed light on one’s inner world.’

‘Perhaps I might have a go later,’ Rebel says. ‘I have to tell you, Ben, I do have some badass dreams.’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Be Here Now

beherenow

Be Here Now by Chris Green

1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nod.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandy comes into the kitchen.

‘How did you get on?’ she asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Which we don’t eat anyway,’ I say.

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

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

‘Go on! Guess!’ she prompts.

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

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

I agree that it is an astonishing coincidence.

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

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

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

4:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

The Moons of Uranus

themoonsofuranus

The Moons of Uranus by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sorry I was ……’

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Tequila Mockingbird

tequilamockingbird

Tequila Mockingbird by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Get a grip,’ says the blue pinstripe.

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

‘Imagine a sunset,’ says Nurse Zwangendaba.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Max explained about the adobe huts.

‘Uh hu,’ said Otto.

And Cheryl’s disappearance.

‘Uh hu.’

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

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

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

Otto tries another tack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

All About Jazz

allaboutjazz

All About Jazz by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am no longer listening. I have drifted off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Is it really that long?’

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

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

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

…………………………….

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

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

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

‘Perhaps he’s been held up.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Wassup,’ says a deep voice beside us.

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

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

‘You mean gin, N’Golo.’

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

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

‘I just know, bro.’

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

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

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

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

…………………………….

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

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

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

…………………………….

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

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

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

 

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Bunny Boiler

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

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Missing by Chris Green

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

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

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

I’d better get the others up, though.

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

There is no response.

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

There is no response.

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

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

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

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

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

So what does this mean? I can’t think of anything that would have made Ellie leave me. Quite the reverse. We have been getting on rather well lately. Certainly as well as you can expect after eight years of marriage. Obviously, there have been one or two ups and downs over the years but surely, that’s all water under the bridge. If Ellie had left me, then you would have expected at the very least a note, explaining how she saw things. A list perhaps of unforgivable misdemeanours of 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

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

 

MURDER MYSTERY

murdermystery

MURDER MYSTERY – a murder mystery – by Chris Green

My head is pounding. My mouth feels like a dried up drainage ditch. I am used to more formal surroundings, when I wake. A comfortable bed. If I’m lucky, a cup of tea. This room is unfamiliar. I have no recall of how I came to be here. Across from me, a few feet away lies a naked woman with a snake tattoo running up one of her thighs. She is asleep amongst a heap of Film Noir print cushions. She has her back to me. At first I do not recognise her.

Slowly it dawns on me this is Scarlett. But, what is this weird place?

A black bakelite telephone sits on a small rococo table beside Scarlett’s recumbent body. Above the table hangs a zebra patterned rug. A large aloe vera plant skulks in the corner. Four identical black cats sit in different parts of the room at exactly the same angle in the same upright position looking towards the window. It takes me a few moments to realise that they are stuffed. There is musty smell in the air. I go over to the open window. It looks out on to a pool of dark water, rich with rotting vegetation.

Another woman comes into the room. My partner, Kristin. A little of the puzzle falls into place. Scarlett is a friend of Kristin’s. Scarlett has recently taken up with Ivan, an Albanian taxi driver, or is it a taxidermist. We suspect Ivan may be using his taxi driving or taxiderming as a cover for his work for the Albanian Mafia. Anyway, this must be Ivan’s flat.

Kristin and I must have arrived last night, although I can remember very little. I feel something is wrong. I don’t want to be here.

‘We need to get back, Kristin,’ I say.

‘What!’ she says. She looks as dazed as I feel. Her eyes are sunken and her hair is matted. Her dark mesh tights are laddered and her pale jacket is smeared with something. There is probably no point in asking her anything about last night at present.

‘I think it would be good if we got on home,’ I say.

‘Back home,’ she says. There is something strange about the way she emphasises home. I am not sure why. Perhaps she does not consider our flat as home. Technically I suppose it is my flat, although Kristin has been living there on and off for nearly twelve months. Perhaps she feels she has somewhere else to go. Maybe this is why we are here at Scarlett’s. I try to remember what has happened.

‘Yes, back home,’ I say. ‘I feel weak. I think I may need to eat soon.’

‘And having breakfast is going to solve everything is it?’

‘Well, perhaps we could have a talk at the same time. Find out what’s happening between us.’

Kristin greets this with an icy stare. She goes into another room and returns with a scuffed black leather overnight bag. She throws it across her shoulder. I do not seem to have any baggage. There is clearly something about the situation I am missing. Until I can discover what this is, I decide I must back off.

Scarlett is still asleep. Kristin scribbles a note for her. We take our leave along a dark corridor. It is difficult to get one’s bearings. A succession of rooms lead off. Some have doors but others do not. No light comes through from the rooms. It looks as if the space might be used as a storage area. It must be a very large building. Perhaps it is a converted warehouse. Maybe a warehouse in the process of conversion. In the nineties it may have been used for art shows or parties. There is a menacing echo to our footsteps as we tread the floorboards. I cannot find a light switch. I bump into a large spiders web and send its occupant goes scurrying across the floor.

Kristin is several steps ahead. She is definitely in a mood about something. I wonder if it is about something that happened last night. The freight train running through my head no longer stops at last night’s station.

We find ourselves at a staircase and go down some steps. We make it out into the daylight. Where is the car, I wonder. Did we not come in the car? I go through my pockets. I do not have the car keys.

‘Have you got the keys?’ I ask. No reply.

‘Did we come on foot?’ I ask. No reply.

‘Where are we exactly?’ No reply. Kristin is giving me the silent treatment. Lately it seems like I’m treading on eggshells. The problem is I can’t remember what it is I’ve supposed to have done. Did I buy the wrong type of gin? Did I not notice her new hairdo? Did I delete something from her phone? Did I say something bad about her degenerate son? From her expression, I get the impression that it may have been something worse.

The streets are flooded. It has been raining heavily but it is not raining now. I begin to recognise where we are. It is Toker’s End, a part of town that I have not been to often. It must be two or three miles from where we live.

Toker’s End is named after the nineteenth century philanthropist Sir Charles Toker. While similar areas in other parts of the country have been subject to gentrification, Toker’s End has bucked the trend and is heading towards dereliction. With its tall Victorian buildings, it was once a well to do area, but over the years it has been bought up of Greeks and Macedonians and converted into flats and bedsits. Legendary slum landlord, Dinos Costadinos (Costa) I believe owns the whole of Prince Albert Street and according to urban legend has never once called in a contractor to take care of any maintenance or repairs.

As we walk along, I feel an odd sensation of disengagement. I feel like I’m floating. Street sounds seem muted. A muffled soundtrack of distant voices seems to play in a loop. This is punctuated by the hiss of tyres as the early morning traffic eases its way through the surface water. I feel sense of doubt about my surroundings. At any moment the scene might evaporate. The lines of everything I cast my glance upon seem hazy and indistinct. The bright coloured street art daubed on the run down apartments in George Street is blurred like an impressionist painting. The torn poster of the neo noir movie, Dead Ringer in the bus shelter is dissolving. The shop front of the Bangla convenience store looks frosted over. The roadsigns are melting.

After several blocks we come to the river. It is a fast flowing stretch before it reaches the old mill. The river is normally shallow here, but the water has come up over the low stone bridge. We look for another place to cross. There are one or two places we could maybe wade through, but then we might as well do this over the bridge. Whichever way we cross we are going to get wet. We would need to double back the way we came to reach the main road bridge.

Why have we come this way? I wonder. In my daze, I realise I have just been following Kristin. It occurs to me that we are heading for Finnegan’s Wake, where Irish poets with a lunchtime thirst vent their anger in Open Mic sessions. Finnegan’s is one of Kristin’s haunts when she wants to give life a miss. She has been struggling with sobriety lately. A visit to Finnegan’s is unlikely to help. I suspect that soon we are going to break up. I cannot live this way. I cannot take Kristin’s mood swings any more. Should I tackle it head on right now or leave it for later. I feel at forty years old I should have left all of this behind. I don’t like to have arguments in the street. I make the decision to leave her to it and go home instead. The riverbank seems as good a place as any. If Kristin doesn’t come back later, all well and good. This is the end of the road as far as I am concerned.

When I get home there is no sign of the car. I cannot be sure where I left it, but I report it’s disappearance to the police. I tell them it was taken from my home address. Twenty four hours later, much to my astonishment, they return it.’

‘It was taken by joyriders,’ Detective Sergeant Lucan says. ‘The forensic boys have gone over it but come up with nothing.’

‘There’s a lot of it about,’ his oppo, D.C. Hammer says.

‘Happens every Saturday night,’ says Lucan. ‘Car theft should have become harder with more sophisticated locking systems, but still it is on the rise.’

‘Fords are the easiest cars to steal,’ says Hammer. For some reason he seems to be pleased about this.

I check the car over. There appears to be no damage. They have even left my Cocteau Twins CDs in the glove compartment. I sign the form to say that the vehicle has been returned and congratulate them.

Kristin does not come back, that night or the next. At first I am a little concerned, but this quickly passes. When something no longer works, it is good to move on. Presumably the feeling is mutual. I get into a routine of going to work and coming home. Gradually I begin to feel better, but I still have no recollection of what happened that night at Toker’s End. I imagine it involved some kind of intoxication, but I have overindulged on numerous occasions in the past with complete recall afterwards. There is something about the blackout, and the abstraction I felt the following day that disturbs me.

It is nearly a week later that I read in the local paper about Ivan’s corpse being found. The report is splashed across the front page. There is a grainy photo of him. It looks as though it was taken a while ago. He looks younger. While they have not established the cause of death, the police are treating it as suspicious. They are appealing for information. They do not know the actual day or time of his death, but they want anyone who saw him over a three day period to come forward. Or anyone who may have witnessed anything suspicious in the vicinity last weekend. I cannot recall exactly when I last saw Ivan, but I have a strong hunch that it may have been last Saturday evening. The report mentions a blue Ford Mondeo. My heart starts thumping like Lennox Lewis in training. Phlegm rises in the back of my throat. I feel I am going to be sick.

I try first to contact Kristin, but as expected her phone is dead. She has not picked up the charger. I have a number for Scarlett and try ringing it, but it goes constantly on to voicemail. It may not even be the right number so I do not leave a message. I would not know what to say anyway, under the circumstances. I wonder what I can do about the car. While there are a number of blue Ford Mondeos on the road, my burgeoning paranoia tells me that it is mine that they might be looking for. After all, it was unaccounted for last Saturday night. Surely soon one section of the CID will cross reference it with the other section and come looking for me. I do not know what to do for the best. Needless to say my memory of events has not returned.

That the police have not established the cause of death begins to worry me. I appreciate that there are procedures that must be followed, but how difficult can it be? If the body is found chopped up and put in the freezer, then you can possibly rule out suicide. If the victims head is caved in then you know that he has been hit over the head with a heavy object. If there is a bullet hole in his chest then you can assume that shooting was the cause of death. If the victim is found face down in water then he probably drowned. Why am I thinking that Ivan did not die in any of these ways? Why am I thinking that he was suffocated by a someone pulling a bag over his head? Where is this coming from? Perhaps it is a thriller I have read recently or a movie plot is leaking into my consciousness. Surely it is a common theme in the thriller or horror genres, but despite racking my brain I am unable to come up with an example.

I comfort myself that no matter how wasted I was last weekend, killing someone is not something I would be able to do. It is not in my character. While Kristin is a little unpredictable and has been known to hit out on a few occasions, I cannot imagine that even if she lost control this would run to murder, and what would be the motive? Scarlett, on the other hand is every bit as volatile as Kristin. In fact she is possibly more unpredictable in both appearance and behaviour. Furthermore she has had a one on one relationship with the deceased. There would be both more of a motive and more of an opportunity. Designer drugs might have played a part. Ivan comes up with all sorts of things I’ve never heard of. Both of them could just flip in the blink of an eye. I remember the time that Kristin and I went with them to the Stealing Banksy exhibition at the BankRobber Gallery in Notting Hill. They were laying into each other so much that the stewards had to pull them apart. After that they wouldn’t let any of us in to see the stolen street art.

Ivan’s death could have been an accident of course. Probably not if it were suffocation with a bag, but then you never know. Until the cause of death is announced, it is pointless to speculate. The problem I have is that the announcement is only likely to come when the police come and speak to me. What do I have for an alibi? Any way you look at it whether I committed the act or whether I witnessed it, I am in trouble. Even if it was nothing to do with any of us, I am stuck for an alibi. What if there is DNA evidence in the back of my car or the body was carried in the boot. How am I going to get out of this one?

I haven’t seen my therapist, Daniel DeMarco in a long time. Not since my oneirophrenia cleared up and I stopped having hallucinations. He probably won’t be able to get me off the hook for a murder charge. He may not even be able to re-stimulate my memory about last Saturday night, but he will be able to lend an ear. Daniel is good at listening. He uses what he describes as non directive therapy. He is so laid back that sometimes he is asleep by the end of the session. The remarkable thing is that by this time you’ve resolved the issue that you came with. Admittedly with my oneirophrenia it took a little longer, but on other occasions when I’ve gone to him with a problem, he has neutralised my anxiety in a blink of the eye.

He sits me down in a comfortable chair and seats himself opposite me. As he does so he hums a little tune. I think this is designed to relax me. Or maybe he suffers from earworm and has just been listening to John Denver.

I open up about my predicament. Everything just comes pouring out in a torrent of wild emotion.

‘Hmm,’ he says when I have finished.

‘What do you think that I should do?’ I say. ‘Should I get rid of the car in the canal and get on a plane? Should I tell the police it was me? Or perhaps I should just end it all.’

‘Yes. I see,’ he says. ‘Which one of those makes you feel most comfortable?’

‘Comfortable! Comfortable. None of them make me feel comfortable. Nothing about the situation makes me feel comfortable. Splitting up with Kristin doesn’t make me feel comfortable. Having blackouts doesn’t make me feel comfortable. Being a wanted man doesn’t make me feel comfortable. I’m at my wits end. I don’t know where to turn. I’m desperate, Doctor DeMarco.’

‘Dan. Dan. You can call me Dan.’

‘I’m desperate, Dan.’

It is the middle of the night. Kristin has let herself in and has sneaked into bed beside me. I am still awake. I cannot sleep much at the moment. She snuggles up to me and we make love, as if nothing has happened. It may not be the tenderest of couplings, but we are both happy with the result. There has never been anything wrong with the physical side of our relationship. It’s all the rest that is the problem. Is has often puzzled me how the physical and the emotional can be so separate.

It’s all very well lying here sated, but I can’t ignore the problem at hand. It is not going to go away that easily.

‘Ivan’s dead,’ I say. ‘Someone killed him.’

Kristin studies my face for a moment and sees that I am not joking. ‘What are you saying?’ she says. ‘That you think it was me. Is that it?’

It seems our peaceful reconciliation is going to be short lived.

‘No that’s not what I’m saying. I’m just trying to find out what happened.’

‘He probably had it coming,’ she says, giving no indication of what this means.

‘So you don’t know anything more about it than what the papers say. What happened last Saturday night?’

‘That’s typical of you isn’t it? You fuck my best friend and then you claim you can’t remember.’

‘What!’

‘I suppose you thought that I was sleeping with Ivan. That’s why you slept with Scarlett. Is that what you are going to say? And now that Ivan’s dead you think I killed him. Perhaps it was you who killed him. Have you thought of that?’

‘As it happens I have thought of that. In fact I’ve been thinking of little else.’

‘I suppose you can always blame it on that condition of yours. You have an excuse for everything, don’t you?’

She is already putting her clothes back on. I try a more gentle approach and ask her to calm down.

‘Whatever it is, we are in it together,’ I say, but this does not stop her walking out on me again.

I am no further forward. In fact if anything things have moved backwards. I still have not eliminated myself or Kristin from the murder suspects but there is the additional complication of my apparent clandestine liaison with Scarlett to consider.

I get up and do some research into Ivan Luga on the internet. Perhaps there will be a clue buried in there somewhere. There are a number references to people with this name. I hone in on the Facebook profile of an Ivan Luga in the UK. This is our man. His profile photo shows him with the head of a stuffed tiger. He likes David Lynch films and death metal music. He reads Haruki Murakami and nihilistic poetry. I would have thought he might be a little challenged by the language barrier with some of his choices. He has posted a number of pictures of circus freaks. There is a shot of him brandishing a Remington hunting rifle and another of him posing with a pistol. He has 64 friends, about 50 of which have Eastern European names. The photos of them suggest that these are shady characters. There are some statuses in a language I take to be Albanian. The English expression crystalline powder occurs in the middle of one or two of the posts, along with the name, Molly. It seems an odd subject to be mentioning on social media. But this is an odd profile. What sinister world am I uncovering? I feel a chill run down my spine.

It occurs to me that whatever I might reveal here, I am not going to get anywhere with it, as I cannot go to the police. Anyway, Ivan is dead isn’t he? I am just about to leave the site, when I notice that one of the statuses is dated yesterday. That’s impossible. There must be some mistake. I take another look. The content of the post seems to be of little significance. It is just some gobbledegook about SHADOWCAT and TOR. I have no idea what it means, but it is a status and it was definitely posted yesterday. The Keyser Söze that has commented on it is presumably an alias. It cannot be the real Keyser Söze. There is no real Keyser Söze. But this is a development in the puzzle. Either someone else has taken over the account or Ivan Luga is not dead.

Scarlett’s arrival is a bolt out of the blue. There she is on my doorstep. She has on a little red dress showing nearly the full extent of her snake tattoo. She has a smile that would get her noticed in any crowd and a twinkle in her eye. This does not look like a woman who has recently murdered someone, but then neither did Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.

‘Didn’t we have a great time last weekend,’ she says, ‘We ought to do it again. Why did you leave so suddenly?’

I explain to her about Kristin and I going our separate ways.

‘I wondered if that might happen,’ she says. ‘Never mind. I’m here now.’

I start to explain to her about developments since we last saw each other.

‘No! I haven’t read the paper,’ she says. ‘What do you mean, Ivan is dead?’

‘But he may not be,’ I add.

‘He hasn’t called me,’ she says. ‘I am thinking that perhaps he has gone off travelling somewhere and couldn’t take me. But you are saying he is dead.’

‘But may not be,’ I repeat.

‘Show me the paper!’ she says.
I show her the report.

‘That’s rubbish,’ she says. I don’t even think that the photo is of him. He has younger brothers. It might be one of them.’

‘You’d better let me in on what happened last weekend,’ I say.

‘I don’t remember too many of the details,’ she says. ‘But I do remember us ending up in bed together.’

‘I don’t remember this,’ I say.

‘Well, then you should,’ she says. ‘You were sensational. The Molly probably helped though, don’t you think?’

‘Who’s Molly,’ I say.

‘Not who, it’s a what. I thought you had taken Molly before,’ she says. ‘Don’t you remember? We’re not talking MDMA here. This was the real deal, straight out of the lab. Ivan brought a new batch of it round.’

‘Did he? And I took some?’

‘Yes! We all did. It was dynamite. Anyway, we all went out to Frenzy and then that new club, Vertigo. And we ……. I wonder what has happened to Ivan.’

I can’t tell from her expression if she is trying to be ironic or not. She doesn’t seem to want to elaborate. Her present intentions it seems are elsewhere. I try to remember what happened in Basic Instinct. Catherine Tramell, the Sharon Stone character got away with it, didn’t she? Also, I seem to recall that there was a sequel.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

Strike While The Iron Is Hot

strikewhiletheironisshot

Strike While The Iron Is Hot by Chris Green

It is time. She has fought against it for too long. If she doesn’t do it now, she never will. What is so difficult about telling Dirk he has to leave? Each time that her friend Marie has said, ‘you’ve got to do it, Donna,’ she has said ‘it’s not that simple, Marie.’ But, it is that simple. She just has to say ‘I’ve had enough, Dirk’ and tell him to pack his things. After all, it is her flat.

Dirk coming home drunk from the dog track last night with his mate Dean was the final straw. He knew that she had arranged for Sam and Samantha to come round for a meal. She had been talking about it for days. He had even watched her preparing the marinade. Then her guests had had to put up with Dirk and Dean making lewd remarks and swapping dirty jokes. She was so embarrassed. She didn’t know where to put herself.

As soon as Dirk steps through the front door, she will let him know. She won’t even give him chance to put his work bag down. It’s the only way. Strike while the iron is hot.

The only problem is, Dirk Fiftey doesn’t come through the door. Donna waits and waits. She seethes and smoulders to keep the iron hot, reminding herself of all the occasions he has let her down or abused her. About all of the times she has had to bail him out. The drinking. The drugs. The thieving. The lies. The deceit. What did she ever see in him? He wasn’t even good in bed. All he was concerned about was his own gratification. And now the spineless wuss doesn’t even have the decency to come and face the music.

Finally, at midnight, she puts the metaphorical blacksmith’s hammer back and goes off to bed. She has to work in the morning and it’s a busy day at the salon. End of the month is always fully booked. And she has to talk to Tina about Mrs Nesbitt’s green hair and explain that it wasn’t her fault. The product labelling was wrong.

She hears no more of Dirk until the police come calling, two days later. They want her to come down to the station. Dirk’s battered body, they are saying, has been found by the canal path. That morning apparently by a man walking his schnauzer. She is reminded of her rights.

‘Am I a suspect?’ Donna asks.

‘We’d like you to answer some questions,’ Sergeant Phelon says. If you’d just like to get your coat, Ms. Davies and get into the car.’

‘What? Just like that?’ she says. ‘Are you arresting me?’

‘We’d just like you to answer some questions,’ he repeats, this time, a little more forcefully. ‘Down at the station.’ His hands are now playing with the handcuffs.

Donna gets her coat and locks up. As they drive downtown, she bursts into tears. She can’t hold back any longer. Her nerves are in tatters. The contestants on The Voice and Strictly Come Dancing are always banging on about being on an emotional roller coaster. That is not an emotional rollercoaster, that is ego massaging or ego bashing. The turbulent feelings that punch into your head after being suddenly told that you might have murdered your partner when you didn’t know he was dead, this is an emotional roller coaster. The history. The abuse. The fights. The retaliation. The times out of sheer frustration she has threatened to kill him. The making up. The threats of leaving. The decision to throw him out. The battered body. Where is Dirk’s battered body now?

‘I don’t have to identify the body or anything like that, do I?’

‘No. Mrs Fiftey is coming in to identify the body later.’

‘Dirk’s mother! I thought she was dead.’

‘No, Mrs Fiftey, his wife.’

‘He’s married?’ says Donna.

‘I take it that you are telling me you didn’t know,’ says Sergeant Phelon.

‘Dirk Fiftey has been living at my flat for three years, Sergeant. Well, when I say living I mean he has been treating my flat like a hotel for three years. And in all that time he didn’t once think to mention that he had a wife. He deserves everything he fucking …….. ‘

‘I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, Donna, but I don’t think you should be saying too much until you’ve spoken to your solicitor,’ says W.P.C. Mabombo, who has come along as the female support officer. Sergeant Phelon glares at her. Why do Division keep sending him these basket-weaver rookies, he is thinking. There was nothing wrong with Noriega and Suggs’ more direct approach to policing. It certainly helped with confessions. They helped clear up a lot of difficult cases. It’s a shame they are under investigation.

Donna manages to find one positive thing you could say about Dirk. He had a very good solicitor. Max Tempo could get him off anything. Who else would have been able to get the police to drop charges as diverse as Aggravated Burglary and Indecent Assault? Donna manages to find Max’s number from the deep recesses of her handbag and within twenty minutes there he is telling the police what they can and can’t do. Sergeant Phelon has his head in his hands. Donna gets the impression that he has come across Max Tempo before. A little later after a no comment interview, she is free to go.

Whatever her view of Dirk might have been, his having apparently been murdered puts a slightly different spin on things. How many obituaries or eulogies, for instance, do you find in the papers or on TV that dwell on what a cad the deceased was. When anyone she has ever known, friend or relative has died, she cannot recall anyone ever having a bad word to say about them. Even great Uncle Malkie, who was by all accounts an arsonist and an armed robber, was praised for his courage and generosity. Certainly Dirk had his faults and they were plentiful, but she is a compassionate woman. Three years is a fair chunk of her life, a tenth to be exact. She can’t completely ignore these years. Twice, for instance, Dirk brought home flowers, although she suspects that one bouquet came from a neighbour’s garden. And he did sometimes point out bargains for her on ebay.

The feeling of sympathy is not shared by her friends. They always felt that Dirk was an asshole and they are not slow to refresh Donna’s memory.

‘Don’t you remember the time he left you stranded in Turkey,’ says Marie. ‘And the time he sold your jewellery to buy himself a new smartphone.’

‘You can’t have forgotten the time he threw up on your new dress at Tasha’s daughter’s Christening at St Margaret’s,’ says Gemma.

‘Or that bull terrier he bought you for your birthday,’ says Marie. ‘The one that bit the child and had to be put down,’

‘What about the time he crashed your car and pretended it had been stolen,’ says Gemma.

‘Good riddance, I say,’ says Marie.

‘Now you can get on with your life,’ says Gemma.

‘I suppose you’re right,’ says Donna.

‘Come out with us on Friday,’ says Marie. ‘We can have a proper girlie night out. We can go to that new Albanian restaurant that Rick Stein recommends and then go on to a club.’

Vibe is cool, or what about R3Hab,’ says Gemma.

Chaos is re-opening,’ says Marie. ‘Or there’s always Heaven.

Donna buys a new skirt and little black top from River Island to go out with the girls. She is looking forward to her big night out although with a certain amount of trepidation. She has not been to a club for so long. She showers and dresses and puts on her makeup. Self-consciously she dances around the kitchen to a Ministry of Sound CD she has bought to get her in the mood for the night ahead.

‘Hi babes,’ says a familiar voice. ‘Sorry, I haven’t been …….. home, like. I bet I’m in the doghouse. Thing is, I got caught up in a spot of bother with Nolan Rocco and his boys. I may have to get my man, Max on to it. ……… Hey, honeybun! Did you see that in the paper about the body they found down by the canal? For a while, they thought it was my brother, Kirk. I don’t know how they got that idea. Tracey even had to go down to the morgue. It wasn’t him of course, just some old crusty. Incompetent the police, these days, innit. Just think. It could have been me, eh? You gotta be real careful these days. Never know what’s around the corner.’

It is unfortunate for Dirk that he has chosen this moment to come in because Donna has the iron on to smooth out the wrinkles in the red jacket she is going to wear. Just one thought occurs to her, strike while the iron is hot.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

Every Picture Tells A story

everypicturetellsastory2

Every Picture Tells A Story by Chris Green

1: UP

I bought my first SLR camera, a Canon EX I think it was, in 1975. I had been asked to take some shots of Ibiza. Ibiza wasn’t chav central back then. It was a magic white island populated by bohemians and artists. The photos came out well and I used a couple of them for promotion of a progressive rock band that I was involved with. I carried on taking pictures through the seventies and even invested in a darkroom. As time passed though I became distracted by other things and my interest in photography became more peripheral.

I continued snapping of course, but I tended to do nothing with the results. Over the years I had a few pictures blown up for display, and a few more made their way into family albums, but the rest got stored, unsorted, in the back of a series of cupboards or in attics in various houses that I lived in through my serial relationships. The task of sorting through them became more and more daunting until eventually I didn’t consider it anymore. Last month I retired and Rachel and I started to talk about moving house. We have been together twelve years and most of this time we have lived here in Maple Park. Rachel made me watch a life laundry program and said we needed to clear out the attic. What she meant was I needed to clear out the attic.

A week later she reminds me by subtly leaving the loft ladder down and going out. I resolve to get the cardboard boxes of photo wallets down and try to organise them. I discover straight away that this is a time consuming exercise, but I find it cathartic. My photos suggest that I have had a good life. Admittedly, you do not take many photos of grey clouds over Grimsby or blizzards in Swindon. Also, unless you want the camera broken over your head, you don’t tend to take photos of your partner during a domestic dispute or on a bad hair day. In short you do not take think to photos unless you are feeling good. But I have been fortunate. There are some brilliant moments captured on film.

Here’s one of Sammi and I in Colombia. In Barranquilla on the coast. At the 1996 Carnival. Sammi was half my age. God knows why we went there. To get away from Saskia maybe. Saskia and I had just split up and she was in a dangerous state of mind. There was no telling what she might do. But, back then Colombia was probably the most dangerous place on Earth. And we had our luggage stolen at El Dorado airport in Bogota. Did I really have hair that short? ….. There are some here from a wedding in the 1970s. The shirt collars are like weapons. And in this one I’ve got a huge thick beard. Mid 1980s ….. I don’t remember going to the FA cup final. I’ve always hated football. Life is full of surprises. And hundreds here of my exhibition of paintings at that downtown gallery. I’m glad I always insisted on 7 by 5 prints and used good quality Kodak or Fuji film; the colours have endured.

There are several sets here of Tangiers. With Bob Mohammed, Ahmed and Ali. I think those were the names. If not they were similar. God, it’s so long ago, I can hardly remember who I went with. 1983, it says on the back. It must have been Julia. Before James and Dean were born. Yes, here Julia is on the bicycle that we used as transport up and down the beach for provisions. The bike belonged to Ali, I recall. Bob Mohammed and the others worked at a beach hotel, but it was closed for renovation and they had nothing to do all day, so they became our Morocco guides. Where did all that come from? I haven’t thought about any of it for years. It’s amazing what you can remember with a visual stimulus. Suddenly I can put the details to the story like the flick of a switch. We spent two weeks on the beach with the sun beating down and the Atlantic rolling in. We drank mint tea and our Moroccan guides kept coming up with stronger and stronger hash. I suspect they wanted to get into Julia’s pants. And she always was a bit of a flirt.

Rachel comes in and sees that every inch of the floor is covered with piles of photos.

‘Glad to see you are getting on with it,’ she says. It was a good idea getting you to watch Life Laundry.’ Does she imagine that I haven’t noticed that she has just come home loaded down with shopping bags, Cath Kidston, Monsoon, Habitat, HomeSense. I can see them lined up in the hall. There is no point in mentioning this. More is less, Rachel will say, or something equally baffling to justify her purchases.

‘It may take quite a while,’ I say. ‘There are more than I thought.’

‘You have to be brutal,’ she says, bringing the kitchen bin into the room.

‘I have already thrown some out,’ I say.

‘I’ll leave you to it,’ she says. I think she secretly feels guilty. She has been talking so much about clearing out, about selling things at car boots and on ebay, but this has so far remained at the talking about stage.

Rachel goes off to play with her shopping and I continue with my sorting. I uncover a shoe box packed tightly with photos. There’s a pic of me in front of the Here’s Johnny mural in Berlin, one of a camel race along the Champs Elysees, that can’t be right, perhaps it’s not the Champs Elysees, perhaps they are not camels. Here’s one of Saskia standing in the doorway of Hitler and Son Jewelers. That was in Cyprus, I think. I wasn’t with Saskia very long. Probably a good thing really. Life was too chaotic. All the people we knew seemed to be having crises every minute of every day back in the mid 1990s. Children were shuffled around and families formed and reformed like a swap shop.

On with the show. Someone in this pic sleeping in the jib of a JCB. I can’t imagine who that might be. Where did I take that? …….. A pile of loose photos here of the Rolling Stones concert at Paris Olympia in 1982. Great one of Keith. That’s an iconic rock star photo. Attitude and poise …… James and Dean doing somersaults on the beach at Broadstairs. Strange isn’t it how James was always long and lean while Dean was always short and stocky. Here’s are some more of the children. At Euro Disney. 1990 at a guess. How did they get mixed up with the ones of Joi in the buff? Joi was much later. Joi was attractively built though. Rachel has always been jealous of her. I’d better not let her see these. But I don’t really want to bin them. Joi ran off with an Italian pasta magnate, so I guess she’s a little less trim now. ….. Did I really have hair that long? …… Who are those people dressed as circus clowns outside The Feathered Fish? You would think I would have had some method to my storage of my photos in years gone by, but there doesn’t seem to be. They are completely random. Every picture tells a story.

I regret having been so reluctant to catalogue them but now I am in a position to do what I want with them. I have executive control. I can edit my life. I can just throw away the ones I don’t want, like the ones of Joi’s hairdresser’s dog or the ones of the parquet floor at our house in Serendipity Street being laid. More importantly, I can scan the ones I like on to the computer and enhance them with PhotoShop. I have given myself an advanced tutorial and it is brilliant. Much better than the darkroom was back in the day. The sunrise at Scarborough quickly becomes the moment of creation, and the lightning over Lostwithiel looks like the end of the world. You can move people from one photo to another or cut them out completely. Perhaps I should do some of that.

It feels great to be in control like this. Why then do I have this sense of foreboding. I feel unaccountably sad. Is it like that Stephen Dunn poem? Happiness, a state you must dare not enter with hopes of staying, quicksand in the marshes, and all.

2: DOWN

Here’s a green Harrods photo wallet. I don’t remember ever getting prints developed at Harrods. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Harrods. Department stores aren’t really my bag. The distinctive Harrods colour is still the same but this packet looks quite old. Julia might have gone there a few times. It’s probably one of Julia’s. ……. That’s strange. All the photos all seem to be of Dr. Gauguin. That looks like Lyme Regis. I don’t recall ever going to Lyme Regis. I only recognise it from that film with Jeremy Irons. There’s one of Julia with The Cobb in the background. What is Julia doing there? I’m sure I’ve never seen these. There’s one of Dr. Gauguin and Julia together. Oh my God, they are kissing in this one. Kissing. With arms around one another. And she had the front to get someone to take a photo of the two of them together, like this. And here’s another one of them in a telling embrace. …… I am in shock. What is going on? Did they just end up in the photo box by mistake? Julia and I split up in the early nineties. They must have been there for over twenty years, being transported from cupboard to attic. Perhaps she meant that I should find out.

That this happened a long time ago doesn’t seem to matter, if anything it makes it worse. I try to work out how the affair could have happened, without me realising it. ………. Julia did seem to have a disproportionate number of relatives in remarkably poor health. They would suddenly become ill, and it would be better if I didn’t go with her to see them. They only had small houses with single spare beds. Or caravans even. And she took up new hobbies with consistent regularly, canoeing, geocaching, ghost hunting, pursuits that seemed to take her way at weekends. Why hadn’t I been more observant?

These photos would have to have been before the children were born. Julia wore her hair shorter later on. In one of the photos, I notice there is a poster advert for The Marine Theatre. The production of The Importance of Being Earnest it says begins on May 14, and elsewhere it refers to other entertainment taking place in 1986. May 1986. I do a quick calculation in my head. ………. Oh My God! May 1986. That would make it ……… nine months before Dean was born. He was born in February 1987. I feel faint. …….. I always wondered why Dean looked so little like me. But it would explain why we saw so much of Dr Gauguin. He was always around the house after Dean was born. Any excuse. If he’d had any sense of decency he would have stayed well away. And then there were extravagant birthday gifts that used to arrive for Dean’s birthday. ….. Wait. There are more. …… I think I’m going to be sick.

‘What’s the matter?’ says Rachel. She is not used to seeing me like this. I am usually the embodiment of composure. ‘Are you all right?’

I show her the photos I have just found.

‘Oh! I see!’ she says. ‘I always thought you knew.’

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

A Stone’s Throw From The Beach

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A Stone’s Throw From The Beach by Chris Green

Lastminuteholidays.com did not actually specify that Sea View had a view of the sea, but there again it did not say that it didn’t. The default position, you would have thought, was that it did, especially as there were pictures of the waves rolling in on a clear sandy beach in the post. I ought to have checked on Google Maps. I would have seen then that Sea View was, in fact, several miles inland and unlikely to be a stone’s throw from the beach as advertised on the site. I did not check because I was too busy at work and Diane and I were in a hurry to get away. We were going through a sticky patch in our marriage. Looking at the reviews on Trip Advisor in the prison library now only adds to the feeling of regret. The highest rating Sea View was given was 1 star.

A glance at customer feedback would have let me know that the view consisted of a popular fly tipping site, a dumping ground for broken furniture, white goods and sundry household waste. Scrap vehicles and even an old crane had been abandoned and left to rust. A bonfire of car tyres smouldered day and night. Security was also flagged up as an issue. The front door to the apartment did not even close. According to the comments, it had been that way for months. The twin beds were three-quarter length and there was no bedding. Several correspondents mentioned the stench of cabbage which was being boiled on an industrial scale in the kitchen below.

Our stay, which was to have been a week, confirmed all these points. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the diesel generator had been a little further from our bedroom window. But, what really did it for me though was the noise from the building site nearby. To maximise the use of the supply of cheap migrant labour in the area, the developer kept the pile driver going through the night.

When Diane and I first arrived at Sea View on that Saturday in July, horrified though we were, we decided we were going to make the best of it. After all, we were on holiday. And of course, we had some issues to work through. There was no sense in adding to these by getting into a state about the shortcomings of the accommodation. In any case, we could find no-one to complain to. We had paid the full week’s rental up front and the owner saw no need to meet and greet us. And we needed no key as the door had no lock.

‘We’re not going to spend that much time indoors,’ I said to Diane.

She agreed. ‘I expect there’s lots of interesting scenery around here,’ she said. ‘And we can probably drive out to the coast one day. I’m sure we could do it in under an hour.’

We probably wouldn’t have spent any time indoors, had it not been for the persistent heavy rain that started just after we arrived. Every time we looked out of the window it was still raining. It was just a question of whether at any particular time it was easing off or getting harder. On the positive side, the rain did douse the smouldering heap of tyres. We could not watch TV as the set had already been stolen; there was just an aerial lead trailing from the socket which led to nowhere. I did not even bother getting my tablet out of the case as it was clear there was going to be no wi-fi.

I-Spy got us nowhere as there were not many things in the apartment to spy. The ones that there were could be guessed easily. W was window or wall and B was bed. F was for floor and C was for ceiling. There were no C to sit on and no T to sit at. There was no C or even an M to cook with and no F to put the food in.

After a sleepless Saturday night on the uncomfortable beds with the pile driver thumping away and the rain beating against the window, we spent the whole of Sunday at The Goat and Bicycle. The effects of the beer and the wine helped us to block out the disturbance from the building site on Sunday night. This was just as well, as in addition to the existing operations, I noticed they had now hired a centrifugal pump to get rid of the flood-water that had accumulated on the site.

It was still raining the following day so we drove, via several detours due to the river bursting its banks, to Littleton, a little town ten miles away. After lunch at The Blind Monkey, we saw all three films that were on offer at the Roxy. I wonder why it is that small town cinemas choose to screen the most violent films. Saw was followed by Teeth and these were reprised by Maniac. After this, our nerves in tatters, we went for a nightcap at The Goat.

This was the night it happened. The pile driver was beating out its dull rhythm. The generator was belching out its acrid fumes to supplement the pungent smell of stale cabbage from below. The rain turned to hail and Diane and I had the mother of all rows. She asked me why I was always so miserable. I said I wasn’t. She said I was. I said that it wasn’t her, I was unhappy at work, what with the shifts and all. She said that’s no reason to take it out on her. I said I didn’t. She said I did, and if my job caused me that much stress I should give it up. I said if I did we wouldn’t be able to afford the payments on her new car, or little things like holidays. She said you mean holidays like this. I suggested she might think of getting a job. She said she had a job, clearing up after me and my bloody pigeons. If you want to keep pigeons why don’t you go back oop north. She kept on pushing my buttons. I was weak. I was spineless. I had never satisfied her. ……. The pile driver kept on thumping. I felt murderous. I stormed off. I couldn’t control myself. I had to take it out on somebody. I made straight for the building site and ….

Because of my standing in the community, I did not come under suspicion. At first, Diane told me I should give myself up, but after I agreed to get rid of the pigeons, she came round. I hadn’t realised how much she hated my pigeons. Perhaps pigeons are not a woman’s thing. But, now as I sit here browsing the internet in the prison library, I question whether I deserve to be at liberty. Am I any better that the people I have in my custody? Some of them are here for minor offences. Non-payment of council tax. Possession of cannabis. Shoplifting. And I think about what I’ve done. Sometimes my conscience wants me to come clean and admit that it was me who killed Iosif Petrescu that night back in July.

Copyright Chris Green 2015: all rights reserved

Quicksand

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Quicksand by Chris Green

It is May 1967. I am fifteen years old. I am walking through Wellesley Park with my friends, Dezi, and Keith. I should be at school but I’m not. Dezi is two years older than me and should be at college but he’s not, and Keith has tagged along. I’m not sure where he’s supposed to be. The park is a cool place to hang out. We can do what we want. No-one bothers us, except occasionally Tom, the park-keeper, who tries to sell us pornography and tells us about his days in Cairo when he was doing his National Service. He has told us several times now the story about the woman and the donkey. Tom is old, he must be well into his thirties. My name is Mike, but for some reason, he calls me John.

Today, Dezi has brought his Roberts transistor radio and we are listening to Radio London, the best of the pirate radio stations. Radio London has an eight day UK exclusive of the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. One by one they are trickling the tracks into their playlist. A couple of days ago Dezi and I heard A Day in the Life for the first time. Dezi had been unable to get any hash at the time and he had read that you could get high by smoking dried banana skins and we were in the front room of his parents’ house trying some. His parents had gone away and we had the radiogram on loud. We decided on the spot that A Day in the Life must be the greatest piece of music of all time. This had nothing whatsoever to do with the dried banana skins.

Dezi, Keith and I are updating one another with how far we’ve got with our respective girlfriends and waiting with anticipation for the DJ to play another track from the new album. I wonder if perhaps exaggeration is de rigeur for teenage boys sexual narrative, or is it that Judy is just too inhibited. I have not got past the outside of her lacy bra, but of course to save face I pretend otherwise. We talk about the film Blow Up, which we saw at the Colosseum last night.

‘What did it all mean?’ Keith asks.

‘There is no individual meaning,’ says Dezi. ‘Meaning can only be agreed socially and that’s why the film ended without closure. Because the David Hemmings character was on his own, we do not know in the end if the murder really took place.’

‘You mean because there was no one to corroborate what he saw?’ I suggest. ‘And the photos had disappeared.’

‘It’s existential,’ Dezi states, in summary. I can see by the expression on Keith’s face that he isn’t sure what it means either.

As we are walking up the hill past the zelkova tree towards the Pump Room, the opening notes of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds break through. It has not been announced, but we know instantly that it is The Beatles. It may seem a little sad but I have known the titles to all the tracks on Sergeant Pepper for about a month since they were announced in Record Mirror. I guess which one this is right away. Dezi turns the volume up. What is that instrument? Surely it is from another world. We are sitting on a commemorative bench now, hunched around the radio. The words to the song are incredible – like a dream – ‘cellophane flowers of yellow and green towering over your head.’ ‘rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies’,…’newspaper taxis’,…. ‘plasticine porters with looking glass ties’. What vivid imagery, I’m thinking, as this surrealistic masterpiece captures me. This is a moment of transcendence, and I have my whole life in front of me. Time is on my side. On Tomorrow’s World, they are saying that we will not have to work much in years to come. From hereonin, life will be easy. Technology will replace drudgery. In a few years, we will be able to travel on starships to Jupiter.

When I get home at 5’o clock, the house is swarming with police. There are police in uniform and police in cheap macs and trilby hats. It is like the set of Z Cars.

‘There’s been an accident, Mike’ one of them says. He has a grave look on his face.

‘Your parents stood no chance,’ says another.

‘The lorry driver’s name,’ the uniformed Sergeant tells me, injudiciously I can’t help feeling, ‘was Mark Lennon.’

My English teacher, Mr Percy, had been banging on all term about irony. Was this what the kind of thing to which he was referring? Or was it coincidence? All I can remember is him saying that it is important not to confuse the two.

I am at Ben and Holly’s wedding reception. Rachel, my girlfriend, left earlier in a huff. We have been together long enough for me to be used to our disagreements. It is late in the evening. Everyone is off their faces. The band has finished their set and the DJ with the Rod Stewart haircut is playing Bohemian Rhapsody over and over. It is Ben and Holly’s favourite song and seems to have been Number One for ever. Uncle Dutch bored as I am with Ben and his friends air guitar demonstrations, is telling me how he lost his leg.

‘I was working as a locations finder for Columbia Pictures. What a great job, you are thinking. How did a country boy like me get a job like that?’

I am thinking this very thing. My dad’s younger brother, Uncle Dutch and I had never been particularly close. I had last seen him in the late sixties. He ran a motorcycle courier business. Quite a new idea back then. I remember too that he used to ride horses. It would be hard for him to do this now.

‘I lived in a 1930s house in Beverley Hills,’ Dutch says, ‘with a fantastic view of the foothills of the Santa Monica mountains. The sun came through my window every morning. I could have freshly squeezed orange juice on the lawn with Laura and look out on to the palm tree canyon. A short drive to Topanga and Malibu and a short drive to the studio in Burbank. It was like paradise. I met all the stars, Burt Lancaster, Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Natalie Wood, Faye Dunaway, Barbara Streisand. You name them I met them. I had a season ticket for The Dodgers. I lived among the rich and famous. I went to the same shrink as Tony Curtis. You have to have a shrink in Beverley Hills, or everyone thinks you are mad. David Crosby and Mickey Dolenz were neighbours. I went to The Beach Boys barbecues in Bel Air and swam in Joni Mitchell’s pool. Life couldn’t have been better. And Laura looked more beautiful every day. ‘

He takes out his wallet and shows me a well-thumbed photo of Laura, She is a real stunner. She has long dark hair, and an hourglass figure with rounded breasts, thin waist, and voluptuous hips. She has a perfect California tan. She has beautiful brown eyes and her smile is like the sun coming up. He shows me another picture of the two of them at a Hollywood première. His eyes begin to mist over. He hands me the photo. I’m not sure what to say.

‘Is that Dustin Hoffman in the background?’ I ask.

Dutch doesn’t seem to hear me. He studies the original photo of Laura reflectively.

The hall seems to have suddenly become more claustrophobic. It is a chaos of empty bottles and fuddled friends and family. The DJ has put on Sailing. He is juggling the microphone like Rod does and encouraging people to sing along. It is painful to watch. Why do people hang around at these embarrassing gatherings once the business is over? I suggest to Uncle Dutch we go outside to smoke a joint. Despite the limitations of movement presented by his sticks, he seems to move remarkably well. After negotiating a maze of corridors and lobbies, we find ourselves in the hotel’s landscaped grounds. The recent snow sparkles under the floodlights. We pick out a discreet table and Dutch lights up.

‘I was driving around the Monterey, Big Sur area,’ Dutch continues, ‘looking for a spot to film some shots for a remake of Vertigo that the studio were planning. All I had to do was select a few vertiginous spots. Not that difficult on the Californian coast. The views from Highway 1 take your breath away. I had a 1971 Dodge Challenger. Bright red it was with a black stripe. They call them pony cars in California. God knows why. Anyway, it had a big six litre engine and handled more like a pig than a pony. Nothing sensible about it. That’s the way they like their cars out west. Anyway, I had put the thing in for a service the previous week but they had not checked the brakes.’

Dutch looks me in the eye and passes me the joint. I wonder if he wants me to put two and two together rather than continue with the story. He can see I am holding out for the story, and laughs.

‘Drove it over a cliff,’ he says. ‘I have this image in my head of a sound like the distant rumble of thunder and a line of Harley Davidsons coming the other way. There is a bend coming up. I must have tried to slow down to negotiate the bend, I guess. The Challenger goes straight ahead, through a clump of trees and down a ravine. I was trapped inside the car for three days before a Japanese hiker found me. They had to cut me out. The leg was severed off above the knee. I had lost pints of blood and was unconscious when they found me. I don’t know; I may have had a drink or two. I often stopped by at a little Hispanic bar in Salinas, but truth is I can’t remember.’

I am silent. I do know what to say.

‘To cut a long story short,’ says Dutch, ‘I was in the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital for months. Laura didn’t visit me once. The day before I got out, I found that she was divorcing me. She didn’t like the idea of living with Long John Silver. Life is quite simply before the accident and after the accident…. They didn’t film Vertigo in the end.’

I have split up with Rachel after six years. She moved her things out the week before last. I have let my friend, Iain, stay for a while. Iain got back from India a few days ago. He has been to Southern Asia many times, but the political situation is changing, and he says it is now much harder to travel around that part of the world. Chitral, Kashmir, and Nepal are now hostile areas, and he thinks the Shah of Iran may soon be deposed and word is going around that the Soviets might invade Afghanistan. The end of the hippie trail. It also looks as if the cowboy actor might become President, I point out. Dangerous times ahead, we agree.

By way of rent, Iain is helping to redecorate the flat. It is a spacious conversion, on three floors of a Regency building, if that is not a contradiction. We are painting the large front room burgundy and Venetian blue, picking out the pictures rails and the cornice. He says it will look theatrical, like a stage set. We have some modern art planned for the door panels, Piet Mondrian, maybe. Iain isn’t your stereotypical hippie. He wears a tweed jacket, listens to classical music and is a fan of ‘The Archers.’ You can pick it up on BBC World Service, he says. He tells me how he had to be near a set every day when Shula was stranded in Bangkok after her money was stolen, and how he hopes that the hapless Eddie Grundy’s turkey farm will take off. Eddie and Joe add some spark to the programme. I have no idea what he is talking about.

Iain has brought back some Nepalese temple balls and after three days of painting we are only halfway through the second wall. We are taking a break for a cup of Darjeeling Spring Flush tea. Apparently, Darjeeling tea reduces mental and physical stress and promotes a feeling of relaxation and well-being.

‘It’s to do with the amino acids,’ he says. ‘I’ve noticed that you seem on edge.’

‘Six years is a long time,’ I say. ‘It takes some adjustment. I miss Rachel’s perfume on the pillow, her books on the bookshelf, her notes around the house, her piles of clothes on the bedroom floor, the condiments and spices in the kitchen….and even the sound of the hoover on a Sunday morning.’

‘And the sex.’

‘Yes, the sex obviously.’

‘She wasn’t having an affair, was she?’

‘Not that I was aware of.’

‘And you aren’t having an affair.’

‘No. Why do you ask?’

‘Nothing. Just a thought. So the split was her decision.’

‘I suppose so.’

‘When people live together for a long time they are likely to gravitate towards stasis.’ says Iain. ‘How much of what you are feeling is down to not wanting change? ‘

‘I don’t know. Some of it, I suppose. I like to be able to pick up things where I left them.’

‘But change is the only certainty.’

‘But all the same….’

‘You wanted happy ever after,’ he says.

‘I just want to be happy,’ I say.

‘There is no happy ending,’ he laughs. ‘You only find happy endings in books. Happiness and sadness are like yin and yang. One chases the other in an never ending cosmic circle. Therefore, you must not put all your effort and energies into clinging to them. It is much better to detach yourself from these illusions and go with the flow.’

‘How do I do that? ‘

‘You will learn to. As Ibsen said, We sail with a corpse in the cargo.’

It is April 1986. I am curating an exhibition called Probably the Best Art Exhibition in the World, put together by my friend, Reuben Flood with the help of 2000 local schoolchildren. The name of the exhibition was Reuben’s idea, I was against it. I pointed out that Carlsberg had been using the slogan for fifteen years and perhaps it was a tad hackneyed. I suggested Artbeat and Plan It (Planet). Reuben, however, was adamant. Curating is perhaps a grand term for my part in proceedings. I work for a charity and the exhibition is in a large community hall that we have hired with the benefit of a huge grant from an environmental organisation. The theme for the work is the environment. It focusses loosely on Africa. The colourful exhibits are made from chicken wire, papier maché, cardboard and litres and litres of acrylic paint.

It is a beautiful spring day and, as Julia has gone to visit her family in the north, I have gone in early. It is the day before the opening and Reuben has been up all night putting the final touches to the exhibits. He is playing Highway 61 Revisited at staggering volume and jigging around with a flat bristle brush, a dab of paint here and a dab there. We are both of a generation that saw Highway 61 as a turning point. Played loud, It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry sounds incredible. I take a look around the hall and it is like being immersed in a rainbow. There is so much colour. Wherever you look the kaleidoscopic brilliance of this playground of youthful imagination animates your senses.

Reuben picks up a pot of bright green paint and I follow him into the tropical undergrowth. You can almost feel the humidity.

‘What’s the difference between rainforest and jungle?’ I ask. I feel it is something that I ought to know.

‘Rainforests have a thick canopy of tall trees. This means fewer plants at ground level. Trees block out much of the light needed by most plants, so you will usually only find shade loving ground plants in rainforest areas. Did you know that more than half of the world’s species of plants and animals are found in the rainforest,’ Reuben tells me. ‘It would be hard to do rainforest in this hall. Technically what you see here is jungle. Dense vegetation that grows around the rainforest or where the trees have been cut down. But that’s not the point. I’m not teaching the youngsters geography. It’s the bigger picture I’m interested in.’

Apart from the jungle, there is also a township with brightly painted shacks, a savannah plain, and even a river. There are lions and tigers and zebras and leopards and flamingos and ibises and a family of elephants. The elephants are colossal. Brightly coloured flags of African nations hang from the ceiling.

‘What a display!’ I say. ‘It’s fantastic. You’re a genius.’

‘Rubbish,’ says Reuben. ‘Only a select few artists are geniuses. The rest of us just work very hard. I work all the time. Even when I’m not working, I’m working. You need three things to be an artist, the eye, the hand and the heart. Two won’t do. The heart is the most important.’

The hall is very large and Reuben goes off to a back room to get some paste to stick a yellow and black python to a coconut palm. I take a walk through the lush jungle and explore the townships, cross the river, and greet the pygmy drummers. The attention to detail is extraordinary. I find myself regretting not having developed my own artistic talent. Everything had gone well until Mr Ford had ridiculed my attempt at an abstract landscape in the Lower Fifth form. I had done practically nothing since.

‘I wish everyone could see this exhibition,’ I say when Reuben returns. ‘Art from the heart as you put it.’

Throughout the morning, a number of corpulent local councillors and earnest looking environmental representatives visit. They all bestow their approval. At lunchtime, the news comes in that my sister, Sarah, an activist on the Protect Wildlife in Africa campaign, has been tragically mown down in Namibia by a rampaging elephant. She had died instantly. An elephant ‘in musth’, the report says will charge anything that crosses its path. The condition, triggered by massively increased levels of testosterone, is a major problem in these parts of Africa.

‘Is that for me?’ says Joi, her gaze taking in the bulge in my jeans.
She has just come through the door and is putting her travelling bag down. Joi and I have been seeing each other for about three months. She has been away for a few days, and I have missed her. She is tanned and her dark hair is hanging loose around her shoulders. Her Louis Vuitton skirt hugs her hips tightly and her breasts seem to be powering their way out of the low cut top she is wearing. I have Miles Davis’ Tutu playing. I pretty much only listen to jazz now. I find pop and rock in the mid-nineties so unsubtle.

Joi leads me off to the bedroom. She has a wicked smile. She slips her skirt off slowly to the sound of Miles’ muted trumpet. She is wearing sheer black tanga panties. She guides my hand towards her favourite spot. It is warm and wet. I kiss her urgently and pull her down onto the bed, where frenzied passion takes over.

‘What was that all about?’ she says afterwards. My unrestrained ardour seems to have taken her by surprise.

‘I wanted you badly,’ I say.

‘I must go away more often,’ she laughs.

‘I think I’d rather you didn’t.’

‘I’d rather I didn’t too. Perhaps I should move in. We’re good together, aren’t we?’

I hesitate before I answer what was probably not a question anyway. I give her a warm post-coital hug to give myself time to consider my words. I feel like a million dollars but at the same time a creeping melancholy. When things are this good, I begin to worry that my credit at the Metaphorical Bank of Serendipity might be running out and somehow will be paid for with something infortuitous. My experience suggests that epiphanies have the tendency to foreshadow calamity. I am also unaccustomed to sharing my deepest secret fears. It is dangerous to let down your guard. I want what I say to come out right.

‘Sometimes when everything is going well,’ I say. ‘I have this sense of foreboding that something bad is about to happen. That something is going to be taken away.’

‘You mean like Happiness, that state you dare not enter with hopes of staying, quicksand in the marshes and all.’

‘Certainly the quicksand in the marshes part. That’s very good. Where’s does it come from?’

‘It’s the opening of a poem. Stephen Dunn.’

‘The thing is, I’m usually right, which scares me a little.’

I relate to her the occasion that I had climbed the North Face of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the UK with my fellow climber, Roy Tavistock. Roy had been my instructor at the Everest Climbing Club in the Brecon Beacons.

‘I was a comparative novice and I had never attempted anything so daring before. I had never been particularly good at physical sports, so for me the climb was a supreme accomplishment. Roy congratulated me. Its Grade he explained was ‘Difficult’. There had he said been a number of fatalities over the years. We stayed on the plateau at the summit for a bit, taking it all in, the wind whistling around us. I felt literally on top of the world. By world standards, Ben Nevis may not be the highest, but it was to me. I understood how Sir Edmund Hillary must have felt. Late in the afternoon, we began our descent. Roy warned me this would be more difficult than the ascent and would need concentration. About halfway down I was struck by a flying crampon. I was concussed and had to be rescued by air ambulance. I was in hospital for over a week.’

‘Dramatic stuff,’ says Joi. ‘So, my hero, what is it that you think it is that is going to happen?’

‘That’s the trouble. You never know. If you knew then you would be able to prepare for it.’

‘They say that every action has an opposite and equal reaction, you can’t have night without day,’ Joi says, sounding like she had just been on a Buddhist workshop.

‘Or day without night,’ I say. ‘It’s the day part that is the problem because you know that it must be followed my night.’

‘And then day again. Look! Why can’t you view it another way, crisis contains the opportunity for growth and bad luck becomes good luck. Adversity spawns creativity. But we’re not talking about adversity. I don’t see much adversity.’

I think about what Joi has said. I’m sure she has a valid point, but she is looking at the thing the wrong way round, so in a sense, she is missing the point I am trying to make.

‘My analogy is that if you have had a run of six green lights, then you are unlikely to get a seventh’, I say. ‘Each green light increases the chances that the next one will be red.’

‘Don’t you think that is a little negative,’ she says, sitting up and folding her arms over her breasts in a defensive gesture. ‘Every red light could be seen as positive because the chances of a green light next time increase.’

‘How does that help when you get the feeling that things are going too well?’

I seem to have dug myself into a hole. The conversation ends there. Joi gets dressed. She says she is going out for some air. She doesn’t return. She doesn’t come round again. Life it seems is a series of losses

Maya is awake now. She has been asleep for most of the flight.

‘Funny how some situations bring unrelated memories flooding back,’ I say to her. ‘With me, it’s air travel.’

‘You mean involuntary memory. Like Proust’s madeleine,’ she says.

I give her a disapproving look because I feel she should know I have not read Proust.

‘In the last volume of À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, Proust describes how he was eating a madeleine that he had dipped in tea when a series of memories from his past came flooding back to him,’ she says. ‘He felt those things you remember involuntarily contain the essence of the past.’

‘I guess that’s it,’ I say hoping that it isn’t the case as each of my wayward reminiscences has been an episode that turned out badly.

It is September 2001. Maya and I are flying to New York to celebrate my fiftieth birthday, which is on the eleventh. We are on a Boeing 747 flying at 35,000 feet. We are over the tip of Greenland. This seems a little off course to me, so I take the opportunity to ask a stewardess.

‘Transatlantic flights go this way because it is quicker. It is known as a Great Circle route,’ she says, knowledgeably. She explains that this is the shortest distance between two points on a sphere and that westbound flights tend to run more northerly due to the prevailing westerlies. I am more confused than I was.

We are going to stay in Lower Manhattan. Maya knows New York quite well and for my birthday she is going to take me to breakfast at Wild Blue in the Windows of The World Restaurant, which is on the 107th floor of the World Trade Centre. Through the full-length windows, Maya tells me, you get unrivalled views of the southern tip of Manhattan, where the Hudson and East Rivers meet. The weather forecast is good.

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved

 

 

James Brown – The Godfather of Soil

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James Brown – The Godfather of Soil by Chris Green

Susanna and I were having a lunchtime glass of Chardonnay at Cafe Rouge. She had called me earlier at work. She had sounded a little distraught, so I had rearranged my diary to for us to meet up. She suspected Charlie was seeing a younger woman. Over the first glass or two, we had examined the evidence, his late nights at the office, the restaurant receipts in the MG, his increased interest in personal grooming, and the dropping off of his libido, this despite the Agent Provocateur lingerie she had purchased. Most distressing were the graphic photos she had discovered on his mobile phone. We had discussed the possible avenues of retribution open to her, clearing out the joint bank account, an affair with a younger man, bromide in his morning tea, or divorce papers. Towards the end of the bottle, Susanna decided to lighten the conversation.

‘Did you know, Amanda, that playing music to plants aids their growth?’ she said.

‘Is that right?’ I said. I was naturally a little dubious about such a claim. It had a Life on Mars ring to it. Susanna was prone to fanciful ideas at times.

‘I read it in an article by a Chinese botanist in a magazine I picked up at the dentist,’ she said.

I believe Susanna has a fairly upmarket dentist, mine only has months-old copies of ‘Hello’ magazine in the waiting room. Hello doesn’t usually have a significant science content.

‘Interesting,’ I said, hoping not to show my disinterest.

‘You have a good stock of plants around the house,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you give it a try?’

‘What kind of music do you think they would like to hear,’ I asked. I did after all have a large CD collection, made up mostly of those that Nick had left when he moved out to live with that tramp, Chloe. Chloe, for some reason did not seem to care for music, so Nick had never been back for them. It had been six months now.

‘All types of music, I imagine,’ Susanna said. ‘I suppose you will need to experiment.’

I didn’t get on to it right away, but after a couple of grey early summer months, during which my indoor plants, particularly the bromeliads, began to look a little sad, I decided that it would do no harm. I started in a conservative way, playing them Chopin and Einaudi, then Bach and Handel, chosen on the basis that soothing music would be more likely to be therapeutic. Gradually I introduced them to The Corrs, The Beach Boys and REM.

In late July, Susanna phoned. As soon as I heard her voice, I could tell that something was wrong. Over lunch at Le Petit Blanc, once the business of Charlie’s latest indiscretions were out of the way (their joint bank account balance had plummeted, he had brought the other woman to the house), I reported back to her. Some plants, I explained, had responded marginally better than others to different types of music, but overall there seemed to be very little difference in their growth patterns, although I was almost sure that Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had killed my cyclamen, Young mostly I suspected. I asked her if she had been back to the dentist recently.

‘No,’ she said. Her teeth were tickedy boo since she had been using the interdentals and the organic toothpaste that Mr Ondaatje had recommended. And the composite filling was holding up well, despite her fondness for Belgian chocolate.

‘You don’t remember anything else about the plant article,’ I asked.

‘I do seem to recall that it concluded that it is all to do with vibrations. Perhaps your little darlings need something a little more up tempo or with a little bass.’

Over the next few days I tried out Little Richard, Bob Marley, and James Brown. So far as I could tell, the lemon tree in the conservatory responded favourably to Little Richard. The yucca seemed to perk up to Bob Marley, while the palms preferred James Brown. It was difficult to keep track from day to day which music had what effect on which plants, so I set up a spreadsheet on the computer, and prepared special playlists, based on genre. I took to leaving music on while I went to work. One day pop, one day soul, one day jazz, one day rock, etc.

Remarkably, all the plants seemed to favour heavy metal. My curiosity raised by this, I found a forum on the internet on the subject of playing music for plants. I had not imagined that there would be such a forum, but I discovered that there were several. While there was by no means universal agreement on which music stimulated growth, many subscribers to the forums had arrived at the same conclusion. Heavy metal was the key to happy houseplants. The repetitive riffs and screaming guitars appear to promote rapid growth said wildoutlaw93 The heavier the better said thebeast666, and turn the volume right up. Try them on AC/DC, Twisted Sister and Judas Priest oilygrebo recommended, and of course Black Sabbath.

I now play Black Sabbath to my plants eight hours a day. I have set up speakers all around the house. I put Paranoid or Heaven and Hell on at eight before I leave for work and set the player to repeat. My croton which has never flowered before has produced a bloom, and my orchids are colossal.

The Englebys next door, I notice, have a For Sale sign outside.

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved

Norwegian Wood

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Norwegian Wood by Chris Green

Rubber Soul is one of my favourite Beatles albums. I am looking at the cover photo by Robert Freeman, which is one in a collection of Freeman’s Beatles images that line the hallway at Florian and Rhonda’s house in Hanover Hill. The Rubber Soul photos, taken in late 1965, capture perfectly the Fab Fours’s weariness as their fame and hectic touring schedules becomes overwhelming. Rubber Soul is the album in which John Lennon raises his game. ‘In My Life’ is surely one of the most perfectly crafted pop songs ever, ‘Girl’ is sublime, and still there is the enigmatic ‘Norwegian Wood’. Norwegian Wood with its veiled imagery describes a clandestine affair that Lennon is having. Biographer, Philip Norman claims in his Lennon biography that the song’s inspiration is in fact, German model, Sonny Drane, Robert Freeman’s first wife, who used to say she was from Norway, when she was in fact born in Berlin.

Florian and Rhonda’s house, 12 Wellesley Crescent, is the last in a terrace of ‘First-Rate’ Georgian town houses in Hanover Hill. You might describe Hanover Hill as a fashionable part of town. Its avenues, lined with London plane and lime trees, give it an air of elegance, and the Repton-designed park which was originally used as a run for horses, still boasts the trappings of its earlier prestige. These have been added to over the years by monuments and statues to the great and good, and around its freestone crescents and circuses, blue plaques abound. Despite the downturn we have heard so much about, I have noticed that an puzzling new piece of public art by Anthony Gormley has appeared at the Hanover Gates, a gesture perhaps towards modernity. Desirable, substantial, ‘imposing’ and ‘stunning’ are among the adjectives you might find in Hamilton and Prufock’s window to describe the properties here, along of course with ‘Grade 2’ and ‘Listed’.

Florian and Rhonda are old friends from my days at the Royal Academy of Music. Although our fortunes have over the years pulled us in different directions, we have kept in touch. Having finished tuning a vibraphone in the area, I have called round to see them on the off-chance they might be in, and have been let in anonymously by their entryphone. Florian and Rhonda have not come to greet me, but this in itself is not unusual; they are very bohemian and have a liberal open house policy. They probably saw me on the CCTV when I came in and therefore know that I am in the house. Meanwhile I am exploring their artistic treasure trove.

My partner, Sara is less than enthusiastic about Florian and Rhonda. She feels they are too intellectual. Sara prefers the company of more down to earth couples like her friends, Wendy and Wayne or Amanda and Adam. She likes to have a diary of firm arrangements, such as dinner parties or theatre visits. She does not respond well to many of my impromptu suggestions, so I have adopted the policy of leaving her out of the loop on occasions that I want to do something a little spontaneous.

‘Hello!’ I call out. ‘It’s me, Jon.’

There is no reply. I pop my head around a couple of doors. I am never sure what to expect with Florian and Rhonda. They see themselves as conceptual artists, and in addition to Wellesley Crescent, rent a warehouse in Hartwell, which they use as creative space. They could never be described as predictable. In the first room an Indian sits cross legged quietly playing the sitar. He does not look up. The second houses film sets that might have belonged to Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’, and the third, Florian’s model railway. I make my way up the sweeping staircase to the first floor. A pair of Palladian plinths with busts of classical figures hovers on the landing with an abstract steel and glass installation beside them in belligerent juxtaposition. Florian and Rhonda have always been eclectic in their tastes, mixing styles with what they term, measured abandon. I knock gently on the heavy oak door to the right which has been left slightly ajar, and walk in.

Taking up most of the first floor, the room is absurdly large, much larger than I remember it. Its high ceiling and elaborate cornices give it the appearance of a hall or a theatre. I have arrived it seems in the middle of a film. The room is in semi-darkness to accommodate this. I look around to get my bearings. Sombre paintings, a curious mix of Dalí and De Chirico, are on display, along with Florian and Rhonda’s familiar J. B. Joyce clock, reminiscent of the one at the station in ‘Brief Encounter’, stopped for eternity at eleven minutes past eleven. They once explained the significance of eleven minutes past eleven, but I cannot recall what this is. On the back wall is a trompe l’oeil of an arched cloister fading impossibly into the distance, like the thread of a Borges story. I feel self conscious at not being acknowledged.

I take in the assembly of arbitrary faces, all of which I seem to recognise. They are seated in an informal arrangement of chairs and cushions around the room. This curious collection of random representatives from my past is alarming. Some have aged as you would expect over a period of time, but others are, to my consternation, exactly as I remember them years ago. No sign of their having aged. All eyes are focussed on the giant Samsung TV and Home Cinema system. No one looks up as, with an air of trepidation, I sit myself down on a Verona armchair just inside the door. Apart from the intermittent echo of the soundtrack of the film, there is a hush which is disturbingly pervasive. The film is in what I take to be Swedish, but has no subtitles. Is it Ingemar Bergman’s ‘Wild Strawberries’? I wonder. I feel a growing dryness in my throat. I have difficulty breathing. My chest tightens. The whole scene is so out of context I think it must be a dream. It isn’t a dream. In a dream you can’t feel your heartbeat, and mine is pounding like a hammer.

There seems to be an eerie detachment about all of those present, as if each of them is in his or her own private universe, but by accident rather than design happen to occupy the same space here in this room. They sit alone or in pairs, and the body language of each seems to suggest that they have no connection with the any of the others. But then, as I look around again, I conclude there is no connection. This is not a re-union. These people would not know one another. There would have been no reason for their ever coming together. I am the only link. I know or have known each of them as separate individuals in different areas and at different times of my fifty six years. Some I have met through jobs I have had, some through recreational pursuits and others through transactions of one kind or another. Furthermore, I can see no-one here that I would choose to meet in the pub for a pint.

The flickering light from the film illuminates the figures and their faces take on a spectral glow. If Florian and Rhonda are aiming at strange they have certainly cracked it. A few feet away from me sitting upright in a carver seat is Bob Scouler, the nerdy systems programmer I worked with at International Adhesives and Sealants over thirty years ago, a temporary summer job and well before the toxicity of their products caused a major scandal. Bob is wearing the same grey serge suit I remember, along with the familiar tattersall check shirt and lovat and mauve paisley tie. His haircut, the neat central parting and the sides hanging just over the tip of his ears is from the same era, although even then a somewhat dated look. He has not aged a day. He looks as if he has just stepped out of the office. I half expect him to start talking about his Morris Marina (brown with a black vinyl roof). Are those IBM coding sheets that he has on his lap?

Next to him stretched out on a bank of Moroccan floor cushions is Razor, my son Damien’s one-time drug dealer. He used to hang about outside the college I recall. Did Damien still owe him money, I wonder, or is it Razor that owes him drugs? Razor does seem to have aged dramatically. In fact were it not been for the scar across his cheek I might not have recognised him. The original scar, a legacy rumour has it of a ‘turf war’, seems to have been joined by a companion just below the jungle of gold earrings. He must only be in his mid thirties but with the reds, yellows and greens of the tattoos that cover his shaved head now faded, Razor looks distressingly old.

Bob and Razor are polar opposites. The chances of them being part of the same social group in any circumstances are remote. Florian and Rhonda are perhaps conducting an anthropological experiment of some sort. Or could this gathering be an example of their conceptual art.

Over by the bamboo palm there is the bulky frame of Ray (Marshall) Stax, who I briefly shared a converted railway carriage with in the seventies. Marshall became a sound engineer with a number of rock bands that nearly made it. As I played the piano, I came up with the odd melody for one or two of the bands. I was never credited, but the royalties would not have been staggering had I been, even with ‘Armageddon’. The NME showed an interest in Armageddon’s début single ‘Don’t You Fuck My Dog’ in 1976 calling it a ‘punk anthem.’ It suffered from a subsequent lack of airplay and Armageddon faded into obscurity when the following month the NME turned their attention to The Sex Pistols as the ambassadors of punk. I think they took my piano part out in the mix anyway. I recall Armageddon disbanded after the singer accidentally shot himself in the groin. Looking at Marshall, he has not changed that much except that the platforms and flares I remember have been replaced by contemporary cool clothes, screaming with designer advertising. The clothes may have been au courant but his features suggest that he is still in his twenties. I might be looking at Marshall Stax circa 1976, or this could conceivably be Marshall Stax’s son, although the Sid Vicious haircut clearly belongs to yesteryear. I make gestures in his direction but I am unable to attract his attention.

Seated on a gnarled banquette, which matches her leathery countenance, is Denise Felch, who was my manager at the local newspaper I worked on as music correspondent a few years back. She is dressed in mismatched browns and reds. I don’t know if it is her build (Rugby League second row), but whatever she wears, Denise had the ability to make look like a sack. She seems to be the only person in the room who is smoking and you have to say that she smokes with dogged determination. The light from the screen highlights the nicotine stains on all her fingers and even her spectacles have a brownish tint. The ashtray on the telephone table beside her is full. Denise does not look over and for this I am thankful. My severance pay from The Morning Lark was not generous and we did not part on good terms.

I met Barry on a balloon ride over The New Forest a year or so back. He explained at the time that he was from the Black Country (frum Doodlay), although he really didn’t need to. His speech sounded as if he might in fact be singing and was sprinkled with ‘yo ams’, ‘they ams’ and ‘yow arights’. The downward intonation towards the end of each sentence makes him sound as if he is severely depressed. I remember Barry mostly though not from his dodgy diction but because he has a prosthetic leg. He lost his leg he told me in a ballooning accident. ‘And here you are in a balloon,’ I said. He went on to tell me that he did charity parachute jumps and had just started hang gliding. He also did bungee jumps off bridges and abseiled public buildings. It had been hard to shut him up. And here he is. He looks across the room in my direction and I wave but he turns quickly back to the screen. Why is everyone ignoring me? Haven’t I materialised properly? Or am I out of focus maybe, like the Robin Williams character in the Woody Allen movie?

I spot Colin and Malcolm, the landlords of The Duck, a pub by the river Sara and I often visit on a summer evening for a drink or two watching the boats make their way round the gentle meander. Sara and I were invited to their Civil Ceremony but we agreed that it was not the right social mêlée, although as I recall the real reason may have been that the date had clashed with Sara’s amateur tennis tournament. And seated on a Marley two seater here in this room now mulling over a Sudoku puzzle book are Eileen and Mark from Sara’s tennis club. Sara seems to be spending a lot of time there lately with her tennis coach, Henrik. I wonder if maybe they are having an affair. Eileen and Mark look as if they would be more comfortable at home with their ceramic induction hob and their range of rice cookers. They of course like everyone else in the room do not seem to notice me.

And my God! There is Ravi from Maharajah Wines, the ‘offie’ where I used to buy my cans when I played sessions at Olympic Studios. He was always open at two in the morning when I finished my shift. Ravi used to call me George, after George Harrison I think. I never asked. ‘Got some Drum under the counter George if you are wanting it,’ he would say. ‘Special price for you on Stella.’ Was that twenty five years ago? It seems like twenty five minutes ago. Haven’t I just put a can of Stella beside me down? I pick it up and shake it. It is empty. I have been in the room now for perhaps twenty five seconds, but time seems to be playing tricks.

I have never entirely come to terms with the passing of time. The general experience of its passage is that at twenty, it could be likened to a pedestrian able to take in the surroundings at leisure, at thirty an accelerating velocipede, at forty a frisky roadster, at fifty a bullet train, and thereafter a supersonic jet. However there are some puzzling things about the moment, any given moment, being there and then gone and irretrievable that doesn’t sit well with the perception of it in one’s consciousness. Something doesn’t quite add up about the way many things that are important at the time fade into the obscure recesses of the unconscious, while other trivial recollections from long ago survive intact and seem like they happened only yesterday highlights time’s inconsistency. I have to keep a detailed diary and refer to it constantly to keep track of what I did and when. I use Te Neues art diaries. But even with this record, all that I am doing was measuring change. I read recently that scientists no longer see time as linear, the bad news for us being that they believe our brains are programmed through a process of indoctrination to think of time as linear. We remember things happening in the past, things are moving around in the present, we can plan to do things in the future and we have an agreed upon measurement of time – so the mind gives the illusion of time and continuum. All there is, however, is now and things happening now and moving around. It could be that time is a loop or even infinite, or both. I have been known to espouse, usually after a glass of wine or two, that all time probably exists simultaneously.

I take the soft melting watches in Salvador Dalí’s painting ‘The Persistence of Memory’ which I notice is a design for one of the floor cushions in the room, to be a reference to temporal anomaly. Clocks seem to be measuring something but no one knows what. It’s not like length. You can point to an object with a real physical reality and say ‘that’s one unit in length’. But time is abstract. Cool cushion though! And also in what must be a surrealist set of cushions is Rene Magritte’s ‘Time Transfigured’, (the one with the steam locomotive emerging from the fireplace). ‘Ongoing Time Stabbed by a Dagger’ is the literal translation for the title of the painting, I recall. The distortion of time is clearly a recurrent theme in this outrageous display. I am almost sure the cushion design that Damien’s old Geography teacher at St Judes, Miss Jackson is sitting on is Man Ray’s ‘Seven Decades of Man’. And the set is completed by Otto Rapp’s ‘Consumption of Time’. Definitely not a casual buy from Ikea.

Is that Halo, my old jin shin jytsu therapist sipping the green coloured drink? I only went to see her twice – too much mumbo jumbo, but recall a cornucopia of vibrant Berber jewellery from those meetings. I smile at her, and she hesitantly she smiles back, leaving perhaps an opening for conversation, which neither of us take. Again it comes to mind that I seem to know all the people here, but they are, like Halo, bit players in my life. No-one out of this mismatched melée has been a close acquaintance or played a significant role. Any rationality in their being here eludes me. And if for whatever peculiar reason they are Florian and Rhonda’s guests, where for Heaven’s sake are the hosts?

It takes me a little while to work out the the figure in the blue and white striped blazer and straw hat sitting on a settee in front of an old vellum map of Scandinavia is Chick Strangler. I am more accustomed to seeing him in Lycra. We used to go cycling together on Sunday mornings a few years ago when it became apparent that both of us needed to shed a few pounds. I myself resisted the lure of Lycra for these outings, favouring a warm and comfortable tracksuit. Chick has left the bike in the garage once or twice over the past five years by the look of his girth. Chick and his wife Cheryl lived next door to Sara and me in Dankworth Drive. Red bricked semis on a suburban estate, near the golf course. Last I heard the Stranglers had moved to Florida. A long way to come to watch a Swedish film – which I now notice is displaying its subtitles – in French.

My French is a little rusty but Isak, the old man recalling his life seems to be saying something along the lines of ‘I don’t know how it happened, but the day’s reality flowed into dreamlike images. I don’t even know if it was a dream, (‘rêve is dream isn’t it?) or memories which arose with the force of real events. And then something about playing the piano.’

‘Subitement je l’ai vue. Quand je me suis retourné après le fait de regarder la maison d’une façon étrange transformée je l’ai découverte où elle s’agenouillait dans sa robe cotonnière jaune de soleil, en choisissant des fraises sauvages.’

There are too many big words but I recognise odd phrases, something about a strangely transformed house and a girl in a yellow cotton dress picking wild strawberries. I try to follow for a little while. The old man has found a portal into the past it seems and is trying to talk to Sara, the girl he loved who married his brother, Sigfrid.

The crisp black and white images flash over the faces in the room.

I become aware of Russ Harmer and Dolly Dagger. Have they just arrived or have they up till now been hidden from sight? Russ Harmer was the neighbourhood bully when I was growing up. For years he menaced and beat up anyone who did not suck up to him, until one day he ran into Borstal boy, Tank Sherman. Whether Russ became less odious after the fierce hammering he had taken is difficult to say, but it had knocked his facial features into a shape that remained easily recognisable today. I cannot connect him with Dolly Dagger in any way but here they are together. I shared a house in Dark Street with Dolly Dagger, along with a forever changing roundabout of short term tenants in the months of my post-student malaise. Dolly Dagger was in those days working as an escort and even then it seemed hell bent on a descent into drugs, one which fortunately I did not succumb to. We are not talking a little Blow or even an occasional toot of Charlie here, although that’s how it started. We are talking ‘freebasing’ and ‘needles and pinza’. Despite the decline, Dolly has one of those faces that somehow still retains the carelessness of youth, fine Oriental features you could never forget. She has aged, certainly, but at least she is still alive.

It is a monumental shock to see Bernie Foden who used to service my Sierra. I have palpitations as my heart goes into overdrive. Bernie died ten years ago of throat cancer. I went to his funeral. I close my eyes and open them again. He is still there. This is not a faint apparition, this is a living, breathing, three dimensional human form.

‘Bernie!’ I venture. He does not reply.

The rupture of logic here in this sinister theatre is stifling. My nerves are in tatters. What on earth is happening here? Am I having a nervous breakdown?

I try to calm myself with the Pranayama Complete Breath exercise I learned from one of Sara’s Yoga books, ‘Yoga for Dummies’ or something. The deep breathing helps a little. All mysteries have an explanation, I tell myself. It is just finding it. How for instance would a detective writing a report describe the situation? A detective would be methodical. He might start with noting his observations and run through a series of checks of who,what, why, where, when and how and establish facts through a process of elimination. He would pick out the points that he could confirm and see where there were gaps, before coming to his judgement. His report might run like this.

At 6.30pm Jon Conway (56) finished tuning a Yamaha three octave vibraphone at an address in Well Lane. He had two hours before he was planning to meet his wife, Sara and her friends, Tracey and Trevor at La Trattoria Terrazza for an evening meal. He decided to use the time to call in on his old friends, Florian and Rhonda Moreau, who lived close by at 12 Wellesley Square. He arrived at their residence at 6:38pm and was afforded entry to the building by person or persons unknown. Seeing no sign of activity downstairs, he proceeded to the first floor, taking in a series of art works as he did so. The door to a large room was open and he entered, finding a diverse selection of persons that he knew or had known, seated around the room watching a film which he believed to be Ingemar Bergman’s ‘Wild Strawberries’, a film about an old man recalling his past. Jon Conway was surprised to see all of those assembled as they appeared to have no connection with his friends, Florian and Rhonda, or with one another. There was no sign of Florian and Rhonda but a number of familiar objects and artworks in the room along with a trompe l’oeil that they had long been planning, confirmed to him that this was the correct apartment. His surprise was intensified by anomalies in the relative ageing of those assembled; some looked as they had years ago while others had aged. One of the assembled had in fact died three years previously. None of those in the room had acknowledged Jon. They behaved as if he were not there. Jon has confirmed to himself that this was not a dream because he is aware of all his senses.’

These are the observable facts, although the fact it often turns out is a slippery customer.

Just when I think the disturbing soiree can get no more bizarre, the actor Dirk Bogarde, who I have never met, drifts in dressed immaculately in a dark three piece suit, Borsalino hat and thin woollen tie. He looks as he did in his matinee idol days. Didn’t Dirk die recently too? If so, no one seems to have told him. He breezes over to me and holds out his manicured hand. We shake hands and he congratulates me on something that in the confusion goes over my head. He then switches his interest to the film and sits down next to Razor. Neither acknowledges the other.

This is all too kooky. I decide I have to pull out to go and look for Florian and Rhonda. They will hopefully be able to shed some light on what this surreal circus is all about.

Set over several floors with unexpected half landings and mezzanines and many other changes to what would have been the original design of the house, their home is a bit of a maze. Florian and Rhonda bought the house as a ‘project’ at the beginning of the property boom in the early eighties and have bit by bit converted it. Not in a conventional way by any means. I feel an eerie chill and pull my jacket around me as I explore the photographic darkroom and the embalming suite on the other side of the hallway. Finding no-one there I start to make my way upstairs.

It is by now getting dark and I cannot find a light switch. In fact mounted flush on the wall where you might expect to find a switch is a full 88 key piano keyboard. Do I have to play a note or select a chord to turn on the light, I wonder. I experiment with a few chords, C major and C Minor, D major and D minor then all the other majors and minors. No lights come on. I play Wagner’s famous ‘Tristan Chord’. ‘Disorientating and daring’, they called it at the time. It isn’t the one though. Still no lights. Perhaps I need to play a tune. I play the opening bars of What’ I’d Say and Imagine. The intro to Bohemian Rhapsody. All a bit too obvious maybe. I try the opening from Blue Rondo à La Turk and one of Satie’s Gymnopédies or is it a Gnossienne? I notice that a shaft of light is now guiding me to a room on one of the upper floors.

As I reach the top of the stairs, Anna appears from the room carrying a Rococo style floral tray. She offers me a bagel. Her greeting is one of expectation rather than surprise. Mine is one of surprise. Astonishment!

‘Would you like it with cream cheese?’ she asks. An amatory smile flashes mischievously.

Anna looks exactly as I remember her five years ago; we had a clandestine liaison when she was married to Bob. Anna has not changed a bit. She is tanned and her hair is cut in the same way in a longish bob cut and even has the same russet red colour. Flame red I think it was called. She has full lips, and eyes that are so dramatically large, volatile, and seductive, so strikingly set, that I wonder if they are real. Her Louis Vuitton skirt hugs her hips tightly and her breasts seem to be powering their way out of the low cut top she is wearing.

Sensing my embarrassment at our meeting she says. ‘I don’t have the patience for foreign films either.’

We make small talk for a while about the freak thunderstorms we have been having lately and the tabloid sub-editors’ strike. I do not want to advertise the full scale of my bewilderment at the series of events unfolding. Here is a beautiful woman I haven’t seen for years and I do not want to burden her with my insecurities. Sometimes there can be more than one explanation to a situation.

‘What about you?’ I ask. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘I live here,’ she smiles. ‘I rent rooms off your friends Florian and Rhonda. Would you like me to show you?’

She leads me off to her pied a terre. It is brightly coloured and furnished with pine furniture in the Scandinavian style. I sit on a rug. She opens a bottle of red wine to go with the bagels and cream cheese. She slips her skirt off slowly to the sound of a sultry tenor saxophone. Anna has one of those hi fi set-ups you can hear in every room. Stan Getz was always our favourite. The wispy mellow tone of Serenade in Blue is followed by Secret Love and But Beautiful, with Herbie Hancock guesting on piano on Lover Man.

When Anna and I return downstairs a little later, the film has finished. The guests all seem to have left and Florian and Rhonda are clearing away.

I ask about the guests.

‘Just some people from the film club,’ says Rhonda. ‘We are looking at the Bergman classic to explore the concept of ‘the unreliable narrator.’

‘I didn’t think you two were there,’ I say. ‘I could not see you.’

‘There were only six of us this week,’ said Florian. ‘Bit disappointing really.’

I begin counting. ‘What about Marshall and Razor, Chick, Denise Felch, Bob Scouler, Colin and Malcolm, Dolly Dagger, Russ, and Ravi. Bernie, Halo, Miss Jackson, Barry, Eileen and Mark from the tennis club. And Dirk Bogarde.’

‘What?’ say Florian. ‘Who?’

‘They were all here watching the film,’ I protest.

‘No, there was just myself and Rhonda, Elliot and Rachel, and the Dulvertons,’ insists Florian. ‘Six of us.’

‘Either way, doesn’t that prove the point?’ says Rhonda. ‘At some stage in a story the reader will realise that the narrator’s interpretation of the events cannot be fully trusted and will begin to form their own opinions about the events and motivations within the story. After all a story is only a story. It’s fiction.’

‘A narrative can also be a way for the writer to encode something within it and its for the reader to dig it out. For instance in Robert Louis Stephenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, Mr Hyde is in fact Stephenson’s homosexuality. Homosexuality is never mentioned in the book, but it is implicit through references to Queer Street and Black Mail House’ says Florian, hoping for a discussion.

I nod. I feel I have heard this argument before.

Florian continues. ‘The story is about a man, Dr Jekyll, who must keep the homosexual man, Mr Hyde, under control (hidden – hide – hyde) in order to maintain his reputation within society.

It is Rhonda’s turn. ‘In The Usual Suspects, Agent Kujan spends the course of the movie listening to Verbal, the Kevin Spacey character, tell his story. Then at the end of the film we find it is all lies, Keyser Soze did not exist.’ she says.

‘And in Memento,’ she continues, ‘Lenny may be trying to report accurately, but his grasp on the real past is, to put it mildly, highly questionable. And what about TV series like The Prisoner and Lost?’

It is beginning to feel like a Media Studies taster. I look around expecting to see my old English teacher, Mr Lugosi.’

One of my favourite examples,’ says Florian, ‘is Martin Amis’s ‘Money’, The protagonist, John Self is one of literature’s most repulsively addictive unreliable narrators. The book might be subtitled “A Suicide Note”, but it is in fact a love story, with Self dreaming up ever more extravagant ways to blow his money while pursuing femme fatale, Selina Street. The fact that Self might never have actually existed, revealed towards the end of the book, is Amis’s sly take on the ‘death of the self’.

I could see what he was getting at. I had recently read Sebastian Faulks’ ‘Engelby’. Mike Engelby’s account of his life, as you make your way through the book, seems increasingly at odds with reality. He definitely comes over as a bit weird. His point of view of events lacks insight, even when faced directly with hard evidence of the perception the other characters have about him.

‘But the meaning of a story or text as you theorists like to call it is open to the reader’s interpretation,’ says Anna. ‘What about the unreliable reader?’

‘The reader isn’t the one sending you on a wild goose chase or masking an affair., says Florian.

‘Isn’t everyone an unreliable reader though,’ says Anna. ‘After all everyone brings their own experience into the reading. What if this story is just about Jon coming to see me for a clandestine affair that he is trying to hide from Sara. And none of the rest of the story happens – and you all don’t exist.’

‘Anyone like a drink?’ asks Rhonda.

Anna says that she works in the morning and starts to laugh.

I find the bathroom and light up one I made earlier. ‘Isn’t it good, Norwegian Wood.’

Anyhow, I do not think I shall tell Sara.

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved

A Change is as Good as a Rest

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A Change is as Good as a Rest by Chris Green

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

‘Two hours of Einaudi,’ I repeated. I had explained to Dr Hopper that I liked listening to experimental jazz on my ipod, when I went jogging around the heath in the evening. Ornette Coleman, Captain Beefheart, The World Saxophone Quartet, that sort of thing.

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded

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

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

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

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

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

‘Last week,’ I admitted. ‘I can get on the internet and download ringtones, play mp3s and take photos but I still can’t work out how to make phone calls with it.’

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

Why did the people of Africa need these pocket neuroses, I could have argued. Weren’t their own lives already stressful enough with the AIDS and the famines? But I was in Dr Hopper’s space and in any case still feeling quite vulnerable.

Over the course of the consultation, the doctor told me to avoid red meat, red peppers, red cabbage and red wine, in fact, anything red, and where I would be able to find an Auric Ki practitioner or attend Buddhist meetings. He even gave me the contact details of a group of Yogic flyers.

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

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

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

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

‘How did you get on?’ she asked.

‘Dr Hopper said that I have to give up jogging,’ I began.

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

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

‘And he thinks we might benefit from living more simply,’ I continued. I thought including her in those benefiting might help to involve her later in the idea of a life laundry. ‘And perhaps get a nice painting or two.’

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

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

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

It did not matter, because while Sandy was out at the shops, a trip that I judged from past experience of the January sales would take all afternoon, I found some blue paint in the shed and in no time at all I had done a passable job in rag rolling the walls of the spare bedroom. Although the room was in estate agents’ terms, ‘compact’ I felt it could serve at least temporarily as a meditation room. Sandy had been trying to get me to decorate the room for months, and while we had not decided on the colour scheme, I felt she would soon grow to like the calming effect of blue. I was pleased to find that there had been sufficient space in the loft to accommodate Sandy’s exercise bicycle, the sunbed, the standard lamp and the writing desk, in fact, the desk broke down quite easily. I then turned my attention to a search for the recommended art work. I discovered a surprising number of Rothko prints available on ebay so I ordered several, all of which were enigmatically titled ‘untitled’. I felt better than I had for weeks. I had no headache or nausea or anxiety. My body felt relaxed and my breathing steady. I could hardly wait to try out the Einaudi.

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

‘I’m exhausted,’ she said. ‘The shops were a nightmare. You’d never know there was a recession on. I tried phoning you but the number was unavailable. Can I smell paint?’ From her tone, I detected an air of disapproval and could see trouble ahead.

I met Anisha at Transcendental Meditation classes at the community centre. We hit it off right away. We had so much in common; we both adored the music of Einaudi and Gorecki and loved Rothko’s paintings, and we were both drawn towards the colour blue. Besides this, we both felt that jogging was pointless and disliked experimental jazz. Anisha said that it sounded as if all the musicians were playing different tunes at different tempos. I agreed that this just about summed it up. Anisha had also resisted the idea of having a mobile phone or even a landline and did not own a computer or a TV. It was through Anisha that I became properly introduced to the concept of minimalism as a lifestyle. ‘Zen’ was a word she frequently used. ‘Less is more,’ she was fond of saying.’An over-abundance of possessions breeds discontent. I feel free from the worries of acquiring and maintaining things that I don’t really need.’

Anisha did not ask me to move in with her immediately, but at the end of February when she found out I was sleeping in the spare room at home, she suggested it. Since her daughter had been at university she had she said missed the company and while she was at one with herself as she put it, she would love to have a soul mate. Not that moving in with Anisha involved very much; I took two holdalls of clothes, a toothbrush, my meditation mat, and a book of Haiku verse. And of course, my small collection of ambient CDs.

The interior of Anisha’s house was decorated entirely in complimentary shades of blue. Even her Rothko prints were primarily blue. The plan of the house was uncompromisingly minimalist with no bookcases, shelves or chests of drawers. All the hard furniture was built-in and the storage was behind false walls. The house was so tidy one could be forgiven for thinking that no one had been living there. The bedrooms had foldaway beds. The living room had a blue rug and a solitary vase with a single artificial blue bloom in one corner. In the kitchen, there was no evidence of its culinary purpose. Even the kettle was tidied away. The only sound one could hear came from a subtle water feature in the Japanese garden behind the contemplation room. ‘Hidden storage and a sense of order,’ she explained were the key. ‘All clutter is a form of visual distraction. Everything in our vision pulls at our attention at least a little. The less clutter, the less visual stress we have.’ She did not have to convince me. She was preaching to the converted.

Each evening after we had tidied away the wok, we would listen to Einaudi in the music room. We sat in silence and let Ludovico’s trance-inducing melodies calm us. Sometimes we would give each other massages with essential oils and twice a week make tantric love on the low deco bed. We both shared the belief that it was beneficial to have a routine. We still went to Transcendental Meditation classes of course on a Monday evening. Transcendental Meditation has been described as tranquility without pills and has had many famous followers including George Harrison, Clint Eastwood and the writer, Kurt Vonnegut. The film director David Lynch whose Foundation runs Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace describes transcendental meditation as ‘diving within’. By diving within he says you can experience the field of silence and bliss and harness the enormous reservoir of energy and intelligence that is deep within all of us. This is exactly what Anisha and I were finding too. TM gave us stillness, serenity, and peace of mind. We discussed other approaches to spiritual awakening with our friends, Dream and Echo, who we had met at the Monday classes, and found that they went to Tai Chi on a Tuesday, Angel Readings on Wednesday, Crystal Healing on Thursday, and Astral Projection on Friday. We did consider joining Dream and Echo for perhaps one of the classes. Or whether to invite them round for a vegetable and spinach dim sum and some Einaudi one weekend. In the end, we decided that it would be a mistake to allow our social calendar to become too crowded.

One evening while Anisha and I were listening to Dolce Droga, I suggested that we bought a baby grand piano and learnt to play. I had seen a second hand Yamaha at a reasonable price. From Anisha’s reaction, you might have thought I’d suggested playing an Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers CD.

‘Where would we put it?’ she screamed, and I could see what she meant; it would be a hard item to hide away.

This was the closest I had seen her to becoming agitated. As a compromise I suggested we might buy a small keyboard instead. She sulked all the way through Giorni Dispari. She was clearly against the idea of anything that took up surplus space, so I did not mention the subject again. The only purchases we made were, in fact, new Einaudi CDs and a new Rothko print. With our shared interest in calm contemplation, we were it seemed perfectly suited. Weeks went by without a cross word.

It must have been sometime in May that I had occasion to go back to the marital home to pick up some important papers. There had been changes. Gary, a soft furnishing salesman Sandy had met when she was browsing the shops in the Avarice Retail Park, had moved in. The house now resembled a DFS warehouse, but with all the furniture crowded into about a tenth of the space. The hallway was an obstacle course and the front room barely navigable. I found the clutter deeply upsetting and felt physically sick. I couldn’t even find a way to get into the study to find the important papers. Sandy said that she would get Gary to clear some stuff and I could come round again another time. I very nearly stopped at The Black Hole Inn on the way home for a Carlsberg Special. Fortunately, the New Age radio station I had taken to listening to while driving put on a particularly soothing piece by Brian Eno just as I was coming into the car park.

With the coming of summer, Anisha and I made the decision that we would both work part time in order to enjoy the shade of the Japanese garden through the long afternoons. After all our needs were few, it wasn’t as if we needed the money. We could we felt through the quiet contemplation offered by the garden harmonise the spirit with the essence of all things. This worked well through June. Listening to the gentle trickling of the water feature we felt calmer and more centred day by day. The heat of July, however, seemed to increase my libido and I found myself wanting to make love more frequently. Anisha was determined to that we should stick to the routine of Wednesday and Saturday evenings. ‘Breaking routine is not healthy,’ she maintained. One Wednesday evening she insisted that it was too hot and that she would like us to wait until the heatwave had finished before we resumed our passions. I thought of trying to reiterate what she had said earlier about breaking a routine being unhealthy but I let it go. It was always bad to have an argument so late in the day. It must have been a couple of evenings later that I felt the urge to go jogging and asked Anisha if she would mind.

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

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

By way of an apology I bought Anisha a large spray of blue carnations which I hoped might heal the rift. She, in turn, apologised for shouting at me. It seemed that things were back on an even keel. That afternoon we sipped valerian tea and listened to the soft cascading of the running water in the garden. The occasional fluted warble of a blackbird provided us with music. We cooked a nourishing vegan stir fry in the wok and settled down to listen to Einaudi. Later that evening I found that the flowers I had bought had been tidied away.

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

Since my initial de-cluttering and the very first meditation classes, I felt I had been able to think more clearly. Even my early experiences of Einaudi and Rothko in the blue room had brought about a positive change in my thought patterns. I had fallen in easily with Anisha’s obsession with harmony and things being in their proper place. ‘Be empty, be still. Watch everything. Just come and go.’ was a favourite piece of Zen wisdom of hers. With this as my mantra I had found living in her space calming. I felt safe. I liked order and tidiness.

But, just lately, I was beginning to think that perhaps there might be a limit to the control one should try to exert on ones living environment. Now and again I had this nagging feeling that we were missing out on something. Maybe just once in a while, it would be nice to listen to some music that had words. Or occasionally watch a film. Was there any room for growth with the unremitting stasis of a strict routine and everything in place? Perhaps there was no need to have everything apart from the Rothko prints hidden away out of sight. The incident with the flowers had made me realise that too much was being hidden. Not just around the house, but on a personal level too. There were too many secrets. Perhaps Anisha in the months we had been together might have opened up a little about her background and her life before she met me. What for instance had become of her daughter who had gone off to university? She never talked about her and there were no signs of her around the house. I did not even know her name and Anisha had never once mentioned the father. The only time I recalled her being mentioned was in the very beginning when Anisha had said that she missed her company. Admittedly I did not talk a great deal about my past, about Sandy, or for that matter Lucy or anyone else before Lucy. And of course, I had no children. But considering all the ‘diving within’ that we had been doing, it did seem bizarre that so little about Anisha’s past had been brought to the surface. If the relationship was going to work, I would have to find a way of bringing things out into the open.

An opportunity arose the next day. I had just finished raking the gravel in the garden into its wave pattern and Anisha had just brought out the Tibetan tea on a flower tray. I decided it would be best to start at the beginning with a gentle enquiry on an innocent subject.

Anisha took a sip of her tea.

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

Anisha looked at me as if I had just rapped her around the head with a rifle butt. …. After I had cleared up the broken cup I went to find her in the meditation room. She had by then stopped crying. I put my arms around her and she responded by putting her arms around me and we stayed this way for some time.

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

I had been wondering for a little while if we might benefit from a holiday. Something to take us out of ourselves. I recalled that Dr Hopper had been singing the praises of Mundesley, a quiet backwater in North Norfolk with spectacular views and miles of deserted sands. He went there every year he had been telling me and described it as a perfect place to relax and be in the present moment. As I massaged Anisha’s shoulders I suggested it. I told her about Mundesley’s blue flag beach, its rural location, the bordering fields, and its proximity to the picturesque village of Trunch. To my great surprise, she said that she would think about it.

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

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

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

‘He approved of Einaudi,’ she continued. ‘In fact, he lent me a new CD. And he felt it was good that I was a vegan. But he told me to be careful of red peppers and red cabbage.’

‘Which we don’t eat anyway,’ I said.

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

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

‘Go on! Guess!’ she prompted.

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

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

I agreed that it was an astonishing coincidence.

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

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

I went on the internet at the library and did a search on Mundesley to make sure that it was going to be quiet enough for us at the end of September. Little of any note happened after the end of the summer holidays I discovered. All of the accommodation in the area appeared to be vacant and I had no trouble in finding us a small cottage in between Mundesley and Trunch with a super-king sized double bed and a French window which opened out onto the patio. It did not have a TV or a telephone I was told by Margery Gedge when I enquired. And it was, she confided, a long way from a shop, so we would need to bring provisions. It sounded perfect.

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

Sadly there was no CD player to play the Debussy CD I had bought Anisha for her birthday. Although Debussy was a bit of a departure for her, she had seemed happy with the present, and had even read the cover notes about the composer and the pentatonic scale. Having no meditation music in the evening worried Anisha a little at first, but we just could not face the thought of going to Cromer to buy a player. Cromer would be bustling with fractious shoppers and unruly day trippers. Probably a pensioners coach trip or two, and nowhere to park. We listened instead to silence in d minor and we had thought to bring a Rothko painting to hang on the wall to gaze at.

Experimental jazz was not something that I had expected to find much of in North Norfolk, but on Monday when we went into the store in a nearby village to buy some rice and vegetables, I noticed a flyer in the window for JazzNorfolk. An experimental jazz workshop was taking place at the Overstrand Parish Hall at 10.30 on Thursday. It was only a small poster in a WordArt style that blended in with the rest of the ads in the window and I did not think that Anisha noticed it. I realised that it was likely that she would disapprove if I told her about it and expressed a wish to go to such a function. Before we came away I had been playing a Groove Collective CD in the car and realised how much I had missed the edgy unpredictability of contemporary jazz. I had not told Anisha of course. I had felt a guilt that I should not feel, as if I were looking at porn on the internet. I had however managed to introduce Erik Satie into our small repertoire and had slipped in a Ravel piano piece one evening but there was perhaps a long way to go before she stopped thinking of radical artists like Groove Collective as the devil’s music.

We fell into a daily ritual of a morning walk along Mundesley’s endless stretches of beach, our bare feet sinking in the soft sand. Apart from the occasional dog walker most days we had the beach to ourselves. Anisha seemed particularly relaxed on the walks and once or twice began to open up about her past. I found out that her daughter’s name was Gaia and the she had in fact gone off to university in Vancouver and was living close to Anisha’s ex-partner, Gideon. Gaia had not replied to any of her letters for nearly a year. Anisha naturally found this upsetting, which is why she had never mentioned it to me. While it was encouraging that Anisha had started to confide in me, each time I tried to dig deeper she would clam up. I was only able to find out snippets of information. She had once owned a Coventry Eagle bicycle and liked to go cycling in the country. She had been a girl guide young