‘e’

 

e’ by Chris Green

There is not a lot to do in Builth Wells when the weather is wet. Wales is, of course, famous for its damp climate. But this year was exceptional. April had been a washout, and now May looked like breaking all records. Ifan Griffiths was unsettled by it. With all the changes taking place in the country, the birds returning to nest, and the sap rising, Spring should be the best time of year. Ifan yearned to get out into the Cambrian Mountains which were right on his doorstep. They were his patch. But on the few occasions he had set out this year, not even his expensive North Face waterproofs were up to the task of keeping him dry.

Recently divorced, Ifan lived alone in a traditional lime-wash cottage on the edge of the village. It was a particularly wet night and he could not sleep because of the rain pounding on the roof. At 3 a.m. he found himself watching SyFy, one of the many new channels he was able to turn to for relief since signing up for the Sky Entertainment Extra package. As the low budget film, Syfy was showing progressed, Ifan began to feel there was something naggingly familiar about the plot. The main character in the film, Judson Cleary, was living his life in an iPod shuffle. Days were sequenced randomly after one another. And the actor playing the part stumbled about the screen looking puzzled at each turn of events. A dizzying sense of déjà vu consumed Ifan. His heart began to race.

Had he not had a similar experience two weeks previously, Ifan might have thought nothing more about the sense of familiarity. Sky Cinema Drama had shown a film called King of the Jungle, which seemed to have plundered the depths of Ifan’s unconscious for its source material. As the slow-moving kidnap drama unfolded, each scene had been familiar, and the lion appeared out of nowhere to save the day at exactly the time Ifan was expecting it. He had not seen the film before. This was its first outing on television. He checked his DVD rental account to confirm that he had not rented it and forgotten about it. Shuffle was also not on his list. Perhaps he had read the book. Memory could be an unreliable servant, but he felt he had not read the book.

Ifan came to the gradual realisation that the sense of familiarity of the two films owed itself to one simple fact. He had written the stories on which they were based. When he was not wandering the gentle slopes of the Cambrian Mountains with his binoculars and camera trying to get prize-winning shots of harriers and kites, Ifan spent much of his time writing short stories. He had started writing during a childhood bout of jaundice and had been knocking out stories for over thirty years. He had built up quite a collection, all of them, including the two that seemed to form the basis of the two films, unpublished. He had not tried very hard to get his stories published. It is fair to say he had not tried at all. He just enjoyed writing. Writing for him was almost an involuntary process. The wide-open spaces of mid-Wales fired his imagination. When he was out walking, he found himself inundated with ideas, and on returning home needed somewhere to deposit them. He frequently ended up working on several stories at once, cutting and pasting from one document to another. He loved the way words danced on the page, the way the sentences coupled and uncoupled. Hours passed without him realising it.

Ifan’s solitary pastimes were one of the reasons that Cerys had left. She felt that he did not pay her enough attention. She told him he was entirely self-obsessed. He was either up in the hills or away with the fairies. Ifan’s argument that if she didn’t spend so much time quilting and embroidering, then he would not spend so much time rambling and writing, was a weak one. She countered easily with, he never asked about her day or offered to take her out to dinner. They had not been on a proper holiday for three years and, except for a day trip to Oswestry, had never been outside Wales. Last year he had forgotten her birthday This was the final straw. She upped and left. Ifan was heartbroken. They had been together for five years.

From time to time Ifan had shared his stories with friends. They usually put them aside to read at a later date but never seemed to get round to it. Most of those in the village, those he might have a pint with in the local pub for instance, like Dafydd, Iolo and Hywel did not share his literary interests. So Ifan attended a monthly book club in Llandrindod Wells. Here he was sometimes persuaded to read a story to the group. Occasionally he photocopied one to hand out. While they gave him encouragement, Eiffon or Tegwen did not give the impression that they understood what he was writing about. Bryn felt the story about the Owlman was too long, and Nerys wondered if the story about the jungle in Cornwall might have ended differently. Dewi questioned whether drawing attention to postmodern theory was a legitimate device in short fiction.

Ifan revisited the drafts of the two television stories, both of which he had written around ten years ago. He re-read them carefully. He was prepared to admit that he had a tendency towards paranoia. His former therapist, Aura, had told him so. Although the two films had not followed the plots word for word, or scene for scene, there were too many similarities for it to be put down to coincidence. Even supposing that the idea of the days of the year playing out like a music shuffle lacked exclusivity, the explanation that time is not linear being the accidental result of a malfunctioning video installation by a Belgian nu-surrealist, did not seem the kind of idea that would be doing the rounds. This being the case, how would the film-makers have got hold of the stories? He had not sent them to any publishers. His colleagues in the book club would be aware of the penalties for plagiarism. He considered each of the group in turn but concluded they were beyond suspicion. Eiffon and Tegwen were among the last of life’s innocents, Bryn had his own literary ambitions, Nerys and Dewi only came along to the book club for company. He had not had much to do with Huw, Mfanwy or Giancarlo, and Rhodri Llewelyn didn’t speak English at all.

Ifan found out on the Internet that the screenplays for both King of the Jungle and Shuffle had been written by Corrina Herzog. Surely a pseudonym. There was no bio for Corrina on Wikipedia. Her name was notably absent on web searches. There was not even a Corrina Herzog on Facebook. Perhaps whoever it was had written these two screenplays and changed their name again. He tried different spellings for her but still turned up nothing. This brought his research to a shuddering halt.

One night after a few pints of Double Dragon, Ifan confided in Dafydd.

You’re beginning to sound like Jones the Dark Side, mind you, Dafydd said. ‘He thinks they’re tapping his phone and that Jones the Post is following him.’

I’ll give my head for breaking if I’m not right. Those are my stories, see,’ Ifan said. ‘Someone must have hacked into my computer.’

You must have emailed them to somebody. What about that girl you met at university?’

You mean Andrea?’

Yes. Andrea. You were hoping to light a fire in her hearth.’

It was all the dream of a witch according to her will.’

What?,’ said Dafyd.

Despite the leeks growing in your window box, you’re not very Welsh, are you Dafydd?’ Ifan said. ‘Wishful thinking it is. I don’t think I stood a chance.’

Ifan had met Andrea Evans at university in Aberystwyth. He was there as a mature student on a Joint Honours path of Countryside Planning and English. Andrea was on a Media Studies course and they had been on a Modern and Postmodern module together. They seemed to get along and had gone to see The Smashing Pumpkins together in Swansea. For a while, Ifan had thought that given time they might even become an item. They did not, and after University they lost touch but caught up years later on Facebook. Andrea was by then a creative with an up and coming company in London. Ifan asked her if she would like to read some of his stories and Andrea gave him her email address. Ifan sent her pdfs of some of his stories, and later when Andrea said she hadn’t received them, sent them again. Weeks passed and Ifan heard nothing from Andrea. He resigned himself to the possibility that Andrea hadn’t really wanted to read his stories but was just being polite, as so many others had been before her. Short stories were out of favour. They were not the books that you saw advertised on Amazon. Was it possible that Andrea had sold on his stories?

Since a recent bout of paranoia, Ifan’s Facebook privacy level was set to Only Me, the highest level. This meant he was the only one who could see his posts, not that there had been any. He opened up the program and changed the settings and saw that Andrea Evans was still a friend. He posted a private message, asking her how she was, hoping that she would remember him and perhaps comment on the stories he had emailed her.

I’m good,’ she replied. ‘How are you? Never did receive your stories by the way.’

Ifan responded saying that he had sent them to her email address – twice.

At this point, it occurred to Andrea that he had probably sent them to an incorrect email address. She replied saying that they should have been sent to andreaeevans@hotmail.com

Perhaps someone is this very moment getting a big fat royalty cheque from their publication.’ she joked.

Oh bugger!’ thought Ifan. He had missed the central ‘e’. ‘E’ for Elizabeth perhaps.

He remembered thinking at the time that andreaevans@hotmail.com was a very convenient address, unless she had been one of the first to register for email. Ifan’s address was ifangriffiths193@btinternet.com You wouldn’t imagine Ifan was a common name, but there must have been at least 192 other Ifan Griffiths signed up for email with his provider before him.

The email Ifan sent to the original recipient demanding an explanation for the blatant plagiarism of his work was returned undelivered. Andrea Evans’s Hotmail account was closed.

It has however stopped raining in Mid-Wales.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Best Kept Secret

Best Kept Secret by Chris Green

Van Morrison wanted to be a vet,’ the man says.

Who?’ says the girl, not looking up from the book she is reading.

Van Morrison, you know. Brown Eyed Girl, Bright Side Of The Road.’

Oh! Him!’ the girl says, hoping this will put an end to the conversation. She is not here to listen to geeky middle-aged men in paisley shirts talking about portly crooners. She has aspirations. She just needs a little downtime at the moment to get over a disappointment.

When he was at school, he wanted to be a vet. Then his father bought him a saxophone.’

That’s nice,’ the girl says, pulling her black sunglasses down from their resting place on her forehead.

The man doesn’t take the hint. ‘I was using close on 50 gigabytes a week just browsing on my iPhone and I was texting and messaging non-stop. And then there was the streaming. That took it up to 100,’ he continues. ‘What about you? Tracey, isn’t it?’

I think I was probably on more than that,’ says Tracey. ‘If I had used my phone any more they would have had to surgically remove it. Now. …… Can I get back to my book?’

I don’t know how I became so addicted,’ Dirk says. ‘I’m more of an outdoor person really.’

Tracey continues to blank him.

I had to bite the bullet and come along here,’ he says. He doesn’t tell her that his partner, Domino was knocked down texting a friend while crossing a busy London thoroughfare. Domino died from the injuries she sustained. Although this was six months ago Dirk can’t bring himself to talk about it. Instead, he continues to elaborate on his own habit, which through his days and nights of loneliness became worse.

When I wasn’t on the phone,’ he says. ‘I was on the laptop. When I wasn’t on the laptop, I was on the tablet. I took the phone to bed. I had an app to wake me if there were any status updates, another to tell me if I had any messages, another to let me know if I had any tweets. In the end, I was awake all night. I don’t like being awake all night.’

He awaits some kind of response. None is forthcoming.

Unless of course, it’s with someone nice,’ he adds, boldly. ‘I’m Dirk, by the way.’

Tracey doesn’t respond. She feels he is getting more creepy by the minute. Why is it that men feel that she is another country to be conquered or colonised? Where did she read this?

They are at Best Kept Secret, a digital detox retreat in Cornwall. There is no phone signal here and no Wi-Fi. You would have to drive several miles to get any kind of reception on your device. It is so remote that even the postman has trouble finding it. In addition, no TVs or radios are allowed here. You are permitted to bring just three books for a week-long stay. The centre has the express aim of changing people’s habits. Best Kept Secret goes one step further than Unplugged Weekend, reSTART and other establishments dealing with Internet Addiction Disorder. It is not interested in weekenders. It is so serious in its aims that during your stay it doesn’t allow you off-site. They store your car keys in a safe in case you are tempted to leave.

Katie …. Price,’ Dirk reads from the cover of the novel that Tracey is holding aloft. ‘The …. Comeback ….. Girl. Is it good?’

I’m enjoying it, yes,’ Tracey says.

I’m reading Van Morrison’s biography,’ he says. ‘You can borrow it when I’ve finished if you like.’

Well, Dirk, did you say? Perhaps, Dirk, you might want to get back to it and let me get on with my novel.’

Have you reached an exciting bit?’ he asks.

Tracey ignores him. She pulls her faux leather jacket around her to cover her cleavage and turns away.

Dirk looks around for someone else to talk to. There is no-one. Some of the guests are in the life drawing class and some are in the Pilates session. Others are in NLP therapy or else in the quiet meditation room. A couple of them are in physiotherapy for RSI. Dirk finds the whole atmosphere of withdrawal within the centre claustrophobic. He prefers it out here on the patio. He can listen to the birdsong and take in the aroma of wild roses and pennyroyal.

……………………………………………………

Although one usually thinks in terms of videos, anything can go viral on the Internet. Whether it’s a photo, an animation, an article, a quote, a tweet, a person, an animal, an idea, an argument, a coupon or an upcoming event, virtually anything that is shareable can go viral. Such is the power of hyperspace. All it takes is a handful of shares on social media and the right target audience to trigger an avalanche of sharing. News items, genuine and fake flash round the globe. If the American President were shot it is reckoned that three-quarters of the people in the world would know about it within fourteen minutes.

This is of course under normal circumstances. As it happens the American President has not been shot, but the transatlantic internet pipeline that joins Europe to the US has been down for two days. This is unprecedented. The world is waiting for something to happen. The crisis has generated record sales of newspapers but they have no news. Instead, there is a wealth of speculation. There are suggestions that terrorism is behind the breach in the pipeline. The Telegraph says it has all the hallmarks of a Russian cyber attack. The Sun blames it on Jihadis. The Express is torn between blaming in on illegal immigrants and the storms that are coming this way. The Mail doesn’t refer to it. concentrating instead on statins and house prices.

………………………………………………………….…

Dirk is unaware of the turn of events in the wider world. He doesn’t know that there has been a hiccup in hyperspace. All he knows is that he is completely at a loss in the non-digital world. Without his devices, he finds it difficult to bond with the others at the centre. Most of them seem to come from the corporate world, whilst he himself is a bit of a dreamer. He has always eked a living in the margins of society, drifting aimlessly from one job to another. Domino shared his quasi-alternative views. The irony of her demise is that she was an eco-campaigner. She hardly used her phone. Life, he feels, is full of contradictions.

Being in the confines of the centre has only served to remind him how much he misses Domino. Some of the others at Best Kept Secret have managed to find a modicum of solace in treatment or quiet contemplation, but he has not. In three days there he has become increasingly restless and edgy. He is desperate for some human contact, some love and understanding.

Tracey has now finished her Katie Price, her Sophie Kinsella and her Jojo Moyes novels. Dirk finds her once again on the patio. With nothing left to read, she stares into space.

It is against the law to have a pet dog in Iceland,’ Dirk says, hoping that Tracey might either be a dog lover or a dog hater in which case he has interesting facts about cats at the ready.

Tracey does not seem to have a view about the Nordic lack of tolerance for man’s best friend. She continues to stare into space. This provides a cue for Dirk to play his cat card and also refer to Tracey’s gaze.

The first cat in space was a French cat named Félicette in 1963,’ he says. ‘She was black and white.’

Tracey has no view about feline celebrities.

Dirk has other facts at his fingertips. Before he came in here, he often spent the whole dayspent many an afternoon browsing trivia sites. He is about to tell Tracey that Coca-Cola would be green if colouring weren’t added to it, when they are joined on the patio by Echo.

Echo looks tanned and sporty and is probably nearer his age than Tracey. She has beautiful brown eyes and a winning smile. Dirk feels he might be able to get along with Echo. And what a great name! He noticed her earlier when she arrived in a brightly coloured VW camper earlier. She came over to him to introduce herself. He was further encouraged when she showed a preference for the mung bean dahl over the oatmeal power bowl at lunch. And he might have imagined it. But didn’t she compliment him on his floral print shirt? She seems more relaxed than most of the burnt-out event organisers and ad executives inside. It is hard to imagine that she has Internet Addiction Disorder. She is even able to keep from fidgeting her fingers.

Without a device to play with, most of the others, himself included, do not know what to do with their hands. This is one of the often overlooked difficulties of digital device withdrawal. They don’t tell you about all of the side effects associated with Internet Addiction Disorder when you arrive. Some are fiddling with their spectacles, their zips, their shoelaces, or rearranging the salt and pepper pots and the cutlery on the table. Dirk has found himself playing a lot with the loose change in his pocket.

Following her break up with Blake, the last thing Echo needs is another alpha male who has to be the centre of attention. Nor does she want someone who will stare with wonder at her hair or hang on her every word. She is looking for a sensitive man who will understand her needs. She looks Dirk up and down. They smile at one another.

What is your favourite Dr Seuss book?’ she asks.

It is not a question that Dirk has often been asked, but as the only one that he knows is The Cat In The Hat, this is his answer.

You’ve not read The Butter Battle Book then,’ Echo says.

What’s it about?’ asks Dirk. He is anxious to keep this conversation going.

It is about a land where two hostile cultures, the Yooks and the Zooks,’ Echo says. ‘They live on opposite sides of a long curving wall. The Yooks wear blue clothes and the Zooks wear orange. The dispute between the two cultures is that the Yooks eat their bread with the butter-side up, while the Zooks eat their bread with the butter-side down. The conflict between the two sides leads to an arms race where each comes up with ever more deadly weapons, the result of which is mutually assured destruction.’

There is a moral to the tale then,’ Dirk says. ‘I will have to read it when I get out of here. I’ve nearly finished Van Morrison’s biography, so it’s a shame that I didn’t know about it before I signed up.’

Van Morrison. You like Van Morrison?’

Well yes. I do, rather.’

I adore Van Morrison,’ Echo says.

That’s great. Only some women find him ….. a little …..’

Dreamy?’

No, not exactly.’

Transcendental?’

No. ….. I was going to say, shouty. Some women find him a little shouty.’

Surely not,’ Echo says. ‘Van is the man.’

Well, it’s a marvellous night for a moondance.’

It’s the middle of the day,’ Echo says. ‘But you are right. Why not?’

………………………………………………………….…

It seems improbable that all the global communication pipelines could be breached at the same time. There are around five hundred different submarine cables spanning every ocean. But this is what appears to be happening. One by one they are failing. With just the transatlantic pipelines out, the possibility of some kind of rational explanation remained, excessive movement in a major tectonic plate causing sudden or greater than expected continental drift, perhaps. But what about those spanning the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean? The likelihood of the failings being from natural causes has now completely disappeared. There must be a more sinister explanation. And what is happening to the satellites in orbit? Little by little the digital world is breaking up. Sabres rattle, but then this is nothing new. Power struggles seem to be part of the human condition. The internet pipeline crisis is unlikely to fuel much of a conflict as most of the weapon systems will no longer function.

While across the board the younger generation starts to experience withdrawal symptoms, many of the older generation can remember that just twenty or so years ago, there was no internet. Perhaps it is a case of selective memory, but many reflect that life was better. Things were simpler. There was not the urgency to be in communication with everyone all the time. You could put things off, chill out. Up and down the country older people experience a feeling of relief that they do not have to check their missed calls and emails, respond to social media statuses or put updates on to their computers. Before all this technology took hold, things still got done. In many ways, it was easier to get things done. Back then there were a few mobile phones, but all you could do with them was make person-to-person calls. And you had to be in range. And even then you had to shout loudly. And they were not what you would call compact. You would have difficulty getting one in your jacket pocket.

………………………………………………………….…

Do you know, I don’t miss my devices at all,’ Dirk says. They are about to leave Best Kept Secret after their stay. Dirk has been there ten days and Echo a week.

Nor do I,’ Echo says. ‘I don’t think I will even switch my phone back on.’

Better off without them. I’ll think I will give my tablet away.’

Gives you a different perspective on life, doesn’t it?’

What does?’

The freedom to say no.’

Not that you did too much of that.’

Ha, ha,’ says Echo, hitting him on the arm with her Quicksilver backpack.

Just think of all those poor people that still have to grapple with that insane deluge of trash in their feeds day in day out.’

They will find out one day …… or not.’

Anyway, here we are, footloose and fone free,’ Dirk says.

Shall we go surfing to celebrate?’ Echo says. ‘I think Summerleaze Beach would be good. It’s west facing. The swell should be just right.’

Don’t know it,’ Dirk says. ‘Is it far?’

It’s north of here. Bude,’ Echo says.

Bude? Isn’t that where the secret listening base intercepts the traffic from the transatlantic internet pipeline?’ Dirk says.

You are still doing it,’ Echo says. ‘You have to let go of all this mental floss.’

But don’t you wonder what’s been happening in the world while we’ve been in there?’

Same old, I should think. Political posturing, smouldering racism, celebrity indiscretions. Nothing ever changes really, does it?’

You’re right.’ Dirk says. ‘Let’s go and get some air into our lungs.’

Then perhaps we can book into that nice hotel that looks out on to the ocean,’ Echo says. ‘And you can show me that thing you want to do with dark chocolate.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Brief Encounter

briefencounter2

Brief Encounter by Chris Green

The Beginning:

It is 7th June 1977, the day of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. It is a public holiday, to all intents and purposes, a Sunday. Everything is closed. Although it means a day off work, I feel downbeat. It has been a stressful few months. I am only twenty-five, but I am in the middle of a divorce. Unusual circumstances behind it, but it is by mutual agreement. Maggie and I were never suited. But this doesn’t make it any easier. Emotionally breaking up is always hard to do. On top of the separation, there’s the anguish of all the legal squabbling and the arrangements necessary for dividing up everything.

I have nothing on my agenda for the day. Nothing I need to do, no-one I have arranged to see. I am going with the flow, hoping each day that something will come along to pull me out of my malaise. Perhaps I have always gone with the flow. Maybe this is the problem. Other people appear to have plans, ambitions. They are motivated. They mark out their destiny. They know where they were going. This is what they told me to do at school, advice that I subsequently ignored, along with all the other helpful guidance Mr Masters offered.

It is sunny, so at lunchtime, I make my way along to the Beer Gardens on the Promenade. Other than a change of scene and a leisurely pint, I have no expectations. My friend Reuben is there, sitting at a table with three attractive young girls. He introduces me. Amy (with a y), Charlotte and Hannah. Reuben is a technician at the local college, a bit of a tippler if the truth be told. He is recognised locally as a colourful character. He can talk the talk. He is holding forth on this and that, and the girls seem to be listening. In between his commentary, I learn that Charlotte is taking a vocational course at the college where Reuben works, hence the connection.

The girls are all around eighteen. They all attended Cheltenham Ladies College, one of the most select schools in the country. Charlotte finished a year ago. Amy and Hannah have just left. Charlotte and Hannah live in Cheltenham. They were both day girls at the Ladies College, but Amy was a boarder. She lives in the stockbroker belt in Surrey, where her father is the CEO of the nation’s biggest housebuilder. As school is out, she is staying with Charlotte before she goes off to summer camp in Italy. She is tall and slim and has a winning smile. She is stunning. She could easily pass for a movie star or a model. I can’t take my eyes off her. Opportunities to hang out with beauties like this don’t come my way often.

After half an hour, Reuben goes off to the Bayshill Inn to catch up with Chadwick Dial. Chadwick owes him money, apparently. Perhaps Reuben needs to call in the debt to continue drinking through the afternoon. I am left in the company of the three girls. This is not a situation I am accustomed to, but it would be churlish to complain. I have the hots for Amy. She does not seem not averse to my attention. She laps it up, and appears to reciprocate. She keeps flicking her hair back. She maintains eye contact and smiles at me even when we are not speaking. This is more than just a polite smile. Her smile lights up her face. She moves her chair closer and leans in to me when she is talking. She even touches my arm once or twice and addresses me by my name. Flirting maybe, but it feels like it is more than that. How can I build on this rapport? I have never been one to make the first move. An innate shyness, I suppose. My past relationships have always just somehow happened. How should I play this one? In my experience, it is not easy to separate a group of close-knit friends.

When the Beer Gardens is about to close, I invite the girls to The Dobells, a pub that is scheduled to stay open all day. We have a drink or two, taking in the party atmosphere of the busy bar. Later in the afternoon, when it really becomes noisy to hear ourselves speak, we go back to my house for a smoke. I have some good quality hash. Three different types. I have dependable supply lines and always keep a little extra in case any of my friends want some. You wouldn’t think it with well-bred young ladies, but this hint of underworld activity seems to give me added status in their eyes. Perhaps when you have lived a sheltered life, you have a burning desire to break out. To discover what else is out there.

Why am I looking back on all of this over forty years later, you may wonder? Ernest Hemingway once said the secret of short story writing is to write one true sentence and take it from there. To make something believable, he said, all you have to do is write one true sentence and you are on your way. Write the truest sentence that you know. The story will come. As a writer, I am always looking for new plot ideas. When on the back of the one true sentence, this memory came flooding back to me, I guess I got carried away with Hemingway’s idea. Before I knew it I had written a true paragraph. Once I had started, I wanted, in some way, to relive these moments. The sweet bird of youth and all that. Perhaps I ought not pass it off as fiction, but what the heck! It’s going well. It’s easy enough to just change the names. OK. That’s done. Nyki (with a y) need never know. Let’s get on with the story.

There are lots of evening Jubilee events taking place, so I suggest we all meet up at The Cotswold Inn to start the evening. Then we can choose which of them to go to. I am not confident that any of the girls will even turn up. Hannah is the only one with a car, and she seemed the least keen of the three. The way things have been going lately, I find it difficult to imagine things will suddenly change. The default setting is pessimism. But my luck is in. Amy arrives looking radiant.

I buy her a long cool drink and we make easy conversation. After a while, I feel sufficiently relaxed to explain a little about my current situation. Rather than being put off, she seems quite excited by it. Not many people get divorced when there’s a baby on the way, she says. I suppose not, I say, but that’s the way it is. Amy hopes to go to university in Newcastle in September. An odd choice, I’m thinking. Does she realise what Newcastle is like? It’s a far cry from Camberley. But anyway, September is a long way off. Meanwhile, Amy tells me a little about her background and about family holidays in Juan-les-Pins. I tell her about the time Maggie and I got caught up in the Greek-Turkish war and were stuck in Athens for weeks, unable to leave. And how I dabbled in the occult and once lived with a wizard and his wife, well, mostly his wife and how this did not end well. Is my flippancy the right approach, I wonder, or am I messing up big-time?

Ricky Teacher joins us and asks if I have anything for him. After we’ve done the business, he asks us if we’d like to go to the extravaganza in the grounds of the Reservoir Inn. All the top local bands are playing, he says. It seems to be a ruse for him to show off his new Lancia. But why not? Amy and I decide to take up the offer and not to wait for Charlotte. She can catch up with her later.

At the event, we walk around arm in arm like a proper couple. As I introduce Amy to friends and acquaintances, they take us to be an item. I am able to help out Dewi and Alex with their usual quarter and in the back of Greg’s big Rover, Matt says he’s glad I’m here, there’s been a bit of a shortage of good gear lately. Amy takes all the commerce in her stride. A new experience perhaps. She even seems to hang on to each joint longer than one might expect. When I show surprise, she tells me the Ladies College had plenty of places where the girls could share a spliff.

We have a fabulous evening and later move on to a street party back in Cheltenham. There is more music and dancing. Amy is a great mover. She is clearly someone who enjoys life. Exactly what I need. At midnight, Amy feels she ought to phone Charlotte to let her know what she is doing. She thinks Charlotte will probably be back home by now. As she is in, Amy invites me back to come back with her and the two of us take a cab. We arrive at an imposing Edwardian villa along a private road on the outskirts of town. It has a tennis court and a swimming pool. Charlotte says she doesn’t know if her parents are home, but it doesn’t matter as she has her own private suite.

Charlotte comes up with some well presented nibbles and the three of us chat freely and listen to music. Charlotte doesn’t have a great selection. Amy has more sophisticated tastes than Charlotte. More of a rock sensibility. David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones. Steely Dan, Steve Miller, Stevie Wonder. And she likes reggae, and not just Bob Marley. I have all of these and much more. My record collection is something I treasure. It is not going to be open to negotiation in the divorce settlement. I may not be able to hang on to the house and Maggie will probably get to keep the car, but the records are staying with me. Might I use my music as an enticement now? At around 2 a.m. when Charlotte goes to put the kettle on, I suggest to Amy that we could go back to mine. We would be more comfortable there. With a glint in her eye, she says she would like that. Why didn’t I suggest this earlier? This way we can get to know one another better.

Sliding through the silent streets in the back of a cab in the middle of the night with a beautiful babe seems like a scene from a Hollywood movie. I have to pinch myself, but this is what is happening. Amy whispers in my ear that she has never slept with anyone before. The boy she has been seeing has wanted to, but she has never felt the same way about him. I have no view on this one way or another, but I cannot help but be flattered that she is choosing me. Perhaps it is because she has only ever been out with boys and given my age and experience, she sees me as a man.

The Middle:

Following a momentous night, I take the rest of the week off work to be with Amy. It’s a question of priorities. A brand new love affair is a beautiful thing. Something that must be treasured. I might only experience half a dozen epiphanies like this in a lifetime, whereas work is at best a means to an end. No contest. Amy over work every time. For several days, we are inseparable. We spend a lot of the time in bed getting to know one another but also manage to take in the town, a walk on Cleeve Common, The Cotswold, The Night Owl and King of Dub Records to buy some new reggae. One rainy afternoon, we settle down in front of the TV and watch an old black and white film called Brief Encounter. Only later do I find out that it was one of the classic British movies of all time. Impossible to watch that film now, or even to see any reference to it without thinking of Amy.

The following Monday, having arranged for Amy to come back the following weekend, we say or goodbyes. I go back to work and she catches the coach back to Camberley.

Hemingway’s other advice for writing short stories is to be concise. His stories are on average less than three thousand words, so I will aim for this figure. To move the narrative along, I will stick to the point. I won’t bring in unnecessary details of my complicated, eventful, haphazard life around this time. Sticking to his one true sentence rule, this is all to be related exactly as it happened forty-three years ago. I’ll have to counter the argument, but is it fiction with, does it have to be? It is what it is, a story.

Amy comes to stay with me several more times before she goes off to summer camp in Italy. Our relationship blossoms and it feels more and more that we are a couple. People at work now ask me, how is Amy? We go to The Cotswold or see live music at The Plough. We have friends around after the pubs close. There are quite a few late nights. We go to a couple of gigs at the Art College. Punk is taking off locally and we see The Slits, but are underwhelmed. The Clash and The Stranglers are OK, but the others, forget it.

Sometime towards the end of July, the day before Amy is due to arrive in Cheltenham, I come home from work to find that Charlotte has somehow let herself in. She is cooking a spaghetti bolognese. She hopes I don’t mind, but she has brought a bag and is planning to stay the night. She wonders if I would be good enough to do the same for her as I did for her friend. She too is a virgin. I could, of course, turn her down, but I wonder how many men in my position would do that. While Charlotte may not be as stunning as Amy, she is by no means unattractive. And it is flattering that she has chosen me. Into the bargain, she has sacrificed a certain amount of dignity to do so. Anyway, she is bubbly and outgoing and has always been good company.

In a word, I do the deed. It is very nice, but the earth doesn’t move. Perhaps neither of us expected it to. It feels odd though when the two of us go along to meet Amy from the coach the next day. Although she does not mention it, I get the impression that Amy thinks something is strange too. Did Charlotte intend to cast some doubt in her mind? Who can tell? The feeling is there in the background for the duration of Amy’s stay, a mixture of guilt and apprehension of her leaving for the summer. I am going to miss her. While the past few weeks have been like a dream, reality may at last be knocking at the door. The divorce court hearing is imminent and then, of course, there’s the cost of it all, emotionally and financially. And how will I react to becoming a parent? It will be puzzling for the tax office, someone in the pub says, when you change your code from married with no children to single with one.

The End:

My birthday is September 11th. Yes, I know. But that isn’t until years later. Amy is back from Italy and is coming to help me celebrate. We haven’t seen each other for five or six weeks, although many letters have gone backwards and forwards. While Amy was in Italy, I finally became divorced and I also became a father. Although a reconciliation is out of the question, a sea change has occurred. Under pressure, I have moved out of the house and am temporarily renting a room from Reuben. My life has changed.

I am overjoyed to see Amy again, and despite everything, it looks as if we might continue where we left off. We have a beautiful weekend. We are back in our bubble once more. But perhaps this is to ignore the reality of our situation. The obstacles to a relationship may need to be faced. Firstly, what about the distances and the impracticality? Secondly, there are our respective commitments. Thirdly, we never know what is around the corner.

The following week, Reuben drags me along to the beginning of term dance at his college. I am puzzled by his insistence. I am entirely unaware of what is waiting for me. Reuben apparently isn’t. He has something up his sleeve. He has promised another Aimee (this one with an i and a double e) that he will make sure I come. Aimee is also stunning. She is intelligent and witty, has long blonde hair and soft feminine curves. She is a great mover. More importantly, she is here now, and she has already booked her place in my bed for the night. Without me even realising it. She has brought an overnight bag and a change of clothes. Through availability, if nothing else, she trumps the other Amy. Like the Chet Baker classic says, perhaps I fall in love too easily, but I am destined to be with this Aimee for the next three years.

I have one final telephone conversation with Amy, this from work one evening as I do not have a home phone. She tells me she is getting ready to go off to university. The summer is over. Our summer is over. The train has left the station. It’s turned into Brief Encounter. Although neither of us knocks it on the head there and then, the distance between us seems to have palpably grown. When I tell her I will call her again, I wonder if I actually will. The longer I leave it, the more unlikely this becomes.

I think about Amy now and then. With a touch of sadness, but always with great fondness. Another time and another place, who knows? I wonder how it all turned out for her.

© 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 dyed 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

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

ICKE

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ICKE by Chris Green

It was the summer I worked for the Parks Department. Tony and I had parked up our mowers in Cortina Drive, a quiet cul-de-sac in a residential area, a place where I reasoned, Nick Ford would not find us if he came to check. It had been a hot dry summer, and the grass hadn’t grown much so I figured if he came, we could bluff it. We would work out where he had been looking for us and explain that we had been doing the verges in other roads in the area. Although Tony and I had not been teamed up before and he was a little wary, I told him this ploy had worked for me up until now. Nick Ford tended to stick to set routes on his patrols.

Tony and I settled down for a smoke on the stretch of undeveloped land at the far end of Cortina Drive. We talked about our backgrounds. We discovered that these were similar. Both sets of parents had recently divorced, both our fathers worked in IT and both our mothers, for some reason, were fans of Andy Williams. How this had come into the conversation is hard to say. Neither of us were particularly family-orientated or interested in crooners. Although Tony and I had gone to different schools, we found we had similar interests, girls, partying and sleeping. And liked the same bands, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. I had some Northern Lights skunk as I recall, and it was not long before the two of us were laughing loudly at anything and everything.

Suddenly, our peace was shattered by a powerful, low-pitched whooshing noise. We looked up and saw it was coming from a vortex in the sky. I had been too young to catch the original Twin Peaks and this was years before Stranger Things on Netflix, so naturally, I had not come across anything like it before. Nor I suspect had Tony. We were only nineteen and vortexes and portals had not featured in our sheltered upbringings. The roar grew louder and louder. The spiral moved faster and faster and came closer and closer. We were buffeted this way and that by the blistering wind. This continued for what seemed an eternity, but I suppose, in reality, may just have been a few seconds. We felt ourselves being sucked up into the firmament. It was all we could do to keep our feet on the ground. Tony’s profile was cutting in and out in rapid beats like an entity materialising and dematerialising. We appeared to oscillate between terra firma and a nebulous netherworld. Fortunately, the vortex retreated as quickly as it had arrived and thankfully, we were spared.

The experience must have had a profound effect on Tony, for he didn’t come into work the following day. Or the day after. At first, I didn’t think too much about it because we both viewed working for the Parks Department as a summer job rather than a career. There was a high turnover of staff, especially as the money was not very good. But, I never saw Tony again. I tried for a while to get in touch with him but he seemed to have completely disappeared.

When you are nineteen, your world changes rapidly from day to day. You are happy-go-lucky, carefree. New experiences come your way all the time. Friendships are fluid. You are out every night, meeting new people. You hardly notice the passing of time. So understandably, I did not dwell too much on the strange episode or for that matter, Tony’s disappearance. After a while, I began to wonder if perhaps because we had been so stoned, we had imagined the vortex. Or at least exaggerated what might simply have been temporary adverse weather conditions. Nothing about it had appeared in the local paper, or if it had, I had missed it.

Growing up, I had read the odd science fiction novel and seen the occasional sci-fi movie, but they were not particularly my thing. It was not until in the twenty-tens, when I picked up a book by former sports broadcaster turned new age philosopher, David Icke, that I realised what portals were. Or that for many years, scientists had been attempting to open portals to parallel universes, shadowy dimensions that mirrored our perceived world. Or the claim that we might live in a multi-dimensional holographic universe. And the argument that if we on Earth had this type of technology then others from distant worlds would be likely to have equivalent technology. Could some of this weird stuff explain the episode with the vortex, I wondered? Could it even account for Tony’s subsequent disappearance? Had he simply been spirited away? If David Icke was to be believed, this explanation appeared to be plausible.

The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon suggests that once you come across a new word, subject, concept or idea, you are likely to come across references to it everywhere. Many believe this is an example of collective consciousness and has a supernatural explanation. In addition, it is claimed the references often lead to other previously undiscovered but connected concepts and ideas until you find a whole new world suddenly has opened up. Such was the case around portals. Firstly, I noticed that the window of Waterstones was full of books on portals and wormholes. Then I found an advert for an upcoming talk on Time Travel and Parallel Universes at the John Morris Memorial Centre by someone called Marcellus Go. I saw a youngster on the street wearing a David Icke T-shirt and to my astonishment, another wearing a David Icke T-shirt. I hadn’t realised that David Icke had such a following. Then, out of the blue, Ravi in the corner shop struck up a conversation on hidden portals. What were the chances of this? I had only gone into KMart for cigarettes.

NASA has admitted that Earth portals teleporting human beings from one place to another are a reality,’ he said, looking up from the book he was reading. ‘They’ve been studying them for a long time. You’ve heard about The Philadelphia Experiment, right?’

I told him I hadn’t. I was new to all this.

In 1943, the US Navy teleported the entire crew of the USS Eldridge into the future. 1983 to be precise.’

Wow!’ I said. ‘That’s quite something.’

Why, I wondered, was Ravi telling me this? It wasn’t as if I knew him well. I had only been into KMart a handful of times. I could see he wasn’t busy but still it seemed odd.

And more recently in the Montauk Project, the American Air Force created a. dimension portal, a time tunnel that enabled their researchers to travel to make contact with aliens. A flying saucer became stuck in the underground tunnels along with its alien crew. I’ve just been reading about it. Cool stuff, huh?’

Do you know, I’ve often had the feeling that time was not working properly,’ I said. ‘My account of when particular things happened is often at odds with other peoples’ accounts. I keep meaning to keep a diary to keep track because so many things just don’t seem right.’

Time’s not linear,’ Ravi said. ‘I can tell you that much. Einstein proved that years ago. You want to get yourself along to that talk by Marcellus Go, last week.’

You mean next week,’ I said.

Who can tell?’ he said. ‘Like I said, time’s not linear.’

There were perhaps thirty people at the John Morris Memorial Centre to hear Marcellus Go speak. A veritable circus of jugglers, clowns and space-cadets. In the front row were the pair of youngsters I had seen in the David Icke T-shirts. Marcellus held forth about time travel and aliens and how these matters had been consistently hushed up by successive regimes the world over. Secrets and lies, it seemed formed the basis of political power. Literally thousands of sightings of UFOs had been dismissed as hoaxes. There were aliens among us, Marcellus said, possibly even some in tonight’s audience by the look of it. He went on to explain that far from being taboo subjects, wormholes and portals were matters that should interest us all, particularly in this neck of the woods as there were a handful of potential sites for portals to other dimensions nearby. It had to do with magnetic fields and energy stores. If we bought his book, Quantum Revelation, we would discover the coordinates for these sites.

I lined up with the others to buy Marcellus’s book. I found myself standing next to one of the more attractive attendees, in fact, she was the only woman there. She was tall with long flowing dark hair and was wearing tie-die balloon pants and a floral shift. I caught a whiff of patchouli.

I’m Aura,’ she said.

I’m Charlie, I said. ‘Pleased to meet you.’

I expect you’d like to go for a drink after all that,’ she said. ‘There’s a quiet little wine bar I know just around the corner.’

This seemed a little forward, but a drink seemed like a good idea and the prospect of attractive, intelligent female company for the evening seemed an even better one. I had been at a loose end since Linda had left. Linda and I had been together for three or four years but had slowly drifted apart. Linda was a creature of habit. She didn’t like anything new. She strongly disapproved of my fascination with David Icke. She started coming out with all kinds of nonsense about my naivete. How can you be taken in by him? she said. He’s a charlatan, she said. Nothing but conspiracy theories, she said. It was bad enough that she used to hide my weed but the final nail in the coffin came when she took all my David Icke books to Oxfam.

Yin Yang was tucked away down a back alley. Unless you had been told about it, you would not know it was there. Strange for a licenced premises not to advertise itself. Yin Yang too was an odd choice for the name of a wine bar, I remember thinking. Perhaps there was a connection between Taoism and wine that I did not know about.

How did you get into all this, Charlie?’ Aura asked. ‘Don’t take it the wrong way. You scrub up quite well, but you don’t look like the new-age type.’

To keep her interested, I felt I had better open up. I told her how reading the David Icke books had taught me to question everything we had been told. How I came to realise the universe was made up of vibrational energy and consisted of an infinite number of dimensions sharing the same space. And that the world was run by lizard people from the fourth dimension that over time had interbred with humans. After all, once you had been alerted to this, it was obvious. The evidence was everywhere. The Royal Family, The Rothschilds, The Rockefellers along with most top politicians and world leaders past and present were the progeny of these liaisons.

Aura nodded her agreement. She was clearly familiar with the Babylonian Brotherhood or the Illuminati, as the elite were otherwise known.

Reading David Icke on parallel worlds got me around to thinking back to an experience I had years ago,’ I continued. ‘With what I now realise was in all probability a wormhole.’

Aura listened attentively while I explained where it was.

Cool!’ she said. ‘That sounds close by. It’s probably one of the local portal sites that he gives the co-ordinates for. Perhaps we might go in the morning. After breakfast.’

This sounded promising. Did this mean we were going to spend the night together?

I can’t remember much about the rest of the evening, but I suspect we may have consumed a bottle or six of wine and perhaps had more than the odd puff on a spliff. I woke in unfamiliar surroundings with a thumping head. Once I became used to the startling array of fabrics in the room, I realised there was perhaps a theme and they didn’t all clash. Even so, it was a riot of colour. Aura emerged from the shower and said something about it having been a good night, which helped to put my mind at rest. It seemed odd that according to my watch I had missed three days, but I didn’t dwell on it. If Aura seemed happy about the situation, this seemed to be sufficient.

On our drive to Cortina Drive, Aura talked about her trip out to Area 51 in the Nevada desert the previous year. There was a festival going on with people coming from all over the world. Some of those she met had drone footage of the captured spacecraft in the compound. Others, with first-hand experience of the base, had actually seen the aliens that were being held there but say they were not allowed to take photos. It was clear she said that this was not just a U.S. Air Force where they tested planes. There was so much that we just didn’t know.

It was a disappointment to find that the portal site from my youth had been built upon. It knocked the wind out of our sails. At the far end of Cortina Drive, we found ourselves facing an odd-looking industrial building with rain-screen cladding and no windows. It seemed an odd structure to build in what was otherwise a traditional red-bricked residential area, the kind of thing you would have thought it would be difficult to get planning permission for. We walked around the perimeter but found nothing to indicate what the building might be used for. We were not even able to detect an entrance.

Try as we might, we could not find out who the strange building belonged to. Or what they did in there. We even staked it out one morning but no-one arrived and no-one left. There appeared to be no record of the building anywhere. It didn’t even appear on Google maps. It was a real puzzler. It was as if it didn’t exist.

But, there are other potential portal sites mentioned in Marcellus Go’s book. Some of these are within easy travelling distance, there and back in a day. Also, I see that David Icke has a new book on the way, which is likely to have heaps of new ideas for us to investigate. But perhaps some of these things can wait awhile. Now that Aura and I have moved in together, there seems to be less of a sense of urgency. We might spend some time exploring inner space instead and see where this takes us.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Little Dissing

littledissing

Little Dissing by Chris Green

Uncle Chet is planning to buy a house in the south-west of England. He wants to get out of the rat-race and retire to the country. I am in the area to look at what is available. Chet doesn’t like travelling these days. He says you lose the taste for it as you get older. Since my recent divorce, I find I relish every opportunity to get out and about. And because I have a wealth of experience in buying and selling property, Uncle Chet trusts my judgement to find him something suitable in this rural idyll. It is a bright June day and I am on my way to Bilk and Bilk Estate Agents in Little Dissing.

It’s started all over again,’ I hear someone shouting behind me. I turn around. A bearded man in a ragged raincoat is running down the road towards me. He is waving his arms madly and shouting over and over. ‘It’s happening again. It’s happening again.’

What is it that is happening? What is causing the old fellow such distress? By the looks of him, it could be he does not know what is happening either. He doesn’t look as if he knows the time of day. His hair is wild and he has that look of madness in his eyes. He runs on past me, still shouting excitedly. He does not give me so much a sideways glance. He is clearly on a mission.

I ask one or two of the people outside the Methodist Chapel if they know what is going on but they ignore me. So do the ones outside the Funeral Directors as the crazed old man runs back up the street. Perhaps you need to have lived in Little Dissing a few years before people feel the need to speak to you.

We get screwballs every day back home predicting the second coming, the end of the world or aliens landing. We get all sorts of unlikely claims. There was one the other day shouting out that fish were going to fall from the sky. But I live in a big metropolitan centre, this is a small community. You would not expect to find such people on the loose in a timeless, well-ordered English village like Little Dissing. There can’t be more than a few hundred living here and with its floral displays and its carefully manicured grass verges, it regularly features in the Good Village guide. It has literary connections too, John Betjeman was fond of the place. There’s a church with a twelfth-century granite font apparently. Agatha Christie used to have a house just down the road and T. S. Eliot was a frequent visitor to the village. Perhaps the crazy old man is considered part of the local colour out here in the sticks, someone who might entertain you by singing sea shanties to his sheep or babbling on about the rose garden and the door we never opened.

Inside Bilk and Bilk’s offices, the exquisitely named Lara Love takes down Uncle Chet’s details. I tell her Chet is looking for a period property with three or four bedrooms, a workshop and a bit of land to grow ornamental gourds. Particularly good soil in these parts for growing ornamental gourds, Lara says. We chat about the area in general and she fills me in with a little more of the history of the village. I learn that it was the centre of a Saxon royal estate and it is famous for its wassailing celebrations.

Lara maintains good eye contact, makes easy conversation and has a good sense of humour. And her attributes certainly do not end there.

By and by, I ask her about the old fellow.

Ah! You mean old Seth,’ she says. ‘Don’t mind him, Mr Bloke.’

Guy,’ I say. ‘Call me Guy.’

The old fellow’s nutty as a fruitcake, Guy. He’s what you might call of a conspiracy theorist, alien abductions, unreported nuclear accidents, time travel, you name it. You’ve probably gathered everyone thinks he’s looney-tunes.’

I thought as much,’ I say. ‘His behaviour did not cause much of a stir. I guess locals are used to it. Out of curiosity, Lara, what is it he thinks is happening again?’

He’s referring to something that happened a long time ago,’ Lara says. ‘Probably twenty years or more. Certainly before my time but apparently, several people from Little Dissing disappeared one after another without trace. The mystery was never solved. No-one in the village today seems to be able to remember any details. I only know about it through an antique dealer who came in to buy a house. Bit of a local historian, this fellow was. Don’t worry! There is no reason to suspect extraterrestrials landed and took them away or that there was an unreported nuclear accident at the power plant along the coast but old Seth won’t let it go.’

Time travel then,’ I say.

I think there’s a bit of a time warp around here if that’s what you mean,’ Lara says. ‘I expect you notice it coming from the big city. Anyway, to cut a long story short, there was a report in the Gazette last week that someone from the village is missing,’ Lara says. ‘This is what has set him off again.’

I see,’ I say. ‘Any thoughts on that?

Oh, you don’t want to get drawn into that,’ Lara says. ‘Let’s see if we can find a house for your Uncle Chet.’

We arrange two viewings, one at two o’clock and the other at three o’clock. I grab some lunch at The Gordon Bennett. In the hope of getting the lowdown on the area, I try to strike up conversations with the regulars but no-one seems forthcoming. None of them remember the disappearances. The landlord just wants to talk about the upcoming Nick Cave tour, although he does manage to slip in how much he enjoyed the recent Twin Peaks series. I’m beginning to get the impression that Little Dissing is protective about its secrets.

As I am leaving, I get a text from an unrecognised number. It says, ‘When catching a train, always check the timetables.’ Trains? Timetables? I have never been good at cryptic puzzles and more importantly, I have an appointment. It’s probably a wrong number anyway.

Lara drives me to the first house in her Audi. It is a four-bedroom period property with gardens, paddocks and outbuildings set in two acres. There are no near neighbours. Lara tells me it has been on the market for two years. She says she can see no obvious reason why this should be. Good houses are snapped up around here and at four hundred thousand, this one is competitively priced. If she were still with Greg, she says, they might consider buying it. She fills me in on her recent breakup in a light-hearted kind of way. I’m not sure I’m getting the whole story. The failure of her marriage can’t really be down to Greg taking selfies at the gym or his singing along to hits from the musicals in the car. From my own experience, where a separation is concerned it’s usually six of one and half a dozen of the other. I have to take some of the blame for Eve and I splitting up.

I have to admit though I am not especially upset that Lara is not still with Greg. I am quite smitten. She is an attractive woman in her mid-thirties with long dark hair and a winning smile. She seems more flirty than most of the estate agents I’ve come across. During the drive, she keeps flicking her hair back and gives me darting glances. She appears to deliberately be letting her skirt creep up her leg. I’m not sure how the conversation arrives at nightwear but evidently, she wears none. A shame really that it is not a longer drive. All too soon, we arrive at the competitively-priced property and it’s back to business.

When you are looking around a house, you can detect almost straight away when something seems wrong. While you can’t always put your finger on exactly what it is, you get a feeling in the pit of your stomach or a tingling sensation on your skin. The temperature might appear to drop by a few degrees or you might hear an unexplainable high-pitched background sound. Whatever it is that is wrong here, I know as soon as I step through the Georgian solid oak door into the panelled hallway, impressive though this is, that this house is a no-no. It’s not the layout. It’s not the décor. It’s nothing tangible. It’s not that it’s damp. It’s not that it’s dark. It’s not that it’s haunted. But, something makes me instantly feel uneasy about being there. An unexplainable malevolence lurking in the very fabric of the place. Something untimely has happened here. This is why no-one has put in an offer. Why hasn’t Lara been able to sense it? I guess it’s because she wants to sell the house to get her commission. So, it’s not really in her interests to point out any shortcomings. But still!

Was Lara making up the story about her wanting to buy it? Using her apparent interest in the property as a selling point? Perhaps, but I decide not to make a big thing out of it. How could I get mad at someone who looks so captivating? Instead, I quietly suggest we move on to the next house. This, she tells me is two miles away. She is sure I will like it. The views, she says, are awe-inspiring. You can see all the way across the valley and along the estuary. She says we ought to be able to get it for a little under the half a million asking price. Perhaps even four seven five.

As we make our way through the back lanes, the news comes on Sticks Radio that someone else has gone missing. Jarvis Heckler, a businessman in his forties from the tiny hamlet of Lympton Stoney. Mysterious circumstances, the newsreader says, giving no clue as to what these might be.

Lympton Stoney! Isn’t that near where we are going,’ I ask?

It IS where we are going,’ Lara says, noticeably traumatised.

I see from the particulars I am holding she is right. The house we are going to look at is in the heart of the beautiful village of Lympton Stoney.

We are greeted by a legion of police vehicles. An officer in military fatigues pulls us over, ask us to step out of the car and begins to interrogate us. Who are we? What are we doing here? Where have we come from? What business do we have in the village? When did we set out? He is not satisfied with our story that we are here to view a house. Paramilitary uniform aside, he is of the old school of policing. Guilty until proved otherwise. We are here so we must in some way be involved with Jarvis Heckler’s disappearance. He orders his men to search Lara’s Audi. Does he expect to find a body in the boot? One of his officers gets me to empty my pockets. He takes more than a passing interest in my iPhone. Hasn’t he seen one like this before? He quizzes me about the recent text message. He is far from happy with my explanation or lack of. None of them seem prepared to answer our questions so we are no wiser as to exactly what might or might not have taken place. All we know is what we heard on the news report. Presumably, Jarvis Heckler has not just gone off on a business jolly to the continent or stepped out for a lunchtime pint at The Time Gentlemen Please with his hedge fund mates.

They finally give us the all clear to get on with our viewing but my heart is no longer in it. Lara can sense my disappointment with our progress. She reassures me that Bilk and Bilk have plenty of other properties in the area. She asks me if I am planning to stick around. If I am and I have nothing lined up for the evening, she wonders if we could have dinner at a nice little place she knows in Bishops Tump. This is an offer I can’t refuse.

If you come back to the office, I can lock up and we can go in convoy to my place and take it from there,’ Lara says. ‘We can have a glass of wine then before we set off for the evening.’

While Lara is taking a shower, I open up Google on my laptop to do some research into the events in Little Dissing twenty years ago, the events that Lara says no-one in the village can remember. I find a report from the Daily Lark from July 1996 with the headline, Little Dissing – Twinned with Area 51? The Lark is at best a dubious source, recognised these days as a trailblazer in fake news. So I take it with a pinch of salt. But it suggests the mystery surrounding the village was something people would have been talking about back then. I come across various photos of unusual cloud formations and strange spiral patterns in the heavens allegedly taken near the village. Vortexes like you might find in a tornado. But these are just pictures and easy enough to fake. There are one or two mentions of Warminster, the favourite location for UFO sightings. Same old, really. Then, I find a report from the Western Post which links the dates of the disappearances (a dozen in all) with the sudden closure of a classified establishment at Ramsden Hole in 1996. Why is it this escaped attention at the time? I see that Ramsden Hole is less than twenty miles from Little Dissing. I entertain the possibility the base did not in fact close but merely became more secret.

After half an hour, I can’t help but notice Lara has not returned from freshening up. This is even longer even than Eve used to spend in the bathroom. Might she be waiting for me in bed? Did I miss something in our conversation? Something perhaps about my joining her after her shower? I can’t imagine that I would have missed something as important as this but, if it is the case, the research can wait.

Ready or not,’ I call upstairs. There is no reply.

The bathroom does not look as if it has even been used. I look around each of the bedrooms. There is no sign of Lara. And she is not downstairs where I have come from. She cannot possibly have slipped out without me noticing. Could she? I just don’t know anymore. Boundaries have been crossed here. I call out her name over and over. Clutching at straws, I look in the wardrobe and the cupboards in case she is playing some kind of game. Not likely that she would be, but still. And, of course, she isn’t. She has vanished without trace. I try the mobile number she gave me but there is no reply. I look out the window. Her car is no longer there. And ……. It’s snowing.

Panicked, I go back to my laptop. It is now displaying today’s weather forecast. January 18th. What the …….? Is it past, I wonder, or is it future.’

Suddenly, a man dressed in a bright coloured hoodie and training pants carrying a sports bag appears through the front door, a living advert for flashy leisurewear. He is whistling The Winner Takes It All.

Lara!’ he calls out.

He spots me.

Who the fuck are you?’ he shouts.

I ask him who he is.

Who am I?’ he repeats. ‘Greg! That’s who I am! I live here, pal. ………. Where’s that slut of a wife?’

You mean Lara?’

Yes, Lara. Don’t think that you are the first, buddy.’

You don’t understand,’ I say. ‘I think Lara has disappeared.’

Just get the hell out of here,’ Greg screams. ‘Before I ……’

He looks as if he means business. I grab my laptop and make a hasty exit.

I think I’ll persuade Uncle Chet to look for houses in a different part of the country. At his time of life, he needs a little more temporal certainty.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Aegean Blues

aegeanblues

Aegean Blues by Chris Green

The man and the woman arrive at the resort late in the evening. They are the only ones aboard the transfer coach to be dropped off here. Most of the others are headed south to the beach-party resort. Having made something of a detour, it is with an air of indignation that the driver deposits their cases by the side of the road a little distance from the apartment block.

A gaunt woman in a blue overall appears out of the gloom to lead them to their accommodation. The man and the woman would like to ask questions but the woman in the blue overall has the harassed look of someone at the end of a long shift. She hurries them past a swimming pool and along a murky corridor. She opens the door to apartment number nine and, without ceremony, disappears.

Aegean Blue is a small two-storey block with just thirty two apartments. In the words of the brochure, a tranquil setting, for those seeking a quiet holiday. Number nine is on the ground floor. They switch on the light and notice that it is smaller than they expected. There are no features to remark on. No attractive little alcoves. No seascapes or pictures of sunsets on the wall. A large wardrobe takes up most of the room and the twin beds are a long way apart. Neither of them makes any reference to the shortcomings of the accommodation. It is as if by not showing disappointment, they might not, after all, be disappointed.

It’s so hot,’ the woman says. Thirty three degrees the captain told them shortly before they touched down.

And the shutters are closed,’ the man says. Despite the delayed flight, the mix-up over the cases, the insufferable hard-house music on the coach, and now the smell of pine disinfectant in the room, he is still is hoping they will make out.

After a walk in the moonlight along the road that hugs the beach, past apartment blocks that, if they were finished, would look out onto the sea, they manage to find a bar that doesn’t advertise Greek Dancing. After a bite to eat and a bottle of the local wine, the woman feels more relaxed.

It’s quiet. All you can hear are the waves,’ she says. ‘We’re going to like it here.’

The man agrees. He feels their block is far enough from the plate-smashing quarter of the resort. He is relieved. He remembers that when they booked the holiday on a stressful Saturday in March, he had chosen to ignore the fact that the Bouzouki Musician of the Year qualifiers were being held in a nearby resort.

Arm in arm, they arrive back at the apartment. It seems airier and more welcoming with the shutters open. And it offers a lovely view of an olive grove with a church on a hill visible in the distance.

The woman hangs up her skirts and tops on the wire hangers in the wardrobe and lines up her cosmetics in the bathroom. The man pushes his case under the bed. They are just getting undressed when they hear the menacing drone of a mosquito in the room. The woman locates the mosquito repellent and starts to spray the room.

I think I may have got it,’ she says.

The man pours them a refreshing glass of the aniseed liqueur they bought at the airport. They sip their drinks and begin to settle. They lie down on the bed and look at one another lovingly.

It’s so nice to actually be here,’ the woman says.

Our first real holiday together,’ the man says.

There is a sudden searing rasp from upstairs, followed by another. Wooden furniture being pushed repeatedly across a tiled floor perhaps. As the disturbance continues, the man and the woman speculate that beds, the table and chairs, the dressing table, the wardrobe, and perhaps a flotation tank are being rearranged. The rep on the coach mentioned that a majority of the arrivals to the island were on Friday night and the early hours of Saturday morning. And, after all, they themselves moved their own twin beds together straight away. At least, the continuous scraping sounds drown out the clatter of the primitive plumbing, the nocturnal network of barking dogs and the dance music from the club. But it is hardly conducive to tender lovemaking.

The next day, despite their tiredness, the man and the woman are out and about visiting the sights on the island that the guidebook recommends and do not spend much time in the apartment. But that night, the screeches and scrapes from upstairs are even louder and more persistent than the first night. Previous explanations seem redundant.

As they lay awake, they compare the cacophony to a large sea mammal giving birth, amateur violinists tuning up and an angry elephant.

As the night wears on their humour diminishes.

They begin to blame each other for choosing the holiday.

If you hadn’t been so concerned with price we could have taken a villa,’ the woman says.

If you had listened to what I found on the Internet, we would have gone to the west of the island,’ the man says.

The disturbances upstairs continue.

And you didn’t pack my meditation CD.’

Would you like to listen to some jazz on my iPod?’

And we’ve run out of mosquito spray.’

Would you like another glass of ouzo?’

At 4 am, after several unsuccessful attempts to heal the rift, the man feels he can take no more. He calls the travel company’s twenty four hour helpline, only to be told by someone from the Indian subcontinent that office hours are 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. ‘Please be leaving a message after the tone,’ the voice says. A complaint the following morning to Lefteris, who despite his resemblance to a beach bum, appears to be the proprietor, reveals only that he understands little English. The resort rep, Dale, who they finally track down the next day at Athena Quad Bike Hire, is no more helpful. He says he has had no other complaints. He seems more concerned with helping the girl in the day-glo bikini, who wants to know which nightclub is the best to meet fit fellas.

Despite trying wax earplugs rather than the foam ones, the man and the woman have another sleepless night. Too tired to venture out the next day, they decide to take it easy on the sun loungers by the pool. Most of the guests have gone out for the day on the travel company’s glass-bottomed boat trip. In the bar, Lefteris, with his crusty locks and grubby red Che Guevara t-shirt drinks a beer and watches the football, Brazil versus Argentina. He has his feet on the bar and seems to be doing his best to ignore his customers. Not that there are many, just the older couple from Gateshead, or perhaps it is Newcastle, who are staying in the next apartment. The man asks the man from Gateshead or Newcastle if they have been kept awake by the nightly clamour.

Ah divvnae heaah owt, Ye knaa wa ah mean leik. It wez kwiet las neet, wez it ne, pet?’

Given the language barrier, the man decides not to pursue the matter. He manages to attract Lefteris’s attention during a commercial break.

Many goals Brazil, good football,’ Lefteris says.

The man agrees and reels off the names of some players.

Yes,’ Lefteris says, ‘good goals’

The man takes two chilled beers back to the poolside, where the woman has removed her bra and is tanning her back.

We could have an early lunch at Aphrodite’s, and then a siesta,’ the man suggests.

Sounds good,’ the woman says. ‘Could you rub some more suntan lotion on to my shoulders?’

The morning passes quietly. Occasionally the bronzed body builders that live on the sunbeds at the other end of the pool change position. The gay couple saunter past in new hats. The pair with the piercings and the tattoos nurse their sunburn under a parasol, and one or two of the other guests come or go.

Are you hungry yet?’ the man asks.

I think I could be persuaded,’ the woman says. ‘Rub some factor fifteen on the backs of my legs, would you?’

After calamares, dolmades and Greek salad with a chilled bottle of rosé, the man and the woman return to Aegean Blue.

The apartment is quiet. Very quiet. Not a murmur from the plumbing and even the fridge seems more subdued.

The man sees a window of opportunity and seizes it. The woman is pleased that he has and responds favourably. She says she has been waiting for him to make the move since they arrived. Their sighs and moans build gradually into a crescendo. They climax together in a frenzy of thunderous passion. Afterwards, they lay together in one another’s arms.

The brief silence is shattered by a forceful thumping like a hip-hop bass-line. It takes the man and the woman a few seconds to realise that someone is knocking at the door.

Keep the bloody noise down in there, will you!’ an angry voice shouts. ‘We’re trying to get some sleep upstairs.’

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Call Me Lottie!

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Call Me Lottie – by Chris Green

LOTTIE

‘Pale blinds, drawn all day, I’m afraid,’ says Landon Truitt. ‘Upstairs and down.’

‘I remember getting those blinds fitted,’ I say. ‘Local chap. He called himself The Blind Man, which at the time I thought was amusing.’

‘The Blind Man. Good name. Very droll, Mrs Crenshaw.’

‘Lottie. You can call me Lottie,’ I say. ‘Please. You can’t imagine how much I hate the name Crenshaw.

Landon Truitt has dropped by to update me on his progress. He is a private detective of sorts. I found his card on the notice board at Waitrose. It read, Landon Truitt – Private Detective Of SortsAll Types of Investigation Undertaken, Honest and Trustworthy. I have hired him to find out what’s happening with my soon to be ex-husband, Dwayne. No-one has actually seen Dwayne in the flesh since I left him last August. He doesn’t appear to have left the house in Bougainvillea Heights. He does not answer the door to me and he appears to have changed all the locks. He was behaving oddly for a while before I left him but I put this down to business pressure. Then of course there were the experimental drugs he was taking for his rare blood disease. Dwayne has always been a bit of an enigma.

‘In all the time I’ve been watching, I haven’t seen him once, Mrs Crenshaw …… uh, Lottie. Not so much as a glimpse of him.’

‘Have there been any comings and goings?’

‘Oh yes …… Lottie. There were, let me see ……. eighteen visitors yesterday. I’ve got photos of some of the visitors and I’ve written down descriptions of the others.’

‘That’s the odd thing,’ I say. ‘Others have told me the same. People seem to keep calling round to the house, but Dwayne never appears.’

‘I thought I recognised one of them,’ says Truitt. ‘Charlie Gore. I was in uh, …. I knew Charlie years ago.’

‘Charlie Gore. Charlie Gore. No. Don’t know him. Let me see the photos, would you?’

Landon Truitt hands me the contact sheets he has printed off. I don’t recognise any of the visitors from the shots, although the figure in the brightly coloured boiler suit does look vaguely familiar. On second thoughts, probably not. I wouldn’t know anyone who would dress in an orange boiler suit, would I?

‘They’re not very clear, are they, Truitt?’ I say, holding one of the contact sheets up to the light.

‘I’m sorry, Mrs Crenshaw …… uh, Lottie, but I had to move the car. A candy car was cruising up and down. I thought it best to park a bit further away from the house. But then the digital zoom on my phone was playing up a bit.’

‘Is that one wearing a space suit?’

‘I believe so Mrs Crenshaw. Your husband appears to be a strange man, if you don’t mind me saying so. A bit loony tunes, is he?’

‘Lottie, please. Yes. You could definitely say that Dwayne Crenshaw is a very strange man.’

‘I get the feeling that you are hiding something from me. Would it help, do, you think, if you told me a little more about him? This seems a bit different to my usual cases.’

I am not sure how much I should tell Landon Truitt. For that matter I’m not sure how much I actually know about Dwayne. We were never lovey-dovey close. It was more a marriage of convenience. My family had lost its fortune in what became known as Black Wednesday and Dwayne Crenshaw’s star seemed to be in the ascendency at the time. Dwayne for his part seemed to be attracted to my …… full figure. To please him, when he was entertaining clients, I wore dresses that showed this off.

‘What kind of cases do you usually handle, Truitt?’ I say, to dodge the subject.

‘All kinds. I do surveillance work,’ he says. ‘But this is usually connected with suspected infidelity or something like that. Would I be right in thinking that this is not why I’m keeping an eye on your husband’s house. A plush house like this in the suburbs must be worth megabucks. Is he a pop star or something, perhaps? If he is, I haven’t heard of him.’

I feel that there might be some mileage in pursuing this line. ‘You’ve not heard of Dwayne Crenshaw?’ I say. ‘Where have you been living?’

LANDON

Had it not been my first case in weeks, well apart from some identity checks and a search for Mrs Floyd’s missing cat, Dillinger, I would have told Lottie Crenshaw to sling her hook. Attractive she might be, but that is no excuse for rudeness. ‘Was she going to get a proper service?’ she asked, ‘was I a professional?’ What a cheek! The woman is clearly loaded. You can tell that a mile off by the designer clothes she wears, taupe skirt suits and crocodile pumps. I’m surprised she knew how to find my gaff above the garage in Corporation Street. She certainly turned some heads when she arrived in her little Lotus.

It was clear she was hiring me because my rates are cheap. I charge £25 an hour plus expenses. Much cheaper than she would get elsewhere. Even then she wanted to negotiate the price. I shouldn’t have been so flippant with my business card. Perhaps it was also a mistake to put the card in Waitrose. Would Tesco would have been a better bet? Reverse psychology and all that. Maybe I should have picked another line of work. I could easily have gone back to internet security, well hacking, when I was released in January.

Lottie Crenshaw doesn’t realise how difficult surveillance is in a quiet suburban area. She thinks its like it is on the TV, where the detective and his oppo sit posing in their Raybans in a comfortable car, listening to Chet Baker, with tea and sandwiches brought along by a girl from the agency. Admittedly shades are pretty much compulsory for a private eye, but at the same time it’s really hard not to look conspicuous. I had to keep moving the car to avoid suspicion. I saw my old mate, Charlie from Pentonville. What was the old reprobate doing round here? Not the kind of location you would expect to find him. Unless ….. I kept my head down. I think I know where to find Charlie should I ever need him.

There have been a handful of people visiting her husband. Well, quite a lot, actually, but you can’t just get out of the car and say ‘Excuse me guv, but do you mind if I take your photo. Hold still will you?’ And Lottie has the nerve to criticise my pictures. I expect she has an all singing all dancing Canon Eos or something like that. Since the altercation with Mrs Nelson’s enraged husband last month when I was trying to get his picture, all I have is my smartphone. The thing is, I’m not even sure what I am supposed to be looking for. Lottie Crenshaw’s instructions were vague. She just told me to watch the house and report back. Now she tells me her husband is some kind of nut. Shouldn’t she be paying me more for the added risk?

‘I did wonder if Dwayne Crenshaw might be a bit of an oddball, Mrs C,’ I say, looking at the contact sheet of photos that I managed to print before the printer gave up on me. ‘I think that’s a man in a spacesuit going into the house in this photo.’

‘Yes. It could well be a spaceman’ she says. ‘It does look as if the blurry figure in your picture might be wearing a spacesuit. Dwayne is a little, what do you call it? Leftfield? It could be for a photoshoot. Dwayne was a ….. pop star. Big in the eighties.’

‘I guess if he were making a video or something, that might explain the spaceman’

‘And the man in the orange boiler suit.’

‘What about Charlie though?’

‘You keep on about Charlie. Who is Charlie?’

‘Charlie is a fixer. A clean up man.’

‘Oh! I see. I think. ……. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of my husband though.’

‘Can’t say I have, Lottie. I don’t listen to a lot of music though.’

‘You must have heard ‘Life On Jupiter. That was massive.’

‘No. I don’t think I have heard that one,’ I say, trying to assess if she is having me on. I mean, Life on Jupiter, what a stupid title, even for the nineteen eighties. ‘How does it go?’

Looking at her reaction, I can tell that I’ve embarrassed her. She isn’t going to sing it. I don’t want to dig myself into too deep a hole here. After all peanuts it might be, but I do want to get paid. I am at the limit of my overdraft and I have bills upon bills. Not to mention the maintenance payments. I can’t see Anna being understanding about a cessation of those. Not that I ever get to see the children these days.

‘I could do some rooting around on the internet, Lottie,’ I say, in an attempt to win her back round. ‘It’s amazing what you can find out if you know where to look.’

‘And you know where to look, do you?’ she says.

‘Yes ma’am,’ I say. ‘I was in the security services back in the day.’

LOTTIE

Deep down there might be something endearing about Landon Truitt or I wouldn’t have hired him. Not only is he resourceful but he also seems honest and trustworthy. In today’s world these are rare qualities in a man. I wish I could say I was honest and trustworthy. They do say that opposites attract. What am I thinking? I’m not attracted to him in the slightest. Not in the slightest. How could I be? He’s a back street private detective. There’s just an overlap in our lives’ narratives. That’s all.

I imagine he will be a little puzzled that he can’t find any reference to Dwayne’s pop career on the internet. But there again, this might motivate him to look a bit harder, dig a bit deeper into his treasure trove of secret web sites to find traces of him. This way he may find something useful. He might actually discover what my husband has been up to recently. After all I’m paying him good money to come up with information. Good money to him anyway. He’s broke. I can tell. He has a hangdog look about him. Along with the doe-eyed look of infatuation. But he still has to earn his £100 a day.

Maybe I should have mentioned my financial position before, or perhaps you’ve guessed. I’m a little strapped for cash at the moment. I had to sell a diamond ring last week to pay the rent on the flat in Compton Mews. The big worry for me is that Dwayne might spend all his money before our divorce comes through. The Aston Martin that is parked round the side of the house can’t have been cheap. There’s also the danger that when his judgement is impaired by the psychoactive properties of his life saving drugs, he might lose it in a dodgy deal. He has made his money doing dodgy deals, buying and selling dodgy businesses. By definition wheeling and dealing in this way is a risky enterprise. He’s certain to fall foul of the law one of these days. To live outside the law you must be honest and no-one could ever accuse Dwayne Crenshaw of being honest.

‘All businesses are untrustworthy,’ Dwayne was fond of saying. ‘What’s the difference between selling established ones and selling less established ones or even bogus ones? Nothing. No-one is up front these days. They all make up the figures. Where do you think we would be if people suddenly started telling the truth?’

This may well be, but I have to look after my settlement. I’m hoping that this will be a high six figure sum. My solicitor, Guy Bloke of Chesterton, Pringle and Bloke is optimistic of a good result, but he’s probably saying that because I am paying him a lot of money. When it comes down to it he can only do so much to plead my case, and the other side are likely to bring up a number of indiscretions that I haven’t told Guy Bloke about.

LANDON

‘I stand corrected, Mrs C …. Lottie. You were right. Dwayne Crenshaw was huge, worldwide. Or at least his alter ego Dean Cosmos was. Thirty one consecutive top ten hits in the UK, and six number ones on the Billboard chart. Life On Jupiter was a minor hit compared to Sex Machine or Descent Into Madness. Not to mention Dean’s collaboration with the legendary George Toot. I can’t imagine how I overlooked him. Well, actually I can. You didn’t tell me that Dwayne changed his name, did you?’

Lottie, looks a little confused. Or she pretends to look confused. I never know what to believe with her. I’d probably go so far as to say that women are a mystery to me. I will never be able to understand the perverse logic of their thought processes. How their expressions never give away what they might be thinking. Or their actions. I can’t help but think about the time I took Anna to the Horse and Jockey for our anniversary. She spent hours getting ready, and then in the middle of dinner she told me she was planning to leave me. Any man who claims he can see through a woman is probably missing a lot.

‘Did you manage to find what Dwayne Crenshaw has been up to recently?’ Lottie asks.

‘Aha!’ I say. ‘All the sites seem to suggest that Dean Cosmos …… alias Dwayne Crenshaw is living in New York with his new wife, Tara. She is seventeen, according to the whatsheuptonow.com site. He’s working on a new album and is planning a comeback tour later in the year.

‘Really?’

‘Yes, Lottie. Do you think the person living in the house in Bougainvillea Heights that I’m watching may not be your husband. Could he be an impostor? ……. Or is there something you are not telling me?’

LOTTIE

How on earth did he manage to come up with all that wish-wash about Dwayne Crenshaw being Dean Cosmos? Has he been researching on uncyclopedia.com or something? ……. Wait a minute. I see what’s going on. Having discovered that I was spinning him a yarn, he is now trying to get one over on me. I may have underestimated Landon Truitt. He might be smarter than he looks. Not that he looks too bad now that he’s smartened up a bit. But still.

‘OK. You’ve called my bluff on that one,’ I say. ‘What did you really find out?’

‘It may seem odd, Lottie, what with Dwayne Crenshaw being such an unusual name, but there are literally hundreds of Dwayne Crenshaws and each one of them seems to live a complicated life.’

‘I would have imagined there would be only one or two in the world.’

‘So would I. There are sixty four in the UK alone. However, the good news is that I’ve managed to isolate our Dwayne Crenshaw.’

‘And ….’

‘He sold the house in Bougainvillea Heights six weeks ago to a film company. Funnily enough the film company he sold it to is owned by Dean Cosmos.’

‘Bloody hell! You are kidding, right?’

‘Not this time. Truth is stranger than fiction, isn’t it?’

LANDON

We are in Lottie’s plush apartment in Compton Mews to discuss my findings on the case. She says she doesn’t have any tea. She has poured me a gin and tonic instead. Gingerly, I fill her in on the house sale.

‘Dean Cosmos?’ she says. ‘Good Lord!’

I come out with ‘Truth is stranger than fiction,’ or some such platitude to try to minimise the impact.

There is a momentary silence. I wait nervously for her reaction. Lottie gets up and walks around the room.

‘Six months ago, you say?’

‘That’s right.’

There is a more prolonged silence. I take a gulp at my G and T, wondering whether I should elaborate. Lottie continues to pace up and down. I imagine that I might now be off the case. I’ve had cases like this before. Too many of them. Cases where I haven’t come up with the desired result and haven’t been paid. Not to be paid is the last thing I need right now. And I can hardly send Nolan Rocco or Charlie Gore round to sort Lottie out. While I haven’t up to now intimated that I have a cash flow issue, I suggest politely that she might want to settle the account early. Get it out of the way, as it were. Get it off her chest. Perhaps she takes this too literally.

‘I was wondering if we couldn’t negotiate that,’ she says, unbuttoning her blouse.

Lottie is certainly an attractive woman. I have been struggling with this feeling all along, but surely there is professional etiquette to be considered. Isn’t there? …… Oh well, perhaps not. It seems we are quickly able to overcome this particular obstacle.

To my surprise there is little embarrassment afterwards. It seems like it is the most natural thing in the world for Lottie and I to be sipping a post coital cocktail with a fancy name and talking about how we can market my investigative skills to make some real money. If I am to keep her in the style to which she has become accustomed she feels I need to make some changes. Get some new cards made up for a start.

‘Ditch honest and trustworthy,’ she says. ‘Sentimental advertising regarding scruples gets you nowhere in the twenty first century. You don’t want to be chasing around after Mrs Dillinger’s cat forever, do you?’

‘What about deceitful and arrogant?’ I suggest.

‘Ha ha. Let’s see,’ she says. Licensed and Bonded inspires confidence and implies a level of trust.

Landon Truitt, Private Detective, Licensed and Bonded

Get rid of Private Detective. Private Investigator, Licensed and Bonded is better or perhaps Private Investigations Agency. Clients like to feel that there is a team working for them.

‘Landon Truitt Private Investigations Agency.’

‘Perhaps change Landon Truitt. How about Simon Alexander or Jonathan Steel?

‘I don’t know …..

‘That’s settled then, but first things first. Dwayne Crenshaw. What are we going to do about Dwayne Crenshaw?

‘Find him would be a good start.’

‘You’ll be able to do that, won’t you? Now that you have a little incentive.’

‘I can’t see a problem there. I’ll get on to it right away.’

‘Well. …… Perhaps you might leave it for a few minutes, don’t you think?’

LOTTIE

Men are simplistic creatures. God may have given them both a penis and a brain, but sadly only enough blood supply to use one at a time. They might as well just have an on off button. And, they are so incredibly self absorbed they never realise that they are being manipulated. However that said, Landon shapes up better than most. He is a sweetie. He understands that something has to be done about my husband. He thinks his friend Charlie might be able to persuade Dwayne that it is in his best interests to offer me a generous settlement. I think Landon and I are going to get along just fine.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Cover photo: Fabian Perez

 

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

 

Diamond White

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Diamond White by Chris Green

Every night Natalie would come back home from St. Saviour’s Hospital, where she was an orthopaedic nurse, to find Shaun slumped in a chair in front of the television, watching darts. More often than not, Shaun’s friends, Bernie, Mac and Tosser would be there too, shouting their crude encouragement to fat darts players with monikers like Wolfie and Big Robbo as they aimed their arrows. They would be surrounded by empty cans of John Smiths Bitter and Domino’s pizza boxes. Sometimes the gelatinous remains of takeaways from Hard Wok Café or the leftover bones from KFC bucket meals. The laptop would be open on the BetFred webpage. The commentator’s demented cries of ‘one hundred and eiiiiiighty’ would be greeted by cheers or boos around the room.

‘You could, at least, empty the ashtray,’ Natalie might say to Shaun, as Double Dekker or The Dutch Destroyer slammed darts relentlessly into the sisal fibre. Or perhaps, she might say, ‘Tesco’s was murder tonight. Can you help me in with the shopping?’

‘Do it in a minute, love,’ he might reply to whatever the particular request was. ‘this is the last leg of the set.’

Natalie had no idea what the last leg might be. Or what a set was. Or a match. Was a set the same as a match maybe? It certainly appeared to have no finality about it. Nor did ‘nine-dart finishes’ actually finish anything. The World Matchplay Championship seemed to be going on forever. One pair of beery brutes with ridiculous sobriquets would be replaced instantly by another pair. Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor and Free Willy would become The Tornado and Sparky. The Assassin and the Undertaker would become Bravedart and Ironman. No-one ever seemed to be the outright winner. It took a while before she realised that the competition had been decided weeks before, and Shaun, Bernie, Mac and Tosser were now watching DVDs of previous championships. God knows what they were betting on. The winner of Celebrity Space Walk. Whose wife would be the first to leave them perhaps.

‘Have you walked the dog, Shaun?’ would not even be a question worth asking. Most nights Natalie would have to give Axel a quick run in the park around the corner to do his business, before her bath, and then it was time for bed.

In the morning, after a night disturbed by Shaun’s snoring, Natalie would get up, make an attempt to clear up the squalid mess and freshen the house with Febreze, before setting off once more to the hospital. Since Shaun had lost his job at the packaging plant, Natalie found herself working double shifts to pay the bills on their semi in Francis Bacon Close.

Natalie and Shaun had been together over twenty years. Shaun had once possessed a rugged charm and used to keep himself in shape. He would, even before it was fashionable, go to the gym several times a week and, until a year or two ago, was involved with Rod’s youth football team. Natalie had once thought of Shaun as an attractive man, although lately the illusion she had of his masculine physique was wearing thin. Shaun’s libido had taken a tumble too. Whereas once he had pressed all her buttons, now it was once a month, if she was lucky. Even then it was more of a grope and a fumble rather than an act of passion. It was sad to see a man go to seed, worse still that she was married to one. She couldn’t help but notice that lately she had to order larger sizes when buying his clothes out of the Great Universal catalogue. Shaun’s girth was beginning to resemble that of Bernie, Mac and Tosser, all of whom were a few years older and a few miles further down the road of self-destruction. Sometimes she would find one or other of them asleep on the rug when she got up, having failed to make it home. They were one step up from vagrants.

‘Why don’t you leave him?’ her colleague, Blessing suggested, almost daily. ‘Or better still boot him out. My life has moved forward in leaps and bounds since I got rid of Kofi.’

‘I know I should,’ Natalie would agree. ‘Especially now that Rod and Maggie have left home. But somehow I just can’t. He’s just going through a bad patch. He’s lost his focus a bit, that’s all. Besides, who would look after Axel while I was at work?’

‘Bad patch?’ Suki thought. At what point would Natalie see it as terminal decline. Twenty years ago Shaun had been a high flier. He was swept along by the ‘loadsamoney’ culture. He had a flat in docklands and a Saab 900 Turbo. Over a few years as the family grew, he went from being ‘something in the city’ to ‘something in the town, and later ‘nothing in the town.’ A series of factory jobs had followed. Eventually, even the packaging plant gave up on him. That was probably three years ago. Since then he had gone from bad to worse. He had even stopped going to the pub and the bookies. Rod and Maggie were too ashamed to visit. ‘Bad patch?’ Suki did not want to upset Natalie. She said nothing. Natalie would have to decide for herself.

Natalie met Kane at Fortnum and Mason. Her friend, Claudia had taken her to London to cheer her up and was treating her to lunch at The Fountain Restaurant. Claudia had been worried about her lately, she said. They ordered the recommended whitebait starter and the fish pie, along with a bottle of New World Sauvignon Blanc. A jazz trio played. Out of the blue, a tall man with Mediterranean good looks came over and sat with them. He was an imposing figure. From the cut of his suit and his diamond-encrusted Girard Perregaux watch, Natalie wondered if perhaps he was Mr Fortnum or Mr Mason. Or maybe Simon Templar. With a brisk flick of his hand, he called the wine waiter over, ordered a bottle of Château something or other with a fancy name and introduced himself as Kane.

As the fine wine massaged their palettes, the conversation touched upon air travel, the theatre, Venice, Henley Regatta, Japanese food, Hispano Suizas, haute couture, Shakespearean lovers, The Cocteau Twins, château vineyards and graphite cooled tennis rackets. Darts did not come up at all. Kane did most of the talking and laughed a lot, showing a set of teeth that were whiter than a Klu Klux Clan parade. He had noticed her the moment she walked in, he said, and had not been able to take his eyes off her. He described her as sexy, radiant and beguiling, not terms that she was used to hearing in relation to herself of late. Most embarrassing perhaps was when the band played ‘Embraceable You’, dedicated to her. Before he left Kane asked for her phone number. Perhaps he was an incurable flirt and did this to women all the time, Natalie thought. Surely he would not phone. The next day however he called her and after flattering her with comparisons to Hollywood starlets (smile like Jessica Alba, hair like Eva Mendes), invited her down to his pile in Dorset for the weekend. Natalie did not know what to say. She had never had this kind of approach from a stranger before. Certainly not a suave, sophisticated one like Kane. She stalled him by saying she would check her diary and could he phone her later. She then phoned Claudia and asked her what she should do.

‘I know what I would do in your position,’ said Claudia. ‘Besides, what have you got to lose.’

As things had been particularly fraught with Shaun over the previous few days and it was her weekend off, she felt she needed a bit of a lift. When Kane called back an hour later, she accepted. He had found out her address he said, and would send his chauffeur round at six on Friday evening.

Natalie was unaccustomed to a lifestyle of fast cars, heliports, ranch styled villas, and private beaches. She had not been to Monte Carlo or Venice. She had not been to Thailand or Singapore. The most exotic place she had been were the Costa Brava and Majorca and this had been when Shaun was earning proper money, before he had lost his entrepreneurial verve. But when Kane suggested she ‘throw a sickie’, to spend some time travelling, she did so. In fact, his personal physician with a Harley Street address signed her off for six months with Synaesthesia, a form of scrambled perception. Faraway places with strange sounding names beckoned. They started with the Caribbean. To most people a holiday in these seas means Barbados or St. Lucia. Few have heard of Pine Cay in the Turks & Caicos or Canouan, St. Vincent. These were off limits to all but the very wealthy. Kane was very wealthy. Siesta Key, off the Florida coast, is best experienced at sunset, when its white beach gently takes on an orange glow and the sky is painted with strokes of tangerine and vermilion. Fortunate then that Kane owned one of the best-situated residences in the Siesta Key village, along with a modest forty-footer to cruise to dockland fish restaurants or explore the mangrove.

Although he seemed to own property in every corner of the world, the source of Kane’s wealth and prosperity was slow in revealing itself to Natalie. He never once referred to the origins of his fortune and offered no clues. He didn’t go to the office as such. He took no interest in the stock market and there were no clandestine meetings with business associates so far as she could gather, so it was unlikely he was in finance or in commerce. The only time he used the phone or the internet were to make travel arrangements, or make some frivolous purchase. She had variously entertained the idea that he might be a key secret service agent, minor royalty from a deposed dynasty, or Raffles, but the truth was though that she didn’t know. They moved from place to place, but she only discovered small fragments on a need to know basis.

‘How do they do that,’ she asked him at El Circo de la Magia in La Habana Vieja. The elephant had just vanished before their eyes.

‘It’s all done with mirrors,’ he said. ‘It’s an illusion. There is only one reality.’

Natalie was left wondering what this reality was. If there was only one reality, why did people see things in different ways, and where did those night-time images come from that inhabited her dreams? Perhaps the waking world was, like the vanishing elephant, no more than an illusion. One thing was certain, Kane was surrounded by mystery.

From time to time, she would phone or email Claudia with a concern, for instance that Kane appeared to have no family, or that she did not even know what nationality he was. Claudia’s advice was always to count her blessings. In her experience, it was never an advantage for a partner to have a nimiety of relations or a wealth of surplus baggage.

‘I don’t even know how old he is,’ she said. ‘He’s never said, and he doesn’t know that I’m 43 because he’s never asked. He must be a few years younger than me, though. What if he gets tired of me?’

‘Cross that bridge when we come to it.’

‘I spend hours a day applying Cle de Peau’s Beaute La Creme and ReVive’s Intensite Volumizing Serum to fight off the ageing process. I have Evian rose petal baths, Oriental Harmony rubdowns, and I have my own hairdresser and a portable gym shipped everywhere we go. ‘

‘Sounds great. I can’t see what the problem is. I would swap places with you,’ said Claudia.

‘Then there’s the Yoga, the Indian head massages and the pelvic floor exercises.’

‘And the Brazilian waxes?’

‘No. I have my own personal stylist. He’s given me a Kyla Cole trim. ‘

‘What?’

‘ Kyla Cole, she’s a Slovakian glamour model. We had her over to the hotel for a threesome when we were in Vienna.’

‘You little hussy.’

‘It was fun actually.’

‘You seem to be having a fabulous time. Its all good surely. I’d swap places with you.’

‘We went to see a Buddhist monk in Saigon. He told us that there is no light without shadow and no shadow without light. There is no good and no bad. Good and bad are not stable entities. They are continually trading places. The most important thing is to maintain the balance between the two. Balance itself is the good.’

‘So you are worried that that there is no balance to your life at the moment? You’re afraid that the bubble’s going to burst?’

‘I just have nagging doubts about it all sometimes.’

Natalie also discovered that Kane carried no cash, never seemed to have to pay for anything and the name on his correspondence and credit cards just read ‘Kane’, neither a Christian name or a surname. When they travelled, Customs never bothered them. Wherever they went, even Teheran and Moscow, they were always waved on through, no consideration given to they might be bringing in or out. Kane remained a man of mystery. Once or twice she even considered he might be an international drugs dealer or a weapons trader.

One night in Barranquilla, Colombia, she tackled him on the subject.

‘I know next to nothing about who you are,’ she said. ‘Sometimes when we’re walking I check to see that you have a shadow and I even look in the mirror to check that you have a reflection.’

Kane listed some of the things that she did know about him, mostly concerning the physical characteristics of his lovemaking.

‘And you’ve completely taken me over. I don’t know who I am anymore. You don’t even let me pack my own suitcase. Everywhere we go we have brand new ones, packed with a brand new wardrobe. Why do we have to keep travelling anyway? Sometimes I’d like to just stay in one place.’

Her wish was granted. Kane owned a substantial villa on the shores of Lake Garda that had once belonged to Mussolini. Here they spent the month of July among the olive groves and vineyards, taking his Vivace speedboat out now and again to visit the stunning scenery of Sirmione, Garda, Malcesine, Bardolino, Limone, and Riva del Garda. The lake seemed to swallow you up in its splendour. The low-lying countryside around the southern stretches of the lake became increasingly dramatic to the north. Here rocky cliffs, swathed in pines hugged the shoreline. It was the most beautiful scenery that Natalie had seen. In the evenings with a full compliment of staff on hand, they entertained guests like Daniel Craig, David Bowie, and the illusionist, David Blaine. Gifts for Natalie would arrive daily, shipped from all corners of the world. This was all a bit Hans Christian Anderson, the stuff of fairytales. One Sunday afternoon, to Natalie’s great delight, her favourite singer, Damien Rice arrived with his band and performed a private concert on the lawns. He played a version of ‘Windmills of Your Mind’. The lyrics seemed to express the confusion she sometimes felt.

One afternoon after a langoustine linguine lunch on the Grand Canal in Venice, Kane announced that they would be returning to England for a few days. When they arrived in London, Natalie made the decision to go and look in at Argyle Avenue to pick up some personal papers she had left. She had left it long enough. It had been over six months since she had had any contact with Shaun. She parked her new white BMW outside. The front garden was like a jungle and the gutter was hanging down the front of the house. There were ‘Dagley and Thorpe’ For Sale signs outside the houses on either side. Inside the house, the first thing that struck her, apart from the fetid smell in the hallway, was that the front room had been stripped of its furniture. Even the TV had gone. All there was left was a gnarled dartboard mounted on a rubber tyre on the wall. Shaun, Bernie, Mac and Tosser, along with two other down and outs, were sitting on the floor, amongst a smorgasbord of Gregg’s bags. They were passing round a three-litre bottle of Diamond White cider and listening to darts on the radio.

‘Killer 153!’ screamed the commentator. ‘D’Artagnan’s back in it.’

There was a cheer from around the room.

Disgusted, Natalie went through to the back of the house. Gingerly, Shaun followed her.

The kitchen too was bare. All the white-ware was gone and the shelves were empty. The was no longer even a kettle.

‘What happened to the furniture?’ she shouted.

‘I had to sell it to pay some debts,’ said Shaun.

‘Where’s Axel?’

‘He died on Sunday, love,’ said Shaun. ‘I did all that I could.’

‘Is that him in the garden?’ she said, looking out the kitchen window. ‘You couldn’t even call a vet.’

‘The phone’s been cut off,’ said Shaun. ‘Otherwise, I would have let you know.’

‘What about your mobile?’ said Natalie. ‘You might have made a bit of an effort.’

‘If you remember, you took my mobile,’ said Shaun.

‘One of you must have a mobile,’ said Natalie in exasperation.

‘Bernie’s got one, but he’s got no credit and Tosser’s with Three Mobile, so his doesn’t work,’ said Shaun.

Natalie was in such a hurry to leave, she did not bother with the unopened mail. This seemed to belong to another lifetime. It looked like the bailiffs might have been anyway and what did she care if the house was repossessed?

Natalie had arranged to meet Kane at Fortnum and Mason and they would, he said, go to a show, stay at The Dorchester overnight, and then to drive down to Dorset. She parked the BMW in Arlington Street and made her way along Piccadilly. It had only been a matter of hours, but she missed Kane. For months, they had been almost inseparable. She went up to The Fountain Restaurant. She ordered a glass of Chablis, and then another. She waited and waited, glancing nervously around the room. The waiters asked her several times if she was waiting for someone. ‘Had Monsieur been delayed perhaps? Was there anything they could do?’ ‘No,’ she told them, ‘her partner would be along in a moment.’ The minutes ticked by. Still there was no sign. It was not like Kane not to call if he was going to be late. Had he had an accident? Had he been arrested, kidnapped even? She had several mobile phone numbers for him and tried them one by one. Each came back with ‘The number you have dialled could not be recognised’.

Natalie realised she could not stay in the restaurant all afternoon. There were people waiting for tables and she was beginning to attract attention. She called a waiter over to pay her bill, but the card processing machine would not accept her gold or platinum cards, and she had no cash. She registered her embarrassment. The maitre d’ was very good about it. After all, he explained, she had only had a modest hors d’ouvres and four glasses of Chablis, and it was not the most expensive vintage. She left the restaurant and went to the nearest cashpoint. After rejecting the pin on each of her cards three times, the machine proceeded to swallow them up. She phoned The Dorchester, but they had no record of a booking in Kane’s name. She phoned Claudia, but her phone was on voicemail. She left a long garbled message and afterwards her phone showed ‘Emergency Numbers Only.’ She had run out of credit.

Fortunately, she had paid her parking in advance and the BMW had more than half a tank, so she drove down to Dorset and, after some difficulty with the Satnav, which was giving directions in German, found the house. Although large, it was not nearly as grand as she remembered. It was to her dismay occupied by a darts promoter and his family. Mrs Goldberg explained that they had lived there for three years and, no, they had never heard of Kane.

Natalie was by now distraught and severely disorientated. She was not even sure where she was driving to. Her friends and family were far flung. She had changed her mind several times. Her driving reflected her confusion. She managed to take the wrong exit off the M27 and was unable to get her bearings. To make matters worse, the satnav was now directing her through Frankfurt. She pressed a series of buttons and managed to switch it off. This was no help. She had never been good at navigation. She had a long history of taking wrong turns, even close to home. She did not have a map and she had never heard of any of the places that were signposted. She was hopelessly lost.

The thunder came on without warning. It had not been forecast. The speed at which the black cumulonimbus clouds swallowed up the light alarmed her. The sky rapidly became a mass of black. Raindrops the size of pebbles smashed against the roof of the car. Visibility was down to a few feet. The rumbling grew louder and louder, claps so powerful they might be signalling the end of the world. Strangely, there was no lightning. A thunderstorm without lightning – what did this mean? Wasn’t thunder the result of lightning? You saw the lightning first and then waited for the thunder, counting the seconds to work out how far away it was. Frightened, She drove on, into seemingly solid sheets of black summer rain. The thunder followed her, always overhead, but still there was no lightning. Natalie felt nauseous and breathless. This was way out of her comfort zone. Something extraordinary was happening here.

After fifty or so miles during which she seemed to be driving round in ever decreasing circles, the BMW chose a particularly inhospitable location to run out of petrol. She had no idea where she was. It was now midnight and pitch black. There was no moon and no stars. She could see nothing, except the narrow stretch of flooded track that was in the beams of her headlights. She was bathed in sweat. It was streaming down her face and her dress was sticking to her like a second skin. She wound the window down. The thunder had stopped. The rain had stopped. All that she could hear outside were the cascade of water gushing down the incline and the distant bleating of sheep. She could not even see the sheep, let alone locate a possible farmhouse to seek assistance. Anyway, you could not expect to wake a farmer up in the middle of the night. She quickly realised she was stuck. She had no money and no phone, and for that matter, no walking shoes. Mostly, though, she felt completely exhausted. Better to wait until first light. Meanwhile, she would grab some sleep in the back seat of the car.

She dreamt she was looking after a garden. It seemed to be her garden. It was maybe a secret garden, although she had told Claudia about it. The garden had lots of trees. One tree, in particular, displayed spectacular multicoloured blossom, all the year round. She had always looked after this tree. She did not know what species of tree it was. She called it Serendipity tree. It attracted beautiful iridescent birds that playfully chorused The Goldberg Variations. And fireflies that danced an approximation of the fandango. Damien Hirst came and painted a song of the tree. One day she got back from walking by the lake and a team of men were cutting down the tree. They had large chainsaws. ‘No!, No!, No! You can’t do that,’ she shouted, but they could not hear her over the noise from the chainsaws. She grabbed one of them by the arm. Branches from her tree were striking her in the face. She began to bleed. One of the men noticed her and switched off his saw. The tree was leaning away from them, almost felled. ‘We have to cut down these trees to make dartboards,’ the man said. Natalie screamed.

She was woken by a brisk tap on the back window of the car. Standing there was a uniformed policeman. A patrol car was nearby, blue light flashing.

‘This your car is it?’ he asked suspiciously.

‘Of course!’ Natalie replied indignantly.

His colleague meanwhile was looking the car over checking the tax disc. It was four months out of date. He was not slow in pointing out the implications of this.

‘Can I ask you to step out please?’ the first policeman said.

He barked something into the radio, ending with the registration number of the BMW.

‘What’s the story then,’ he asked aggressively.

Perhaps he had had to get up too early for his shift, Natalie thought. This might explain the lack of politeness. She gave a brief resume of her predicament.

The officer’s radio sparked into life.

‘I’m afraid that this is a stolen car,’ he said. ‘I’m going to have to ask you to accompany me to the station.

The uncut white diamonds they found in the lining of Natalie’s Marc Jacobs handbag were of the finest quality. The custody officer felt it would not be appropriate to grant bail with such a large sum involved. Even her defence solicitor, Dale Charmer, found her tale implausible. Furthermore, the solicitor’s clerk had been doing some background research and could find absolutely no trace of Kane on records anywhere. Their client was quite clearly some sort of fantasist. Also, the clerk had discovered that her husband, Shaun, who she depicted as a down-and-out, was an up and coming darts player. He had recently won the Diamond White Allcomers Challenge and had qualified for the UK Open Darts Championship.

‘Why don’t you change your story? Dale suggested. ‘Make something up for the trial.’

Natalie was disappointed. Weren’t the defence team supposed to zealously represent your case, even if they did not believe you?.

She was remanded in Holloway to appear in court in late September. While on remand, Natalie received a letter with a postmark from Siesta Key, Florida. It was in Claudia’s handwriting.

Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved