Heroes

Heroes by Chris Green

The pandemic has been a devastating time for everyone. You don’t have to look too hard to find heartbreaking real-life stories. They are everywhere. And the horror of losing loved ones continues with no end in sight. In addition to the carnage, millions more have lost their livelihoods, and the lockdown has been difficult for families the length and breadth of the country. Apart from the obvious effects, the mental health consequences of the isolation are incalculable. Everyone is becoming a little stir crazy. 

It would be wrong to look for too much sympathy in terrible times like these, but spare a thought for us writers of imaginative fiction. Admittedly, we should be more at home than most with the solitude. We need quiet time to craft our stories, but more importantly than this, we need inspiration. We have to come up with ideas in the first place, and these usually come from being out there amongst people. All fiction is based to some extent on real-life experiences. The germ of the idea might come from a snippet of conversation we accidentally overhear, an unusual event, the juxtaposition of two contradictory views, glimpses of peculiar behaviour or an idiosyncratic character. Locked down as we have been, we have largely been deprived of these prompts. There has been nothing to spark our imagination. You will probably have noticed that there have been few novels or short stories on the shelves worth reading this year. This is not a coincidence.

With the escalating numbers of fatalities, you might argue that there is plenty of human drama we could draw upon. This is as maybe, but only for writers that like to rub your nose in the ordure. This is not the time to get stuck into a Toni Morrison or Cormac McCarthy novel. In troubled times like this, I’m pretty sure my readers would not appreciate a dystopian narrative. I have avoided any reference to the virus in all of my work since the pandemic began. There is more than enough of this on the daily news bulletins. People need no more reminders. They’re quite aware of what they’re going through. Something lighter and more entertaining is called for. 

The quiet rural area Lucy and I live in offers little obvious raw material for a punchy plotline. Chekhovian realism is important, of course, but no-one wants to read about dull characters whose actions are predictable. It may have worked for Hardy, but rural pursuits do not have a place in speculative fiction. My readers don’t want to read about farmers ploughing fields, horses being mucked out, or cows clumping in pastures. And counting sheep sends you to sleep. The fellow with the Dodge pickup, who produces the 13% green rough cider in his compound of makeshift outhouses, might have a story or two to tell. Similarly, the clientele of The Horse and Horse which may or may not be a focal point for county-lines trafficking might have interesting experiences to relate. 

But given the reports of how easily the virus spreads, why would I take the risk? Lucy and I don’t even go out. We get everything delivered. We are on the vulnerable list and are shielding. I’m used to being able to travel around freely to find my source material, at least for the initial inspiration. Most writers of fiction will tell you that exploration is the principal driver of narrative development. But there are other sources. I suppose I could stare at the night sky in search of inspiration, or scan the heavens with the telescope I bought when many years ago when I thought there might be starmen waiting in the sky. I could perhaps scour the archives for an interesting memory to get me started, although I may find I have already dug deep into my stock. Dreams are another wellspring of ideas for a writer. I have called on my own nocturnal adventures once or twice, that’s for sure. But even in the world of speculative fiction, dreamscapes need to be used sparingly, a backup rather than a primary resource.

Names are sometimes a good place to start. A well-chosen character name can get the ball rolling. My Roy Saxx and Guy Bloke stories started in this manner. Snappy names, like Nick Carr in Fantastic Voyage, and Frank Fargo in Ashes to Ashes have also helped me to move plotlines along when I have been stuck. But frivolous names ought not to detract from the primary aim, which is to tell a story, Ultimately it is the subject that will decide whether readers persevere. It needs to be something they can relate to, and in this current climate, it needs to have the feelgood factor. Something hunky dory. Sun, sea and sand, maybe. Retail therapy. Sweet things. My story could be about cakes. Master pâttisiers, Errol and Cheryl could be holding a buy-one-get-one-free cake sale at their shop. You can have a layered pound cake filled with raspberry jam and lemon curd topped with buttercream frosting along with a Dobos torte or with a chocolate cake with icing or a mascarpone cheesecake along with a cranberry coffee cake. The choice is yours, and the selection of delicacies is endless. I run the idea past Lucy. She is knowledgeable when it comes to cakes.

It doesn’t exactly lend itself to dramatic tension,’ she says.

Perhaps Errol and Cheryl might run out of cakes,’ I say. ‘And find themselves under pressure to come up with more before the customers queuing outside take matters into their own hands and start trashing the shop. Or they could find themselves in the middle of a full blooded layer-cake war with rival pâttisiers, Larry and Carrie.’ 

Ditch the cake idea, Matt,’ Lucy says. ‘It smacks of desperation. No matter how you dress it up, it isn’t going anywhere. To keep the reader interested, you need to come up with an idea that can accommodate reversals of fortune. A page-turner.’ 

So what do you think would work?’ I say. ‘Some kind of adventure story? Hero, quest, villain, risk, transformation, that kind of thing?’

Something along those lines,’ Lucy says. ‘With a happy ending, this time. Please!’

But don’t you think that’s too predictable?’ I say. ‘I mean, rules are there to be broken. What about an element of magical realism? That usually shakes things up. Or a quirky story that draws attention to its construction?’ 

Isn’t that what you are doing here, anyway?’ Lucy says. 

Perhaps I am. Lucy is usually right. Even in a crisis, she remains level-headed. She seems to be able to stay focussed when sometimes I can’t see the woods for the trees.

Why don’t you throw in some time travel and maybe a talking cat or two?’ she adds.

H’mmm,’ I say. Even if Lucy is being facetious, it’s not a bad idea. ‘I haven’t had a talking cat for a while. Or an invisible train. Or a magic tree.’

Maybe you could feature a real-life celebrity,’ she says. ‘Or do you think you’ve overused that one?’

Have I got Lucy on board with the idea of a postmodern narrative now? I’m wondering if I might introduce Aldo Jett too, or Benito Pond, and resurrect Wet Blanket Ron. No, perhaps not Wet Blanket Ron. He is not the right sort of character to have around in an ongoing global pandemic. But metafiction is definitely the way to go. 

Perhaps I might write you in as a character, Lucy,’ I say. 

You could be in it too,’ Lucy says. 

Why not? We could spring ourselves out of here.’

Exactly! We’ve been in one place too long.’

We could be whoever we want.’

We could be powerful people.’

I could be King and you could be Queen.’

I think I see where this is heading. We could be heroes. Just for one day.’

Or for ever and ever. What do you say?’

Copyright © Chris Green, 2020: All rights reserved


MUSHROOMS

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Mushrooms by Chris Green

The cows that were in the lower field yesterday evening have gone. Perhaps they have been moved up into the top field behind the trees. I eat my breakfast on the patio, bacon, fried egg and freshly picked mushrooms with a pot of Horniman’s tea. I look out for the buzzards I can hear calling. Now and again, I spot the pair circling overhead but on the whole, they stick to the wooded area in the distance, too far away for me to get a good photo. There are some other high-flying birds which I can’t identify. They are larger than buzzards. Vultures maybe? Kites? Suzy would know what they are but she is not here.

It is a shock to see the tank coming over the hill. At first, I take the large vehicle to be a combined harvester. There was lots of harvesting going on when I drove down. It’s that time of year. It is difficult to imagine what a tank might be doing in this rural idyll. There are no military bases nearby. In fact, there is very little nearby. This is as remote a spot as you could find in the south of the country. But it is unusual to come across a combined harvester in desert camouflage. Even more unusual to come across one with a large calibre gun on the front. I do not know much about tanks but this looks like one built for modern warfare.

I have not been reading the news since I arrived at the cottage but before I left home, there seemed to be nothing in the offing that might suggest upcoming conflict. Since the American President had been impeached back in May, the world had seemed a safer place and peace talks were even underway in the Middle-East. It is said that a week is a long time in politics but even so.

There is, of course, no wi-fi here nor a phone signal here. The thinking was that without distractions I would be able to make a start on my new novel. There hasn’t been a new Lincoln Frost title for three years. This was also the reason that I came here on my own, plus the fact that Suzy and the children did not want to spend time in the back of beyond. Apparently, there were things going on in the city that took their fancy, sports events, concerts and the like.

While I try to come up with an explanation, I dart back into the house and spark up the half-finished spliff I left in the ashtray. I find it helps to calm me. Well, usually. I notice through the window the tank has been joined by a second lumbering leviathan in desert camouflage. Although the terrain is not ideal for tank-tread military vehicles, they are coming this way. They are getting closer. Unfortunately, to get to where my car is parked on the edge of the lower field, I would have to head towards them. I would be an easy target. I suppose I could just go out the back and run like hell in the opposite direction. But, why would they be interested in me? The idea is ridiculous. I’m a writer, not an insurrectionist. I tell myself to get a grip. Tough it out.

It’s a last-minute manoeuvre but with a crashing of gears they veer left and head off in a south-easterly direction towards the River Dingle. Within minutes they are out of sight. This allows me to breathe again but the puzzle as to what brought two battle tanks this way remains. While it would be nice to think it was nothing more than a routine military exercise, this somehow seems unlikely. There must surely be designated areas for these little jaunts.

The cows seem to have been oblivious to the incursion. They begin to amble back from the top field. Suddenly it is as if nothing has happened. There is peace in the valley. Once I have composed myself, I go to see if I can find the farmer. I cannot even find the farmhouse. Farms these days can spread over several miles. Instead, I take a drive to the farm shop I was told about. This is five miles away.

Farmacy is a funny little place, blink and you would miss it. Before I get chance to mention the tank, the proprietor, who introduces himself as Max, starts waxing lyrical about mushrooms. He says he has ninety three different varieties in stock, Maitake, Cordyceps, Reishi, Shiitake, Coriolus, the list goes on and on. I look around and notice he stocks little else but mushrooms. A cabbage or two and some wonky carrots. But most of the space in the shop is taken up by mushrooms, forest fungi and of all shapes and sizes. By and by, I manage to get a word in about the tanks.

No,’ he says. ‘I’ve not heard anything about any tanks in the area. Are you sure they were tanks?’

No. Perhaps they were tour buses,’ I say, sarcastically.

I don’t think so,’ he says. ‘We don’t get a lot of day-trippers around here.’

What?’ I say. ‘Not even with all these mushrooms for sale?’

In fact, we don’t get many people at all,’ Max says having missed the humour of my comment. I am about to ask him why he thinks this is but I decide to leave the conversation for another day. I bid him good day and take my leave.

I decide I might have more luck at The Ram Inn. This is several miles further west. The review of The Ram in The Good Pub Guide I keep in the car describes it as a traditional country pub where you can enjoy good food and ale and mix with the friendly locals. Admittedly it’s an old guide but what can have changed? The only other establishment listed in the area is The Blue Oboe in Little Sodding which it says caters for a more specialised clientele.

The roads consist of an informal network of narrow lanes. Some of them are little more than dirt tracks. Others are dead-ends. There are few passing places. Signposts are rare and many are vandalised, turned around or so badly weathered you cannot read them. As luck should have it, there is no traffic on the first stage of my journey. But then a Land Rover with dapple-pattern camouflage forces me, in fear of my life, to reverse about a quarter of a mile, before I finally plunge into a deep ditch. I quickly realise I am going to need help to get out. As expected, there is no phone signal. I haven’t had a signal since I came down here.

Beating my way through the undergrowth on foot with no sense of direction is hard going. The snakes are a bit of a worry. They look larger than the native species I’m used to. But perhaps the wildcats will get them. I am alone, lost, hot, thirsty, tired and terrified. The further I venture, the thicker the vegetation appears to become. I don’t think it’s my imagination. It is turning into a jungle. Do nightmares come any worse than this?

It takes me hours to reach The Ram Inn. But no consolation here. It looks as if others might have found the pub equally difficult to find. A sign says Closed Until Further Notice. It has clearly been closed for some time. Weeks, months, years possibly. It is boarded up and almost buried in buddleia and bindweed. The whole area appears to have been reclaimed by nature. Weeds several feet high grow out of gutters. Tall jungle grasses and sturdy bamboos battle to topple crumbling walls. I shudder to think what might be lurking in amongst the tree creepers. It is likely the area has been evacuated and a state of emergency declared. There is no one around to ask.

This also means there is no one to confirm what to my untrained eye looks like an abandoned lunar module in the middle of what once might have once been the village green. I suppose I should be thankful it is abandoned but I am scared. This is not a normal thing to find in the country. I begin to get the feeling once more that something apocalyptic is taking place. I need to find a passage back to the place I was before. But there again, it would be disheartening to try and retrace my steps, especially considering the car is in a ditch. So, I continue to head west. It can’t be more than fifteen miles to the coast.

Robinson Crusoe, I am not. My survival skills are at an elementary level and my navigational skills are dependent at the very least on GPS or large scale maps. Or Suzy. I have none of these. After an hour or so of trying to follow unmaintained footpaths through the wilderness, in a clearing I come upon a brightly coloured static caravan. I am greeted by a pair of beaming hippies in matching hemp dungarees and plaited ponytails.

I’m Mr Kite,’ says the one with the long white pointed beard, headband and John Lennon glasses.

And I’m Rain,’ says the woman with the purple hair. I’m a Pisces.’

I introduce myself. ‘Thank goodness I’ve found signs of human life,’ I say.

Life is the only thing worth living for,’ Mr Kite says.

What has happened to everybody?’ I say. ‘What’s going on?’

Stillness, man,’ Mr Kite says. ‘Stillness is a virtue. True happiness is not out there. True happiness lies within.’

We’re pretty much on our own now,’ Rain explains. ‘Although there is a guy with a mushroom farm a little ways down the track over there. Lovely fellow, he is, but a bit excitable. Sagittarius.’

So what happened?’ I repeat.

Things changed but then life is change,’ Mr Kite says. ‘Change brings stability.’

Perhaps you might be more specific,’ I say. I have the feeling if I am to get the story, this pair might need to be hurried along a little.

It all began a few months ago when they started making a movie around here,’ Mr Kite says.

Exactly a year ago, it was,’ Rain says. ‘I remember the date because it was the day after the Moon, Mercury and Mars were in conjunction.’

He may not be interested in Astrology, my love, Mr Kite says. ‘Shall I tell him about the film?’

OK. I expect we’ll have the chance to tell him about the conjunction later,’ Rain says. ‘After all, it is in the celestial sphere that the numbers spin.’

Anyway, the film they’ve been making is one of those apocalyptic thrillers,’ Mr Kite says. ‘You know, man, like 28 Days Later.’

They chose this as the location because it is the most remote spot in the country,’ Rain says. ‘Well, there are a few places in Scotland that are quieter but other than that.’

I tell them I came down here for the quiet but the area does appear more remote and run down than I thought it was going to be.

A lot of the folk living in the area thought the apocalypse in the film was real. I think it was the mushroom cloud scene that did it. They thought what they were seeing was really happening,’ Mr Kite says. ‘So they hurriedly packed a few things and left. You must have passed some of the abandoned houses.’

I tell them I did not come across any houses, abandoned or otherwise.

That’s probably because of the jungle,’ Mr Kite says. ‘The film people used a magic fertiliser spray to make the vegetation grow quickly.’

Probably highly toxic,’ I say.

There were one or two casualties during the filming,’ Rain says. ‘But death brings rebirth. Cells in our bodies die all the time and are replaced by newly generated cells. We get reborn every moment.’

While they were filming, for one reason or another, the others gradually moved out,’ Mr Kite says. ‘Perhaps it was the announcement the film people made about fallout. Simple country folk, you see. They didn’t realise that this was all part of the drama.’

We decided to stay,’ Rain says. ‘We like it here in the wilds. You can be at one with nature.’

Until a few days ago, we thought they had completed the film,’ Mr Kite says. ‘But they’ve been back this week to get what they call filler shots. I spoke to the unit director dude. He said they would soon be out of our way. …… You’ve probably noticed the odd army vehicle prowling about.’

Indeed,’ I say.

I expect you’re hungry,’ Rain says. ‘Would you like some mushrooms?’

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved