BROWN SAUCE

brownsauce

BROWN SAUCE by Chris Green

I offer no excuses. It was the third time in a month that I had crossed the border. There is no-one else I can blame for my arrest and subsequent detention. As I await my trial, I would like to be able to say I am remorseful or that she made me do it. But that I was bringing it for my friend, Margarita counts for nothing. I knew the risks. What a fool I was to think I could bring brown sauce into the country after President Ludo had decreed that only red sauce was allowed on savoury snacks. Brown sauce trafficking is after all now a capital crime in Ludova. Even with small amounts for personal use, you can face seven years in jail.

It all goes back to the time that Margarita came to visit me in Goland last year. During her stay, Margarita developed a taste for brown sauce on her cheesy comestibles. With President Go’s more liberal regime, both red and brown sauce are allowed in Goland, along with Worcestershire Sauce and Tabasco. If you know where to get it you can also buy pickle and chutney.

The border crossing itself was easy. I’d been told by others even should you be caught at a border post, as there is a lucrative black market in brown sauce, the guards are easy to bribe. They are poorly paid and all too willing to turn a blind eye. They merely confiscate the sauce and let you through. Each time though, I was able to drive straight through in my green Tata Nano. The border guards seem to mostly sit around smoking some kind of pungent herb.

Metropolitan Ludova is a different matter though. Here the sauce law is enforced vigorously. Specially trained squads of officers with sniffer dogs roam the streets looking for offenders. They hang out around butcher’s shops keeping an eye out for customers who buy bumper bags of bacon or sausages and follow the suspects home. They are known as Brownies and they work on commission, the more brown sauce they impound, the more they get in their pay packet at the end of the month. I should have hidden the sauce before I went to buy the bacon, but I wanted to surprise Margarita with the whole works. I was caught with twenty bottles, not a big haul, but without a good defence barrister, enough to put me away for a long time.

There is little chance of escape. The prison guards are heavily armed and chew dark green leaves all day to keep them alert. They amuse themselves by singing raucous patriotic songs about President Ludo and they taunt the prisoners by making jokes about brown sauce. All the food in here is swimming in red sauce. Even things you can’t imagine putting red sauce on like turnips and rhubarb are doused with the stuff.

As I sit here staring at the bare walls, feeling sorry for myself, I cannot help but think back to all the spicy scrambled eggs and toasted sandwiches that Margarita and I enjoyed during her stay in Go City last year. And the bacon baps dripping with brown sauce we shared on our days out at the yak races, these washed down by sweet black tea from our Thermos. Margarita hasn’t been in to visit me since I’ve been here. I’ve heard nothing. I’m concerned she might by now be enjoying burgers with lashings of rich and tangy HP or Daddies with someone else from across the border.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

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Just The Way It Is

justthewayitis

Just The Way It Is by Chris Green

A second did not seem an important integer, but therein lay the problem. It was such a small unit of time. Yet, such was the degree of precision operating in the overcrowded skies that if Quincey Sargent had returned from his break seven seconds earlier or seven seconds later, the dreadful accident would not have happened. Sargent would not have given the instruction that resulted in the collision between the two leviathans that changed, albeit ever so slightly, Earth’s path around the sun.

Had the accident not happened, things would be as they had always been. Earth would spin on its axis once every twenty four hours and revolve around the sun in its normal orbit every three hundred and sixty five days. There would still be thirty one million, five hundred and thirty six thousand seconds in a calendar year. But as you know there are now more. Just how many more has still to be calculated accurately. We hear new estimates every day with eminent scientists forever trying to steal a march on one another. No one can even say for sure that Earth’s orbit is going to settle into a regular pattern. As you will be aware, the uncertainty has played havoc with digital technology and really messed up schedules and timetables. Try catching the eight o’clock Eurostar now.

Quincey Sargent has of course been dealt with, along with Stanton Kelso at ATC who failed to notice that the two giant craft were on a collision course. You probably saw Sargent and Kelso’s execution on television, if you have one that still works. But knowing that they were punished can never make up for the hundreds of thousands of lives that were lost. I expect from time to time some of you still take a look at the film of the explosion on topnet, if you can get topnet, to remind yourselves.

But it is not only the measurement of time that we have to consider. The accident has a far greater legacy, affecting every area of our lives. We’re only just beginning to find out the full extent of the disruption it has caused.

My friend, Ƣ, who works at the spy base calls me up out of the blue. He says that many of the strange phenomena that might be attributable to the catastrophe are being hushed up. Ƣ is not a WikiLeaks scaremonger. When Ƣ tells me something I believe him. I trust Ƣ implicitly. We go back a long way. We belonged to the same motorcycle club, The Diabolos when we were younger. He rode a Triumph Bonneville and I had a Norton Commando. You build up trust when you are riding fast bikes on long runs in large groups like this. Margins of error are small. Ƣ would not lie to me now.

‘I’m sure you’ve noticed that your satnav no longer works and there aren’t nearly as many websites as there once were,’ he says. ‘

‘Of course,’ I say. ‘As you know digital is my field.’

‘Quite! Time is well and truly screwed, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘Anything that depends on time or needs a timer to operate, forget it.

‘At least you no longer need to keep looking at your watch.’ I say. ‘Do you know? Even the oven timer is kaput and I’ve no idea when to put the cat out. In fact, the cat no longer wants to go out.’

‘Who can blame it with all that fog?’ he says. ‘But, there’s a whole bunch of other stuff that for whatever reason is not being reported. Why has an eight kilometre wide trench opened up across Central Asia?’ he says. ‘I don’t think that has been on the news. Why are they keeping the lid on that?’

‘Perhaps they have been too preoccupied with the floods in Nevada and Arizona to report on it,’ I say.

‘Why have the people in Australia started talking in a language that no one understands? Why do goats no longer have shadows.’ he says. ‘And what’s happened to all the fish in the sea?’

‘You think it’s all part of a big cover-up then,’ I say.

‘The communication satellites weren’t taken out by the explosion like they told us,’ he says. ‘They’ve been shut down since. And it’s not our people that are doing it. There’s definitely something sinister going on.’

I tell Ƣ about the after images that have begun to appear on all my photos. ‘They make it look like people are slowly leaving or arriving,’ I say. ‘It is as if I have set a long exposure or superimposed a series of images on one another.’

Ƣ tells me that others are having the same problem. A friend of his finds he has a Serbian First World War ambulance superimposed on all his pictures and someone else he knows has a spectral German shepherd in every shot. Every day he says he comes across more and more curious things that cannot be explained.

‘I’m wondering whether we are seeing more strange things lately, Ƣ, because we’re beginning to expect things to be odd,’ I say. ‘Aren’t we looking for weirdness?’

‘I suppose you might have a point, Bob,’ he says. ‘But I’m guessing that you don’t really believe that what you say explains everything. There are just so many things that have changed. Life bears no resemblance to how it used to be. Look! There is one important thing that has never been revealed and no-one seems to have picked up on it. What was on board those two craft that collided? We just don’t know. The Ministry hasn’t been able to find out. Our allies haven’t been able to find out. Nobody seems to know. Which is where you come in.’

‘I do? You’ll have to make that a little clearer,’ I say.

‘Well, Bob. For obvious reasons I can’t go public with any of the information I come across. I mean, look what happened to Eddie Snowden. I don’t want to have to live like that.’

‘What you are saying is that I can, is that it?’

‘Pretty much, Bob. I know that the internet is a bit skinnier than it once was, but you’ve got the skills to set up a proxy website and you know all there is to know about SEO, if that is the right expression and assuming that search engines still work. You could at least begin to post information for me. At the same time, you could discretely find out what other people might be noticing that we are not being told and report back.’

‘But …..’

‘You will get paid.’

‘It’s not that. It’s …..’

‘I know. I know. I work in the secrecy business. But there’s a limit. When something this serious is going down, I don’t think you should keep people in the dark. What do you say?’

I don’t have anything better to do. I no longer have a job. Nobody seems to need digital display designers anymore. I suppose I could get a job repairing cars or something. With all the electrics failing that’s where the demand is. But everyone’s going to be turning their hand to that. I agree to Ƣ’s proposal.

I try to think of a suitable name for the site. aintthatthetruth.com, wtfshappening.com, alliwantisthetruth.com, none of them very snappy. Surprised that the domain hasn’t been taken, I settle on whistleblower.com.

Ƣ comes up with staggering tales from the word go, extraordinary stories from around the world. He wants people to know that they have started practising voodoo in Switzerland. He wants it out there that everybody in Japan has become left handed. That there are giant badgers in Nepal. The reason that the fish are all dead it is now thought is that there is no salt left in the sea. They have moved the International Date Line three times in a week and changed the value of pi. The latest on the length of a day is now that it is believed to be twenty five hours and twenty four minutes in old time. Ƣ says that no-one is talking about the number of seconds in a year anymore. This he says is going to be impossible to calculate until Earth’s orbit has settled.

My site begins to attract whistleblowers from around the world. Rigatony posts that Venice is sinking fast and that everyone in Padova is having identical disturbing dreams at night. Plastic has become unstable and computer keyboards and TV remote controls are decomposing, posts MercyCaptain. According to Kommunique, all the babies born in Kyrgyzstan since the catastrophe have been female, not a popular option in a Muslim country. There are dust storms in Oklahoma says CrashSlayer. Aren’t there often dust storms in Oklahoma?

A lively online community quickly comes together through the forum. My admin duties keep me busy day and night. In no time at all the analogue hit counter is up to five figures. Although there’s nothing directly relating to the cargoes of the craft, a majority of the posts are constructive and informative. Being an open forum there are of course also time wasters and religious fanatics. Fire and brimstone and Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned a lot. What we are witnessing, the evangelists claim, is God’s punishment for planned parenthood, spare parts surgery and gay marriage.

There have always been conspiracy theories, so it is unsurprising that some of these also find their way on to whistleblower.com pages. Everything going wrong it is claimed is part of a plan by ruthless aliens who want to force us into submission so they can take over Earth. It is an Illuminati or Zionist plot to take over the planet. It is part of a big budget surreality television show. Everything is an illusion anyway. Some things you have to take with a pinch of salt. Nothing resembling a conclusive explanation for the upheaval appears, although the illusion explanation, while clearly impossible to confirm, is tempting. Everything that is happening might well be part of someone’s dream. Or a hologram. Gravity in the universe comes from thin, vibrating strings. These strings are holograms of events that take place in a simpler, flatter cosmos. The holographic principle suggests that, like the security chip on your credit card, there is a two-dimensional surface that contains all the information needed to be able to describe a three-dimensional object, our universe. In essence, the information containing a description of a volume of space, be it a person or our Earth could be hidden in a region of this flattened real version of the universe.

It’s a bit of a head-banger. I put this to Ƣ as best I can.

He agrees that multiverses and strings are legitimate lines of enquiry and the Ministry has been putting resources into their research. But how does this help?

‘We have a whole heap of strangeness, that we didn’t have before,’ he says. ‘If parallel worlds could explain what is happening, we would have had the kind of anomalies we are getting now all along. There would have always been parallel worlds. That’s not what it is.’

It is difficult to disagree with him. Quantum mechanics even in its simpler form is something I have never been able to grasp, despite watching many programmes about it on television.

Ƣ goes on to tell me I am doing a good job and if I keep at it, all should be revealed. There is bound to be an explanation for the apparent rupture in the space-time continuum. So that’s what it is, a rupture in the space-time continuum.

One moment I am sat at my computer, keying in a report about the dense swarm of black moths that has appeared over London, the next I am in a darkened room. The space is unfamiliar. It is small. There are no windows. There is a dank smell. The door is locked. I can hear the hollow sound of a slow but steady drip of water. I have always suffered from claustrophobia. Being confined like this has always been my deepest secret fear. I am terrified. This feels like the grave. Is this what death is like? Is this how it happens? Could this be it? No blinding light. No life flashing before your eyes. No white tunnel. Is this it? The other side? Or, perhaps it’s the waiting chamber, the holding bay.

This is not it. Sometime later, it may be hours, minutes or even seconds, my captors reveal themselves. Not before I have been to hell and back. The door opens and they materialise slowly as if they are made up of dots, like a halftone in an old newspaper. There are three of them. As my eyes get used to the light I can see that they are three-dimensional figures and they are wearing military fatigues. They don’t look friendly. There are no welcoming gestures. They have guns.

The one on the right of the group opens his mouth to speak. The sound appears to come from the one on the left, the one with the scar down his cheek and the alligator grin. ‘You will close the website down,’ he barks.

‘Immediately,’ says the one on the right. The sound appears to come from the one on the left. This one has a gallery of Japanese Dragon tattoos on his arms.

‘We would have taken it down ourselves, but you did something ……. smart with it,’ says the one in the centre. He is built like a Sherman tank and aptly he is the one with the biggest gun. It is pointing directly at my head.

Beneath my fear, I can’t help thinking that this is a heavy-handed approach. Just one of them, any one of them could have knocked me up at home, pointed a gun at my head and expected to get results. You would not mistake these people for boy scouts. They really look like killers.

‘We are the time police,’ says Alligator Grin.’ This may not be what he says, but this is how I hear it. Perhaps they are the time police. Perhaps they are not. Perhaps they are hallucinations but I am not taking that chance. My survival mechanism tells me that they are armed and I am not.

‘We are here to set the record straight,’ says Dragon Tattoos.

‘To put an end to all that nonsense you’ve been publishing,’ says Tank.

‘Lies,’ says Alligator Grin. At least I think that’s what he says. His diction is not good.

‘There’s only one reality,’ says Dragon Tattoos.

‘And it’s not yours,’ says Tank.

‘You are going to start again on your server and tell people the facts,’ says Dragon Tattoos.

‘The real facts,’ says Tank. They have lost the rhythm. It’s not his turn to speak.

‘The day is twenty Ferraris,’ says Alligator Grin. I’m getting the hang of it now. He means twenty four hours.

‘And there are sixty minutes to the hour, and sixty seconds to the minute,’ says Dragon Tattoos.

‘The same as it has always been,’ says Tank. For a moment, I think he is about to pull the trigger, but if he does that then the website is still going to be there.

‘And the earth sorbet has always been the same,’ says Alligator Grin. Perhaps he means Earth’s orbit.

‘You will say all the rest was a misapprehension.’ I lose track of who is saying what. They are firing phrases at me like bullets. I feel dizzy. The room is spinning.

‘A result of an over-active imagination,’

‘Too much science fiction,’

‘Choo many movies,’

‘Too many video games,’

One moment I am face to face with three menacing mercenaries, the next moment I am back in front of my computer at home. The mercenaries must have been an hallucination caused by the stress of being in the darkened room. The darkened room might itself have been a delusion. It’s hard to tell what is really happening anymore. But, here I am at home. I breathe a sigh of relief. But I’m not out of the woods yet. Two men in dark suits are with me in the room. One looks like a Mormon missionary, the other looks like Napoleon Solo. They both have guns. They are both pointed at me.

‘You have not heard from Ƣ,’ says Mormon missionary. This is a statement.

‘You are not going to be seeing Ƣ,’ says Napoleon Solo. This too is a statement.

‘Ƣ died in a motorcycle accident in 1999.’ Mormon Missionary again.

‘So let’s get started on the new website,’ says Napoleon Solo. He is beginning to look less like Napoleon Solo. More Reservoir Dogs. Is it the way he angles his gun? Or is it the look of intent he has on his face? Mr Blue, perhaps.

‘People need to know what’s really going on,’ says Mormon Missionary. He begins to look a little less like a Mormon missionary. More Men in Black.

‘sameasiteverwas.com,’ says Mr Blue.

‘And put this little piece of …….. worm software on the back of it,’ says Man In Black. ‘It will take over all internet browsers and stop anyone getting access to any …….. rogue sites.’

‘People will be able to sleep easy in their beds, with the assurance that everything is OK,’ says Mr Blue.

‘And know that someone is looking out for them,’ says Man In Black. ‘Like a big brother.’

I begin to see how it is that history is always written by the ones with the guns, the ones with the biggest guns, whoever they might be. The ones who can manipulate the media, whatever the media might be. How science at any point in time is what the scientists of the day tell us, however erroneous, and why God persists, albeit in one or two different versions. The people who are in charge make the rules, all the rules. They are the ones that dictate what is true and what is lies and that their way is the way it has always been. They establish their set of beliefs as facts and employ militia to enforce their truth, their version of events. They quash dissent. They find out what people’s fears are and work on them until they are too frightened to disagree. There are no ways of seeing. There is just the one way, their way. Their version of events will always be the one that has always been. If necessary they will burn books and rewrite history. They will put worms onto your computer. They will destroy civilisations to make the oven timer work. You will know exactly when you have to put the cat out.

Earth will revolve around the sun in the same way at the same distance and there will always be thirty one million, five hundred and thirty six second in a year until such time as the people in charge say otherwise. Goats will always have shadows, Switzerland will never practice voodoo. Plastic will continue to be stable. Venice will not sink. There will always be fish in the sea. There will never be a multiverse. Pi will always be three point one four one six. The same as it ever was. There will only be one reality. All the rest will be make believe. That’s just the way it is.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

 

Right On Dad Talks About Guns – a children’s story

rightondadtalksaboutguns

RIGHT ON DAD TALKS ABOUT GUNS – a children’s story by Chris Green

‘Why do people have guns, Dad? I think guns are horrible,’ says Amelia. Amelia is five and a half. She has just started her second year at school.

‘People haven’t always had guns, you know, Amelia. For hundreds of years when they fell out, they just threw things at one another or hit each other with sticks to settle their arguments. Many of them went to the gym several times a week to develop their stone throwing muscles or tried to find ways of sharpening their sticks. This all changed in 1506, when Mr Gun, a blacksmith from Accrington, Lancashire discovered you could use the power of explosives to fire a projectile through a metal tube.’

‘So it is called a gun because that was Mr Gun’s name?’

‘That’s right. At the time there were no PR firms in Accrington to guide Mr Gun through the process of marketing his new invention, so he called it simply a gun. Without realising it, he had hit upon a winner. The gun was to become the most successful commodity of all time. People saw the gun as an easy way to get rid of someone they did not like. People who had never considered harming another were seduced by its potential. Countries which had been at peace for hundreds of years suddenly came up with reasons to hate their neighbours. The neighbouring countries grew bigger turnips, or sang the wrong songs. They were smelly, or they saw a different man in the sky.’

‘Mr Gun was a bad man, wasn’t he, Dad?’ says Amelia.

‘He was, Amelia. But nothing compared to Mr War. In 1900, Mr War of Dundee, Scotland realised that these scuffles were very popular so he began to organise competitions. Dundee also did not have any marketing firms, so he called these competitions, wars. So successful was the idea that, a few years later in 1914, he managed to involve every country in the world in a big five-year long competition. He advertised it as The Great War. Although people seemed to like it at the time, afterwards they started to go off the idea of wars. So many people were killed they thought that they didn’t want to fight another one. They called it the war to end all wars.’

‘But it didn’t end all wars, did it, Dad? When you and mummy watch the news they are always talking about wars.’

‘The thing is that lots of people make money out of making guns and if they stopped having wars they wouldn’t be able to sell their guns. Then lots of people would not have jobs and their families would starve.’

‘I still don’t think that people should have guns.’

‘Then what would happen to all the people who didn’t have jobs and the starving families, Amelia?’

‘They could give them jobs making Moshi Monsters instead.’

© Chris Green 2015: All right reserved

 

RIGHT ON DAD – a children’s story

rightondad

Right On Dad – a children’s story by Chris Green

‘What’s politics, Daddy?’ said Amelia. Amelia is four and a half and has just started school.

‘Aha! Yes what is politics? Well, Amelia. Every now and then we grown ups play a game to say which party we want to make the rules about what we can and can’t do.’

‘Party? You mean like a birthday party. I like birthday parties. You get cakes and fizzy drinks, and play pass the parcel,’ says Amelia.

‘No, not quite like birthday parties. The parties that we choose to make the rules are more like groups of busy looking people. They like to talk a lot, and shout, especially shout. There are two main parties. The Nice party and the Nasty party. The Nice party want to help people, let them have food and houses and make the world a better place and the Nasty party want to steal everyone’s money, cut down trees and hurt people. Sometimes they make bombs and kill people too.’

‘I think I like the Nice party, Daddy.’

‘So do I, Amelia.’

‘Do they sing songs about it, Daddy? I like songs. They taught me a new song at nursery today.’

‘Yes sometimes they sing songs. The Nice party’s song is ‘The Poor Need More’ The Nasty party’s song is ‘The Rich Are Best.’

‘I expect most people like the Nice Party, don’t they, Daddy.’

‘A lot of people like the Nice party, yes, Amelia. But the Nasty party usually win the game to make the rules.’

‘Why’s that Daddy?’

‘Well, the Nasty party are friends with the people who make the newspapers and the television programmes. They tell people they have to let them make the rules because they are better at making rules than the Nice party. They say that the Nice Party smell and will give you measles.’

‘I think the Nice party would make up much better rules. They’d let you have chocolate cake for dinner and go skipping.’

‘I didn’t say just now, but there is a third party called the Nice and Nasty party. They can’t decide whether they want to help people or want to hurt people.’

‘You mean sometimes they are like the Nice Party and sometimes they are like the Nasty party.’

‘Yes that’s right, Amelia. Last time they wanted to be more like the Nasty party and now they want to be more like the Nice party.’

‘Did the Nasty party win the last game, Daddy? Is that why there are all those pictures of dead people on the television?’

‘Yes, Amelia the Nasty party made up some new rules to help them win the game.

‘You mean the Nasty party are cheats.’

‘And, Amelia. They got their newspaper people to say that the Nice party’s man was from Mars and that he ate kittens for breakfast.’

‘Uh! I can see why they are called the Nasty party, Daddy. I wouldn’t want them to eat Chloe.’

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

The Vexillographer’s Daughter

thevexillographersdaughter

The Vexillographer’s Daughter by Chris Green

ONE: RAIN

It had rained every single day for the three summer months. Every morning at around five past seven with my bacon and egg sunny side up I would watch the weather forecast on JustNews. The weather presenter would come on and shrug sheepishly in front of a weather map of the UK covered in black clouds, and apologise for the synopsis he or she was about to offer. JustNews had attempted to break up the monotony a little by promising different intensities of rain from day to day, thunderstorms, heavy downpours, incessant rain, squally showers, patchy rain, or plain old ordinary persistent drizzle, these blamed on a variety of distinctive and often unexpected frontal systems pushing in from the Atlantic, coming in off the North Sea or crossing the channel. Risk of flash flooding was a phrase frequently used along with ‘you’ll need to take your umbrella’. JustNews had tried their best not to be completely downbeat or discouraging and only once or twice suggested we might be experiencing monsoons. Even then they had been careful to add that what we could expect was nothing compared to Bangla Desh or Pakistan where they were suffering the real thing, rivers forty miles wide, tens of millions of displaced people and all of that. They had never once gone so far as to argue that weather patterns for the UK had changed and rain and more rain was what we could anticipate for the foreseeable future. Occasionally there had been a cheery grinning face in front of a map showing lots of sun graphics and temperatures in the high 20s, but these never seemed to materialise.

They had even over the last few days, I couldn’t help but notice, introduced the idea of shapely babes showing acres of leg and cleavage to stand in front of the sodden UK, but this had made little difference. However you dressed it up, it was going to rain. If it was not raining by the time I got in the car, it would be raining by the time I got to work. Admittedly it was a long commute from Oxford to Norwich which increased the chances of running into a shower or two, but most days the wipers on the Isuzu were running non-stop. Quite often the journey which should have taken just three hours in the powerful SUV took four or five, as I struggled to avoid roads that might be flooded.

Imogen and I had often talked about relocating closer to the flag design studio where I plied my trade. Huntingdon and Cambridge had been mentioned. But there never seemed to be the time to look into the idea, what with Imogen’s beagle breeding business taking off and the time and energy taken up by Kurt’s seemingly endless run of court appearances. There hadn’t been any reported fires in the area for a while now so hopefully Kurt had at least grown out of his arson fascination, although it would be hard to describe his behaviour as exemplary. It would be fair to say that on the whole things at home were less fraught since Ann had gone off on her gap year. She seemed to view 42 Auden Avenue as a twenty four hour hotel. Now at least there was only one teenager in the house and one source of dissonant music. Ann and her friend, Drew, who was a few years her senior, had set off on a round the world trip, quite suddenly I felt, at the end of June. We had of course rowed about it, with me pretending to be completely against the idea, but I had to admit she would in all probability learn a lot more about life than she would have at Warwick or Winchester. I only wished that I had had the imagination to have done the same at her age. And as Imogen had pointed out Ann had always been a bit of a tomboy. Not being at home as much I did not notice these things, but she did play a lot of rugby. Drew, if Kurt was to be believed was a lesbian, or a ‘rug muncher’ as he so delicately put it. ‘She’s got a man’s name innit,’ he had offered by way of explanation. ‘And she’s got a kd lang haircut.’ This was lost on me as I had no idea who kd lang was. I did not give the idea much credence. Kurt was always coming up with wild stories. Ann’s hair seemed perfectly normal for someone of her age, long and short, up and down, straight or wavy and a different colour every week. She never tidied her room, left clothes scattered around the house, CDs out of their cases, and copies of Curve and Diva magazines lying around just as you would expect. I took Ann and Drew to Heathrow and there was no sign of any funny business. On the journey we talked about the national characteristics of different countries and of course flags and the many of the other things that come up in everyday conversation. I helped them with their suitcases and I slipped Ann an envelope with a couple of hundred pounds in it while we had a cappucino in the departure lounge. ‘Keep in touch,’ I said – and we had had a postcard or two from India, weather very hot, cows on the streets and lots of beggars, that sort of thing. The last we had heard from Ann, they were in Kyoto valeting love hotels to pay for their flight to Darwin.

Family life was pretty much on the back burner as I was very busy working on the commissions that had come my way over the last few weeks to design flags for three breakaway Russian republics and an up and coming African state. The extra work had kept me in Norwich sometimes late into the night and once or twice I had stopped over. Imogen, remarking that I never seemed to be around to help her rotovate the vegetable garden, or clear out the loft, or make sure Kurt kept his appointments with the Youth Offending team, had a few times in desperation suggested that I might be able to design flags somewhere nearer to home.

What exactly do you do?’ and ‘How difficult can it be to draw a few lines and colour them in?’ were typical remarks showing her lack of appreciation of the complexities of designing flags. Also she did not seem to understand that Norwich was the established flag design centre in the UK, perhaps even Europe. If you wanted to be in the vanguard of vexillography Norwich was the only place to be.

TWO: BIG COUNTRY

Is Australia ever big? I hadn’t realised just how staggeringly huge Australia is. When you see it in the bottom right hand corner of the map it looks like an afterthought. But, trust me, it is colossal. The Stuart Highway running from Darwin to the south of the continent, Drew and I noticed from The Rough Guide, runs for 2,834 kilometres. The road signs we passed in the Toyota coming out of Darwin displayed absurd distances such as Adelaide 3,034 kilometres and Sydney 4,084. I don’t think we really believed we were going to complete such a journey; we we’re just going to go with the flow and see what happened. No point in making plans; this was an adventure not a commitment. Perhaps we would get to Alice Springs, where we might be able to get the odd days work in a bar or restaurant. We’d seen some awesome blogs about Alice Springs. Or Brisbane. Brisbane sounded cool. Plenty of Brits in Brisbane, the Guide said. And Fortitude Valley, wherever that was, was wicked, we’d been told.

We were of course travelling on a budget and the beaten up old Toyota which we hired from Bazza’s Car Hire in Darwin had no air conditioning or sun roof, no radio, no speedometer and no headlights. And an oil indicator light that stayed on. Whether it was down to Drew driving with the handbrake on or me not being able to change up from third, the engine kept overheating. We were both crap drivers. Drew had failed her driving test five times back home. And I did not have a licence at all, but Bazza hadn’t worried too much about that. He just wanted to look at our legs and maybe get the scruffy old wreck off the lot. It didn’t seem to matter therefore when we had a bit of a random shunt and lost the front bumper as the Toyota was so janky to begin with. You get what you pay for, Dad always used to say to me whenever my cheap phone or mp3 player broke, and we had paid diddly squat.

It was blisteringly hot and uncomfortably humid. Drew and I stripped down to shorts and bikini tops and even so these stuck to us like a second skin. The six five litre bottles of water we had bought at Strewth Bruce in Darwin were soon gone as we used it to pour over ourselves to cool down. We had to keep stopping for more. We had found India pretty warm but even the heat in Kolkata was nothing compared to this. Every twenty clicks inland we travelled, the temperature rose by one degree Celsius. By the time we got to Pine Creek the temperature had risen to over forty degrees. This was where the Toyota’s engine finally blew up and we abandoned the smouldering heap by the side of the road. To lighten the load and lessen the panic of being stranded we started on the Darwin Stubbies we had in our bags. Warm beer but still very welcome.

‘No sign of the Amber Nectar round here,’ I said.

‘I guess they don’t drink it in Australia,’ said Drew.

‘Perhaps they wear cork hats either.’

‘Or play cricket.’

‘It’s not the same country as the one on the posters back home is it?’

THREE: FLAG

It was a Monday morning and I had been on the road for the best part of four hours driving through torrential rain. Honey, showing even more leg than Jasmine had the day before, had forecast ‘isolated showers’. I was making very slow progress due to surface water on all of the roads from Oxford to East Anglia. I was listening to a Radio 4 discussion about why the country’s largest supermarket chain had suddenly collapsed. This had replaced Hurricane Nigel as the number one news item. I was stuck in a long queue of traffic waiting on the approach to the Kings Lynn roundabout, when I got an unexpected call on the handsfree. The world of flag design certainly has its share of spills and thrills, but I had never expected to get a call from the Prime Minister. He wanted me to redesign the British flag. With the prolonged bad weather, the run on the pound, the the conflict in the Middle East, and what he termed a series of negative news items lately, he felt that confidence in the government and the country was at an all time low. Then of course there had been the embarrassing performance in the football World Cup (who could forget the sending off of the entire English team) and the humiliation in the Test Series (in the matches that had not been rained off). People, he said, needed to see the nation in a new light and one of the key steps to redefining Britain was to come up with a new flag. The Union Jack comprising of St George’s Cross, St Andrew’s Cross and St Patrick’s Cross as I well knew dated back to 1801, and a version without St Patrick’s Cross dated back to 1606. Apart from its militaristic and racial subtexts the flag was to put it in a word, hopelessly old fashioned both by design and as a symbol. The British people could no longer be fooled into thinking they ruled the waves. ‘So we’re going to ah, waive the rules.’ The PM laughed nervously at his play on words.

During our conversation, which saw me edge ever nearer to the Kings Lynn roundabout, he confided that his radical cultural shake up plans also included a new National Anthem which he had given over to Radiohead, and moving Parliament to somewhere more contemporary, and indeed, higher up. I took it that he was referring to the fact that the present location as it was on the Thames might become flooded should the Thames Barrier be breached. Why was I based in Norwich, he was curious to know, and not somewhere more urbane and higher up?

He said he would call me again in a week and hung up just as I was coming off the roundabout. The rain seemed to have eased a little now leaving a free run to Norwich. I put on a relaxing CD of Boccherini string quartets and tried out the steering wheel isometrics that I had learned to release some of the tension that had accumulated from the long drive. As the big Isuzu powered along the A47, I was able to give some thought to the new commission. Environmental issues were being talked about a lot, what with the Earth Summit coming up. How about a green flag? There weren’t many flags that were primarily green…. Well, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were mostly green. And Libya’s flag was entirely green. Perhaps these were not the right examples. What about a pink flag? I wondered. There were I could quite categorically say no pink state flags. Militaristic subtexts were not an issue with shocking pink, Pantone Process Magenta.

I should explain that flag design departs considerably from logo design: logos are predominantly still images to be read off a page, screen, or billboard. I occasionally dabbled in logo design. I had recently for instance designed the official Recession logo for the BBC, but on the whole I steered clear of this enterprise. In a word logos are flat. Flags on the other hand are alternately draped and fluttering images to be seen from a variety of distances and angles. The prevalence of simple bold colours and shapes in flag design is paramount. It is customary to use primary colours and white or black. One of my personal favourite state flags is the Seychelles flag which is a bold geometric design consisting of four triangular shapes of blue: Pantone 294 yellow: Pantone 122 red: Pantone 1795 green: Pantone 356, each starting from the bottom left of the flag and sweeping out towards the top right. Ann had sent us a postcard of the Seychelles flag earlier in the year when she was working in a Surf Shop on Mahe Island to save up the money for her passage to India. They were planning to go to on to Japan and Australia, she had written matter of factly as if all these places were nearby.

FOUR: BOOMERANG

We continued our trek south, hitching lifts with a succession of lecherous truck drivers with bad breath and crusty cattle farmers moving their stock. Our progress was slow. Although it was oppressively hot and we were minging, we made serious attempts to cover ourselves up. Some of these guys in the outback were really creepy. Mikey, a bauxite mining engineer from Wagga Wagga, who picked us up in his Mitsubushi ‘ute; near Emu Hole had a Bobby Peru grin and the seduction technique of a bull seal. He was revolting. He had a smile like an alligator. He talked on his CB radio to someone called Jeck about how he was bringing two dirty little beaches over and how they would be able to ‘fuck them like jeck rebbit bunnies’. ‘You bitter deegout year rittlesneke Jeck, we’ll be thayer in foive.’ Perhaps I’ve got the accent wrong but while he was still talking his strine bogan jive, he grabbed be by the neck and pulled me towards him. I screamed and Drew using her ample bulk dived in to help. In the frantic struggle that followed the Mitsubishi left the road, but Mikey had locked the doors so we couldn’t get out.

It was fortunate that Koorong, a hunky native didgeridoo maker from Timber Creek, came along at this moment in an old flatbed truck which was loaded with brightly painted instruments. Not so lucky though that he was headed west. Although we were grateful to have been rescued, this was one of a run of rides that took us hundreds of clicks off course. We would have preferred to carry on by the most direct route down the track, as the vast Stuart Highway was commonly known, but we were taken along a selection of single lane roads and rough tracks on a zigzag through the Northern Territory. Koorong seemed to be in no hurry. He chewed hallucinogenic plants and talked to us about Walkabout and Dreamtime. In the time before Time, he told us, there was only the barren land and the empty sky. The sun, moon and stars slept below the land along with the spirits. On the First Day, the Sun was born from the land. He rose into the sky and his light warmed the land. Slowly the other Ancestors awoke and emerged onto the land. This marked the beginning of the Dreamtime. As the Ancestors crossed the land they spoke names, calling into being all of creation, natural features as well as plants and animals and even abstract concepts such as death. They sang songs which incorporated the names they had created. They left a web of songlines on the land which indicated their progress. During their travels the Ancestors also deposited guruwari particles, the seeds of life which have existed through the generations and through these particles life today is linked with life in the Dreamtime.

‘This place belongs to my ancestors,’ he continued. ‘It is our spirit. We, the aboriginal people live in this country as one spirit. But today because of the white man’s consumption and greed, the ancestral way is threatened by climate change. We are always looking at the seasons. The dry season is now very hot. You will see if you stay here. And what water there is can be bad. The food cycles are shifting. We need to get back to the Dreaming to ensure the continuity of life and the land.’

Having been brought up with a different story, Drew and I were grateful for this fascinating explanation of creation and were saddened by what we in the the twenty first century were doing to Koorong’s heritage.

The slowness of these days in the outback gave me time to reflect. I had escaped the two crazy lunatics I had spent my life living with. Can you imagine, Dad made me collect stamps. Every week, until I was about sixteen, he would march me down to the philatelists (yes they do still exist) to buy a set from Paraguay, Vietnam or the Dutch East Indies or similar far off places, and supervise me at home while I stuck them in my album. He was completely obsessed. Quite anal about the whole exercise. Don’t you think you should put the Johore ones into the India pages? I remember him saying. Some of the stamps were quite rare. I had a set from Qatar with pictures of the first Soviet astronauts that was worth several thousand pounds. I did have some pretty ones with butterflies on from Tristan da Cunha that were valuable and a Silver Jubilee set from Basutoland. I hadn’t let on to Dad that I had sold these on the internet to buy my iphone. He was not very observant. When I had my hair cut short and died purple a year or so back, he did not notice. He did not ever comment on the fact that I never brought boys home or that Drew stayed over quite a lot. He also did not seem to be aware of what the rainbow bracelets and earrings I wore signified. He was in his own world. He had this annoying habit of whistling Elton John or Dave Brubeck tunes when he was in the house. I didn’t mind the Elton John so much, but can you imagine anyone trying to whistle Blue Rondo a La Turk? Admittedly it was a big house but it was hard to get way from Dad’s collections of Coronation memorabilia, pre-war cameras, licence plates, Macintosh computers and of course, flags. Perhaps everyone thinks of their parents embarrassing but if Dad was mad and a little remote, Mum was barking. She would dress up her dogs and take them to shows, no not dog shows, she would take them to Mamma Mia and Les Miserables. Totally kooky! I was only now able to appreciate that I was finally free from all that. Oz was by comparison sane.

Koorong introduced us to ostrich eggs which were I would have to say a bit tastier than some of the other fare on offer. He lived it seemed mainly on a diet of bandicoot, tubers and insects. He showed us how to make a fire by rubbing sticks together and to my surprise after a few attempts I found this remarkable easy. But pointless as I always carried a lighter. He showed us how to craft a didgeridoo from a eucalyptus branch and how throw a left handed boomerang (like we needed to know). Despite our Rough Guide we really had no idea at any moment where we were or where we were going. This was off the map. The alien flora and fauna and the strange indigenous wildlife that we saw around us made it seem like another planet. We saw red kangaroos, water buffalos and packs of fierce looking dingoes. We saw scary lizards of all shapes and sizes and colossal birds of prey swooping on the roadkill in the open areas. We were treated to spine-chilling stories of venomous snakes slithering in beside people in their beds. Tales of bloodsucking bugs and spiders the size of a volleyball. We saw nine foot tall Aboriginals, tree climbing crocodiles and two headed dragons. The hallucinatory landscape of the ‘Top End’ as the northern half of Australia was known both entranced and terrified us.

‘Just think,’ said Drew one night ‘you could be at uni in Reading reading Renaissance texts and the Romantic poets. Wouldn’t you rather be doing that ?’

‘And you could be coordinating conferences in Cowley,’ I said, sliding my hand between her legs.

I think we both knew where we wanted to be.

FIVE: FLOOD

When I arrived at the office there was a message from Imogen. I could hear the nerve jangling chords of Dying Fetus or Angel Corpse playing in the background, which meant that Kurt was at home, something unlikely to have improved Imogen’s disposition. I spent the rest of the day running through her list of grievances, chasing up the cowboy contractors who were supposed to be fitting the air conditioning for the new kennels and the plant hire company who claimed that the rotovator we had hired was overdue. We had returned it last month, along with the stump grinder. I wrangled with the internet service provider over the broadband contract and tried to negotiate with the vicar over the damage to the church that he alleged Kurt and his friends had been responsible for. Later in the day another band of torrential rain blew over from the west and set in and I found myself stranded in Norwich on account of the floods. Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, traditionally two of the driest areas of the country, were particularly badly hit. Most of the rivers in both counties had burst their banks. I asked Rachel to find a hotel. Rachel always seemed to know which hotel to book. Also where the best restaurants were.

The following day as I worked on some initial designs on my Mac with Radio 4 in the background, the news was pretty grim. Inflation had hit a twenty year high and the stock market was in turmoil. All of the major money markets had taken a tumble but the FTSE was in free-fall. One of the UK’s largest and most revered financial institutions had collapsed, the one we had our mortgage with as it happened, and the Youth Offending Service called to say that Kurt had missed his appointment. Late in the afternoon the PM rang to see how I was getting on with the flag. His voice echoed the pressure he was clearly under. He sounded desperate.

I need it by Friday,’ he said.

I told him I was working on some ideas and that Friday wouldn’t be a problem.

You won’t let me down, Paul, will you?’ he pleaded.

I called an emergency meeting of my team for a brainstorming session. Flag design isn’t labour intensive and my team wasn’t a large team. It consisted of just myself, Rachel and Magda, the work experience placement who came in to service the Linotype and maintain the roof garden.

The flag did need to be a departure. Rules as I saw it were there to be broken. Perhaps there were no rules, only perceived limitations.

‘Think radical,’ I told the others. ‘Think outside the box. leftfield’ I couldn’t believe I was coming out with these clichés, the banal staples of business meetings, conference calls and lengthy self indulgent speeches. Could anything be considered radical or leftfield in this postmodern digital age which emphasises the elusiveness of meaning and knowledge? There were after all no overarching truths anymore. Narratives were all tainted by the concept of the unreliable author. Now everyone could be famous for fifteen minutes.

Rachel took up the challenge. ‘Damien Hirst did a series of paintings of dozens of different coloured spots, a bit like a colour chart.’

I felt that the idea was a tad hackneyed. I had recently seen a similar design on Imogen’s mother’s ironing board cover. The perception of an art flag, a flag that made a statement as a work of art was an appealing one though especially if you delved a little deeper into the history of art. The 1960s geometry of Frank Stella or Gene Davis, to which it could be argued Damien Hirst’s paintings owed a debt, would suit a flag. I made a note.

‘What about a white flag,’ suggested Magda. ‘For peace.’

‘A white flag means surrender,’ I pointed out. ‘Universally.’ But I couldn’t argue that the idea was not ‘outside the box’.

A black flag’

A transparent flag’

A mirror flag’

An invisible flag’

A virtual flag’

The ideas kept coming. Magda was clearly on a roll. Perhaps I was not making the best use of her skills getting her to plant santolinas, bronze fennel and Iceland poppies up there on the roof.

My mobile rang. It was Imogen. She sounded distraught – and confrontational. Bella, one of her favourite beagles had been savaged by a Staffordshire bull terrier, an alarmingly ugly brute with fangs like a tyrannosaurus rex. She had rushed Bella to Village Vets where she was now in the Emergency Room with Dr Marciano fighting to save her life. I tried my best to console Imogen but it seemed the call had been primarily to apportion blame. We managed during the heated exchange that followed to establish that it was my fault for not getting round to repairing the fence. My excuse that it had been too wet lately did nothing to improve my standpoint and we ended the conversation without the usual pleasantries.

No sooner had I put the phone down than Kurt phoned asking if he could borrow a ton. Sensing my reluctance, he added, ‘I could always find it another way, you get me.’

What is it for?’ I asked, hoping he might surprise me with something like, ‘it’s to buy the new digital Encyclopaedia Brittanica’ or ‘to buy some new weatherproofs for the geography field trip.’ His thinly veiled threat, ‘Or I could tell mum what you’re really up to in Norwich’ suggested he was not going to tell me what it was for, so it was probably for drugs. Admittedly he was nearly fifteen but a hundred pounds did seem to be quite a large sum for a personal amount of cannabis. It seemed however that I was on a loser to nothing by pursuing the matter. I told him where I kept the float for emergency household situations.

I already know that innit?‘ he said with a laugh. ‘I was just being polite like. SYL.’ He was even talking in text now.

I momentarily contemplated the discrepancy between my global influence and my domestic authority. I had the trust of the Prime Minister and other heads of state but my own family saw me as a doormat. Perhaps everything in life had a tendency to balance out. Yin-yang according to Mi Fu, my traditional acupuncturist, is a dynamic equilibrium. Because the two opposites arise together they are always equal: if one disappears, the other must disappear as well, leaving emptiness. This I was told is rarely immediately apparent because yang elements are clear and obvious while yin elements are hidden and subtle. I had heard on a science programme on the radio the other day that a chunk of Canada the size of Scotland had broken off and was heading south. Sea levels were expected to rise significantly as the ice melted. The next item had been about how mathematicians had discovered a new prime number with 1,300 digits. So it goes. Tomorrow there might be a dozen more flood alerts but Natasha might read the weather in Agent Provocateur lingerie.

After a good deal of deliberation over a bottle or two of New World red, we settled on a vibrant flag design based on a contemporary Aboriginal art postcard that Ann had sent, a startling riot of colour that we felt would stand out anywhere. It was so vivid you might need special sun specs to view it. This was the breakthrough that we had been waiting for, the design that would put Paul Caruso Flags well and truly on the map. Once the new British standard was raised, leaders of nations would be queuing up with their commissions for new flags.

Our optimistic representations did nothing to temper the inclement weather. The wind turned round to the north gathering in strength, and heavy showers persisted through the afternoon. Rachel and I once again found ourselves stranded and were forced to stay another night in the Georgian House Hotel. The following morning the biggest bank in the country collapsed, the one I had my savings with as it happened, the FTSE hit a twenty year low, and Imogen phoned to say that Kurt had bought an air rifle and was firing at the fantail doves in the Henderson-Goughs’ garden. At least she thought it was an air rifle. It was certainly a gun of some sort. I was unable from the muffled report I heard in the background to confirm the type of weapon. I told her I would deal with it later, but for her not to call the police just yet. I was fairly sure that a hundred pounds would not have purchased an AK47 or anything like that. Imogen did not however seem happy with my uncooperative response and we picked up the stock conversation we employed for such disputes.

Around midday the storm surge generated by the low pressure all around the British Isles funnelled down the North Sea and at high tide the Thames barrier was breached. London began to flood. Within an hour the central districts along the river from Greenwich up to Chiswick were inundated. The underground network was closed and the rush to leave the city was causing gridlock on all roads. Rachel and I, still holed up in the hotel, watched the news as it happened on JustNews.

At 4pm the Prime Minister phoned from Muswell Hill where Parliament had convened to a temporary location by Alexandra Palace. This he explained was ‘ah, one of the highest places in London.’

I wondered where the highest place in East Anglia might be.

The flag, Paul!’ said the PM. ‘Can we start producing some? The public need a distraction.’

I told him a little about the design and the process.

I don’t care about any of that,’ he said. ‘Just get it to me.’

I was about to put the phone down when he said, ‘by the way, Paul. On a brighter note, you’ll be pleased to know can now download Radiohead’s new National Anthem off the Direct Gov website. I’m told by my musical advisor that it sounds, ah, cool. Have a listen and see what you think.’

SIX: ALICE

When we finally made it back on to the track, The Magnetic Ant Hills dominated the landscape; these so called we were told by a crusty Norwegian backpacker with an unpronounceable name because they are orientated in a north-south direction, on account of the way the termites react to the position of the sun during the day, or something like that. And there was sun in abundance. Every minute of each day the sun burned down with unrelenting ferocity. There were no speed limits here, but no-one appeared to be in a hurry. We seemed to get rides that only took us a few clicks and then it would be hours before someone else stopped and one day passed into another. The distances on the signposts never seemed to get any smaller. We stayed sometimes in cheap run down backpackers hostels. One night we stayed in the shack where the owner Wayne, a bogan redneck in flannelette shirt and stubbies, told us Frank Ifield wrote She Taught Me How To Yodel. Who? Another night we found ourselves under canvas at a Steve Irwin survival camp beneath the stars huddled together for warmth as the temperature dropped to around zero. How could this happen when it was so hot during the day? It is only then when you find yourself unable to sleep because of the unfamiliar nocturnal sounds that you realise that your tenure of this land is a fragile one. At any moment you feel you might be attacked by a giant porcupine, a forty foot ant or some other disgusting alien creature.

The further into the interior we went the drier it became. The drought blighted hinterland was like an oven. No wonder there were so many bush fires in the outback. One match and there would be devastation across whole states. One discarded cigarette end could start the whole thing off. We passed through a place where it hadn’t rained there for seven years. As we approached the Simpson Desert it was over fifty degrees. Only cacti grew here. It was four weeks since we had left Darwin and we were the colour of the natives, some of this may have been dirt and grime of course. There had been nowhere to take a decent shower since Darwin.

We finally made it back to something like civilisation. Places were closer together and we were able to get more frequent lifts. Little mining settlements gave way to bigger mining settlements and finally we reached Alice Springs at the end of November. I first became aware of the new British flag in Alice. Drew and I were in a bar sipping at a couple of cold tinnies. We had heard random stories from other trekkers in Alice and we were laughing about having avoided the floods back home, when lo and behold Dad appeared on the television that was playing in the corner of the bar. Struck dumb and rooted to the spot I was and the rest. It was a chat show on one of the hundreds of satellite channels that you can pick up even here in the outback. It was a British show; I recognised the presenter, although I could not think of his name. It was a noisy bar and the television was turned down so I did not catch much of the conversation but Dad was being talked up to as something of a celebrity. In between Dad holding forth, they kept focussing on a large Aboriginal painting. Drew and I had seen some like it in Darwin and one or two of the towns we had passed through. Hadn’t I sent a postcard of something similar from Darwin? They showed a picture of what appeared to be the same painting flying as a flag above Buckingham Palace and I put two and two together. This must be a new British flag. What a weird design for a flag I thought, but it was probably no odder than the tie dyed flag Dad had designed for the Federation of Balkan States. Thom Yorke of Radiohead was also a guest on the chat show and, although I did not grasp the connection there and then, the band performed what I later discovered was the new British National Anthem.

It was not until the following day when I saw the headline in The Alice Springs News that I realised that there was a controversy here in Australia over the new British flag, because the existing Australian flag had in its left hand top quarter the Union Jack. On the face of it you would not have thought that this was something the average Aussie would feel proud of or want to defend. You would have thought they would be glad to replace this symbol of colonial suppression with something a little closer to home. Not so. The Australian government it seemed were not at all keen to replace the Union Jack with an Aboriginal design. Giving Aboriginals voting rights was one thing, but acknowledging them on the national flag was altogether unacceptable. This was one step too far for a majority of white Australians. Further controversy arose from the fact that the Aboriginies themselves were outraged that an Aboriginal design had been plundered by the super colonial power. The country was in uproar.

We kept an eye on the news sites on the net. Gradually the blame for the flag shifted from the British Prime Minister to the designer of the flag, largely I gathered through dad’s unrelenting procession of chat show appearances. He probably even appeared on the one with the presenter that was always taking her kit off for The Sun, Tori something or other. He was shameless. I decided that I would not contact him.

Meanwhile the name Caruso became reviled in Australia, and Australians took their hating very seriously. Zoo Weekly, the Australian magazine held an annual poll Australia’s Most Hated. Near the top of the list the previous year in a mixed bag we found out were the Bali bomber, The Pope, and Toadie from Neighbours. The shows on television were inviting nominations for this year’s poll and among the candidates being suggested was Paul Caruso. The knives were out. Backpackers are constantly asked for identity in this over-bureaucratised country and Caruso was not a good name to have on your passport. We headed for Queensland, back into the bush. This joke might help to explain.

A Queensland farmer got in his truck and drove to a neighbouring farm and knocked at the farmhouse door. A young boy, about nine, opened the door.

‘Is your Dad home’? the farmer asked.

‘Sorry mate he isn’t,’ the boy replied. ‘He went into town.’

‘Well,’ said the farmer, ‘Is your Mum here’?

‘No, mate, she’s not here either. She went into town with Dad.’

‘How about your brother, Greg? Is he here’?

‘He went with Mum and Dad.’

The farmer stood there for a few minutes, shifting from one foot to the other and mumbling to himself.

‘Is there anything I can do for ya’? the boy asked politely. ‘I know where all the tools are if you want to borrow any, or maybe, I could take a message for Dad.’

‘Well,’ said the farmer uncomfortably, ‘I really wanted to talk to your Dad. It’s about your brother Greg getting my daughter pregnant.’

The boy considered for a moment.

‘You’d have to talk to Dad about that,’ he finally conceded. ‘If it helps you any, I know that Dad charges $200 for the bull and $150 for the pig, but I really don’t know how much he would be asking for Greg.’

Queensland you will gather is considered in Oz to be a tad rustic.

SEVEN: CHAT

‘You must be very pleased with the country’s response to your new flag, Paul,’ said Tori Kenyon, fiddling with her tortoiseshell glasses.

I was. It had been well received at the opening of the new Parliament on Shooters Hill and at the Sports Personality of the Year ceremony, won for the second year running by that cyclist whose name escapes me. People were coming in their thousands from all over the world to see the flag flying majestically over Buckingham Palace, which had remarkably escaped the worst of the flooding. It had, I told Tori, been my proudest moment to been invited to the palace.

Radiohead’s new National Anthem by contrast had had a mixed reception. Many had liked it but a number of people who were familiar with their oeuvre maintained that it was just an up tempo remake of ‘Fake Plastic Trees.’ The Telegraph music critic took it a step further and suggested that ‘civilisation as we know it is doomed and that brimstone is going to start raining from the sky any minute.’

‘But a little concerned I’d imagine about its not going down so well down under?’ continued Tori, fidgeting with the strap of the low cut top she was wearing. Tori was the new queen of chat show hosts on satellite TV, with a number of viewers’ awards to her name. She had also appeared in various stages of undress in FHM and GQ, and had even I was told featured as a cover girl in Nuts. Kurt had probably jerked off over her.

I admitted that I was more than a little concerned as Tori put it about the colonials’ reaction to the aboriginal design, not least because my daughter was out there.

‘Yes. One or two of the tabloids picked up on this in the week didn’t they?’ smiled Tori. ‘You haven’t heard anything then?’

I told Tori that Ann’s phone had been dead for a couple of weeks, and that her last communication was an email sent ten days before from an unknown location. I had tried all the usual channels to try to find out where she might be. Unfortunately as part of the backlash against the threat to the Commonwealth Blue Ensign, the British Embassies in Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth were all under siege. There had been a number of supposed Ann sightings reported in the press but none of these had led to anything.

‘She is probably on her way back home,’ I said, ‘but anyway if the tabloids can’t track down an attractive twenty year old backpacker in Australia then I probably can’t.’ I realised as I said it that this did not come across as the attitude of a responsible parent. Now that I was a celebrity this would no doubt be picked up by the more moralising tabloids.

‘And there was that little piece about your your son Kurt being involved in Nazi style initiation ceremonies at his school,’ continued Tori.

How had she found out about this? The article had only appeared in the Oxford local paper and they had not mentioned Kurt’s name because he was a minor.

Before I had chance to comment she moved on to the affair that I was allegedly having and the impending divorce. We seemed to have lost sight of the subject that I was on the show to talk about, the celebration of the flag. I considered removing the microphone and walking off.

Tori seemed to sense that she had perhaps overstepped the mark and in an attempt to get me back on board she uncrossed her legs offering me a glimpse of her white panties.

‘But of course on the positive side rumour has it that you have been invited to appear on Celebrity Russian Roulette on Happy TV,’ she beamed. ‘Not tempted by the generous cash prizes?’

‘I don’t think that I will be accepting the offer after what happened to Teddy Trimmer the darts player,’ I replied. Teddy had been the first celebrity on the show to select the live chamber.

‘You don’t think that Celebrity Russian Roulette is stage managed then?’ said Tori, looking up to see if her next guest was ready. The next guest I notice was the winner of Celebrity Kidney Swap. The concentration span of viewers of Tori’s show was clearly mercilessly short.

Not worth taking that chance, is it,’ I said, but Tori was already introducing the short balding magician.

The short balding magician shook my hand as he passed and said, ‘Good luck finding your daughter mate, I expect progress is slow because the Australian Police have their work cut out trying to find the people who are starting those terrible bush fires that we are hearing about on the news.’

It occurred to me slowly as I listened to Tori ask the short balding magician about the twilight of his career that Kurt may not after all have been the Headington Firestarter. There had been no reports of arson around Oxford since June. Perhaps Kurt was telling the truth for once. And Ann had always been the one who wanted to go to firework displays when she was younger.

EIGHT: OUTBACK

Oh my god! Dad thinks I may have started the forest fires that have been sweeping the south of the country. I spoke to Mum on the phone and I was horrified when she told me. What on earth is he on? What a shitbag! I’m never going to speak to him again. I can’t believe he could think I would do such a thing. Just because Kurt got into a bit of trouble a while back. I don’t even think it was Kurt that lit the fires in Headington. He was hanging round with those pikeys from the caravan site at the time. Elvis and Tyson and Danny. It is just that Kurt was stupid enough to take the blame.

All else aside, Drew and I haven’t been anywhere near Victoria or New South Wales where the fires are. They’re about two thousand kilometres away. Doesn’t Dad know anything about geography? How big Australia is? I sent him an email three weeks ago now saying that we were in Richmond in Queensland and had got jobs on the Dinosaur Trail, thinking he would be pleased we were doing well – despite his best efforts to fuck things up for us with his throwaway comments on all those cheap chat shows back in the UK and his ridiculous tweets. He’s really flipped. Mum’s divorcing him. I don’t blame her. How could she live with this obsessed crazy madman for so long? And all that crap he gave her about Norwich being the flag design capital when it was obvious he was having an affair there.

Anyway, the Dinosaur Trail is really cool. One hundred million years ago the Queensland outback lay under inland seas swarming with marine reptiles, and prehistoric creatures roamed the land. It has the most amazing fossils. It’s in the middle of nowhere really and it’s really laid back. No-one cares that we’re Brits or who we are. Cannabis grows well in these parts and most of them are too stoned to notice. We’re totally incognito out here. It’s brilliant. The Australian Parliament is still fighting over the flag, but again no one round here is bothered one way or another about politics. In the last election Richmond had the lowest turnout anywhere in the country. And the weather’s ace once you get used to the fact that for months on end it never rains.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

Quad Bike

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Quad Bike by Chris Green

Kylie comes home one day and says, ‘if you don’t buy me a quad bike, I’m going to stop going to school, join Jake Montana’s gang and become a juvenile delinquent.’

Peter and Trudy Lamb are becoming used to the their daughter’s outbursts. Children are more defiant than they were when they were growing up. Do they learn their negotiating skills at school, they wonder, along with mendacity and cyber bullying. Negotiation? Blackmail might be a better word for it.

Not even a pony, thinks Peter. In days gone by it might have been a pony. Not that it would make any difference. In fact a pony would be even more expensive. But, a quad bike? For a girl? And at twelve years old? He hadn’t managed to get a bicycle by then.

To further her case, Kylie shows them videos on her iphone of Jake and his gang terrorising shoppers in the town centre on a Saturday afternoon, Jake urinating on a street beggar, and …… surely that isn’t a real gun that Jake is pointing at the security man in the gaming shop.

‘That’s what it will be like,’ she says. ‘If you don’t buy me a quad bike.’

Whoever it was that gave the parenting advice remember who is the adult and who is the child needs to be updated on developments in the parent-child dynamic. Now the child is the one with the power. Several of Peter and Trudy’s friends’ teenage children have left home to join gangs like Jake’s. You see things on the news every day about out of control teenagers. And not just in the cities. Only last week there was the siege at that school in that small market town down south and the following day a gang of thirteen year old girls held up a village post office in Norfolk and shot the volunteer postmistress.

Kylie has decided she wanted a quad bike and that is that. Trudy tries to reason with her. She says, ‘Where do you think we are going to get the money, Kylie? You know your Dad lost his job at the plant last month.’

This might have worked for children of previous generations, but it cuts no ice with Kylie.

‘Bring on the violins,’ she says.

‘And my Disability Allowance has been stopped,’ Trudy says. Trudy was injured by a falling awning in the Lower High Street in a freak blizzard last winter.

This doesn’t work on Kylie either. She comes right back with, ‘D’uhh. Haven’t you heard of payday loans? KwikKwid is only up the street.’

‘But there’s not going to be a pay day,’ Peter says.

‘Then you’ll have to sell something,’ says Kylie. ‘You sold your motorbike to buy Kiefer’s Stratocaster last year. And he doesn’t even play it. That’s it! You can sell Kiefer’s Stratocaster.’

Neither Peter nor Trudy dare tell her that Kiefer had already sold the guitar to buy drugs.

Clinton Wetherby had not always wanted to work in a bank. When he was younger, he dreamed of being a footballer, or a pop star, but gradually like most dreamers he found the openings for footballers and pop stars close before him. Football was out, as his ball skills were limited and he got out of breath easily. While in the pop world, not being able to sing might not necessarily have presented a problem, Clinton was also overweight and unattractive.

So, after some poor A level results, banking it was. It was either this or insurance. Or something where you had to get your hands dirty. And he didn’t want that. After ten years of checking documents and sucking up to his superiors, he was put in charge of loans at the local branch of the bank that likes to say yes. This tag line was of course from the days before banks became more likely to say no.

Peter Lamb is his first client on a Monday morning. Clinton has his details up on screen. They are not impressive and Mr Lamb has come up with an unusual loan request.

‘An off road quad bike, eh? And you say that the one your daughter wants is nearly two thousand pounds. Well, at least you are honest, Mr Lamb,’ he says. ‘Not that this particular quality counts for very much in banking. ……. That was a joke by the way.’

Peter tries to force a smile. He has had to wait three weeks for the appointment with Clinton Wetherby. He is not at his cheeriest. Things have been going badly at home. Over the weekend the police came round looking for Kiefer and said they would be back with a warrant. As if this weren’t enough, he suspects that Kylie has stopped going to classes. Surely the torn cut off jeans she went out in this morning aren’t acceptable as uniform at Meadow Lane, and he couldn’t help but notice she had some new nasal jewellery. What might Mr Gaffney, the Deputy Head think about nasal jewellery, he wonders.

‘I see from your statement that payments into your account seem to have dried up lately,’ says Clinton Wetherby.

‘I’m afraid I was laid off last month, Mr Wetherby.’

‘I see. Perhaps you have some other information that will support your application. An income that doesn’t show up here, maybe.’

‘Not exactly. …… but I have plenty of options open to me. I think I may get a job offer later on in the week.’

‘That will be in packaging, will it? I see that you worked in a packaging plant.’

‘Yes. RapidPost. But I’m hoping to work for a larger organisation.’

‘That will be a zero hours contract too, I’m guessing.’

‘They haven’t specified the terms.’

‘You do understand what I’m trying to get at. We can’t lend money with the ease that we did a few years ago.’

The phone rings.

‘Excuse me, I’d better take this,’ says Clinton. ‘I’m expecting a call from head office.’

Peter starts to get up to leave the room, but Clinton gestures him for to stay. Peter goes over to the window. Through the window, he has a good view of the municipal gardens. Some youths wearing three stripe track pants and hoodies are throwing stones at the windows of the Town Hall. There seems to be a riot breaking out.

Clinton meanwhile is having a difficult phone conversation. ‘I thought we were supposed to tighten our belts,’ he says raising his voice.

Jake Montana is pissing up against the war memorial. A stocky figure in a black balaclava is spraying red aerosol paint on to the statue of Brigadier Barrington-Smythe. Peter cannot be sure but his build looks remarkably like Kiefer’s. And there is a girl with green hair riding a yellow quad bike through the municipal flower beds. ……… Bloody hell! ……….. It is Kylie.

‘Thank You, Mr Gilligan,’ barks Clinton. With this he slams the phone down. He seems angry.

Kylie is driving the vehicle round in circles, churning up the dianthus beds.

Clinton turns to face Peter.

‘You’ve got your loan,’ he says. ‘Your daughter can have her quad bike. Apparently the bank is not lending enough money. I do wish they would make up their minds.’

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

Phone BIll

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Phone Bill by Chris Green

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

I have also read that more than half the people in the world have not made a telephone call. In these days of fibre optics and satellite communication, this is a difficult statistic to believe, but whoever these people are, Bill compensates for them. Bill sits in a cubicle making calls all day. Although he must have targets to meet, I have reached the conclusion that he keeps ringing me because he is lonely. He needs someone he can talk to. He talks about the weather, his arthritic hip and Swindon Town’s problems in defence. Sometimes he gives me a tip for the 3:30 at Catterick or the 4:15 at Fontwell Park, but invariably his horse falls at the thirteenth or comes in second to last. I sense that there is a black cloud hanging over him while he is talking. I can see it poised inches above his head waiting to deposit rain. I haven’t the heart to tell him not to keep calling. For all I know I might be his lifeline. Tracey always used to say that I had good listening skills. Had I thought of becoming a counsellor? That was before our great falling out of course.

Linzi is another from this surprising global minority. She too phones me almost daily, about reclaiming my missold PPI. She must know by now that I have never taken out PPI, in fact, I did not even know what PPI was until she started phoning me and even then it took three or four phone-calls to understand it. Mostly Linzi wants to talk about what carpet she should buy for the lounge or what she should do about her son’s truanting from St Bartholomew’s. Linzi often sounds off about her husband Derek. I dare not tell her that Derek is probably an alcoholic. No-one should be getting through two cans of Special Brew during an episode of Emmerdale, even if it is an extended episode to build up the tension before the murder of another tractor driver.

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

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

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

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

‘But she’s still got her stuff there.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No. just come as you are,’ I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved