JAZZ

jazz

JAZZ by Chris Green

She came into Birth of Cool and asked if we had an original New York Prestige yellow label vinyl pressing of Webster Young’s For Lady. The precision of her request startled me.

Featuring Mal Waldron on piano and Paul Quinichette on tenor sax,’ I said. ‘Mellow album. We have a copy on CD.’

We had sold two or three CDs in the last year. Trumpeter, Webster Young’s 1957 tribute to Billie Holiday was becoming a classic; its smooth, lyrical lines latterly compared to those of Miles Davis. On release though the album had been overlooked. For a vinyl copy you would be looking at at least £500, and although we had some rare vinyl, we had nothing that rare.

That’s the one,’ she said. ‘But I do want it on vinyl.’

I explained its rarity and told her I could take her phone number and put out feelers. Meanwhile, she was welcome to browse the vinyl in the fifties selection. She might find something else she liked. I had Paul Quinichette’s On The Sunny Side and Thad Jones’ After Hours from the Prestige back catalogue as LPs. She smiled and thanked me. I thought I detected a trace of Spanish in her pronunciation. Her smile held a hint of flirtation. She flicked back her long dark hair and as she did so, her breasts rose up in the sleeveless chemisier she was wearing, offering a glimpse of cleavage. This girl was stunning.

She was a breath of fresh air. Birth of Cool’s customers tended to belong to the older age group and were predominantly male. Market research suggested that young urban males were drawn towards Indie Rock and young females went for R and B or Pop, neither of which we stocked. Young girls, in particular, seemed phased by the ambience of a specialist jazz shop. On the occasions that we did get a female under thirty, it was for the latest Gregory Porter CD or perhaps, something from Sadé’s back catalogue, and for reasons that I cannot explain these girls tended to be quite plain. This was strange really because on the occasions I had been to Ronnie Scotts or Boisdale Canary Wharf, I had been struck by the number of babes on display. Perhaps these beautiful young women went to these places because their boyfriends liked jazz and they did not themselves buy jazz records.

I watched her as she made her way through the albums, picking up one or two to read the sleeve notes. Although by this time I was serving another customer, I could not take my eyes off her. Her short skirt hugged her hips and shapely bottom and showed off her long tanned legs. As I bagged up the new customer’s Duke Ellington sheet music, I noticed that she had written her number on the pad on the counter. Her name was Maria.

I had been learning Spanish ahead of a holiday I was loosely planning in Spain. I thought I might go to Sevilla or Cordoba to take in the architectural treasures of the Moors’ Golden Rule. Since Easter, I had been attending evening classes at the local college. As Maria was leaving, I plucked up the courage to chance a little. I was serving an elderly customer with a Cleo Lane boxed set at the time, so it could easily have been embarrassing if Maria did not understand me.

Yo le llamaré tan pronto como encuentre el álbum. Hasta la vista,’ I called out. I hoped that the grammar was right, This was the area that I was having trouble with. I still did not know of course that Maria was Spanish.

Espero volver a verle pronto. Hasta luego,’ she said, as she blew me a kiss. ‘Besos.’

I was smitten.

The following day I was listening to Ghost of a Chance, by Zoot Sims, the first recording on which he had played soprano sax, in my opinion, a seriously underrated instrument. I had the volume turned right up and was singing along.

Cracking tune,’ said a voice in a thick Irish accent.

I turned around. Beside me was a short stocky geezer in a checked overcoat. Under his arm, he had a quantity of what I could see at a glance from the logos on the covers were old Prestige recordings. There must have been about twenty-five in all. He laid them down on the counter. I went through them. The sleeves appeared to be in good condition. There were albums by Billy Taylor, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane – and Webster Young’s neglected masterpiece. I did everything I could to hide my excitement.

I picked them up at an auction, so I did,’ he said. ‘What will you give me for them?’

I looked him up and down, mostly down. I was over six foot and he was about five foot four. He seemed a little fidgety. He did not look as if he was expecting much. I took one or two of them out of their dust jackets and inspected them.

Second-hand jazz record prices are at an all-time low,’ I said.

Not that low, to be sure,’ he said, hoping to gain some ground. ‘I’ve seen some of your prices.’

I’ll tell you what,’ I said. ‘I’ll give you twenty pounds for the lot. And you’re getting a very good deal.’

He grimaced, but to my delight accepted without trying to barter. I imagine he was heading to SportingBet three doors down.

I tried the number Maria had left right away. The phone rang and rang. No reply. No voice mail. To hide my disappointment I put For Lady on the Denon in the back of the shop and went back in to listen. What a sound! Vinyl provided a warmth and immediacy in its sound that digital could not match. Webster’s mournful muted trumpet sounded as if he were in the room, playing just for me. I could see why Maria wanted this record. It was sublime. When the album had finished and I had flipped it a couple of times, I tried the number again. There was still no reply. I tried phoning Maria every hour or so for the next two days. I realised that this was bordering on the obsessional, but I could not stop myself. On the third morning when I tried, I got the message, the number you have dialled is not available or not in service, please check the number and try again. I was devastated.

I started to keep the shop open late, listening to the best of the new releases I’d ordered along with classics from Miles or Mingus. I even bought some new Quad ESLs. Their three-dimensional sound was awesome. I played Webster Young. I lived with the hope that Maria might call in again. She did not. Sometimes people would trickle into the shop around seven on their way home from work and buy a few discs. They would chat about the music they liked and we would compare collections. It was good to have some company. It was certainly preferable to being home on my own.

Geraldine had left back in April. We had irreconcilable differences. She felt I spent too much time in the shop. I felt she spent too much time at the shops. Geraldine had never liked jazz much anyway. Perhaps I should have realised this from the beginning when I took her to see the legendary Herbie Hancock at The Roundhouse in Campden and she complained all the way home on the tube, that he seemed out of tune. She described Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics magnificent set at Cargo, as a ‘bunch of buglers all playing different tunes’. John Coltrane she said sounded like someone treading on a cat. Certainly, I should definitely have registered our incompatibility by the time she took my clarinet to CLIC Sargent. It had been hard, at first, to adjust to the drop off in home comforts. I missed her chicken tetrazzini and her aubergine parmigiana, but on the plus side I was now spared The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, and I was allowed to play my alto sax around the house and rescue my piano from the shed.

One afternoon I was in the shop listening to Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers with Wayne Shorter on tenor and Lee Morgan on trumpet while I was looking through some CCTV footage, following an incident outside Guy Coventry Gun and Sports Shop next door. Birth of Cool’s premises were in a downtown location, so it was not unusual for the police to ask me to check something for them. The Big Beat finished with the alternate take of It’s Only a Paper Moon. Apart from Tupac’s black BMW parked on the double yellow line, the cameras had not picked up anything suspicious, so I was about to switch back to live pictures. It was then that it occurred to me to look through the footage for the day Maria came into the shop. At least this way I would be able to see her again. I had the date and time etched into my memory, Monday, June 11th at 11:11 am, so I typed this into the machine and let the playback run. One or two customers came into the shop during the grainy footage, but to my alarm, there was absolutely no sign of Maria. I ran the footage again, adding a little time to both ends of the search. Still, it did not pick up Maria. What was happening? Had the Vigilant malfunctioned? Had I got the time wrong? I didn’t think so. The machine had picked up the customer I had sold the Duke Ellington sheet music to, and the one I had sold the Cleo Lane boxed set to. Could I have imagined the encounter? My heart was beating like an express train and I felt nauseous. I locked up the shop and went across the street to see Aziz in the pharmacy to see if he would let me have some valium.

I cannot be doing that,’ he said. ‘Islam forbids it.’

I pleaded with him but to no avail.

You must be pulling yourself together,’ he said. ‘Now please go, before my manager comes.’

Aziz would have been more accommodating a year or so ago. He had even offered to sell me skunk on one occasion. But, since he had joined the Muslim Brotherhood, he had changed.

I settled on a bumper pack of Kalms Day Tablets. I took handful right away. I went home and took the rest with a tumbler of Johnnie Walker. I may have refilled the tumbler. I did not go into work the next day.

When I went back in, I called in the engineer to check out the Vigilant recorder. He did some tests but could find no fault. He made a few adjustments to the focus on the cameras to justify the exorbitant call out fee. I got the feeling that he saw me as a weird jazz buff who had lost his grip on reality. I wondered if he was not right.

Maria haunted my unconscious. Night after night I went to sleep and there she would be, a nocturnal temptress. She featured in all my dreams. Some were easier to interpret than others. In one, she was on stage at The Hideaway Club playing the oboe and the instrument turned into my penis. In another, I was eating a bowlful of over-ripe peaches from her lap. In one of the more difficult ones, I was on a golden beach listening to Desafinado. Dolphins were playing in the surf. Maria, who I had met on a balloon trip, was rubbing olive oil into my back and talking in sultry Spanish. A man with a limp and a shamrock in his hair was selling doughnuts. He was dressed in a harlequin suit. Dwarf camels, as small as cats, were frolicking around pyramids that Maria and I had made in the sand. The scene changed to a crowded market place and a hooded figure riding a jet black quad bike and waving a dead fish was chasing me past stalls selling saxophones and clarinets. He was shouting at me in a language I did not recognise. I shouted back in a language I did not recognise. It was dark and I was trying to find my car. I could not remember what make of car it was or where I had left it, but the car had Barcelona plates. There was a large moon low in the sky and shapes of a craggy landscape were in silhouette. I was running. I had a battered leather suitcase in my hand. I had not packed it properly and Maria’s clothes were spilling out onto the cobbled stone street. I made an effort to look back but I knew the scene was disappearing. I realised that I was dreaming and I had the feeling that I had had this dream before, but as someone else. There was a faint light ahead, but this too was becoming fainter and more distant. I woke up in a sweat.

Weeks went by and I went through the motions of running Birth of Cool. My heart was not in it. I did not buy any new stock, and the number of customers dwindled. I now kept a bottle of Johnnie Walker out the back and went through to see how it was getting on regularly throughout the day. Caleb, a friend who I sometimes jammed with, told me I should stop moping around. I should get out more. It was easy for Caleb to say this, with his outgoing personality, and a seemingly endless procession of women wanting to go away for the weekend with him in his Winnebago. However, at the end of August, I decided to go for it. I closed the shop for a week and took a holiday in Barcelona. I had no idea which part of Spain, if any, Maria might be from, but for some reason, I had got it into my head that she might be from Barcelona.

Forty degrees was hotter than I was used to. I could not stop thinking about Maria as I ambled around the Barri Gòtic, looking for shade. Time and time again I thought I spotted her in the crowds, but it was just my imagination. I half-heartedly started to practice my Spanish in shops and tapas bars, but we were in Catalonia and I had difficulty in making my Castilian Spanish understood. I had even more difficulty understanding Catalan, which is to all intents and purposes a separate language. In the end, I stuck to English since everyone seemed to know I was English anyhow. How is it that people in Mediterranean countries always know where you are from before you even speak? August is probably not the best time to visit Barcelona. The streets are teeming and the pavements are like barbecue coals. Everywhere you go you have to sidestep African street vendors selling fake Gucci and Prada merchandise. It was good to get back to my backstreet hotel and the hum of the air-conditioning. On the evenings I didn’t fall asleep through exhaustion, I went to the Harlem and Jamboree jazz clubs. The Spanish have a drink called Fundador.

Everything about the plane bringing me back from Barcelona seemed anomalous. The cabin had unfamiliar livery, the crew were dressed in unfamiliar uniforms and I did not recognise any of the passengers from the outbound trip. I wondered if I was on the wrong flight, but the senior flight attendant assured me that we were going to the right airport. There seemed to be more turbulence than you might expect over the Bay of Biscay and the flight arrived a few hours late. In fact, I was asleep by the time we landed. I thought no more of it, but as I was driving home from the airport, little things seemed out of place. There seemed to be a number of new road layouts, the road signs were all in a different font, and the car radio wasn’t picking up my pre-tuned stations. I could not put my finger on what was happening, but little details in everyday life did not match those that I had grown used to. Tupac’s BMW was not parked on the double yellow lines outside, in fact, there were no double yellow lines outside, Guy Coventry Gun and Sports Shop had become a nail bar, and the cycle repair shop had been replaced by a Bulgarian supermarket and the railway bridge had disappeared.

Eventually, my birthday, September 11th, came around. It had been three months to the day since Maria had entered my life. I had dug out some of my favourite tunes and was playing Charlie Parker’s version of Out of Nowhere, when out of nowhere as if on cue Maria walked through the door. She was wearing a cream trouser suit and a dark blue floppy straw hat. She had a small travelling bag over her shoulder. The suit looked a bit crumpled, but she looked divine. My heart skipped a beat. I would be able to present her with the Webster Young LP. I would be able to take her in my arms and make love to her.

Maria, however, was not smiling. She had a serious look about her. Hesitantly she came over to the counter. I sensed that something was wrong. I turned the music down.

Quiero que matar a mi marido,’ she whispered.

Matar – kill, marido – husband. My brain worked it out slowly.

You want me to kill your husband?’

Sí. Me gustaría usted hacer esto,’ she said. ‘I would like you to do that.’ She looked me right in the eye. It seemed that her proposal was serious.

W – why do you want me to kill your husband,’ I stammered.

I will start at the beginning. Kyle has always been a very jealous man. Three months ago he came back from a business trip and found some tickets from The Jazz Café by the side of the bed and accused me of having an affair.’

From the way she had flirted with me earlier, I could appreciate how he might be worried. I said nothing.

I had been out with my friend, Yvette, but he didn’t believe me,’ she continued, her voice becoming a little shaky. ‘He completely lost control, called me a bitch and a whore and he took off his belt and beat me savagely. He stamped up and down on my phone so I couldn’t contact anyone and kept me in a locked room. Worse still, he would come in sometimes in the middle of the night and rape me. Es un bestia abominable. He does not deserve to live.’

She was crying now. I put my arm around her to comfort her.

But why me?’ I said.

I don’t know. I just thought of you. You seemed to care.’

There was a silence while I tried to assess the situation. Care I might, but murder was not something I had ever in my life contemplated, even in my darkest moments.

Why don’t you call the police?’ I queried.

I did call the police. As soon as I escaped from the house, I called the police. From a phone box. They were not interested. They treated it as a domestic matter,’ she said. ‘They took some details but I could tell they were not taking me seriously. Eventually, I ran out of coins.’

I was being drawn into the front line of Maria’s troubled life. It struck me there was a significant gulf between selling hit records and being a hitman. I had not bargained for complications like this in my ardent fantasy. I felt I had stepped into a nightmare. I told her I couldn’t give her an answer right away. This was something that needed careful consideration. Inasmuch as it was here and now, the experience in the existentialist sense was ‘authentic’ but there was an edge of the surreal about it. This world was out of kilter. My head was spinning.

Can I come and stay with you?’ Maria asked, pleadingly. ‘And we can talk about it.’

How could I say no? Given time, I reasoned I might be able to talk her round. After all murderous intent is not a rational state of mind. Maybe we could go away for a few days to lift her spirits, and she would have time to reconsider. We could perhaps go on the Eurostar to Paris and catch some of the programme from the Quai Jazz Festival. Once we had got to know one another better she would hopefully stop talking about murder. She didn’t. Once we had made love, she got right back on to it.

In the perfect murder,’ she said. ‘the murderer either has a trustworthy witness who can provide an alibi, or has no apparent motive and leaves no incriminating items or physical evidence at the scene of the crime.’

I could see that the trustworthy witness who could provide an alibi might be a problem. The no apparent motive was now quickly vanishing and DNA might be an issue regarding covering one’s tracks. Anyway I wasn’t considering it, was I? I had to bring forward the Eurostar idea.

We will go soon, cariño,’ she said. ‘Once my husband is out of the way.’

In this baffling world where there were new road signs, no digital radio stations, no double yellow lines outside my shop, a Bulgarian supermarket where the cycle repair shop should be, and someone who was invisible on CCTV staying with me, I discovered another anomaly: there were no trains. I do not mean that there were no trains running on the line over the old railway bridge, or even that the Eurostar service had been suspended; there were no trains anywhere. You would have thought something this important would have been newsworthy. I tried searching on Dogpile but could find no reference to trains, or the lack of. Perhaps there had never been any trains. I thought of asking Maria about it, but of course, she might not know about it because she had been kept in a locked room. I went in to ask Aziz, who I noticed was now clean-shaven.

There have not been any trains for months,’ he laughed. ‘Since the debacle over the franchises.’

Maria kept on pushing the idea of murder. Each time I came up with a plan for our escape, it encountered an obstacle. For instance, Maria did not have a passport and she had left all her papers behind. And after we had made love, she would once again return to the subject of killing her husband.

I can get into his electronic calendar,’ she said one time. ‘I can find out where he will be and when he will be on his own.’

What about leaving DNA?’

The next day she said, ‘One idea I have is a fast-acting poison that will simulate a heart attack.’

You have to be able to get to him to administer the poison. There’s the problem of leaving DNA, still. DNA is a real bugbear when it comes to planning murders. And what about CCTV cameras?’

This might not be an issue. Were you able to see me on your CCTV cameras?’

No, but …..’

You must have realised that some things are not the same as in the world that you are used to,’ she said. ‘You will surely by now have noticed subtle differences.’

Are you saying that this is not the real world?’ I asked, dumbfounded.

This is not an imaginary world, querido,’ she said. ‘To most of those around you, this is everyday just as they’ve always known it, but you have, as it were, crossed over from another temporal space.’

Am I able to return to the old reality, to cross back over?’

You might be able to return the way you came, but first, you have to understand how you arrived here. Only you can do that.’

And supposing I could return, would I be able to take you back with me to the real world.’

It is not the real world, mi bello, any more than this one is an imaginary world.’

But would I?’

No-one can say. There are no records of such matters.’

This was about as clear as mud.

I slipped out to the shops once or twice to help kit Maria out and to get our day to day supplies, but we couldn’t go out together for fear of her being seen. In fact, she couldn’t go out at all. She was in essence still a prisoner. I had been able to get Caleb to look after Birth of Cool for a few days, but he was becoming suspicious about what was going on. Caleb would be in the old world, with the gunshop next door to Birth of Cool, the one with the railway bridge – wouldn’t he?

Maria and I couldn’t hide out forever. We needed a resolution. There were two options: either I kill her husband, or we find a way to cross back over. First, you have to understand how you arrived here, Maria had said. I tried to think this through. The weirdness had begun when Maria first arrived in the shop back in June. But the day to day did not change too much until I returned from Barcelona. I had initially noticed big changes on the plane. When I had visited Barcelona I had been so preoccupied, I had scarcely taken in anything about the city, other than where the landmarks in the Gothic centre were, and the location of one or two jazz bars. Apart than that, all I knew that was that Barcelona had held the Olympics a while back and had a better than average football team. And weren’t there some connections with Picasso and Salvador Dali? I decided it would be a good idea to do some research on Dogpile. It was a long shot, but the hope was that it might throw up some links between the city and transmigration. Was this the right word? Clearly not! I found out that Barcelona was the sixteenth most visited city in the world and the seventh most important fashion capital in the world. I discovered that drivers in Barcelona were considered among the worst in the world, with an accident occurring in the city every nineteen seconds, this rising to one every sixteen seconds on a Friday. All very interesting from a cultural point of view, but not exactly the kind of information I was looking for.

On my return, security at the airport I recall had been lax, in fact non-existent. It seemed I was off the plane and straight into the car. I could not even remember picking up my case. Then there had been the missing motorway turn-off and the unmarked road that took me past the new logistics warehouse. Where were the old army barracks I should have passed? There were the changes I found on my return to my street to consider and to cap it all the mystery regarding the trains. I felt I could no longer be certain of anything.

Caleb phoned me to tell me he was sorry to leave me in the lurch but he had to go off to teach a weekend workshop in Experimental Jazz in North Norfolk. Ornette Coleman, John Zorn, The Cinematic Orchestra, that sort of thing, he said.

I’ll be alright on my own,’ Maria said. ‘There’s your film noir collection to explore. I can watch The Postman Always Rings Twice, and if I get bored I can repot your Phoenix Roebelenii.’

So, on Saturday I went in to open up Birth of Cool. Apart from the tree that was blocking the road and the new arthouse cinema that had opened across the street, everything seemed normal. I soon got into the swing of things, put on a Cool Jazz compilation and waited for the Saturday shoppers.

I did not recognise him right away, but something was familiar about his features. He had slipped in unnoticed and was browsing the CDs in the Be Bop section. He was a thick-set man, a little shorter than I was, perhaps five foot ten. He had short brown hair that was thinning on top. He wore a shiny grey suit and an open-necked shirt with a chunky gold chain around his neck. I moved around to take a closer look, being careful not to attract his attention. My heart stood still. This was definitely Maria’s husband, Kyle. I had been shown the photo often enough. This was the man Maria wanted me to kill. It was a shame Guy Coventry Gun and Sports Shop was no longer next door. I could have prepared for the encounter. What was he doing here? I kept my eye on his every movement. He did not look as if was about to attack me. He was not giving this impression at all. He appeared to be genuinely looking for a Jazz CD. He smiled at me, made his way over to the Hard Bop section and picked up a Horace Silver CD to look at the tracks. There was no one else in the shop now but the two of us. He ambled over to the vinyl section, a long rack holding a few hundred albums. He seemed in no hurry, flicking methodically through the discs. I busied myself sorting out the clutter that Caleb had left around the till area, casting furtive glances in Kyle’s direction now and then. Looks can be deceiving, but he did not look like a violent man at all and, I noticed, he did not wear a belt. I began to have doubts about Maria’s story about the beatings. She hadn’t had any bruises when she came to stay. It also began to seem questionable that anyone could be locked in a room for three months, and in our sexual relations, she had not shown the reticence you might expect from a victim of rape. Vacillation took hold.

Having selected a couple of Chet Baker CDs, White Blues and One Night in Tokyo with Harold Danko, Kyle came slowly over to the counter. Now was make or break time. Should I grab the Leak amplifier and smash him over the head with it? The moment passed.

I don’t suppose you ever come across the New York Prestige yellow label vinyl pressing of Webster Young’s For Lady featuring Mal Waldron on piano and Paul Quinichette on tenor sax,’ he said, in a quiet well-spoken voice. ‘I’ve been looking for it for ages.’

I was shaking.

No,’ I finally managed to say, ‘It’s quite rare, isn’t it.’

I’ll just take these then,’ he said, with a polite smile. ‘But if you ever do come across it though, would you be good enough to let me know?’ He handed me his business card, Kyle Clancy – Futures Trader, and slid his credit card into the machine. I was gripped by indecision. The bronze statuette of Louis Armstrong that I used as a paperweight was close at hand. This could deliver a savage blow. Should I or shouldn’t I? How could I kill someone who might well be innocent of any wrongdoing? How could I face Maria if I didn’t take this golden opportunity? Once more the moment passed. Kyle took his CDs and left with a cheery wave.

See you again,’ he said.

The mysteries were multiplying. What was I to believe? What would happen next? For all I knew Kyle might at this very moment be on his way round to my house to do unspeakable things to Maria. Anything was possible. I phoned home, using the code I had agreed with Maria. She was to let it ring four times, and wait for me to ring again a few seconds later. She was to answer on the third ring. She didn’t. Could it be that she hadn’t heard the phone? The Bose Cinemate home cinema system could be quite loud. Maybe she was making her way through my film noir collection.

I shut up the shop and rushed back home. The house was empty. There was no sign of Maria. All her clothes were gone from the bedroom. She had vanished. She did not appear to have left a note. Kyle had not had time to have spirited her away. There were no signs of a struggle. She must have left of her own volition. But why?

I noticed too the Webster Young LP was gone. What was it about this world-weary collection of tunes that had made it so sought after? Certainly, there were beautiful passages of light to punctuate its bleakness, and the counterpoint between Young’s trumpet and Paul Quinichette’s tenor was outstanding, but was it worth all the upheaval it seemed to be causing? After a settling pint of Johnnie Walker, I tried to assess the situation on a point by point, best guess basis.

My life had been normal up until three months ago when Maria came in and asked for the LP.

I was now in some kind of alternative reality at the mercy of unpredictable developments.

I had been completely obsessed by Maria at the expense of all else.

Maria may have had supernatural powers, or be a fraud.

I had resisted the opportunity to kill Kyle.

Kyle may have been a fraud.

Nothing made any sense.

I was bewildered.

I was drunk.

I think it was Alexander Graham Bell who said, ‘When one door closes another door opens, but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.’ So it was I made the decision to try to forget about Maria, put the whole episode behind me, and get on with my life. I wrote out a shopping list and wondered about buying a dog. Later that day, out of the blue, I had a phonecall telling me that I’d won First Prize in a raffle. I didn’t even know that I’d entered a raffle. All I had to do, the girl on the phone said, was turn up at the airfield and do a short training course. Was there a hint of Spanish pronunciation in her voice? Or just my imagination again?

You will then be treated to a three-course lunch,’ she said, ‘before making the drop.’

The drop,’ I remember thinking, ‘what drop?’

My brain had for some reason thought she had been talking about a balloon ride, which would have been a more usual raffle prize than a parachute jump. What made me go ahead with the jump, I cannot say. I was terrified of heights, but the girl sold the idea well, talking about the enjoyment and the exhilaration of skydiving. It was a static line parachute, she said, which opened automatically, so I did not have to worry. It seemed churlish to refuse.

I put on my best metaphorical brown trousers and went along. Jumping out of the plane was among the scariest moments of my life. I blacked out for a split second. Once I regained consciousness, however, I found the experience oddly exhilarating. A static line jump from 3,500 feet from the moment you leave the plane to the moment you hit the ground should take about three minutes. Mine took over an hour. Albert Einstein once said, ‘Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.’ I would have accepted this as the explanation, but my watch confirmed that an hour had passed. An hour in which I was able to play over in my head the events of the past few months and put them in perspective. An hour in which I had time to consider my desert island discs, should I ever be invited on to the show. An hour in which I was able to remember the whole plot of Inception.

One the way back home, to my astonishment, I noticed that the road signs had been changed back to their original font, and the car DAB once again picked up the pre-tuned stations. Jazz FM was running a Blue Note special. When I got back, Tupac’s BMW was once again parked on the double yellow lines outside my shop, Guy Coventry Gun and Sports Shop was open again and the railway bridge was back. A train zipped across it. Aziz was just leaving the pharmacy. He waved.

Hi Aziz,’ I shouted across the road. ‘It’s good to see that you’ve grown your beard again. I couldn’t get used to you clean shaven.’

The following day, I spruced up the shop a little. I sorted out the old stock and put some items in a Sale bin. I took down the out-of-date notices for the summer jazz festivals and put some colourful new displays in the window. I had just made myself a cup of lemon and ginger tea and put on some Miles Davis when a pair of tall men in badly fitting blue suits walked in. They appeared uncomfortable in the surroundings. They did not look like they had come in to buy jazz.’

We would like to ask you some questions relating to the murder of Kyle Clancy,’ said the one with the pencil moustache, flashing an identity card. ‘We would like you to accompany us to the station.’

This was not what I had in mind about one door closing and another opening. Perhaps Alexander Graham Bell had just lived in a very draughty house.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

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Hunky Dory

hunkydory

Hunky Dory by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I like this one,’ Ed says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Normality, you mean,’ Ed says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s get out of here,’ Suzy says.

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

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

SNAKE IN THE GLASS

­snakeinthegrass

­SNAKE IN THE GLASS by Chris Green

Later

No one sees him arrive. No-one spots the silver Solstice slide silently through the streets on its way to the big house with the crow-stepped gables on Obsidian Street. It is night-time in the sleepy town. Seeing the sleek Pontiac Solstice outside the house the following morning, townsfolk might be likely to put its presence down to the visit of a wealthy race-goer. There are plenty of these around at this time of year, the racecourse being less than ten miles away. Yet, if truth be told, the locals ought really to see the car’s arrival as portentous. American muscle cars are not that common in these parts, even on race days. BMWs and Audis, along with the odd Bentley are the signature vehicles of the high rollers who visit. More significantly, the last time he appeared, it was under the cover of darkness. Three years ago he arrived by night in a black Camaro.

But, were it not for the feeling octogenarian soothsayer, Nicholas Ell gets when he senses trouble ahead, no-one would be aware that he was there. Nicholas no longer gets out much but on her morning visit, his cleaning lady, Magda discovers the old man in a state of agitation. She asks him what is wrong.

‘It’s happening again, Magda,’ he says. ‘I feel it in my bones.’

‘What’s the trouble, Mr Ell,’ Magda says. ‘What’s happening?’

‘All over again,’ he says. ‘Just like it did that time before. We have to do something.’

Although Magda has got to know Nicholas quite well, she has no idea what the old man is referring to. From the fact that he is shaking like a leaf and frothing at the mouth, she imagines that it is important though. She has worked for him long enough to know what she has to do to focus his thoughts. After a medicinal Snake in the Glass, a mix of Jack Daniels and Cointreau that Nicholas swears by, he manages to explain about the mystery man’s return and what it might mean for them all.

Word of the renewed threat spreads quickly through the small town’s informal networks. Despite the devastation he caused three years ago, no-one in the bar of The King Billy seems to know very much about the interloper. What was his name? Who was he? Where was he from? Why was he here? The feeling is that despite his penchant for American cars, he may not be American. He appears to have had an unusual accent, perhaps Central Asian. Tracey Looker, who lives in the candy coloured rock house with the owl sculptures in the garden is not sure where it is but she thinks he might have come from Shambhala. This is however on the basis of one brief encounter.

‘I’m sure it was a place with not many vowels,’ Shaldon Rain says. Shaldon works in the town’s Scrabble factory and in her spare time plays the flugelhorn in an experimental jazz band.

Shaldon and Tracey are the only two present who caught sight of him on his previous visit.

‘Perhaps we might get the opportunity to find out something about him this time around.’ Sol Reiter says. ‘Has anyone actually seen him yet?’ Sol Reiter, something of an entrepreneur in the town recently sold his virtual zoo to Idée Inc. for a tidy sum. He plans on spending more time at home with his capybaras and has taken to breeding albino ferrets.

‘We don’t think he’s been spotted yet,’ Darius Goy says. ‘We’re still going by what Nicholas Ell said.’ Darius is the town’s archivist, an authority on the painter, Lucien Freud and a staunch Captain Beefheart fan.

‘Are we even sure it’s him?’ Sol says. ‘You wouldn’t think he would have the chutzpah to come back here after what happened three years ago.’

‘Old Nick usually gets it right,’ Darius says. ‘Did you know, Nick has predicted every Eurovision Song Contest winner since 1958? He even foresaw the four-way tie in 1969.’

‘That’s as maybe, but he is getting a bit doddery, Sol says. ‘He must be nearly a hundred.’

‘Eighty six,’ Darius says.

‘After the trouble our unwanted visitor caused, surely he would stay away,’ Tracey says. ‘He must realise that he is likely to get pulled in if he sets foot in the town.’

‘But, is anyone aware of what he looks like?’ Sol asks. ‘He didn’t exactly mingle last time.’

‘Tracey saw him,’ Darius says. ‘And Shaldon. They would be able to recognise him and there must be a photo or two of him in the archive. From CCTV footage or something. Besides, presumably, he’s up at Obsidian Street. We just need to keep an eye on the place and the movements of his car and we will know where he is. I’ll let Inspector Boss know.’

Do you know, it all seems such a long time ago now?’ Sol says. ‘It’s amazing how easily we forget the bad things that have happened in the past and become complacent. Leah bought a book on Mindfulness. Maybe I ought to get around to reading it.’

‘All I remember is that everything went silent,’ Pearson Ranger says. ‘Like the flick of a switch, suddenly there was nothing. I couldn’t hear a thing, voices, television, traffic. All gone. It was so quiet, I wondered if next door’s dog was dead. Then I wondered if perhaps I was dead. Deadly silence. For days. And then I found out it wasn’t just me. No-one in the town could hear anything. Everywhere deadly silence. Inside. Outside. On the streets. Not even the bleeping to let you know when you could cross at the lights. I remember it very well. Being blind, not being able to hear was especially traumatic for me.’

I appreciate how that might be a problem,’ Darius says. ‘I was listening to Trout Mask Replica when it happened.’

‘Conversation was the thing I missed most,’ Tracey says. ‘Lip reading is incredibly hard.’

The thing is to this day, no-one knows how he managed to do it,’ Darius says. ‘I mean, how can you get rid of sound?’

Science isn’t good at explaining those kind of things,’ Sol says.

‘Science fiction is better with explanations,’ Shaldon Rain says. ‘I expect Ted Sturgeon or Philip C. Dark would have the answer. Or even that Chris Green fellow.’

‘Who?’ Sol says.

‘Chris Green. He writes speculative fiction,’ Shaldon says. ‘You might have read Time and Tide Wait for Norman.’

‘No. Can’t say I have,’ Sol says.

‘Look! I’ve just remembered something,’ Tracey says. ‘It may be nothing but Shambhala is the place we think of as Shangri La. I remember looking it up on the Internet.’

‘That’s a mythical kingdom,’ Pearson Ranger says. ‘In Tibet, I think.’

‘Might that help to explain how he managed to make everything go quiet?’ Tracey says. ‘Might he have magical powers?’

‘Mumbo jumbo’s all very well but how does it help to know that?’ Darius says. ‘Rather than rely on a number of unreliable accounts, perhaps we could piece together what actually happened three years ago.’

‘I remember his visit well,’ Tracey says. ‘I knew something was wrong when I couldn’t hear my Oscar burbling away. Oscar’s my parrot. He’s an African grey.’

‘My band was on stage at Max’s at the time,’ Shaldon Rain says.’When the audience couldn’t hear what we were playing, they started throwing things at us.’

We don’t want anything like that to happen this time around,’ Sol says. ‘Now, Think about it, guys! Have any of you noticed anything out of the ordinary yet?’

‘Well, there is the silver Pontiac outside the old house with the crow-stepped gables on Obsidian Street,’ Tracey says.

‘Apart from that,’ Sol says. ‘If we’re going to get to the bottom of this, we have to keep our eyes open.’

But why does he want to come back?’ Shaldon Rain says. ‘What do you imagine he might be up to this time?’

‘Old Nick didn’t say.’ Darius says. ‘But whatever it is, he has to be stopped. Inspector Boss should be on his way by now. I’ve told him to come armed.’

I don’t like to mention it but it seems to be getting rather dark in here,’ Shaldon Rain says.

You’re right,’ Darius says. ‘The light does seem to be fading. And it’s not even midday.’

‘It’s dark outside too,’ Shaldon Rain says. ‘So dark, I can’t see outside. Not even the window. It’s pitch black.’

‘I can’t even see you, Darius,’ Sol says.

‘I hope Boss gets here soon,’ Darius says.

‘But the police probably won’t be able to to see anything either,’ Sol says. ‘There’ll be bullets everywhere.’

Earlier

I don’t know how I come to find myself in Barton Stoney. I am on my way to see the film director, Leif Velasquez in Gifford Wells, twenty or so miles south of here. Leif wants to make a film of my story, Time and Tide Wait for Norman. In trying to avoid the race traffic on the ring road around Barton Stoney, I suppose I must have taken a wrong turn. There appear to be no road signs in the town and the one-way system is unfathomable. I keep going round in circles. To make matters worse, there is a madman in a big silver muscle car speeding through the streets and doing dangerous handbrake turns. No-one seems to be taking any notice of him. Where are the police when you want them?

I park the car and put my head around the door of a pub called The King William to ask for directions out of town. What a place! It’s bedlam. Everyone in here appears to be possessed. Or at least very, very drunk for this time of day. A woman in a brightly coloured dress and shocks of flyaway red hair starts banging on about Shangri La. A mythical valley of great bounty in Tibet, I recall, a metaphor for the perfect way of life, satirised in a song by The Kinks. I can’t make out the connection with anything that might be happening in The King William. A man brandishing a club of some kind grabs hold of me and starts raving about some terrible occurrence that took place here years ago. As if I might care. I can’t understand what he is trying to tell me anyway. He waves his arms about madly and says the police are on their way. He doesn’t say why. Is he the landlord? I don’t know.

There are about a dozen more revellers in here, all mad as hatters, it seems, or at least drunk as lords. Are the police coming to arrest them for affray? Is that what all this is about? Maybe they are going to arrest the crazy driver. Perhaps he has a history of terrorising the town during race meetings. It’s impossible to get any sense out of these people. They are all clearly three sheets to the wind.

As a writer of fiction, I’m constantly on the lookout for new material for a story. It occurs to me that there might just be something for me here. Let’s start by giving these people names. I’ll call the pale-skinned woman with the neck tattoos, Shaldon Rain. I’ve had that one kicking around waiting for a character for some time. She looks to me very much like she might be a flugelhorn player with an experimental jazz band. I have an instinct for these things. The stocky one with the lank hair and the big nose looks he might be Jewish. He can be Reuben. No, what about Sol? Sol Reiter. This would make the one he’s arguing with, Darius Goy. That’s been in the locker for a while. Darius looks like a Captain Beefheart fan if ever I saw one. The one with the white stick can be Pearson Ranger. This is the name of an estate agent’s I took down a while back when I was looking to move house. Informality is important in my writing. The King William can become The King Billy. I think I’d like to make more of the mad driver. He needs to be more sinister. He is responsible perhaps for an unexplained phenomenon that affects the whole town. A title for the story is going to be more difficult and how should I brand it? Chris Green or Philip C. Dark? Both these matters will need some thought. Nothing obvious comes to mind for a title without giving the game away. I may have to just come up with a short random phrase. The Art of the Matter? Bridge of Clocks? Detectives in Summer? How about ……. Snake in the Glass?

I can hear police sirens. I think it’s time to make my exit.

Later

‘We’ve been up to the old house with the crow-stepped gables on Obsidian Street, Mr Goy,’ Inspector Boss says. ‘And we’ve spoken to your muscle car fellow. He’s called Velasquez by the way and he’s from California. It turns out he has bought the place to turn it into an independent film studio.’

‘He says he came across Barton Stoney several years ago,’ Boss’s sidekick, Jagger says. ‘He was second director then for a movie called, Silent Witness. An apocalyptic thriller. Some of you may have seen it. It was about a town very much like this one where everything suddenly went quiet.’

‘Some of you may even have been in it,’ Boss says. ‘Velasquez says he hired some locals as extras. That crazy old man in the other big house was in it. The one who keeps predicting the end of the world.’

‘Nicholas Ell?’ Darius Goy says. ‘But he doesn’t go out, Inspector.’

‘This must have been before he became a hermit, Mr Goy,’ Boss says. ‘I haven’t personally seen the film but apparently Nick Ell had quite a big part.’

‘Velasquez already has a house in Gifford Wells,’ Jagger says. ‘So, he’s practically a local. I don’t think he will be any bother, Mr Goy.’

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

THE TWO OF US

thetwoofus

The Two of Us by Chris Green

There are no stars out tonight,’ Cindy says. ‘Why are there no stars, Matt?’

You don’t get stars every night,’ I say. ‘Perhaps there will be some tomorrow.’

But, it has been a clear day,’ Cindy says. ‘There should be stars after a clear day.’

That’s true,’ I say.

So what do you think is happening?’ Cindy says.

I don’t know,’ I say. ‘But I wonder if it has something to do with that explosion earlier.’

What do you mean?’ Cindy says.

We’ve always been taught to believe that the stars are, you know, out there in space,’ I say. ‘But what if it isn’t so? Lots of things that we are told turn out to be wrong, don’t they? We were told there was a bearded fellow in the sky who would get angry and punish us if we weren’t good. But no-one ever saw him. We were told there was a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. But no one ever found it. We were told that computers would give us hours and hours of free time and lead to a paperless office. But, we are still waiting on both counts. So, you can’t believe everything you see or hear. How do we know the stars are really there?’

You mean the night sky could be an illusion to fool us into thinking that the universe is bigger than it is,’ Cindy says.

Or perhaps to fool us into thinking that the universe exists at all,’ I say. ‘The universe could be a colossal projection.’

But what about the moon?’ Cindy says. ‘I can see the moon. The moon is still there.’

Difficult to say,’ I say. ‘Perhaps the moon is not part of the night sky projection.’

What do you imagine caused the explosion, anyhow?’ Cindy says.

It could be terrorist activity. I know we don’t hear a lot about it now but it might still be happening,’ I say.

Or it might be some kind of accident,’ Cindy says.

We will probably never know what caused it,’ I say. ‘I expect vested interests will want to keep it secret.’

But we might get the stars back one day if they repair the damage to the universe projection,’ Cindy says.

Could be,’ I say. ‘Who knows?’

There are a lot of uncertainties, aren’t there?’ Cindy says.

Shall we just enjoy the moonlight,’ I say.

Cindy and I decide to go about our lives as we normally would. Even if we don’t discover why the stars have gone, they will hopefully be back one day. Meanwhile, we still have the moon. And after all, it is in the nature of things to disappear from time to time. We ought to be used to this. It does not necessarily mean that they are gone forever. Cindy keeps losing her keys and I keep losing my glasses but they do reappear when the time is right. A while ago, the internet vanished for a few months. No-one discovered what had happened. But, eventually, it came back on and it was much easier to navigate. There were just a handful of sites rather than the millions there had been. Since then it has become simpler still. There is now just one site. TV programmes disappeared and when they returned they too were different, most of them in another language. But at least there were programmes to watch once more. There were fewer funny ones but heigh ho.

Days pass and the stars do not return. Then, after its regular monthly waning, the moon does not reappear in the night sky. Instead of a new moon, there is no moon.

Once more, Cindy says, ‘It has been a clear day. There should be a moon.’

Once more I agree that it has been sunny.

What do you think has happened to the moon?’ Cindy says.

Perhaps there was another explosion while we were asleep last night,’ I say. ‘I did think I heard something round about three o’clock.’

You think that the moon too was nothing more than a projection then?’ Cindy says.

It’s certainly a possibility,’ I say.

We have been led to believe that the moon exerts a strong gravitational pull on the Earth and it is this gravitational pull that causes the seas to rise and fall in what we call tides. More importantly, perhaps, we have been told that the moon stabilises the Earth’s rotation. But what if the moon’s function, all these years, has been a purely decorative one? It is too early to say yet if the Earth’s rotation is less stable but the tide seems to be coming in. In fact, there are quite big waves.

There’s something else I’ve noticed,’ Cindy says.

It’s not about the car not working, is it?’ I say.

No. It’s something else,’ Cindy says.

Ah! I think I know what you are going to say,’ I say.

There don’t seem to be any people,’ Cindy says. ‘I can’t remember when I last saw anyone.’

They became a bit thin on the ground after the stars went out,’ I say. ‘We had to change the seven a side rugby tournament to a one a side rugby tournament. And still, there were only two teams.’

No-one won the lottery last week because no-one bought a ticket,’ Cindy says. ‘And now there’s no TV.’

Even the internet has gone,’ I say.

What do you think has happened to all the people?’ Cindy says. ‘Where has everyone gone?’

It probably has something to do with the explosions,’ I say. ‘We could be the last two people left. Like in that book by the Australian fellow. They made it into a film.’

You’re thinking of, On the Beach,’ Cindy says.

That’s the one,’’ I say. ‘I think this is it.’

So, that means it’s just the two of ……

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

 

 

DreamCatcher

dreamcatcher2018

DreamCatcher by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Or that they were carnivores,’ Matt says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

……………………………….

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

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

‘More likely the something, I would say.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Give Chance a Piece

givechanceapiece

Give Chance a Piece by Chris Green

If Dalton Ripley had not stayed up until the early hours watching The Shining on Netflix, he would probably not have been late leaving for work that fateful Monday in late September and if he had not been late leaving for work he would not have been speeding along Nine Bends, the windy B road he took as a short cut and if he had not been speeding along Nine Bends he would not have skidded off the road at its notorious fifth bend, the so-called Elbow Bend and taken out the power line that supplied the power to much of the neighbouring town, Porchester and if he had not taken out the power line that supplied the power to much of Porchester then things might have been very different. As it is, you can but speculate.

Had Porchester not been without power, for instance, the Royal visit that was scheduled for that late September day would not have been cancelled. The Duke and Duchess of Burberry would have opened the prestigious new sports centre as planned and the town would have received a much-needed boost after a decade or two in the doldrums. Dalton Ripley, of course, would still be alive, his late night viewing of The Shining perhaps scheduled for a later date. More importantly in the big scheme of things, Charise Lapointe, the scientist who was on the verge of discovering a cure for the common cold who was booked in for a routine procedure at Porchester General Hospital would probably not have met her maker that day. She died on the operating table when the power suddenly went off and the backup generator failed. If this had not happened then Charise would have continued with her ground-breaking research and you might not be sniffling so much next winter. The irony is that Charise Lapointe was not even scheduled to have her procedure at Porchester General Hospital, nor was it originally supposed to be on this day but a series of unexpected delays and cancellations came into play. But, these things happen.

If we go delve a little deeper, had Dalton’s wife, Diane not been away visiting her mother in Farrowgate, Dalton would in all likelihood not have stayed up late watching The Shining as Diane hated scary films. She preferred family dramas. When she was at home the Ripleys mostly watched historical drama series like Downton Abbey or Grand Hotel. Or wholesome documentaries like The Blue Planet. If this had been the case they would probably have had an early night and Dalton would have been up early for work as usual that late September morning. They say that hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it is an unhelpful dictum in a world where chance and coincidence are constant agitators, the best laid plans of mice and men and all that.

All the same, one can’t help but be curious as to how it is that calamitous events unfold. At what point can it be said that this particular chain of events or any other is inevitable? Chance is defined as the occurrence of events in the absence of any obvious intention or cause. Where do cause and effect come in? Is chance in any way related to what we think of as fate? Are we just talking semantics? Perhaps all views on the matter are subjective. Eighteenth century, German philosopher, Friedrich Schiller, for instance, claims there is no such thing as chance and what seems to us merest accident springs from the deepest source of destiny. Twentieth century icon, Marilyn Monroe agrees with him saying that life is pre-ordained, like Kismet. Bernie McBurnie, the former manager of BetterBet in Brewcastle takes the opposite view, this based on a lifetime in making the wrong call setting the odds in his shop.

Fortune favours some people. They appear to be defy the odds. They are described as being born lucky. I recently read about a man called Lloyd Banks who was a serial lottery jackpot winner. He only played the lottery three or four times a year but each time he did he won one of the big prizes. A spin of the wheel or a roll of the dice and Lloyd seemed to know what would come up. Long odds meant nothing to him. He had such a successful record on the Blackjack tables that he found himself banned from all the casinos in the country. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, you get the Wet Blanket Rons of this world. Everything they touch turns to dust. Ron, having just lost his job, was knocked down by a hit and run driver and hospitalised with a catalogue of injuries. In hospital, he went down with Norovirus. While he was in the isolation ward, his wife, Heather ran off with his best friend, Frank who had been giving her lifts to work. On release from hospital, Ron was given notice on the flat by their unscrupulous landlord, Kostas Moros, who saw Heather’s disappearance as an excuse to subdivide the deceptively spacious two bedroomed apartment and make more money. To cap it all Kostas Moros ordered Ron to pay £2000 for damage incurred to the flat during the tenancy, which cleaned Ron out. Patti says you make your own luck, it’s all down to mental attitude but I’m not sure it’s that simple. Chance seems to be lurking in the mix somewhere.

Whether attributable to chance or not, the chain of events set in motion by Dalton Ripley’s misjudgement of the notorious Elbow Bend that late September day gives us a perfect illustration of the domino effect. If the untimely death of the biologist in the hospital were the most serious consequence of the power outage, tragic though this would be, it would not be catastrophic. But, worse was in store for the town that day. Despite Herculean efforts on behalf of the power company, they were unable to restore the power. With surveillance cameras disabled and all aspects of everyday life disrupted, a group of sophisticated terrorists, apparently not aligned with any of the usual suspects, spotted an opportunity and decided to target the beleaguered town. You did not hear about this at the time. There were no reports because the event was deemed so serious and so mysterious, a D notice was immediately issued. There was a total news blackout and parts of the town were sealed off for weeks, while the inexplicable massacre was investigated.

But, in this age of social media leaks, it is difficult for the authorities to silence a story indefinitely. Gradually, the scale of the atrocity that took place that Monday in late September began to emerge. It is now being suggested that as many as a thousand people were killed in Porchester that day. Yet, it seems no-one is certain who the anonymous group of terrorists that carried out the attack were or even by what method the attack was carried out. No-one has been able to establish what the cause of death was and despite the numerous dead being found in a number of different locations, there appears to have been a puzzling absence of witnesses. Sonic waves are currently being suggested as an explanation along with laser beams and mind control. If the medics do know any more about the cause they are not letting on.

There have now been several similar attacks at various locations around the country, each one occurring during a lengthy power outage. Yet, each of the power outages is unplanned, unpredictable, a chance happening, a random event. There is no common cause to them. Although you can read odd posts on the internet about the attacks, almost all the questions remain unanswered. How can whoever is responsible for the deaths predict that Dalton Ripley or someone like him is going to plough through a power line? How can they know that some inexperienced employee of one of the power giants is going to flick the wrong switch? Who are the terrorists, what powers do they have and what is it they are doing? Strangely, not so much as a single amateur iPhone video of any of the incidents has come to light. People are just dropping dead in random locations where security cameras are down and without any survivors seeing them. You are not able to get near any of the sites as they are crawling with soldiers and spooks.

The government appear to have accepted that the public is finding out about the atrocities that have been taking place and are now using this as an excuse to impose greater border control, restrictions on freedom of movement and that kind of stuff. Imposing curfews. For our protection. Reports are appearing too about plans to police the internet. They are suggesting doubling the size of the workforce at the so-called listening centre, out in the sticks somewhere. Patti thinks I am being paranoid but I wonder if the government themselves are not the ones trickling information about the mysterious terrorist attacks down to us so they can justify these draconian new measures. Business as usual then, Guy Bloke suggests, like one of Philip C. Dark’s political thrillers. Perhaps the government are even the ones behind the attacks or maybe they are just making them up to make us feel that we need them to protect us. We live in those kind of times.

What would Casey Boss of the Special Ideas Squad make of it all, I’m wondering? Let’s give it over to him and his sidekick, Jagger to bat about for a while.

‘So, what have we got to go on, Jagger?’ Casey Boss says. ‘How much of this improbable story can we verify?’

‘Dalton Ripley’s accident looks sound, guv,’ Jagger says ‘There are dozens of pictures of the crashed car.’

‘But, how do we know it is Dalton Ripley’s car?’ Boss says.

‘Does it matter whose car it was that took out the power line?’ Jagger says.

‘And what has happened to Diane Ripley?’ Boss says. We have heard nothing of her.’

‘The Ripleys don’t matter,’ Jagger says. ‘Those kind of details are not important.’

‘I take your point, Jagger,’ Boss says. ‘So, where do you think we ought to start?’

‘The power line was definitely down, guv,’ Jagger says. ‘We can say that much.’

‘So, let’s move straight on to what happened when the power was out in Porchester,’ Boss says.

‘Don’t you think we should take a look at the chance elements first?’ Jagger says. ‘There do seem to be quite a lot of random connections.’

‘You mean, give chance a piece?’ Boss says.

‘Ha, ha! Very droll,’ Jagger says. ‘But it’s the …… other fellow you’re thinking of. He’s not been with us for a while now.’

‘I would be happy to put it down to a series of accidents, were it not for the scale,’ Boss says. ‘This would seem to imply some intent. ……… Where are we getting all the information from, anyway, Jagger?’

‘It’s from a book I’ve been reading,’ Jagger says.

‘What sort of book?’

‘A collection of short stories.’

‘Short stories, eh? And who are they by?’

‘Chris Green. He’s a new writer. He’s very good.’

‘And where is he getting it from?’

‘He’s making it up, obviously. He’s a writer.’

‘So, we’re fictitious.’ Boss says.

‘Of course.’ Jagger says.

‘Oh shit, Jagger!’ Boss says. ‘What are we going to do now? What’s going to happen to us?’

‘Lap of the Gods, I’d say, guv.’

‘It’s up to him, isn’t it? This ….. This, Chris Green.’

‘Perhaps it would help our chances, guv, if we could solve this mystery behind all these fatalities,’ Jagger says. ‘Then we might get an outing in another story.’

‘What about ……….?’

‘I do believe I know what you are thinking, guv,’ Jagger says.

I was, of course, surprised to get the call from Casey Boss. Surprised perhaps doesn’t adequately describe my bewilderment. My consternation. Here was a fictional character, one of my fictional characters, contacting me. Before I had a chance to steady myself, Casey Boss began to tell me that he thought he had the explanation to the mystery of the attacks. He and Jagger were investigating an unrelated incident, he said, regarding a blue Ikea bag full of science fiction plots. He explained that Ikea bags were common in his line of work as villains found they could easily conceal insurrectionist ideas, Ikea and idea having lexicographic similarities. He and Jagger had intercepted the consignment a month or so previously and had hoped they had put the case to bed. But they had recently discovered that one of the plots had gone missing from the Special Ideas Squad evidence room. It would appear to be a perfect match. But, he said he was unable to tell me the rest of the details as he was saving these for when I wrote the sequel.

But, as my namesake, the great Graham Greene says, a story has no beginning or end. Arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

EXTRA

extraEXTRA by Chris Green

How do they know there are only thirteen days left? How can anyone be so precise? And what exactly is the nature of the emergency? Why does no-one appear to know? Or if they do know, why are they reluctant to tell us? Not that I am able to do much about it, whatever it is, stuck on the third floor of this ill-equipped institution building in the middle of nowhere in a wheelchair with both legs in plaster. You can’t even get the internet in here to find out what is going on. Perhaps you can’t get the internet anywhere now. Perhaps the internet has been closed down. This would make sense if they, whoever they are, don’t want people to find out what is happening.

It wasn’t so bad at first when we were told there were nineteen days left. First thoughts were that it was probably a hoax or that, whatever the supposed emergency was, it would go away. There was plenty of time, nineteen whole days. There’s not much that stays in the news for nineteen days. But, as the days count down with no further revelations about the nature of the emergency, and seemingly no way of finding out what is going on, I can’t help but speculate. What are they hiding and why? Is there a colossal asteroid on a collision course? Has there been a nuclear accident? A biological attack? There have of course always been things that have been kept secret on the basis that it is not in the public interest to know. Rumours about unbearably loud sounds, antimatter on the loose, apocalyptic winds, blinding blue lights. Media silence seems somehow more sinister.

Of course, there were dozens of us here at first. Only those of us who are physically unable to get away remain, four of us in all. The rest have surreptitiously left. The ones who appeared to be in charge of the place also went today. We watched them go off in a minibus. Rats and sinking ship come to mind. None of us knows why we are here. Is the emergency worldwide or is it something more localised? There’s no way of finding out. To add to our distress, there appears to be a power cut. Maybe there is simply no electricity being produced in these final days.

………………………………………….

When you are faced with the prospect of annihilation in eleven days time, eleven feels like a very small number. It is impossible not to feel fear.

Burl Rector, if that is really his name, believes categorically that it is the hand of God.

‘It’s retribution for all our sins,’ Burl says, in one of his diatribes. ‘Revelations tells us that the fearful and the unbelieving, the abominable, murderers, whoremongers, and sorcerers, idolaters and liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.’

I do not have the energy to point out that I for one am none of the above, well perhaps the fearful and unbelieving, but none of the rest. And although it is far from verified, what news we have is that everyone is going to perish, whether they are sinners or not, in just eleven days time. If I were to challenge Burl, he would probably have some other Biblical text at the ready. Burl’s God is a wrathful God. A vengeful and unforgiving God. Burl’s God put him in his wheelchair simply because he missed church two Sundays in a row.

Huey Minton is also not someone you would choose to be stuck in a lift with. Huey is not even half empty in his outlook. He is empty with a capital e. He is acutely paranoid. He doesn’t even think we should eat the food that we have access to. It is bound to be poisoned, he says, even the tins will be poisoned. What would he rather us do, starve? Huey is a seasoned conspiracy theorist. He can hold forth about 9/11 or chemtrails and mind control for hours. He started off by claiming that the present emergency was an alien attack but he has since switched his diagnosis to it being a rampant airborne disease started by the New World Order as a means of population control. It doesn’t matter he says whether we are out there or in here, it will still get us.

Mary Jane doesn’t have an opinion regarding the explanation for the emergency and I am with her on this. If we are going to survive, then its cause is perhaps secondary, we need to come up with a strategy for our survival beyond the next eleven days. Or at least be able to live out our remaining time in good spirits.

………………………………………….

Despite our limited mobility, Mary Jane and I somehow manage to get down to the second floor. The other two are not with us. We try shouting up the stairs but there is no reply. They have vanished. Perhaps they are caught in a wormhole between floors or an unscheduled timewarp but something has happened to them. In uncharted territory such as we are, perhaps we should expect strange things such as this to happen. At least Mary Jane and I are spared the wrath of God diatribes and the wild conspiracy theories for the time being. At least Mary Jane and I are spared for the time being.

It is eerie down here with the peculiar echo of silence you find in a large space when no-one is about. Although we are two floors up, it feels oddly subterranean. Three days on and there is still no sign of the power coming back on. It is dark down here and smells of decay. It looks as if it has been abandoned for a long time. Certainly, more than a few days. The paint is flaking off the mildewed walls and the windows are clouded with soot. Spiders’ webs hang from the furniture. Amongst scattered papers on a gnarled wooden desk, we discover a transistor radio. It’s one of those military looking ones with lots of wavebands. Despite its business like appearance, the only transmission we can pick up is in Spanish. This strikes us as ominous. Does this mean that everyone else has gone off the air? With the smattering of Spanish Mary Jane and I have between us, we try to make out what they are saying. They appear to be talking about a football match. A big upcoming football match. Mañana, mañana, El partido más grande de la historia.

‘Vamos a descubrir que Barcelona es el mejor equipo para la eternidad,’ one of them says. ‘Barcelona es el mejor equipo de futbol del universo entero.’

With just eight days to go before the apocalypse, it seems that this is the match to decide once and for all who really is the best team.

‘Perhaps this is something they should have done years ago and had done with it,’ Mary Jane says. ‘Rather than put us through the anguish every year for nine months of the year only to for it to start all over again.’

‘What do you think they would be talking about if it were a French station?’ I say.

‘Wine, of course,’ Mary Jane says. ‘They would be talking about appellation and terroir and all that nonsense.

‘German?’

‘Sausages and Pilsner,’ Mary Jane says. ‘What about a British radio broadcast? I wonder what we would be talking about.’

‘Still talking about Brexit, probably,’ I say.

‘It’s good that even in these last days, we still have a sense of humour,’ Mary Jane says.

The lightness of mood is short lived. Without warning, the Spanish station goes off the air. In mid-sentence, the excited voice dies. We are left with the hiss of static, this made up in part I recall by cosmic microwave background radiation from the Big Bang. There is nothing out there. It is a chilling moment.

………………………………………….

I can’t be sure of anything anymore, there are no certainties. Everything is in flux. But, according to my calculations, there are just five days left. I can’t recall how we came to be here, but Mary Jane and I now find ourselves on the first floor of the complex. First floor is probably not a fair or accurate description, in fact, no description at all. Before us, as far as the eye can see, there is open grassland. And it seems to go on for ever. It even smells like a prairie, with the scents of grasses, resinous shrubs, warm earth and sage. Yet, at the same time, we are somehow still within the confines of the monolithic structure. There are staircases both up and down. How have the wild open spaces come inside? We have entered the realms of science fantasy. The space is somehow dimensionally transcendent.

Like everywhere else around here, the prairie is deserted, if deserted is not a contradiction in terms. We haven’t seen anyone else for a long, long time now. The unspecified catastrophe seems to be playing out. This is surely the end. I can’t help but indulge in some reverie. There’s a sudden longing for the past. For better times. Those idyllic days when life was simpler. The odd thing is, I’m really not sure that I’ve done some of the things that are coming into consciousness. I seem to be flooded with ……. false memories. How could I possibly have been a Roman centurion? Or been in the trenches in the First World War? I wouldn’t have been born. Surely I didn’t really grow gourds in Somerset or have a dog called Kafka. And I can’t for the life of me place who some of these people are that are coming to mind, Philip C. Dark, Leif Velasquez. Certainly, they seem half-familiar. But, who are they? They seem one step removed from my experience. Like phantoms. There again, I do remember Vicki and the twins and Elm Close and Lee’s Bar. I believe these are real memories. And my job at the insurance office. Or was it music shop? I’m sure I had some kind of career. My memory is a laboratory of confusion. Mary Jane, on the other hand, says she doesn’t remember anything at all from her past.

………………………………………….

Somehow, I negotiate another descent. I try to get my bearings once more but I seem to have lost Mary Jane. I call out her name but she does not answer. The darkness makes it difficult see what is down here but it is no longer open prairie. This is an indoor setting – an indoor setting with a vengeance. All the windows have been boarded up. It is dark. Enclosed. Forbidding. Where is Mary Jane? I don’t want to be the last person alive.

I’m not.

‘Don’t move!’ yells a hollow voice, from out of the gloom. I’m thinking perhaps it is the Grim Reaper. My heart is thumping. I’m not ready for this. The seconds pass. The figure slowly approaches. In the slither of murky light coming from a split in one of the boarded up windows, I can just make out his shape. In heavy black uniform and protective headgear, he looks like Darth Vader. He is pointing a gun of some sort in my direction.

‘Oh! It’s you,’ he says, as he gets closer. Do I detect a sense of relief in his voice? Was he expecting someone more dangerous? I’m still too terrified to say anything.

‘You’re supposed to be in quarantine,’ he says, matter of factly.

‘Quarantine?’ I say.

‘Yes, quarantine. You are contaminated.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Don’t you remember what happened?’

‘Remember what?’

‘The explosion on set.’

‘What set? Who are you?’

‘I’m Site Security.’

‘What’s this about an explosion?’

‘There was an explosion. On the set of Nineteen Days. Two weeks ago.’

‘Nineteen Days? Two weeks?’

‘Oh, come on now! You were one of the extras in the big scene at the end of the film. I had to apprehend two of your oppos a day or two ago and take them back in. Difficult bastards, they were.’

‘What about Mary Jane? What have you done with Mary Jane?’

‘No idea what you are talking about, pal.’

Perhaps there was no Mary Jane. The only thing I am sure about is my confusion.

‘You say we were in a film?’

As I am saying this, I begin to understand the likely origin of the false memories I’ve been getting. The Roman centurion, the First World War soldier. They must be from bit parts I’ve played in films.

‘Look!’ Darth Vader says. ‘Are you a bit slow or are you pulling my pisser? All of you were in Leif Velasquez’s Nineteen Days. The film he was making of the classic Philip C. Dark story. The production was shut down following the accident.’

‘Accident?’

‘The apocalyptic explosion filming the final scene,’ he says. ‘It was like Armageddon.’

Suddenly, I find I am getting flashbacks about an explosion like the one he is describing. But I’m not even sure about these. In my state, they could easily be brought on through auto-suggestion.

‘They had to shut down the film and quarantine everyone involved in the scene,’ he continues. ‘Those of you that actually survived that is. Because of the alarming side effects you were experiencing. Toxic chemicals were discovered everywhere, some of them never known before. The area has been declared a no-go zone. All means of communication both in and out have been cut. Weren’t you told any of this?’

Communication cut. This explains the lack of radio reception perhaps but there are still a lot of things that don’t add up.

‘What happened to the others?’ I ask. ‘Where have they taken them? And where is Mary Jane?’

I do not get a reply. Instead, he raises his weapon once more. He uses it to point the way. Perhaps I am about to find out where the others have been taken. Or, is this all part of Leif Velasquez’s film? Are they still filming? You can perhaps never be sure if you are an extra.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved