Blackjack

blackjack

Blackjack by Chris Green

I open the front door to discover a large package on the doorstep. I did not hear anyone deliver it while I was getting ready to for work, or see anyone from the window. It’s huge. What can it be? I try to think of something I might have ordered. Something three feet by two that might warrant zebra-patterned wrapping. I can think of nothing I am expecting except a Keigo Higashino novel from Amazon and this would take up no room at all. More likely, it is something Promise has ordered. Promise is having a lie-in. It is her day off.

But, if for whatever reason we did not hear the courier, why has the package been left there in full view of the street and not taken back to the depot or deposited with a neighbour? I take a look at the address label. It is addressed to Darius Spayne. Him again. The Spaynes, Darius and Rosalind apparently, lived at our address previously, but not recently. The Spurlocks have lived here since then. And the Wilburys. The Spaynes must have moved out five years ago. We never found out who exactly they were or what their forwarding address was. Promise and I are occasionally reminded of their existence by a phone call asking for one or other of them. We have often thought that this in itself is strange as twice since we have been here we have changed our phone number.

The parcel has no return address nor does it appear to have a postmark. This suggests it must have been delivered by hand early this morning. Or possibly during the night. But why? As I continue to examine it, Stanislav Ruby from the black and white gabled house on the corner walks by carrying a fox. Perhaps it’s his dog but it looks like a fox. I call out to him and ask if he saw anyone arriving with the package. He mutters something about blackjack which I do not catch because at that moment my phone rings. I am instructed I need to get into work PDQ to handle an emergency. As I take the package inside, I can’t help but notice it is remarkably light. I shout upstairs to Promise that I have to dash and I am leaving it with her. I assume that she will deal with it but when I return home from a hard day at the research establishment, the package is still where I left it. What has Promise been doing all day?

‘I didn’t know what you wanted to do with it,’ she says.

‘Well, we may as well open it, don’t you think?’ I say.

‘Why is it so light?’

‘Let’s find out.’

Inside the large box is a smaller box, this wrapped in jungle-themed paper and inside of that one is another, this one in Mondrian print paper. We exchange looks of perplexity. What kind of bizarre pantomime is it that the Spaynes are involved in? Like a set of Russian dolls, each box reveals a smaller box, Sergeant Pepper album cover wrapping, Statue of Liberty paper wrapping, Psalm 23 wrapping, etc. until finally, ten minutes later, we arrive at the smallest one, a plain black box three inches by two. The box is empty. I shake it vigorously to make sure but nothing comes out. This surely is an elaborate prank but why? Who could possibly gain from it?

Empty the box may have been but as the evening wears on, inside of me the feeling grows that by opening it, a sinister force has somehow been unleashed. I know its irrational but I can’t rid myself of the unsettling sensation that the air around me has changed. Pins and needles creep up my spine. It feels as if there’s something other just out of sight. A demon gnawing at my consciousness. A slow train with an unmentionable cargo coming around the bend. I mention it to Promise and ask her if she feels anything. Has she noticed anything strange since …… since ….. the box? She denies that she has but I can sense that she feels that something is out of kilter too. She seems unable to concentrate on the plot of the Nordic noir we are watching on Netflix. Several times she has to ask me who one of the regular characters is. She doesn’t seem to realise that the private detective has arranged the abduction of the protagonist’s wife so he will need his services to find her.

The air of menace does not go away. Consecutive disturbing dreams keep me on edge through the night. Shadow dances of the kind you can never quite remember but nevertheless leave you terrified. Dark landscapes in which you are alone and lost. Vehicles out of control. Chilling reminders that something is wrong. Again and again, I wake in a cold sweat.

I finally get up at seven thirty. Promise seems to have already left the house. Sometimes she has to start work early. As you can imagine, hours can be unpredictable in the dizzy world of doily design. She probably realised I was having a restless night and didn’t want to wake me. While I am waiting for the kettle to boil, I take a look outside the front door. To my alarm, there is another package on the doorstep, albeit this time a smaller one. This one is matt black. It too is addressed to Darius Spayne. I go to pick it up but it is so heavy I cannot lift it. Although it can’t be more than six inches by four, it refuses to budge. Even if the contents were solid lead or even tungsten, it should not be so heavy. Rhonda Valée from number 27 saunters by trilling an aria from La Boheme. I ask if she noticed a courier struggling up the path to deliver my new parcel. She calls back something but I think it is in Welsh. Chick Strangler jogs past and I mention it to him. Annex J, he says without stopping. I’ve no idea what he’s talking about but then Chick has been a bit strange since his accident.

As I can do little about the black box at the moment, I decide to go to work and try to put it all from my mind. Things will work out. They always do. The Little Book of Mindfulness that Promise keeps by the side of the bed says it’s a question of positive thinking. I select Captain Beefheart’s Greatest Hits on my device and set off in the Seat. Crippling headaches plague me through the day but I somehow manage to weather the storm and arrive home in one piece at the usual time. The matt black parcel is still on the step and Promise is not yet home. I sometimes forget how demanding the cut-throat world of doily design can be. The competition these days is intense. It’s no longer a question of selecting a symmetrical pattern and a suitable substrate. But, when Promise hasn’t returned home by six thirty and her phone is switched off, I’m thinking there must have been an unforeseen glitch at the studio.

The phone call asking to speak to Mr Spayne comes as a surprise, more so as it is on my mobile. Previous calls for the Spaynes have all been on the landline.

”I’m sorry. This is not Mr Spayne’s number,’ I say.

‘Darius Spayne,’ the caller says, undeterred.

‘May I ask who is speaking?’ I say. I find it is always best to be polite at first. This offers options as to which way you wish the conversation can go. What I’m looking for from this particular caller, of course, is information about the Spaynes and hopefully the rogue deliveries. In this case, however, there are no options. The caller hangs up. They do not leave their number.

To distract myself while I am waiting for Promise, I do a little research on the internet. Spayne is a surprisingly common name. There are hundreds of them on the electoral register and although there are a few Darcys, Darrels and Darrens, there appears to be no-one named Darius Spayne. Nor is there a Rosalind Spayne. The pair do not appear to exist. So, what is going on?

I probably should have realised that the police don’t consider a person missing until they have been gone for seventy two hours. They will not even take details until then. Nor, Sergeant Ramsbottom tells me with an unwarranted air of impatience, do they deal with nuisance phone calls. It is with some reluctance that I decide to hire the services of Max Tooting, Private Investigator. But I feel that time is of the essence and Max comes recommended, not least by his flyer that comes through the door in the free paper which highlights Max’s astonishing success rate. I make an appointment to see him the following morning.

Although there is a black Jaguar XJ parked outside, I find Max Tooting’s offices are situated above a surgical appliance store. A little less salubrious than the flyer led me to believe. Tooting is a tall man, probably in his mid-fifties. He is dressed in a plaid suit that looks like it was made for a smaller man, perhaps a younger man. Unusual too, I can’t help thinking, to find a P.I. with blue hair. Max greets me warmly and shows me into a small room shielded from the outside world by a black roller blind. The room is lit by a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Hip-hop music is playing. Loudly. On a chunky wooden desk in front of us are a miscellany of desktop computers connected by a Spaghetti Junction of wires to a phalanx of peripherals. Max apologises for the mess and mentions something about this being a temporary location while he waits for his new premises to be decorated.

He sits me down amongst the clutter and clears a seat opposite. A lop-eared house rabbit nuzzles against his leg. He seems undeterred. I idly wonder what might happen if bunny chews through some of the cables.

Max turns the Jay-Z track down and begins to run through his fee structure. A little more expensive than the flyer led me to understand. He swallows a couple of Ibuprofen caps with a glass of water. At least, I think it’s water.

‘Bad back,’ he explains, straightening his posture. ‘Operation Desert Storm.’

Presumably, this was before he decided on the blue hair. I give him a brief low-down on my two issues. On the basis that it might be easier to solve, I then go into greater detail on the Darius Spayne phone calls and the bizarre deliveries.

‘H’mmm. Darius Spayne, you say,’ he says.

‘That’s S P A Y N E,’ I say.

‘Give me a moment,’ he says. ‘Let me just try something.’

He reaches over to one of the computers, keys in a search and in no time at all he has images of lots of different Darius Spaynes on the screen. Although his hardware looks to be old school, it clearly packs a punch.

‘How did you manage that?’ I say. ‘Google came up with nothing.’

‘This is what I do,’ he says. ‘I’m an investigator, remember. But, before we get carried away, there are fourteen of them and we don’t know which one it might be. It would be easier if there were just one.’

I suggest we leave this for now and move on. I elaborate on the heavy parcel on the doorstep.

‘Perhaps I should take a look,’ Max says. ‘Things are not always what they seem.’

I agree he should take a look, not least because it would be good to get some fresh air. It’s beginning to feel a little close in here.

‘We’ll go in your car, shall we?’ Max says.

‘OK,’ I say. ‘I’m parked around the corner in the High Street.’ Perhaps it is not his black Jaguar ouside after all.

As we move off, Max takes a small dispenser compact out of his pocket and pops two purple pills. ‘Malaria,’ he explains. ‘East Africa.’

We arrive at the house and see the ominous black package is still there. I tell him how I imagine it must contain some kind of heavy metal, possibly even a dangerous one. One of those with a long name you can never remember when you are watching quiz shows. Yet, without flinching, Max is able to lift the black box. He hands it to me. Instinctively I flinch as he does so. I am expecting it to floor me but I find it is indeed light as a feather. I am completely unable to explain this turnaround. What magic has Mad Max managed to perform right here under my nose? I feel embarrassed. I put the parcel down and it blows down the street on the breeze.

Max repeats his maxim, ‘things are not always what they seem. ……. Now, tell me about this other matter.’

As I tell him about Promise not returning home from Dolly’s Doilies, he plays distractedly with his phone. I am beginning to wonder if he is actually listening to me when the device lights up and starts vibrating loudly.

‘Promise is nearby,’ he says. He hands me the phone. On the screen, I see a selection of pictures of Promise captured in a number of different locations, none of which I recognise. Each of the images has a date and time. The latest seems to be a mere two hours ago.

‘What’s happening?’ I say. ‘How did you get these?’

‘I’m an investigator, remember’ he says. ‘I’m paid to uncover things.’

‘But how…….?’

‘If I told people my trade secrets, I would be out of business,’ he says. ‘No-one would come to me.’

‘So what now?’ I say. ‘Where is Promise now?’

‘So I take it you want me to stay on the case,’ Max says, reminding me once more of his fee structure.

It suddenly occurs to me that there might have been a black Jaguar in the most if not all of the pictures of Promise. Maybe the same black Jaguar that was parked outside Max’s office. Also, perhaps earlier Stanislav Ruby had not said blackjack but black Jag. And Chick Strangler had not said Annex J but an XJ.

I can’t remember exactly who it was that said it but I remember someone important insisting that there is only one reality.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

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Cats and Dogs

catsanddogs

Cats and Dogs by Chris Green

It hasn’t been a good Spring. I have spent most of it listening to birdsong on Birdsong FM because there hasn’t been any birdsong in the garden.

Every week when Sophie and I tune in to CountryWatch, they go on about global warming. March was the hottest on record and April was the hottest on record and last Sunday the weatherman with the Polish name tried to tell us that so far May has also been the hottest on record.

‘Not here, Tomasz,’ I told him. He could not hear me of course. He was in a studio miles away. On the Moon possibly.

I know that it has rained every day so far in May because I keep a diary and, looking at it, I can see that Sophie and I have not been able to get out for a walk in the country once. It has been so wet I have not even been able to go down to the allotment. When I drove past it on Monday, I noticed that the weeds were colossal.

There has not been a single day’s play at this year’s cricket festival and the tourists, having had to abandon their county fixture, are considering abandoning the whole tour. ‘

You can’t play cricket in a bloody climate like this,’ captain, Rick Sydney said in an interview on Radio Glanchester yesterday. ‘We’re off home, mate.’

He may not have been serious. He did seem to be three sheets to the wind. All that 4X, I guess.

According to John Bearcroft, the River Glan burst its banks last night and apparently there are boats going up and down the High Street. Fortunately, we live in Lofty Ridge, one of the higher points of the town. The roof is leaking a little in the back bedroom, but I think we should be all right for now. We’ve got a few bowls and buckets. If it keeps on raining the way it has, though, who knows what might happen?

Aunt Molly phones to ask about Sophie and little Riley. Not that Riley is little anymore. He’s nearly thirteen. Aunt Molly still thinks of him as if he were three. She phones every Wednesday. Aunt Molly lives on her own and she likes to have a bit of family news. Especially since Uncle Mitch passed away. I expect it gives her something to talk about at the church bring and buy or the hairdressers. I tell her that Sophie is lying down. She has a bit of a headache but otherwise, she is fine. Riley is a little sulky because, even though it’s cricket season, he does like his football and he hasn’t been able to get out to play.

‘I know,’ she says. ‘It’s sweltering, isn’t it? I’ve got the fans on upstairs and downstairs. It’s going to be forty degrees by the weekend, they say.’

This is strange. There’s no sign of a break in the cloud here yet, in fact, the rain is falling with a new intensity. Cats and dogs, as they say. And yet, Norcastle, where Aunt Molly lives is less than fifty miles away, in fact, as its name suggests, it’s north of here. I am about to mention this but Aunt Molly interrupts.

‘That’s beautiful birdsong I can hear,’ she says. ‘I expect you’re out in the garden, sitting under that lovely maple tree.’

‘No, Aunt Molly. We’re indoors,’ I say.

‘Are you really? On a day like this? That’s a shame. ….. Good Lord! Have you got birds in the house, David?’ she says. ‘Isn’t that a cuckoo?’

‘Oh, that’s just the radio,’ I say.

‘The radio?’

‘Well, it’s internet radio, Aunt Molly. There’s a station that broadcasts birdsong all day. I listen to it a lot.’

‘But you shouldn’t be indoors on a day like this, David,’ she says.

It is beginning to dawn on me that Glanchester seems to have developed its own micro-climate. I suspect something is very wrong, but I don’t want to worry Aunt Molly. She had a stroke last year. It was touch and go for a while.

‘I’ve got to go now,’ I say. ‘There’s someone at the door.’

I take a look on the BBC weather site, something that I have avoided doing lately. I can see why. It’s hopelessly inaccurate. There is absolutely no mention of rain here in Glanchester, or in neighbouring Starborough. Not a single black cloud on the graphic. It’s blanket sunshine all day every day for the foreseeable future with light winds and projected temperatures similar to those reported by Aunt Molly.

You can find almost anything out on the internet. All manner of information is there at your fingertips. You can find out how many Seventh Day Adventists there are in Tuvalu. You can find out what Beyoncé had for breakfast. You can find out what Prince Phillip’s favourite sea shanty is. But, I cannot for the life of me find out what is happening to the weather in Glanchester. I search on all the major browsers using a dictionary of different search terms but there is quite simply no reference to anything untoward. It is supposed to be hot and sunny here.

I rattle the old grey matter around to try and come up with a rational explanation. Are scientists cloud seeding perhaps? I recall the Kate Bush video for her song, Cloudbusting, with Donald Sutherland, based on Wilhelm Reich’s revolutionary device. The cloudbuster consisted of a set of hollow tubes pointed to the sky which were earthed by a body of water. It drew the orgone energy out of the atmosphere. OK. Perhaps, a bit of a longshot. What about the biblical flood and Noah’s Ark. Are Smetterton Studios maybe doing an extravagant present-day remake of the doctrinal epic here in Glanchester?

Riley comes into the room, interrupting my speculation. No school today. It is flooded. He is wearing a sweatshirt that says I’d Rather Be Sleeping. Better than the I Hate Everyone one he was wearing before, I suppose.

‘When’s Mum going to get up?’ he says, looking up briefly from his phone.

‘I don’t know, Riley,’ I say. ‘Your mother has a headache.’

‘I’m not surprised she has a headache,’ he says. ‘Can’t you turn that awful row off?’

‘That awful row, Riley, is birdsong,’ I say ‘It’s therapeutic.’

‘It’s what?’

‘Oh never mind.’

‘I was going to ask her to give me a lift over to Axel’s. Perhaps you can take me.’

‘I’m busy, Riley.’

‘Can Axel come over here then, Dad. He’s got some cool new apps on his phone. There’s this one that ……’

‘Not now, Riley. Oh! Go on, then! Tell him to come over, if you like.’

I take Sophie up a cup of herbal tea and ask her how she is feeling. She has the television on and is watching the Chelsea Flower Show on catch-up. A succession of royals and celebrities are paraded before the cameras. It seems that this is now the focus of the TV coverage of the event with just the occasional glimpse of a garden or a flower or two to suggest a modicum of authenticity.

‘It’s baking hot here in West London,’ says the presenter with the plum in her mouth.

‘But the celebrities are out in their droves,’ says the presenter from the other side of the tracks. It is the wrong expression, of course, but you can’t help thinking she is right. They are a little like cattle, herded around to put on a show wherever they are needed to promote the well-to-do club.

‘Some of the plants might be wilting but the tropical plants here are in their element,’ says the presenter with the dark linen suit, trying it seems to get the narrative back to horticulture.

‘Any better, darling?’ I ask.

‘A little,’ says Sophie. ‘But I’m not getting up until the rain stops. Look at the sunshine there in London. The presenter with the gaudy floral twin-set says it is going to be 41 degrees tomorrow, I suppose that’s today or was it yesterday. It’s hard to tell where you are with this catch-up TV. But, look at it here. I can’t remember when we last saw the sun. What’s happening, David?’

‘I don’t know, sweetest, but whatever is happening is not supposed to be happening. It’s very worrying.’

‘Can’t you phone your friend, Darwin? He’s some kind of scientist. He might know.’

‘Darwin is an opthalmologist, petal. He only knows about eyes.’

‘What’s Riley up to? He’s very quiet.’

‘He’s doing something on his phone.’

‘Isn’t he always?’

‘I said he could have Axel round. He’ll be over shortly.’

‘Axel. H’mm, Axel. He’s the one with the new phone, isn’t he? 6G or whatever it is. He was showing me some things on it last week. It’s amazing what they can do with smartphones these days, isn’t it, lover? Axel had this app on there that could change the colour of the sky. I don’t imagine it could really change the colour of the sky, it was probably some trick of the light, but then again you never know. I expect they’ll come up with an app that can change the weather soon.’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Dog Gone

doggone2

DOG GONE by Chris Green

It is Friday evening. Zoot has gone out with his friends and Stacey and I have the house to ourselves. Outside there is the kind of persistent drizzle you often get at the end of a working week, when you feel you’d like to go for a walk on the hill. Not that we go for a walk on the hill that often since the dog died. Once in a while if the mood takes us we shuffle down to The Belted Galloway and sit in the garden, which gives us a pretty good view of the common. We agree this is about the right amount of exercise, probably a mile there and back. We did talk about joining the gym, but we’ve decided to put it on hold for now. I might get the bikes out of the shed instead, once Man with a Van has collected the old mattresses left over from the car boot. Then we will be able to go a little further afield, perhaps as far as The Pallbearers Arms.

While we are waiting for a break in the drizzle, we are watching a documentary on Channel 5 about obesity in Hull taxi drivers. There seems to be very little on in the seven o’clock slot to entertain us these days. We had to give up the soaps because we weren’t getting anything done.

What’s the date?’ I ask Stacey. The linking of taxi drivers’ obesity with road accidents is jogging my memory.

May 26th,’ she says.

Oh shit! I think Geoff said he was going to kill himself round about now. When we spoke, he said if Abi wasn’t back in two weeks, he was going to end it. …….. Or was it three weeks. …… I’m sure he said the 26th.’

‘When did he phone?’

‘I’m not sure. I thought I’d get the chance to check him out before he did it, but with Gnarls having to be put down, it just slipped my mind.’

You’d better ring him then,’ says Stacey, taking a large pull on her brown ale.

Although she has never said as much, I get the impression that Stacey is not keen on Geoff, even though she has never actually met him. ‘Your friend Geoff called she will say if she comes home to find he has left a message on the answerphone, in the same tone she might use if it was Harold Shipman that had called, or the Yorkshire Ripper.

As the dialler is ringing, I try to piece together Geoff’s distressed phonecall. Abi had left him for a Bulgarian plastics entrepreneur and he had lost his job at the fishing tackle museum. He was anxious about the bank repossessing his house and was being driven mad by the round the clock drum and bass music from his neighbours. His doctor had put him on anti-depressants but the anti part seemed not to be working. And to cap it all his ulcer had flared up again. He could take no more.

‘Hang on,’ I had said, ‘I’ll give you a list of things worth living for. Pick any letter.’

‘B’ he had said.’

‘OK. The Beach Boys, Breaking Bad, big boobs, barbecues, BB King …….’

‘He was dismissive of all my suggestions, even big boobs. They got in the way he said. He ranted on for a bit and said he would give Abi two weeks, or was it three weeks, and if she wasn’t back, he was going to run his car into the side of a truck. Not any old truck mind you, he had one particular truck lined up. A DHL Iveco Stralis, I seem to recall. If I were so inclined, this is not the way I would want to do it. An overdose or a lethal injection would be much more comfortable. But Geoff seemed to be quite determined about the collision and always one to concentrate on the detail; as well as the vehicle, he had worked out a date and time.

‘There are a lot of self help sites on the internet,’ I had said.

He said he could not connect to the Internet since he had installed CheapNet. I remember feeling a little guilty that I had recommended CheapNet. Since I suggested it however, we have had nothing but problems with Cheapnet. I finally cancelled our contract with them just two days ago, having become exasperated by the slowness of the connection and the language barrier when dealing with their helpline in Turkmenistan. Now we are with FreeSurf, which of course is not free but it does seem quite speedy.

At the time, I did not take Geoff’s suicide threat too seriously, but perhaps I should have. His phone is ringing. He is not picking up. Am I too late?

I think I ought to go round to see if things are …… all right,’ I say to Stacey, who has finished her brown ale and is now opening a bottle of advocaat. I have to admit that I have no idea what I will do if things are not all right.

I get the Proton out of the garage, tie the front bumper back on and set off, wondering if I am over the limit. True, Stacey drank the lion’s share of the Belgian cider earlier, but there is always that risk. Geoff’s place is about fifteen miles away, so just in case any police might think a brown P Reg Proton with no front number plate, a dent in the side and the bumper hanging off looks suspicious, I decide to go the back way.

The Proton coughs and splutters as it makes its way up Prospect Hill. At the summit, perhaps summit is an extravagant description for a rise of a hundred feet, a Bradley Wiggins lookalike in rain drenched day-glo lycra eases past me. The Proton coughs and splutters as it makes its way down Prospect Hill. Its days are numbered. I have seen a lovely little Daewoo for sale, but what with the extra hours I have been working at the balloon repair workshop and Zoot’s problems with his Maths teacher, I have not had chance to look at it. I resolve to make time over the weekend.

20% OFF SNAKES, announces a sign outside Ashoka’s, the new store on the roundabout. I make a mental to note to check if we need one. Perhaps it hadn’t said snakes, but you never know. I have heard that Ashoka’s sells just about everything. Someone at work bought an Alan Titchmarsh garden gnome there. They have a whole range apparently, Monty Don, Diarmud Gavin, even Percy Thrower. BUY ONE GET ONE FREE, says another sign, although I cannot make out what this is for. Inflatable Buddhas, perhaps.

I have to wait at the temporary traffic lights in Badgeworthy Lane where they are rebuilding the railway bridge. The lights have been there for months, if not years. How hard is it to strengthen a bridge? I try to get something on the radio to distract me. There is a choice between George Osborne’s Desert Island Discs, a dour orchestral piece by Brahms, or a discussion on downsizing. I switch it off. We were forced to downsize a year ago when Stacey’s eldest, Irie, moved in with Mojo. Irie’s money from her job at Morrisons had helped keep us afloat. It does not seem likely that Zoot will ever pass his GCSEs let alone be in a position to leave home. But perhaps I am being a little unfair. He is only seventeen.

The lights change and I drive on. The Proton seems to run along nicely so long as I stay in third gear and use the wipers sparingly. ‘ALL NIGHT HAPPY HOUR,’ says the sign outside The Bucket of Eels. I remember that Geoff and I used to play skittles there years ago. When it was a real pub, with a choice of twenty real ales, with expressive names like Feck’s Original and Old Badger. Before it was taken over by Wicked Inns. The year Geoff and I were on the team, The Bucket nearly won the County Skittles League, losing narrowly to The Pig in a Poke in the final match. Admittedly the season was quite short that particular year as only four pubs entered, but we were proud of our achievement.

In the four years I have been with Stacey, I have only seen Geoff two or three times. There is a tendency to neglect old friendships when you are in a relationship. Geoff and I speak on the phone occasionally and agree to go to the dogs or go fishing but something always comes up. In fact, it is probably ten years since we went to the dogs, and nearly as long since we went fishing. What a strange contrivance time is. It does not seem to follow a linear course, certainly not when viewed retrospectively. The memory constantly plays tricks. On the one hand Geoff’s cry for help phonecall, if that is what it was, seems like it had happened months ago. Could it have really been only two or three weeks? On the other hand it seems only last year that Geoff and I went boating in France to celebrate his forty fifth birthday, and my divorce from Denni. But now Geoff is fifty one or perhaps it is fifty two, as he is two years older than me. The folding of time, the inability to identify the correct order of events relative to one another is something that becomes more worrying with age. Temporal confusion will presumably happen more and more with each passing year. I will have to accept it, along with receding gums and decreasing libido. I am dreading being fifty. This is only a few months away. Fifty is a watershed. Did hitting fifty mark the beginning of Geoff’s decline, I wonder?

Even if one should feel the inclination to end it, there are the ethical implications to overcome. Committing suicide is in western culture regarded as a crime and in Christianity a mortal sin. Not that Geoff was particularly religious, but he had been brought up as a Catholic. I try to speculate how suicide might this affect one’s life after death status? Because you are in essence taking a life, do you go to hell? Purgatory? Are you perhaps allocated a shabby damp basement in Rotherham with fifties furniture, a shared kitchen and the lingering smell of yesterday’s cabbage?

My mobile rings, breaking me out of my reverie. Perhaps Geoff has got the number and is phoning me back. Why do I always put the thing on the passenger seat? Now it has fallen down the side. I have to pull over to retrieve it. It is not Geoff, but Stacey asking if I can pick up some eggs, and if I pass an off license, a bottle of ouzo. I tell her I will look out for a farm shop, but it is unlikely that they will sell ouzo. ‘Pernod will do,’ she says. ‘Just a small bottle.’

Before Gnarls was put down, Stacey would buy a bottle of Lambrusco with the shopping and this would last her a week. Gnarls was a sweet dog. He was a cocker spaniel retriever cross. He was just seven years old. An inoperable tumour. His passing has affected Stacey badly. She has all his doggy toys lined up on the mantelpiece and she keeps getting his basket out from under the stairs. Last week I got home to find her cuddling his blanket.

I arrive at Geoff’s, having passed nowhere that sells comestibles. The Proton retches and rattles as I bring it to a stop outside the house. I notice immediately with a degree of alarm that there is an estate agents board in the front garden. ‘SOLD,’ it says by Wilson and Love. Has it been more than three weeks since Geoff’s phonecall? Why didn’t I phone back sooner? Maybe there would have been something I could have done. My heart racing, I get out of the Proton and look around. There is no car on the drive. Is Geoff at this very moment ramming it into the side of the truck? The yard is tidier than I remember it. There are no dismantled motorcycles. And where are the geese? Maybe I have got the date wrong and it was May 16th or something and things have moved on. I fear the worst. I feel sick in my stomach. There is an eerie silence. No hint of the neighbours’ drum and bass music.

Not sure exactly what I am expecting to discover, I sidle gingerly over to look in the front window. A translucent waxy green film is forming on some of the bricks around the front door. I remember in an earlier conversation Geoff referring to this. In his paranoia he wondered if it might be radioactive. Perhaps Geoff had been on the slide for a while and I had failed to notice.

At this moment a blue Seat with tinted windows approaches and pulls in. Out step Geoff and Abi looking fit and tanned.

Hello Al,’ says Geoff, striding over to shake my hand.’ Long time. What are you doing out here?’

I am lost for words. Eventually I mutter something about the phonecall, three weeks ago. ‘I thought I might have been too late’

Have you started smoking the wacky-baccy again, Al? What phonecall? Anyway, three weeks ago Abi and I were in Dubai. Had a brilliant time as it happened. Magnificent architecture! You should go. Tell you what Al; I think that our life is starting to take off. When Abi and I got back from Dubai, we found we’d had a big win on the premium bonds and decided we would sell up. Fantastic, eh? House was on the market for less than twelve hours and we got a cash buyer offering the full asking price. What about that? From Bulgaria he is, some sort of entrepreneur.’

I am flabbergasted.

Good thing you caught us. We’re moving next week. Anyway, how are you, must be six months at least. You better come in and have a drink.’

Fine,’ I say. ‘Just a little bit shell shocked.’

Last time we spoke you sounded pretty desperate,’ says Geoff. ‘I was quite worried about you. Thought you might do something silly. The bank didn’t repossess your house in the end I take it.’

I kept saying that Geoff should phone you to make sure you were all right,’ says Abi.

No really. I’m fine,’ I say.

And how’s Stacey?’ says Geoff. Although he has never met her I have formed the impression that Geoff in some way disapproves of Stacey.

I stay and have a beer with Geoff and Abi while they show me a Videospin film that Geoff has put together consisting of photos of staggering post-modern skyscrapers.

‘Those are the Dubai Emirates Towers, that’s the Burj Al Arab Hotel, and that is the Etisalat building.’

These are punctuated with photos of dramatic mosaics and water features from the Dubai marina. He has even dug out some authentic oud music for the soundtrack. I feel it is a little self-indulgent of him, and I don’t imagine that they really listen to a lot of oud music in Dubai these days, but I am relieved Geoff is in good spirits. At the same time I am confused. I can think of no explanation for the misunderstanding and Geoff offers none except that I seem to have been overdoing it lately. As soon as it seems courteous to do so I bid my leave.

I decide to drive back along the dual carriageway. It is late. There will not be any police on the roads at this time of night. I am making good progress and have just passed the Crossroads Motel when the phone rings. It is Stacey. She sounds excited, but before I can make out what she is trying to tell me the line goes dead. Probably my battery. I keep forgetting to charge it. Whatever it is will have to wait. Up ahead a blanket of flashing blue lights lights up the sky. As I draw closer, acutely aware that an old car doing forty in third might seem a bit conspicuous, I see that there has been an accident and that all the emergency services are in attendance. A car has driven in to the side of a truck. A DHL Iveco Stralis. My mind races. What on earth is going on? Why is there so much strangeness in my life?

When I get home Stacey is still up. She has found a bottle of home made fig schnapps and is watching Celebrity Big Brother. Ayman al-Zawahiri has just been evicted, which leaves Paul Gascoigne, Katie Price and Stephen Hawking in the house.

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

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved