No Dark Side of the Moon

No Dark Side of the Moon by Chris Green

Don’t blow in a bear’s ear.’ the stranger in the Astrakhan coat says, as he passes me on October Avenue.

I am puzzled. Does he not realise there are no bears in these parts? The nearest thing to a bear is the Sonny Liston lookalike who works at Gary Geary’s garage, and there is no way I am going anywhere near him anytime soon. His stare is enough to floor you, not to mention the prospect of this hulk of a man coming towards you bearing a spider wrench. I always get my repairs done at Floyd’s Motors on the industrial estate. They are more friendly there.  

The stranger turns around and comes after me. ‘The bear and the bear hunter have different opinions,’ he calls out.

I pick up my pace to put distance between us. I have better things to do than listen to some wacko banging on about bears. I have to be at my Tai Chi class at six. I have ten minutes, and I have to stop at the ATM outside the SPAR on the way. We have to pay for our lessons weekly, and Yin Yan only takes cash. Yin has not been in the country long and has yet to get to grips with the British banking system. 

My partner, Emily, feels Yin is a fraud. She doesn’t recognise any of the routines he has me practice at home. She tells me I ought to join her Yoga class instead to help me relax. But it seems to me, there is more to Yoga than breathing and being present. There’s all the bending and stretching. I don’t feel my limbs are supple enough to cope with all the contortions this requires. Although she keeps mentioning it, surely Emily doesn’t believe there is anything going on between me and Freya in the Tai Chi class and that this is the reason I am so keen to attend. Admittedly Freya is a stunner, but I’m old enough to be her father. And with a busy subliminal message consultation service to run, how does she imagine I could find the time to conduct an extramarital affair? Emily picked up on a Freudian slip I made when I referred to the Pink Floyd album, Wish You Were Here as Wish You Were Her and she hasn’t let it go. It could of course be a double bluff, and Emily is having an affair with someone in her Yoga class. Rick perhaps, or Roger. She keeps talking about how accomplished these two are. Or it could be a double-double bluff and she realises this is what I will think she is having an affair so I will elect to join the class. It’s hard to read women’s thoughts. I came across a meme which said that even the condensed edition of A Guide to Women’s Logic would run to hundreds of pages, while the expanded edition of What Men Understand about Women would be a very short book.

To live with wolves, you have to howl like a wolf,’ the man in the Astrakhan coat yells as I come out of the community centre after my class. He moves in closer. His pock-marked face and black eyepatch make him appear more menacing than he did earlier. Where is Emily? She was supposed to pick me up in the car, but it seems to have slipped her mind. My call goes to voicemail, so I start to make my way homeward on foot. The madman follows. I tell him to bugger off. He takes no notice. 

I wouldn’t normally frequent The Purple Parrot. When it was The Rose and Crown. I sometimes took our dog, Elvis, in there. In an attempt to lose my pursuer, I dive in there now, hoping for a refreshing pint of Pedigree. It turns out that The Purple Parrot does not serve draught beer. Surely a pub has to serve a proper pint to call itself a pub. What has happened to the place? Is it a case of change for change’s sake? The Rose and Crown used to be a great pub. Friendly crowd of people. Good selection of ales. It was a thriving business. 

By contrast, The Purple Parrot is nearly empty and the few that are there seem to want to keep themselves to themselves. The one in the pink jumpsuit with the tri-coloured cocktail looks across at me suspiciously, but he seems harmless. At least the nutcase has not followed me in here. As I sip my outrageously priced Belgian Pilsner, my phone rings. It is Emily. She apologises for not picking me up earlier. Her meeting went on longer than planned. She says she will come and collect me now. I keep an eye out for the car and when she arrives, manage to dodge the weirdo waiting outside. I explain what has been happening. Emily feels that as usual I am over-reacting. 

Oddballs are everywhere,’ she says. ‘It’s a sign of the times. You should get used to it, Syd. And just because he wears an eyepatch, doesn’t make him dangerous.’

I can’t help thinking Emily’s dress is low cut for a logistics and stock control office meeting, and she looks a little dishevelled, but I say nothing. I do not want her to think I am becoming paranoid again.

At home, I ask Alexa who the man in the Astrakhan coat is, and she tells me he is Blofeld. I think this is improbable, not least because Blofeld is fictional. But these days, who knows? Nothing has any meaning anymore. The boundaries between reality and fiction have become blurred. You can’t rely on anything these days. We are bombarded with contradictory information day and night through advertising, the news media, Twitter and Facebook, Alexa, the graffiti on the underpass, and the know-all behind us at the supermarket checkout. Conflicting narratives, many of them unfamiliar or just plain weird fight for a place in our consciousness. Each idea tries to pass itself off as common-sense, helpful or normal. No longer sure what to believe, we enter a state of cognitive dissonance. 

A number of unlikely phenomena have come to my attention lately. I read that abandoned mobile phones communicate with each other. How weird is that? Near the Equator, the sun sets twice on alternate Sundays. Atlantis has risen from the deep, and it is not where we expected to find. Researchers have discovered that paradox-free time travel is possible. You could now in theory go back in time, kill your own grandfather, and still exist. As Picasso said, everything you can imagine is real. Science, after all, is only magic that works. We are all made out of stars, and there is no dark side of the Moon.


© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Me and My Shadow

 

Me and My Shadow by Chris Green

The late October greyness means the beach is deserted. Now the season has ended, the beach-hut owners have shut up shop for the winter. Row upon row of these bijou coastal retreats stand empty. Many have security shutters down or are boarded up and padlocked. Perhaps it is too early, but not even the dog-walkers are out on the beach this morning. The silence is palpable. Miles and miles of sand and shingle are disturbed only by parcels of oystercatchers making the most of the retreating tide. Sara and I enjoy walking along this stretch on mornings like this when it is quiet. It acts as a meditation. It gives us the chance to reflect, and we can gather buckets of seaweed for the garden without it attracting too much attention. Seaweed is great for growing gourds.

We have never heard a gunshot in these parts before, so at first, we assume there must be another explanation for the loud retort that echoes around the bay. We see no reason why it should make any difference to our enjoyment of our lovely morning stroll. But then, up ahead behind a clump of rock, we see a figure lying face down in the sand. He does not appear to be moving. As we get closer, we see he is drenched in blood. It has soaked through his quilted lumberjack-checked shirt.

He’s been shot,’ we say simultaneously, this after a short delay in which we search for a more plausible explanation for his predicament. Something less savage than being gunned down. After all, this is not the penultimate episode of an Australian crime noir on Netflix, this is the sleepy English coast on a Sunday morning in real-time. How can the shooting have happened here? Worse, how can it have happened in plain sight without us seeing it? Did the shot come from the boat that is now speeding away? Where did the boat appear from? Why hadn’t we noticed it before now? Or see who may have boarded it? Was it in the bay all along? Or did the shot come from inland? There are plenty of places in amongst the clumps of trees where a gunman could conceal himself.

We’d better see if he’s still alive,’ Sara says, just as I am considering how best we can conceal ourselves in case we are next on the hitman’s list. Doesn’t she understand how these things work? If we are potential witnesses to the incident, then we will also be potential targets for the perpetrators.

Despite my reservations, my humanity gets the better of me. I help Sara turn the man over.

Be careful, Sean!’ she says. ‘We don’t know what damage moving him might do.’

We discover that although he has lost a lot of blood, he is still breathing. I don’t know that much about anatomy, but the bullet appears to have gone straight through him. In through the front and out at the back. Is that even possible?

I’ll call an ambulance,’ Sara says, as she tries to staunch the flow of blood. ‘They should be able to land an air ambulance somewhere around here.’

Better get the police too,’ I say.

Same number, isn’t it?’ Sara says.

Emergency numbers are not as straightforward as they used to be. Sara is put on hold while they try to find someone who can deal with her enquiry on a Sunday morning. Meanwhile, it occurs to me that the poor fellow we are trying to help looks oddly familiar. It takes me a few moments to realise where I’ve seen him before. He works at the shadow repair centre in the indoor market. He is a licensed shadow surgeon. He tailors people’s shadows and silhouettes. I come across him now and again when I pop down to the flag exchange in the market to get a new flag for the mast in the front garden. I think he must have separate premises where he does the surgery. As I recall, his name is Eddie.

Shadows have been in the news lately. Do we still need them? The Shadow Reform lobby group wants to do away with them once and for all, and apparently they are becoming a powerful force. Perhaps they have changed their tactics and upped their degree of militancy. Perhaps the attempted killing here is connected to their campaign. But surely these people are nothing more than narrow-minded reactionaries or misguided fools. Shadows are vital to inter-personal communication. Studies published in both medical journals and the liberal press have consistently shown that shadows also make a significant contribution to self-esteem. With the onset of winter, it is important to make sure your shadow looks good. On a crisp winter’s day, with the sun low in the sky, there is nothing so dispiriting than a sad-looking shadow. An ill-fitting one with the wrong proportions. Or worse still, no shadow at all.

Eddie recovers sufficiently to utter a few words. He doesn’t know who shot him, he says, or where the shot came from. But he has received death threats recently. He is clearly very weak. Fortunately, within minutes, the air ambulance arrives. Working quickly, the paramedics bandage him up, give him injections and take him away to St Thomas Hospital in Highton. The police response is markedly slower. Detective Inspector Gaffer and his sidekick, D.C. Newby, call on us shortly before lunch the next day.

Mr and Mrs Alexander, isn’t it?’ D.I. Gaffer says, reading from his handheld device. ‘Let’s see what we’ve got. Edward Rosso, aged thirty-eight, works at Highton market, shot we believe with a high velocity rifle at Mudsea beach yesterday. We have the two of you down as the only witnesses.’

Should we be thankful that we are not suspects?’ I say, cynically. ‘But if we were, I imagine you would have been around yesterday, with the caution and the cuffs. Even if it was a Sunday.’

OK! OK! I take the point, Mr Alexander,’ Gaffer says. ‘But we are here now. What can you tell us about the incident?’

Not very much,’ I say. ‘It all happened so quickly.’

We know that Mr Trimmer has had threats on his life,’ Newby says. ‘He reported these to us a week or two ago.’

Did you not follow these leads up?’ Sara says.

The threats were anonymous, Mrs Alexander,’ Gaffer says. ‘Added to which, BCU only passed the information on to us the day before yesterday. What we have determined though is that a substantial body of people do not approve of Eddie Rosso’s line of work.’

He’s a shadow surgeon,’ Newby adds. ‘Whatever this is.’

But sadly, that’s all we have to go on,’ Gaffer says.

I choose not to tell them that when I go to the market to buy my flags, if he is around, I pass the time of day with Eddie. This would only complicate matters. I know Gaffer and his oppo are only doing their job, but nothing I say about any conversations Eddie and I might have had is going to shed any light on who shot him. I tell them we saw a boat leaving the scene, but I know nothing about boats so there’s nothing I can add to this. It was blue and white, or was it red and cream? It wasn’t the sort of boat that had a sail. Eventually the detectives lose interest and we get away with giving brief statements. With the usual, if you think of anything else that might help, they take their leave. I ask Sara if she could phone the hospital to check on Eddie’s progress. But I feel our lives will be simpler if we try to put the matter behind us.

.…………………………………..


In the days that follow, we hear reports of other isolated shootings that might be connected to shadow abolitionist groups. Concern begins to grow in the press about their activities. They are perhaps affiliated to home grown far-right terrorist organisations. The Daily Mail though shows sympathy with the group, and questions whether in this day and age shadows are needed. Were they ever needed, asks the Express editorial, taking it a step further? We also notice one or two reports about people unexpectedly losing their shadows. It’s possible that stories like this have been circulating for a while, but we have had no reason to notice them until now. Some people think it’s primarily psychological, but these are principally psychologists. There is a suggestion on Spiked-Online that losing one’s shadow might be down to evolution, and eventually we will all lose our shadows. But the overriding view of the phenomenon from within the scientific community is one of scepticism. In these days of fake news, charlatans abound.

Sara and I are walking side by side through the grassy meadow near the Iron Age hill-fort. As we are trying to get our lives back on an even keel, we have decided to avoid Mudsea beach for the time being. We are fortunate that we have a choice of picturesque countryside close by for our Sunday morning walks. Autumn leaves on distant trees with shades of yellow, gold, orange and red add a touch of drama to the landscape. A gentle breeze blows from the south-west and the sun is low in the sky. Not bad conditions for the beginning of November.

Sara spots it first. Her long dark shadow stretches out proudly in front of her. By contrast, I have no shadow. She lets out a scream. As she grabs my arm to point this out to me, I can see she is horror stricken. But this is nothing compared to how I feel as I become aware of my loss. Until you find you have no shadow, you can’t possibly imagine how devastating it feels to lose it. It is like losing a limb. It is worse than losing a limb. At least you know what you have lost when you lose a limb, losing your shadow is uncharted territory. At first I don’t accept it. How can it have happened? There must be a mistake. All of that talk about people losing their shadows was surely nothing more than talk. Those reports in the papers were not to be taken seriously. This is the real here and now. It’s a misunderstanding. It’s a trick of the light, maybe. There has to be a rational explanation.

None is forthcoming. Sara’s shadow remains intact, but mine is not there. I no longer have a shadow. Sara is often more level-headed than I am in difficult situations. She offers to find out if Eddie is out of hospital. If he is, she will see if he has any ideas about what has happened and what can be done about it. Perhaps he knows an easy way to get a shadow back.

Eddie thanks us for saving his life. If there’s anything he can do, he says. In answer to my query, he explains that shadow recovery isn’t an exact science. It is a little like reverse engineering. It’s a step-by-step experiment. Every case is different. Trial and error, suck it and see. Apart from the physical, there is also a psychological element. I’m not sure what he means by this. Is he referring to shadow in the Jungian sense? But there’s no need for me to pursue it. I have to trust his judgement. If he is unable to reconstruct my original shadow, he says, he should be able to cobble something together. As soon as he is up and about again, he will do his best.

.…………………………………..

As Sara and I stroll along the coastal path in the January sunshine, my new shadow is on display for all to see. It is remarkable what a skilled technician can achieve. Eddie has pulled out all the stops. I am, of course, sworn to secrecy as to how he does it, but he has recovered my shadow. If you were to look at it too closely, you might spot that is not completely symmetrical. And it is perhaps a little broader than my original one. But, if anyone should draw attention to this, I could put it down to festive overindulgence. But these are minor imperfections. I am just thankful to once more have a shadow.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Lenticular Clouds

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lenticular Clouds by Chris Green

Lenticular clouds hang over Mount Dante in the distance. Disc-shaped and silver, they have an air of the surreal about them. You expect clouds to move across the sky with the wind, but these are stationary. Here in the town below, the inhabitants are in the midst of a heatwave. It has been searingly hot for two weeks now. Chet wishes the clouds would come over and deposit their load. His friend, Raul tells him they will not come this way. Lenticular clouds are only there because of the mountain. They could stay in place for days, hovering. They will gradually morph as the air currents push them towards the troposphere. Raul knows about weather. Before his accident, he used to be a pilot. He says they can expect another two weeks of this heat. With high pressure systems like this, rain-bearing clouds do not form, he says. There is not even a hint of a breeze. Chet wishes he were by the coast. Being landlocked in a heatwave is the worst.

Before the battery went flat, the weather app on Chet’s phone showed 44 degrees Celsius. He cannot charge the phone now. There has been no power in the town for seventy-two hours. There has been no explanation for the outage. There was talk of it being a terrorist attack, but why would terrorists target a backwater like this. News travels slowly in these parts. Rumours abound instead. The next town is forty miles away. Conditions were bad enough before the power went off, but if you had air conditioning you could stay indoors. If you did not, you could, at least, circulate the hot air with a barrage of fans. Chet did not have air conditioning and by the time he got round to thinking about fans, the stores had all sold out. He could have perhaps eaten humble pie and gone back to his parents, but anyway, it doesn’t matter now. Not even they with all their resources will have any protection against the interminable heat. A little discomfort will do them good, he reckons. What they did was unforgivable. He is better off staying with Raul. The accommodation may be basic, a collection of shacks tacked on to one another, with the occasional rat scurrying around, but the company is good.

The town has ground to a halt. The tar on the roads is turning to liquid. The air smells of creosote. Cracks are appearing in the concrete of buildings. The river bed has dried up. Blue-green algae have formed on the town’s swimming pool. There are warning notices posted outside. The water smells awful. Food is rotting in overflowing waste bins and on the streets. Everywhere is closed. No-one is going anywhere. Buses are no longer running and petrol stations are closed. The nearest airport is over a hundred miles away near the border, and the coast is the same distance in the other direction. Banks, offices and schools are closed. Even Bashir’s convenience store which is open 24/7 is closed. The hospital is closed and rumour has it that dozens are dying daily from the effects of the extreme heat. There is no way to confirm these rumours. Stores are being looted. Chet wonders how anyone can summon up the energy to loot. This would not be a prime pillaging place at the best of times.

Chet sits in the shade beneath a wilting zelkova tree on a lone patch of grass that the blistering heat has spared. He is decked out in shorts and flip flops. He has taken his CoolDude t-shirt off and is wearing it like a bandana. He is trying to read a book about the stars that Raul has lent him. Since the lenticular clouds appeared he has taken an interest in the sky. He finds he cannot concentrate on the book. The heavens are a celestial smorgasbord of byzantine complexity. It is too hot for long words to sink in. He puts the book down.

She appears as a mirage. She comes out of the sun in a thin white silk dress. Chet has never seen her before. He would remember. This is not a large town. There are perhaps five thousand people living here. He has never seen anyone like this before. She is stunning. She approaches him. She has a waterfall of obsidian hair and skin like porcelain. She has a smile like springtime. Her eyes are deep brown and look like they are made out of glass. How does she manage to look so cool in the sweltering heat? She looks as if she has stepped out of an ice cream parlour.

She puts her finger up to her lips in a gesture to signify that she requires silence for her mission. Chet is lost for words anyway. Where could he begin? She takes his hand and leads him off as if they were familiar lovers. With clandestine stealth, she bypasses the main square and the roads leading off it, through a series of narrow winding streets and labyrinthine alleys. He does not know where they are. Although it is a small town, he has not been this way before. It seems abandoned. Many of the buildings are falling apart. They arrive at a small white town-house. It is entirely in the shade. It is noticeably cooler. The sun never reaches these parts. They enter through a stuccoed courtyard. Chet finds they are in a small shuttered room, with ethnic tapestries hung on the walls. They are on a soft bed with brightly coloured linen. She draws him towards her and kisses him passionately. It is not until after they have made love that the silence is broken when his vision speaks softly to him in a language that he does not understand. To Chet, this is a small matter. Conversational consonance cannot compare to the poetry of the senses. For now, he’s going to stay.

Chet wakes with a start. He is disorientated. The room is dark and unfamiliar. There are slatted shutters on the windows but no light is coming through. It must be night-time, he decides. He is alone. He is naked. He is lying on a dishevelled bed. He cannot remember how he came to be here but he has had the most erotic dream. He is all sticky from the emission. He cannot find any clothes. Where are his clothes? There is no power for the light, so he stumbles around in the darkness. He finds the door is locked. It feels like quite a flimsy door, but he cannot move it. It must be strengthened with something to keep it firm. He is trapped. His mouth is dry. He is incredibly thirsty. A sense of panic mixed with despair rises in him. He listens for a sign of life outside of the room. There is a profound silence. It is still, not even the sound of the wind. He finds a bottle of water. It is a litre bottle and it is nearly full. There is nothing he can do but wait and hope. The last thing he remembers is reading Making Sense of the Heavens, the book that his friend, Raul lent him. He was sitting under a zelkova tree near the dried up river bed. And then …… And then …… Nothing. Then ….. the dream, if it was a dream – about an exotic temptress in white.

At dawn, he can just see out of a small crack in one of the window slats. He can see the peak of the mountain. The lenticular clouds still hang ominously over its summit.

…………………………………………..

Raul is secretly pleased with the lack of power in the town. It means that he does not have to go to work in the plant. He is painting a landscape in oils. Since he has not been able to get up in a plane, painting is the pastime he most enjoys. He would like to give up work and take up painting full time and sell his work. Although his art is accomplished, there is not a big demand for it since the recession. He has been told his brooding, haunted style is reminiscent of metaphysical Italian artist, Giorgio de Chirico. Although flattered, Raul doesn’t really like comparison to anyone. He feels his art is highly original. The landscapes with the elongated shadows of the town’s old decaying buildings are ideal source material for his moody studies. The emptiness of the streets since the power outage has also been inspirational. The painting he is working on has chimerical Iberian towers and arches leading to a desolate rocky desert landscape with lenticular clouds hanging over a mountain peak in the background. A lone silhouetted figure holding a broken wheel by the dried up fountain hints that all is not well. The stacked saucer shape of the clouds today is perfect for the balance of the composition.

He has to be careful not to apply the paint too thickly. He slapped it on the canvas yesterday and it cracked and blistered in the high temperatures. He daubs an arc of coral red at the base of the clouds and mixes in a dab of zinc white in situ on the canvas. It is a technique he uses a lot. He pauses to let the paint dry. He steps back to look at the work from different angles. He is pleased with its progress today. The scene has a dreamlike quality. The clouds with their otherworldliness add an air of mystery and menace.

He wonders what has happened to Chet. He did not come back last night, which is unusual as Chet likes to sit down with him for a chat over a bottle of wine. He was going to show Chet how to find the constellations, Hercules and Indus in the night sky. They are going through the celestial alphabet. Chet does not have a lot of friends. He is a bit of a loner. Surely he would not have gone back to his parents’ house. They disowned him when they found his drugs stash. And he would surely never have forgiven them for going to the police. After all, most young people around here smoke cannabis. It grows like a weed out in the badlands. The police probably smoke cannabis. They probably smoked Chet’s cannabis. They let him off with a caution.

…………………………………………..

Ola,’ says a voice from behind him.

Brush still in hand, Raul turns around. He is dumbstruck. Standing there is Salvador Dalí. His handlebar moustache is fully waxed and despite the heat, he is wearing a dark three-piece suit. The immense bird of prey perched on his gloved hand is a bit of a shock too. Is it a hawk or an eagle? Raul struggles with an explanation. Not least in the mystery is the small matter that Dalí has been dead for many years. This could be an impersonator, but why would he be here? Raul can see and hear this substantial figure before him, who to all intents and purposes is the legendary painter, with an avian friend. Until a better explanation comes along, he must go by his senses.

I love the clouds,’ says Dalí, scanning the painting. ‘They are like how you say, objeto volador no identificado, yes?’

Raul composes himself for a reply. He manages, ‘Whuyuh,’ or something similarly devoid of language.

Rocks and clouds. They are the secret to a successful painting,’ Dalí continues. ‘If you remember this then your art will sell the millions and you will become famous. Let me see some more of your paisajes.’

How does one address the master, Raul wonders? The raptor on Dalí’s gauntlet is fidgeting. It looks as if it might lunge at him. The prospect makes him nervous.

Raul leads the artist into his small studio. There on rickety wooden easels are two landscapes that he has been working on. One canvas is of a seashell suspended from a classical arch in a desert landscape. In the middle of the orange sands is an oversized mannequin in black sunglasses. The other features two columns of arches set at impossible angles casting geometric shadows, in the background the silhouette of a steam train set against a yellow and green sky. Dalí walks up and down smoothing the ends of his moustache pensively.

I am thinking that I see Giorgio,’ he says. ‘I should not say this, but I did copy a lot from Giorgio. All I added really were rocks and trees. And the soft watches, of course. Oh, and tigers.’

Whilst trying to resist the comparison with de Chirico once again, Raul can’t help but feel flattered that the great Avida Dollars is appraising his work. This gives him the confidence to enter the conversation a little.

I was wondering about a perigee moon over the train in this one,’ he says. ‘And maybe darkening the sky to compensate.’

I designed a tarot pack,’ says Dalí. ‘I was very pleased with The Moon card. You cannot go wrong with a big red moon in a painting.’

When I was a boy I wanted to go to the moon,’ says Raul. ‘I asked my parents and they said that NASA weren’t recruiting in these parts, so I trained to be a pilot instead.’

When I was a boy I wanted to become Dalí,’ says Dalí. ‘So that is what I did.’

You can never tell how things are going to turn out, can you,’ says Raul. ‘Sometimes in life, there is great irony. I was taking aerial photographs of the moon when my plane crashed.’

I could tell how things were going to turn out,’ says Dalí. ‘I knew I would be a great painter. I knew I would be famous. It was my destiny. It was in the stars.’

I study the stars,’ says Raul. ‘I’ve been teaching my friend, Chet how to read the night sky. I am showing him where to find the constellations. But he has disappeared.’

People come and go. Things appear and disappear,’ says Dalí. ‘All things must pass. My good friend, George Harrison told me that.’

He did not come back last night.’

Last night I could see the stars. The night sky is very clear,’ says Dalí. ‘What has happened to the lights? Is there no electricity here?’

No-one knows why the power is off,’ says Raul. He disappears behind a curtain to fetch some other canvases to show Dalí. When he returns there is no sign of the artist. He is fanned by the wings of a large black raptor as it flies off with a small rodent in its talons.

…………………………………………..

Time passes slowly for Chet in the locked room. After initial attempts to break down the door and dismantle the shutter, he has given up. He has disturbed the shutter enough to allow a shaft of light through and if he puts his face up against it, he can see out. He is facing a whitewashed wall. He can just see the peak of the mountain and the lenticular clouds capping it. He has given up shouting for help too. He is wasting valuable energy by doing so. It is clear that no-one is around.

He tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. How much of it was real and how much of it a dream? Being brought to a secret lair and seduced by an exotic angel is certainly the territory of dreams, but here he is. In this unfamiliar room. How did this happen? Was he drugged? Perhaps the water he is drinking contains some potion. According to transcendentalist poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who Raul is fond of quoting, reality is a sliding door. His friend would probably have an explanation for what is going on. He has a far greater experience of life. Growing up in a household where he was never encouraged to think for himself, Chet finds clarity elusive. All things seem shrouded in mystery. He has few answers. There are many questions. Why is the sky blue? Why is the sea salty? Why do fools fall in love? And presently, and most importantly, why is he being held captive? He can think of no reason. His imprisonment would seem to benefit no-one. Also, it contradicts the initial experience where he was made more than welcome by the libertine lorelei who brought him here.

How long will a litre of water last, he wonders? It is either half full, or half empty now.

…………………………………………..

Raul takes a long pull on his beer. The warm bottled beer in the Agave Bar is unpleasant, but he feels he needs one. He has no wine at home and everywhere else is closed. The Agave never closes. It would take an earthquake. Sol, the barman seems to live at this dark and dingy bar. Raul asks him if Chet has been in.

No. I don’t believe he has,’ says Sol. Not seen him since you brought him in a while back.’ He explains that since the power outage hardly anyone has been in. He is ready to launch into a rant about the loss of trade that the power outage is causing. Sol is not aptly named. His disposition is anything but sunny.

Noah, who has been sat at the bar listening, interrupts him. ‘Is that the posh kid?’ he asks Raul.

Guess that’s who you mean,’ says Raul. ‘Why, Noah? Have you seen the lad?’

Think I did, now you come to mention it,’ says Noah. ‘He was with a pretty girl. I was sure surprised. Never seen him with anyone but you before. Had him down as a ….. well, a bit of a loner.’

When was this?’

Yesterday afternoon it must have been. They were heading for the old town. Did you see him, Jake?’

Jake looks up from the bottle of tequila he is nursing. ‘No, Noah, can’t say I did.’

Where do you think they were going?’ says Raul.

Well, I have no idea. I’m not going to be following them, am I, although she was quite a stunner,’ says Noah.

Nobody goes up there much since the ….. uh, emergency, do they?’ says Sol. Sol doesn’t get out anywhere that much. He has the pallor of a dedicated barman.

What actually happened?’ asks Raul. He has heard all kinds of rumours, but small towns can generate fanciful stories.

Noah and Jake look at one another. Neither of them says what they are thinking.

The outbreak,’ says Sol. ‘There was an outbreak of something, wasn’t there?’

Noah and Jake exchange another glance.

I’m going up there,’ says Raul doggedly. ‘Thank you, boys, for the information.’

…………………………………………..

It is morning, or perhaps it is afternoon. Chet cannot tell. Daylight is spilling through the shutter. He is woken up by a noise of someone outside. He hasn’t slept much. He is drowsy. With a rattle of keys the door opens. With the light now from the open door, he sees her standing there in all her finery. The same little white dress, the same waterfall of obsidian hair. She has brought a basket of fruit. She hands him a peach. He devours it ravenously. She slips out of her dress. She joins him on the bed and kisses him passionately. He responds to her touch. She responds to his. She is wet. Ardently they make love. It is as if nothing has happened since the previous time they were together. They are just resuming the assignation, where they left off. There are no recriminations.

Afterwards, as they share the fruit, she speaks to him in the language that she spoke to him before. The difference is, now, he finds he can understand her. This is inexplicable. It is the same language, but it is no longer foreign to him. His mind is buckling with incomprehension. How can this be happening?

She tells him that although she is made up of flesh and blood, she is insubstantial, like a spirit. She can only appear in the material world under a particular set of circumstances. She says that she cannot explain any further for now, as it would only confuse him more. What she requires from him is his trust.

When you appear, can everyone see you?’ asks Chet.

No, not everyone.’

When you disappear, where do you go?’

Please do not ask any more questions, as I cannot answer them,’ she says. ‘Just trust me is all that I ask of you. You will be rewarded if you put your faith in me. Let’s go and get your clothes. We have to go. Time is short.’

…………………………………………..

The church clock is stopped at eleven minutes past eleven as Raul makes his way through the town. The scorching heat saps his strength. The streets are still deserted. There may be no power, but where is everyone, he wonders. Where do they all go? Life cannot stop because there is no electricity. He notices that the sky over the mountain top is changing. Normally the wind blows right through lenticular clouds. They form in the crest of the mountain wave where the rising updraught of the wave has cooled and moisture has condensed. The clouds dissipate in the downdraught of the wave where the air has descended and warmed to the point where the moisture evaporates. The stacked saucer effect of the lenticular clouds above Mount Dante has gone. They are scattered. They are brightly coloured, almost psychedelic. The shape that is forming and the rich hue of the clouds suggest they are dispersing. When he was flying, Raul was careful to avoid cloud banks like this. They could cause dangerous turbulence.

As he approaches the crumbling ruins of the old town he becomes conscious of an eerie hush. It is like entering another world, a world of spirits perhaps. It has been a no-go area for so long, he cannot remember why the townsfolk abandoned it, but Noah and Jake’s conspiratorial silence seemed to have suggested he should avoid it. Apprehensively, he enters the network of narrow winding streets. The cobbled road surface is covered in sand and strewn with assorted debris. Boston ivy and Virginia creeper compete for space on windowless ruins and gutted houses. Tumbleweed grows amongst the rubble. A path leads off to the right into a labyrinthine series of alleys, each lifeless and silent. It is a much larger area than it first appears. He feels his hopes of finding Chet here evaporating.

…………………………………………..

Chet and his revenant run hand in hand out of the dark void and into the light. The lenticular clouds over the mountain look spectacular. The whole sky is alive in a fluid chromatic explosion. It is as if the heavens are hosting a titanic light show for the Gods by a mythic rock band. It is breathtaking. Alas, all things must change. Nothing is permanent. Dreams fade, bubbles pop, and clouds evaporate. The carnival will soon be over. The lenticular clouds over Mount Dante will be gone by the end of the afternoon.

We have to be quick,’ Chet’s vision says. ‘Soon the power will come back on, and I too will disappear.’

He asks a thousand questions, all at once. She does not hear. Already her form is fading.

…………………………………………..

Chet and Raul sit on the stoop taking in the evening sunshine over a glass or two of red from Bashir’s new delivery. A gentle breeze rustles the canopy. Chet is pleased that it is a little cooler. The heat really got to him, he says, and he didn’t know where he was without the internet. Anything could have been happening and he wouldn’t know about it. He had some very strange thoughts. He wondered if he was going mad. Raul says that the heat didn’t bother him, nor the lack of electricity.

I’m glad the clouds have gone, though,’ he says. ‘There’s something about lenticular clouds that makes me uneasy.’

I know exactly what you mean,’ says Chet. ‘They don’t bring any rain. It’s a bit like thunder without the lightning. It throws you off balance.’

And they are there for days, just hovering.’

Bound to have an effect’

Like the moon and the stars.’

We’ll probably never know the full story.’

Mysteries should remain mysteries. The universe is full of secrets.’

We’ll have to get back on to the constellations tonight. We were up to H, weren’t we?’

That’s right, Hercules is next, and Indus.’

What about another glass of wine?’

I did manage to get some painting done, though,’ says Raul. ‘I don’t expect you noticed.’

I love the new picture,’ says Chet. ‘It reminds me of one I saw by Salvador Dalí.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Ceci n’est pas Une Batte

Ceçi n’est pas une batte by Chris Green

Not many people realise that the surrealist painter, René Magritte was a big fan of English cricket. He discovered cricket by accident in a newspaper article in the 1930s. Although he had a reasonable command of English, the unfamiliar language baffled him. Innings, runs, overs, wickets, stumps, and bails. There were no equivalents to these in his native Belgium. The game was not played here. He was amused too by the names of the fielding positions, short leg, silly mid-on, gulley, backward point, first and second slip, etc. And the rules of the game were not only complicated but surreal.

He learned that there were two sides of eleven men, one in and one out in the field. Each man on the in side went out to bat and the fielding side tried to get him out. When he was out, he came in. Then the next man went in until he was out. When he was out, he too came in. When they were all out, the side that was out came in and the side that had been in went out and tried to get those coming in out. In addition, there were many ways in which the fielding side could get the batsmen, namely bowled, caught, stumped, run out and leg before wicket, whatever this was. When both sides had been in and out twice, the game finished. The team with the most runs won, unless they had not had enough time to finish because of bad light or rain, in which case it was a draw. Runs were made by the two batsmen that were in running between two sets of stumps after the one on strike had hit the ball and the ones in the field had not stopped it. Games lasted for three or five days.

René felt he had to experience this theatre of the absurd first hand. It sounded a lot more interesting than hockey or volleyball. He took a trip to England to watch a local weekend game at a village on the Kent coast. Although he had a little difficulty understanding everything that was going on, he felt it was an entertaining way to spend an afternoon. He was hooked. He began to make regular trips across the Channel to watch Kent play County Cricket at Canterbury. With his dark suit and signature bowler hat, René fitted in easily with the well-to-do spectators in the Members’ Enclosure and the hospitality tents. As he chatted away to his fellow fans, most did not realise they were in the presence of a famous artist.

He gradually got to know the Kent cricketers. As luck should have it, Kent’s captain, Bryan Valentine was a keen amateur artist and knew who René Magritte was. Bryan was aware that new art movements were springing up in Europe and eager to keep up with developments. René became a regular guest in his quarters, where they discussed the connections between art and cricket long into the night.

As cricket looked so much fun, it was only natural for René to want to have a crack at it. He bought all the kit and arranged for a few sessions in the nets. With a little coaching from the Kent players, he mastered some of the batting strokes, the cover drive, the hook, the sweep and the late cut. They told him he was a natural. Encouraged by this, René persuaded Bryan to let him play in a Sunday charity match.

The only reservation René had was in the game’s presentation. If, as he hoped, cricket was ever going to take off in Belgium, this needed a little tweaking. It would need to drop some of its formality. To add a little humour, instead of the standard cricketing cap, he wore his trademark bowler hat for the charity match. Although this was greeted with puzzlement at first, the boozy Sunday crowd soon caught on. It would not be appropriate for regular county fixtures, but once in a while, it was good to break with tradition.

With her husband disappearing regularly, Georgette Magritte began to suspect he was having an affair. The explanation for his absences that he was watching cricket was an unconvincing one. She insisted the next time he went on his travels, he took her along. René tried to put her off. He explained that the shopping opportunities in Canterbury might fall short of her expectations. It was not exactly London. She would be better off going to the department stores in Brussels for her frocks. But this did nothing to convince Georgette. She was going with him and that was that.

René was right. Georgette did not enjoy their wet week in Kent in early September one bit. Canterbury was something of a backwater. It was completely lacking in culture and had no dress shops. The weather made it worse. The sight of twenty-two men sitting around in white trousers and sweaters waiting for the rain to stop seemed to be the ultimate pointless activity. The rain was clearly not going to stop. What could it possibly be about cricket that so fascinated René?​ When she put her mind to it, Georgette could become the incredible sulk. A model of passive aggressive manipulation. René had no defence against this. He capitulated. They returned home early.

September marked the end of the cricket season, so to keep his enthusiasm for the game alive over the winter months, René embarked on a series of surreal cricket paintings. He felt these would help to promote the game in Belgium and who knows, perhaps even France. He used all of his signature themes, cricketers in bowler hats, cricketers with green apple faces, cricketers with bowler hats and green apple faces. Cricketers with fluffy clouds as faces. A picture of a cricket bat with the title, Ceçi n’est pas Une Batte. Sadly, few of these paintings have survived. The ones that have are in a private collection belonging to the reclusive Sebastian Bose-Harrington at Harrington Hall, where the public cannot view them. These were originally a gift to the less reclusive Colin Bose-Harrington, a senior Kent Cricket Club board member in the days leading up to World War 2.

With the outbreak of war, cricket in England came to an abrupt halt. Even had it continued, the Nazi occupation of Belgium would have made it difficult for René to travel. His last cricket painting is believed to have been completed in early September 1939, just days before Belgium fell. The Nazi occupying force considered his work to be degenerate art and destroyed this one along with many others.

It is not clear why René did not resume his passion for cricket after the war, but artists are restless souls. Change for them is a driving force. This versatility, in turn, adds kudos to their work. If, for instance, Picasso had had just one period, he would surely not have stood the test of time. We would no longer be talking about him in such elevated terms today. Similarly, through Magritte’s ability to re-invent himself, his paintings have increased in value logarithmically over the years. His Le Principe du Plaisir recently sold for 27 million dollars in New York. Because of their rarity, the six surviving cricket paintings in the Bose-Harrington collection might expect a similar return should they ever come onto the market. In the meantime, be comforted that the great Belgian painter was once a big fan of English cricket.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

666 – The Number of the Bus

666new

666 – The Number of the Bus by Chris Green

Mr Saxx who taught us Maths in Year 11 was obsessed with probability. In his classes, we were required to calculate the probability of many unlikely scenarios. Based on historical performance and the profile of those players currently available for selection, what was the probability that Chamberlain House would win the Fives trophy this year, he might ask? What were the chances that Jarvis Vest would beat Dish Price in the Upper School Middleweight Boxing Final? Would Bogey Yates win Bully of the Year again, or would it go to Marty Wheeler? Mr Saxx even started up a class bookmakers so that we could practice calculating odds and understand how to be successful in beating them. Each day we had to read The Sporting Life to learn the ins and outs of bookmaker’s odds. I won a tidy sum of money when Bucket of Rum won a Handicap Chase at Fontwell Park at 66-1. This was enough to spark my interest in Maths. I came top of the class that year. Sadly, Mr Saxx was struck off for malpractice, but I was on my way.

Many people see chance and probability as slippery customers, hard to pin down. To make progress here, you need to understand a little about how they operate. Let’s look at probability. How many people would you imagine it would need to be in a room before there was a 50/50 chance that two of them would share the same birthday? You might think at least 50 people would be necessary. After all, there are 365 days in a year. There are a lot of possibilities. But the answer is just 23. It’s the 50/50 element of the question that catches you out. This is possibly why many people are afraid of mathematics and steer clear of numbers. Numbers, it is true, can be treacherous.

A car travels a distance of 60 miles at an average speed of 30 miles per hour. How fast would the car have to travel the same 60-mile distance home to average 60 miles per hour over the entire trip? Most people say 90 miles per hour, not realising it is a trick question. The first leg of the trip covers 60 miles at an average speed of 30 miles per hour. So, this means the car travelled for two hours (60/30). For the car to average 60 miles per hour over 120 miles, it would have to travel for exactly two hours (120/60). Since the car has already travelled for two hours, it can’t average 60 miles per hour over the entire trip. It is important to read the question carefully and not rush into coming to a conclusion.

With a basic understanding of mathematics, I learned to avoid sucker bets like the lottery and scratch-cards. These were a complete con. A large proportion of the pot was creamed off to give to worthy causes. Not good at all for the punter. Maths also enabled me to quickly calculate the odds of my hand winning in any given situation when playing poker. While I may have missed out on the excitement of bluffing with a pair of jacks, this was more than compensated for by a fatter wallet at the end of the night. But where was the fun in being risk-averse? What on earth was the point of having a fondness for numbers and a skill with them without looking for ways to beat the odds? Surely, life without taking chances was no life at all.

I was leaving the casino one evening when, to my surprise, I bumped into Mr Saxx. He was getting out of a shiny silver Bentley. I hadn’t seen him since he was dismissed from my school, several years previously.

Hello, Mr Saxx,’ I said. ‘Nice motor.’

Ah, Davy, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘You’ve just come from The Flamingo, have you?’

I told him I had.

How did you get on?’ he asked. ‘Not too well, I hope.’

Why’s that, Mr Saxx?’ I asked.

It’s my casino, Davy,’ he said. ‘It’s one of a chain that I own.’

You’re not teaching Maths any more then, Mr Saxx.’

Charles! Call me Charles!’ he said. ‘No, Davy. Those days are in the past. You like my new car then. Better than the old Mazda I used to drive, isn’t it?’

I had heard of high-yield investment schemes, of course. They were basically Ponzi schemes. Initially, the operator pays high returns to attract investors and entice current investors to invest more money and in turn, new investors. When new investors join, a cascade effect begins. The operator pays a return to initial investors from the investments of the new participants, rather than from genuine profits. I was surprised when Charles Saxx suggested I might like to manage such a venture for him.

It’s all right, lad,’ he said. ‘You won’t need to put a penny in. I’m offering you the opportunity because I recall how good you were with numbers back when I used to teach you. I still remember the conversation we had in class about Graham’s number, the biggest number ever used in maths, a number so big that even if each digit were written in the tiniest writing possible, it would still be too big to fit in the observable universe. Way bigger than a googolplex, I remember you pointing out.’

At first, I was wary. I had grown up in a world where the common-sense view was that if something seemed to be too good to be true, it probably was too good to be true. But I quickly discovered this was no longer the case. Now everyone seemed to believe they could get something for nothing. With the carrot of easy money dangled before them, it was remarkable how gullible people could be. Even when we called one of the investment opportunities Scammer, they still lapped it up. And it wasn’t just the punters. This one got a recommendation on YourMoney.com. Their advisor, Dudley Bills described the initiative as the perfect place for your nest-egg.

Could it be that people simply didn’t understand the basics of arithmetic, I wondered? Without inspiring teachers like Mr Saxx, had Maths in their schools been so dull that they could not recognise sleight of hand? That because of their lack of insight into how numbers worked, they were always destined to be victims of their ignorance? It was certainly a possibility, but not one that I would lose sleep over. When you are rich, you never have to take responsibility for your actions. Others with a lesser understanding of figures will always be there to carry the can for your misrepresentation when the time comes. So, exit strategies for this scheme and others like it were merely a formality.

Yet it was not plain sailing. Like many others, I had been led to believe that money could buy you happiness. If you were wealthy, your life would be easy. You would have infinite leisure time. You would be the picture of health. You would have beautiful women falling at your feet. As it turned out, not all of these were true. Certainly, money could act as a women magnet, but what was often overlooked was that the women wealth attracted were likely to have their own agenda. In a word, they tended to be gold-diggers. I discovered this to my cost. My leisure time disappeared. Life was anything but easy. And each time the inevitable acrimonious break-up occurred, my assets were halved. As a result, my health deteriorated. I should have learned when Rachel took me for a pretty penny, but I didn’t. Charmain was charming and Desirée desirable, but both had the same idea. They were not interested in happy families, they both wanted money. That’s what they wanted. My money. And now the same thing was happening with Sarah.

I decided to seek Charles Saxx’s advice. I had from time to time read about his successes in the paper. Hardly a week went by without the launch of some new venture. Charles was clearly loaded and yet he seemed to manage to keep his boat afloat. How had he avoided the gold-diggers? What was his secret? Although I hadn’t seen Charles for a year or two, I dug out the number he had given me and called him. He seemed pleased to hear from me. It had been too long, he said, and he invited me round for canapés. I found his large new house, Robles Altos, a mile or so along a steep, private road leading to the common. His new McLaren was parked on the drive. I pressed the button on the entry phone on the iron gates and he let me through.

I did not think it was appropriate to come right out with my problem. This was something that needed to be slowly worked into the broader conversation. I allowed Charles to tell me a little about his background. He told me he grew up in the west country. He was an only child and had had few friends. He said he had always been in awe of his cousin, Roy.

Roy had six siblings and lots of friends, he said. Not only that, but Roy also had vision. He was an innovator. I can’t imagine anyone else coming up with a USB frog, an invisible kettle, or a luminous badger. Or a self-cleaning, solar-powered smartdog.’

I knew I had heard the name Saxx somewhere else,’ I said. ‘So, Roy, the inventor of the inflatable Buddha and the bouncing tortoise is your cousin.’

From an early age, Roy was always creative,’ he said. ‘I realised I could not compete. The best I could come up with was a digital mojo.’

What on earth was a digital mojo? I began to wonder if perhaps all the Saxx family were oddballs. Might Trevor Saxx, the presenter of Underwater Football on The Marine Channel also be related? However, kookiness didn’t seem to have been a significant handicap to the Saxx’s success.

Not being able to compete with Roy was what drew me to mathematics,’ Charles continued. I needed something I could rely on. I did well at Maths at school so naturally, I went for Maths at university and came out with a First. Even the notoriously difficult Numerology module presented no challenge. My degree should have opened up opportunities right away,’ he continued. ‘But I guess I was a bit lazy. I saw the post at the school advertised and thought I’d give it a go. I could have plodded along, teaching calculus to spotty fifteen-year-olds, but I thought I could put my own stamp on it. Make it more interesting. Then as you know, I was dismissed. This was what spurred me into action. I realised that everything in this material world revolved around numbers. Understanding numbers gave me a huge advantage over others. So I thought, why not go for it?

You’ve certainly done very well for yourself since you ….. moved on, Charles,’ I said. ‘I wish I could say the same. But each time I think I’ve got it made, it seems to get taken away again.’

What do you mean?’ he said.

In a word, women,’ I said ‘Either I’m a poor judge of character or they spot that I am rich and home in on me with one thing in mind. To exploit my vulnerability and make themselves a quick buck. In quick succession, Rachel, Charmain and Desirée all fleeced me. When the time came, they all came up with up fearsome matrimonial solicitors. And now Sarah is doing the same, and we are not even married. When my solicitor, Mr Shed of Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed heard we were up against Mr Glock of Stipe, Stipe and Juttner, he told me we might as well throw in the towel. We stood no chance of getting a result.’

Do you think you maybe wear your heart on your sleeve, Davy?’ he said.

I had to acknowledge Charles had a point. Once I became attracted to someone, I tended to dive straight in. I may have even proposed to Desirée on the first night.

You think I play my cards too early, don’t you?’ I said. ‘Would it be better if I were to apply poker tactics?’

Exactly,’ he said. ‘Or the same attitude you had with regard to our investment scams. Take no prisoners. Now, look! What’s done is done but you must get a more ruthless legal representative this time around. Don’t go for a regular divorce solicitor. What you need is a different approach. Nolan Rocco is good. He will be more than a match for this Mr Glock. He will surprise you, that’s for sure.

Nolan Rocco, it turned out, was a pseudonym for the speculative fiction writer, Phillip C. Dark. Phillip spotted straight away what was required. He didn’t even need to face Mr Glock. He had a novel solution. He was going to get rid of him completely, along with Rachel, Charmain, Desirée and Sarah. To do this, he would use a mathematical sleight of hand. Numbers, he said, were the key. Naturally, this met with my approval.

I was 36 years old. So Phillip C. Dark planned to rewrite my story by adding 1 to 36, halving the high number to get the number of pairs, 18, then multiplying 37 by 18. This, as I knew it would, came to the magic number, 666. He then simply deleted 666 words from my biography. This took the story back to exit strategies for my investment scams being a formality. I was once again in a good position. From here, I could move on to better things. No need to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part or any of the other commitments that came with getting one’s rocks off. These were optional extras and ones I would not be signing up for.

Paul Gauguin trailblazed the idea of leaving his old life behind and starting afresh on a tropical island. In search of meaning in my own life, I made the decision to follow in his footsteps. I needed a new direction. Having been a stockbroker in Paris, Gauguin too had a numbers background. There, alas, the similarities ended. Art was something I had little talent for. But to let this get in the way would be defeatist? After all, I had money to support me and I had plenty of time to learn how to paint.

I headed for the volcanic island of La Gomera, the least populous of the Canary Islands. La Gomera was Columbus’s last port of call before crossing the Atlantic in 1492 with his three ships. He stopped here for a month to replenish his crew’s food and water supplies. Since then, little of any note had happened on the island. La Gomera was Trip Advisor’s idea of a quiet place. It was described as the perfect place to look at the night sky. There were usually clear skies and little light pollution. It seemed like an ideal spot to take stock and regroup.

I had not been on the island very long when walking though San Sebastian de la Gomera, among the brightly coloured shopfronts, I came across a darkened single-storey building, set back a little from the others. It was painted black with thick blinds drawn. Above it was a dark display board with 666 written in large white Gothic numerals. No letters, just the number 666. Not exactly what you would expect to find among the market stalls, cheese shops and tapas bars. 666 is, of course, the magic sum of the first 36 digits, the sum if you like of the numbers on a roulette wheel. Was this then a gambling den? Or something more sinister? 666 was also the Number of the Beast from the Book of Revelation, the so-called Devil’s Number. Although 666 appeared to be closed, it seemed reasonable to assume something iniquitous took place here.

I had rented a house close to the town and in the short time I had been resident, I had got to know one or two of the locals. None of them seemed to have any idea what went on at 666. It never seemed to be open, they said. Perhaps it was used to store contraband. Perhaps something of a maritime nature. It would be closed for months on end while ships were at sea. Pablo, however, who was teaching me how to paint landscapes, was sure there must be a Satanic connection.

It’s all too easy to jump to Satanic conclusions,’ I said. Was this an attempt to get him to elaborate or was I trying to be clever?Some people take the diabolic associations of 666 so seriously that they avoid anything related to the digits 6-6-6. This is known as hexakosioihexekontahexophobia. I think I’ve got that right. Quite a mouthful, isn’t it? 666 has zillions of references in popular culture, Pulp Fiction, A Clockwork Orange, The Phantom of the Opera, Escape from LA, to name but a few. But look, Pablo! The number 666 has other associations too. Apart from being the number of the Beast, it is the sum total of the numbers 1 to 36, which is known in mathematics as a triangular number. In Roman numerals, it is DCLXVI, all the numeric symbols in decreasing order. And there are any number of biblical connections. And what about the trigonometry of the Golden Mean? It is an all-round special number. And 666 is the number of the bus to Oxborough where I used to live.’

But, my friend, none of these would explain the dead goats that have been found around here,’ he said. ‘Miguel from the panadería tells me he has seen them at night in their dark cloaks.’

Did I really want to think about dead goats? I had come to La Gomera for a quiet life and to learn to paint. I couldn’t recall seeing dead goats in any of Gauguin’s pictures. 666 could wait.

Anyway, Pablo, what do you think of this painting I’ve done of the hills over the back?’ I said to change the subject. ‘Perhaps you could tell me a little more about chiaroscuro.’

I wasn’t expecting Phillip C. Dark to call me, but I was pleased he did. I had no idea how my Canary Island adventure was going to turn out. He had obviously given it some thought, after all, as a writer, this was his job. He told me he had it in hand but I would have to wait and see.

Will it be a happy ending?’ I asked. From what I could remember, some of Phillip’s stories ended happily and some of them didn’t. I estimated the percentages might work out at about 52 – 48, although some of the endings were so enigmatic, it was difficult to tell.

Like I said, you’ll have to wait and see,’ Phillip C. Dark said.

I waited. As I distanced myself from the idea of 666, my painting came on in leaps and bounds. Spring was perfect for capturing the landscapes of La Gomera. I especially relished painting the spectacular sunrises. At first light each day, I would make the effort to be in place to take advantage of the natural beauty. I got up early as usual on June 6th and found my spot. At 6 a.m. the sun was just coming up when I noticed a group of hooded figures in dark cloaks coming over the crest of the hill. They were heading my way. They were carrying lighted wooden torches. They appeared to be chanting something in low voices. Were they returning from some nefarious night-time activity or were they just setting out? While I was debating which way I should run, I woke up. To my alarm, I was back in England. At home in Crowley Crescent in Oxborough. At the breakfast table with Sarah. She was angry about something I had done. Some unforgivable transgression. She had had enough, she said, she was leaving me. I had better think about getting myself a good solicitor. Even though we hadn’t been together long, were not married and her name was not on the deeds, Mr Glock had told her she ought to be looking to come away with at least half of everything.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Trout Fishing

troutfishing

Trout Fishing by Chris Green

FRIDAY


‘Sunsets on Mars are blue,’ says the man’s voice coming from behind her. It is too loud for her to ignore.

Suzy turns around to see a stranger in a badly creased seersucker suit has sat down at the next table. He is alone. Is he talking to her or talking to himself, she wonders? Perhaps he is practising lines for a play. The Apollo is just down the road and he has that theatrical air about him. Dishevelled hair. Lined face. Goatee beard. Wild eyes. Probably best to ignore him. But, what an odd thing to say, out of the blue!

Iguanas have three eyes,’ he says. He definitely seems to be addressing her. He is staring right at her. Intently. Might he be coming on to her? If he is, she doesn’t think much of his chat up lines. Or his style. He is looking her up and down, leeringly. She had thought this morning when she got up that wearing her red dress might lift her spirits. She had been feeling a bit low. With Lev gone, everything seemed to be getting on top of her. But in hindsight, perhaps the dress was a mistake. It makes her stand out too much at this time of the morning. Luigi’s Café is not a dressing up kind of place. Supermarket shoppers mainly. And it seems, the odd weirdo.

She looks around for a waitress to ask for the bill for her Profiterole and Macchiato but they have all temporarily disappeared. She takes out her phone and pretends to make a call hoping this will deter the stranger. It doesn’t.

The brain is composed of 60% fat,’ he says. ‘Did you know that?’

He’s just plain creepy, she concludes. Looney Tunes. A basket-case. She should leave. There is still no sign of a waitress and the other customers all appear to be engaged in conversations. She pushes a ten-pound note under her plate, gathers up her bags and makes a hasty exit.

On the street, she is relieved to discover the creep has not followed her. Just the other day, her friend Yvonne told her she had had a stalker. This had all started off with someone leering at her in Starbucks when she was on her own. He began to follow her everywhere and she had to bring in the police.

Suzy is about to get into her Ssangyong when her phone rings. She does not recognise the number. She decides to answer it, anyway. Kurt, her eldest was talking about getting a new phone.

Bluetooth was named after King Harald Bluetooth who united Denmark and Norway in the tenth century,’ says the now familiar voice. Bluetooth? Is this how the creep from the café has obtained her number? A bit tecky but how else would he know it?

I understand you feel intimidated,’ Holly at the hairdressers says. ‘But really, all you have to do is steer clear of Luigi’s and not answer the phone.’

I’ve already blocked the number,’ Suzy says.

It’s not as if he knows where you live, is it?’ Holly says.

I hope not,’ Suzy says. ‘It’s not something you could find out from a mobile phone number, is it, Hol?’

No. He was just some geek trying to be clever,’ Holly says. ‘You get them all the time.’

‘I guess you’re right,’ Suzy says. ‘He was talking nonsense.’

It is Friday night. Kurt and Axel are out with their mates taking drugs or two-timing their girlfriends or whatever teenage lads get up to these days. Either way, they are likely to be out all night. Suzy is alone in the house. At times like this, she wishes Lev had not gone off like he did. It has been nearly a month now but she cannot get used to being alone. At the time, she felt she wanted him out of her life but now she is not so sure. She is all over the place. It only takes the slightest thing to upset her. Perhaps they should have given it another try. Her friends keep telling her she should move on but in the meantime, she is finding it can be very lonely, especially as all of them are in relationships. She decides there’s nothing really for it but to mix a gin and tonic and see what’s on TV. On a Friday night! How sad is that!

She sips her drink and presses the on-button on the remote. Without warning, his face fills the screen. This is impossible. Yet, there’s no mistaking him. The dishevelled mop of hair. The goatee beard. The Keith Richards creases that line his face. The intense stare. This is the creepy man from the café. In high definition and larger than life on her 56 inch TV. How can this be happening?

A tarantula can live without food for more than two years,’ he says. To add to her disorientation and distress, the freak is coming out with more surreal rubbish too. What kind of game is this? What can it all mean? What does he want?

She tries changing channels but to her horror, he is still there staring straight into the camera and, by extension, directly at her.

Earth has travelled five thousand miles in the last five minutes, Suzy’ he says.

He is even addressing her by name now.

She tries random buttons. He stays on the screen, leering menacingly at her.

There are too many black holes to count,’ he sneers.

Panicked, Suzy pulls out the plug. He is gone. She pours herself another drink. No tonic this time.

Andy Mann, the aerial installation technician who used to work with Lev assures her what she is describing is impossible. But as she seems distraught and he happens to be in the area, he says he will call around and take a look.

Take me through it,’ he says. ‘Show me exactly what you did.’

Suzy is a little reluctant, in fact, she is bricking it as she plugs the TV back in. She stands back and presses the button on the remote. BBC1 comes on as you would normally expect. The One Show. She changes the channel over and over. Each number brings up the correct station showing its normal Friday night fare.

Suzy does not know what to feel, vulnerable, confused, relieved, embarrassed.

Now that you’re here, Andy, why don’t you stop for a drink?’ she says.

SATURDAY

Thank you for staying over, Andy,’ Suzy says. ‘That was good of you.’

The least I could do,’ Andy says.

And you’re sure Amy won’t have wondered where you were.’

No. Amy’s visiting her mother. Anyway, I could always say my van broke down or something. It’s worked before.’

You mean I’m not the first. You are bad, Andy.’

The main thing is, do you feel better? You were in a bit of a state when I arrived.’

I do, Andy. Much better. Perhaps you could make me feel …… better again before you go.’

What about Kurt and Axel? Won’t they be back soon?’

You must be joking. It’s Saturday. Wherever they’ve been or wherever they are now, they won’t be up this early.’

You’re having trouble with this one, aren’t you, Phil,’ Patti says.

It’s ground to a halt the last couple of days,’ I say. ‘And I don’t know where to take it. The Philip C. Dark brand relies upon shock and surprise and this one has run out of steam.’

You could introduce a talking cat,’ Patti says. ‘That would move the story forward.’

Funnily enough, I was thinking of a talking cat,’ I say. They are always a good stand-by. I could call it Dave. Dave’s a good name for a cat, don’t you think?’

SUNDAY

Dave has been out all night. His people have left him and gone away on holiday. The lad who is supposed to be letting him and out and feeding him his pouches of Gourmet chunks has not been since Friday afternoon. Young people are so unreliable at weekends. Not the best of nights to be out either as it has been pouring with rain and he has had to sleep in a leaky old shed. It is now light and thankfully the rain has stopped. Dave sees an opportunity of some warmth and who knows, perhaps even a tasty breakfast from the lady at number 42, the one whose husband has left her. Nice smells are coming from her kitchen.

Suzy is unnerved by the scratching sound at the door. Not being accustomed to talking cats, she is freaked out when the ginger and white tom asks her if he can come in and snuggle up by the radiator to get warm.

I’m quite partial to bacon too if you have a spare rasher or two,’ Dave says. ‘And perhaps a sausage.’

Perhaps, in the wake of her recent experiences, she is becoming de-sensitised to strangeness. Rather than slip once more into panic mode, she finds herself quietly amused by the idea of a chatty moggy.

I’ve not seen you around here before,’ she says. ‘What’s your name?’

I’m Dave,’ Dave says. ‘Would you like to talk about magic carpets?’

Magic carpets?’ Suzy is confused.

I thought magic carpets would make a change,’ Dave says. ‘All my people want to talk about are cabbages and kings.’

OK,’ Suzy says. ‘Let’s talk about magic carpets.’

Or if you prefer we could talk about Red Sails in the Sunset,’ Dave says. ‘Do you know that song? I could sing it for you.’

I think I might have it somewhere,’

There are thirty nine recorded versions of Red Sails in the Sunset. Did you know that? My favourite is Fats Domino’s’ Have you got that one or did Lev take it with him when he left?’

Perhaps we should stick with magic carpets.’

Or we could try Belgian Surrealists.’

Magic carpets would be better.’

OK. As you probably know, magic carpets originate in the area from Egypt to Iraq known as the Fertile Crescent, which of course is also where domestic cats come from.’

Uh huh.’

Not going well with the talking cat, is it?’ Patti says.

It does need a little work,’ I say. ‘And a title.’

Would you like to read my Richard Brautigan book?’ Patti says. ‘Trout Fishing in America. I think it might help.’

Good title,’ I say. ‘I’m guessing it’s not about trout fishing, right?’

Not completely, no,’ Patti says. ‘It’s a series of sketches of a strange yet strikingly familiar world.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Nightswimming

Nightswimming by Chris Green

On the face of it, Nightswimming is about someone’s fond memories of skinny-dipping in their younger days. Surely though, the song is about dreaming. You couldn’t get a more haunting tune or a more dreamlike arrangement. And the band are called REM. Rapid Eye Movement. What more do you need? It’s a perfect fit. They’re using nightswimming as a metaphor for the mystifying world of dreams. That fugitive landscape where nothing is what it seems. That dark space on the edge of town where the silence echoes and characters change in front of you without warning.

Gino, the café owner may not be aware of this. He is probably just playing the song because he likes REM. This is not surprising. Not so long ago they were the biggest band in the world. Every album went platinum. I suspect the girl with the multi-coloured hair who Gino is talking doesn’t know what Nightswimming alludes to either. She probably just thinks it’s a pretty tune about a group of young people taking a naughty dip at the lido on a summer night after a heavy session at The Goat and Bicycle.

I finish my mint tea and go over to the counter to pay.

Do you know what this song’s about?’ I say.

Gino looks me in the eye and laughs. He thinks it is a trick question.

It’s about going for a midnight swim,’ he says. ‘Listen!’

I think it’s about dreaming,’ the girl says. ‘It has that ethereal feel to it.’

So do I,’ I say. ‘He appears to be recalling a real-life experience. Nostalgia, you might say. But in dreams, memories become confused with fable. Hence the random stream of consciousness lyrics.’

Nightswimming gives way to Man on the Moon. On the album, they appear the other way around, so this must be a hits compilation.

What do you make of this one?’ I say.

It’s about the moon landing,’ Gino says.

All their songs have more to them than meets the eye,’ the girl says. She looks up the lyrics on her phone.

Man on the Moon. It couldn’t be clearer,’ Gino says. ‘Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin. Michael Collins.’

It seems to jump from one subject to another,’ the girl says. ‘It’s quite a complicated song.’

It is a tribute to the actor, surrealist comedian and performance artist, Andy Kaufman,’ I say. ‘Andy was a prankster and there is a suggestion that he faked his own death. Haven’t you ever wondered about the line, Andy did you hear about this one? The singer links his death with the conspiracy theory about the moon landings.’

What about the goofing on Elvis line?’ the girl says.

Andy used to do an Elvis impersonation that even Elvis was alleged to have praised,’ I say.

Some new customers come into the café. Gino turns his attention to them.

I’m Maya,’ the girl says, moving closer. ‘I expect you know this means illusion or dream.’

Hello Maya,’ I say. ‘I’m Phil.’

I can’t help wondering about your interest in lyrics, Phil,’ Maya says. ‘Are you perhaps a songwriter or a lyricist?’

In a way, I suppose,’ I say. ‘At least, the words bit. I write fiction. I’m Phillip C. Dark.’

Cool!’ she says. ‘I may have read a story of yours. Time and Tide Wait for Norman.’

That one is by Chris Green,’ I say. ‘But you are not far off. It is in the same anthology as one of mine.’

Are you writing anything at the moment?’ she says.

I’ve just started a short story where the Twin Towers aren’t destroyed in 9/11 but the White House is,’ I say. ‘As a result, the USA falls into the hands of terrorists, one of whom is the former TV show host who sets about running the country through social media.’

Sounds good,’ Maya says. ‘Hey, look! If you are not doing anything, why don’t you come and meet my cat, Ronnie? He’d love to meet you.’

I was going to get my kaleidoscope repaired and then go to look for some fridge magnets,’ I say. ‘But I guess that could wait until later.’

The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre is very close to my house,’ she says. ‘So we could go there together afterwards, and I could help you choose.’

The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre is on the same side of town as Maya’s house, but it is a few miles further on. If Maya had not been travelling with me, it would have been nigh on impossible to find it. It is set in a clearing in the middle of a wood which in itself is off the beaten track. I park some distance away, and we have to beat our way through the undergrowth to reach it. It is more of a log cabin than a house. The location reminds me of a story of mine where people can teleport themselves over long distances simply by thinking about where they want to go. All they need to have is a physical picture in their mind of the desired destination. To keep criminals and thieves away, the wealthy build homes without windows in elaborate woodland mazes to confuse the ever more sophisticated Google maps. They become so reclusive that they live their entire lives within the confines of their homes. They become afraid to communicate with anyone in case they give away their location. Not that Maya seems to be rich or reclusive.

Ronnie, it turns out is large for a domestic cat, measuring around six feet from tip to tail. Perhaps I have lived a sheltered life, but Ronnie is the first cat I’ve come across that you can have a conversation with. I had thought that talking cats only existed in Haruki Murakami novels. Not only does Ronnie talk, he seems to know his REM tunes too. When Maya mentions we’ve been listening to Nightswimming and Man on the Moon, he becomes animated.

Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite is my favourite,’ he says ‘There’s a lot going on in there. It’s about a drifter. With its roadside motel, instant food, payphones and oddball characters, it describes his transient lifestyle. Sidewinder is a metaphor for the drifter, don’t you think?

REM songs always have double meanings,’ I say, thrilled to have found a cat that is knowledgeable about popular culture. ‘A sidewinder is a snake, of course, but also an old style of telephone with a winding handle on the side.

Their singer, Michael Stipe wrote the lyrics,’ Ronnie says. ‘I don’t think the others in the band were sure what the rest of the song meant.’

He’s dreaming about the things he misses,’ I say. ‘The candy bars, falling stars and the Dr Seuss stories.’

He mentions The Cat in the Hat. That’s my favourite Dr Seuss story too,’ Ronnie says. Did You know that he was a big fan of Syd Barrett? Dark Globe was his favourite. Do you know that one? REM recorded it too.’

That’s the one that starts off, Oh where are you now, pussy willow, isn’t it? I say. ‘I like Octopus. Trip, Trip to a dream dragon.’

I knew you two would hit it off,’ Maya says. ‘Ronnie has always been a fan of dream-pop.’

It was lovely to meet you, Mr Dark,’ Ronnie says. ‘I’d love to talk to you some more, but I must be going or I will be late for a very important date. I’m taking my friend Alice to an exhibition at The Looking Glass Gallery.’

What are you going to see?’ I ask. Cats appreciating art as well as music. It is becoming curiouser and curiouser.

We are going to see some new work by abstract artist, Jenny Westbrook,’ Ronnie says. ‘Jenny’s paintings are organic and very colourful. The exhibition is called Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

What a great title for an exhibition!’ I say. ‘I hope you enjoy them. It was good to talk to you, Ronnie.’

I’ve made a double layer bilberry upside-down cake,’ Maya says when Ronnie is gone. ‘Would you like some?’

I would love some,’ I say, suddenly aware that I haven’t eaten since breakfast.

Then we can go upstairs and you can help me with some buttons,’ Maya says.

Having known Maya for less than an hour, I can’t help feeling that this is a bit forward.

I have to get my kaleidoscope repaired,’ I say.

I haven’t forgotten,’ Maya says. ‘We can do that afterwards, and we will still have time to go and choose some fridge magnets.’

In the experimental fiction writers’ circles I move in, you become accustomed to heightened levels of strangeness. We are a pretty weird bunch with some pretty weird ideas. While most people try to fashion order out of chaos, we try to fashion chaos out of order. But when you experience elements of this strangeness first hand, you can’t help but be phased. You try to match it to some of the staples of the sci-fi or fantasy genres, parallel worlds, time travel, simulated consciousness, virtual reality, illusions, etc. But even so, you don’t expect to encounter anything as bizarre as a blue six-feet long talking cat with an interest in music and art in everyday, waking life. Might this not lead you to question reality? What is it about your situation or circumstances that has changed, you may wonder? You might question whether you are awake. What if you are dreaming? If you are like the dreamer who dreams, and then lives inside the dream, who is the dreamer?

Maya’s buttons prove to be a big distraction, and before we know it, it is late afternoon. I think it needs to be said that although time pretends to be regular and move in a linear fashion, it sometimes falls flat on its face and embarrasses itself. Time would be better described as flexible, elastic, malleable. It is only a reflection of change and from this, our brains construct a sense of time as if it were flowing. But it’s an illusion. Time is all over the place. Einstein was on the right track. Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, he said, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity. Not that Maya and I did a lot of sitting.

If we hurry, we will have just enough time to get to the Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre. The kaleidoscope repair will probably have to wait until another day. I take a look out of the window. The woodland seems to have thinned considerably. There are now hardly any trees. All I can see is a large lake. It is already getting dark. The moon is coming up.

Perhaps we’d better forget about the fridge magnets too,’ Maya says.

I wonder if she is thinking what I’m thinking. The lake does look inviting.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Silent Trumpet

Silent Trumpet by Chris Green

1:

Quincy Saxx introduces himself at a Free Eva Morales rally. I have not met him before, so I am puzzled that he appears to know me. He laughs and says that everybody knows Cliff Rhodes. The thing is, I am not Cliff Rhodes, nor am I Jordan Castle who plays Cliff in Blood Money. I am not even an actor. I don’t believe I resemble Jordan Castle in any way. Strangely, Milo Devlin at The Fantasy Factory also mistook me for Cliff Rhodes when I was there to book a hot-air balloon ride as a surprise present for Betty’s birthday recently.

Although I know nothing about Quincy, he is a straight talker, something of a rarity in these days of chancers and weak-willed charlatans. I can tell straight away that he is a go-getter. He tells me I could help him further the cause. It is always good to have the backing of a recognisable household name in a campaign, he says. I go along with the masquerade, hoping that if I play my cards right, he might also be able to help me.

With a name like Saxx, I wonder if Quincy is related to the legendary Roy Saxx, the inventor of the bouncing eggcup. Roy’s contribution to our daily lives is huge. Where would we be without the metaphorical compass or the collapsible dog? I remember, when I was growing up, the initial resistance there was to Roy’s invisible kite. But in no time at all, every child had to have one. It was Roy Saxx who came up with the expression marketing. He was the first person to realise that people desperately wanted to be persuaded to buy things they couldn’t possibly have any use for. He discovered this was a basic psychological need. I ask Quincy if there is a connection to the great man. He says that Roy is his father. While he acknowledges the importance of Roy’s inventions to our lives, he has always played down the link. He was on the receiving end of his father’s temper too many times to want to bathe in his glory. A genius he may have been, but Roy was a brutal parent.

In truth, I am not sure exactly what Eva Morales is supposed to have done or where she is being held. Farland possibly? Or is it the People’s Republic of Costaguana? I have heard her name on the news a few times, and I have a vague recollection she is a writer of some sort or a journalist, but I am not certain. To be honest, with the saturation coverage of LGBT+ Rights, Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Don’t Matter, Defund the Police and Stone the Crows protests there has been lately, I am experiencing virtue-signalling fatigue. I have merely come along to the rally to get me out of the house. Betty is having one of her cleaning blitzes and there is bound to be something that I haven’t got around to or am supposed to be doing. When Betty has the bit between her teeth, it is best to stay out of the way.

A quick search on the internet reveals that Eva Morales is a schoolteacher serving ten years in a Malbanian prison for plotting to overthrow the brutal Islamic regime. She probably took photos of a government building or found herself outside a mosque at the wrong time of day. Or tweeted something about the Koran. Or criticised the Supreme Leader in a casual conversation on the street. Google informs me that Quincy Saxx is a seasoned activist with many successful campaigns. Most recently his campaign Stop Abuse against Foreign Workers in Afistan is reckoned to have saved hundreds of lives, possibly because it stopped foreign workers going there.

Quincy seems to accept me as I am. There is no need to talk like Cliff Rhodes. Quincy understands that accents and character are part and parcel of the actor’s craft. The difficulty will arise if he requires me to do interviews. My cover will be blown when he introduces me as Jordan Castle. Milo Devlin might be fooled, but others out there may not. They will know exactly what Castle looks like and immediately realise I am not him. He is one of the most famous actors in the country and Blood Money is one of the most popular shows. I suppose I could tell the interviewers that I am staying in character for a new role in a film. I could wear a theatrical beard or a tousled-hair wig to go with the new part and get some thick horn-rimmed spectacles with a heavy tint. Actors of Castle’s stature can change their appearance out of all recognition at the drop of the hat. Or even simply by wearing a hat.

I work for SZID, an organisation so clandestine that none of us even knows what the letters of the acronym stand for. It is a nine-to-five position in a centrally located office block. It is a secure establishment with layer upon layer of security. We gather sensitive data. This is as much as we are told. It is boring, repetitive work. As everything is encrypted, none of us has any idea what this information might be or where it ends up. But it must mean something to someone, somewhere. It seems to command a high price. Enough for SZID to employ more than fifty people working around the clock to gather the information, not to mention the detail of security staff. Dmitri suggests the packets of data are thought patterns surreptitiously extrapolated from subscribers’ mobile phone use, ready to be input into a thought-control program. He’s probably right. Technology has been steadily moving in this direction for a long time. Ingrid goes a step further and says that this is the primary reason smartphones were invented. It makes sense. Why else would anyone come up with such a tiny product for watching films and listening to music when you already have sophisticated equipment to do this with? There could well be a hidden agenda behind it. It shows the same ingenuity we saw all those years ago with Roy Saxx’s silent trumpet. Can you imagine life now without the silent trumpet?

2:

I am planning to build a workshop in the garden to accommodate Betty’s growing collection of cleaning equipment. The conservatory is no longer big enough. But to do so, I need to generate some extra income. We are not well paid at SZID. What better way to make a fast buck than to sell a secret or two on the black market? Given Quincy Saxx’s wealth of maverick contacts, worldwide, I imagine he might be in a position to point me in the right direction. But as he believes that I am Jordan Castle, stealth is required. I need to tread carefully so that the information I need slips easily into the conversation. He is quite chatty so this may not present too much of a problem, so long as he doesn’t suspect I am trying to manipulate him.

Quincy invites me along to a protest outside the Malbanian Embassy. TV crews will be there, he says, along with a number of fellow celebrities who are committed to the cause, Mark Freelance, Emma Thorson, the singer from Blot, and Phillip C. Dark. I manage to hire a beard and wig and a Dickensian suit from a theatre company. I explain to the TV crew that I am staying in character for my new role.

We have just begun shooting,’ I say. ‘It’s important to get a feel for the part.

Very different from how the public has come to know you as Cliff Rhodes in Blood Money,’ Sophie Gossard-Black says.

Which is exactly why I’m staying in character,’ I say. ‘It can be difficult for an actor not to lapse back into the more familiar role. And historical characters are the hardest to crack.’

Of course,’ Sophie says.

Anyway, Sophie,’ I say, my confidence growing. ‘We are not here to talk about me. We are here to express solidarity. Thousands have turned out here today to show the strength of feeling there is to get Eva Morales, an innocent schoolteacher freed from the hell of a Malbanian gaol. We want to make the message to the rogue regime loud and clear. Free Eva Morales.’

I continue to echo the sentiments that Mark Freelance, Emma Thorson and the others have already shared, and the interview appears to pass without a hitch. Who would have thought that a desk-spook with no acting experience could pull it off? Quincy Saxx seems impressed with my performance and as far as I’m concerned, this is the main thing.

Chatting to Quincy afterwards, I discover that every government and political faction in the world spends a majority of its waking time thinking of new ways to shaft every other government and political faction.

Politics really is dirty, isn’t it?’ I say.’

You better believe it,’ he says. ‘Organisations and people to the left and right of centre. And those in the mainstream. Government departments and lobbyists. Individuals and corporations. The media, press barons, editors. Google, Apple, Microsoft. Bishops, Imams, gurus. They are all at it. There are some unlikely alliances too.’

What Quincy seems to describe is a sophisticated network of exploitation of the masses by an informal alliance for pecuniary gain. He manages to drop individual names and each time he does I make a mental note. As I see it, the bottom line is that data brokers have been buying and selling personal information for a long time. What I am planning is, in a sense, more of the same. Information is power. What I have might be seen as information on steroids. I am selling people’s thought patterns.

With Quincy’s unwitting assistance, I am able to come up with a diverse list of candidates to approach. And from this, come up with others who might have connections with them. I am spoilt for choice. I can juggle the names around and decide who is likely to pay the highest price for the information I am smuggling out of SZID. The best of it is that, in this line of endeavour, I don’t even need to go to the top. These days, it’s dog eat dog, every man for himself and all those other cliches. There are plenty of backstabbers who will be happy to do the deed. Loyalty is a thing of the past. I don’t know exactly what I am selling, of course, I can’t be specific. But mentioning SZID should be sufficient. Movers and shakers will be aware of what it is that SZID is engaged in and want some of it.

While it should be easy to sell the data, I get one knock-back after another. No-one wants to buy. It seems there are organisations like SZID the world over that are also gathering people’s thought patterns and selling them on. The market is saturated. This information fuels economies. Ingrid was right. Thought-control appears to be the main purpose of the smartphone. Like the world-wide-web, initially it was about finding out what you were interested in, but through clever algorithms, this quickly turned into telling you what you are interested in. You are now told what to think. Capitalism depends on it. It’s an open secret. Like the silent trumpet, the smartphone has taken us unawares. How could we have been so naive as to imagine it was introduced to enhance our lives?

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Ben Maceo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ben Maceo by Chris Green

Ben Maceo told me about the clock last week. Ben has special powers, you see. He can tell when things are going to happen. Had it been anyone else, I would never have believed them, but as it was Ben, I knew that it would happen and so I was able to prepare. Ben knew that the big clock in the town’s main square was going to explode and that there would be fragments of time scattered everywhere. He knew you would no longer be able to rely on your watch or the numbers you saw on your phone display to tell the time. He knew that time being the key to practically everything, the chaos would spread. Perhaps I should have shared his warning with others, but I did not. I find that not many people are ready for unpleasant truths, and especially not to hear them before the event. The others on the campus already think that I’m a bit weird for hanging around with Ben.

Anyway, time is all over the place now. Not just hours and minutes, but years and months are coalescing, or separating. No-one knows what is going on and from what I can see from the television pictures, there is panic on the streets. Film crews have been shipped in from far and wide to take a look at the chaos that is happening in the town. Many of course have not been able to get here as time is buffeted around, but some have arrived, or are arriving. But others who have arrived are stuck here, whether they want to be or not.

Every aspect of our everyday lives, as Ben points out, is time-dependent. I am not going to even venture outside until things get back to normal. Perhaps they will never get back to normal, but this is a chance that I have to take. In the meantime, I can take some cuttings from my agave plants and practice some Janacek on my ukulele, and there’s that Schopenhauer essay I have to finish off. Schopenhauer’s view on time is that we spend too much of it ruminating on the past or planning for the future that our lives quickly pass us by. So, I’m going to try to get on with mine. After all, Ben has my phone number. He will let me know if and when there is any change. Perhaps he might even call round. We could listen to my new Ozric Tentacles CD. And, who knows what else?

I have learned to trust Ben’s intuition. It was Ben who told me about the man in the Homburg hat’s arrival at the railway station last June. Ben was aware that the stranger’s very presence in the town would bring about the worst snows on record, and this in the middle of summer too when the rest of the country was basking in the seasonal sunshine. The mystery man was also responsible for the disappearance into thin air of the 11:11 train from the capital to the west country on November 11th, somewhere between the ancient burial sites and the land sculptures by the artist with the unpronounceable name. Ben told me this was going to take place days before it happened.

His gift is that he can detect what is happening behind the scenes. He can see the invisible threads that connect all things. He knows that when one of those threads gets broken that something anomalous will happen. By tracing the path of the broken thread, he says, he can tell exactly what will happen, along with when and where it will happen. He does not do any of this consciously. He says that it’s just like having the radio on in the background. This is how he knew that we would have blizzards in June and he knew the train would disappear.

There is more strangeness in the world than most people realise,’ he is fond of saying. ‘Most people cannot see the mechanics of things happening. They just put events down to cause and effect, without understanding what cause might be or what happens in between cause and effect or else they come up with some claptrap about theoretical physics to explain things.’

I’m right with Ben on this one. Theoretical physicists seem to know very little about the universe. Their theories change every five minutes. They talk about red shifts and blue shifts, expansions from the big bang and contractions down to gravity, dark matter, and dark energy, but despite all this blather, their understanding of what is really going on never seems to become any clearer. The great Karl Popper summed it up by saying, ‘Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.’ Ben Maceo takes it a step further and argues that there is no point at all in universal theories, each event is unique and has its own explanation.

……………………………………………….

Time is still all over the place. So far as I can tell, it has been three days, give or take, so far as I can tell since it all went down and Ben still hasn’t been round to see me. He hasn’t so much as called me. You would think that given his intuitive powers, he would have detected the undeniable chemistry between us. Surely he has spotted that I always sit next to him in Paradox and Plurality. He must have noticed that I hang on his every word. What can he possibly be doing that is getting in the way of our blossoming romance? Especially now. He can’t be busy. College has been closed since the upheaval. He has no excuse not to get in touch.

I left several messages on Ben’s phone, but amidst all of the temporal disorder, I suppose he may not have got them. Perhaps he will get them tomorrow or maybe he got them and thought they were from last week. From before the clock exploded. This could explain why I haven’t had a call. On the other hand, the messages may still be up there in the ether, struggling to find its way, along with all the other communications that have been disrupted. They said on the news that messages from weeks ago were still bumping around out there, trying to find their destination. I suspect some people will have made it out of town, but the newsman said that this would be a risky undertaking because of the wormholes. I imagine the term wormhole is perhaps being used here because they have no idea what is going on.

Ben would be able to explain what is going on, but he probably wouldn’t want to tell them. Perhaps they would not understand it if he did. If you can’t understand something without an explanation, then you can’t understand it with an explanation. I read that somewhere. I wonder where it was. There is an innate tendency to feel that things have always been as they are now and always will be. This is the way the human mind seems to work, but there was always a before and there will always be an after. It’s just a question of learning to think this way. We need to take a more Zen approach.

It is dark much of the day. Sometimes light breaks through for a few minutes but then the sky blackens again. With nothing to regulate them properly, night and day seem to be entirely arbitrary. My laptop is continually doing a system restore and my bedside clock is like a random number generator. I keep picking up numerals off the floor from the various clocks around the flat. Living without the certainty of time takes a lot of getting used to.

Ben did say that in the beginning, at least for the first few days, the aftermath of the explosion in the town would be difficult to live with. Perhaps he has left town. He knew that it was going to happen and seemed to understand the effect it would have, so this would make sense. And this is why he can’t communicate. Bit he should have taken me with him. Instead, I am stuck here. Oh well, no use dwelling on it. If it stays light for a while, I think I will paint some yantric mandalas to focus my mindfulness.

……………………………………………….

The stranger in the Homburg hat. …… The one that Ben described. ……. He is outside my house. ……. He’s looking in the window. ……. He has something in his hand. He is holding it up for me to see. It looks like an envelope, a black envelope, one of those A4 folding ones that you use to keep documents in. …… Oh my God! I can see his silhouette through the frosted glass of the front door. He is wearing a long black overcoat and with the hat looks about seven-feet tall. He’s knocking on the door. ……. What should I do? I’m not ready for this. I am terrified. He knocks again and shouts something. I can’t make out what he is saying. His diction is not good, but it does sound like a threat. ……. Suddenly, there is another rupture in time and to my great relief, the man in the Homburg hat is no longer there. But, the black manilla wallet is lying on the coir doormat inside the door, in front of me. Anxiously, I pick it up and inspect it, afraid to open it to see what is inside.

Finally, I pluck up the courage to take a look. The wallet contains nine sheets of A4 paper, each with several paragraphs of text on, but it is like no writing that I have ever seen before. It is perhaps a little, but only a little, reminiscent of Arabic script. In any event, it looks to the untrained eye as unintelligible as Kurdish or Urdu might be. At the bottom of the last page, as if acting as a signature, there is a line-art graphic of a shattered clock. How am I supposed to make anything of this arcane communication? We covered Theosophy and The Golden Dawn and all that Zoroastrian mysticism in a module last semester, along with Rosicrucianism and the Kabbalah, but I can’t pretend that I followed it that closely. It was too easy to get one mixed up with the other and I drifted off a lot. I think I may have just sat in on the module to be around Ben.

The curious thing is, I find that I am able to read this bizarre communication. Not all of it, certainly, but I can make out passages of the strange text. Where has this remarkable ability sprung from? The letter contains none of the mumbo jumbo from esoteric teachings that the blocks of arcane lettering suggest. Instead, it mentions a meeting. I am to meet an undisclosed party, by the statue of Neil Diamond. The statue of Neil Diamond? Crackling Rosie? Sweet Caroline? Why is there a statue of Neil Diamond? The statue, it says, is located next to the harmonica museum. I didn’t realise there was a harmonica museum in the town. Where on earth is the harmonica museum? The letter doesn’t offer a map. Oh well, I expect I will find it. It is not a large town. The main problem might be the one concerning the specified time, midday. Time has not settled down yet, so how will I know when it is midday and if I do find out, will it still be midday when I get there.

……………………………………………….

Light doesn’t necessarily travel at the speed of light,’ says a muted voice. I cannot see where it is coming from and, at first, think it might just be a voice in my head. After all, it is an odd line in conversation.

The slowest recorded speed for light is thirty-eight miles per hour,’ the voice continues. Is it perhaps some kind of coded message? I turn around to see a short stocky one-armed man in a Pablo Picasso blue and white hooped sweatshirt and black sunglasses emerging from behind the statue of Neil Diamond. He has a Siamese cat perched on his shoulder. Even though there is a lot of competition for strange, if this fellow is going for strange, he has surely succeeded.

Would you like to sing to my cat?’ he says. ‘He likes sea shanties best.’

I don’t think I know any sea shanties,’ I tell him. ‘Sea shanties aren’t a very girlie thing.’

Of course, you do,’ he says, dancing on the spot. ‘Everybody knows at least one sea shanty. What about Blow the man down?’

No sorry,’ I say. ‘I don’t know it.’

What about a folk song then,’ he says. ‘My cat likes Wimoweh. My cat is called Trevor, by the way.’

OK I’ll give it a go,’ I say, finding myself somehow being drawn into Pablo Picasso’s veil of nonsense.

Wimoweh is easy as it doesn’t have a lot of words, but as soon as I start singing, Pablo Picasso disappears along with his cat. One minute they are here and the next they are gone like thieves in the night. I am still no wiser as to what the meeting might have been about, or indeed if this was the meeting at all. I wait outside the harmonica museum for a while, but no-one else turns up to meet with me.

I notice that some men are trying to rebuild the town clock. It is a great brute of a thing, much bigger than I remember it being. It is surrounded by crude scaffolding and one of the men is struggling to carry the minute hand up an improvised ladder while another holds the hour hand in place at three o’clock. Perhaps time will soon be back to normal and I will see Ben again. After all this singularity, I’m looking forward to some straightforward metaphysics and philosophy.

……………………………………………….

By the new saxophone shop? Yes, Ben. Of course, I can meet you there. I’ve got my bicycle. The new saxophone shop, though? I’m not sure where that is…… Ah, I see. Jack of Clubs Street. That’s around the corner from the kaleidoscope repair centre, is it?’

At last, to my great relief, Ben has called me. It’s so good to hear his voice. Since he’s been away, I have had to suspend belief with some of the things that have been happening.

Yes, up Jack of Clubs Street and about a hundred yards on the left,’ he says. ‘You can’t miss it. It has a large Selmer saxophone hanging outside. I’ll meet you in an hour.’

I’m concerned that if I let him off the phone then he will be gone out of my life again. ‘Look! I’ve been worried about you,’ I say. ‘And I’ve been living a nightmare. Where have you been?’

I’ve been here and I’ve been there and I’ve been in between,’ he says. ‘You’re right. Things got a bit mad back there for a while, didn’t they? But, I believe the man in the Homburg hat has gone now.’

Thank God,’ I say. ‘He was sinister.’

I hope the dancing painter with the cat wasn’t too much bother,’ he says. ‘He comes out of the woodwork sometimes when he sees an opportunity. I expect you had to sing a song or two.’

It is uncanny the way Ben knows what has been happening, even though he has not been in town. Or has he? He did say he’s been here and he’s been there and he’s been in between. Anyway, I’m thrilled to be meeting him again. I can hardly contain myself.

I pass the clock and see that the hands are now in place and the men are taking the scaffolding down. A small group of cheery vagrants are gathered around it, celebrating with their bottles of cider. I pass the new statue of Neil Diamond, although I have to say, it doesn’t look a bit like him. I take a detour to avoid some men putting up a hoarding to advertise a new blockbuster called Rocket Man, or something. I’ve not been this way often, but eventually I manage to find Jack of Clubs Street. It is a long narrow street and it is enveloped by a haze so I cannot immediately make out where the saxophone shop is. Then, I spot the silver Selmer saxophone shimmering through the murk. It seems to have fallen from its mount onto the pavement.

But, where is Ben? There is no sign of him. What can have happened? I get off the bike and I look frantically up and down the street. Through the haze, I can see the man in the Homburg hat. He is walking slowly towards me. On his shoulder, he is gripping something with both hands, It is difficult to make out what it is. Is it a balloon? Or, is it a surfboard? It seems to be changing shape. Oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Surely it’s not a rocket launcher! Why has Ben brought me here? Jack of Clubs Street does not seem a safe place to be. The haze clears a little. The man keeps coming towards me. He is close now and I see that what he is carrying is carrying is a bucket of dreams. He offers it to me.

It doesn’t have to be bad,’ he says. ‘You can pick one with a happy ending if you like.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Wish You Were Here

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Wish You Were Here by Chris Green

The huge red and green trucks thunder along the carriageways of the two-lane motorway in both directions. There is something both hostile and haphazard about the way they cross from lane to lane, throwing up dense clouds of dust from the parched road surface. The trucks are military in design with names like KRAZ and URAL, spelt out in assertive typefaces over sinister radiator grilles, their menace tempered only by their remarkable luminosity through the haze. On each wagon, the red and the green bodywork sparkles as if neon-lit.

I have had no sense of smell for years, but the powerful stench of rank diesel from these precipitate leviathans somehow overcomes this and makes me feel nauseous. We are close to the side of the road and we are on foot, which seems somewhat foolhardy out here in the fading light. Although we are apparently miles from civilisation, it has not occurred to us that we might hitch a ride in one of the trucks: they seem to exist only in a virtual sense as if they belong to a separate realm. Perhaps it is through fatigue, but we do not speculate what the mission of the ominous convoys might be, even though there seems to be a complete absence of private cars or buses on the road. The featureless terrain stretches out all around us for miles in every direction. We pass road signs, but these are in Persian script. Not that it would help us much were they not. We do not know the name of anywhere in these parts.

I form the view that I probably blacked out at some point earlier because I have no idea how we have ended up in Iran, close now to the border with Iraq. I have the recollection that Kora and I booked a holiday, but I have a strong feeling that this is not what we had in mind. I remember sitting at home on the terrace of our apartment, looking through brochures filled with pictures of blue seas and beaches resplendent with sturdy coconut palms.

Towards dusk, we follow a rough track towards what looks like a small village, and after a few hundred yards arrive outside a gnarled wooden shack with an illuminated sign with an orange and red logo and some Arabic writing. Hesitantly we step inside hoping that we might be able to buy something to eat. A group of men in brightly coloured djellabas sit around a long table playing some sort of communal board game. They do not appear to register our arrival. A television mounted high up in the far corner of the room playing an Arab news station is thrashing out an issue with some malevolence. A map of the UK comes up on the screen. The attention of the men is captured by this. There are one or two guttural mutterings from the table, followed by an angry shout and a burst of waving of arms in the air. It seems suddenly prudent for us to leave. Once outside, we hear a shot ring out. Kora and I run. There is altogether too much going on here, none of it fortuitous. I begin to feel very tired.
………………………………………………………………….…

I awake with a start and switch on the light, bringing to life a flickering fluorescent tube. I establish that I am alone. The room I find myself in is familiar in an ambiguous kind of way, although it occurs to me, deeply unattractive. The walls are deep purple and most of the furniture is black. In the corner is a lacquered rococo dresser on which are a vase of dead flowers and a stuffed marmoset in a glass case. I form the impression that I have been here a few days, perhaps emerging now from a protracted slumber. I notice I have several days’ growth of beard. Was I clean-shaven before? I sense that I was. Some of the clothing scattered around the floor looks like it might belong to me, which seems a reasonable assumption. I struggle for some moments with my short term memory. My recall is, in fact, close to zero. I am on holiday perhaps. I have in the back of my mind, quite a long way back admittedly, the recollection that this is the case. It occurs that people do not often go on holiday alone. So, one of the key questions is who, if anyone, am I on holiday with? What might my partner’s name be? Here I have considerable difficulty. I cannot remember. I call out several names in turn. Kora! Natasha! Mercedes! Each of these names seems to hold a significant association. I try others. Sharon! Tracey! Rover! Rover is something of a longshot. I have no memory of having owned a dog.

No one replies. I push back the duvet, which sends the Gideon bible and a wooden ocarina hurtling to the floor. I have a quick swill in the blackened enamel sink, slip on my jeans and Iceman hoody and search for some clues. I look for items that might be useful in my present situation like a mobile phone, map, passport, tickets or money. I conduct a thorough search and come up with a registration document for a Dodge Challenger and some Barclaycard receipts for night-time lingerie, neither of which seems particularly helpful. I venture down the stairs. Dusty etchings reminiscent of Jake and Dinos Chapman hang on the walls, and the empty echo of a lingering silence hangs on the air. There is a small lobby at the foot of the stairs. I ring the bell more as a gesture than with any real hope of someone appearing. I can’t help noticing there is a 1983 A-Team calendar on the wall. Am I perhaps in some kind of time warp?

I take a hesitant walk outside. I experience the feeling of being outside myself, like an onlooker on my situation. It is dark, but although it is dark, objects still cast a stubborn shadow as if it were light. The half-standing buildings and piles of collapsed masonry and rubble suggest to me that the place has been bombed and abandoned. Maybe some while ago; there are no signs of recent habitation. No vehicles. No bodies. I wonder momentarily how it happened. Is it a terrorist attack, or is there a war going on at this very moment, whenever this is, in whatever country I am in? In whatever year? The building I have come from is the only one still standing. Remarkable, I think, that it still has electricity. But this is far from the only peculiarity. In the distance, the old man in a long overcoat and homburg hat calling to his cats has a distinctly spectral aspect. I wave to him and call out but he did not seem to see or hear. I approach him and call again, but still, he does not acknowledge me.

I move on down the street, if street is not too grandiose a description for this cluster of rubble. I speculate further as to where I might be and how I came to be there (by road, rail or inter-planetary craft maybe) but to little avail. My memory refuses to join in with the exercise. On finding a signpost in a script I do not recognise, for no lucid reason, I ignore the more likely roads back to civilisation and take a narrow path where the marker on the sign has been broken off. Tall berberis hedging flourishes on either side of the path. A little too abundantly perhaps. It quickly becomes difficult to see anything at all in the unmitigated gloom. The ground is uneven and several times I stumble and have to break my fall.

After covering a few hundred yards with only minor scratches and bruises I reach a clearing. Amidst the faint shafts of light, I can make out a dozen or so small igloo-shaped buildings some constructed of regular light-coloured wooden blocks, and others made out of wicker so that they looked like large baskets. A voice tells me this is ‘where the children lived’. I look around. I imagine it might be the old man with the cats that has spoken, but no-one is there. What children? Where were they? What is this place?

I continue on my way, taking a track through a shallow wooded area. Mushrooms of all shapes and sizes grow in the spaces between the trees. I recognise the red and white spotted ones from children’s’ stories. Stories I recall I have read to my daughter. I have a daughter. My partner is called Kora and I have a daughter named Sierra. She is five, or is it twelve? Pretty much everything else seems hazy, though. Like where we live or what has happened or how the holiday, if it is a holiday, has turned out like this. Something about red and green trucks is trying to make its way into my consciousness when I come eventually to a disused railway station covered in brown ivy and blind black parrots. None of this surely was in the brochure.
…………………………………………………………………….

Kora and I drive up the steep ravine in a dark green coach with running bars along the side. I experience the feeling that l have done this many times. Perhaps every day. Kora, however, seems excited and wants to take a turn at driving, so I move over and I let her. I sit on the running board to take in the view, although there is no view, just the occasional colony of startled bats caught in the headlights. As we climb, the passage between the sides of the gully becomes narrower and steeper. The pitch of the engine becomes higher and higher. In places, there is only a couple of inches between the sides of our carriage and the granite rocks either side of the what has now developed into a railway track. Our carriage is one of several being hauled uphill by an ungainly steam locomotive. We are in the goods van. Natasha is holding a baby wrapped in a block of ice. The ice begins to melt and I feel a huge wave of concern that the baby might die. Things it seems are getting out of control. What a strange world this is where everything constantly changes without warning.

The train carries on regardless up the incline, straining more and more as the engine struggles to cope. A tune is going round and round in my head. It has such a simple melody, but for a while, I can’t work out what song it was. This occupies my mind for several moments, taking my thoughts away from the alarming surrealism of my situation. The engine’s boiler begins to sound as if it is about to blow apart. Thick clouds of smoke belch out into the sky. The tune in my head is growing faster and faster, keeping pace with the engine’s pistons. Is it something by Blur, or Radiohead maybe? It feels as if my head is going to explode. Finally, I work it out. It is Frères Jacques. At this point, the chasm widens dramatically and the ground levels out. Here we join a purposeful procession of people on foot on either side of us, some carrying pikes and tridents, or are they clarinets and saxophones? It is hard to tell in the gloom. Several of them are dressed as Napoleon and hold raised flags emblazoned with arcane symbols. So great is my confusion, I cannot say for sure whether we are on the train or not at this point. Or if there has ever been a train.

We look down from our vantage point upon a magnificent river estuary bathed in reflections from the town on the other side. Suddenly, zipping up the river at astonishing speeds are two sparking whales. Beads of gold like a chain of shimmering ripples on the water lay in their wake as they dive in and out of the water in a straight path upstream. They must be travelling at a hundred miles an hour and measured two hundred feet from tip to tail. The crowd that has now gathered on the bank to watch lets out an appreciative cheer. It seems to be some kind of fish race. No whales aren’t fish, are they? They are insects.

My memory is beginning to return to me. I remember sitting with Kora at the breakfast table in our apartment opening the mail a few weeks ago. I remember a letter which read, Congratulations. You have won the holiday of your dreams.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

The Startling Discovery of Phlogiston

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The Startling Discovery Of Phlogiston by Chris Green

Things started getting weird around here some time ago, following the startling discovery of phlogiston. The previous belief, kept alive for many years by charlatans, was that everything was made up of 118 elements, all arranged neatly by the number of protons, electron configurations and recurring chemical properties, into something they called the Periodic Table. What nonsense this seems now! How on earth did they get away with such poppycock for so long? It is now accepted worldwide that phlogiston, a substance without colour, odour, taste, or weight, is present in all materials.

Certainly, chemists struggled against the facts at first, insisting on their complex explanations of matter. I suppose this was understandable. After all, they were trying to protect their lucrative research posts. But, they were finally forced to admit that they had made up all of the mumbo-jumbo. We now know there are just four elements.

Since the startling discovery of phlogiston, things tend to be much more random. Here’s a snapshot.

Chris Christ, my housemate is watching the brilliant blind surfer, Tom Crews in the final of the water-sports on his screen. Crews is going for Gold.

Oh My God.’ CC screams as with the help of his guide dog, Marvin, Crews manages to get himself upright on the board and ride the huge breakers of the Boogaloo Bay swell.

CC tends to be easily impressed so I ignore his outburst. I am more interested in the Octathlon which is playing on the other channel. I am rooting for Curt Tarver in the Quoits. He is already twenty points ahead after an heroic performance in the Shin Kicking but his close rival, Bud Register has his best events, the Moonwalking and the Cheese Rolling still to come. And you can never rule out Benito Pond. He is the World Bog Snorkelling champion.

It is hard to believe that just a few years ago people played mindless team games like football and cricket and bet money on horses running around a wet track, jumping over hedges. And that silly game where they hit a ball backwards and forwards over a net for a few hours.

Imagine now, driving forty miles in a slow moving queue of traffic to an out of town retail park to buy a car-load of stuff that you didn’t need. These days everything just arrives as you need it. You don’t even have to go on the Internet. The Internet. What a waste of time that was!

Look! Here’s a delivery now! It’s simply uncanny how they know I need forty pounds of kelp and a rusty mangle. I greet Bryn, the driver of the Scammell Scarab. Bryn and I chat about sandstorms and gravy and, of course, about the benefits brought about by the startling discovery of phlogiston. Quite thoughtful of Bryn to have brought the bucket of snakes too. CC will be able to cook them up later and make a nice stew.

Bryn says he’s off down the road to Tequila Hawks’ caravan next. Tequila has entered the Poison Your Neighbour’s Pet competition and she needs henna to lace the neighbour’s ferret’s coca cola with. If she wins she is going to use her prize money to take the hovercraft to Rangoon.

Enjoy the sunshine,’ Bryn says as he gets into the Scammell.

I wonder why we are still pretending that the earth orbits the sun. How stupid is that? It’s clear that the sun moves around the earth. You can see it every day crossing the sky. It’s amazing just how much we are duped.

Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Cat Town

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Cat Town by Chris Green

Chet’s train to Chatton has never been this late. It is seven o’clock. He has been on the platform for an hour and a half without seeing a soul. Where are the other passengers? Admittedly, Dark Hollow is a quiet backwater, but in the six weeks he has been working at the secret research establishment here, Chet has never known the station to be completely empty. At this time of day, there are usually a steady stream of people on their way home from the base. For that matter, where are the trains going up the line to Everwinter? Even if there are delays on the southbound track, surely there should have been a northbound train or two in the time he has been waiting. Where are Vlad and Dmitri, he wonders? They always take the northbound train.

Chet puts away his paperback of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, and gets up to check the timetable on the wall. According to this, it should be the busiest time of the day. Half a dozen trains are scheduled to stop. Something is badly wrong. He tries to phone Mandy to let her know that he will be late, but he does not have a signal. He takes the battery out of the phone and the SIM card and puts them back in. He fiddles around with Settings. Still nothing. No signal, no wi-fi, nothing.

It is Friday, so Mandy will be setting off for her Pilates class about now. Chet remembers that he has sometimes seen a taxi waiting outside the station. It is a long journey and will be expensive, but it will be worth it. He takes the exit to investigate. There is no taxi waiting today. But there is a phone box. He can phone Mandy on her mobile and find out what is going on. If she is in the middle of her spine stretches or leg circles and does not answer, he can phone Doug or Pete. One of them will surely have some information about what is going on. He inserts his debit card, but the machine spits it out. He tries his other cards. The same thing happens.

The streets are empty, no people, no vehicles anywhere. The air is gripped by a Simon and Garfunkel silence. Has the village been evacuated in the time he has been waiting in the station? Chet considers walking back to the base, but it is getting dark now, and it is coming on to rain. The base itself is half a mile away and he would be able to contact someone from there. But as he does not have to work tomorrow, he does not feel the inclination to retrace his steps. Perhaps next week he will start driving to work like some of his colleagues do. He could do a car share with Kobayashi perhaps. He also lives in Chatton. In truth, he is a little scared by the idea of going back into the underground base at night. It is quite a sinister place at the best of times. He has not yet discovered what its actual function is. All he knows is that the information he handles is Classified.

He crosses the footbridge to the other platform. The door to the station office is locked, but it submits easily to a gentle nudge from his shoulder. He tries the phone. It is disconnected. After a few deep breaths to calm himself, he concludes there must be a simple explanation. Meanwhile, there is nothing to do but to stay put. If the worst comes to the worst, he can sleep on the bench in the waiting room. If a train turns up in the night then fine but if not, whatever emergency is causing the delays is certain to be sorted out by morning.

Chet has a night of fitful sleep, plagued by dreams of searching for missing cats and being trapped at the bottom of dried-up wells. This is only broken by an announcement over the public address system that the 5:29 train to Ramwood, calling at Fool’s Marsh and Little Holbeck and Cat Town will be 11 hours and 41 minutes late, due to an irretrievable loss. The 5:29? This is his train from yesterday evening. Clinging to the hope that the 11 hours and 41 minutes has elapsed, Chet wearily makes his way on to the platform to see what is going on. But really, the excuses they come up with for train delays. Irretrievable loss, what is all that about? And the announcer. Cat Town. Surely he means Chatton.

The platform is empty. Overnight, clumps of weeds have sprung up between the paving. A few of the station’s windows have been broken and there is some fresh graffiti. It is in a language that he does not understand. To his greater astonishment, the railway tracks have disappeared. For as far as he can see up and down the line in both directions, there are no tracks. It is as if the line has been closed for years. The space has been taken over by bramble and bindweed, burdock and bracken. There are prize-winning marsh thistles and even some sizeable sycamore trees growing.

Chet feels a surge of panic. While he is aware that the work he does at the base might be sensitive, none of his training has prepared him for any eventuality like this. Any prospect of a rational explanation appears to have vanished. Anxiously he investigates the area outside the front of the station. Here again, things have changed since yesterday. There is random debris strewn on the tarmac, a buckled bicycle wheel, a torn rubber boot, a shattered picture frame and a washing-up bowl. There is broken glass on the pavement here and there and a build-up of litter in the gutter. Yet, there is no sign of life. The streets are in the grip of the intimidating mute stillness they were yesterday.

Mandy must be worried sick by now. Either that or she is thinking he is having an illicit affair. Perhaps she thinks that he has run off with her friend, Lucy again. It was last Christmas, but Mandy doesn’t seem to have completely forgiven him for his transgressions. He needs to get back to reassure her, and soon. He takes the phone out again, but now it won’t even power up. How is he going to get back home? Back to reality? Also, might whatever has happened here be happening everywhere? Might what was accepted by everyone as reality yesterday now be gone forever?

Back on the platform of the station, Chet spots the lone figure of a man in the distance. He is a few hundred yards along the track, or what yesterday would have been the railway track. Today it is a veritable jungle. The man has a stick and is beating back the bracken. He seems to be searching for something. The railway track perhaps? Disorientated Chet might be, and terrified, but at least he has not lost his sense of humour. He chuckles. Slowly he makes his way through the undergrowth. He can hear a faint voice. The man is calling out something, a name maybe. Perhaps he has lost his cat. Or his parrot. Or his pig. Or his monkey.

With each step, the vegetation becomes thicker until it is so dense it threatens to envelop him. The more Chet moves towards Doctor Dolittle, the further away he seems to get. Doctor Dolittle grows fainter and fainter as if he is evaporating. Finally, he vanishes altogether. Was he nothing more than a phantom, Chet wonders? Is he losing his mind? At least, the station was a place of relative safety. He turns around to make his way back there. To his horror, the station has disappeared. He is faced with an unfamiliar terrain. He cannot even work out where the station might have been.

Chet stumbles through the wilderness, in search of something, anything, that will offer hope of escape from this surreal nightmare. He successfully avoids the swarm of wild bees that comes at him, but he does not see the gap in the ground cover until it is too late. There is nothing he can hold on to. He finds himself at the bottom of what seems to be a dried up well. The air is chilling and has the smell of damp earth, mould, moss, lichen. He is dazed. He tries to pick himself up. His legs feel weak and his shoulders, arms, and chest hurt from the impact. He tries to examine the grazes on his arms, but he cannot see his body at all. He looks up. He can only see is a thin slither of daylight.

He is now shaking with fear. How is he going to get out of here? The gap is narrow and the walls are sheer. There is no way he will be able to scale them. And surely the chances of someone happening by in this wilderness are minuscule. Is this it, then? A slow lingering death? He will never see Mandy again. He will never again touch her soft skin or taste her sweet lips. Nor Lucy’s, for that matter. He will never make that trip to Venice. Or see the final episode of Black Mirror. He will never own that small jazz club that he has dreamed about. He will never live to see West Ham win the Premier League. Well, no change there then.

Hello! …… Chet!’ calls an echoey voice from up above.

God, am I glad to hear a voice,’ Chet shouts back.

I’m sorry that you fell down the well,’ the voice says. ‘I should have covered it up. Are you OK?’

Get me out, can you please,’ Chet shouts.

Don’t worry. Don’t worry. I will soon have you out of there. Let me go and get some rope.’

No. I don’t need any dope. I just want to get out of here.’

Rope! I will throw down a rope for you. ……. Just hang on there a moment.’

With this, the stranger goes off. Chet is nervous that he will not return. But he is given little chance to indulge his dark despair. In no time at all the man is back and has secured a length of rope. He tosses it down. Chet catches it and climbs up to daylight.

I am sorry about that, Chet,’ he says. ‘I hope you don’t mind. I’m Haruki Murakami. I noticed that you were reading a book of mine, back there at the station.’

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. Yes, I was. I love it.’

Now! Chet! I’m doing some research around here for a new novel. It has the usual themes, murder, sex, war, jazz from the nineteen fifties, lost cats and, of course, dried-up wells, but this time there are going to be some English characters. It has a protagonist who works in covert operations, has a dark foreboding character, dreams of owning a jazz bar and is having a clandestine liaison with his wife’s friend. I do apologise, but you seem to have walked into my novel.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

More Weird Shit – an Inspector Boss Mystery

moreweirdshit

More Weird Shit – An Inspector Boss Mystery by Chris Green

It didn’t occur to you that a two-year-old Mercedes Sprinter on sale in Toker’s End for less than two grand might be hot,’ Jonny Geezer says.

To be fair, we were a bit strapped for cash, guv, and there wasn’t that much around,’ Gandy says. ‘And time was of the essence.’

So, let’s get this straight. To do a job, you saddle us with a van that the filth will be all over even before we start,’ Jonny says. ‘You might as well have just nicked one like other blaggers do. ……. What’s in the blue bag in the back there? Looks like one of those Ikea bags.’

It appears to be empty, guv,’ Gandy says. ‘The odd thing is, it weighs a ton. I could hardly move it.’

You’re such a wimp, Gandy?’ Jonny says. ‘Let me have a go.’

With a huge effort, Jonny manages to move the bag a few inches. While he is doing so, the bag appears to change shape.

It is as if the bloody thing is breathing,’ he says. ‘It seems to have a life of its own.’

I meant to tell you about that,’ Gandy says.

Then why didn’t you?’

What do you think it is, guv?’

It’s not someone’s shopping from Ikea, is it, Gandy? What was the fella that sold you the van like?’

Average height. Medium build. Dark hair. Didn’t take much notice, to be honest, guv.’

Not from outer space or anything then?’

No perfectly ordinary guy. He had the registration document for the van. I gave him a fake name and address and handed him the cash and that was it.’

You’re sure it was a kosher registration document?’

Well, now you come to mention it, he seemed to want to get things over with quickly, like.’

………………………………………..

Sorry to spring this on you so early, sir,’ Lennon says. ‘But there’s no easy way to tell you. Another bag has gone missing.’

From your serious expression, I take it you mean a blue Ikea bag,’ Inspector Boss says.

I’m afraid so,’ Lennon says. ‘Like the one you told me about.’

This is not the kind of news that Casey Boss of the Strange Occurrence Detail wants to hear first thing in the morning. His stress levels are already through the roof following SOD’s bungled inquiry into the phone signal hi-jack. And the fallout from the invisibility investigation. With so much weird shit going down lately and landing in his lap, he finds it hard to keep up with it all. His doctor has told him to avoid stressful situations. He has warned him that any more stress could prove fatal. He is on powerful beta-blockers which he supplements this with black-market drugs. He is not sure he should even be at work. Just the trip up in the lift to his fourth-floor office these days raises his anxiety.

That was what started it all off. I was coping well before that, Lennon!’ Boss says. ‘Is that really your name? ….. What happened to Jagger?’

Jagger got shot, sir. Last month. Don’t you remember?’

Oh, that’s right. I do seem to recall now. Outside the corned-beef processing plant that was a cover for a tulpa store, wasn’t it?’

That’s right. What is a tulpa, sir? I’ve been meaning to ask.’

Never mind that now, lad. Give me the lowdown on this new business. We’d better get on to it. What do we know?’

The courier who was supposed to deliver this blue bag to the secret location used by the Department that we are not allowed to mention had his van stolen at 3.30 yesterday morning,’ Lennon says.

I see. And presumably said van hasn’t turned up,’ Boss says. ‘And the thinking is that the bag is jam-packed with arcane ideas, I take it. So it will in all probability be in the hands of a rogue regime or terrorists by now,’

That’s the suggestion, sir. Yes.’

And that’s why we’ve been landed with the case.’

Indeed, sir. And as you keep telling me, the first forty-eight hours is critical.’

I know. I know, lad. Just give me what we’ve got, will you?’

Would you like me to get you your meds, sir, and a glass of water?

………………………………………..

We need to find out what this weird shit is, Gandy,’ Jonny Geezer says. ‘PDQ.’

What about talking to TeeJay?’ Gandy says. ‘You never know. Whatever it is in the bag might be worth money.’

He’s not going to buy something he can’t see, is he?’ Jonny says.

Brett and Bro?’ Gandy says. ‘They’re gullible. Especially Bro. I sold him his own Kawasaki bike once.’

I’ve got it,’ Jonny says. ‘Pete the Maj. He is the man to see. Pete’s a spoon bender. He knows about paranormal shit. He lives around here. Harmonica Road. Just off Tambourine Way. Pete will be able to tell us what is going on.’

They drive the van around to Harmonica Road. Pete the Maj’s house is a quotidian no-fines semi, distinguishable only by the bank of satellite dishes and the black flag flying on the flagpole outside. Pete answers the door. Jonny and Gandy exchange puzzled looks. In their world, men don’t often answer the door wearing orange wet suits with marmosets perched on their shoulders.

Hi guys,’ Pete says. ‘I’ve been expecting you.’

They hadn’t phoned ahead. How could he possibly know they were coming, they wonder?

And what’s more, I know what exactly you have come about,’ Pete adds. ‘What you have is a bag full of concepts waiting to be realised. In a word, my friends, ideas.’

But it looks like there’s nothing in the bag,’ Jonny says.

What do you expect, Jonny? Ideas are invisible,’ Pete says.

But despite this, the bag is heavy,’ Gandy says. ‘It took the two of us to pick it up.’

Of course, it’s heavy,’ Pete says. ‘Ideas are often complex. You didn’t think they just came floating in through the kitchen window, did you? Or that you could download them from the Internet?’

If you can’t see them, how do you know what they are?’ Jonny asks.

Firstly, you need to know where they came from,’ Pete says. ‘I’m guessing by the look of you that you don’t know.’

Not as such,’ Gandy says.

Then you need to have the right equipment and the necessary skills to get them to materialise. I’m pretty sure you are not going to have that,’ Pete says.

So without this equipment, no-one can tell what it is,’ Jonny says.

Exactly,’ Pete says. ‘Perhaps now that you’re here, you might like to sing to my marmoset. She’s called Sacha. She’s very friendly.’

You wouldn’t like to hazard to a guess what the stuff might be, I suppose,’ Gandy says.

Many new ideas come from military sources, microwaves, GPS, 5g, all these are military in origin,’ Pete says. ‘The internet too originated in the military, along with lots of everyday things like disposable razors and superglue. So that’s where my money would be. ……. Although you wouldn’t think the military would transport the raw material in a blue Ikea bag.’

………………………………………..

We’d better get the courier in here, Lennon,’ Boss says. ‘What did you say his name was?’

It’s a hard one to get your head around,’ his sidekick says. ‘Banana Petroleum or something like that. He’s Albanian, apparently. ……. Ah, here it is, Bajrami Pernaska.’

Let’s stick with Banana Petroleum. ….. OK! Get Petroleum in here this morning. He could well be in on it, don’t you think?’

It would certainly make our job easier if he were, sir.’

Look! If you joined the department because you thought it would be easy, Lennon, you’re in for a rude awakening. This isn’t the regular constabulary, lad. This is SOD. The Strange Occurrence Detail. You better be ready for all kinds of weird shit. None of it good or easy.’

I didn’t for a minute imagine it would be easy,’ Lennon says. ‘I knew there would be a lot to learn. I’ve not worked in metaphysical policing before. I have a mind games background.’

Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, eh, lad?’

What?’

Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower.’

Eh?’

From old songs, lad. I thought you might know them.’

Before my time, I imagine, guv.’

Inspector Boss’s Albanian is not up to speed and Banana Petroleum’s English is not much better. It takes twenty minutes to establish that BP is a delivery driver for Safe as Houses Security and while the van he was using when it was stolen belonged to them, due to an oversight in planning, it had none of the firm’s livery. It was a plain white van.

I stop van for smoke,’ Banana Petroleum says. ‘When I return, van gone. In trouble now. Yes.’

You know what was in the van then I take it,’ Boss says.

Van gone,’ BP repeats. ‘In trouble now. Lose job.’

After an hour they establish that BP probably did not know what he was carrying, and the van was taken from outside the community centre on the Toker’s End estate, a notorious spot for petty criminals and drug dealers.

We’d better get around to Toker’s End, Lennon,’ Boss says. ‘Have you had any small arms training?’

Not really, sir,’ Lennon says. ‘Most of my work involved writing confusing copy for under the counter publications.’

Well no doubt, these skills will come in useful,’ Boss says.

………………………………………..

I don’t know how to tell you this, guv, but the bag seems lighter,’ Gandy says. ‘Like something has escaped.’

And how did that happen, Gandy?’ Jonny Geezer says. ‘I told you to keep an eye on it.’

I kept an eye on it. I didn’t let it out of my sight.’

How did that happen?’

A complete mystery, guv. I even made sure the CCTV was focussed on it. But I’ve played the footage back and there’s nothing to see. The hard disc has been wiped.’

That’s should be impossible. ….. Well. Never mind, Gandy. I suppose it’s a good thing in a way, seeing as the stuff in the bag was invisible anyway and we wouldn’t have been able to sell it.’

Shall I just ditch the bag then?’

To be on the safe side, we’ll hang on to it for now. With all this strangeness around, you never know.’

………………………………………..

Before we rush off to Toker’s End,’ Lennon says. ‘Have you seen this splashed across the front of the paper? It says that all across the country, time is going backwards. In Brighton, it has gone back to Tuesday. In Swindon, it’s Monday last week and in Bristol, it has gone back to January.’

Let me have a look, will you?’ Boss says.

Here you go, boss.’

Don’t call me that, man. How many times?’

OK, guv.’

Nor that. Guv is for hoodlums and lowlife.’

Sorry, sir.’

God’s teeth!. You are right, Lennon. It looks like time is on the blink. Looking at the locations they mention here, there doesn’t seem to be a pattern to it, although all the places are in the south of the country. I hope it’s not heading this way. We haven’t noticed anything different here yet, though, have we?’

I didn’t like to mention it, sir, but the hands of my watch do seem to be going backwards.’

I see. Oh my God! So they are. Not good, lad! I’ve got a bad feeling about this. It could well be connected to the disappearing bag. That’s why the bigwigs have got us on it. I imagine we will get a call from them shortly telling us to pull our fingers out.’

I’ve just had a newsflash come up on my phone,’ Lennon says. ‘It’s from Devon Live. It’s about 9/11. It says planes have crashed into the Twin Towers in New York. A newsflash. As if it’s just happened. Time must have gone further back down south.’

Have I got much of that stuff left, Lennon?’ Boss says.

You mean your meds, sir? Yes, there’s enough for a week or so. But, to be on the safe side, would you like me to order some more. I think I have your man’s number here. Is he really called Razor?’

Yes. I think you’d better. This could be a fraught investigation.’

………………………………………..

Who do I speak to in SOD?’ the Home Secretary, Mercy Creech asks her PA, Dodd. Mercy is new to the job. She has only been in post for three weeks.

That would be Inspector Casey Boss,’ Dodd says. ‘Would you like me to get him on the phone?’

Yes. That would be good. What’s he like, this Boss?’

Well, he’s probably in his late fifties’ Dodd says. ‘He appears to be a little vacant unless this is merely an affectation. But you’d have to say, he’s a bit dour. He’s always complaining how under-resourced SOD is. But don’t they all claim to be undermanned.’

Got you. SOD have lost a few of their officers lately, haven’t they?.’

Yes, Home Secretary. They had one taken out just last month. Jagger, I believe. Terrible business.’

Dodd keys in the number and hands the phone to Mercy Creech. Inspector Boss leaves it to ring for a while before picking up. He has a fair idea of what is coming.

Ah, Boss. Home Secretary calling. Good to make your acquaintance. I take it you are up to speed on the crisis.’

I’ve picked up the gist of it, yes.

Look! I’ve spoken to the Department that I’m not permitted to mention and they tell me that this matter is now Category XX. In a word, time is going backwards. Now, as I understand it, because just one bag of whatever it was went missing, this is only happening in certain places, mostly down south. In other locations, nothing has happened. In most parts of the country, it is still today. But the rupture in time could spread. How is it where you are?’

It’s just stared here, Home Secretary. Weird business. One minute, it’s dark and the next it’s light and then it’s dark again. At a guess, we are about three weeks back at the moment.’

I see. It’s gone so far they are already back on dial-up in some places. In West Somerset, they say it has gone back to 1983.’

Boss wonders how they can tell. It probably always seems like 1983 in West Somerset, but he doesn’t say anything.’

We to need to recover the missing bag quickly,’ the Home Secretary continues. ‘Even then, it might be too late.’

I might need more personnel, Home Secretary. We’ve taken a bit of a hit lately, if you’ll excuse my pun.’

Yes, so I hear. We will look into it and be reassured, we are trying to get to grips with gun crime.’

And my new sidekick, Lennon is inexperienced in the field.’

Lennon, you say? Is that really his name?’

………………………………………..

Casey Boss is always nervous about contacting Colonel Ж of the Department that cannot be named, but if they are to make any progress on the case, he realises he must do so now. To prepare himself, he takes a handful of the Razor’s designer supplements. He has no idea what they are, but they seem to do the job.

Ah, Boss,’ Colonel Ж says. ‘I was wondering when you would call. What’s it like where you are?’

Time is going backwards here. I don’t know how exactly it works but as far as I can tell, we are not going backwards with it,’ Boss says. ‘If you get my drift.’

It is one of those things that is difficult to predict with any certainty,’ the Colonel says. ‘Especially as nothing like this has happened before. Time is still going forward normally here, but, of course, this could change at any moment. The distribution seems to have happened more or less at random. I’m getting lots of conflicting reports. There’s nothing uniform about the spread. Did you know it’s gone back to 1913 in Windsor? They are worried about the military build-up in the Balkans.’

I’ve given the issue some thought,’ Boss says. ‘Off the top of my head, it would appear that we need to get to the depot where the van was loaded. And hope that time in this location has not gone too far back. Then, we can just load the bag or bags that were to be transported on a different van and perhaps that will change things back.’

Good thinking.’ the Colonel says. ‘I’m not sure it will work but it’s certainly worth a try. If I give you the location, can you get another van there quickly?’

I’ll get my man, Lennon on to it right away, Colonel,’ Boss says.

Lennon? Is that really his name?’ the Colonel says.

………………………………………..

From what you said earlier, sir, I gathered we were on a tight budget but guess what, I managed to get us a two-year-old Mercedes van from Gumtree for a very good price,’ Lennon says. ‘Only 100,000 on the clock.’

Good work, Lennon. Let’s get on with it then,’ Boss says. ‘Time is of the essence.’

In more way than one, sir, if you get my drift,’ Lennon says.

Oh, I see, time. Very droll,’ Boss says. ‘Here’s the postcode to key in.’

After driving for several hours through fractured time zones, they find themselves in logistics-land, deep in the heart of the Midlands. Here, the roads are newly tarmacked and have clear white lines and elaborate traffic furniture at all the roundabouts. There are new warehouse buildings lining both sides of the road. Time seems unaffected. It is six-thirty on Thursday evening, which they calculate is what it should be.

Only three more miles, sir, Lennon says.

Perhaps we are in time then,’ Boss says.

In time. You are at it again, sir. Look! That must be the depot up there on the right, don’t you think? The tall one with the camouflage cladding.’

I think that’s probably Colonel Ж getting out of the Hummer.’

You can get quite a lot of people in a Hummer, can’t you? And look! They are heavily armed.’

Military unit, Lennon. All we were given was this pistol. And, as you know, I had to beg for that.’

My watch is starting to go backwards again, sir. But that’s good, isn’t it?’

Perfect. All we have to do then is get out and wait until yesterday.’

That may not be too long. The hands-on my watch are spinning wildly.’

………………………………………..

The cargo always travels by night, the Colonel tells them. The missing cargo set off from the depot with Safe as Houses Security at midnight. The task this time is to pick up the bag an hour earlier than originally planned and head for the secret location. They will be escorted by Colonel Ж and his men in the Hummer. The secret location is a hundred miles away in the direction they’ve come. They will be informed of the exact location once they are near. The latest reports from the secret location suggest that time here is behaving as it should. Boss wonders why the Department could not have done this without them, but his is not to reason why. Why hadn’t they delivered the original cargo by helicopter if it was so sensitive? Or at least put it with a reputable carrier? It seems a bit lax to trust it with a random Albanian dude with a white van. Boss wonders too at what point, time will correct itself. Will this return to normal when the bag is safely aboard the van, when it has travelled further than it originally did or only when it is safely delivered. While logic suggests the first option, there is nothing rational about the current situation. Perhaps, it is a riddle that no-one can be sure of the answer to, not even the Colonel.

We don’t know exactly where the van was stolen,’ Boss says. ‘Banana Petroleum was not very specific and in the end, we found we were just wasting time by grilling him further, but we have a rough idea. So to be on the safe side, we will take a different route.’

OK. Let’s get the show on the road,’ Colonel Ж says ‘We’ll be close behind you. You can be sure of that.’

………………………………………..

We’d better try to get rid of the van,’ Jonny Geezer says. ‘Count our losses. If we don’t ask much for it, someone’s around here is sure to snap it up. Probably someone else who wants a plain white van to do a knock-over.’

I was meaning to talk to you about that, guv,’ Gandy says. ‘The van has, how can I put it? Gone. One minute it was there, the next, it wasn’t.’

What!’

Someone must have half-inched it while my back was turned. I was on the phone to Loulou. The van was only out of my sight for a few minutes, then I went back to lock it up and …… well, it wasn’t there. I didn’t hear anything. It must have all happened very quickly.’

Someone who knew we wouldn’t report it, probably.’

Next time, we’ll just have to nick one like you said, guv.’

You ditched the bag, didn’t you?’

You told me not to. …… Didn’t you?’

Where did you put it?’

It’s in the shed back here, boss. …….. Look!’

Where am I looking, Gandy?’

Oh no! The bag has gone too.’

………………………………………..

As far as it’s possible to tell, time has settled down. To the good folks of Windsor, the military build-up in the Balkans is nothing more than an episode in history. They are once more able to harangue the graceless town planners in neighbouring Slough. In Devon, they have got over the shock of 9/11 and can once again whinge about the legions of caravanners that flock to their beauty spots every year and get stuck in the narrow lanes. Brighton is now straight again too and back on British Summer Time. The urban centres of Swindon and Bristol are back on track, each dreaming that one day, they might be able to produce a successful football team. Maybe eventually field a side to progress beyond the Fifth Round of the F.A. Cup. Throughout the land, clocks and watches are synchronised. Dates for events throughout the year are once again set in the calendar. Yet, for some unaccountable reason, in parts of West Somerset it still appears to be 1983.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Soft Watches

Created with GIMP

Soft Watches by Chris Green

Google seemed a little under the weather when she greeted me this morning,’ Rosie says, ‘I thought she sounded croaky last night too when I asked her who did the painting with the soft watches hanging from trees. I hope she isn’t going down with something.’

Who did the painting with the soft watches?’ I say.

Salvador Dalí,’ Rosie says. ‘It’s called The Persistence of Memory. I remembered. That’s good, isn’t it?’

Well done!’ I say. Apparently, testing one another’s memory helps to slow down the ageing process. At our age, we need all the help we can get.

Anyway, I asked Google how she was,’ Rosie says. ‘And she said she was feeling fit as a fiddle. But I think she might have been putting on a brave face. She could just be a little run down. She works very hard.’

Indeed,’ I say, ‘We can’t be the only people asking her for information. And at any time of day, she answers straight away. It must be an awfully long day for her.’

I couldn’t believe it at first, but I now realise that Rosie thinks the person voicing the Google Home speaker is real. An everyday person just waiting to respond to our queries. I know I should tell her. We’ve only had the speaker for a few days. We bought it from someone at the door. He had a job lot of them and was selling them along our street. For the time being, it’s fun to play along with Rosie’s misapprehension. It is purely for my own amusement. I haven’t shared it with anyone. I just want to see how long it will take Rosie to realise it’s not a real person. I didn’t imagine it would take her so long.

It’s worrying though, isn’t it, Jim?’ Rosie says. ‘What with coronavirus spreading like it is. What if Google’s caught coronavirus?’

If she goes down with coronavirus, we will certainly have difficulty with the questions on Pointless and Eggheads, my sweet,’ I say.

But surely they could get someone else to fill in for her,’ Rosie says.

It might be difficult though,’ I say. ‘After all, Rosie. Google knows everything.’

She must have holidays though,’ Rosie says. ‘I wonder what happens when she goes on holiday.’

As it happens, I asked her where she likes to go on holiday,’ I say, spotting an opening. ‘She said Costa del Sol, the Algarve, Jersey and Fuerteventura. Oh, and Morocco. She said she loves Morocco.’

She must get quite a lot of time off then,’ Rosie says.

She probably doesn’t go to all of them all every year,’ I say. ‘She probably goes to Costa del Sol or The Algarve in April or May and Jersey or Fuerteventura in September. And maybe Morocco now and then for something more exotic.’

I suppose so,’ Rosie says. ‘Perhaps we might bump into her if we go to Jersey with Lon and Doris.’

I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,’ I say. ‘I thought we might go to Morocco this year. We ought to try something new. Bernie Zimmer went last month and said how great it was. He said that we ought to go. In Tangier, he says you can get this awesome hash. Fifty per cent THC, he says. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it sounds pretty strong. He says it gives you a whole new way of looking at life. You should see how Bernie’s changed, Rosie. He’s no longer the hopeless loafer in the grey cardigan slumped in his chair over a half of Guinness in the lounge at the Legion. You wouldn’t recognise him in his djellaba and fez, chatting away about his African adventures. He’s like a new man. He’s even started going to Jazz Echo and Circle Eight.’

Oh, you’re not going to go off on one of those again are you, Jim?’ Rosie says. ‘Remember what happened when you grew those plants in the greenhouse.’

That was two years ago.’

In any case, I don’t imagine you can get Pointless or Eggheads in Morocco.’

Oh, come on, Rosie! We could manage without quizzes for a week. And let’s face it, Lon and Doris are deadly dull. They would be so tired after the flight to Jersey, they would probably be asleep in their room all week. We need an adventure. Look! Tangier is a shoppers’ paradise. In the markets, you can buy everything you ever dreamed of. They sell jewellery, shoes, pottery, rugs, perfumes, spices. You name it. You could stock up. You could probably buy everyone’s birthday and Christmas presents for the next five years.’

Our holiday planning is interrupted by a knock at the door, a sharp rat-tat-tat. We look at each other quizzically. We do not get many visitors and it is 4:30, too late in the day for it to be a delivery. I make my way to the door and find myself face to face with a large, serious-looking man in a black uniform. The jacket has badges and insignia on the front that I do not recognise. My first thoughts are to tell him that whatever it is we don’t want any, but he puts his foot in the door and it looks as if he might be carrying a gun.

We are evacuating the area,’ he says. ‘You have ten minutes to gather up all you and your family will need for a week or two. Transport is being arranged.’

I try to engage him in conversation to find out what is going on, but he hurries off along the street to tell the people in the other houses. A thick-set colleague of his appears to be alerting others across the road about the evacuation. I call out to him, but he does not respond.

What was that all about?’ Rosie asks.

Some kind of ……. emergency,’ I say. ‘We have er …… Well, he said we have ten minutes to get out.’

What are you talking about?’ Rosie says. ‘What emergency?’

The fellow did not explain what it was, Rosie,’ I say. ‘Look! He sounded as if he was serious and he had that look about him. We’d better hurry.’

Rosie asks Google what is happening.

Google says, ‘I do not know how to answer that.’

Rosie tries over and over with various phrases around emergency but uncharacteristically, Google seems at a loss for an answer.

A big black bus draws up outside. There are scuffles and raised voices as neighbours are bundled inside. The enforcer or big red key as it is colloquially known seems a little heavy-handed for seniors like us but the menacing figure in dark fatigues coming up the path is bearing one. I spare him the trouble. I open the door. I have managed to throw a few practical things in a suitcase and packed the laptop, leads and chargers and the bedroom TV in a holdall. Having spent too much of the ten-minute window asking Google unanswerable questions and fretting, Rosie is not so well prepared for our journey into the unknown. She struggles with a hastily packed bag or two with everyday essentials, including the Google speaker. We are ushered to the waiting bus.

Is it to do with coronavirus?’ someone asks once we are all aboard, and the hubbub has died down.

No. It is nothing to do with coronavirus,’ the armed marshal says.

Where are we going?’ I ask. I get no reply.

When will we be able to return?’ Stanton Polk from number 42 asks.

Look! I know you are all here under duress,’ the marshal says, keeping a firm grip on his pistol. ‘But believe me, you will all find it easier if you just settle down,’

He looks remarkably like someone I’ve seen recently. Perhaps someone on the TV, but for the life of me, I can’t think who it is.

There’s no easy way to explain,’ he says, ‘but we’re all in the same boat. It is probably best not to think too much about returning. None of what you are looking at now is likely to be here. Later on, you might not even have any memory of it. All we can say for certain is that things will never be as they were.’

What is he talking about?’ Rosie asks me.

Absolutely no idea,’ I say. ‘The man appears to be talking gibberish.’

He’s trying to scare us,’ Stanton Polk says. ‘I think the gist of what he is saying is that we might never see Straight Street again.’

It must be to do with coronavirus,’ Rory Vincent says.

But he just told us it wasn’t.’ I say.

Never believe anything until it’s officially denied,’ Rory says.

Nuclear incident, probably,’ Quincy Maddox says. ‘Those Chinese-built reactors were always going to be dodgy. We need to get as far away from Chinkleigh Point as possible.’

And the area will be contaminated for hundreds of years,’ Katie Guy says. ‘That’s why they are telling us not to think too much about returning.’

Wayne is worried about his dog, Rover, Cathy is concerned about the cats she has left and Fee wonders what will happen to her tropical fish. Barry Barrett doesn’t see why he wasn’t allowed to bring his BMW. He could have easily followed the buses, he says.

My neighbour, Russ Conway, thinks it’s an alien invasion. He used to be in the RAF. He tells us they regularly saw UFOs on night flights.

The alien craft always arrive under the cover of darkness,’ he says. ‘The landings are always hushed up of course.’

It’s a pity we can’t ask Google what is going on,’ Rosie says. ‘But there’s nowhere to plug her in.’

Could be a terrorist group using new tactics,’ Randy Drummer says. ‘Some new setup trying to make a name for themselves. They will probably blow the bus up outside a prominent landmark to drive their message home. We’re all going to be blown to kingdom come.’

There are no landmarks. It’s …….. desert outside,’ I say. ‘How did that happen?’

Think of all of this, everything you can see, everything that you have become used to, as a story,’ a deep voice says.

I cannot make out where it is coming from. It seems to just be hovering in the air. It is more like a thought in the head than a voice. Is everyone else hearing it, I wonder? Or is it just me? I notice that others are looking around with puzzled expressions. They must be hearing it too.

Imagine that from here on in, there is going to be a different story by a different writer,’ the phantom voice continues. ‘You may not even feature in the new story. As we speak, you might not even exist. We just don’t know. You may have heard of the dream library. But whether you have heard of it or not, it would be helpful to think in those terms. You might not understand the syntax of the dream sufficiently to realise who, what or where you are. There will be few points of reference. You drop in but you don’t know what you will find or what you might remember afterwards about what you have found.’

Stanton Polk once again tells us they are using scare tactics. The type of thing he used to engage in when he was working on Black Ops in the Secret Service in the Cold War. Alice in Wonderland technique, he says it is called. It is designed to obliterate the familiar and replace it with the weird. With their defences down, the victims enter a state of cognitive dissonance.

I see that outside the desert has turned to chaparral. Big brown bears are feasting on the remains of a raccoon. Is it my imagination or are there soft watches hanging from the distant trees?

Although we are on the same bus, maybe we are all on a different journey and we are each fleeing the thing we are most afraid of,’ the man with no face says.

The man has no face. Where did he spring from? Who is he?

We are like the dreamer who dreams the dream and then lives inside the dream, but who is the dreamer?’ he says. ‘Are we the dreamer or are we the dream?’

I hope that snake isn’t the poisonous kind,’ Katie Guy says, pointing to the large yellow one slithering down the aisle towards us.

Burmese python, I think,’ Stanton Polk says. ‘Not poisonous. And in any case, they are afraid of people.’

Rosie meanwhile has passed out. She has always had a phobia of snakes.

Scary, strange and sinister seem to be jockeying for position. I’m thinking, one at a time, please, I’m too old for this confusion. The man with the sparkly jacket at the back of the bus gets out his trumpet and starts playing a Herb Alpert tune. Spanish Flea, I think it’s called. This offers a little light relief.

The relief is short-lived though because it is then and only then that I realise we are being filmed. Initially, I spot a single camera in the ceiling fascia. It looks like a sophisticated one, the type that is equipped with HD and sound. Looking around carefully, I notice similar cameras are placed all around the bus. In all likelihood, these people have filmed us from the outset. I’m not the most observant person. But why has no-one else aboard noticed the cameras? Maybe we’ve all become so used to surveillance cameras in our everyday lives that we no longer register when they are there. They blend in. They become invisible.

Perhaps they also secretly wired all the houses in our street to make a clandestine television programme. There seem to have been a lot of extra visits from tradespeople and meter readers lately. TV aerial installers and window cleaners too. And contractors were putting those new telegraph poles in. And of course, all the unexpected Google devices arriving at our doors. Why did no-one in the street work out that there was something untoward going on? The film-makers will have a record of everything Rosie and I and all our neighbours have been up to, including all our embarrassing Google conversations. The Google speaker voice was probably down to them too, and not the bona fide Google Home app. I thought at the time that one or two of the answers she gave were a little suspect. Shanghai is not the capital of China, and Jeff Beck was never in Led Zeppelin.

The film-makers will have a candid picture of day-to-day life on Straight Street. They will have footage of our reactions to being rounded up and to all the freak show activities on the bus on film. This bizarre charade could only have been carried out for a TV show. They will probably have manipulated all the elements of our daily lives in order to put together a cheap programme offering the prurient sensation today’s viewers seem to go for. Programmes like You’ve Been Conned, Space Cadets, and Mad World. Disgraceful no-holds-barred intrusions into the lives of ordinary people.

My suspicions are confirmed when we suddenly leave the dense dark woodland behind and arrive at the Channel 19 studio. A bespectacled executive in a seersucker suit boards the bus and introduces himself as Milton Chance. He offers a brief explanation about the project. It is a mix of reality and strange, he says. This is the way television is set to go. This is what the viewers want. Sense and Surreality was one of theirs and it attracted record viewing figures. He’s hoping this new series, Soft Watches will do the same. He offers his sincere apologies for any distress they might have caused by their unorthodox approach. He thanks us for our patience and promises we will be handsomely paid for our participation and will be put up in a five-star hotel while we are here. Our homes meanwhile are being protected by a security firm.

The director, who I now recognise as the thick-set fellow who was overseeing the evacuation, ushers us out of the bus. We find ourselves faced with a film crew, ready to shoot additional footage for the show. A few of the faces look familiar from their former roles as meter readers and aerial installers. Rosie has by now caught on to what is happening. She recognises the couple from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that called around a week ago. They are now carrying sound equipment. She wonders if perhaps the woman who told her so much about the Church’s illustrious founder, Joseph Smith might be Google. She also recalls thinking how odd it was that the Tesco delivery man had shown so much interest in the house electrics when he called. He is here in his role as gaffer of the film crew.

That’s pretty much the story so far. It goes to show things are not always what they seem. You need to be vigilant. Meanwhile, look out for the first episode of Soft Watches, The Story of Straight Street coming to your screens soon.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Listening Centre

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Listening Centre by Chris Green

Sandwich Man walks past our house at five to six every evening, just before the end of Pointless on television. He passes on his way home from the listening centre where he works. From the back entrance of the base, Cheltenham Close offers a short cut to Connery Way and Goldfinger Drive for those leaving the centre on foot. Sally and I can tell what kind of day Sandwich Man has had by the way he walks. If he has had a good day then there is a spring in his step as he passes our front window. He will smile as he gazes across at our Japanese cherry tree. His head will be up and he will be humming an Eastern European national anthem or perhaps mouthing the chorus of a sea shanty. He will be wearing a smart blue anorak and gripping his Tupperware sandwich box. This is of course how he got his soubriquet.

But if he has had a bad day then he walks with a limp. He will not be smiling. His brow will be furrowed. His shoulders will be hunched. His grey hair will be tousled. He will be in shirtsleeves and carry just an empty water bottle. This probably means he forgot to pack sandwiches for his lunch. He will be starving after working a seven-hour shift at the spy base. He will be anxious to get home to put his stroganoff in the microwave. He is after all not a young man and must feel the cold, especially if it is raining and he did not take his anorak or an umbrella to work that morning. Perhaps the weather was fine earlier and the rain only came on later in the day.

Every now and then Sandwich Man is late and Sally and I begin to worry about him. The minutes tick by. Is he perhaps unwell? Have his migraines started up again? Has he been attacked leaving the base? If he hasn’t walked past by the end of Eggheads, at 6:30 then we go over to the window or open the front door to look out for him. He might be lying in the street after a targeted assault by an enemy agent. After all, he works in a very sensitive area. He is a code breaker and, according to Rhonda at number 48 his real name is Jakob Olev. It is mainly out of habit Sally and I continue to call him Sandwich Man.

Jakob has a friend at the base called Peter. Rhonda doesn’t know Peter’s surname, nor have we come up with a suitable moniker for him yet. Peter lives next door to Sandwich Man in Goldfinger Drive, which is through the pedestrian alley from Cheltenham Close and a couple of streets away. We accidentally followed them home one evening a year or so ago, when we still had the dog for protection and found that Sandwich Man lives at number 18 and Peter at number 19. We don’t go out so much since Murphy was put down. There’s no need now that you can order all your shopping online.

Sometimes Sandwich Man waits for Peter so that they can walk home together. Peter works in a different department, Telephone Surveillance, European Section, according to Eddie at number 52. Now and then he is delayed. He has to stay behind to finish logging phonecalls from the German Chancellor to her crystal reader in Dusseldorf, or text messages from the Italian Premier to his paramours. Eddie used to work at the base and he tells us there is a lot of cross-referencing to be done when it comes to high profile cases. Perhaps when this happens Peter ought to tell his friend to go ahead without him.

We do not believe that Peter takes sandwiches to work. He is perhaps ten years younger than Sandwich Man and only just starting to go grey around the temples. Sally thinks that Peter probably gets by on chocolate bars and cake. He has a chocolate bars and cake kind of build. Maybe he has a high energy drink, a can or two of Red Bull or Iron Bru at lunchtime.

Sandwich Man is not normally late going home on Friday. Sally thinks Friday is his goulash night. Whether or not he has remembered to take his sandwiches that day, he likes to get back in good time to enjoy his succulent Sainsbury’s goulash. It makes a nice change from stroganoff. Stroganoff can be so boring when you have it day after day. Some Fridays we see him breaking into a trot as he makes his way towards the alley. You can almost sense his mouth watering in anticipation of his treat.

But, this Friday Eggheads finishes and there is no sign of him. Peter slinks past our window on the opposite side of the road and casts a furtive glance at the cherry tree, but still, there is no sign of Sandwich Man. I switch the television off. Sally and I begin to speculate as to what might have happened. Might he have been electrocuted by the new high voltage cabling they have installed at the base? Has he been caught by the grandees passing information to the other side, whoever that is? Whistleblowing, I believe it is called. Sally wonders if perhaps he didn’t heat yesterday’s stroganoff through properly and has E Coli or Salmonella.

You have to be so careful with microwave meals,’ she says.

We go outside and look anxiously up and down the street. We notice that Drew Carlson who lives at number 42 is polishing his new Nissan. I’m not sure that he has actually taken it out for a spin yet. You would think that he would be out driving in the hills or something on a nice evening like this, but perhaps now that he is retired he too likes to stay put, as we do. Of course, he has his hobbies. Flags are the big one. It is hard not to spot that Drew has a new flag flying on the pole in his front garden. It is quite an unusual flag, blue white and green, with a hat in the centre of the white horizontal.

I bet you don’t know what this one is,’ he says smugly, as we approach. This is a game he likes to play. Last month we had Comoros and Chad. Drew seems to have a penchant for African flags lately. We all refer to him simply as Flagman.

Mozambique?’ Sally says. ‘No, no! Wait! I know. It’s Lesotho.’ Sally does know her flags. She has a book on vexillology.

Flagman looks crestfallen. ‘How did you know that?’ he says. He does not know that Sally has a book on vexillology. She bought it to help with questions on Pointless.

I don’t suppose you’ve seen Sandwich Man,’ I say.

I was going to ask you the same,’ he says. ‘It’s not like him to be late on a Friday.’

Perhaps Sally and I should go round to his house to see if he’s there,’ I say. ‘There’s nothing much on television until Only Connect.’

Good idea,’ says Flagman. ‘I would join you but I’d like to finish waxing the car first.’

Sally and I look at each other. We are a little apprehensive about the idea but we agree to go ahead without him. We make our way cautiously through the alley. It is more overgrown than we remember it. It is a veritable jungle. Connery Way looks distinctly unfamiliar. Admittedly we have no reason to come this way so we do not know the area very well. There are no obvious landmarks. There are no cars on the street. After a while, Connery Way leads on to Goldfinger Drive. This is even more desolate. There are rows of houses, but they look abandoned. A deathly hush prevails. I don’t recall it looking this way the time we followed Sandwich Man and Peter home. Now I think of it, I do not now remember following Sandwich Man and Peter home, but I do not say anything to Sally. She might make another comment about the early onset of Alzheimer’s.

I see what appears to be a Sainsbury’s van in the distance. Outside number 18 Goldfinger Drive, probably. I draw some comfort from this. I imagine that it must be Sandwich Man’s home delivery of stroganoffs and goulashes and cheese and ham and sandwich fillers with maybe a case or two of energy drinks in case Peter drops round. Perhaps Sandwich Man has been waiting in for the delivery all day, which would explain why he hasn’t been to work.

Are you sure that we are going the right way?’ says Sally. She can’t have spotted the Sainsbury’s delivery van.

I think so,’ I say. ‘But I could be wrong.’

There are no houses,’ she says. ‘Where are all the houses?’

It is true. What I took to be houses are ramshackle farm buildings. The closer we get I can’t help but notice that the Sainsbury’s van is not a Sainsbury’s van ….. but a bear, a big brown bear.

Sally has a book on bears. ‘This one,’ she says, ‘is not the cuddly type.’

This is not the news that I want to hear. Does it also explain what has happened to Sandwich Man? No wonder Flagman didn’t want to come. It’s a dangerous world once you get out of Cheltenham Close. Unpredictable and hostile. Admittedly, we do not get out much, but we had no idea that this was such a wild area. How could Sandwich Man possibly live in an environment like this?

We are about to run, well in our case possibly not run, but the bear doesn’t seem to be interested in us. It steals off to investigate a bandicoot in the undergrowth. A bandicoot? Sally confirms that it is, in fact, a bandicoot. She has a book on Antipodean marsupials. They are always coming up on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

Perhaps we should be getting used to surprises but the train hurtling towards us comes as a bit of a shock. We never realised there was a railway so close by. And this one isn’t a Thomas the Tank Engine or one of those light rail metro trains, this is a big blue freight train pulling a long line of those trucks that carry volatile liquids. There was a question about them on In It To Win It a week or so ago. Are they called tank cars or something? Whatever, the train is getting closer and although we are not on the railway track, it is scaring the hell out of me. At my age, I don’t tend to swear a lot. It is something that I’ve grown out of but here I make an exception.

Let’s get the fuck back to Cheltenham Close,’ I shout.

Sally is with me on this one. I’ve never heard her swear before but she does so now.

Turning around, we find to our horror that the landscape has changed again. We are now faced with barren, featureless scrubland, giving us little indication of which way we should go. But we have just come this way. It wasn’t like this. Nor was it like this the time we came with Murphy. This can’t be Goldfinger Drive. Surely! This can’t be happening. These things do not happen in our world. We just watch the quizzes and give answers when we are able. Something must have happened to rupture the space-time continuum.

We are not given chance to take stock of our queer situation. A crack of thunder like the end of the world rocks the heavens. A frightening figure in catholic robes appears to be opening up the sky. Is that a hand reaching down? It can’t be that time already. We have some time left, don’t we? I do believe we are actually running now, in defiance of our arthritic limbs. Literally running for our lives.

With an immense effort of will, we retrace our steps through the changing terrain of the hinterland, and back through the freshly clipped privet of the alley leading to Cheltenham Close. Flagman is still polishing his car. He waves. We do not want to have to explain to him what we have been through. We would not know where to begin. We dive into the house to avoid him. I switch on the TV. Only Connect is about to start.

I do hope that Sandwich Man comes by on time on Monday,’ says Sally, pouring the gin. ‘And things get back to normal.’

Me too,’ I say, holding out my glass. ‘I don’t think I could go through that again.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

wherehavealltheflowersgone

Where Have All the Flowers Gone? by Chris Green

Always something of a wild man, Danny Rocco isn’t the type you would expect to find at a Ludovico Einaudi recital. But the main reason that Danny’s being at the Einaudi concert is unlikely is that Danny Rocco is dead. He met his maker three years ago when his Triumph Bonneville collided with an eighteen-wheeler truck on a notorious accident black spot on the A39. He was reportedly doing ninety-five miles per hour. He stood no chance. My sister, Sara was devastated. She and Danny had been an item. Although Danny and I had little else in common, I went with Sara to Danny’s funeral. He was cremated.

Yet, in the interval at the concert, Danny comes nonchalantly up to me and shakes my hand. He is dressed in a stylish dark suit and tie. Being dead seems to have mellowed him considerably.

Primavera sounded pretty good, this evening, didn’t it, William?’ he says. ‘One of Ludovico’s best, don’t you think?’

I am flummoxed. It is strange enough that someone who previously sprinkled his conversation with expletives and listened to Motörhead and Slipknot should be so taken with the gentle piano tunes of Einaudi. And he had never called me William, it was always Bill. It is beyond strange that I am about to have a conversation with a dead man. A number of possibilities flash though my head, this is Danny Rocco’s long-lost twin, a stunt double or perhaps it was his stunt double or his secret twin that crashed the bike. But the scar on his left cheek, sustained I remember in a fight with Slugger McGee in The Pig and Whistle suggests that, impossible though it might seem, this really is Danny Rocco. To back this up further, he is also wearing the distinctive carbon fibre black ring that Sara gave him. This is Danny Rocco.

When I come round, I find myself stretched out on a worn red velvet settee in a small windowless room. A dark-haired middle-aged woman is hovering over me. She says her name is Izzy. She says she is a designated first-aider.

What happened?’ I say.

You passed out,’ Izzy says. ‘What do you remember?’

I begin to regain my bearings. I remember I was watching an Einaudi piano recital. Suddenly, it hits me like a left hook from Wladimir Klitschko.

I was ……. I was talking to an old friend of mine,’ I say, looking around me, vaguely expecting to see him in the flesh. ‘Danny Rocco. Did he ….. Did Danny bring me in here?’

No,’ Izzy says. ‘Your friend was not with you. When I arrived on the scene, you were lying flat out on the floor in the aisle with a group of concerned people around you wondering what had happened. One or two of them said they had tried to bring you round. They kindly helped me to bring you in here.’

I should be used to strange. There have been a string of unrelated anomalies lately. Last Thursday, hundreds of clocks exploded. Time was scattered everywhere, hours and minutes strewn all over the streets. Guv Malone told me the tide didn’t come in and while you can’t believe everything Guv says, you have to agree we live in volatile times. We had yellow buses in the town and then they were green, then red and yesterday they were yellow again. No explanation. The numbers had changed too. 6 was 9, 13 was 31 and 17, 71. Without any explanation, the peacocks and cardinals disappeared from the garden and there were no parrots in the park. They just upped and left. But then they returned in their thousands. Birds were everywhere. Toucans, lovebirds, parikeets, lorikeets, red-necked tanagers, spangled cotingas. You couldn’t move for brightly-coloured birds.

It’s as if someone is playing tricks. I’m sure all of you have noticed any number of unexplainable phenomena but surely Danny Rocco’s coming back from the dead ranks among the strangest. No-one seems to believe I saw him at the concert, not even Ellie.

You should have been there,’ I tell her. ‘It was him. I’m sure of it. Why weren’t you there, anyway? I told you I had a ticket for you. I waited for ages before I went in. I missed the opening number.’

I tried phoning but you never answer your phone,’ Ellie says. ‘You do still have a phone, don’t you? I was going to tell you that Ludovico Einaudi is touring Japan so not to bother going. In any case, he’s not likely to be playing at The Little Theatre, is he? It only seats about two hundred. It must have been someone else. You don’t remember who because you fainted. And this Danny Rocco you think you saw was probably someone who worked at the theatre. You say his appearance had dramatically changed. I know you get confused when putting names to faces. You thought Rahul Joshi at the convenience store was Daniel Craig, remember? Or at least that he looked like him. I think you may have meant Dev Patel. I don’t think Meghan Markle is going to be the new James Bond either. I can’t imagine how you came up with that one.’

I try to interrupt Ellie but she has the bit between her teeth.

You do realise you keep imagining things, don’t you?’ she continues. ‘It’s time you got a grip, Bill. I think you ought to go and see Dr Rosado.’

It turns out Dr Rosado is on sabbatical so I see Dr Gray instead.

I see that over the years, Dr Rosado has had you on a range of ….. well I suppose for lack of a better expression, you would have to call them hallucinogens,’ Dr Gray says. ‘H’mmmm. A little unorthodox. But I suppose he is an experienced practitioner. And you are currently taking, let me see ……. Sorry, I’m having a little difficulty with the name. I’ve definitely not heard of them. How are you getting on with them?’

OK, I guess,’ I say. ‘My partner felt I should check in with you. That’s why I’m here. She thinks I was mistaken about something. She doesn’t believe that someone that was dead has come back to life.’

I see. Well, it has happened before.’

It has?’

Yes. Our dear Lord came back to life, didn’t he? He rolled away the stone.’

You mean Jesus?’

Yes, Jesus. On the third day.’

It’s probably best not to go into Danny Rocco’s lack of messianic credentials.

Apart from that,’ Dr Gray says. ‘Any delirium?’

Not really, no.’

Any confusion?’

Now and then. We live in very confusing times, don’t we? Everyone is finding things a little strange since the circus came to town and they changed the road names. Have you noticed that dogs have stopped barking?

Look! To be on the safe side, I think we’ll try you on something different this time. This new one they’ve brought out perhaps. There are fewer potential side effects.’

Time has settled down. The birds are back in the garden. Blue tits, finches, blackbirds, sparrows. They are singing their hearts out. And the dogs are barking again. The buses too have sorted themselves out. They are back to their muted grey. And the old road names are back. It is easier now to get your bearings. But predictability can be dull. There are no longer any surprises. I’m finding it difficult to adjust to regular patterns, waking each morning to find everything exactly as I left it. And where have all the flowers gone? Those colourful blooms that reached up to the sky. These new tablets that Dr Gray prescribed will take some getting used to. I believe that on the whole, Dr Rosado’s tablets suited me better. It’s a pity that he is now in custody.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

In Dreams

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IN DREAMS by Chris Green

The girl at the next table is the spitting image of the one I was dreaming about little more than an hour ago. The dream comes back to me now in vivid technicolour cinema surround sound. There is no doubt about it. It is her. The suntanned beauty sitting six feet away from me in Costa is the one from the dream. Everything about her is the same. From the long flowing dark hair and smoky black eyes right down to the loafers she is wearing.

I might have recalled the dream in greater detail when I first woke, but Donna’s car had broken down and she needed a lift to work. Being my day off, I was able to oblige. Usually, a dream fades quickly and only small parts of it are accessible. The rest is gone forever. But this one is different. I am now able to replay it as if it were a recording. It is not just made up of visuals. It has sound, taste, touch and smell. It has body and texture. It evokes both wonder and fear. I am stunned.

In the dream, the girl leads me along dark labyrinthine corridors in a crepuscular Gothic house on the outskirts of a half-familiar town. Familiar only as a dreamscape, perhaps. Corridors upon corridors career this way and that in impossible explorations of infinity, with echoey staircases ascending and descending like those in an Escher painting. We are looking for someone called Eddie Strange. I do not know who Eddie Strange is or why we are looking for him, but the girl keeps talking about a key. We have to find the key. Does Eddie Strange perhaps know where the key can be found? The key will unlock a box, she says. A box where the dreams are kept. If we find the key and unlock the box, then I will be destined to dream about her forever. What does this mean, I wonder? Destined to dream about her forever.

There is a gap now, like a few frames of the film are missing, but I manage to pick up the thread again. Further along in the narrative, we find Eddie in one of the house’s subterranean rooms. Eddie is insubstantial, other-worldly, like silence in a vacuum. He casts no shadow, but …….. he has the key. It is like no key I have ever seen. It is a twisted cylinder, a Möbius strip. How this impossible shape opens a box I cannot imagine. I do not remember it opening a box. The scenario jumps instead to a dream where I am dreaming about myself dreaming about her and then to a dream where I am dreaming about a dream where I am dreaming about her, and on and on, like a Droste mise en abyme.

In each new episode of the dream, the girl in the black dress is leading me through an ever more complex series of cascading corridors. I feel a haunting blend of longing and trepidation. I cannot help but follow. Eventually, we are outside. We are in a city. Tall stone buildings. I can hear the thrum of traffic. But there is no traffic. The location keeps changing. We are by a river. A big brown river. Are we still looking for the box with the dreams in it? I do not get the chance to find out. In the material world, Donna is shaking me by the shoulder to tell me that her car won’t start.

The girl at the next table looks across at me. Is it a look of recognition or is it a look of suspicion? I have never been too good at reading body language. Donna is always telling me I misread her signals. Have I been staring at the girl all through my reverie, I wonder? I think I detect a smile. This is a good sign, surely. I lean over and am about to speak, but like a vision of the night, she vanishes. One moment she is there and the next she isn’t. Her place at the table is now occupied by a wrinkled old harridan with a Bichon Frise and a tartan shopping basket. Was she the one I was staring at all along? It’s possible, but on reflection, I don’t think so. This is all just too weird. I feel arcane forces may be at work.

I don’t often go to the pub at lunchtime but I know I will find Ross Cody at The Gordon Bennett. The squat little man with the curly grey hair, the paunch and the patched-up John Lennon glasses will be sat at a table reading a sci-fi thriller, nursing a pint. Ross is a fount of occult knowledge. What he doesn’t know about dreams and the paranormal is not worth knowing. He is versed in East Asian shamanism, Hassidic Kabbalism, Armenian theosophy, Caribbean voodoo, H. P. Lovecraft and probably Harry Potter. Before he sank into his present dipsomania, he worked as a supernatural adviser on films for the cult film-maker, Lars Von Trier.

Hello Ben,’ he says. ‘Long time, no see.’

I agree that it has been too long, and over a pint of Broadside, I tell Ross about my experience.

One line of thinking is that every face you see while dreaming you have seen in real life at least once,’ Ross says. ‘It is someone who you just don’t recognise. Maybe you met them nine years ago passing on a zebra crossing a busy street or nine hours ago in a cinema queue. Our brains are a lot better at remembering faces than we think.’

Why is it that I think I would have remembered if I had seen this girl before?’ I say. ‘She is not the kind you expect to see every day. She is quite striking.’

On the other hand, Ben. We might see people in dreams that are not actually people. Our brain can create characters that are totally fictional and things there is no way we could have ever seen. And we have the ability in dreams to do things that in waking life we have never been able to do. Or maybe we even see people that we will meet in the future.’

Which side do you come down upon?’

It’s hard to say, but I think your unconscious can create people and somehow they become real.’

So, I’m not going mad, then.’

No. But if I am right, you will almost certainly see her again in dreams. And probably in waking. You might find that this girl, who might only seem to be a phantom at the moment gradually comes to life.’

Ross’s guess is right on the money. That night the mystery girl turns up in my dream world once more. This time in the dream, she calls round to my house in the middle of the night and lets herself in. Donna and I are asleep. She puts a chloroform-soaked handkerchief with a monogrammed R over Donna’s mouth. It meets with some initial resistance but quickly knocks Donna out.

She takes the strange key from the previous night out of her bag and says. ‘Come on, Ben Shapiro. We’ve got work to do.’

I want to protest about what she has done to Donna. Do I want to be destined to dream about someone who is ruthless, I wonder? But it is a dream wonder and has no substance. In the dream world, R has absolute power over me. I allow myself to descend once more into the surreal netherworld, ready to do whatever we have to do and go wherever we have to go to find the box of dreams that the key unlocks. All other thoughts are now gone.

We walk through some ancient ruins, set in a desolate landscape. The night sky is illuminated by a million stars. A full moon hovers. It is blood red. Ominous looking desert rocks lurk in the distance, like those of a Dalí painting, along with the fuselage of a long-forgotten passenger jet and a sand whale. An all-enveloping silence pervades. We pass through a crumbling stone archway decorated with a Medusa head. The other side of the arch, a pageant of small black snakes slithers across a chessboard patio. Snakes from the Medusa’s head? The board is illuminated now. The top left-hand square is green instead of black. Suddenly I can hear music. I look around me to see that R is playing a clarinet. Or is it an oboe? A dwarf dressed as Robin Hood appears from out of nowhere and hands me a mandolin, and I join in the refrain.

There are unearthly delights to be found inside the box of dreams,’ R says, when we have finished the tune. ‘We will find it soon. Then you will my amante notturno.’

At breakfast, Donna seems a little dazed. She looks as if she hasn’t had a good night, so I do not mention my dream, and with her Fiat fixed, she leaves the house before me. It is probably one of the days she opens the salon early for a special customer. For a brief second, I entertain the thought that the special customer might be R.

I dismiss the idea but I remain agitated. Details of my dream keep coming back to me. The half-recognised tune we were playing was that Doors’ track. The one with the line faces come out of the rain. The Robin Hood dwarf was really freaky. And the mandolin. I didn’t know I could play the mandolin, but my dream persona seemed to know exactly where to put my fingers. Ross said that he believes that in dreams one has the ability to do things that in waking life you have never been able to do. And see people that you have never seen. But what was it the dwarf had said? ‘If you’re not a fish, how can you tell if a fish is happy?’ What did he mean by that? And the sand whale. It was a whale and it was in the sand yet I had touched it and in complete contradiction to its environment, it was sticky, wet, slimy to the touch, like an eel just out of the water. I wonder how a dream can be so bizarre but appear so real?

The other big question that needs answering is, assuming that there is an explanation for the unlikely stuff that is happening, why is it happening? Why would this vamp be interested in the devotion of a middle-aged married man? What do I have to offer? What would be in it for her, besides amusement? What is in it for me apart from the loss of free will? None of it makes any sense.

I am so distracted I almost have an accident when I pull out in front of a bus at the Scott McKenzie roundabout and go through a red light at the Frankie Vaughan crossroads. At work, I cannot concentrate. I send emails without messages and accidentally delete my inbox. Then, there she is. The girl from my dreams. Over by the photocopier. In a charcoal skirt and white blouse. The same sweeping hair and smouldering obsidian eyes. Even the same shoes. She is the one. No doubt about it. I am dumbstruck. How can this be? What is she doing here at my workplace?

Nikki Jackson from Accounts comes along and sees that I am gaping at the girl.

That’s the new girl, Rhonda,’ she says. ‘I see she’s making quite an impression on you, Mr Shapiro. Let me introduce you.’

Hi, Rhonda. This is Mr Shapiro from our legal department. Mr Shapiro, this is Rhonda Chance.’

Pleased to meet you, Mr Shapiro,’ Rhonda says, looking me right in the eye. ‘I expect I shall be seeing a lot more of you.’

When I come to, I am unable to explain to Nikki Jackson why I fainted.

It could have been something I ate last night,’ I say. ‘That’s it. We had eel for dinner last night. I’m not used to eel, so I’m not sure how it should taste but I did thought it tasted strange.’

No one remembers your name, when you’re strange starts to run through my head. The Doors’ song from the night before. On the mandolin. With the girl. With Rhonda.

Something is puzzling me,’ Nikki says later. ‘Rhonda says that she knows you. In fact, she says she has known you for a long time. She thought that it was strange that you did not recognise her. She says she hasn’t changed that much.’

I pretend to take a call on my Samsung.

Yes, I know,’ I say as if responding to something the caller is telling me.

And ‘What did you think about that?’

Suddenly to my amazement and horror, Rhonda’s voice comes on the line. ‘Hello Mr Shapiro,’ she says. ‘How have you been since our ……. meeting?’

All the blood drains from my face. Nothing could have prepared me for this. Now she is talking to me on my phone. All the encounters with her so far have been what I would think of as impossible, out of the realm of everyday life, but somehow this is cranking up the level of impossibility a notch.

See you later,’ Rhonda says. ‘I have a feeling we may find the box tonight.’

Donna wonders why I am home early. I tell her we had a power cut at work. Several times through the evening, she asks if everything is OK.

You normally like to watch The Apprentice,’ she says. ‘Is something wrong?’

I’m just tired,’ I say. ‘I don’t think I slept well last night.’

Shall we have an early night?’ she says, snuggling up to me.

There is something wrong, isn’t there?’ she says in bed when I don’t respond to her overtures. ‘I don’t know why I buy this underwear from the Ann Summers catalogue if you are not going to be interested when I wear it.’

With this, she turns over. I put off going to sleep as long as I can, but tiredness overtakes me and eventually I drift off. Rhonda, of course, is waiting.

The reason we haven’t been able to find the box up until now,’ she says, ‘is because it’s invisible.’

That does make it difficult,’ I say.

Not only is it invisible, but it only exists given certain very specific conditions. Atmospheric conditions, phases of the moon, planetary alignments and all that. But the good news is that I believe we have these conditions tonight.’

Again I feel a confusing mix of apprehension and arousal, aware that as she puts me under her spell once more, apprehension is going to lose out. The strength of her sweet sorcery is too much for my defences.

It is hard to describe how you see an object that is invisible, but as Rhonda has pointed out, under particular circumstances, it can be done. If you are thinking invisibility cloak, you are barking up the wrong tree. You cannot expect to understand matters like invisible boxes in the realm of night from a purely scientific viewpoint. Suffice to say the box is colossal, and to my amazement, Rhonda’s Möbius strip key fits the lock perfectly.

Once the box is opened things cannot be the same. Change is inevitable. A thousand and one dreams escaping from an invisible box that has been locked for years is a sight for the senses. All nineteen of the senses. It is like the moment of creation. Matter, antimatter and cosmological turbulence.

I feel a nudge in my back and I awake with a jolt. Usually, a dream fades quickly and only small parts of it are accessible. The rest is gone forever. But this one is different. It is no longer a dream. I turn over to find the girl on the pillow lying next to me looks exactly like the girl I’ve just been dreaming about. Everything about her matches. The same long flowing dark hair and smoky black eyes right down to ……… It is Rhonda, the girl of my dreams. In the flesh. In the here and now. I am stunned.

No matter how unlikely the proposition,’ she says, ‘dreams can come true. Reality is constantly in flux. Forever changes. Prepare yourself for strange days ahead.’

But, the unanswered questions, I want to protest. What? ……. How? ……… Why? ……… And, where is Donna? Has Rhonda simply taken the place of Donna?

Rhonda reads my thoughts. ‘You will get answers to your questions but not until you are ready for them. In the meantime …….’

Later, while Rhonda is out, I try to gather my thoughts on the bench at the bottom of the garden. All my boundaries have become blurred. I no longer know what is real. My life has become a Chinese puzzle, an unfathomable succession of interlocking riddles. I end up getting nowhere. Perhaps there are no answers. When I return to the house, I see there is a message on the answering machine.

I think we may be able to arrange an appointment for your husband’s little treatment for as early as next week, Mrs Shapiro,’ the message says. I don’t imagine I’m meant to be hearing it. ‘Please, could you call back to confirm how you would like us to proceed.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

The Aardvark of Uncertainty

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The Aardvark of Uncertainty by Chris Green

I appear to have swapped the cow for a handful of beans. My memory of the transaction is a little hazy but here are the beans. It seems a strange kind of bargain to have made. Why would I do such a thing? Looking on the bright side, at least these are magic beans. It says so here. So their yield is likely to be bountiful. And if it is to survive, the planet needs vegetation far more than it needs cattle. In any case, it’s no use crying over spilt milk. There won’t be any now the cow has gone, will there? I’d better get on and plant the beans.

The internet doesn’t have a lot to say about how or when to plant magic beans. There are pages on pages about growing runner beans, kidney beans, aduki beans, mung beans and other kinds of beans that I’ve never heard of but nothing whatsoever on the magic variety. I am in the garden wondering where I should plant them when I have a visitor. At first, I think it must be the cleaner calling round to give the house a going over but then I realise it is Karma. I am pleased she has called round. Things have been a bit up and down since she left. I become easily confused. Otto is working on this with me. Otto is not from the village. He’s a professor of something and has letters after his name. He has been helping me for a couple of months now. Reality, he says, is a slippery customer but if I follow his regimen, there is every chance I will begin to see things more clearly.

Karma doesn’t appear to have noticed that the cow has gone. Perhaps she thinks that Daisy has just wandered up the lane again and will soon be back. She wants to talk instead about how politicians and the media have adapted the Alice in Wonderland interrogation technique to everyday life to keep us all in a heightened state of confusion.

We are accustomed to a world of logic and predictability, Geoff,’ she says. ‘But we are now bombarded day and night with layer upon layer of contradictory information.’

Perhaps you should talk to Otto about it,’ I say. ‘He probably understands this sort of thing. But I’ve no idea what you are talking about. Has anyone actually seen an aardvark?’

The Alice in Wonderland technique,’ Karma says, ‘is a method of interrogation pioneered by the CIA designed to break down the familiar and normalise the strange. Several interrogators pepper the subject continuously with unrelated nonsensical questions until they are no longer sure what is going on. This technique is now being used on us in our daily lives. There are zillions of narratives coming at us every minute through advertising, the media and the internet, each claiming to be common-sense, helpful or right. Conflicting messages, many of them unfamiliar or just plain weird fighting to bury themselves in our consciousness. We find ourselves on a battlefield of ideas. With all our boundaries breached, we enter a state of cognitive dissonance. In such a state, we are ready to accept and comply with many things we would otherwise reject.’

Is Karma in her roundabout way trying to tell me that she doesn’t believe there ever was a cow? Is that where this is heading? To prove to her that there was a cow but now there is not, I show her the magic beans. How much more proof does she need? I ask her where she thinks I should plant them. She points here and there but she doesn’t seem that interested. We don’t manage to stay on the subject very long because Karma has another rant at the ready.

The social theorist, Michel Foucault posits that where there is a discourse, there will be a reverse-discourse,’ she says.

What is a discourse?’ I ask because I honestly don’t know what she is talking about. ‘Discourse is simply a medium through which power flows,’ she says. ‘This flow can be reversed via the discourse without challenging the fundamental assumptions or concepts on which the discourse relies. Realising this to be the case, people in power the world over now set the reverse discourse in motion at the same time they launch their idea. By taking charge of the whole narrative, they are then able, at any time, to direct the narrative around the subject back to the original discourse.’

Karma can be intense at times. This was one of the issues we had when we were together. She would often go off on one when all I wanted was a little peace and quiet so I could read my book. As a result, I learned to switch off. A lot of what she says comes in one ear and goes out the other. Despite this, if and when I look at what she has said, I find that she is often right. She was right about the revolution in Stanistan. It was never going to change anything for the masses. All revolutions ever do is replace one dictatorial elite with another dictatorial elite which acts exactly the same as the one they replaced. She was right about the travel companies going broke. It was to do with product life cycle. They hadn’t re-invented themselves sufficiently to take account of changing travel arrangements. Karma’s analysis of situations is usually spot on. I used to rely on her explanations of complex issues. At the moment, though, I just want her to stop talking so I can concentrate on the garden. I am not sure what to do with the seeds. And I don’t imagine Foucault is going to be much help. Karma though seems determined to keep plugging away.

The creators of the discourse can plunder the reverse discourse at any time,’ she says. ‘If their idea becomes unpopular, so long as they control the reverse discourse as well, they maintain their hold on the balance of power. They are thus able to set the agenda.’

I’m sure she is right. I have always felt that things seem to be out of our control so someone must be pulling the strings. All of them. I nod my agreement.

Perhaps the beans could just go in the old veg patch where the potatoes were,’ I say. ‘I will need to dig it over first though and fertilise it a bit.’

What people don’t realise,’ she continues, ‘is that most protest groups are actually financed and run by those they are protesting about. They fool you into thinking there is an active campaign to stop whatever it is they are doing. But the campaign is never likely to succeed because the perpetrators themselves are running it. The weapons industry run peace groups, the oil barons finance Extinction Rebellion and so on.’

I am still a little lost as to where this might be heading but for some reason, it reminds me that Otto and I are off to see the wizard later.

……………………………..

I don’t know what has happened to Otto. We got separated somewhere along the yellow brick road. I think I became distracted by the black buzzards circling overhead and lost my bearings. I was unable to find the road again. The flask of tequila may not have brought out the best in my orienteering skills. Eventually, in the middle of nowhere, I came across a railway station. I am slowly making my way back home aboard the Bob Dylan coach of the night train. I am searching for the right track. I need a tune that’s going my way or who knows where I might end up? Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again perhaps or It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry. Subterranean Homesick Blues and Like a Rolling Stone come to mind but Shelter from the Storm seems a safer bet.

But even so, there’s blood on the tracks and I am not able to settle. The Tom Waits coach is no better. Downtown Train and Tom Traubert’s Blues don’t settle me so I’m not expecting God’s Away on Business or The Piano Has Been Drinking to do it.

I hear footsteps and a door opening.

Why are you listening to Leonard Cohen?’ Karma says.

I am no longer aboard the train, it seems. I am back at home and Karma has let herself in.

Tom Waits,’ I say.

What?’ she says.

Not Leonard Cohen,’ I say. ‘It’s Tom Waits.’

Why are you listening to Tom Waits, Geoff?’ she says. ‘He’s so depressing. Especially that one about sleeping in a boxcar.’

Swordfishtrombone,’ I say. ‘Brilliant lyrics.’

It’s about shell shock,’ she says. ‘Anyway, I thought I’d better check on you. You’re not answering your phone.’

I appear to have lost my phone,’ I say. ‘I think Otto may have it but he’s disappeared. You haven’t seen him, have you?’

No I haven’t,’ she says.

We were on our way to see the wizard,’ I say. ‘And Otto just vanished.’

This Otto doesn’t seem to be someone you can depend on, does he?’ she says. ‘Never mind. I see you managed to plant the beans. You can see their purple flowers from way down the road. They’re towering over the clump of bamboo hedging already. That’s in what, forty-eight hours? They were magic, after all. ……. By the way, Geoff, I’ve been meaning to ask. Where’s the dog? Where’s Daisy?’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Hunky Dory 2019

hunkdory2019

Hunky Dory 2019 by Chris Green

It all began one hot stormy night two years back when Hermione and I were living in Joy Street in Bridgewater. I dreamt it was 1972 and the album, Hunky Dory was playing. I was listening to the album, slowly and leisurely as I would have back then if someone had put it on the turntable. One side then the other. It was one of those rare dreams that you stay in for a long time. While my dreams normally comprised multiple interlocking narratives, this one had just a single thread. Hunky Dory. It seemed to move forward in real-time. The music flowed through me and over me. It inhabited my senses. It felt in a curious way like I was the music. The eponymous title track of the album, in particular, sounded sublime.

It was not until I woke that I realised there was no song called Hunky Dory on the album. While most of Bowie’s albums had a title track, Hunky Dory notably didn’t. Where could the phantom tune I had heard possibly have come from? In the dream, the tune was slipped in seamlessly between Changes and Oh You Pretty Things. I was able to recall it note for note. It was still there intact, going around and around my head like an earworm. It was a sweet slow-tempo number with tinkling piano, playful acoustic guitar runs and a haunting melody. Reminiscent perhaps of Quicksand from the album with hints of The Bewlay Brothers. I wondered if perhaps it was a song from another of Bowie’s albums. Maybe a later one. Having been a lifelong fan, I was familiar with most of his work. I spent some time running through the possibilities in my head. Nothing fitted. So far as I could tell, this was an original tune. My original tune.

I remembered reading that Paul McCartney claimed the melody of Yesterday came to him in a dream. Keith Richards made a similar claim about Satisfaction. He had woken up with it and put it down on a cassette machine. Both had worried that they had heard the respective tunes somewhere or other in the past and they were someone else’s work. They both discovered that they were their originals. So perhaps this wasn’t so unusual. Classical composers too, it was said, often arrived at important passages this way. Perhaps musical ideas were in the ether like radio waves and it was a question of tuning in to them. Perhaps sleep created favourable conditions for this. When all the other senses were switched off.

But still! If I was right about the quality of this song, then it would probably have been the standout track on the Hunky Dory album which is frequently cited as Bowie’s finest work. But it wasn’t on the acclaimed album. I couldn’t let it slip away. Starting with the melody, I began to put the notes down on manuscript paper. I then put down the piano and guitar parts. The words were a little harder but with those I couldn’t remember, I improvised. I could always improve these if need be. It was the melody that mattered most.

Many of you will have heard the song by now, perhaps several different mixes of it. Even cover versions. If so, you will understand how excited I must have been that morning two years ago. But, as an unknown artist, it was not easy to get Hunky Dory onto the market. Not being an established name, no-one wanted to even talk to me. I couldn’t exactly tell them I had heard it on a David Bowie album. Even supposing I could have, this would hardly support provenance of authorship. For a start, I would have been about four years old at the time of the album. Even Mozart would have struggled to come up with a decent tune at this age. Nor could I say it came to me in a dream. They would think I was loony tunes and end the call there and then. Someone will get back to you became a familiar line. No-one ever did. I almost gave up.

Hermione had made it clear all along that she was not that keen on the song.

You’ve done all you can, Ziggy,’ I remember her saying. ‘You ought to give up on it. Then perhaps you would have some time and we would be able to go out now and again. We could go and see a band or something.’

The song will never get anywhere, no matter how good it is,’ I remember my brother Nathan saying. ‘The market’s sown up.’

I found the line, turn and face the strange crack in the sky a little puzzling,’ I remember my therapist, Rebel saying. ‘Perhaps you might explain what it means to you. And this line, strange fascinations of a hand reaching down. Hunky Dory’s an odd kind of song, isn’t it?’

Although they’re a bit weird, Ziggy, I can’t help thinking some of those lyrics seem familiar,’ I remember Jonny Bisco, the landlord of The Major Tom saying.

It seemed no-one believed in my song. But through thick and thin, I persevered. Eventually, Chris Green at The Kaleidoscope Repair Shop where I worked said he quite liked it. He persuaded his friend, Vic Timov at Unicorn Records, a small independent label based in Devon to give me studio time to record the song properly. Although there were problems with distribution of the CD and vinyl when the tune started selling in tens of thousands, downloads alone took it to the top the charts in several countries.

It’s a pity Mercury Records are taking me to court. They claim that the melody of Hunky Dory is identical to the melody of After All, one of David Bowie’s early tunes. There may be a slight similarity but there are only so many combinations of notes available. Occasionally some duplication is inevitable. And the lyrics to Hunky Dory are completely different. I can’t for the life of me see that they have a case. It’s essentially a different song. My solicitor, Guy Bloke of Chesterton, Pringle and Bloke is optimistic he can deliver a favourable outcome.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

IDEAS

IDEAS

IDEAS by Chris Green

I’m telling you,’ says Flavia. ‘The guy was a complete stranger. He just walked up to me and handed me the bag.’

And you didn’t think to say what are you doing or who are you or anything like that,’ says Matt.

There wasn’t time. It all happened very quickly,’ says Flavia. ‘Besides I was taken completely off guard.’

And he just disappeared into the crowd.’

Well, yes. That’s exactly what happened. Look! It was busy. There were a lot of people around. People were coming out of the cinema. People were waiting for the 61 bus. And there were a large group of passers-by watching a street musician with a trumpet. He was very good. If you hadn’t gone into that games shop you would have seen how quickly it all happened. You could have done something about it.’

So you were distracted. That’s what you are saying.’

That’s right, Matt. You know I like jazz. And this is free jazz.’

And the fellow that gave you the bag was about average height, average build and was wearing blue or grey.’

That’s right. Even his balaclava was blue, or grey. Can you get off my case, please! Who do you think you are? Inspector Wallander or someone?’

You do realise what this is, don’t you?’ says Matt.

But there’s nothing in it. I’ve looked. The bag is empty.’

I know that is how it looks. But, does it feel empty?’ says Matt, handing her back the blue Ikea bag. ‘Here! Feel it. It’s very heavy.’

You’re right. It is heavy.’

There is something in there. Feel inside it.’

It got a shape. ….. But …. but it’s invisible. What is it?’

It’s an enigma. That’s what it is.’

What? One of those machines the Germans used in the war?’

Not exactly. But you might be on the right lines.’

Well, if that’s the case someone’s going to want it. Someone’s going to be looking for it. Someone’s going to be looking for us,’ says Flavia.

………………………………………………………………….…

Flavia is right. Someone is looking for it. Casey Boss is looking for it. His department is extremely security conscious. They need to be. There is a lot at stake. How could the courier have been robbed like that? From his van. In broad daylight. Who were these cowboy logistics people? Weren’t there supposed to be two people on board when they transported sensitive cargoes? And how did the thieves get it into the Ikea bag?

Casey Boss has the van driver in his eleventh-floor office overlooking the river. He is trying hard to stay calm. He was recently hospitalised. Dr De’Ath warned him he must avoid stress. Losing his temper again will send his blood pressure through the roof. He is on powerful beta-blockers.

You do realise the gravity of the situation,’ Boss says, swilling a couple of extra Propranolol down with a glass of water. ‘You understand that we have just lost something ………. important.’

Zbigniew Wozniak has some difficulty in following him. There are several big words there. English is not even his second language. His job as he sees it is to get things from A to B. Even this can be a challenge sometimes. He has difficulty with some of the road signs. How was he to know that it wasn’t a real diversion sign? The next part of the scam was, however. easier for Wozniak to understand.

Man’s face is covered,’ he says. ‘He says gun if I don’t give him.’

Where did covered man go?’ says Casey Boss, finding himself reduced to Wozniak’s pigeon English in order to communicate.

Have big black car,’ says Wozniak. ‘Drive fast.’

………………………………………………………………….…

It’s a pity that you hit that car, George’ says Mavis Deacon. ‘Look at the time. We are going to be late for indoor bowls. And you know it was our turn to make the tea.’

I know, dear, but there’s nothing we can do about it now.’

Black ones are definitely harder to see, aren’t they? I think the last one you ran into was black.’

It was the other fellow’s fault though, dear. He did pull out in front of me.’

That man certainly didn’t want to hang around to give you his insurance details, did he? Running off like that. Why do you think, he was in such a hurry?’

I don’t know. Perhaps he had to get that bag to the shops quickly. It was one of those bags, wasn’t it?’

I think it was an Ikea bag, George? Perhaps we could go to Ikea sometime. They do some very nice kitchenware.’

Yes. I believe it was Ikea, Mavis. And we will go one day. If we can find it. Anyway, I expect the police will be along in a minute. They will be able to sort things out. His car did take a bit of a knock though, didn’t it? They don’t make them like they used to.’

Why do you think he was wearing a balaclava though, George? That seemed to me to be a little odd. Especially if he was going to the shops. The security people in the shops might think that he was a criminal with a gun, who was going to rob them.’

I’m sure there’s a rational explanation dear. And anyway he’s bound to be on CCTV cameras somewhere.’

………………………………………………………………….…

Matt and Flavia are in Café Baba, a small establishment run by a Moroccan family down a discreet alleyway, away from the main shopping centre. They have gone there to get away from the hubbub while they take stock of their situation. Matt is feeling inside the bag. What can possibly account for its weight?

I think it might be changing shape,’ he says.

You mean like it’s alive?’ says Flavia, nervously.

Kind of. …… Not exactly. …… I don’t know. Have a feel.’

No, thankyou! I’ll take your word for it,’ says Flavia, with a grimace. ‘Look Matt! Enough is enough. We’ve got to get rid of it.’

What do you suggest we do with it then?’ says Matt. ‘We can hardly go to the police with it can we?’

Can we not? Why’s that?’

Don’t you think they might find us a little suspicious, handing in a blue Ikea bag with an invisible object inside. A heavy invisible object that keeps changing shape, no less. I really don’t think they Sergeant Rozzer would be likely to understand. A man handed it to my wife in the street. No, she hadn’t seen him before. No, we did not get a look at his face, he was wearing a balaclava. They would detain us as aliens or something. We would probably be locked up forever in a secure institution.’

We could just dump it.’

I suppose so, but that seems a bit irresponsible.’

Wait! Don’t you have a friend who is some sort of scientist, Matt?’

I don’t think so.’

The one with the multicoloured framed spectacles.’

Oh, you mean Theo. No. Theo’s a prosthodontist. That’s basically a dentist. I don’t think that’s quite the same.’

What about the one who works for MI5?’

Oh, Hank. You’re talking about G4S, not MI5. Hank works for G4S. Used to be called Group 4. He’s a night security guard at a building site.’

Well. Perhaps you could come up with a suggestion, but we’re not taking it home.’

………………………………………………………………….…

Casey Boss is conscious that he has an emergency on his hands. He must not let the situation escalate. There is no telling what harm could be done. He leaps into action. He quickly puts a number of his people on the streets to requisition CCTV footage from cameras over a distance of several square miles. Freeman and Willis send him film of the crash at the Cross Hands crossroads. He plays the footage. The white Skoda ploughs into the side of the black BMW. A hooded gunman gets out of the Beamer and runs from the scene. An old couple slowly emerge from the Skoda.

Doddery old farts like that shouldn’t be allowed on the roads,’ he says to his colleague, Jagger. ‘Look at him he’s about eighty. He’s got a white stick. He’s probably blind.’

The gunman with the blue Ikea bag heads in the direction of the shopping district. It is strange, Boss thinks, how little notice people seem to take. It is as if they are all too used to seeing armed men in balaclavas running through the streets with heavy Ikea bags.

Boss moves his focus to footage from a bank of sixty-four cameras located in the centre of town in the comms suite of the municipal building. He is able to witness the masked man’s progress through the town on several cameras, past BetFred and BetterBet, past the Hungarian supermarket, past the bank of posters advertising the Psychedelic Furs reunion concert, through the park where the street drinkers assemble, into the square, past the fountain of Poseidon and into the smarter part of town. He passes the 61 bus stop by John Lewis, but then it is not clear where he goes. He disappears into a crowd of people that are watching a weathered-looking jazz trumpeter with a hunched back in a black coat and black trilby hat. It is unusual for a street musician to draw such a crowd. Jazzman’s audience grows by the minute. With the movement of the crowd, it is difficult to see what is going on. There is no sighting of the masked man emerging from the melee.

Boss tells Jagger to put out the word to bring the jazz trumpeter in for questioning.

There are no further sightings. He hopes that as the day wears on there will be more on the CCTV footage to view. Other than that, there are bound to be witnesses. Some public-spirited citizen will have noticed a man wearing a balaclava weighed down an Ikea bag. Surely. Perhaps he went into a shop. Perhaps one of the local premises is a front for some clandestine operation. Perhaps a number of the shops are fronts for clandestine operations. A lot of ethnic traders have moved in lately. He instructs his team to question all the traders in the area, threaten them if necessary.

………………………………………………………………….…

Meanwhile, the jazz trumpeter too has disappeared. He has somehow avoided Boss’s men, who are now all over the west side of town. As it happens, with his gear packed into a makeshift box trolley, he is making his way to the Café Baba. He likes to relax here with a slice of orange and almond cake and a glass of mint tea, away from the afternoon crowds. Ahmed will usually have some mellow jazz playing. They might even have a bit of a jam later in the back.

Matt and Flavia are already there, discussing what to do with the bag. It is a quiet time of day at Café Baba and they are the only customers. The Gaggia machine is switched off. There is a faint smell of hashish. Behind the counter, Ahmed and his younger brother, Youssef are sharing a pipe. A tune by Mulatu Astatke’s Black Jesus Experience plays gently in the background. East African beats. This is free jazz. All about ideas, inspiration and improvisation.

Ahmed notices that there is a little tension at Matt and Flavia’s table. Their voices are raised. Perhaps its the food. Maybe they are not familiar with Moroccan delicacies. Perhaps the briouats or the kefta wraps are not to their liking. They do not seem to have touched them. He ambles over to their table to see what the problem might be. In his djellaba and babouche slippers, his movement is hushed, so Matt and Flavia do not hear his approach. They are facing the window. They appear to be in the middle of an argument.

I think we need to find out what it is,’ says Matt. ‘Before we make a decision.’

I want it as far away from me as possible,’ says Flavia. ‘It’s gross.’

Someone might offer a reward for its safe return.’

How do you even think of these things? Matt. Where do you get these ideas from? Sometimes I think you live in a parallel universe. It’s a bloody Ikea bag for God’s sake.’

But a mysterious Ikea bag.’

We’re getting rid of it.’

We could put in in a storage unit or a locker at the station until we find out more.’

It’s going.’

But Flavia …….’

Matt! Matt! Look!’ says Flavia, grabbing him by the arm. ‘I swear the bloody bag is breathing.’

Ahmed follows her gaze to the inlaid leg of the walnut table. The blue bag, he notices, does look as though it’s breathing, in fact, it appears to be edging its way across the mosaic floor tiles. It has moved several inches. He is about to remark on this, but at that moment, Chet appears at the door with his gear. Chet comes at about this time every day after he has played his pitches in the town. He is struggling a little today. He is not getting any younger. Ahmed goes over to help him with his cart.

………………………………………………………………….…

We’ve found him, boss,’ says Freeman.

Who?’ says Boss. ‘Speak up man!’

Sorry. It’s a poor signal. …… Is that better?’

What is it, Freeman?’

We’ve found Jazzman, sir. He has been caught on CCTV passing the horologist’s in the old town. He’s gone down one of those alleys, with some equipment. Willis thinks he might be heading for the Café Baba.’

Where?’

The Café Baba. It’s an African place.’

What’s the low down on it, Freeman?’

Could be a front for terrorist activity, possibly.’

What about the bag?’

He didn’t seem to have the bag, but perhaps it was packed away with his gear.’

Keep Jazzman there until I get there. Stay outside, for now, but keep a close eye. We’re not going to lose him again. …….. But I want to be the one to apprehend him. Bring the car round, Jagger!’

You asked me to remind you to take your tablets, sir.’

Quite, Jagger. Thank you. And let me have some of the others, the ones you got from your man, Zoot.’

………………………………………………………………….…

Matt and Flavia have put away their differences for the time being and realised that they are hungry. Perhaps it has something to do with Chet and Ahmed having sat themselves down at the next table. Chet and Ahmed are waiting for Youssef to bring the mint tea. They are listening to Miles Davis’s So What. It is a live version. Ahmed has turned the volume up a bit.

Jazz should be about breaking down conventions, experimenting,’ says Chet. He looks forward to these conversations. They affirm his dedication to the art. ‘I mean it’s got to have energy, be a bit raw, come from inside. You know what I mean.’

Absolutely,’ says Ahmed. ‘You certainly get that with Miles he doesn’t do pre-written chord changes.’

That’s right,’ says Chet. ‘Miles probably never played this tune the same twice. His improvised melodic lines are the basis of the harmonic progression.’

He’s a genius. Where does he get his ideas for improvisations from?’

I know. It’s like he opens the bag just before the show and grabs a handful of ideas?’

Some of these people you hear today on Jazz FM. It’s like you are stuck in a lift,’ says Ahmed. ‘This so-called smooth jazz. I mean what’s that about. Smooth jazz is a contradiction in terms.’

They sit back to take in an improvised passage.

The pastries are delicious by the way,’ says Flavia, trying to make amends for their earlier lack of decorum.

Really tasty,’ says Matt.

Thank you,’ says Ahmed. He remembers the conversation that they were about to have before Chet’s arrival, the one about the bag. The big blue bag is still there under the table. It appears to have settled.

What is in the bag by the way?’ he asks.

………………………………………………………………….…

Casey Boss and Jagger arrive at Café Baba. Freeman and Willis are waiting outside.

How’s it looking?’ asks Boss. ‘Is jazzman in there?’

Yes,’ says Freeman. ‘He didn’t bring the bag though, but a man and a woman were already there with it.’

So there’s more than we thought. What about the café owner?’

I think they must all be in it together,’ says Willis.

Casey Boss has not done a lot of fieldwork lately. He is suddenly racked with uncertainty. Shouldn’t Zoot’s meds be working by now, he wonders, to give him a little confidence?

What do we do now?’ he says.

We generally burst through the door pointing guns and shouting,’ says Freeman. ‘I’ve always found that to be effective.’

What are we waiting for then?’ says Boss.

The four of them make their entry in the recommended manner.

Nobody move!’ yells Jagger. He has brushed up on his commands.

No-one looks as if they were about to move. It’s as much as they can do to look around. They see so much street theatre these days.

Stay away from the bag!’ says Jagger.

What’s the fuck’s going on?’ says Ahmed. His sentiments are echoed by the others. Eyes gradually focus on the Ikea bag. Whatever is happening, this is at the heart of the narrative.

Boss picks it up and examines it. He feels calmer now he has the bag and the meds are finally beginning to kick in.

Whatever is in the bag seems to have got everyone hot and bothered’ says Ahmed.

Whatever’s in the bag! Whatever’s in the bag! You know perfectly well what is in the bag. And we are going to find out everything about your little operation here at Café Baba.’ says Jagger, producing several pairs of handcuffs.

I swear none of us has any idea what’s in the bag,’ says Matt.

Well let me tell you what is in the bag,’ says Boss, feeling magnanimous. Zoot’s stuff is a real mood changer. ‘The bag is full of …….. ideas.’

It’s what?’ says Matt.

A bag full of ideas,’ Boss repeats.

What are you all talking about?’ says Chet.

It’s a bag full of concepts potentially present to consciousness,’ Boss elaborates. ‘Ideas.’

Cool,’ says Chet. ‘A bag full of ideas, eh? Can I have a look?’

Stay back,’ says Jagger, pointing the gun at his head.

I will attempt to explain,’ Boss continues. ‘It is clearly dangerous for too many people to have access to too many ideas, too many concepts potentially present to their consciousness, if you will, so it is necessary to keep a collection in a central repository. Ideas need to be carefully regulated, but it is also important to have a new idea now and then. After all, new ideas generate investment. Even the most antisocial ideas generate an investment. Sometimes raw ideas need to be transported from our warehouse to another location in order to be developed. Different skill sets you understand, storage workers and visionaries. Earlier today, in transit, a delivery was hijacked and has ended up here in the blue Ikea bag.’

What are you talking about?’ says Chet.

The bag is empty,’ says Flavia. ‘Or at least what is in it is invisible.’

Obviously, it’s invisible,’ says Boss. ‘Ideas are invisible.’

And heavy,’ says Flavia.

Of course, it’s heavy. You don’t think ideas just come in through your internet browser do you, or blow in gently on the prevailing south-westerlies?’

Anyway, you’ve got it all wrong,’ says Flavia. ‘A hooded man ran up to me in the street while I was standing there watching the jazz and handed me the bag and ran off.’

What?’ says Boss looking round at Jagger. Has his colleague messed up again, he wonders?

Why do you think he did that?’

Panic, possibly. I don’t know.’

And I’ve been trying to get rid of it ever since.’

Well, be thankful that you didn’t get rid of it,’ Boss continues. ‘There are a billion embryos of ideas in that bag. Ideas in their raw form, like the seeds of creation. Their value is immeasurable. Over time the ideas will grow and the department needs to be able to monitor their growth. Imagine if they fell into the wrong hands. We would have a free for all. We need to lock them back up in a safe place. It wouldn’t do for people to get the wrong idea.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Why is a Raven like a Writing Desk

whyisaravenlikeawritingdesk

Why is a Raven Like a Writing Desk? by Chris Green

The tall stranger in the Duster overcoat appeared out of nowhere. He was wearing a broad-rimmed sheriff’s hat complete with campaign cord and silver star. I felt this was odd. This was a sleepy West Somerset coastal resort, not Washington County. Perhaps he felt the hat made him look interesting and would help him to get noticed.

What do you think it is that makes things happen?’ he asked.

At first, I thought he must be talking to someone else but there was just the two of us there. Who was he? What did he mean? Why was he asking me this? I was just enjoying a quiet moment watching the tide come in. It must have been the school holidays. Spring probably. The waves, I recall, were huge.

Do you mean, in the big scheme of things?’ I asked, feeling that his question was an unusual opener to a conversation.

Yes,’ he said. ‘If you like. In the big scheme of things.’

We elect people to represent us and they pass laws and other people in other countries do the same,’ I said, trying hard to remember the explanation our Ethics teacher, Mr Jenkins had come up with. ‘We agree with the way some countries do things but not the way other countries do things and according to relative size and strength, we form alliances and trading blocks. Sometimes there’s a disagreement over ideology and then a war and one side vanquishes the other and makes them do what they want.’

Very good! But that’s on a political level,’ the stranger said. ‘That’s what the history books tell you happens. That’s what you read in the papers. That’s surface detail.’

Well, some see a different man in the sky to others and they fight about whose man in the sky is the best,’ I said, trying to inject a little humour into the exchange.

Indeed!’ he said. ‘But how does it all work on a practical level? What are the mechanisms?’

There are improvements in technology and new inventions that bring about change,’ I said. ‘But I suppose innovations are primarily to sell new products to make investors rich.’ Old Josh Jenkins had told us this was the principal reason there were technical advances. To fuel capitalism, the money needed to move around faster and faster, he had said. Other than this, new technology was often developed to win wars.

That’s how it all works, is it?’ the stranger said.

It’s cause and effect,’ I said. ‘Action and reaction. All certainty in our relationships with the world rests on the acknowledgement of causality, wouldn’t you say?’

That’s what you’ve been told, is it?’ he said. ‘That determinism explains everything? All I can tell you for now is there’s more to it. One day, you will find out.’

With this, he took his leave, presumably off to do some strange sheriffing somewhere else. I couldn’t help wondering who he was, why he was there and what he meant. I was only sixteen. What was the purpose of him putting me on the spot? Was he a conspiracy theorist? New World Order and the Seven Sisters? Was he talking about magic? Lord of the Rings and all that mumbo jumbo? Uri Geller and spoon-bending? Or was he just a smartass?

At the time, I may have mentioned the episode in passing to Mick and Keith or Roger and Pete before we went off to smoke dope and listen to Pink Floyd or Dire Straits or whatever was current back then. Apart from music and dope, girls were pretty much the only thing that pre-occupied us. Perhaps I was on my way round to Annette’s to do some ….. revision. I may have told her about the mysterious man but I’m certain we didn’t labour the point. At sixteen, you do not dwell on things for long and the curious encounter was soon forgotten. So much so that as time passed, I was not even certain it had really happened.

Stovepipe hats have not been fashionable since the nineteenth century. So it was strange to come across a man wearing a shiny black one in Vivary Park in Taunton, especially as we were in the middle of a heatwave. 1990 was turning out to the hottest year on record. Following a minor misunderstanding, Tamsin had gone off to stay with her mother in Madeira for a few days and I was taking our Irish Setter, Bono for a walk when the tall stranger appeared. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. In his tall hat, he looked completely out of place. It was not even a Lloyd George style topper, it was a proper vintage Victorian stovepipe. Apart from the hat, he was dressed unseasonally, wearing one of those long overcoats. The overall effect was to make him look like a giant. To cap it all, he was carrying a black violin case. He approached me and struck up a conversation.

Don’t you recognise me?’ he said.

It suddenly occurred to me this was the same fellow I had met on the beach all those years ago. He had the same faraway look in his eye, the same pallor to his skin, making it seem almost translucent. There was no mistaking him. I told him I remembered him.

Have you worked it out, yet?’ he asked.

I tried to recall our earlier conversation. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to have worked out.

You thought everything could be explained by causality,’ he said.

Actions, ideas, even things we put down to synchronicity can probably all be explained by cause and effect,’ I said.

As in a sequence of events, you mean?’ he said. ‘Chain reaction, butterfly effect.’

That’s right,’ I said. All action and reaction.’

Action and reaction, eh? That’s Newton’s Third Law, isn’t it,’ he said. ‘And you think you can apply that to everyday life?’

More or less,’ I said. ‘Things chug along from day to day, one thing follows another in your chain reaction.’

Things chug along?’ he said. ‘H’mm That’s an interesting view. That’s the way it works, is it?’

Everything is loosely connected and each thing that happens affects many others so what we have is a complex web of actions and reactions,’ I said.

Hatman wanted to up the stakes.

What about when a seismic event takes place?’ he asked. ‘Something, for instance, like the Berlin Wall coming down last November. Can that be explained by cause and effect? Action and reaction?’

I would say that is a classic example of cause and effect,’ I said, rising to the challenge. ‘The East was poor, the West was rich. People in the East were finding this out and wanted some of it. The Soviet Union was losing its grip. Gorbachev was liberalising the Party and freedom groups all over the Eastern bloc were taking advantage of this. Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia. With forces chipping away at East German institutions, it was only a matter of time before the Wall fell. It was the final step in a chain reaction.’

I’m afraid you are falling into the trap again,’ he said ‘Like you did the last time we spoke. You are just looking at the surface detail. To understand the way things work, you will need to dig deeper.’

Bono, meanwhile, had run off behind the bandstand to investigate another dog. He had an unfortunate habit of doing this and not coming back. I went over to put him back on the lead. When I returned, the stranger had disappeared. I could hear a violin playing Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, softly in the distance.

The encounter left me perplexed. Who was the mysterious stranger? Why had he picked me? Was I perhaps just one of many unsuspecting people he tried to convert? But convert to what? What exactly was his message? Was he trying to say in his cryptic way that everything was pre-determined? Or that there was a hidden force, an all-powerful master of the universe? He was certainly peculiar but somehow he didn’t come across as a religious zealot. I could not imagine him calling door to door on a Saturday morning with an associate and a handful of thin pamphlets promising to put you on the path to salvation. Perhaps we were back with magic and the supernatural and he was suggesting the real driving force for everything that happens was something mystical. Perhaps he was trying to tell me I needed to familiarise myself with some arcane Oriental wisdom in order to transcend the mundane. But what was it about hats?

Each time I saw someone wearing an unusual hat, I thought it might be him. Bandanas, deerstalkers, turbans. Coonskins caps, fezes, zuchettos. In the street, at concerts, at the races, everywhere. Carnival parades were the worst. But as months went by with each sighting turning out not to be him, the memory of him faded.

I had all but forgotten him when, around the time of the millennium, he appeared again, this time in the Science Museum in Kensington. He was dressed in a black damask robe and a mortarboard. It was a lighter conversation than our previous ones. Moving on from the passing of time, we talked about the walrus and the carpenter and cabbages and kings. We touched on Cheshire cats and mad hatters. Did I realise Lewis Carroll was a mathematician and his work was full of hidden meanings, he wondered? I told him I had always thought he was writing about drugs. ‘

Why is a raven like a writing desk?’ he asked.

I wondered if perhaps he had the answer to the age-old riddle but at that moment, Tamsin returned from her visit to the Natural History Museum next door and he disappeared. I got the impression that beneath his bold exterior, he was rather shy.

We were back on the topic of the driving forces behind world events at our meeting in the bar of The Jolly Slaver. It was the year of the smoking ban, I recall because I had just come back inside after a cigarette when the stranger accosted me. He was wearing a superhero cape and a wizard’s hat. He wondered if I realised yet that things were never what they seemed. The discussion about what lay beneath carried over to our next meeting at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in Glastonbury, Somerset. He was wearing a tricolour beanie hat with his white suit. I think he may have been disappointed that I did not appear to always understand what he was trying to tell me.

He was always vague about what exactly his role was. His explanations for everything were frustratingly cryptic. Each time he appeared, I wanted to ask him why he had selected me. Why did he keep coming back? But each meeting was inadvertently cut short. Time, in the abstract sense, seemed to be a subject that kept coming up in our brief exchanges. He kept pressing me on what I thought time was? I have always had an unusual perception of time. I have frequently had to ask people what the order of past events was. When did we do this, when did we do that? Had we done this before that? More often than not, I appeared to have got it wrong. Tamsin was forever correcting my apparent temporal discrepancies, suggesting that I ought to keep a diary. My historical record frequently seemed out of synch with that of others. If I was like this now, I sometimes worried about what I would be like when I was older.

You keep referring to cause and effect,’ he said, the last time we met.

It was in the dining car on the Orient Express. Tamsin was resting back in our carriage. He came and sat beside me. He wore a sombrero vueltiao and big black sunglasses.

These chains of events, if that’s what you want to call them, can be unimaginably complex,’ he continued. ‘With so many crazy people in the world behaving irresponsibly, things can easily spiral out of control.’

I agreed there were some volatile leaders. In my view, most politicians were dangerous. It seemed to go with the job.

Without appropriate intervention, the world would have been blown to pieces by a catastrophic event by now many times over,’ he said. ‘I am one of a group of quantum gnostics whose aim it is to prevent such calamities escalating. We operate in the margins. It is our job to correct the course of rogue chains of events. Frequently, we are called upon to do so retrospectively in order to keep the boat afloat.’

Was he referring to specific events or was he generalising? Was he suggesting that he was able to go back in time? I didn’t get the chance to find out as before I had the chance to ask these questions, Tamsin came looking for me and the stranger upped and left.

Who were you talking to?’ Tamsin asked.

I tried to explain but she did not seem to be listening. She was more concerned with finding out what was on the menu.

Following the meeting on the Orient Express, I began to question whether time was, in fact, linear. The stranger had planted a seed of doubt in the conventional wisdom of a timeline where a series of events progresses regularly from beginning to end. Certainly, my perception of time was not linear. It had never been like that. I was all over the place with times and dates. I discovered I had some backup for the idea. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity suggested that there was no conceptual distinction between past and future, let alone an objective line of now. Also, he argued there was no sense in which time flowed. Instead, all space and time was just there in an elaborate four-dimensional structure. Furthermore, apparently, all the fundamental laws of physics worked essentially the same, forward and backward.

If this were the case, then did this also put the very idea of cause and effect into question? If there was no objective flow of time, might causality also work backwards, effect now becoming cause? Or like Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter and March Hare, having fallen out with Time, might we too be stuck at 6 pm forever? The very concept of time might, of course, simply be an illusion. Everything could be happening simultaneously, with or without interventions and corrections by quantum gnostics. Everything that has ever been and ever will be could be happening right now.

There are so many ways of looking at it, I don’t see what is really going on in the cosmos ever becoming clear to me. Reality itself is a slippery concept. All things considered, it seems reasonable to assume strangers turned out in whimsical headgear are likely to appear anytime, anywhere.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

TIME

time2019

TIME by Chris Green

Time is a bitch. You never know quite where you are with it. Einstein, bless him,
argues that the distinction between past, present and future is an illusion, albeit a stubbornly persistent one. This morning as I go through the mail, I begin to appreciate the great man’s uncertainty. These bills are the same ones as yesterday, electricity, phone and pet insurance. Exactly the same. And there’s an identical postcard of an Agadir beach at sunset from Rick and Sammi.

When set against the bigger issues of political corruption, terrorist bombs, and the war in the Middle East, a duplication of personal correspondence is not a big deal. Puzzling, yes, but I do have a large green recycling bin. More importantly, I’m running late. It is 8.15 and the traffic on Tambourine Way will be horrific if I don’t hurry. I scrape the ice off the Skoda’s windscreen and give it a few squirts of de-icer. I put a Johnny Cash CD into the player while the inside windows start to de-mist, and move off into the February frost.

I have a sense of déjà vu as I flash the headlights at Pedro, in his SUV on Solitaire Street, and again on the dual carriageway when I find myself behind a learner bus driver keeping to 30 where you could easily be doing 50 or 60. Does this learner bus driver come this way every day? My progress is further impeded by an accident at the Scott McKenzie roundabout. As I edge through the flashing blue chicane of police vehicles, I notice that the two battered cars seem to be the same two cars as in the accident two days ago, a white Mercedes and a black BMW. The impact of the collision has buckled both cars irreparably, as it had in the previous accident. I shudder. The coincidence is way beyond that presented by chance.

I arrive at Sanctuary Inanimate Pet Crèche and Counselling Service where I work. I greet Boris and Gerhard. I can’t help but notice that the cyber dog that was collected by its owner the day before yesterday is already back. There is also a familiarity about the headline War Dims Hope for Peace in Boris’s tabloid. Admittedly inanimate pet care is a repetitive line of work but the conversation Gerhard is having with Major Churchill about his pet rock seems identical to the one earlier in the week. After Gerhard puts down the phone I tackle him about this.

He looks at me challengingly and says, ‘what are you talking about? I have never spoken to Major Churchill before. And this may be just a job to you, but the Major’s pet rock does seem to be pretty sick.’

I think of taking up the point. Yes, it is just a job to me. Unlike Gerhard who sees a visit to the dentist as a bit of an outing, I have seen a bit of the world. But I keep quiet instead. What is the point? One pearl of wisdom that comes with age is that past glories count for nothing. I am here, and it is now. My life has taken a bit of a nosedive. Like Orson Welles, I seem to have lived my life backwards, if not quite in the sense I am about to.

Over the days that follow I have a permanent sense of déjà vu. Everything in my every day has happened previously. I have the same conversation with Spiro about West Ham’s problems in defence, spend the same hour chatting to my daughter, Promise on the phone about the dangers of putting too many personal details on Facebook, watch Groundhog Day again on DVD, and buy another new metal detector from The Army and Navy Surplus Stores. The hours on my watch are still going forward but the date is going backwards. The presidential election comes round again and they bring the old president back, and that family entertainer that we all once liked is prosecuted again for entertaining children in an inappropriate way. All the papers on the news-stands each day are yesterday’s papers.

At first, I imagine that it must be a huge practical joke, admittedly one with a formidable amount of complicity. Whilst I do not advertise my predicament in case people think I am a basket case, no one I speak to displays any sense that anything is wrong with their own temporal world. There is nothing in the papers or on the news to suggest anything irregular in the cosmos. Just the usual reports on war, politics and celebrity indiscretions. It appears that I am alone in my renegade perception of time, although there is a short item in The Morning Lite calling for a twenty five hour day. NASA scientists have apparently researched this and found that participants in the experiment benefited by the increased levels of melatonin. The findings it says would come in handy if astronauts go to Mars. A Martian day it points out lasts for 24.65 earthly hours.

There are a number of contradictions of logic involved in whatever it is I am experiencing. My days are still moving forward in a linear fashion. I go to work, come home, go to the pub, walk the dog, watch the rerun episode of Spender on ITV3, and go to bed as normal, but when I wake up the next day, it is the day before yesterday. Each day, I become a day younger. This aspect of my condition is, of course, something that at sixty three I should be pleased about; instead of a creeping decay, there will be a gradual rejuvenation. In a world that places excessive emphasis on artifice, this is what millions of people dream of. Zillions of pounds every week are spent by slavish consumers on a staggering array of products promising the reversal of the inevitable. The consentient sorcery of keeping flowers in full bloom is the central tenet of our belief system.

If I am reliving the past there is plenty for me to look forward, or backward to. I have on balance enjoyed my life. There are all of the special places I have been with lovers or friends that I have felt I wanted to go back to sometime. All of the times I have said or thought, I’ll always remember this. Things that just could not be captured on film. I reason I will also know when to expect the difficult times, like the divorce from Monique, Sebastian’s fatal illness, and the bankruptcy hearing. Painful though it will be, I can be ready for these episodes. And I can go on to experience youth with a wise head. What was it Oscar Wilde said? Youth is wasted on the young?

Despite these deliberations, the sequential upheaval continues to be both disconcerting and disorientating. After a week or so of going over the same ground, I decide to seek professional help. I find myself limited by the need to arrange an appointment for the same day. The medical profession does not operate this way. There is no point in my making an arrangement for any time in future, and clearly, I cannot make an appointment for last week or last month. Similarly, I am unable to arrange to see a priest, a mystic, a philosopher, or even a time traveller at a few hours notice. The Auric Ki practitioner that I do manage to see at the community centre at short notice talks about meridians and explains that there might be blockages on the layers of my energy field. Over a dozen or so sessions she says she can balance my chakras and time will move forward again. I try to explain that she might need to do this in one session and she suggests if this is my attitude, then I should go elsewhere.

I begin to wonder what would happen if I do not actually go to bed. Will the day progress normally to the next, or will I at a certain point be flung back to the day before? It seems that despite my predicament, there is still an element of free will about my actions so I buy a wrap of speed, from Sailor, a friend of a friend in the Dancing Monk public house.

This is wicked gear,’ says Sailor, so named I assume because of his abundance of tattoos. ‘It will keep you busy for fucking days.’

Good,’ I remark. ‘I may need it to.’

I see the exercise as a demonstration of free will, and not therefore merely a duplication of what happened on the corresponding day a couple of weeks previously. At my age, I am not really a late night person and have not taken drugs since my youth, so I am not sure what to expect.

Despite taking the whole wrap of wicked gear with four cans of Red Bull and playing some kicking music, I drift off at around 5 or 6, anyway before daylight.

……………………………………………………………………

When I wake up I am not sure where I am. Everything around me looks foreign, almost alien. In a conversation that must be puzzling to my companion, Song, I establish that this is the balcony of one of the upper floors of an apartment block in north-eastern China. It is 1988 – the year before Tienanmen Square. I have gone back seventeen years. Song and I are filming the spectacular estuary of the Songhua Jiang below for a travelogue for Sky TV. It seems the Chinese authorities are keen to promote tourism in the area. It is a Sunday morning and from our high vantage point, Song and I can see for miles. It is late August, near the end of the rainy season, and while the rainfall this year has been concentrated mainly in July, much of the flood plain is still underwater. Around the swollen river basin acres of lush green landscape luxuriate. Song points toward a flooded football field to our right, saying that despite the pitch being waterlogged the locals are about to turn out to play.

We are used to a bit of water. We have long tradition. Chinese invent football in the Han period over two thousand years ago,’ he says. ‘Is called Cuju. Means to kick a ball.’

Song goes a little deeper into the history of cuju in the region and says that he feels the water football game would look great on film, with a commentary about the history of the game from its Han dynasty roots. I nod my agreement. I am not surprised. Through classes in Tai Chi back in, well, there is no other way to say this, back in the twenty first century, I developed an interest in Sino culture. I came to understand that the Chinese invented practically everything from paper and printing to gunpowder and aerial flight, and most advances in science and medicine can be attributed to them.

I feel distracted. The future seeming like the past takes some getting used to. While I am conscious of my vitality, I have the strange sensation that I am also an observer of my life.

A boat carrying a team decked out in carnival colours chanting something patriotic is coming up the river. It is hot and humid and a dank haze hangs suspended above the water as if waiting for an impressionist painter. The regressing part of me is trying frantically to get a handle on what is happening. According to the log, I am keeping to help with later editing of the film, I have been in the Peoples’ Republic for ten days and am scheduled to be there for another ten. I am missing Monique, Sebastian and Promise. Song says that the phone lines will not be down for much longer but I know in my world they will be down until my arrival, so I will be unable to phone home.

Sebastian is six and Promise is five. It will be Promise’s birthday soon. Then she will be four. She will stop going to school. Before long, I will be reading her bedtime stories and taking her to nursery. It is curious to comprehend that my life going backwards means to all intents and purposes that everyone’s life around me is also doing so. I can only experience their past.

Filming in China goes back day-by-day as the day approaches that I arrive on a flight from Heathrow to Beijing. During this time I ponder my situation continually. When Song says, ‘see you tomorrow’, I know I had already seen him tomorrow but I will see him again yesterday.

I contemplate the age-old question as to whether we control our destiny or follow a preordained path. This seems all the more pertinent to my circumstances. Am I just reliving events in a life that I have already experienced or could my new actions or thoughts as a person coming from the future have any effect? And how will I know whether they do?

More immediately I am concerned as to why time for me has gone back seventeen years rather than the more conservative day at a time that I came to accept. I am anxious to avoid such a dramatic leap happening again. The only clue I have is that I had tried to stay awake at night to find out why time was going backwards.

I begin to become anxious about sleeping and visit one of the four thousand acupuncturists in Harbin. I also buy various traditional Chinese remedies from a 114 year-old herbalist named Ho Noh at the local market. Not that Ho instils any confidence. He does not look as if he had ever slept. But I am particularly concerned that the flight on which I was to arrive in Beijing comes in at 5 am local time. There seems to be no way of rescheduling the flight and reducing the risk of more temporal upheaval.

……………………………………………………………………

And indeed there isn’t…. When I become aware of consciousness again I find myself on stage at a Pink Floyd concert. I have some difficulty at first working out the time and place but conclude that it is The Wall tour around February 1981 and this is one of several concerts at Wesfallenhalle, Dortmund in what was then West Germany. What is once again West Germany. I am a sound engineer, and it appears that the tape loops for The Wall have been mixed up with those from Dark Side of the Moon. I suspect I have programmed something incorrectly into the console. Roger Waters is storming around the stage set with a face like thunder and some of the band stop playing.

Back at the hotel, I have a call from Astrid from the house in Rheims.

You seem upset baby,’ she says. ‘Is something not good with you?’

I tell her that I have just been sacked by Pink Floyd management. It seems better than saying I have just been jettisoned through space and time from The Peoples’ Republic of China.

Why?’ she asks. ‘They seemed so nice at the party in Paris.’

A long story,’ I reply, intensely aware of two different life forces, the present, and the future in reverse. You cannot expect to have much of a conversation about space-time continuums in an international phonecall to someone, whose first language is not English.

You could come down if you want,’ Astrid said. ‘I have missed you, you know. The only thing is I’ve got Monique staying. Have I ever mentioned my friend, Monique? I’m sure you would like her. She came yesterday.’

It occurs to me that unless I travel the 400 odd kilometres between Dortmund and Rheims by yesterday I will never even meet Monique. It also occurs that I can’t anyway because I have spent yesterday in Dortmund with Pink Floyd. In a devastating flash, having travelled back to before they were even contemplated, I realise I will never see my children again, or for that matter, Monique.

Before The Wall tour starts, or after The Wall tour starts, I spend a month seeing the new year out and the old year in, with Astrid at the house in Rheims. Astrid is a freelance photographer who does shoots for Paris Match and Marie Claire, specialising in quirky subjects like Sumo wrestlers, dwarfs and circus performers. She is successful and works more or less when she chooses to. We make love, morning, afternoon and night, paint, walk along the Vesle, go to galleries, concerts, and French films without subtitles.

During this time I go to see a hypnotherapist and give up not smoking. Almost immediately I find myself getting through a pack of Gitanes a day. It is a revelation to me to discover that one session can change the habits of a lifetime.

With Astrid in Rheims I go with the flow, seize the moment, and try not to think about the disappearing future, about the first time Monique and I saw the Grand Canyon a morning in May, or looking down at The Great Barrier Reef through a glass-bottomed boat, walking amongst the mystical stonework of the sun temple of Machu Picchu or watching the spectacular patterns form in the Sossusvlei sand dunes in Namibia, the sun’s reflection on the water in the Halong Bay in Vietnam, about Promise’s wedding, or Sebastian getting in to Oxford, sadly just a month before his fatal illness took hold. I do not think of the excitement of my novel being published or the acclaim I received for the first feature film I directed. I certainly do not think of the months in The Jackson Pollock Recovery Home, the job at Don Quixote or about anything else that happened after my breakdown. The future is history. And the future from a normal chronology of events will now never be. I will not have to endure that period of time later in life when those around you are slowly dying off. Those senior years when if you see a friend you haven’t seen for a while, their news will be that someone else had died. Back in the future when I was sixty three I recall that this had already begun to happen. My parents had died and, of course, Sebastian had died. Also, in a few short months, my friend Giorgio had died from liver cancer, Jacques had died from a heart attack, and Marianne had died from complications during surgery.

I feel I can live with going back a day at a time, and being aware of what will happen next is not a huge problem. With Astrid, life seems easy. I am twenty six years old and it seems that this is a time for pleasure. Each day the mystery of our attraction unfolds as we know less about each other. An affair lived backwards is very exciting. The fascination increases day by day, the first time you will get a mutual invitation, the first time you will go away together, the first time you will get or buy a present, the first time you will have breakfast together, the first time you will undress one another, working toward that glorious, breathtaking moment when your eyes will first meet, when intuition and desire will form an immaculate, unstoppable, mystical union, that split second when love is heaven-sent.

……………………………………………………………………

Astrid becomes Francesca in Barcelona, then Isabella in Rome. In between, there is Natalie in New York, and before I know it I am twenty three. These years are wild and exciting. I go to parties with painters and dine with divas. I work on a film with Antonioni and play with Led Zeppelin. Keith Moon crashes my car and Marc Bolan throws up in my jacuzzi. In a wave of hedonism, I just soak up all the pleasure that is available and cannot recall when I last tried to exercise free will. I have gone with the flow, allowing my youth and libido free rein.

Time going backwards is by now the most normal thing in the world to me. Déjà vu has become so commonplace that it is now unnoticeable. I am no longer surprised that news items and soap opera plots unfold backwards. But I am sometimes made aware of echoes of a future life. A persistent voice in my head seems to narrate stories concerning an older person. The voice is familiar, and comes from within, but while it seems it belongs to me and has some sense of self, at the same time I feel a sense of detachment. I have recollections of having lived through many of the episodes, but they exhibit themselves like false memory.

This older person seems to have experienced considerable misfortune. He found his crock of gold early and bit-by-bit has seen it disappear. As a result of the dispossession, he has suffered some kind of nervous collapse. He lives a lonely life, works in inanimate pet care, drives a brown Skoda and listens to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Even if this were to be my own future, it is neither tangible nor attractive. It seems to me that as my life is moving irrevocably in reverse, nothing is to be gained by taking possession of a character surrounded with so much sadness. So the more that it happens, the more I try to block out the voice.

It is often said that when you are young, life is a timeless flight, but as you get older time seems to fly by like it has been turned to fast forward. I find that as I grow younger a similar thing is happening. Months fly by. One moment it is August and the next it is April and another summer is gone. Christmases and birthdays are closer together. No sooner am I twenty three than I am twenty two, and then in what seems the blink of an eye, twenty one.

……………………………………………………………………

After, or before, an especially profligate drinking session, with a group of Dutch football supporters, in a bar in the red light district of Amsterdam during the World Cup, I make the decision I am going to fundamentally change the way I live. We have consumed bottle after bottle of genever as Holland lose to West Germany. We continue our drinking into the night, inconsolable that Johann Cruyff, despite being the finest footballer in the world, will never lift the trophy.

The binge is just the last in a long line of testimonies to guileless self-deprecation. I am unhappy with myself. I have begun to feel that my youthful comportment is frivolous and empty. My behaviour is inconsiderate and hurtful, and I despise the person I am becoming – or have been. I frequently catch myself saying really immature things, and acting badly towards those around me.

What brings matters to a head is a chance meeting at Amsterdam bus station with Faith, a friend of my mother’s. Faith is dressed in a miscellany of chiffon wraps, scarves, bead chokers and jangly jewellery. She carries a tote bag with a yantric design on it and has rainbow coloured braids in her hair. Faith greets me with a warm hug, which brings with it an assault of patchouli.

What are you doing here?’ she says. ‘Where are you going?’

I’m not sure where I’m going,’ I say. ‘Because it seems to be more a case of where have I been.’

In that moment I have a profound sensation of being disengaged from time.

In the 1960s both Faith and my mother will live on the fringes of a bohemian lifestyle. My father, a man ensconced in the decorum of the professions, will not. He will go to the races and Rotary Club dinners, while my mother and Faith will metaphorically burn their bras and go on demonstrations. It is not hard to see how they will grow apart and the disagreements and separation that will be the backdrop to my early life will arise.

Time present and time past are perhaps present in time future,’ Faith continues. ‘And time future is contained in time past. If all time is eternally present all time is unredeemable.’

Where does that come from?’ I ask.

Those are the opening lines from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets,’ she replies, looking me in the eye. It is an English teacher kind of look. I look away.

When I am younger my mother will try to educate me in poetry, but I will prefer The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. I will get an appallingly bad grade in English by reading none of the books. My father will not notice because I am too unimportant to be of any significance.

But, if you do not know where you are going, you should not be at the bus station. Why don’t you come and have some lunch with me?’ Faith says. ‘I live in Haarlem.’

The bus arrives and we take it. Haarlem is just a few miles. I open up to Faith. I explain I haven’t seen mother since I was twenty six and then only briefly. She looks puzzled so I tried to explain a little of my predicament.

She quotes T. S. Eliot at me once again.

We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.’

I began to wonder if T. S. Eliot might have shared my sequential dysfunction.

On the journey, Faith tells me about the community in which she lives, all the time emphasising how happy she is. The community, she says, support one another, share everything, and work together towards a common aim. It seems idealistic, naive even, but I can see that Faith appears to be happy and feels she has found what she is looking for. Her view of life seems to be in marked contrast with my own.

We arrive at Haarlem. A lengthy explanation about eastern philosophy and the middle way sees us outside Faith’s house.

BEWARE OF THE GOD,’ says the sign on the front gate.

Which God?’ I ask.

It does not matter,’ she replies. ‘How about a Retriever?’

……………………………………………………………………

I come round in the playground of The Frank Portrait Primary School. I am wearing short grey trousers, grey flannel shirt and a blue blazer. I am fighting with a boy called Jon Keating. No!…..Wait! …… I AM Jon Keating. ‘Keating needs a beating, Keating needs a beating’ they are chanting, this swathe of little grey monsters. ‘Keating needs a beating.’ They empty my blazer pockets, and one of them, Nolan Rocco I think it is, takes my wristwatch. How will I know what time it is now?

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Chinese Boxes

chineseboxes2018

Chinese Boxes by Chris Green

The fire engine comes hurtling towards me. It is out of control. It has no driver. Conan Doyle Street is narrow and the precipitate leviathan gathers momentum as it heads down the slope. I dive for safety into the doorway of the antiquarian bookstore. The fire engine forges ahead, gradually slowing as the incline levels out. It comes to a stop in the dip where Conan Doyle Street meets Rider Haggard Street. Fortunately, there are no casualties as the streets are deserted. This part of town is no longer prosperous and a lot of the shops are boarded up.

I am on my way to the doctor’s in Bram Stoker Street, a block or so away. I don’t have an appointment, but when I phoned earlier I was told someone would see me if I came along. I let the sour-faced receptionist know of my arrival and sit in the grey waiting room. Afternoon surgery has finished and I am the only one there. For comfort, I take my Doc Martens off. I start to read a monthly military magazine, but I can’t concentrate. After a few minutes, Dr Bilk comes through and says that he will see me but he has to make a phonecall to the hospital first. He asks me to go wait for him in Surgery 2.

Realising I am in stockinged feet, I go back to fetch my boots. It takes a while to lace them up and when I return Surgery 2 is locked. Dr Bilk has disappeared. I look everywhere for him. I go out into the courtyard. I look up and down the street. Back inside, a dozen or so men in dark suits are having a meeting in the room down the corridor from the locked surgery. There is a hostile air about the gathering. I do not like to interrupt. I go out to the car park. I manage to collar Dr Bilk, just as he is getting into his car. Without bothering to listen to my symptoms, he hurriedly writes me a prescription. I have not heard of the medication, he prescribes. Perhaps he has made a mistake.

What makes me want to return the fire engine to the fire station I do not know. This is what happens sometimes, isn’t it? In a moment of madness, you find you make a decision that you just can’t account for. It’s as if a force takes over and you no longer have free will. It may be just me but I have noticed that these decisions are often injudicious.

I am not used to handling such a bulky vehicle and I have several near collisions with other cars on the way. I accidentally cross two sets of red traffic lights and manage to negotiate the Henry James roundabout on two wheels. When I finally arrive at the fire station, I find that it is closed. What would happen if there were a fire? I park the vehicle outside the book depository in Franz Kafka Street. I think about phoning my brother, Quinn to come and pick me up, as it is now after six o’clock and I need to get home for dinner. I am suddenly struck by the thought that my fingerprints will be all over the fire engine and they will think that it was me that stole it.

I come to with a start. I do not recognise my surroundings. Red would not be everyone’s choice of colour for bedroom walls and Francis Bacon’s mutilated torso prints would not be to everyone’s taste to hang on them. There is a large sagging woollen drape coming down from the ceiling and a silver saxophone on a stand in the corner of the room, alongside a device that looks like a medieval instrument of torture. Mr Bojangles is playing from a portable red speaker, a grunge version that I am not familiar with. The room has a musty smell.

The important question seems to me to be how did I come to be here? I have no recollection. Where is my beautiful house, my beautiful wife and my large automobile? How do I work this? Before I have a chance to get my bearings there is a loud knock at the door. I leave it at first, but when no-one else answers it, I conclude that I must be alone here. On the second or third knock, I go to to the door. A man is standing there holding a large metal plate. He doesn’t seem surprised to see me.

I’ve come to fix the cooker,’ he says.

You’d better come in.’ I say.

I don’t have any idea where the kitchen is, but he seems to know.

Did I wake you up?’ he asks as I follow him through to the kitchen.

No,’ I say, looking around to take in the funky chickens strutting about the place.

Good idea to keep them indoors,’ Cookerman says. ‘Stops the foxes getting them. There are a lot of foxes about round here.’

I don’t ask him where round here is in case he gets suspicious.

Rhode Island Reds, these little beauties,’ he says. ‘Good for laying brown eggs. Perhaps we might have breakfast when I’ve done the cooker.’

The kitchen is kitted out in an odd mix of styles, a startling hybrid of Scandinavian chic and Dickensian squalor. I have not seen a zebra patterned fridge, or a red cooker before. Cookerman takes it all in his stride. Perhaps he comes across vibrant appliances every day. Ducking beneath the cast iron pots and pans hanging from butcher’s hooks on the ceiling, he makes his way over to the cooker and opens the door. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a cooker explode. I’m guessing most of you haven’t. But I can tell you, it does wake you up.

Which is how I come to find myself in a barnacled beach hut in the middle of a storm surge, with the waters already sloshing over the sandbags. The wind is getting up again and it has turned round to the north. The spring tide is due to keep coming in for the next two hours. Looking through the gap where the window once was I can see more black clouds forming over the steep escarpment the other side of the bay. With the water already around our ankles and the roof leaking like a faucet, the last thing we need is another downpour.

Earlier, I tried in vain to rescue a struggling black Labrador that was being taken away by the rip current. My leg became trapped and I was thrown against the rocks. I was knocked unconscious. She is only slight and I am nearly fourteen stone but somehow Vision dragged me here to this beach hut, the highest beach hut in the row. Some of the other huts have already broken to pieces and been taken out to sea. I can hardly move my damaged leg, so we won’t be leaving anytime soon. We are at the mercy of the elements. We are trapped.

Don’t you know what time high water is?’ Vision asks, looking at her watch. ‘It must be soon.’

14:05. Nearly two hours to go.’

We can’t stay here that long. We’ll drown.’

We’ll send out a mayday then, shall we? Where did you put the flares?’

I could go for help,’ she says.

We are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. If Vision goes for help we are both at risk. If she stays we are still both at risk.

No,’ I say, with some authority. ‘Don’t go.’

I guess we’re in this together then,’ she says. ‘That’s what we used to say isn’t it?’

It’s been a long time,’ I say. ‘Seven years, isn’t it? Or is it nine?’

Twelve, I think,’ she says.

As the waves continue to crash against the flimsy fabric of the hut, it feels like being aboard a ship going down. I have the urge to break into a sea shanty, to summon up the sailor’s spirit, Blow The Man Down, Haul Away Joe or something like that.

Is that a lifeboat I can see in the distance? ……. Is it? ……. Or is it just another phantom? Am I doomed perhaps to an endless chain of unfathomable nightmares from which I can never wake? Doomed to grapple feebly with this nest of interlocking riddles, that fit inside one another like Chinese boxes?

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

 

Tilting At Windmills

tiltingatwindmills

Tilting At Windmills by Chris Green

There was always something about Karl Oscuro that didn’t fit. You couldn’t quite put your finger on what it was, but from the very first he seemed to be more than just the proverbial square peg. He had a pale complexion and always dressed in black, but then, so did many others. This was becoming a fashionable look around the campus, probably down to the influence of the Midnight television series. Everyone stayed up to watch Midnight.

Karl kept himself to himself and didn’t go for any of our organised activities. He didn’t even go to the Student’s Union, but then who could blame him? All those loud malingerers with inflated opinions of themselves. And the odious smell of Lynx mixed with beer. In lectures Karl always sat alone and when he spoke at all, which was seldom, he spoke softly, with no trace of an accent. He was tall and thin, but then my Uncle Angus was six feet seven and he was the most conventional man you could wish to meet. The word was that Karl listened to Bruckner and Mahler on his ipod, but none of us knew this for certain. None of us had got that close.

It was Louise who noticed it first. A group of us were leaving the Technology block in the late November sunshine. We were making our way in small groups or alone in the direction of the old gothic library building, not that any of us were going to the library. It was too early in the term for that. The Autumn shadows were long, but Louise saw to her alarm that Karl did not cast a shadow. She let out a silent scream, tugged at my arm and pulled me aside to point this out. I could see straight away what she was showing me. It was plain as the proverbial pikestaff. Karl had no shadow. All the other students’ shadows were behaving as they should, but Karl did not have one. My God! How was it we had not noticed this before? We were now nearly two months into the term.

Hanging back from the others so as not to draw attention to ourselves, we continued to silently register our horror. We did double takes and triple takes but each time we turned back, it merely became more apparent that Karl’s figure made no shadow. Why hadn’t the other students walking in the same direction spotted it? Karl was still only a few feet away from them. How could they be so unobservant? How had we been so observant for so long? Why could we see it now when the others still could not.

Louise and I made a decision there and then to keep this to ourselves for the moment, just in case. In campus life, embarrassment could take months to live down. Especially after our giant poodle sighting that turned out to be a tree. We did not want to be accused of tilting at windmills again.

I had an arts background but Louise had a science one.

‘What exactly is a shadow, I mean scientifically speaking?’ I asked. ‘Could there be something here we are missing?’

‘A shadow,’ Louise explained, ‘occurs when an opaque or translucent object lets say in this instance a human body blocks light.’

‘I think I get that much,’ I said.

‘As long as there is a light source there will be a shadow, Melanie,’ she continued. ‘Only transparent objects do not make shadows. The light passes straight through, you see.’

She carried on to tell me about umbra, penumbra and antumbra being three distinct parts of a shadow. And how Karl had none of these. The light must be passing straight through him as though he were transparent.

Louise and I decided to skip our early evening lectures and keep a low profile for the rest of the day while we tried to regroup our thoughts. We returned to our flat, situated in on the edge of the old town just a stone’s throw from the campus. In order to shut out as much of college life as possible, we turned off our phones. We did not want to be disturbed by Emma, or Amy or Jade blabbering on about Skins or Misfits, or even Tarquin or Hugh bringing round a cheap bottle of Shiraz and telling us how hot we were.

It is one thing seeing Karl without his shadow but that isn’t half so weird or scary as seeing Karl’s shadow without Karl. While we could not be sure that what we were seeing from our window moving stealthily across the courtyard under the street-light was Karl’s shadow, given the circumstances it did seem to us more than a possibility. The shadow was long and thin and distinctly Karl-shaped right down the shape of the drainpipe trousers and black leather biker’s jacket he was fond of wearing. It moved across the flagstones at walking pace until it was out of range of the light. But there was no Karl.

At first, we were completely freaked out. This was the stuff of The X Files. But we quickly realised we ought to find out what was going on. We needed a reality check here. Another quixotic gaffe would be disastrous.

‘Everyone should have a shadow,’ I said. ‘I have a shadow, you have a shadow. Why doesn’t Karl Oscuro have a shadow?’

‘Who knows?’ said Louise. ‘Perhaps it was a trick of the light.’

‘I know that you don’t think that,’ I said.

‘I guess you are right,’ said Louise.

‘So, we’ll follow him tomorrow and see where he lives,’ I said. ‘And introduce ourselves. He’s probably ……. very nice.’

We were offered our opportunity the following day. Karl was just leaving the campus by a side entrance into Bygone Street, striding out with his lumbering gait. The unseasonable late afternoon sun was once again behind him, but still he cast no shadow. There were not many people about, so Louise and I had to tail him from a respectable distance, so as not to arouse suspicion. Bygone Street turns into Yore Street and it was here that we lost him. It was not so much that he disappeared into thin air as there was a choice of several four storey nineteenth-century buildings into which he might have vanished. Divided into a warren of smaller units by exploitative landlords, this block would be housing perhaps hundreds of students. It would not have been easy to discover which one Karl had disappeared into, had it not been for the movement of a curtain on the lower ground floor of number 9. We caught a glimpse of the profile of a tall dark figure pulling them shut.

The following morning we lay in wait nearby, ready to accidentally bump into him. He recognised us and slowly we began to strike up a conversation with him as we walked to college. We chatted awkwardly about famous landmarks, motorcycles, and saxophones. We moved on to paintings. This was more fruitful ground. When I had time I liked to paint and it transpired Karl too was a keen amateur artist. He told us he had often visited the galleries since he had been here. He had a particular fondness for the work of Belgian surrealist, René Magritte. He loved the provocative kitsch of Magritte’s paintings, the whimsical juxtapositions of everyday objects. He explained that Surrealism had been outlawed in his country. It was only since coming here that he had come across it. I asked him if he liked Dali. He hesitated in his reply. I wondered if this might be because of all the foreboding shadows in Dali’s paintings.

I needn’t have worried. At that moment, the sun broke through and gave us the opportunity we were looking for. Our shadows were there standing up to be counted, but Karl’s was conspicuously absent from the party. When we pointed out this out in the nicest possible way, Karl was unexpectedly forthcoming.

‘In the country I come from,’ he said. ‘It is not uncommon for people to lose their shadows.’

With this, Karl began to tell us horror stories of shadows being forcibly cut from their owners by unscrupulous surgeons, broken down and dissolved by ruthless experimental chemists or driven away by arcane psychiatric practitioners.

‘How awful,’ I said. ‘And something like that happened to you?’

‘No. It was different for me. I managed to keep my shadow, but ironically it left me the moment I stepped off the boat having arrived here,’ he said. ‘Not so much as a by your leave. Perhaps it thought its chances were not good and it became fearful of what might become of it if it stayed with me. So I have not had a shadow since I’ve been here. I have learned to live with this but I am aware that from time to time people like yourselves must notice. That is why I keep myself to myself.’

Louise and I looked at one another. Was the time right?

‘I think I may have seen your shadow,’ I blurted out.

Karl was visibly shaken. ‘You can’t have,’ he uttered. ‘That is impossible.’

‘Perhaps your shadow has come looking for you,’ said Louise.

‘Are you sure it’s mine? Where did you see it? Where was it? Tell me,’ said Karl, urgently.

‘It was long and lean and was the same shape and size as you in the clothes you are wearing,’ I said, gesticulating to him. ‘And, it was making its way across the courtyard beneath our flat in Yesterday Street. It was lit up by the streetlights.’

‘Where’s Yesterday Street?’ said Karl.

‘It’s on the other side of the campus about half a mile from here,’ I said. ‘It’s in the old town, close to our flat. We can take you there if you like.’

There is a network of cobbled streets, Tudor buildings and the ruins of a castle on our side of the campus. This was part of the original walled city and it is steeped in antiquity and folklore. For much of the day, the three of us explored the narrow roads and alleys searching for Karl’s shadow, sheltering occasionally from an unwelcome November rain shower. We all realised there was no chance of seeing a shadow while there were clouds overhead. Karl continued to open up and gradually we got to know him. We found out he had come to this country to escape a vicious regime in his own. He explained that back home there was a clan system in place and the ruling elite looked down on the Oscuro clan and persecuted them mercilessly.

‘Only to find the same here,’ I joked. ‘It can happen even in a democracy.’ Quentin Thief’s elitist government had just been re-elected with a large majority, with just 35 per cent of the vote. Daily we were getting announcements on how they planned to deal with ethnic minorities and the poor. Shadow surgery had yet to be suggested but Quentin Thief was not a man you could trust.

Late in the afternoon, the sun came back out. We sat on a bench on Antediluvian Street by the old preparatory school building, that Brycks and Mortimer Developments had acquired to convert into retirement apartments. We watched the long shadow’s of passers-by, all neatly in step with their owners. Suddenly we caught a glimpse of a rogue shadow, darting behind the stone wall between the museum and the old saddler’s. Was this the moment we had all been waiting for? Karl became excited at the sight of his shadow. Understandably so, this was the shadow that he thought he had lost for ever. He lapsed into his native tongue. As for Louise and I, we felt a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. We really had no idea what to expect.

No sooner had we got a fix on the shadow however than it vanished. Being two-dimensional, shadows can disappear behind other shadows or make their way into places that we cannot reach. But there were other questions demanding answers. Were we talking material world here, or was this the realm of the spirit world? Was any of this really happening? Here and now? There were many things that Louise felt we could no longer be sure of.

After keeping us on tenterhooks for what seemed like hours but may have been a matter of seconds, the shadow appeared again from its hiding place. To our greater astonishment, it was now accompanied by a second shadow. This one was of a female form. The two shadows began shadow dancing.

‘Oh My God! That looks like Valentina,’ said Karl.

‘Who?’ I asked.

‘Valentina. Valentina Kohl, a girl that I used to see back home. She was training to be a dancer. The rulers encouraged performing arts. This should have helped to protect Valentina. But unfortunately, like the Oscuros the Kohls too were a persecuted clan.’

‘And Valentina came over on the boat too, did she? Louise asked.

‘That’s the thing. I don’t know what happened to her. You see the Oscuros and the Kohls may have both been out of favour with the elite, but they were also rival clans. A bit like the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet by your William Shakespeare. Valentina and I had to meet in secret. When I knew I was leaving, I was hoping I would see her one last time, but the guards prevented it.’

‘If this is her then she may have come over too,’ I said.

‘I’m certain that it is her,’ said Karl.

‘Well, what are we waiting for?’ said Louise.

‘I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen here. I don’t know how to get my shadow to come back to me and I don’t know where I might find Valentina.’

While we wanted to see this as a half empty view, we conceded that he did have a point. Things had suddenly become more complicated.

‘Supposing you were able to find Valentina, then you and Valentina could try to recover your shadows together,’ I said

‘But how am I going to find Valentina?’ said Karl.

‘What about social media? Kohl is not a common name,’ said Louise.

‘I’m afraid that it is a common name in my country.’ said Karl. ‘I had a look on Facebook and there were nearly fifty Valentina Kohls.’

‘Well, there you go then.’ I said.

‘Don’t you think I didn’t try that,’ said Karl. ‘None of them were the right Valentina Kohl.’

‘We will help you,’ I said, but I had to admit I did not know where to start.

We thrashed out the possibilities and agreed that we would continue to meet, but Louise and I never saw Karl again, or his shadow. He vanished without a trace. No one seemed to know where he had gone. In fact, the few people we asked around the campus did not know who we were talking about. In the end to save ourselves more embarrassment we stopped asking. Karl did not even show when in another twist of fate Valentina Kohl turned up at our local pub, The Blind Poet. Her band, Chimera were fabulous. Valentina had a voice like the singer of the Cocteau Twins. And she danced like Kate Bush. As she danced, she cast a shadow under the stage lights.

We were able to speak to Valentina after the set. She had not heard of Karl Oscuro.

‘I do not know this Karl Oscuro,’ she said. ‘Is he a taxi driver maybe?’

I told her I did not think so unless he had done it as a summer job.

‘He is at college with us,’ said Louise. ‘At least, he was.’

‘I think that he has a good name, though,’ said Valentina. ‘Perhaps one of you is a writer.’

I don’t know what to believe anymore. When I start to think about it, strange things have been happening since that week back in July. Neither Louise or I have any recollection of the events of the week. To this day no one can explain what happened to us. All I can recall is that we were on a backpacking holiday in Morocco and our coach got lost in the desert. I do not even know why we were in the desert. We were travelling from Casablanca to Marrakesh. Desert was not on the itinerary. Something must have happened to take us off course. The whole week disappeared thus.

Louise sometimes questions whether we even went to Morocco. She says she does not remember being on a coach, has no recollection of Casablanca except that it was a film, and thinks Marrakesh is a song by Crosby Stills and Nash, whoever they are. She says if we were on a coach that got lost there would have been others to corroborate our story and it would have been on the news. She thinks we may have spent the week busking in a Paris subway. She says that she has a vague recollection of Sacha Distel giving us a 50 Euro note. When I tell her that Sacha Distel has been dead for over ten years, she says ‘Oh well, so it goes.’ It can be difficult to get a grip on reality sometimes.

Whatever really happened, since that week we have encountered all manner of weirdness, people walking through walls, the television switching itself on in the middle of the night, a caracal sleeping at the foot of the bed, that sort of thing. I came home one day to find a cumulus cloud in the front room. Louise tells me the rubber plant sometimes talks to her. I suppose we should be prepared for occasional surprises until these anomalies sort themselves out.

‘Oh my God, is that a porcupine in the fridge, eating the cottage cheese?’

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

THE END

theend2

The End by Chris Green

At first, the sound is little more than an intermittent background hum. I put this down to tinnitus. But, the hum does not go away. Over a period of a few days, it becomes more pervasive. Eventually, it is a permanent drone. On her return from her counselling conference up country, my partner, Nisha tells me she can hear it too. What can be causing it, we wonder. The fridge freezer perhaps? An electrical overload? An alarm from an outbuilding? …… It is none of these.

What about Charlie’s radio transmitter?’ Nisha says. ‘That’s not far away.’

Charlie’s ….. uh, shed was the first thing I thought of,’ I say. ‘But there’s nothing at all coming from there. I’ve been round a couple of times. Charlie seems to be away on holiday.’

We live in a detached house in a quiet rural area so we conclude it cannot be noise from a building site and it is too loud to be from distant traffic.

I discover that others are hearing it too. Mrs Oosterhuis in the cottage down the road says it is upsetting her Mikey. Mikey is her Jack Russell. Bill and Gill who live at The Old Rectory say it keeps them awake at night and Ron and Anne at Rose Nook say they have taken to wearing earplugs. The animals at the nearby Rescue Centre are behaving strangely too, the dogs especially. It’s not just Mikey who has taken to yelping and whimpering. Animals sense something is wrong. Mr Chislett in the newsagents says the humming sounds like a swarm of bees. A plague of locusts suggests the lady in front of me buying her equestrian magazine. She tells us about her experience in Egypt in the eighties. We debate as to whether the hum has a constant frequency or whether it oscillates. I tell it sounds like the E chord at the end of A Day in the Life played at full volume and without the fadeout. The pair look at me blankly. Whatever its pitch might be, we agree it is getting louder. When I go in to pick up my prescription at the surgery, the customers waiting in the reception area are talking about the hum, describing it variously as a buzz, a thrum, a rumble. The pharmacist says that some folk have taken to wearing industrial ear defenders when they go out. He tries to sell me a pair.

Everyone now seems to be hearing it but no-one knows what it is. There is nothing on the news about it and nothing in the papers, just the usual blather about indiscreet arms deals, political brinkmanship and celebrity indiscretions. Why is it not being reported? Someone must know what is causing it. I trawl through the conspiracy theory sites online. I feel there is bound to be something there like there is with weather manipulation or chemtrails. Even if it’s just an unsubstantiated theory, someone will have come up with an idea about what is going on. But to my astonishment, there appears to be nothing, not even the token suggestion by a sci-fi fan that it might be a big black monolith beaming a signal to mankind. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might think that people had been posting prolifically but the posts had been systematically taken down.

Try not to become neurotic about it,’ Nisha keeps telling me. ‘It will probably disappear just as unexpectedly as it started.’

I think she is wrong. I have a sense of foreboding about it but I know what she will say if I share this thought with her.

I decide to go to see my friend, Vic on his houseboat. Vic often knows about things that are going on that others don’t. He is a mine of information, a veritable WikiLeaks. But this time even Vic is flummoxed. He too is concerned about the background drone. He says he has taken to playing Pearl Jam and Queens of the Stone Age to drown it out. But he tells me he has not been able to come up with anything about its source, perhaps it’s an invisible alien landing craft hovering in the sky waiting for the right moment to invade.

Aura in the New Age shop that has opened in the village says each of the planets has its own vibration. She demonstrates the different frequencies with a series of cosmic tuning forks. Each fork, she explains, tones to the precise frequencies of each planet’s orbit around the Sun. None of them, however, match the hum. Perhaps the orbit of our celestial body is slowing down, she says. Ravi, the leg spinner in the Lower Dickley cricket team says at first he wondered if it might be a universal Om, but Om has a positive vibration whereas the sound we can hear has no such qualities. If everyone can hear it, it could be a force for unity, says Interfaith minister, Desmond Haynes. I think he’s clutching at straws. It’s more likely to be confirmation that things are falling apart. Look at the state of the world. Where is the contentment?

…………………………

My phone’s gone dead,’ Nisha says. ‘Right in the middle of my call to Astrid.’

It probably needs charging,’ I say. Technology seems to have it in for Nisha. She constantly experiences these kinds of difficulties. Last week it was the timer on her tablet, before that a virus on the cooker. Perhaps it was the other way around although she manages to lock her car keys in the car even though it should be impossible. It’s a good thing she has someone around to fix these things.

I’ve just charged the damn thing,’ she says, thrusting the Samsung at me. ‘Not ten minutes ago.’

You’d better try the landline,’ I say. No-one I know seems to use a proper phone these days. I wonder why we still pay for the service.

A few seconds later Nisha reports back that the landline is dead too. As if somehow it’s my fault.

That’s a bugger,’ I say, worried that the day might now take a turn for the worse. ‘I’d better go online to see if there is any information about a fault.’

As I say it, I realise that there is not going to be any internet either. The lights on the router are flashing red. I try for about twenty minutes but it will not reboot.

Next door, Mrs Oosterhuis has no phone or internet either. Nor do Ron and Anne. Our daughter, Lucy comes around in a panic to see if our TV or internet are working. Hers are not.

Everything seems to be down around our way, internet, phones, TV, the lot’ she says. ‘And it’s chaos on the roads too. None of the traffic lights are working and no-one knows who has the right of way. And there’s been a massive pile-up at the Jim Morrison roundabout.’

Predictably our TV isn’t working, nor the radio. Just static on both. The omnipresent hum though seems to be louder. The cups on the kitchen work surface are beginning to vibrate. It’s as if the source is getting closer.

What do you think it is, Dad?’ Lucy asks.

No-one seems to have any idea what’s causing it,’ I say.

I’m scared, Dad. It’s all a bit Black Mirror, except it’s for real.’

Seeing my puzzled look, Lucy explains that Black Mirror is a satirical sci-fi series.

Staying put and doing nothing doesn’t seem to be an option. Out here in the sticks, we feel isolated. We need to find out what is going on. The only way to see how far the communication outage has spread and maybe find out what is behind it would be to go to Chesterbridge, the nearest large town. This is thirty miles north. We set off in the Range Rover. As expected, the car radio is full of static but as we make our way along the road the ubiquitous hum strengthens. There is very little traffic on the road, just the odd military vehicle from the base at Edgemoor.

It’s the middle of the afternoon,’ I say. ‘What the fuck has happened to everyone?’

It certainly wasn’t like this coming from Milton Sodbury just now,’ Lucy says. ‘Hence the pile-up at the roundabout.’

Milton Sodbury is a small town to the south. The traffic chaos that Lucy encountered coming from Milton Sodbury will be down to the failure of computer systems, running traffic lights, satnavs and other tech devices. So why the absence of traffic on the road to Chesterbridge? It’s an A road. There seems no logic. As we drive on in watchful silence, we see that vehicles have been abandoned by the side of the road. Every hundred yards or so there’s an abandoned set of wheels, a car, a van, a lorry ……

Ought we to be heading this way?’ Nisha says, finally. ‘I don’t like it one bit.’

I don’t like it much either,’ I say ‘But we’ve got to do something.’

That was a dead bear we just passed,’ Lucy says.

Common sense suggests we should not be doing this. Everything about the journey seems portentous. It is getting noticeably colder now and although it is only two o’clock, it is already getting dark. The phrase, devil and the deep blue sea, springs to mind.

Let’s turn back,’ Nisha says, as we pass an overturned motorhome.

The hum was one thing. Once you established that there was a perpetual hum, you could learn to live with that as a norm but this is getting weirder and weirder. We don’t know what to expect next. What manner of devastation is taking place?

Look up there!’ Lucy screams, suddenly.

It takes me a little while to realise that it is a plane falling out of the sky. I can’t imagine what else I think it might be. Clearly, it’s much too large to be a bird, it’s the size of a Boeing aircraft, for Heaven’s sake. But here it is plummeting rapidly on a trajectory to a spot the other side of Brickley Hill. It’s going to crash. Hundreds of people will be aboard and they will die. They will probably be screaming.

My mind is a blur. I can’t remember the exact chain of events but I am no longer in the Range Rover driving to Chesterbridge. My narrative has moved on. I am now in…. I am in…… Where am I? I realise I am alone. Where are my ……. my family…..Where are the people in my…… in my stor……. my….….stery…. mystery? A deathly silence pervades the ravaged landscape. The hum has ……. stopped. There is no hum. I’m not sure if it’s the future or the past. But, it can’t be either. It must always be now. I just can’t put it all together at the moment. It feels like a kind of limbo. What has happened to the hum? Perhaps Desmond Haynes was right and the hum was the very thing that was holding the familiar world together.

The landscape behind me seems to be disappearing as if someone is rolling up a carpet. Amongst the devastation before me, a black crow is calling. A harbinger of doom? Up ahead in the distance is a large ramshackle structure, a depository of some kind perhaps. There is nowhere else to go. So, with a degree of trepidation, I approach the derelict building.

You are not going to like it in there, old man,’ says a gangly figure in torn black clothes. He has one eye missing and a shock of jet black hair hanging down one side of his pale face. He seems completely out of context.

Why?’ I ask.

I am just telling you that you will not like it,’ he says. I look him up and down. His form seems insubstantial, his features other-worldly, ethereal. Reason and logic seem to have broken down. What is this place?

But, there is nowhere else to go,’ I say. ‘Nowhere! Look around!’

Exactly!’ he says. ‘You’ve hit the nail on the head, old man. There is nowhere else to go and there’s no going back, is there? This, my friend, is it.’

What do you mean? Who are you?’

Questions, questions. There’s no time for questions, old man.’

Where are Nisha and Lucy?’

Your wife and daughter will have gone to another ……. terminal.’

What is in there? What is in this …… terminal?’

Nothing!’

Nothing?’

Emptiness. A void. Non-existence.’

You mean……’

Yes, old man. Your time has come. This is The End.’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

QUINCE

quince

QUINCE by Chris Green

Giles Riddler tells me the quince tree blossoming in the front garden was the deciding factor in them buying the house. Had it not been for the quince tree, the Briggs and Mortimer board outside the 1930s semi-detached villa in Heisenberg Avenue might have gone unnoticed. Giles and Audrey apparently were out walking their labradoodle, Hendrix. They were not looking for a house.

Look, Giles,’ Audrey had said. ‘What a lovely quince tree!’

Indeed! Cydonia oblonga,’ Giles had said. ‘In such a beautiful sunny position. Exactly what we need. Let’s buy the house.’

Just like that?’ Audrey had said. Although I have not met her in person, I have formed the opinion that Audrey is in many respects more circumspect than her husband.

Absolutely!’ Giles had said. ‘It’s a sign. In this uncertain world, you have to be able to spot these things. And this is a first class quince tree.’

Their house in Cat Stevens Court was on the market the following day along with an offer of £400,000 on Heisenberg Avenue. Giles tells me they had not even looked around the new house when the offer went in. There was just no need, he says.

Their offer was accepted. The Cat Stevens house too sold in a day. It was as easy as that.

………………………………………..

I first came across the word, quince years ago in Edward Lear’s poem, The Owl and the Pussycat along with the mystifying word, runcible. Something about dining on mince, and slices of quince, and eating it with a runcible spoon. Mince presumably refers to sweet mince and not spag bol mince and quince is a fruit used primarily to make jelly. A runcible spoon is probably a spork.

Edward Lear was born in 1812 and was the youngest surviving child of twenty-one. There was a high infant mortality rate back then. Average age expectancy at birth in cities was nineteen. A precocious child, Edward first became celebrated as a teenager for drawing parrots, before turning his hand to landscape painting, travel writing and composing music. Although nonsense verse is what he is mostly remembered for, this was apparently just a sideline.

………………………………………..

I am a writer of experimental fiction, trying, like the paperback writer in the Beatles tune to get my new novel published. Like the one in the song, it’s a thousand pages give or take a few. Unlike Paul McCartney’s scribbler, I do already have a large and varied body of work. Sometimes I give readings at Nena Emanuel Care Home. One of the residents, a Hilma Faraday, tells me she grew up with Edward Lear in North London. They used to play in the streets of Holloway together and Eddie talked endlessly about the land where the bong tree grows and told her the tale of the Quangle-Wangle’s Hat. By my reckoning, this must make Hilma around two hundred years old, yet she doesn’t look a day over eighty. It’s a strange world. Things are not always what they seem.

………………………………………..

I was only familiar with Heisenberg as the pseudonym chemistry teacher, Walter White chose to do his drug deals in the cult television series, Breaking Bad but I discover that Heisenberg here is a reference to physicist Werner Heisenberg, the fellow behind the uncertainty principle. The uncertainty principle states that the more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa. Walt’s choice of the name Heisenberg is by all accounts a joke by series creator, Vince Gilligan, aimed at fans who might remember the uncertainty principle from the long afternoons in the lab for double Chemistry.

And then there’s the Observer Effect. The act of observation makes changes to a phenomenon being observed. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner. Reality is hard to pin down. If you take this to its logical conclusion nothing can be verified.

………………………………………..

Writers sometimes find they have time on their hands. In order to get myself out of the house, now and again I help out at my friend, Max Brooks’s bookshop. Brooks Books stocks a comprehensive range of reading, the type of books you may not find at Waterstones. Giles Riddler is a frequent visitor. He comes in for a cup of coffee and likes to spend an hour or two browsing the shelves. Sometimes he makes a bulk purchase. A week or so ago he ordered a dozen copies of Costa Rican novelist, Quince Duncan’s, A Message from Rosa. Today he is asking for Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. He wants fourteen copies and we only have one on the shelves. While I look it up on the catalogue, he asks about the new Edward Lear biography that is due out. I don’t believe there is a new Edward Lear biography due out. He might be referring to the new Paul McCartney biography, but we don’t stock that. I humour him. He tells me about the yellow fruit on his tree. I may be wrong but I think I notice a thread running through our conversations. Although I can’t quite put my finger on it, there does seem to be a recurring theme.

Giles goes on to say that the quinces from the tree ought not to be ripe yet. It is only August. Quinces should not be ready to pick, he says, until September or October. Yet they are. He has one in his pocket to show me. He takes it out and puts it on the counter. I can’t help thinking that it bears a remarkable resemblance to a jar of sweet mince. I don’t know what to believe, anymore. As the great Jorge Luis Borges says, ‘reality is not always probable, or likely.’ Could we possibly be living in a hologram?

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

ART OF DARKNESS

artofdarkness
 

Art Of Darkness by Chris Green

It seems a long time ago now that Passion and I arrived at Kemble station, in the Gloucestershire countryside. We had taken the Great Western train down from London and were planning to explore the Cotswolds. Passion and I have always been keen walkers and had been told that there were some fantastic walks in the area. Little did we know then that ‘fantastic’ was to be interpreted quite so literally. We had planned to stay in Cirencester, a small market town on the southern fringes of the Cotswolds, a few miles from Kemble station. We had left the car at home to get into the slower pace of rural life. From the station we climbed in the back of a waiting taxi to take us to a family run hotel in the town.

Uzoma, as our driver had introduced himself, had skin that was black as night. He was dressed in African tribal clothing, a swathe of bright red material wrapped around like a skirt and an abundance of multi-beaded necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Passion and I had expected that a Cotswold cab driver might be decked out in something more provincial. We said nothing. What could we have said? It would have been pointless to enter into a conversation about African tribes, as we did not know anything about African tribes. And there was political correctness to be considered.

Leopards are not common in Gloucestershire, so it was something of a surprise when Uzoma, pointed one out through the taxi window. The leopard was busy finishing off its lunch, a large rodent perhaps or a small pig. Uzoma said something that we did not quite catch, his delivery of English being a little difficult to understand. I remember at the time thinking of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, as his voice was way down in the bass register and had a musical inflection. Was he trying to tell us something about the leopard? In the back of the car I nodded. Perhaps I was agreeing for us to be taken into the Heart of Darkness.

It was a fine day and Passion and I settled back to take in the Cotswold scenery. This is what we had come for. Shepherd’s Bush might sound as if it’s in the country, but believe me it isn’t. We played ‘what’s that tractor.’ Passion’s nephew, Gulliver, had instructed her about tractors the previous week when she had been babysitting. John Deere was green, Massey Ferguson red, and Ford blue. Through the hedgerow, we caught a glimpse of what seemed to be a tractor painted sky blue with fluffy white cumulus clouds over it. Passion, apparently unphased by this curious customisation, said it reminded her of a painting she had seen in Tate Modern. ‘I can’t remember the artist’s name, but there was another one by him of a steam train coming out of a fireplace. Oooh! What’s his name?’

I know who you mean. It’ll come to me,’ I said, trying to get to grips with the idea of surrealist farming in rural Gloucestershire.

We turned into a B road (if not a C or a D) leading us into a thickly forested area. Surely, we thought, there must be a more direct route to Cirencester. It hadn’t looked far on the map. After a mile or two taken at a slow pace to avoid the potholes, tree roots and fallen branches, Uzoma pulled up in a clearing and uttered a few words, ‘boom bah bah boom,’ the gist of which we took to be that he would be back shortly. We conjectured that he had gone to relieve himself, but when he had not returned after about an hour and we had ruled out even a severe case of constipation, we became concerned. After lengthy discussion – we can’t stay here – why don’t we just drive off – we can’t do that -he may have fallen – he might be dead – one of us should stay – you go, I’ll stay – no, what if you get lost, I’ll go, you stay – why don’t we both go, sort of thing, we set off together to look for him. Whether this was pioneering or foolish is a moot point. Suffice to say that when we returned without Uzoma to where we thought we had parked there was no sign of the cab.

We were up the proverbial creek without a paddle. It occurred to us that it would be a smart move to try to contact someone to help us, or at least register our predicament, but although we were both with different networks, neither of our very expensive smartphones registered a signal. Whether a map or a compass would have been helpful at this point is hard to say, but we followed the track we had come in on, only to find that it led into progressively thicker jungle, until the track finally disappeared. Passion and I argued a little about our relative orienteering skills. I suggested that hers were poor; she maintained that mine were non-existent. After a few more pots at each other about sense of direction and spatial awareness, we determined that bickering would get us nowhere. We took stock of our surroundings. The guidebooks had not prepared us for the exotic backdrop we witnessed. Monkeys swung from the trees, parrots called to each other, and the air was thick with insects. The temperature seemed to have risen by several degrees and the humidity was stifling. Had we suspected that the Cotswolds were so tropical we may not have come.

By nightfall, we had seen no sign of anyone. We had encountered layer upon layer of gruelling jungle terrain and had become more than a little scared by our isolation. Apart from being lost in an inhospitable alien environment, with the possibility of a visit from the leopard, or a poisonous snake, or a lion, or the new giant ape we had read about in New Scientist, or a tribe of Northleach headhunters; we had absolutely none of life’s comforts. We had no food or water, and no change of clothes. Neither Passion nor I smoked so we did not even have a lighter to start a fire with. Passion remarked, rather cruelly I thought at the time,

Bear Grylls would have been able to get a fire going.’

This was hardly the point. After all Bear Grylls would probably have understood Uzoma’s English or even been able to converse with him in his tribal tongue. Bear Grylls certainly wouldn’t have got lost. Mostly though Bear Grylls was not here. We were. We had the clothes we stood up in, t-shirts and jeans, and that was it. Even our jackets had been left in the taxi. We might have used these to wrap around us as a makeshift blanket. After some late night debate about whose fault it really was that we were in this predicament (Shaun and Dawn, our next door neighbours for recommending the Cotswolds, Darren and Karen, from our Ceroc Dance class for saying how stimulating it was to travel by train) we huddled together exhausted on a mossy log and tried to sleep. The Cotswold jungle however does not sleep. The rustling of nocturnal wildlife and plants that go bump in the night kept us awake until nearly dawn. This allowed us plenty of time to listen to the jungle hubbub and imagine any number of grisly fates. Being swallowed whole by a twenty-foot anaconda was my anxiety; Passion’s deepest secret fear was being covered head to toe by tiny spiders.

We were woken shortly after dawn by a steady shower of falling fruit, which was quite fortunate as we had not eaten since our sandwiches on the train the previous day and were very hungry. The fruit were large and red and orange in colour and looked like a variety of mango. I peeled one and bit into it. It was ripe and sweet so we tucked into our windfall greedily.

Looking around, the canopy appeared to have re-invented itself since the previous evening. We were still surrounded on all sides by rampant vegetation. But it was denser, or less dense. It was greener, or less green. The elements that made up the landscape seemed oddly mismatched, its shapes and images cast few shadows giving an overall stage-like effect.

Passion said it reminded her of an Henri Rousseau painting.

I said, ‘it reminds me of a Francis Ford Coppola film, do you want to try to guess which one?’

We decided to let the sun be our compass and headed south east, or was it south west, arriving eventually at a lane. We thought soon a car would be along, and we would be rescued. We waited an hour or two. No car came. The sun was now overhead. On the basis that that all roads lead somewhere, we decided to start walking. I suggested we headed right; Passion suggested we headed left and used her extra vote. The jungle had given way to more sparse vegetation but there were sufficient clumps of trees and hedgerows to prevent us being able to see more than fifty yards ahead at any one time. The lane twisted and turned. We walked for miles. We cursed Shane and Germaine, our teenage children for suggesting we leave the car at home. There were no junctions, no water sources, not a single car, no phone signal, no hint of habitation, no animals grazing, in fact no sign of life apart from small lizards basking in the sun by the side of the road and the occasional flock of geese flying high above us.

Around mid afternoon a bright red object in the mid distance flickered in and out of our vision. As we approached it became clear that it was a red telephone kiosk. We hurried towards it and pulled the door open. We were enveloped by a cloud of smoke. On the shelf by the side of the receiver was a small brown briar pipe, a wedge of tobacco smouldering in its bowl. A rogue thought, some kind of intuitive connection of this surreal spectacle to the ‘real world’ struggled to surface, like a dream into waking consciousness, as I picked up the headset. There was no dialling tone. The insight, along with the promise of contact, vanished. Nothing in the box helped us to establish the whereabouts of our location.

We went through our customary decision making process about whether to stay put or move on, and by the time we had arrived at one, it seemed too late somehow to contemplate going after mystery pipe smoker, so we waited. The scrubland became bushier or less bushy, but no one turned up at the phone box for the rest of the day. We spent an uncomfortable night inside. With all the unconscious turbulence that accompanies such a night. I dreamt that someone had taken the road away and I had to traverse twenty or so yards high above the ground with a huge cauldron of wriggling snakes beneath me. Passion dreamt she turned on the shower and was showered with ants.

We had never actually seen an Airstream Trailer before. When we came across one on our extemporaneous ramble the next day, it looked from a distance like a slender silver marshmallow. Or a very large toaster. Or an alien spacecraft. It was certainly an imposing sight, its painstakingly polished aluminium glistening in the sunlight. We approached it cautiously. No one was about but this was not too much of a shocker. We were getting used to being the only visible people on the planet. The door to the Airstream was open and we stepped inside, taking in its aluminium interior walls, its cosy little bed settee and kitchenette. Most of all though the two roast beef dinners with a platter of hot vegetables (warm-ish as it turned out) laid out on a small aluminium table caught our eye. We were starving. If someone was thinking of coming back to eat them, then bad luck. We devoured the meal with some gusto. And the bottle of Californian Cabernet Sauvignon went down a treat.

There were photos of a couple, perhaps in their late forties around the place. The state flag in the background of many of the photos suggested that they were from Texas and it seemed they were called Hank W. and Honey Pie. Dressed in a variety of checked country and western shirts, bolo ties, cowboy boots, Stetson hats, buckled belts, and cowgirl skirts, they were pictured variously at a line dance, at a rodeo, at a hoe down, at a barbeque, and at Gracelands. We made ourselves comfortable, dipping into nachos, pretzels and other goodies from the cupboard, before dropping off to sleep in each other’s arms around early evening.

Hank W. and Honey Pie did not return. We woke with the dawn and looked out of the window of the trailer – on to open prairie. We ventured outside. Our vista today was a wide plain of rolling, grassland. This was pretty much the middle of nowhere and there were no signs of habitation. There were no trees to be seen from there to the horizon in any direction.

We could see for miles; all there was to see was a large sculpture of a penguin and a trombone, and a fifteen foot frosted glass onion. We had ceased to be amazed by unusual sights in the Cotswolds, it was clear we were dealing with strange people.

How far away do you think the horizon is? asked Passion. She was putting faith in my spatial awareness again.

I used to know, but I couldn’t remember. ‘Twenty miles, as near as dammit,’ I said, without any hesitation. It was a figure off the top of my head.

We can’t walk twenty miles across prairie,’ she said.

My thoughts exactly.’

Hank W. and Honey Pie certainly kept the trailer well stocked. We had enough tinned food to last weeks and there must have been a year’s supply of nachos and pretzels in the cupboard. And there was plenty of water.

We began to see the Airstream as home and we became accustomed to looking out across the empty prairie. One day a new sculpture appeared of an eyeball, a spiral staircase and a rubber glove. One evening holographic Beatles played Helter Skelter backwards on a blue and white chessboard stage while hooded plasticine ayatollahs set fire to faceless conquistadores nailed to Ikea crosses. But the prairie itself remained relatively constant. From day to day, it seemed grassier or less grassy, greener or less green, the grass taller or less tall. The horizon, twenty miles away, continued to look a long way off. The sky provided us with greater variety. Some days it had a blood red hue and other times there were vivid rainbows, even when it wasn’t raining. One day it was dark all day, not just grey, but end of the world dark. The next day there was no sky, just a void where the sky had been.

Yesterday Passion and I arrived in the Gloucestershire veldt. We had been given a lift down from the north by Hank W., a country and western singer, and his wife, Honey Pie. They were friends of ours and they had left us their trailer and had gone off to explore the Cotswold jungle. They themselves were going to make camp in the jungle. They were keen explorers and told us about leopards and lions they had come across on previous Cotswold expeditions. They had a guide who was called Uzoma and they hoped to spot the new giant ape that they had read about in New Scientist.

Passion and I arrived in Cirencester by bus last week.

Passion and I. Turned left. There was a mango tree.

Passion and I. Climbed in the back of a sky blue taxi with our heads in the clouds.

Passion and I. Went to a hoe down dressed in our ‘country’ costumes and the stage was ablaze.

Passion and I. Could see for miles and miles

Hank W. and Honey Pie. Were going to Gracelands in Memphis Tennessee.

Passion and I. Hank W. and Airstream.

Passion. And I. Had rented a trailer in the middle of the desert.

Desert! My God! It was desert outside. I woke Passion to tell her about the sandy incursion. We had been sleeping most of the afternoon, after a large lunch of tinned paella and nachos, and a glass or two from Hank W. and Honey Pie’s ‘cellar.’ Together we looked out the trailer window. The silhouette of a camel caravan against the horizon as the sun is going down is a breathtaking sight. Unfortunately this is not what we saw. No camels. No sun. What we saw instead was a developing sandstorm. Until you’ve had the experience of being inside a tin can that is being pounded relentlessly by trillions and trillions of tiny fragments of the earth’s crust, you cannot imagine how loud this can be. The Airstream rocked backwards and forwards. Several times we thought it was going to be blown over. We were terrified. Cans emptied out of cupboards and the furniture slid up and down the trailer. The storm lasted for three or four hours, by which time we were nervous wrecks.

After a lingering look outside to take in the perfect patterns of the spectacular sand dunes that had been formed, under the light of a full moon, we went back inside the trailer and started to clear up. We gathered up cans of linguini in white sauce, chicken vindaloo, wiener schnitzel, borsch, okra, veal fricassee, chilli con carne, to name but a few, along with packs of pretzels, Pringles, assorted crisps, nachos and a lobster radio.

Lobster radio is not a dish. This was in fact a transistor radio shaped like a lobster. Passion took it to be homage to Dali’s lobster telephone. I tried to tune in the radio but the batteries were very low and we were only able to pick up one radio station and this faintly. It was Radio Gloucestershire and there was a local news bulletin on. We listened to items about a fire at a superstore in Cheltenham and a little about the alarming rise in binge drinking in Stow on the Wold, before an item much more close to home.

The search is still on for the couple, Milan and Passion Mandalay, missing in the Cotswolds since Monday last week. They were last seen at Kemble railway station………..’

The battery died at this point so were not able to find out what Radio Gloucestershire thought might have happened to us.

Next morning we looked across the moor. Yes, the moor. A little hilly at first glance, but there seemed to be a clear path through the bracken and heather, so having packed a few provisions in a bag to keep us going, we took it.

It was a bewildering landscape. Soft watches hung from winter trees. A double bass stood upright amongst the heather, and a large bunch of ceramic bananas pointed to a large limbless stone torso. Sculpted rocks resembled the profile of misshapen figures, and contours of faces formed in the sky. A London cab painted in sky patterns was suspended in mid air. Overseeing the landscape was a giant statue of a fish.

Bonjour.’

Walking briskly towards us was a figure in a black suit and a bowler hat eating a large green apple. Passion thought she recognised him from a painting.

Je m’apelle Renee,’ he opened, kissing us both in turn on each cheek.

Had we inadvertently crossed the channel?

J’ai plaisir……’

Renee began to grasp that we did not understand French. He continued in English.

I’m very ‘appy to tell you that you ‘ave passed the audition to take part in Surreality TV. If you would just like to waltz up here to the walrus, I’ll introduce you to the other contestants.’

We did not ask to be on this – what did you call it – Sur’ Surreality TV,’ I stammered. ‘Why? I mean how?’

You remember Errol and Cheryl who you met at the Cocteau Twins reunion concert last year?’ Renee beamed, as the cameramen dressed as penguins moved in closer. ‘Well they dropped us a line at Surreality TV.’

I remember the painter’s name,’ said Passion. ‘It was Magritte’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Harmonica Drive

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Harmonica Drive by Chris Green

Sandwich Man walks past our house at five to six every evening, just before the end of Pointless on television. He passes on his way home from the listening centre where he works. From the back entrance of the base, Cheltenham Close offers a short cut to Tambourine Way and Harmonica Drive for those leaving the centre on foot. Sally and I can tell what kind of day Sandwich Man has had by the way he walks. If he has had a good day then there is a spring in his step as he passes our front window. He will smile as he gazes across at our Japanese cherry tree. His head will be up and he will be humming an Eastern European national anthem or perhaps mouthing the chorus of a sea shanty. He will be wearing a smart blue anorak and gripping his Tupperware sandwich box. This is of course how he got his soubriquet.

But if he has had a bad day then he walks with a limp. He will not be smiling. His brow will be furrowed. His shoulders will be hunched. His grey hair will be tousled. He will be in shirtsleeves and carry just an empty water bottle. This probably means he forgot to pack sandwiches for his lunch. He will be starving after working a seven-hour shift at the spy base. He will be anxious to get home to put his stroganoff in the microwave. He is after all not a young man and must feel the cold especially if it is raining and he did not take his anorak or an umbrella to work that morning. Perhaps the weather was fine earlier and the rain only came on later in the day.

Every now and then Sandwich Man is late and Sally and I begin to worry about him. The minutes tick by. Is he perhaps unwell? Have his migraines started up again? Has he been attacked leaving the base? If he hasn’t walked past by the end of Eggheads, at 6:30 then we go over to the window or open the front door to look out for him. He might be lying in the street after a targeted assault by an enemy agent. After all, he works in a very sensitive area. He is a code breaker and, according to Rhonda at number 48 his real name is Jakob Olev. It is mainly out of habit Sally and I continue to call him Sandwich Man.

Jakob has a friend at the base called Peter. Rhonda doesn’t know Peter’s surname, nor have we come up with a suitable moniker for him yet. Peter lives next door to Sandwich Man in Harmonica Drive, which is through the pedestrian alley from Cheltenham Close and a couple of streets away. We accidentally followed them home one evening a year or so ago, when we still had the dog for protection and found that Sandwich Man lives at number 18 and Peter at number 19. We don’t go out so much since Murphy was put down. There’s no need really now that you can order all your shopping online.

Sometimes Sandwich Man waits for Peter so that they can walk home together. Peter works in a different department, Telephone Surveillance, European section, according to Eddie at number 52. Now and then he is delayed. He has to stay behind to finish logging phonecalls from the German Chancellor to her crystal reader in Dusseldorf, or text messages from the Italian premier to his paramours. Eddie used to work at the base and he tells us there is a lot of cross referencing to be done when it comes to high profile cases. Perhaps when this happens Peter ought to tell his friend to go ahead without him.

We do not believe that Peter takes sandwiches to work. He is perhaps ten years younger than Sandwich Man and only just starting to go grey around the temples. Sally thinks that Peter probably gets by on chocolate bars and cake. He has a chocolate bars and cake kind of build. Maybe he has a high energy drink, a can or two of Red Bull or Iron Bru at lunchtime.

Sandwich Man is not normally late going home on Friday. Sally thinks Friday is his goulash night. Whether or not he has remembered to take his sandwiches that day, he likes to get back in good time to enjoy his succulent Sainsbury’s goulash. It makes a nice change from stroganoff. Stroganoff can be so boring when you have it day after day. Some Fridays we see him breaking into a trot as he makes his way towards the alley. You can almost sense his mouth watering in anticipation of his treat.

But, this Friday Eggheads finishes and there is no sign of him. Peter slinks past our window on the opposite side of the road and casts a furtive glance at the cherry tree, but still there is no sign of Sandwich Man. I switch the television off. Sally and I begin to speculate as to what might have happened. Might he have been electrocuted by the new high voltage cabling they have installed at the base? Has he been caught by the grandees passing information to the other side, whoever that is? Whistle blowing, I believe it is called. Sally wonders if perhaps he didn’t heat yesterday’s stroganoff through properly and has E Coli or Salmonella.

‘You have to be so careful with microwave meals,’ she says.

We go outside and look anxiously up and down the street. We notice that Drew Carlson who lives at number 42 is polishing his new Nissan. I’m not sure that he has actually taken it out for a spin yet. You would think that he would be out driving in the hills or something on a nice evening like this, but perhaps now that he is retired he too likes to stay put, as we do. Of course, he has his hobbies. Flags are the big one. It is hard not to spot that Drew has a new flag flying on the pole in his front garden. It is quite an unusual flag, blue white and green, with a hat in the centre of the white horizontal.

‘I bet you don’t know what this one is,’ he says smugly, as we approach. This is a game he likes to play. Last month we had Comoros and Chad. Drew seems to have a penchant for African flags lately. We all refer to him simply as Flagman.

‘Mozambique?’ Sally says. ‘No, no! Wait! I know. it’s Lesotho.’ Sally does know her flags. She has a book on vexillology.

Flagman looks crestfallen. ‘How did you know that?’ he says. He does not know that Sally has a book on vexillology. She bought it to help with questions on Pointless.

‘I don’t suppose you’ve seen Sandwich Man,’ I say.

‘I was going to ask you the same,’ he says. ‘It’s not like him to be late on a Friday.’

‘Perhaps Sally and I should go round to his house to see if he’s there,’ I say. ‘There’s nothing much on television until Only Connect.’

‘Good idea,’ says Flagman. ‘I would join you put I’d like to finish waxing the car first.’

Sally and I look at each other. We are a little apprehensive about the idea but we agree to go ahead without him. We make our way cautiously through the alley. It is more overgrown than we remember it. In fact, it is a veritable jungle. Tambourine Way looks distinctly unfamiliar. Admittedly we have no reason to come this way so we do not know the area very well. There are no obvious landmarks. There are no cars on the street. After a while, Tambourine Way leads on to Harmonica Drive. This is even more desolate. There are rows of houses, but they look abandoned. A deathly hush prevails. I don’t recall it looking this way the time we followed Sandwich Man and Peter home. Now I think of it, I do not now remember following Sandwich Man and Peter home, but I do not say anything to Sally. She might make another comment about the early onset of Alzheimer’s.

I see what appears to be a Sainsbury’s van in the distance. Outside number 18 Harmonica Drive, probably. I draw some comfort from this. I imagine that it must be Sandwich Man’s home delivery of stroganoffs and goulashes and cheese and ham and sandwich fillers with maybe a case or two of energy drinks in case Peter drops round. Perhaps Sandwich Man has been waiting in for the delivery all day, which would explain why he hasn’t been to work.

‘Are you sure that we are going the right way,’ says Sally. She can’t have spotted the Sainsbury’s delivery van.

‘I think so,’ I say. ‘But I could be wrong.’

‘There are no houses,’ she says. ‘Where are all the houses?’

It is true. What I took to be houses are ramshackle farm buildings. The closer we get I can’t help but notice that the Sainsbury’s van is not a Sainsbury’s van ….. but a bear, a big brown bear.

Sally has a book on bears. ‘This one,’ she says, ‘is not the cuddly type.’

This is not the news that I want to hear. Does it also explain what has happened to Sandwich Man? No wonder Flagman didn’t want to come. It’s a dangerous world once you get out of Cheltenham Close. Unpredictable and hostile. Admittedly, we do not get out much, but we had no idea that this was such a wild area. How could Sandwich Man possibly live in an environment like this?

We are about to run, well in our case possibly not run, but the bear doesn’t seem to be interested in us. It steals off to investigate a bandicoot in the undergrowth. A bandicoot? Sally confirms that it is, in fact, a bandicoot. She has a book on Antipodean marsupials. They are always coming up on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

Perhaps we should be getting used to surprises but the train hurtling towards us comes as a bit of a shock. We never realised there was a railway so close by. And this one isn’t a Thomas the Tank Engine or one of those light rail metro trains, this is a big blue freight train pulling a long line of those trucks that carry volatile liquids. There was a question about them on In It To Win It a week or so ago. Are they called tank cars or something? Whatever, the train is getting closer and although we are not on the railway track, it is scaring the hell out of me. At my age, I don’t tend to swear a lot. It is something that I’ve grown out of but here I make an exception.

‘Let’s get the fuck back to Cheltenham Close,’ I shout.

Sally is with me on this one. I’ve never heard her swear before but she does so now.

Turning around, we find to our horror that the landscape has changed again. We are now faced with barren, featureless scrubland, giving us little indication of which way we should go. But we have just come this way. It wasn’t like this. Nor was it like this the time we came with Murphy. This can’t be Harmonica Drive. Surely. In fact, this can’t be happening. These things do not happen in our world. We just watch the quizzes and give answers when we are able. Something must have happened to rupture the space-time continuum.

We are not given chance to take stock of our queer situation. A crack of thunder like the end of the world rocks the heavens. A frightening figure in catholic robes appears to be opening up the sky. Is that a hand reaching down? It can’t be that time already. We have some time left don’t we? I do believe we are actually running now, in defiance of our arthritic limbs. Literally running for our lives.

With an immense effort of will, we retrace our steps through the changing terrain of the hinterland, and back through the freshly clipped privet of the alley leading to Cheltenham Close. Flagman is still polishing his car. He waves. We do not want to have to explain to him what we have been through. We would not know where to begin. We dive into the house to avoid him. I switch on the TV. Only Connect is about to start.

‘I do hope that Sandwich Man comes by on time on Monday,’ says Sally, pouring the gin. ‘And things get back to normal.’

‘Me too,’ I say, holding out my glass. ‘I don’t think I could go through that again.’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

 

The Continuing Story Of Wet Blanket Ron

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The Continuing Story Of Wet Blanket Ron – Part 1 by Chris Green

Fortune has not favoured Ron Smoot recently. He has suffered one setback after another. He was just coming to terms with losing his job in the drawing office when he was knocked down by a hit and run driver on Black Dog Way. Hospitalised with a catalogue of injuries, 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. How long had they been having the affair, Ron wondered. On release from hospital, he was given notice on the flat by their unscrupulous landlord, Kostas Moros, who saw Heather’s absconsion as an excuse to subdivide the deceptively spacious two bedroomed apartment and make more money. Perhaps he too had been having an affair with Heather. To cap it all Kostas Moros ordered Ron to pay £2000 for damage incurred to the flat during the tenancy. This had cleaned him out.

Ron is looking after his friends’ house in Queen’s Road while they are away. Tom and Tom are honeymooning in California. They are due to return in two weeks, after which Ron has nowhere to go. He has been looking for a flat, or even a bedsitter, but the letting agencies all want formidably large deposits these days. Unlike his friends, he has no money. His Jobseeker’s Allowance barely covers the storage for his furniture.

Ron is beginning to notice that when things are going badly, friends tend to distance themselves. He has had such a bad run now that he has no friends left, apart from Tom and Tom and he has no credit on his phone to speak to them. He feels he does need to speak to someone. He finds he does not have a wide choice of 0800 numbers on his network.

‘Is that the Samaritans?’ he says. He has been trying to get through for an hour. The line has been engaged.

‘Sorry, but office is closed now,’ says Magda, the office cleaner. ‘Can you try please tomorrow?’

As a temporary measure, he decides to double the dose of the anti-depressants that Dr Bone has prescribed.

Cheered a little, he reasons that Tom and Tom might not actually throw him out on the street. But does he want to impose further on their hospitality? A newly married couple need privacy to bond, without having to feel inhibited about there being a person in the next room. While Tom Carlevaro, a computer technician does go out to work, Tom Soft, an interior designer works mostly from home. He is not going to want Ron under his feet all day long.

Ron is at his wits’ end. He is desperate for a job. Although his CAD is up to speed and he is well qualified in both engineering and architectural drawing, he has had no luck here. With labour so plentiful and openings so scarce, employers no longer see the need to reply to applications. The few that have replied have all said the same thing. Perhaps there is a regret to inform template in Microsoft Word.

One afternoon, after he has thoroughly scanned the vacancies column in The Gazette, he spots an unusual ad in MidweekMag sandwiched between an article on origami and an advert for hair remover. The ad says simply N Vision Inc. is recruiting and gives a mobile phone number. He phones the number and without interrogation or ceremony, a man with a Farsi accent gives him an address and asks him if he can come along right away. He doesn’t even ask Ron for his name. Although this seems highly irregular, Ron feels he has nothing to lose. After all, it is the first interview he has been offered.

N Vision Inc. offices are situated in La Traviata Heights, a prosperous part of town. Ron is encouraged by this. It suggests they are not fly by nights. Ron presses the buzzer and is admitted by entryphone. He finds himself in large quirky office space. It is open plan with an outdoor theme featuring an abundance of greenery. A tall olive skinned man with a neat balbo beard wearing a shiny white suit appears. He has a peregrine falcon on his arm. He introduces himself as Amir.

‘Have a seat,’ he says. There is no formal arrangement of office furniture to suggest where he should sit, but Ron senses it would be prudent to put distance between himself and the tiger that has just walked in.

‘Don’t worry about Felix,’ laughs Amir. ‘He’s quite domesticated.’

Ron feels a little overawed by the plush surroundings. It is a far cry from the sterile drawing offices he is used to. He nervously brushes his grey Burton’s suit which he forgot to iron while Amir talks cryptically about balance and power and balance of power. He talks about courage and destiny and death. His colleague, Majid duly arrives in a flowing djellaba with a cup of sweet mint tea.

‘The post requires you to deliver bad news to victims before the event actually happens,’ continues Amir. ‘Timing is the key.’

While Ron does not believe in fate, he feels too intimidated by the situation to ask the obvious questions, how do you know that something is going to happen and what is the purpose of letting the victim know. Instead, he nods politely. After all, he does need a job, no matter what it entails. On the plus side, he is an old hand at delivering bad news, in fact, he has something of a reputation for being a wet blanket. Someone once described listening to him as being like reading Hank Williams’ diary. Hank Williams he discovered was a country singer. For years he had not realised that he gave off that impression, but since he found out that people cross the street to avoid him and actually hide when he calls round, he has begun to accept that he is not the cheeriest of mortals. The position might have been made for him.

‘Now, Majid will take your details and then we can get you started,’ continues Amir.

‘You mean, I’ve got the job,’ says Ron. He wonders whether he should really be stroking the tiger.

‘Yes, you have the job.’ says Amir. He does not tell Ron that he has been the only applicant. ‘Welcome aboard. You start tomorrow. 9am.’

I wonder what kind of snake that is, Ron thinks when he arrives for work the following morning. It is yellow and black. It is skulking in the corner, behind the coconut palm. Aren’t the yellow and black type the ones that wrap themselves around you? Fortunately for Ron, the snake is either very tired or seems to have already eaten. He takes in his surroundings. The ornamental ginger is flowering and, is that brightly coloured one a paradise plant? There is no sign of Amir, but Majid looks debonair in his fitted white Islamic thobe. He is clean shaven and has on an expensive fragrance, a little like the woody eau de toilette that Tom Soft favours.

However, Majid is not as chatty as his colleague. There is no mint tea today. It is straight down to business. After typing vigorously into his laptop, the wireless printer purrs into life and he hands Ron the printout which has the instructions for his assignment.

‘Phone this number when you’re done so that I can process it,’ Majid says.

Before setting off for the West Midlands in his ageing Saxo, Ron reads the brief over and over. He is perplexed by the instructions. Who could benefit from Eileen Grimwald knowing that her son Maxwell will die in a gas explosion at their house in Conduit Street early tomorrow morning? Perhaps the warning will mean that Eileen Grimwald and Maxwell will take heed and stay somewhere else. But what if they take no action? Much could depend how he delivers the news, on whether Eileen Grimwald regards him as a reliable source of information or whether she sees him as a crank. He has to tread a fine line. After all, the last thing he wants is for Eileen Grimwald to report him to the police. He draws on his experience of telling Tania that her friend Speedy had died of a heart attack a couple of years ago. The key is not to beat about the bush or engage in preamble, but to come right out with it.

Although she seems a little vacant, Eileen Grimwald seems to take the news very well. She seems unphased that her son might be going to die. Perhaps she is on very strong anti-depressants that make her indifferent to everything. Mrs Grimwald seems so disinterested, Ron wonders if her GP actually has a licence to practice. However, he is just the messenger. It is not his job to reason why He phones N Vision Inc. to report back as instructed. The answering machine comes on. In this cloak and dagger world, is it indiscreet to leave a message about his errand? He settles by saying ‘Spoke to Mrs G. All OK.’ No-one returns the call.

When he goes in to NVI the next day, Amir shows him the headline on the news website. Gas Explosion Kills Budding Young Research Scientist. He scans the report. It appears that Maxwell Grimwald was the only casualty. The report says that British Gas were unavailable for comment and Chief Inspector Truss could not confirm whether or not they were treating the death as suspicious.

‘So it goes,’ Amir says. ‘Kazumi will be here shortly then we will find out what she has for you today. Do have a seat.’

Ron is about to ask where was Eileen Grimwald when the explosion took place, and why she didn’t get her son out of the house if she knew this was going to happen, but he does not feel that Amir will give him the answers. Anyway, he had done what he was asked to do and he does want to keep his job. There is no sense in rocking the boat. He sits down and a marmoset jumps onto his lap and starts playing with his paisley kipper tie.

Kazumi breezes in wearing a bright red full-length floral kimono and wooden geta sandals. She places a tea tray on a low wooden table. She bows, to which Ron stands and makes a similar if less graceful gesture. She offers him a cup of Japanese green tea.

‘You are enjoying your new job, yes?’ she says.

Ron is not sure what to say. Does enjoyment feature much in the job that he does? It is a far cry from the drawing office, from the world of straight lines and precise measurements. He replies politely that he is finding it very interesting.

‘Good,’ she says. ‘Let us see what we have for you today.’ She sits down at her laptop.

‘Today you are to tell the entrepreneur, Garret Wing that he will be shot twice in the head outside Stockport Masonic Guildhall tomorrow morning. Can you make it to Manchester by midday today? He will be in his office until then. Here is Mr Wing’s address.’

It is now 9:30. Manchester is about a hundred miles. He has no satnav, the Saxo has 110,000 miles on the clock and struggles to get up to seventy. ‘It will be touch and go,’ he says.

Kazumi is not familiar with English idioms. ‘That is good,’ she says. ‘Let me know please when you have informed Mr Wing.’

While Ron appreciates that the phone is not a subtle form of communication, as he is driving up the M6 he begins to question why it is so important for him to deliver the news face to face. Who exactly are N Vision Inc? He could find no reference to the company on the Internet. What are they up to? How can they be getting this information? Perhaps they are arch villains. This raises another concern. Is he actually going to get paid? They have not yet spoken about salary. He must mention it next time he goes in to the office. He should be getting a substantial amount for what he is doing; he is one step away from a being a hit man.

He comforts himself that Amir had referred to it as a job, so perhaps he doesn’t need to worry unnecessarily. Tom and Tom will be back in less than two weeks and even if he hasn’t been able to find somewhere to live by then, at least, he will be able to offer to pay for his keep. Perhaps he might be able to put the deposit down on a new car, he thinks as the Saxo coughs and splutters in a tailback at the Stoke on Trent junction.

Having in his haste driven down at least two one way streets the wrong way, Ron arrives at Garret Wing’s offices just before 12. Garret’s secretary, Chloe finishes doing her nails and asks if he has an appointment, knowing full well that he doesn’t.

‘No,’ Ron says. ‘But it is incredibly important.’

‘I’m afraid he’s about to go into a meeting,’ says Chloe.

‘I think he would want to see me,’ says Ron.

‘Can I ask what it is about?’ says Chloe.

At that moment, Garret emerges from his office.

‘This gentleman is here to see you, Mr Garret,’ says Chloe, sliding her black skirt up an inch or two. ‘Mr ….’

‘Smoot,’ says Ron. ‘Ron Smoot.’

Garret Wing looks Ron up and down disapprovingly. He is not used to seeing square toed brown slip ons with a grey suit. ‘Yes, what is it?’ he says. ‘It had better be good. I’m late for a meeting,’

‘Do you think we could go somewhere quiet for a moment?’ says Ron.

Garret is anxious to avoid a scene. He asks Chloe to take go and polish her face or whatever it is she does on her breaks.

‘I’m afraid it is not good,’ says Ron. ‘You are going to be shot outside Stockport Masonic Guildhall tomorrow morning. Twice. In the head. You are going to die.

‘Is this some kind of threat?’ says Garret.

‘Not a threat, Mr Wing. I’m just passing on a message from …… from people who know that this is going to happen. Might I make the suggestion that you avoid the venue tomorrow, then it cannot happen.’

‘Get out of my office,’ yells Garret. ‘Before I call the police.’

Where did it all go wrong with Heather, he wonders in the tailback near the Keele service area? He remembers last Christmas at the works Christmas party his colleagues were ribbing him about how downbeat he was. Here he comes over the hill, dragging his wet blanket behind him. And has Christopher Robin forgotten to give you your haycorns today, they were saying. He remembers becoming very upset about it and leaving the party early. When he got home, their friend, Frank was in the shower. Heather had explained that Frank had got dirty helping her in with the Christmas tree. While he didn’t put two and two together there and then, he had the feeling something was wrong. Only latterly did he remember that Heather had greeted him in her dressing gown and there were two wine glasses on the dressing table alongside with the empty bottle of Blue Nun.

‘Thank you for reporting back yesterday,’ says Amir. ‘I see from WebNews that Mr Wing ignored your advice. His death is causing quite a stir. I see also that the marksman seems to have avoided capture.’

Amir shows no emotion as he reads the report, so Ron cannot tell what his preferred outcome might have been or whether he was completely indifferent either way. In which case, what exactly is the point in NVI sending him to tell these people about the peril they face? Are they just testing out the old question if you tell someone about something, do they take heed?

‘Can I introduce you to Kojo,’ says Amir. The newcomer is resplendent in an African print grand boubou and a brightly coloured kufi hat.

Kojo stops feeding the pygmy goat and shakes Ron’s hand firmly.

‘You have struck lucky this time, my friend. You must have the djinn,’ he says, offering a Cheshire cat grin. ‘You’re off to sunny California.’

‘California?’

‘Yes, Cal-eef-or-ni-ay, the land of orange groves, The Golden Gate Bridge, and The Beach Boys. But of course you will not be seeing much of that. You have a job to do. In three days time, Tom Carlevaro and sixteen other passengers will die when a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago comes down in Kansas.’

Ron’s heart skips a beat.

‘Oh my God!’ he says. ‘Where are you getting that from? Let me have a look’

He pushes the sturdy African out of the way and goes over to the computer. On the screen is the front page of the Daily Telegraph dated June 13th, three days time.

N Vision Inc. look at tomorrow’s news stories,’ says Amir. ‘Or in this case, the newspaper from three days time and, although we cannot intervene directly, we can take measures to alert the victims that something is going to happen. If the victim takes notice then the page will never have existed. A different page will be there instead. That’s just the way it is. Reality isn’t a straightforward business.’

‘You mean this is actually the newspaper that will appear on June 13th, says Ron.’

‘Unless you manage to change it, yes it is,’ says Amir. ‘As you will see if you read down the actual crash happens the previous day, June 12th. Time isn’t linear, you know.’

‘But I know this ….. person, this Tom Carlevaro,’ says Ron hysterically. ‘And another of the passengers, Tom Soft. They are friends of mine.’

‘Then you had better get your ass out to California, how do you say, PDQ,’ laughs Kojo.

In the departure lounge at Heathrow, Ron speculates at what point an outcome is decided. On the plane that is apparently destined to plunge into Lake Michigan, perhaps two hundred outcomes are dependent on a chance happening. It is possible that the whole course of events could be changed by persuading his friends not to travel, but it is more probable that it will not. It is more probable that the actual crash is not dependent on the movements of Tom and Tom. In which case the Daily Telegraph report will merely need minor changes to its passenger list. On the seat opposite Ron, a man dressed in a Drizabone overcoat and a Bute hat is reading a book entitled In Search of the Multiverse. Perhaps he is planning to catch all of the planes simultaneously. Perhaps there is always more than one answer to a question.

‘Oh my God! It’s Wet Blanket Ron,’ says Tom C taking a peek through the chinz curtains of their Hermosa Beach bungalow. ‘What the fuck is he doing here?’

‘Christ on a bicycle! You’re right,’ says Tom S.

‘Get down! He may see you,’ says Tom C.

‘I thought we’d seen the last of that loser,’ says Tom S. ‘Didn’t you say he’d be gone by the time we got home?’

‘Why did we ever let him stay with us?’ says Tom C.

‘We? It was your idea,’ says Tom S. ‘You felt sorry for him because Heather left him for your freaky friend, Frank.’

‘OK. I realise it was a mistake,’ says Tom C. ‘God knows what state the house is in.’

‘He’s probably let it burn down and has come over here to tell us,’ says Tom S.’

There is a brief lull, before the battering on the door continues with renewed intensity. Ron is hollering out loud for them to open up. A crowd begins to gather as curious residents from adjacent bungalows try to find out what manner of disturbance has shattered their tranquillity.

‘The whole world and its neighbour is out there,’ says Tom C. ‘Perhaps we ought to just see what he wants.’

‘No way! He’s bound to give up eventually.’

‘Yeah, like when. He must have come all this way for a reason. He’s hardly likely to just leave it and get back on a plane.’

‘We are not going to answer the door and that’s final.’

‘It’s three o’clock now. We will miss our flight to Chicago if we are not careful.’

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

 

Strings

strings2

STRINGS by Chris Green

The goat is not supposed to be in the house. My daughter Jessica has let it in with the cats. Properly speaking, we only have one cat, a ginger tom called Thomas. But Jessica is of an age that she likes animals, her enthusiasm fuelled by a plethora of wildlife programmes on TV. There are a lot of cats in the neighbourhood and one by one she has taken to adopting them. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have read her Six Dinner Sid so often when she was little. She entices the cats in with pouches of gourmet cat food that she puts in the basket when we do our shopping. I think the goat has been attracted by the neighbours’ overgrown vegetable garden.

There are not supposed to be any animals in the house according to the tenancy agreement, which for the most part is a standard short let tenancy agreement. I am not permitted to sub-let, smoke, decorate, hold parties, use the property as a business address, etc. Additional clauses stipulate that I am required to raise the Union Jack on a flagpole on patriotic saints days, VE Day and the Queen’s birthday and sound the air-raid siren at midday every Saturday. My landlord is called Raif by the way and he likes to dress as a Naval Lieutenant.

I am putting the goat out into the back yard when I first notice something odd. I am putting the goat out – and simultaneously driving to work in the city. ‘I expect I will wake up in a minute,’ I think….. I don’t. I am already awake – and so it seems is the other.

What in the blue hell is going on?’ I wonder. ‘There are two of me.’ It feels as if I have split, or multiplied. I am in two places at the same time. My attention moves from goat to car and car to goat. I can see from the outset that this is going to present a colossal challenge to my multitasking abilities. And shatter my reliance on logic and reason. Given that I have not taken any hallucinogenic drugs since my youth, and do not have a history of psychosis, this is a troubling insight.

My car is painted lilac. I can’t decide whether it is comforting or unsettling that all the other cars on the streets are painted lilac too. This distraction causes me to drive through a couple of red lights on my way to work in the city. I, that is the second I, the one that is not putting out the goat, do not seem to have got to grips with the complexities of chromatics yet. To add to my state of confusion, the radio is locked into a Russian radio station and the hazard lights will not turn off. And there is a large red spider on my shoulder. With a careful swipe, I get rid of it with a copy of Mojo I find lying on the floor.

Despite my being acutely disorientated, the car seems to know where I am heading. The route I am taking is instinctive. I am not making navigational decisions. I pass familiar landmarks: the Liebeskind Tower, the Lennon Monument, the billboard advertising John Cage’s 4 Minutes 33 Seconds scored for Full Orchestra at the Orange Theatre, the tattooed bridge, the sculpture of the bungee jumper, the SKB (Smith Kline Beacham) Superstore….. I come this way daily. I work for a company called Alpha Pigeon and we publish computer manuals and telephone directories. Taking the sharp left into Coppola Avenue, I lose the police car that has been on my tail since Bunuel Square. I can hear the siren fading as having missed the turn it carries on along Besson Street. Burl Finch, a town planner a few years ago was a bit of a film buff, in case you are wondering.

The telephone rings. It takes me a little time to find it as it is buried among a pile of sweaters that some of the cats are lying on. I have reset the ringtone to a new tune, and I am trying to recollect whether it is Delibes or Cantaloube. I have a large collection of classical music, so I feel I ought to know. ….. or Puccini…. I am still speculating as I pick the phone up.

‘Hello,’ I say.

‘Hello,’ says a woman’s voice in an accent I can’t quite place. There is an echo on the line as if the call might be coming from far away. ‘Is that Mr Stewart?’

I say that it is.

You are being prosecuted for crossing a fence.’

What on earth is she talking about? She does not elaborate. She just says that her name is Chandra and I will be getting a summons in due course.

I arrive at Alpha Pigeon and strike a stocky blue badger as I drive through the avenue of yuccas into the car park, the beast evidently camouflaged by the blue and white chessboard pattern of the tarmac. I cannot remember badgers in the car park being usual at AP, blue badgers perhaps even more surprising. But then I am in a state of shock and disbelief about everything. I move the badger’s body onto a pile of telephone directories that we threw out last week (printed with duplicate sections under the letter C) while I go to find a black bag to put the badger’s body in. When I return the body has disappeared. It has started to drizzle and the car park is now a mottled violet.

I find the local directory and look for the number of Citizen’s Advice. There is no number, in fact, no listings at all under the letter C, so I look up the number for Stipe and Juttner, Solicitors instead. I am not sure how to approach the enquiry, as Chandra did not mention on whose behalf she was calling. I just feel it would be helpful to talk to someone about the summons.

A woman answers the phone at Stipe and Juttner introducing herself as Coral. She asks how she can help.

I wonder if you could tell me, what does crossing a fence mean? Is it some kind legal vernacular?’ I ask her.

Coral has not heard of crossing a fence. Do I perhaps mean a crossing offence? A crossing offence might relate to a traffic violation. She adds that she has a legal database on her computer and she can do a search.

The search draws a blank.

At lunchtime, I leave the office and take a walk up Zimmerman Hill to clear my thoughts. I have felt oddly vacant all morning as if I were in the process of being disassembled. I have felt as if I was somewhere else, or even someone else. Several times in the middle of phonecalls, I forgot who it was I was talking to and had to ask. In fact, at times I was not sure who it was that was talking to me. I found my voice coming out with words and expressions I never used. Something very strange was happening to me. I remember that a little while back my neighbour Mystic Mike said to me, ‘whatever it is you’re seeking won’t come in the form you’re expecting.’ This had seemed very cryptic, but Mike often spoke in riddles. Without being specific, I was looking for my life to change. I hoped this change would come in a more conservative form, a gentle progress from where I was to where I would be. Something that was more planned, where cause and effect were at the same party. Something that I had some influence over like changing jobs or moving house. What I am now experiencing seemed more like schizophrenia.

At the top of Zimmerman Hill, you look down on several red-bricked blocks of modern apartments at a lower level. These have decorative cream bricks cut in to great dramatic effect. The blocks are staggered in their elevation, and across their flat roofs, you get a spectacular framed view of the city. One of the lower roofs has a garden with a variety of tall ornamental grasses, which make stunning patterns against the sky. I take the spectacle in, breathing deeply to calm myself. Fluffy white clouds drift across the sky like childhood memories. It is quiet, with just a faint hum of distant traffic. A man in a dark suit and a black trilby with a yellow band comes into view. As he passes me he politely takes off his hat by way of acknowledgement. I feel a strong sense of déjà vu. Although this is an unusual colour for a hatband, I myself wore such a hat many years ago. I can remember wearing it on the occasion that Juanita introduced me to her eccentric family in a tumbledown old house with no furniture. A couple of de Chirico prints hung on dusty magnolia walls, These were the only decoration. It was an embarrassing occasion. The family were huddled around a television watching an old episode of The Prisoner. I cannot recall having worn the hat since then. I think I may have left it there.

I walk slowly back down the hill and back to the office via Painter’s Lake. In the past few weeks, this has been transformed from classic Capability Brown into a sharp angled post-modern creation. Building work is going on in earnest on the far side, the sound of this muted by the large sheer waterfall that has been constructed. A barn owl sits motionless in a tree. Barn owls are only seen at night, and this is the middle of the day. I have the strange sensation that I am being watched, but I also feel at the same time that I am the one doing the watching. It is a very disconcerting feeling.

Although Raif bangs on constantly about the importance of testing the air raid siren, he does not bother much with health and safety in the house. The gas equipment for instance would horrify an inspector. Sometimes the pressure is up and you nearly burn your arm lighting a ring and other days the pressure is down and it takes nearly an hour for the kettle to boil. On this particular morning, it is up. I nearly burn my arm. After I have adjusted the pressure on the gas supply to a level that I feel will be safe to use, cleaned up the yard, and tethered up the goat, I make myself a couple of slices of toast and a cup of honeybush tea, and put my feet up to catch up with the news on TV. In the aftermath of the assassination of the England football manager, it seems a slow news day, so I flick through the channels. I settle down to watch a programme on waterfalls on Discovery 3. I have recently had the full cable package installed largely through the persistence of the DigTel representative who insisted that I would save large sums on my bills. He did show me the figures, three or four times as I recall. On DigTel rep’s fourth or fifth visit I relented. I now have five hundred channels to choose from. The programme on waterfalls appears to have traced the history of their construction in parks and gardens in the UK and in summing up is now showing recent examples. One of these is in Painter’s Park, not far from where I live. Only recently I took the dog for a walk around there (I forgot to mention the dog earlier in the pets inventory. He is a teacup schnauzer and he is called Albert). Seeing Painter’s Park on the television brings about a second wave of detachment, the same feeling I had that morning when I felt I had split, or multiplied.

To add to my bewilderment on Discovery 3 a programme on synchronicity is just starting. Synchronicity is used to describe an apparently meaningful coincidence in time of two or more similar or identical events that are causally unrelated. The presenter gives an example, which I feel seems a little weak, if not downright pretentious. He was riding in a crowded car with friends one evening, debating about whether or not to speak on the topic of Infinity for a group the following day. As they got out of the car, he stepped on a string that was in the shape of a figure 8, the infinity sign in mathematics. They all stopped and stared in amazement. He gave the talk, and it was well received.

Outside Alpha Pigeon, on the pavement, four men dressed in ecclesiastical robes stand facing one another in the form of a cross. They have ceremonial staffs and seem to be performing some kind of a ritual, chanting something unintelligible in low voices. One of them is swinging an ornate thurible and a powerful smell of incense hangs on the air. I think; surely this sort of behaviour should be confined to within a church. I pull my collar up and pass them quickly without turning my head to look round.

Back in the office, I feel disorientated. Someone else’s consciousness seems to be cutting in like a crossed line on a telephone. I find myself thinking about going to do some work on my allotment, walking the dog, picking my daughter up from school, things that have no place in my life. I do not have an allotment, or a dog, or a daughter at school. Concentration on work is impossible.

Are you all right, Mr Stewart,’ Candice says, bending over my desk. ‘We’ve been a little worried about you.’

There is a knock at the door. For some unaccountable reason, I think it might be four men dressed in ecclesiastical robes. But it is my friend, Jack. Jack tells me he is having trouble with the Internet. He logs on, type in an address for instance ebay and this opens up dozens of windows and each time he closes one down it generates another two.

I have the same problem,’ I tell him. ‘When I log into yourgoat.com, I get congratulated on winning prizes. I get loan offers, gaming sites, adverts for every conceivable item of lingerie and even paedophile grooming sites. In fact, particularly paedophile grooming sites. You close one down and the screen splits and up come another four. It’s hopeless. The only way round it I have found is to turn it off and not bother.’

Oh! I just put a hammer through the screen on mine,’ Jack says.

Anyway apart from that, Jack, I think that I’ve split, or multiplied,’ I say.

I can tell that Jack is surprised, although he is doing his best not to show it.

I’ve just bought a new Saab,’ he says.

In my dislocated state of mind, it is obvious that I am not going to get any work done. I tell Candice I am leaving for the day, ask her to take messages, and go to check my car. The bonnet is not too badly dented, a mere scratch really. I start the engine. The impact of the badger seems to have turned off the hazard lights and the radio has retuned itself to Radio 4. In case the other voice in my head starts up again I decide to drive home by way of the scenic route, taking me along Tambourine Road and Harmonica Way, a detour that I sometimes use when I need to unwind. There is hardly a murmur of traffic and only a small proportion of the cars are lilac. The air is still and evening seems to be descending even though it was mid-afternoon. On the radio, they are discussing Surrealism. This is oddly relaxing. Phrases like the disinterested play of thought and the omnipotence of the dream float over me as I drive along. There is so much mental chewing gum on the radio. It is refreshing to hear an intellectual debate. The merits of Magritte, Miro and Dali are discussed in terms of their disdain for the thesis. I have visited a few galleries recently and have been in awe of the Surrealist works on show, so I can relate to much of what the art aficionados are saying. I am driving alongside the river. I stop, feeling it would be therapeutic to listen to the rest of the programme with the window wound down watching the river flow. The programme ends and I get out and sit on the riverbank.

As if I don’t have enough to occupy my mind; no sooner has Jack left – in his new Saab – than he phones.

Hi,’ he says ‘It’s Jack.’

My immediate thought is that he must have left something behind.

I’m just dropping some woodwind instruments off in Scorcese Street, round the corner from you.’

Jack sells musical instruments.

I thought I might pop round for a cuppa afterwards if you’re in. Be nice to have a chat.’

I look at the clock. It is 11.22.

OK s,see…. you in a bit,’ I stammer.

While I might be able to appreciate modern art movements, I am old fashioned when it comes to temporal matters. I am comfortable with the idea of time moving forwards in a logical progression, numbers ascending as I was taught at school. Until midday. And then starting again. I like novels to have a linear narrative and get confused when the plot of a movie is told in flashbacks. I found the film, Memento incomprehensible.

I try to take stock of the situation as I put some more cats out. Not only have I split – or multiplied – but I have regressed. Time is going backwards. I switch the TV on to Discovery 3 to see how their scheduling is matching up. A programme on Renaissance Art is just finishing.

We continue,’ says the presenter dressed in a crimson suit,’ with our exploration of English Landscape Gardens, and at 12.30, we have a new series called ‘Waterfalls.’

After a short while, I wander along the riverbank to The Black Hole public house. The pub is not facetiously named. A Nobel Prize-winning quantum physicist lives nearby. No-one is sitting in the garden and the pub is almost empty. I order a half of Old Growler, take a sip and leave it on the bar while I go to the toilet. I wash my hands and look in the mirror. To my horror, I have no reflection. It would be easy to say I turned a whiter shade of pale, but there was no way of confirming this. I frantically check the mirror to see if it is some kind of trick device. It isn’t. I feel the panic rising.

I leave my drink and practically run out of the pub. Outside it is very still and eerily quiet. There seems to be no background noise at all. I drop the proverbial pin. I look around me anxiously. The river has stopped flowing. The ripples on the water do not change. Ducks and gulls sit motionless on the surface. Boats move neither upstream nor downstream. A pair of swans are suspended in flight a few inches above the water. It is as if the riverscape had been captured in a painting. I stand dumbfounded for what might be a few minutes, but time seems to have lost some of its meaning. Suddenly, from out of nowhere a large group of sweating cyclists in a rainbow of pulsating colour comes hurtling down the road. The river starts up again and the air is full of birds, all eager to express their avian attributes with squawks and shrills. I go to check to see if my reflection has returned in the wing mirror of the car.

Jack’s visit is very bizarre because I know in advance everything that he is going to say, and everything that I am going to say too. I find myself laughing a little ahead of his putting the hammer through his computer screen, but otherwise, the time passes without event. Eventually, he leaves – in his Saab.

Cable TV has a wealth of attractions. It is not all tacky game shows and repeats of British sitcoms from the 1970s. Amongst the irredeemable pap, there are channels devoted to programmes you just wouldn’t find on terrestrial TV. So it is that I find String Theory and You on Science and Technology channel.

It seems that the universe is shaped like a thin membrane, surrounded by higher dimensions that transcends the familiar dimensions of height, width and depth. Other universes are stacked alongside it. The membrane universe repeatedly folds over on itself, resulting in multiple universes adjacent to each other.

Inasmuch as time and space would be arbitrary, String Theory appears to be ideal in explaining how there were two of me, or how I can be in two places at once, living two separate lives in parallel universes very close to one another. Coincidences occur where two universes touch. Parallel lives are the result of a small fissure at this point. I am a little comforted by this explanation as I get the car out for the school run, and sit watching the river flow, simultaneously.

My car is painted primrose. As there is a small hole in the membrane of my universe and I have slipped through, all the other cars on the street are painted primrose too. Fortunately, there are no arachnids in the car but it is still difficult to concentrate. I am glad that it is only a short drive to Jessica’s school.

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved