Wish You Were Here

wishyouwerehere3

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 jalabas 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 sensed 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 really. 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. As 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 beriberis 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 2015: All rights reserved

 

 

 

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IN DREAMS

indreams

IN DREAMS by Chris Green

I am stunned. The stranger at the next table looks exactly like the girl I was dreaming about an hour or so ago. I might have recalled the dream in more detail when I first woke, but Donna needed a lift to work as her car had broken down. I would have started the day in a more leisurely way. It is my day off.

But, the dream comes back to me now. In vivid technicolor cinema surround sound. And the suntanned beauty sitting not six feet away from me in Costa where I am having breakfast is the spitting image of the girl from my dream. Everything about her matches. From the long flowing dark hair and smoky black eyes right down to the loafers she is wearing. 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 able to replay it from the beginning, 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 wonder and fear.

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 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 in the dream keeps saying something 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 some 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, what is known as a Möbius strip. How this impossible shape opens a box I cannot imagine. In fact, 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, who is the spitting image of the girl sitting at the next table, 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 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. 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 that 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-makers, David Cronenberg and Lars Von Trier.

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

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

‘One line of thinking is that every face that you see while dreaming you have seen in real life at least once,’ Ross says. ‘It is someone who you just don’t recognise. I don’t know. 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 really not the kind you expect to see every day. She is quite striking.’

‘On the other hand, Boycie. We might be seeing people in dreams that are not actually people. Our brain can create totally fictional characters and things that 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?’

‘Its 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, I think 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, Boyce 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 now are 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 actually 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 David Icke crossroads. At work I am unable to 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.’

Ẁhen 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 a bit 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,’ says Nikki. ‘Rhonda says that she knows you. In fact she says she has known you a long time. She thought that it was very strange that you did not recognise her. She says she hasn’t changed that much.’

I am anxious not to dig myself into too deep a hole, so I press the fake call button on the phone in my pocket. The opening chords of Gimme Shelter ring out. I step away to take the call. I begin a conversation with the imaginary caller.

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

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

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

‘You normally like to watch Homeland,’ 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 do 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 really 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, anti matter 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. This one 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. No doubt about it. 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 some strange days.’

But, the unanswered questions, I want to protest. What? ……. How? ……… Why? ……… And, where is Donna?

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

‘I think we may be able to arrange an appointment for your husband for as early as next week, Mrs Shapiro.’ says the message left on the answerphone. I don’t think I’m meant to be hearing it, but Rhonda is out. ‘Please could you call back to confirm how you would like us to proceed.’

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

Harmonica Drive

harmonicadrive2

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

 

STATION

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STATION by Chris Green

Platform One of Dark Hollow railway station isn’t where Matt wants to be. His train has never been this late. And where are the other passengers? It is now seven o’clock and he has been on the platform for an hour and a half without seeing a soul. Admittedly, Dark Hollow is a bit of a quiet backwater but in the six weeks he has been working at the research base here, Matt has never known the platform to be completely empty. It is usually buzzing at this time of day, with people on their way home from work.

For that matter, where are the other trains, the ones 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. He puts away his paperback of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and gets up to check the timetable on the wall. According to this, it ought to 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 is going to be late, but his phone does not have a signal. He takes the battery out and the sim card and puts them back in. He fiddles around with Settings. Still, there is nothing. No wifi, nothing. It is Friday, so Mandy will probably be setting off for her Pilates class about now. Matt remembers that he has often seen a taxi waiting outside the station. It will be expensive, it is a long journey, 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 a handle on what is going on. He discovers to his alarm that he has no change, but it looks as if the phone will accept cards. He inserts his Santander 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 Dark Hollow been evacuated in the time he has been waiting in the station? Matt considers walking back to the base, but it is getting dark now, and it is coming on to rain. The base is nearly a mile away and even though he might be able to contact someone from there, 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 his colleagues. In truth, he is a little scared by the idea of going back to 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 goes over the footbridge to the other platform where the station office is situated. The door 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 decides there is nothing to be gained from panicking. There is probably a simple explanation. Meanwhile, there is nothing to do but to stay put. He can sleep on the bench in the waiting room. If a train turns up in the night then all well and good but if not, whatever emergency situation is causing the delays is certain to be sorted out by morning.

He 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 only 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 would 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, Matt 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 in both directions up and down the line 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.

Matt feels a surge of panic rise up in him. 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. The 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, Matt 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 Matt 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 Matt 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, Matt wonders. ………Is he losing his mind? At least, the station was some sort of base, a place of relative safety. He turns around to make his way back there. To his horror, the station has completely disappeared. He is faced with a new terrain. He cannot even work out where the station might have been.

Matt 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 is only able to 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 Breaking Bad. He will never own that small jazz club that he has dreamed about. He will never live to see Crystal Palace win the Premier League. ….. Well, no change there then.

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

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

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

‘Get me out, can you please,’ shouts Matt.

‘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. Matt is nervous that he is not going to 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. Matt catches it and climbs up to daylight.

‘I really am sorry about that, Matt,’ 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! Matt! I’m doing some research round here for a new novel. It has the usual themes, murder, sex, war, jazz music 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 2015: All rights reserved

 

 

The Continuing Story Of Wet Blanket Ron

wetblanket2

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