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 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

Extra

extra

EXTRA by Chris Green

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

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

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

………………………………………….

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

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

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

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

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

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

………………………………………….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

German?’

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

Still talking about Brexit, probably,’ I say.

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

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

………………………………………….

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

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

………………………………………….

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

I’m not.

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

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

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

Quarantine?’ I say.

Yes, quarantine. You are contaminated.’

What are you talking about?’

Don’t you remember what happened?’

Remember what?’

The explosion on set.’

What set? Who are you?’

I’m Site Security.’

What’s this about an explosion?’

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

Nineteen Days? Two weeks?’

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

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

No idea what you are talking about, pal.’

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

You say we were in a film?’

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

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

Accident?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Lady and Red

ladyandred2019

Lady and Red by Chris Green

Lady does not like going up in the elevator to Red’s ninth-floor apartment in Peregrine Heights. It moves so slowly that sometimes it doesn’t seem to be moving at all. She is afraid that one day she will get stuck in it with a killer. Yet, it would appear the chance of encountering an assailant is small. Security is tight. Peregrine Heights has a uniformed concierge to vet unwanted visitors. The concierge is armed. In addition, legions of CCTV cameras keep watch. Peregrine Heights is not designed with ostentation in mind. The block is functional. There are few features. It is minimalist, secretive.

Visiting Red can be a lonely experience for Lady. She will arrive at the apartment and let herself in. Red might be typing into his iMac, playing his tenor saxophone, or just gazing out the window. The view to the west is admittedly a fine one, taking in a sweeping panorama of the city with the skyline settling against blue hills in the distance. When silhouetted against the setting sun, the twin peaks are heavenly. Red might be mixing up oil paints, watching a European movie, or stroking his white Persian cat. He might be feeding his parrots or gazing at the Picasso prints on the walls. Whichever, he doesn’t appear to see Lady’s arrival as an important interruption. He will just continue as if she weren’t there.

Lady and Red have been lovers. Are they still lovers, she wonders? If they are, this is very much on Red’s terms. He hardly casts a glance in her direction and does not speak unless he has something important to say. Lady seldom gets to start a conversation. Their communication does not work that way. Given her background, this dynamic might appear strange to outsiders. Although she is not a Lady as such, she comes from a long line of mid-European aristocrats. Lady is a soubriquet to reflect her connections with nobility. She studied Philosophy at Cambridge, can speak nine languages and is a gifted painter. In her mid-thirties, she is in her prime. She has wisdom and wit and dazzling beauty.

What is it then that draws her even through the winter months several times a week to drive across town to meet this mean man of mystery? Certainly, there is an allure. Red has mystique, poise, charisma even. But this is not the primary reason that Lady comes to visit. She needs to be there in case there is an assignment. They work together. They are a team.

Lady knows little of Red’s background. He is matter of fact but enigmatic, passionate but objective. He can be a ghostly presence. He can blend in, become one with his surroundings. Sometimes, when he is playing an extended solo, he and the saxophone become one. His physical form drifts off into space. He becomes invisible to the eye. The soft arpeggios of his improvisations are left hanging in the air like celestial smoke-rings. It is such a moment now. The silver saxophone is suspended in mid-air radiating the most sublime passage. Red is elsewhere, on his astral plane, intangible, quintesscent. Lady sits in the lotus position, silent, serene, mesmerised. For now, in this space, Lady is an acolyte of the transcendent spirit. Yet, Lady is no flower child. There are contradictions in everyone and Lady is no exception. In another space, Lady may well kill people with her bare hands. In this ever changing world, there are many paradoxes

The door entry phone buzzes. Instantly the atmosphere in the room changes. Red is back down from the heavens. He speaks on the intercom and admits the caller. It is Black. Black has no interest in jazz. Black calls round to Peregrine Heights on business. His business has to do with adjustment, temporal and psychic adjustment. He has called to give them an assignment. They will be required to stop something that has happened from happening. This is known as a correction.

Everything that happens is governed by the principles of cause and effect, action and reaction. Sometimes apparently inconsequential actions by ordinary people can set in motion a chain of events that results in catastrophe. It is important that the likes of Black and Red have the ability to intervene, otherwise, the world would have been blown to smithereens long ago. The undocumented presence of quantum gnostics like them is the force that ensures relative stability in a jumping universe. Their concern is not a political one. It is not about East and West. Nor is it about right and wrong. It is purely about balance. To keep the world turning.

Stockholm,’ says Black. ‘Here are the tickets. They are for yesterday.’

Neither Red or Lady show surprise. They are accustomed to these impossible missions. To do what they do, it is necessary to operate in the margins.

Understood,’ says Red.

Understood,’ echoes Lady.

Hemming Olofson mustn’t take that train to Malmo,’ says Black. ‘He will not then meet Marita Blom. They will not travel to Copenhagen together. They will not, therefore, discover the document that implicates his brother, Björn in the cover-up by the Danish lawyers over the ownership of the patent on ……. well you get the gist. And then finally Guatemala won’t then be destroyed by a plague of giant moths. And there won’t be a stand-off between the US and the Russians.’

Chains of events can be quite complex, can’t they?’ says Red. ‘We are on our way.’

The air crackles with the electricity of déjà vu. Two conversations take place simultaneously, one in the past and one in the present. Red says the secret is to stay focussed on both. They must coalesce. In between words, in between worlds, the air becomes turbulent as they tumble through space. They are buffeted this way and that in a whirling cyclone of uncertainty, like the Tower of Babel. Gradually Black’s presence fades. The job is over. Lady and Red are back to where they were.

I’m relieved that one is out of the way,’ says Lady. ‘These escapades can be so exhausting.’

It can be very strange,’ says Red. ‘But when you’ve seen through as many corrections as I have it will become second nature.’

I think Black was pleased,’ says Lady.

There aren’t too many people who can do what we do,’ says Red.

Is that a blessing or a curse?’ says Lady.

Nothing is ever straightforward,’ says Red. ‘Paradox is at the centre of everything.’

Red, I’ve been coming up here for a long time and for some while I’ve been meaning to ask you a question. I get a very strange sensation every time I come up in the elevator. It’s difficult to describe the feeling. On the one hand, it feels as if someone is watching and they might at any moment attack me. But on the other hand, it feels as if I’m not there anyway so how can I be being watched? What happens in the rest of the building?’

I’ll let you into a secret,’ says Red. ‘There is no rest of the building.’

But the lift and the corridors and the cameras?’

All an illusion.’

But the concierge with the gun. He says hello every time I come round.’

There is no concierge with a gun.’

But I do come up in the lift. And the lighting changes colour between floors?’

It’s all held in place by auto-suggestion and the subsequent belief that it is there.’

The space below?’

Ah! There is no space below as such. But would it help if I told you that the space you are referring to, the space where you imagine you are when you come into the building and come up in the elevator is the repository for curious matter?’ Red says, cryptically. With this said, he goes off to attend to his parrots.

Lady realises she now has an existential issue. She has always found Red’s information to be reliable and if he says that Peregrine Heights is nothing but an illusion then it is nothing but an illusion. But, therein lies the rub. If she stops believing in the substantial nature of Peregrine Heights, then she will not be able to get out. It occurs to her, not for the first time, that Red probably has not, through normal channels, left the building in years.

Lady goes into the hallway. The door through which she came, and more recently Black came, is no longer there. How is this possible? Whatever the explanation there must have been a way in. She has not always been here in this space. She has, through belief or otherwise, come and gone many times. Nothing inside has changed. She goes into the westerly facing room. Red is still attending to the parrots. He has that look of detachment that she has become used to. He does not want a conversation. He feels he has said all he wanted to say. Lady goes over to the window that looks out on to the city with the hills in the distance. The tall buildings and the blue hills look real enough, but might they too be an illusion to support the illusion of Peregrine Heights.

It takes Lady a while to get used to the idea of isolation. Rather than fight against it, she remembers learning long ago that the healthiest option in adverse circumstances like this is to go with the flow. Silence those voices that vex the spirit and nurture that peace that lies within the heart. This is a time for quiet contemplation. Besides, situations can change. In fact, change is the only certainty.

Red is of similar mind. This is after all his world. He is philosophical about his role. His wisdom and poise begin to captivate Lady once more. He reads her sonnets and teaches her to play the violin. They watch the colours change in the evening sky as the sun sets over the twin peaks. They make love to Debussy. It is in one such tender moment, they are disturbed by a new caller. The door is back. Across the threshold is Gold. If Gold comes to call at Peregrine Heights then the matter is serious. Gold on this occasion is accompanied by Silver. Silver has never been before.

Three days ago Curt Dodge, a thirty-two-year-old hacker believed to be from the Detroit, Michigan area hacked into the servers of the global communications satellites network and planted what is known as a blended threat that within fourteen days will have completely brought down the entire global system. You will have noticed already that your phone can’t detect its location.’

GPS is unable to detect Peregrine Heights anyway,’ says Red.

Ah yes. Of course. I see,’ says Gold. ‘Anyway, the threat that Dodge has come up with acts in an entirely random way. But, here’s the killer. It also gathers up any virus, worm or trojan it encounters along the way and adds them to the blend to increase its potency. One by one the satellites have gone down. There appears to be no defence against the attack.’

There are, or there were ninety-one operational satellites. To take out the entire network is no mean feat,’ says Silver.

Now, clearly the objective is to go back to last week and liquidate Dodge before he has done any of this,’ says Gold. ‘The problem is that without GPS we have no idea where he is.’

A tricky one,’ says Red.

How long do you think we have?’ asks Lady.

I’d say three days at the most to make the correction. After that the damage might be irreparable,’ says Gold. ‘Even the Russian military satellites are failing.’

We know the length of time before you make an adjustment should not make a difference to its ultimate effectiveness, once you have made the adjustment. But with the entire system of global communication crippled this might not be the case here,’ says Silver. ‘There might be no way back.’

OK. It’s down to our intuition then,’ says Red.

And good old fashioned occult powers,’ says Lady. ‘Witches broom and Abracadabra.’

I expect you have noticed that your satnavs and mobile phones have recovered from their momentary blip. You can assume from this that through the efforts of Lady and Red the correction was made. And until now. you’ve not seen the name of Curt Dodge anywhere. These things don’t get out into the public domain.

It would be difficult to describe how the job might have been done. Highlights could include mental projection, psychic navigation, invisibility, time travel, force field generation, teleportation, experimental jazz, and pranayama breathing. Planes? Guns? Maybe, maybe not. Illusion, willpower and luck will have played their part. And passion. Yes, passion is important. The operation would have been held together by imagination and belief, just like the things you see around you every day. Imagination and belief. Seeing is believing, but everyone sees things differently. Everyone constructs a different reality. No two are the same. Even should information about the exact techniques used here be available to governments, these would be classified. Better then that the secrets of their methods stay under wraps.

Make no mistake, your life will have been affected in some way by the corrections that quantum gnostics have made. Things don’t just run smoothly of their own accord and there’s no point in trusting politicians and government departments to get it right. Too much of their energy is invested in courting catastrophe. Just be thankful that there are hidden forces at work. That Lady and Red are there in the background refining their arcane skills.

If you are driving through the city, you might be surprised at the circuitous route your satnav takes you on, but you might put this down to a poorly planned one-way system. If you are on foot, at a certain point you might begin to feel dizzy. You might wonder what The Fractal Centre is and why you cannot go there. Either way, there will be no sign of Peregrine Heights.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Magic and Loss

magicandloss

Magic and Loss by Chris Green

Let me introduce myself. I’m Miles London. I am a collector of specialist celebrity memorabilia. Primarily things that have belonged to dead A-List rock stars. I do not go for the obvious trophies like guitars or jackets. Nor do autographed photos interest me. I like items that tell a story. In my collection I have John Lennon’s ouija board, Jimi Hendrix’s kite and Bob Marley’s surfboard.

But as a collector it is important to understand the marketplace and take advantage of it when you can. As long as you don’t let sentiment take over, trading in collectibles can be profitable and certainly beats working for a living. Naturally, I was sad to see it go but Syd Barrett’s bike made a handsome profit for me and the sales of Buddy Holly’s yoga mat and Marc Bolan’s cricket bat for respectable prices meant I was in the black.

When I heard about Lou Reed’s death, I felt profoundly sad. Although I did not know Lou, it felt like I had lost a friend. I had long been a fan. The Velvet Underground and Nico was the only record I can remember us playing at our squat in Queen’s Parade, back in 1971. How old would I have been then? 18? 19? We played the album over and over. It is one of those indefinable masterpieces. Brian Eno is quoted as saying ‘while the album may have sold only ten thousand copies in its early years, everyone who bought one of those ten thousand copies started a band.’

Lou seemed to be immortal, someone who could walk on the wild side, flirt with danger, defy the odds and go on forever. My partner, Josie, who is perhaps not such a devotee, was away at a photo-shoot, so to console myself, I played New York and Magic and Loss in tribute to this legend. I then got on the phone to my contact in New York, Macy Hoff.

What’s the word, Macy?’ I said. I knew Macy would have been expecting my call.

A-yo Milo, I know why you’re calling, Macy said. ‘Listen! Lou’s dog lead and his coffee grinder have gone, but I have something hot. Lou’s set of worry beads.’

I never asked how Macy came by his acquisitions. It was probably better not to know.

Can you email me some photos?’ I said. From experience, I found it helped keep the price down if you showed a little hesitation.

Fo shizzle dude,’ he said. ‘By the way, how did the Warhol Gotham restaurant tab go down?’

Gotham was a trendy place off Fifth Avenue and Macy had sold me Andy’s bill for a list of French dishes and wines with fancy names. The bill had been a four-figure sum even back in the 1980s and I had only paid a three-figure sum for this rarity. Legendary painters are also a fascination of mine and I have one or two bits and pieces of twentieth-century artists memorabilia, including Picasso’s wind chimes and Dali’s dreamcatcher. I told Macy I had framed the Warhol bill and had it hanging on the wall of the red room, next to Jackson Pollock’s driving licence and Mark Rothko’s prescription for tricyclic antidepressants.

I hadn’t had Lou down as a great worrier, perhaps not happy-go-lucky, more of a pragmatist, someone who attacked life’s problems head-on. Macy Hoff’s photos arrived in my inbox and I took a good look. Lou favoured a traditional Greek evil eye Komboloi set of beads. I could tell that Lou had done a lot of worrying. The beads were hand-painted but the pattern was worn down in places which had the effect of making each of the eyes look sunken. Three other attached photos taken over a period of twenty years showed Lou in various poses, with furrowed brow, working the beads. While you can never be one hundred percent sure of authenticating a purchase, by zooming in on Lou’s hands, the beads seemed to match those in the first photo.

I found out you could buy a set of evil eye Komboloi on the internet for as little as £3.99. While I felt that this should have a bearing on what I would offer Macy, these were Lou Reed’s Komboloi we were talking about, the very ones that had helped him to write Dirty Boulevard and The Great American Whale. They had untold psychic value. I discovered that the evil eye was a malevolent look that could cause injury or misfortune for the unsuspecting person at whom it was directed. Belief was strongest in the Mediterranean region. Both Greeks and Turks carried worry beads all the time.

Handling beads did not seem an obvious New York custom. I had only been to New York once, this when I was touring with Trousersnake in the eighties (guitar and keyboards, Max Frontman was the singer you may recall) but I could not remember seeing men with worry beads. I wondered how Lou had come by his. Might they have perhaps been a gift from his friend, Leonard Cohen, who had spent many years on Hydra in the Aegean? I dismissed the thought that Leonard, now in his eightieth year, might be the next to go, although I couldn’t help speculating what might come up for sale when this happened.

The following morning I read through Lou’s obituaries. ‘He was a master,’ David Bowie said, expressing what we all felt. Fittingly Lou died on a Sunday morning like the one described in the opening song on the first Velvet Underground LP, looking at the trees and doing Tai Chi with just his musician hands moving through the air. This gentler side of Lou was at odds with urban myth. One of the most telling tributes came from the author Salman Rushdie who, after Laurie Anderson had put him on the phone to Lou in the eighties, said, ‘It was like having God’s unlisted cell phone number.’ On a religious theme, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi tweeted on behalf of The Vatican, ‘It’s such a perfect day, I’m glad I spent it with you.’ His short message suggested Lou’s appeal was far-reaching.

It is often overlooked that for many years Lou was unacknowledged as a creative talent. The Velvet Underground did not achieve commercial success at the time. For years I was the only person I knew who owned a Velvet Underground album, although it seems everyone jumped on the bandwagon, later on, claiming that they had always followed them. Lou’s great legacy as an artist was nearly lost after he left The Velvet Underground suddenly following an acrimonious dispute with the band in 1970. He spent the first forty eight-hours asleep, plagued by nightmares, as if in post-traumatic stress. That autumn, he became a typist in his father’s accountancy firm, something singularly unimaginable. He planned to make it as a poet but his music career was resurrected by devotees of his ground-breaking songs, potential collaborators like David Bowie.

I called Macy.

I’ll give you £545,’ I said. When bartering, the psychological importance of the opening bid cannot be overestimated. It acts as a mental anchor for the sale price. The key is to start with a precise figure rather than a rounded one. This tends to throw the other party.

There was a pause. Macy was clicking away at his calculator.

That’s Seven-forty,’ he said. Don’t jerk my chain, dude. I couldn’t take less than fifteen oh oh.’

I slowly raised my offer and each time Macy had to calculate it into dollars. The anchor seemed to hold and we settled at £833. I felt pleased with the deal. This was cheap for a major item of celebrity memorabilia. If he had put them on eBay, he might have expected to get twice that.

I began collecting celebrity memorabilia by accident when in 1991 I moved into a house where Steve Marriott had lived. Steve had recently passed away and had left a lot of his knick-knacks lying around. I was staggered at the amounts that a few signed photographs of a dead rock star could sell for or a pair of trousers he had perhaps worn on a TV show. He wasn’t even very famous by this time. His star had faded. He was yesterday’s hero. When Freddie Mercury died later the same year, I was on to the game. Freddie was clearly a big star. I made a tidy sum buying and selling his tennis rackets and feather boas. Gradually I built up my collection of memorabilia to invest in the icons that really interested me. By the time George Harrison died in 2001, I had enough in the kitty to splash out on George’s 1966 A to Z of London.

Let me say a little about our house. Functionalist in style and at odds with its suburban surroundings, it was designed in the 1920s by Sanford Mayo, a disciple of the great Adolf Loos. Each room is a different colour blue, red, yellow, green, white and black. These colours provide the perfect background for exhibits and displays. I have a music studio in a purpose built annex. Although I do not play so much these days, twenty years ago I was with several bands that nearly made it. Royalty cheques still come in from one or two of the minor hits I wrote back then. Some of you might remember Forgotten Who You Were or Nightmares in the Day.

While it would be stretching the imagination to suggest there was a causal connection, Lou’s departure heralded a disturbing series of weird experiences for me. As I sat in my chair in the green room, I developed the sensation that someone was watching me. I felt a shiver creeping up my spine. Josie was still away at a photo-shoot somewhere in France so as far as I knew I was alone in the house. I could see no-one but I could definitely feel a presence. As I went from the green room to the yellow room and from the yellow room to the white room, the eerie sensation of being observed clung to me. The skin on the back of my neck tingled. This prickly somesthesia was most pronounced in the blue room. A winter chill filled the space. It felt as if invisible daggers were punching into the back of my head, in fact not just the back of the head. It felt as though some demon was possessing me. The gaze now was almost physical. The door behind me slammed shut. I thought I could hear cracked laughter from the black room next door. I was terrified. An invisible force pinned me into position against the display cabinet, housing Jim Morrison’s embalmed dragon lizard. I hoped it would turn out to be a dream, but this had all the sharp edges of reality.

When I was about seven, sometimes in winter I would walk home from Martin Appleby’s in the dark. It was about half a mile. Usually my elder brother, Raif would be with me, but on the occasions he wasn’t, I would have to walk home alone. Rudd Naseby, who was in my brother’s class had told me about the bogeyman. The bogeyman came out at night, Rudd said. The bogeyman would follow you home in the dark and when he found a suitable place where no-one was looking, would grab you around the neck and slowly strangle you. One night the streetlights were out and there was no moon or stars. I could hear the regular click-clack of footsteps behind me. They appeared to be getting closer. I broke into a run but the footsteps speeded up too, still getting closer. I was too scared to turn around. I could sense the bogeyman’s piercing gaze. His evil eyes would glow in the dark. I could almost feel his breath on my neck. I would never reach home. I would be there lying dead on the pavement, strangled by the bogeyman. Finally, I plucked up all my courage and stopped in my tracks. I turned around. There was no-one there. Was this the same feeling I had now?

Without warning, the pressure lifted, the room stopped spinning and everything snapped back into place. The light poured reassuringly through the Venetian blinds into the white room and I could hear birdsong from the arbour, that backed onto the green room. It felt as though I had woken from a leisurely siesta. Had I imagined the episode? I walked around the house to see if anything seemed out of place. But, everything seemed as it should be. All the exhibits seemed to be intact. The house seemed particularly tidy. Perhaps this was because Josie was away, there were no random piles of catalogues, unopened mail, and assorted paraphernalia. I tried Josie’s number. I felt that speaking to her might settle me. She would tell me I was being ridiculous, and that everything was all right. She would have a rational explanation for what had happened.

The number you have dialled is currently unavailable, the message said. I thought about phoning her agency but as she was mostly freelance, I did not know which agency to phone. She was doing promotion shots for a new band called Mars A and they were shooting somewhere in France, Provence maybe, or was it Dauphine? I did a search on Mars A, but like a lot of artists these days, the band’s website was short on detail. There were no contact numbers to be found. I sent them an email and kept trying Josie’s number. After the third or fourth attempt, I did not even get the try again later message. The phone was completely dead. I phoned around some of her friends. Ophelia did not know where she was, and I was unable to contact Modeste or Asia. Lesleigh asked me if I’d like to come round. She had just put some lunch on, she said. I declined.

The rest of the day passed with no news about Josie’s whereabouts. She did not phone me and I found myself still unable to contact her. When I took a walk to Waitrose (not exactly the wild side) in the early afternoon to buy some wine, I had the feeling that someone was stalking me, and found myself constantly looking over my shoulder. This feeling was so strong that I instinctively got into character by turning up my collar and putting on my dark glasses (twenty-six dollars in my hand). The checkout girl kept her head down and did not engage me in conversation. As I had not bought any food, perhaps she thought I was a street drinker, or perhaps, as they were expensive bottles, a rich old wino. But, at least, she stopped short of calling the manager.

To stimulate my paranoia, in the early evening, the lights in the house went off unexpectedly. This was a heart-stopping moment. I eventually realised it was a power cut to the whole area. Nevertheless, it left me a little shaky. I made inroads into the second bottle of wine, took several of Josie’s benzodiazepines and went off to bed. I told myself that Josie would be back in the morning and there would be a logical explanation about why her phone was off.

If things went bump in the night, I was blissfully unaware of them. I woke at about five with a thumping head. I got up, found the Paracetamol and checked the phones. There were no messages and Josie’s phone was still dead. I would have looked at Josie’s email and private data but I did not know how to get into her profile. She kept changing her password. Once I had had a shower, I checked my emails but there was no word. Nor was there anything from Macy. I had heard nothing since the money had left my PayPal account. I managed to reach Modeste and Asia on their mobiles, but neither of them even knew Josie was away. They asked me if I was all right and wished me well. Ophelia was unavailable and Lesleigh said she had just opened a bottle of Chablis, did I want to come round? I told her it was a little early for me. I listened to some of Mars A music on YouTube. It was terrible. Why didn’t guitarists learn to play the guitar these days, before they made recordings?

There were more tributes to Lou Reed on Twitter. ‘When Lou said goodbye, his dark eyes seemed to contain an infinite and benevolent sadness,’ Patti Smith said about their recent meeting. ‘Sad to hear about Lou Reed passing. Such a star. RIP Lou, and thanks for giving us Perfect Day for Trainspotting,’ Irvine Welsh said. There were many others, each adding to the sense of loss. I listened to Coney Island Baby and found myself in tears. I brushed the dust off my Epiphone acoustic and gave a heartfelt rendition of Pale Blue Eyes. It felt like I had an audience. I was being watched again. From where I was sitting at my desk in the red room, I was sure someone was just outside the window peering in. I crept over to the curtain and took a look from behind it, but I could see no-one, just the empty street in the distance behind the fence. I got the binoculars out. I could still see no-one, but the sensation of being watched grew stronger. I went from room to room and round the garden and down the street. Wherever I found myself, I felt this silent piercing gaze. By lunchtime, I was panicking. Where on earth was Josie? She would be able to make some sense of it all.

Are you sure you want to report her as a missing person’ Sergeant Lugosi said. ‘Seventy-two hours is not very long.’

I wasn’t sure at all, but I had just wanted to talk to someone about it.

And you did say that she had told you she was going. She might have been delayed. Flights, transfers, all these things are unpredictable.’

But she never turns off her phone. I mean, never!’ I thought of all the times her phone had rung when we’d just started making love.

Mr London. Has your mobile phone never gone offline for some reason? Have you never found yourself in the Middle of Wales without a signal?’

Yes, but…’

Mr London, it may have escaped your notice, but we are very busy in the police without having to chase up every individual whose phone isn’t turned on.’

And I think I’m being stalked,’ I blurted out.

Oh, really, Mr London? And what makes you think that then?’ Sergeant Lugosi said. I had to admit it sounded a little pathetic, a grown man telling a Police Sergeant that someone was following him.

It was only early afternoon, but I thought it might help to call in at The Goat and Bicycle for a pint before going home.

Hiya Milo, long time!,’ Ivo said, from a table by the door.

I tried to ignore him. I had never had much time for Ivo.

How’s Josie?’ he said. ‘I saw her on the High Street yesterday. I waved but I don’t think she saw me.’

That’s impossible,’ I was about to say, but instead, somehow ‘Where was that?’ came out.

She was going into that new phone shop. EE, isn’t it? She was with a tall guy. Looked a bit like you. Thought maybe it was your brother.’

I haven’t got a brother,’ I said. Raif had died in an accident at work several years previously.

Ah, then it probably wasn’t. I’m sure it was Josie though.’

I didn’t like how he leered when he said this.

She had on a red jacket,’ he added. ‘And a short skirt.’

It had crossed my mind more than once over the past few months that Josie might be having an affair. With all the time she spent away, this was certainly a possibility and after all, she was twenty years younger than me and by anyone’s standards, attractive.

I phoned my techie friend, Ram, to ask for advice about computer security and he told me that John the Ripper and Cain and Abel were the password cracker programs that he used and he let me know where I could download them. After several hours of trying, I could still not get into Josie’s profile. Her phone was still dead and none of her friends who had said they would get back to me if they heard anything had done so. Keeping busy seemed to have helped discourage whoever was watching me or I had just become accustomed to the feeling. As soon as it became dark though and I drew the blinds, the pins and needles started up again. It was a different checkout girl at Waitrose, but I was looking over my shoulder all the way there and back. I bought six bottles this time, just in case.

I was so tired, I only needed one of them. I awoke refreshed and ready to get on with business, except there was no business to get on with. Josie’s phone was dead, and all her friends were on voicemail. There were no email updates, just the usual adverts for goods or services, and one from a fellow collector wondering if I might be interested in buying Kurt Cobain’s cigarette lighter. Kurt Cobain memorabilia didn’t interest me. I saw him as a B-Lister. Granted, I had recently purchased Keith Moon’s chainsaw, Brian Jones’s hair-dryer and a jar of Roy Orbison’s tears, but you had to draw the line somewhere.

New York time is five hours behind UK time, but I thought if I left a message on his voicemail, Macy would pick it up when he got up. To my alarm, his phone was dead too. The number you have dialled does not exist, was the reply, yet this was in my phone and had been the number I reached him on two days ago. My own phone rang a few times and each time my heart leapt, but each time it was an unwanted marketing call. Reg, a friend of mine found a way to make money out of these calls. He set up a premium rate number and gave this out every time he had to supply details online, knowing that these numbers would be sold on. Every time he gets an unsolicited call he makes 10p a minute. Sometimes he keeps cold callers talking for ages about their services. Macy finally called late in the evening and told me how I could track the parcel he sent.

I’ve been trying to get hold of you, Macy,’ I said. ‘Your phone’s dead.’

I use disposable cellphones, Milo,’ he said. ‘Burners. Don’t you have them over there yet?’

But the number you gave me worked for weeks,’ I protested.

Sometimes I keep the number, sometimes I don’t. Security issue,’ he said.

Uh-huh,’ I said, adopting a neutral tone.

I’m getting the vibe you didn’t trust me,’ he said. ‘Anyway, the beads are on their way. I’ll let you know if I get anything else. Wonder who’s next to bite the big one, eh.’

We speculated for a while, but my heart was not in it. There was Josie’s absence to worry about. Josie would never go for disposable phones and would probably relinquish her iPhone only at gunpoint. She had left on Saturday morning and I had heard nothing since. It was now Wednesday evening. I called Modeste, Ophelia, and Asia again to check if they had heard anything, but I got the impression from each of them that they were short on sympathy and getting fed up with me phoning. Lesleigh wondered if I might like to come round and watch Friday the 13th with her. She was just about to put the DVD on, she said. I passed on the invitation.

I felt a chilling presence in the room, watching me. I tried to move my head so I could look around but found I could not. My body was completely numb. No matter how hard I tried, I was incapable of moving. The impression that I was being watched intensified. It was very dark. I could not see at all. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could make out the shape of an eye. An eye suspended in space. It did not seem to be attached to any flesh and blood being. I tried to scream, but I could not open my mouth. I tried to wake up, but I was not asleep. Finally, I was able to move. I got up and ran from the room. I did not look over my shoulder. I felt the gaze from the eye on the back of my neck but I did not dare turn around. I’ve no idea what happened but I found myself cowering on a patch of waste ground by the Jewish cemetery, with Lou Reed’s song Magic and Loss running through my head. A crowd of people had gathered. They seemed to be concerned. I could not explain to them that I was the victim of the evil eye. One of them said an ambulance was on its way. I said I did not need an ambulance and staggered off.

Back home, after trundling through the music press sites on the internet, I found out that Mars A were managed by Seamus Dark. Because Dark was something of a self-publicist, it was relatively easy to find a number for his management company, AfterDark Promotions. I was shunted around or cut off by feckless subordinates before I spoke to Seamus, who it turned out was not Irish.

Sorry about Lisa cutting you off there. She’s a mare, work experience. What can I do for you?’

I mentioned the band.

Oh that’s right, Lisa said you wanted to talk about Mars A. Great band, aren’t they? I did good signing them. Single’s at number 39 in the charts, already.’

I wanted to talk to you about the photo-shoot for their new album cover.’

Already taken care of, my son.’

Yes! Josie London is doing them in France, I understand.’

No mate. Didn’t go for Josie London. Her work is, how can I put it, a little restrained. We was looking for something more radical. We went for Bud Olsen, diamond geezer – and France! No France is too twee. So we went for Hamburg. More edgy. Know what I mean.’

So you wouldn’t know where Josie is?’

What are you, some kind of weirdo?’

Perhaps I was a weirdo.

I put the phone down.

The checkout girl at Waitrose asked me why I was wearing two pairs of sunglasses. Was it that sunny outside? Was I alright? I tried to laugh it off and thanked her for her concern.

They say dreams can be the territory for unwelcome upheaval when you are having a difficult time and can add to your disturbed mindset. The odd thing is, I didn’t have any dreams, just the vague impression through my sleeping hours that someone was with me in the room.

Morning sleepyhead,’ Josie said, snuggling up to me. ‘It was late when I got in, so I didn’t wake you.’

Relief and disbelief jockeyed for prime position.

Where have you been? I’ve been trying to phone you day and night.’ I said.

My phone got swallowed by the airport scanner.’ she laughed. ‘I’ll be looking for you to help me with the insurance forms.’

But you weren’t in France on a photo-shoot with Mars A. I checked. Seamus Dark told me he didn’t take you on. ……. And none of your friends knew where you were.’

Who? What? I don’t know why I tell you anything. You never listen to me properly do you? It was Marseilles, not Mars A. I was shooting for Bande A Part. It’s a French film magazine. I phoned you but you didn’t pick up so I spoke to Lesleigh. Asked her to let you know about the phone and not being able to contact me. Didn’t she say?’

She invited me over to hers quite a lot, but no, she didn’t mention it.’

Anyway. ….. What have you been up to? Have you missed me? …….. Oh my word, I can see that you have. I should go away more often. …… By the way, I found this package in the mailbox ……. In the dark, I thought was it for me so I opened it, but it’s for you. …….. It’s some beads with beady eyes on. Are they worry beads? Is it the evil eye? You don’t believe in that, do you?’

I wondered if I might hang them in the hall alongside Muddy Waters’ mojo. Just in case.

© 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

Bougainvillea Heights

bougainvilleaheights2019

Bougainvillea Heights by Chris Green

As she opens the front door, Angel hears the sound of the shower running in the upstairs bathroom. That’s odd, she thinks as she unzips her boots, Jayson is never home at this time of day. Still, it is a nice surprise. Since he took up his post as CEO of Dozier and Coons, Jayson never seems to be home. Their love life has become almost non-existent. If he is having a shower at this time of day, perhaps he has plans to put this right. A little afternoon delight, she thinks, exactly what a girl needs, now and then. Angel was forty-two last month. While she works out and keeps herself in shape, she needs a little reassurance that she is still desirable. She drops her keys in the Art Deco dish by the hat-stand, throws her suit jacket over the bannister and after a quick check in the hall mirror, heads upstairs.

Jay,’ she calls out. ‘Jay, I’m home.’

There is no reply.

Jay,’ she calls again, at the top of the stairs. She has undone the top button of her blouse.

Jayson doesn’t answer. He can’t have heard her above the powerful pounding of the shower.

The bathroom door is ajar a few inches and steam is billowing out. Her fingers reach out to push the door open. From behind, an arm reaches out and grabs her around the neck. She looks down to see a gloved hand. It is not Jayson’s hand.

Jayson Love leaves the car park at Dozier and Coons in his new Audi A5. He phones Angel on the hands-free to say he will be late. There is no reply. She must be in the shower, he thinks. He leaves a short message. He slips Mozart’s Don Giovanni into the player to listen to while he drives along the short stretch of motorway to the turn-off to Dakota’s. The traffic is light for early evening.

Jayson sees Dakota three or four times a week depending on his workload. Dakota is the only escort he has found at Elite Escorts who entertains clients at home. He used to just visit once a week, but Angel’s affections seem to have dropped off lately. Ten years is a long time. None of his friends has been married this long.

Dakota is preparing for Jayson’s arrival. He likes her to surprise him with different coloured underwear each time he visits. Today she is going to treat him to lilac. Dakota has been with Elite Escorts for nearly five years. Because Jayson is such a regular, she wonders if she should give up the agency and just see him and perhaps one or two others regulars on a private basis. She would have more than enough income to live comfortably. Perhaps she should just see Jayson. He is a very generous man. Ah, that will be him now. She sprays the room with Occidental, makes a final adjustment to her skirt, puts on her heels and goes to the door to greet him.

Russ Buchanan joined the force from school. He stood out among the new recruits and was moved over to CID, where he was quickly promoted to Detective Sergeant. DS Buchanan has been called away from his skittles evening because his colleague DS Slack, who should be on duty, is off sick. When he arrives at Bougainvillea Heights, the crime scene investigators are already there going over the prints in the bathroom where Angel Love’s mutilated body was found. Jayson Love is not answering his phone and his whereabouts is unknown.

What have we got, Constable,’ he asks.

PC Hogg, the first to arrive on the scene, says that he has spoken to Mr and Mrs Schneider who reported the disturbance.

It was just after Angel Love arrived home that they heard the screams, Sarge,’ he says. ‘They called right away. Mr Love, as you may have guessed, was not home.’

Was he not?’ Buchanan says. ‘You know that, do you?’ The key to being a good detective is to rule nothing out.

He is hardly ever there, apparently,’ Hogg continues. ‘Neither the Schneiders nor the Pembertons who live opposite saw anyone apart from Angel Love arrive at the house and no-one has seen anyone leave.’

Then the murderer would still be inside, Hogg. And clearly, he isn’t, because you and Constable Peacey and the crime scene boys have all been over the house. None of the other neighbours saw anything?’

There are no other neighbours, sir,’ Hogg says. ‘As you can see, it’s pretty exclusive up here.’

No little Pembertons or Schneiders?’

Rosalind and Jemima are at university and Horst is at boarding school.’

You’ve checked, have you?’

Peacey’s just checking now, sir.’

Sarge will be sufficient, Hogg. I haven’t got my promotion yet.’

Russ Buchanan can see from the body in the bathroom that Angel Love did not take her own life. People cannot slash their own torsos at those angles with such force. What could possibly be the motive for such a vicious attack on a beautiful woman in these prosperous preserves? While this does not have the hallmarks of a crime of passion, somebody must have held a hell of a grudge to make their point so powerfully. Hardened he might be by watching snuff films with fellow officers at the Lights Out club, but he feels physically sick by the sight of the carnage before him. This is not the kind of case that officers in the Home Counties are often asked to investigate. But, with the Inspector’s post being advertised, it represents an ideal opportunity to take on the mantle of higher office. With another baby on the way, he is sure that Trudi would be glad of the extra salary.

What have we got from REX,’ he says. REX is the affectionate name for the new police computer. No-one knows for sure the explanation, but it is believed to come from Recs, records. There appears to be a singular lack of imagination in the creative department of crime prevention.

She seems squeaky clean,’ Hogg says.

Not her, you fool, the husband. Go and check on the husband and bring him in.’

We haven’t been able to get hold of Mr Love, Sarge.’

Just do it, will you, Hogg.’

Russ Buchanan has a variation on good cop, bad cop, he even has a variation on bad cop, bad cop. It is bad cop, bad cop, better cop, where he is the better cop who manages to extract a confession from the by now terrified suspect. It always works. He has secured endless convictions by this method.

He calls up Division and asks them to send over Noriega and Suggs for bad cop duties.

Jayson Love arrives home from Dakota’s about nine thirty. The area around the house is by now completely sealed off and the barrage of blue flashing lights is blinding.

Burly cops pull Jayson roughly from his Audi, where a smiling DS Buchanan greets him.

We’ve been trying to contact you, Mr Love,’ he says. ‘I expect you’ve got a good explanation for where you have been for the last four hours.’

I’m not at liberty to say,’ Jayson says. ‘Perhaps you would like to tell me what’s going on.’

I think it would be a good idea for you to answer our questions,’ DS Buchanan says. ‘What do you think Noriega?’

Noriega delivers a hefty blow to the stomach.

Further protests are greeted with further blows. Noriega and Suggs guide him, kicking and screaming, to the gruesome crime scene.

You surely don’t think that I did this,’ Jayson splutters, holding back a surge of vomit. ‘What kind of animal do you think I am? You think that I would slash my own wife to death.’

Perhaps you’d like to tell us where you were at around five o’clock this afternoon. I think that might be your best plan,’ Buchanan says. ‘What do you think, Suggs?’

A million thoughts simultaneously run through Jayson’s head. While he is sickened by what he is seeing, he must try to get a grip. Nothing is going to bring his wife back. And, after all, he does have an alibi. He can disclose his earlier whereabouts to the officers. He does not want to do this, but Dakota will understand. There are other considerations. There is a lot at stake in commerce. He has important interests to protect. In his line of work, the potential for misunderstanding is large. Those with, or even without vested interests are easily upset. Butchering his wife may be their way of getting their message through to him. The people we are likely to be talking about here are anything but subtle.

Can you get his phone from the car, Hogg,’ Buchanan shouts. ‘We’ll soon find out what is going on around here.’

Jayson has a moment of panic, but, yes, he does have the device in his pocket. He presses the emergency button. The phone will now be completely wiped. There will be no record that the phone ever existed. Even the spooks from the spy base would now have difficulty retrieving the information. His Iranian contact said that it might come in useful one day. Of course, he does have a backup copy of his data at the bank, but he is not going to volunteer this information in a hurry.

Dakota is surprised by the visit. People don’t usually knock so vigorously at the door at 2 a.m. A look out of the window is enough to confirm her suspicions that it is the police. At least, it gives her the opportunity to flush the coke down the toilet. The interrogation ensues. Although Noriega and Suggs are chomping at the bit, not even Buchanan can stoop low enough to use the bad cop, bad cop, better cop with someone as feminine and attractive as Dakota.

Yes, she tells them, she does know Jayson. Yes, she did see him. Yes, she did know that Jayson was married. No, he never talked about her. She doesn’t even know his wife’s name. Oh, Angel, that’s a pretty name. Oh my God! No-one deserves that. I expect it was one of those psychopaths you read about in the Sunday papers. No, she never took money from Jayson for sex. She’s not that kind of girl. Certainly, he might have bought her the odd present. He was a kind and generous man. No, she doesn’t work for an agency. No, of course, she isn’t a prostitute.

Dakota is a seasoned professional. She lives in a world where it pays to be discreet. She has also watched enough crime dramas on television to know what is the best course of action here both to protect herself and not to incriminate her client. To avoid being taken downtown, she does make a statement but she offers the minimum amount of information about Jayson and their meeting earlier. She leaves out all personal details and makes no mention of previous assignations. Detective Sergeant Buchanan leaves disappointed.

Jayson’s solicitor, Milton Chance, the senior partner at Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed arrives at the police station at 7a.m. Jayson is in a detention cell. He has the look of a broken man. Milton knows all about this look. Most of his clients have this look when he meets them. It’s his job to get rid of this look. He is good at his job. This is how he is able to afford to live at Bougainvillea Heights. He is not sure how Jayson is able to afford to live at Bougainvillea Heights. There is an air of mystery surrounding Dozier and Coons. He has heard rumours about what they might do in the huge complex at West Park, but no-one seems to know for certain. He drives past it sometimes and he can’t help but notice that the heavy security at the gates. He has more than an inkling that there might be something that Jayson is not telling him. From experience, he finds this is the case with a majority of his clients. A defence solicitor today sees it as the duty of modern justice to be able to accommodate secrets and lies.

Why do you think that are they keeping you here if they are not going to charge you,’ he says.

I think they just want to give me another going over,’ Jayson says. ‘That bastard Buchanan seems to have it in for me.’

I’ve come across him before,’ Milton says. ‘Nasty piece of work, isn’t he. A real shitbag. Don’t worry! I’ll get you out of here. But! If there is anything I need to know, you had better tell me so that I am in a position to react appropriately.’

Jayson feels that it is too early to share any big secrets about Dozier and Coons business. ‘We sell information,’ he says. ‘Some of it could be considered to be sensitive. It depends on your viewpoint.’

I think I get the picture,’ Milton says.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. Databases are traded for profit the world over. It would be difficult to pretend that it is a virtuous line of business. Jayson does not spell out that Dozier and Coons have access to the same transatlantic data traffic as the listening centre. The same traffic that Edward Snowden got all hot and bothered about. But, in contrast to the listening centre who just monitor the data, Dozier and Coons decrypt it, package it by category and sell it on to interested parties. He does not confide that the interested parties are likely to use the data to exploit or undermine others, or worse.

What is Buchanan likely to know?’

He would be able to find out that Dozier and Coons are in the information business. He could find out that much with Google. But he could burrow around in TOR all day and still would not be able to find out the specifics of our operation and certainly nothing regarding our client list. We are a very security conscious organisation.’

He will be back here soon, probably with his goons. You could be in for a tough day,’ Milton says. ‘So, as you’re paying me well, I’m going to stay with you until the twenty-four hours are up. I’ve brought us lunch.’

Jayson Love never imagined in all his nightmares that he was putting those close to him in such danger. He has been a fool. He was earning good money with DataBroker. He didn’t need to take up the position at Dozier and Coons. Angel had not wanted him to. A slideshow of memories floods his consciousness; small but precious moments from their life together, the stolen kiss at the turn of a mile in his coupé on their first date, watching the waves roll in as the summer sun was setting over the ocean at Mawgan Porth, Angel trying to capture the shifting light across the bay at Juan Les Pins for an impressionist painting, the night-time sleigh ride to see the northern lights in Nova Scotia, watching spellbound as Lang Lang effortlessly gilded the Liszt Piano Concerto No.1 at The Proms, the month spent touring Spain in the hired Winnebago last year, or was it the year before.

He remembers the moment Angel told him she was pregnant just months ago after they had been trying for years, and the heartbreak of the miscarriage, knowing also that the biological clock was ticking. Was his inattention to her needs the result of this? Consciously or unconsciously, was he blaming her?

Angel didn’t deserve to die,’ he blubs, head in hands. ‘It should have been me. Goddammit! I wish it had of been me. I feel as if I killed her.’

Milton Chance has seen many grown men cry before. To be a successful criminal lawyer requires suitably accessible shoulders, and sometimes a little pick me up to help the client. He does not know what is in the cocktail he administers, but more often than not it seems to do the job.

The lawyer’s continued presence throughout the day frustrates DS Buchanan. He likes his detainees to be more vulnerable. Having to abandon his bad cop, bad cop, better cop strategy he is not able to make any significant progress on the investigation. All his fellow officers’ reports throughout the day about the activities of Dozier and Coons also come up with nothing. Little by little he sees his promotion prospects dwindle.

Jayson is released without charge at 4 p.m. He is just in time to pick up the duplicate phone from the bank vault. Clever stuff, he is thinking. He can access his information but others can’t. Now he can get onto what needs to be done.

As soon as he is on the steps outside the bank, the phone gives out its Rondo Alla Turca ringtone.

Dakota’s a pretty girl, isn’t she, Mr Love?’ a foreign sounding voice says. He pronounces his name as Meester Lov. Jayson cannot place the accent. His best guess is Middle-Eastern.

Who is this?’

It would be a pity if she ended up the same way as Angel, wouldn’t it?’

Who is this?’ Jayson repeats. He has the feeling he has heard the voice before. Perhaps it was a week or two ago. Someone with similar phrasing called. He has a vague recollection of the voice saying something about a friendly warning. He did not take much notice at the time. Some days can be quite full on at Dozier and Coons.

I imagine that you found the place a bit of a mess. All that blood and the sight of your dearly beloved lying there amongst it must have been shocking.’

What do you want?’

It is what we do not want, Mr Love,’ the voice says. ‘We do not want your organisation to have such close links with third parties in Iran. We do not want to see propaganda supporting Hamas. We do not want supplies of rocket parts to reach Hamas. We do not want to see Palestine as a member of the UN that is a sovereign state in its own right. I think that might give you an idea of who we represent.’

But ….. your people buy information from us too,’ Jayson says.

Precisely, Mr Love. And we intend to continue this arrangement, but your …… other arrangements will be cancelled forthwith. Or, it’s goodbye pretty little Miss Dakota. I think that you understand me.’

I usually get The Times,’ Mrs Pemberton says. ‘But tabloids are much more fun when something like this happens.’

We get the Telegraph,’ Mrs Schneider says. ‘Jurgen likes to do the crossword. But these, what do you call them, red-tops, do like to tell a story.’

It says here, he was shot at point-blank range,’ Mrs Pemberton says. ‘It’s odd though that the photo looks nothing like him.’

This one says that a girl was seen running from the house,’ Mrs Schneider says.

The Express says that an armed division of Israeli soldiers rushed the house,’ Mrs P says. ‘But they don’t have a photo, just a mock-up of what an armed division of Israeli soldiers might look like storming a house.’

Look at this headline, BURNING LOVE. It says he died screaming in a house fire,’ Mrs S says.

They’ll do anything to sell papers,’ Mrs P says. ‘It talks about a Palestinian tunneller here.’

It says in the Standard that Jayson Love died from a heart attack,’ Mrs S says.

I know. You don’t know what to believe, do you?’ Mrs P says. ‘It’s funny we haven’t seen that nice policeman again. That Inspector Buchanan. You’d think he’d want to ask us some questions.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Everyone is Dead

everyoneisdead2

Everyone is Dead by Chris Green

Everyone is Dead,’ the headline poster outside the newsagents reads. You can’t miss it. It is in big bold capitals.

What can it mean? How can everyone be dead? I am alive for a start. The person who put the notice up could not have been dead. They must have put it there as a joke. Fake news. In poor taste for sure. But against my better judgement, I’m intrigued. What if there is some substance to it? Even if it is an exaggeration.

I stop the car and get out to take a look. The newsagent’s door is wide open but there are no customers in the shop and no-one behind the counter. I call out but I get no reply. Concerned now, I explore the place, downstairs and upstairs. There is definitely no-one around. Not even looters taking advantage of the empty shop. Could the person who put the notice up be the killer? Some deranged egotist perhaps.

There are no copies of any newspaper around to explain the headline. Is it stating that everyone locally is dead? Or is it suggesting some disaster has occurred that has wiped out the entire human population? Or there has been an outbreak of a deadly disease for which there is no cure? Or perhaps the scaremongers were right about 5G. ……. This is ridiculous! Insane. Why am I going down this road? What am I thinking? I admit I don’t follow the news closely but I am not aware of any catastrophic event that might have been on the horizon. Although, it has been very hot the last few days. Much hotter than usual. Forty degrees yesterday. And it’s shaping up to be another scorcher today. Some folks cannot take the heat. People up and down the country have been moaning about it. Even so, no matter how hot it became, there would be survivors. I recall Andy Mann at work mentioned something a while back about an asteroid being on its way. A dirty great big one, he said. And it could hit us. But it can’t be that. I would have heard something or felt the impact as something like that crashed into the Earth. There would be far more evidence of devastation.

My heart is going nine to the dozen. I am shaking, sweating. …… I must get a grip. This is what Alex, my support-worker is forever telling me. But I don’t know what to think. I am racked with uncertainty.

I might be imagining it but it seemed the roads were deserted when I drove into town earlier. I can’t recall seeing another moving vehicle. Yet it seems even quieter now. There is a deathly silence. My phone isn’t working so I can’t call home and I can’t even call Alex for re-assurance. This is scary. It no longer seems like a misunderstanding or a joke. I need to go home and check that Daryl and Hannah aren’t dead. They were alive when I left earlier. But that was a few hours ago. Although, they weren’t exactly chatty. When I said see you later, there was no reply from either of them. There again, teenagers aren’t always communicative.

Some people are lying in the road outside the Co-op store. They are not moving. It is possible, even likely, they are dead. I am desperate to get home now so I don’t feel I can stop to check. Instead, I drive around them. There are dozens more strewn across the pavement at random intervals. Quite likely they are dead too. There are no signs of life. What cataclysmic event has taken place? Could this be the apocalypse? I am finding it difficult to breathe. I feel dizzy, out of control. I am beyond terrified. Is this it?

I hear some commotion up ahead. Several people dressed in green jumpsuits with the Extinction Rebellion logo jump out from a bus shelter. They hoist a banner that reads There is No Planet B. They have movie cameras and sound equipment. I also notice a small camera attached to the back seat of my car.

Cut!’ the tall one with the megaphone calls out. ‘I think that’s a wrap, guys.’

The people on the road and the pavement begin to get up.

Megaphone man comes over to the car. I wind the window down. To my surprise, he offers me a sheet of paper and a pen.

You did very well, buddy,’ he says. ‘Much better than the others. Now if you’ll just sign this, we will go ahead and use the footage in our film.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Black Hats

blackhats2

Black Hats by Chris Green

Promise and I are looking out onto a rocky outcrop in Es Calo de Sant Agustí in Formentera. We are sitting under a sun-bleached parasol outside a small café in the secluded bay. We are staying a hostal nearby. Beyond the pier, a handful of fishing boats rock gently in the shimmering sea. The afternoon sun is beating down on this modest paradise. We have not ventured far today. Most people here are having their siesta at this time of day. We had ours this morning, twice.

Formentera has been described as Ibiza’s shy little sister. For centuries it was adrift from the rest of the world, unknown and unvisited, a desert island made almost uninhabitable by pirate raids from the African coast. Accessible only by boat, it has submitted to tourism less than other Mediterranean islands. Pink Floyd pitched up here in the nineteen seventies but little else has happened since. Our sleepy resort seems especially tranquil. It is a small fishing village on the east of the island at the foot of La Mola mountain. It is built around a tiny pier where slipways carved into the rock slant to allow boats to be beached. It encourages indolence. You are already where you want to be. But we may take the bus to the hippy market at El Pilar de la Mola tomorrow. Promise thinks she might be able to buy some lapis lazuli earrings. It doesn’t look far on the map. I wonder if I might buy a hat. A Sevillano perhaps with a band or a black Cordobes.

We are the only people left at the café. Through the shutters of a window nearby, we can hear soft violin music playing. It has a melancholy air. Do violinists feel sad when they play like this or does playing sad music make them feel happy? The sun goes behind a cloud but only for a few seconds. It is the only cloud in the sky. As Promise and I sip our glasses of anis del toro, we watch a pair of feral cats scrapping over someone’s leftover escabeche, a few tables away. The singing waiter who seemed so convivial at lunchtime has not been around to clear the mess up. Might he be the source of the violin music?

I had a cat that liked listening to Vivaldi,’ I tell Promise. ‘His favourite was the Double Violin Concerto in D. RV511. He used to sit on the arm of the settee purring, his back arched confidently, his head tilted slightly upwards, a picture of contentment.’

Really?’ she smiles. ‘RV511, eh?’

I had to make several trips to the music library to build up my Vivaldi collection.’

You’re winding me up.’ she says.

She pushes my shoulder with both arms, nearly upending my blue metal chair.

No. I’m not. ……… You’re probably wondering what my cat was called. His name was Dave. He was black with a discrete patch of white under his chin. Forget T. S. Eliot! Dave is a proper name for a cat, don’t you think?’

Promise agrees Dave is a great name for a cat, much better than Skimbleshanks or Macavity, and definitely better than Shaun or Simon. Apparently, she knows people that have called their cats Shaun and Simon.

Another favourite of Dave’s was Largo from Winter from The Four Seasons. He would stretch out in front of the fire and roll over to have his tummy rubbed.’

A bit like you then. Except it’s not really your tummy you want rubbed, is it?’

Dave was not keen on jazz. If I played Charlie Mingus or Miles Davis, he slunk off to the kitchen. If I put on The Velvet Underground’s White Light White Heat, which I didn’t that often, he spat and snarled.’

I don’t blame him,’ said Promise. ‘I might spit and snarl if you put that on.’

When Tara was about sixteen, she played CDs by metal bands with names like Gutworm, and Fleshcrawl. Dave didn’t like that at all. He used to claw at the window trying to get out. Music clearly affected his mood. …… Dave disappeared last year. Just like that, one day there, the next gone. I was beside myself for weeks. He was like a member of the family.’

It seems remarkable I only met Promise a month ago. We hit it off straight away and despite both being married, began a clandestine liaison. We were perhaps less than discreet and it was not long before her husband, Craig began to suspect something was going on. He followed us on one of our assignations but rather than tackle us head-on, paid a visit to my wife, Chantelle. Without listening to whatever limp excuse I might try to come up with, Chantelle threw me out. The double-whammy was that Chantelle’s father, Trent Madison was my boss. He fired me. Craig meanwhile took to sulking in their spare room. Promise said she could not stand the atmosphere. He watched her every move and made sarcastic comments every time they met in the shared space. Out of spite he took the scissors to one of two of her dresses. She had to get away. We decided to escape to the quietest place we could find, take time out, and try to work out what we should do. After three days on Formentera, we still have no plan of action.

Formentera wasn’t our first choice but there were plenty of flights to Ibiza and Formentera was just a short boat ride away. Our cab from the airport, an old red Fiat that kept breaking down, took us through a patchwork of pine plantations and uncultivated scrub. The ten kilometres took over two hours. Javier kept us entertained with self-deprecating jokes and let us share his empanadas. As we approached the east of the island, we were treated to an array of brightly coloured shacks, with bohemians buzzing around on funky mopeds with didgeridoos on their back, evidence of Formentera’s hippy heritage.

It is late September. Despite the blistering heat, this is considered to be out of season. The locals tell us they expect the weather to break soon. We have not come across any Brits. The few tourists there seem to be German. The locals took us to be German at first, which is unusual. Mediterraneans have an uncanny knack of spotting where you are from before they hear you speak. I have dark skin, so it must be Promise’s blond hair and startlingly blue eyes that throws them. Although they might get Promise’s blond hair and startlingly black sunglasses most of the time. I am probably the only one who has seen her blue eyes lately.

I met Promise inauspiciously at ETB. She was having a new set of tyres fitted to her Tigra for its MOT, and my Toyota had just picked up a puncture. Our fascination for the AutoCar magazines on offer in the reception area was short-lived, which meant that my gaze met hers and vice versa and we struck up a conversation. The conversation began with camomile tea. Promise was disappointed that the drinks dispensing machine suppliers had overlooked its popularity. Camomile tea led on to a wider discussion of beverages and before we knew it we were at a wine bar sharing a bottle of red. The speed at which our relationship developed shocked us both. We were both touching forty, although I was touching it from the wrong side. For our first arranged date, we watched a Senegalese quintet play a lunchtime session at The Jazz Bass. See what they’ve done there, bass/base. I hadn’t until Promise pointed it out. Our second date was at Promise’s. Craig was away and I suppose that was where it really began. I stayed over and we took the next day off work and had lunch at Soups On and went to see a Spanish movie, El Hombre del Sombrero Negro, at the arts centre.

A German couple in their fifties wearing walking boots and crumpled fatigues place themselves at a nearby table. They take off their matching khaki rucksacks and place them on the table. With an exchange of grunts, they pass the remains of a two-litre bottle of water between them. The woman makes a facial gesture to suggest that the water is warm. They both turn and look towards the café, as if this might make someone appear. I try to tell them that probably no-one is going to serve them. They do not understand my English, or in fact my German, es gibt keine herum. Not a good translation, or perhaps not a good accent. I make appropriate gestures. They ignore the gestures. Perhaps they think I am crazy. The woman takes out an H and M cigarette pack and lights one. We return to our cultural divide. Out in the bay, an incoming boat sends a gentle ripple of water towards us. A clump of cirrus cloud is forming now in the northern sky. A black dog is playing in the surf. It does not appear to have an owner.

When I was little, I had a dog,’ says Promise. ‘You’re probably wondering what my dog was called.’

No,’ I say.

I know you are, really. He was called Murphy. Murphy’s a good name for a dog, don’t you think?’

Great name for a dog, Murphy. Better than Graham. I know someone who has a dog called Graham,’ I tell her.

Listen, will you? Murphy kept running away, so I bought a dog whistle.’

A Day in the Life by The Beatles is one of my favourite tunes,’ I say.

And I’m supposed to guess the connection,’ Promise says. ‘What’s that got to do with Murphy?’

I’m told that between the final crashing E major piano chord and the backwards tape loop, there is an ultra high-frequency sound that alarms dogs. ….. I tried it out on Dave but he is completely un-phased by it. He just carried on grooming himself, or sleeping, or whatever he was doing at the time.’

I suppose it’s all down to the frequency of the sound,’ Promise says.

I suppose so,’ I say. ‘Dave seemed to be most in tune with the sound of the fridge door opening. In D minor, I think.’

But what about Murphy? Don’t you care what happened to Murphy?’

I expect he kept coming back when you blew your dog whistle.’

We walk around the bay. It is now late afternoon. There are a few more clouds in the sky and a stiff breeze coming in off the sea. It will be dark around seven and we are looking for somewhere to have our evening meal. If we time it right we will catch the sunset. We pass two mature agave plants. They have magnificent flower stalks several metres high.

It is an agave Americana,’ I explain to Promise. ‘It’s sometimes called the century plant because of the time before it flowers. In actual fact, it is nearer to twenty years.’

Still, that is a long time to wait.’

It stores up enormous food reserves in its leaves, flowers, and then dies.’

That’s sad.’

In Mexico, they make a drink called pulque by cutting off the flower head and collecting the rising sap, as much as a thousand litres per plant! They distill pulque to make the spirit mescal.’

That’s like tequila, isn’t it?’ Promise says. ‘That’s deadly.’

Mescal’s more so. And it has a worm in the bottom of the bottle which you can eat.’

Yuk.’

Some say it’s an aphrodisiac.’

If you’re not sick first.’

And others claim it is a hallucinogen.’

But it’s just a marketing gimmick, right?’

Probably. Most people who are going to drink the stuff are macho lunatics, so why not take it to the max?’

We watch a pair of seagulls dive in and out of the water. Quickly the whole flock catch on that something worthwhile is happening below the surface and the air is alive with squeals.

Seagulls are very clever,’ I say. ‘They learn behaviours, remember them and even pass on behaviours, such as stamping their feet in a group to imitate rainfall and trick earthworms to come to the surface.’

Has anyone ever told you, you’re a bit like Google,’ Promise says. ‘You have an answer for everything.’

Thank you,’ I say.

I never said it was an attractive quality. You can be a know-all sometimes. I bet you were one of those nerds that were always top of your class that no-one wanted to play with.’

For the record, I was always near the bottom,’ I say. ‘And I had lots of friends.’

I had a dream last night that I was lost,’ Promise says, after we have finished our gazpacho manchego.

The remains of the sunset turns from red to indigo on the western horizon.

It is nighttime and you and I have gone for a drive and the car is not handling well. I’m not sure which of us is driving, but the car is going all over the road. There are tramlines and potholes, and barriers where there should not be. I think that it’s you and me in the car but I’m not sure as your identity keeps changing. One minute it is you and the next minute it is someone else. We are on the outskirts of town in a place that is half familiar but at the same time, it is not. The dream narrator says I have been there many times before. I recognise the places although they have changed, and try to bring to mind what they are called. There is no-one else about. It is as if there is actively no-one about, like an energy of there being no-one about. Like you can feel before an electronic storm. It is high up and I can see over a precipice where it is light. It is a yellow-orange light and it has sharp edges. Everything is cast into silhouette by the glow. I can hear the hum of distant traffic but it has a strange echo like you get in the cinema. The whole dream has this rumbly echo. I am scared.’

I see a break in her narrative and start to relate my recurring dream about the man with the black hat who wants to steal my fly-fishing rod.

Shut up for once and listen,’ she says. ‘Now you have gone off with the car and I am alone or I have gone off with the car or there was no car and I am walking around in a big old stone building that I do not know. I think I have been in the building before, but I don’t know now what it is. It has many floors and stairways that only go up one floor at a time and I am walking along a long dark corridor and a hollow voice says you should not be here. I have to get out of the building but I cannot as the stairs do not take me to the exit and I keep coming back to the same place and I’m frightened and when I do get out of the building I am even more lost and now there is a dark wood. The wind is whistling through the pines. Over here says a voice and then a man in a black hat grabs me from behind and ties me up and I am unable to move. I think I have been kidnapped. ……. And then I wake up. And you have your arm around me. What do you think it means?’

I don’t know baby,’ I say, wondering if I should get back to explaining my recurring dream. I decide against it.

We arrive back at the hostal. We have had quite a lot of wine and we lurch up the stairs and fall onto the bed. We left the windows open when we went out and the shutters are now rattling. It seems that the locals were right, the wind is getting up. A storm is brewing. Who would have thought this afternoon that the island’s weather could change so quickly?

We lie on the bed, silent for a while, listening to the wind.

What do you want?’ Promise shrieks, suddenly. ‘We have to behave like grownups sometimes, you know. Everyone wants something from someone. What do you want from me?’

This has come out of the blue. I am taken aback. I think about a reply, but I’m not sure where to pitch it. I want love, affection, approval, understanding, and lots of sex. I’m not sure this is the appropriate answer. By the time I have composed a suitable reply, she has passed out.

I lie there for a while wondering what she might be trying to say. Is there something I have missed? She has been behaving strangely this evening. The lightness of our usual rapport has been absent. Do I not listen to anything, she said. You are completely self-obsessed, she said. Am I solipsistic? Are we all solipsistic? Am I so unused to emotion being expressed? Perhaps we have had too much to drink. The Fundador brandies after the meal were probably a bad move. Have I misjudged the intensity of our relationship? Could it be I have made a mistake investing so much faith in Promise? Should I maybe have stayed with Chantelle? Could I have stayed with Chantelle? Could we have made up? It crossed my mind I had probably been self-obsessed most of the time with Chantelle, constantly putting up a front or dismissing her suggestions to hide my insecurities. These thoughts go round and round in my head before finally, I fall asleep.

I wake at 5 a.m. with a head like a Birkenhead building site. Hard rain is pounding against the window. It is still dark. A rumble of thunder is followed a second or two later by a flash of lightning that lights up the room. Promise is no longer with me in bed. …… She is nowhere in the apartment. I open the window to the balcony. The driving rain forces me back. Why on earth would Promise have ventured out in this? It would be suicidal to go out in this. She must be somewhere in the building. I call out her name over and over but get no response.

Our hostal only has about eight rooms and most of these seem to be vacant, probably due to the early end to the summer season in Formentera. There are no night staff so I am unable to ask if anyone has seen Promise. I put on my parka and begin a search. It is still dark and the powerful rain makes it even more difficult to see but I manage to make round it to Punta Grossa where Promise sketched the rocks on the first day we were here. She could see faces in the rocks, she said and pointed some out. She told me how Salvador Dali used the figures he saw in the rocks at Cadaqués, when he was a boy, in his later paintings. Despite all logic, I call out her name in the hope that she might have come here. Even if she were here, she probably would not hear me. The waves crashing against the rocks sound like an avalanche. I am wondering already if I will ever see Promise again.

As I push against the wind, a succession of images of the past few weeks flash through my mind, snippets of our brief time together. The time we caught the wrong tube from Victoria late at night and ended up in Brixton. We got home just in time to see the sunrise. The time at The Black Hat Café when Promise knocked a bottle of wine over and it went all over the waiter. Somehow she managed to get us a free meal because a little of the wine had spilt on to her dress. The way she smiled when introduced to someone. The warmth of her skin, the touch of her fingertips. The way she flicked her hair back when she was excited and the way she bit her bottom lip when she was nervous. The time I remarked how organised she was, and she said ‘I write down tasks after I have done them so I can cross them off my list.’ All this gone.

A slither of daylight appears on the horizon, beneath the banks of black clouds. I carry on around the coast to Racó de s’Anfossol, where Promise and I sat on a bench looking out to sea. I took photos of the sunset. For a moment, I think I see the silhouette of a figure in a black hat and go over to investigate, but it is a rock sculpture. There are several others nearby. Balancing rocks on one another is a local pastime here.

By 8 o’clock, I have searched the bay area and I am absolutely drenched. The hostal reception is now open. Serafina who has just started says she has not seen the senora today but says she will ask the others later. What others, how much later, I enquire. Serafina is the only person we have seen behind the counter since we have been here.

She was talking with man in black hat two days time.’

Two days ago?’

Si, two days ago. You were in sleep, I think’

Black hat, you say?’ I think back to the phantom figure I saw earlier but dismiss the thought.

Senor, senora has iPhone? You could call her perhaps.’

Why hadn’t this been the first thing I thought of? Admittedly, there hadn’t been much of a signal on this end of the island. I phone her now. Through the open door, I can hear the opening bars of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly theme start up, so Promise has not taken her phone. For some reason, Promise has allocated me this ring-tone. What is it with black hats? Serafina goes through the motions of looking in the rooms that are unoccupied and knocks up the two gay Germans in the room across the corridor from ours. They don’t seem pleased to be disturbed. There is no sign of Promise.

All manner of possibilities raise their heads. I really do not know all that much about Promise’s history. Does she have any enemies? Who is the man in the black hat? Has she been kidnapped by hippies? Does she have suicidal tendencies? Or has she just walked out on me? Had I missed clues? Were there signs I should have spotted? If someone was planning a disappearance, they would be likely to go about it in a systematic way. The same applies to finding someone who has disappeared. Blind panic will get me nowhere. I need to be methodical.

I check the room. She appears to have taken nothing. Her money and passport are here. All her clothes so far as I can tell are all still here along with her floral tote bag. Her makeup, her toiletries, her jewellery are all still here. The only thing I cannot account for are her sunglasses. Why would she just take her sunglasses in the middle of a raging storm? I check her phone. It is a relatively new phone. She only has a few numbers on it. Craig trashed her old one – with extreme prejudice. Apart from the call from my number just now, there are no calls in or out from the last three days. Contacts contains several of her friends whose names I am familiar with but have not met, her doctor and dentist, Ticketmaster, and Donald Finch. Is that the Donald Finch, the Wizard of Weird?

There are just ten messages received and sent, all about a week ago. I note that all of my texts seem to have been deleted. There is an exchange of messages with her friend Cadence about the dialogue from Pulp Fiction. You know what they call a quarter pounder with cheese in Paris, Royale with cheese, etc. Is this some kind of secret code I wonder, before dismissing the idea. Promise talks about movies a lot. She used to teach Film Studies. I understand Cadence was her colleague at the technology college. Still very odd, though, not a very girly conversation. And, there is a message from Donald Finch which says cryptically, the man with no name wears the black hat.

All in all, I don’t have a lot to go on. Is it time to call in the police? Or would they just laugh at me saying something sarcastic like: ‘Dios mío, ella se ha ido por seis horas, es mejor que Interpol contacto.’ Although my Spanish is passable, it would be difficult to convey the gravity of the situation. How many British couples have a row after drinking too much in a Spanish bar and get separated? I’m not even sure there is a police station on the island.

When someone has gone missing, do you stay where you are hoping they return or do you go looking for them and risk missing them if they return? There are strong arguments for both. Clearly, if there are more than two parties involved, the remaining parties can make an arrangement and you can take both courses of action. But here there are not more parties, there is only me, and I am beginning to get a very bad feeling about everything concerning Promise’s disappearance. Easy explanations are out of the window. It is as if some occult force is at work.

It is 11 o’clock before I come to a decision. The storm has now blown over and the wind has died down. There is a calm and it is as if the storm never happened. Waiting here in the hope that Promise may return also as if nothing has happened is driving me nuts so I think I may as well go the hippy market in El Pilar de la Mola as we talked about. It is a longshot but I’ve nothing better. I discover that for some reason there is no bus to the market today and begin to walk. I have a map.

I am heading inland. It is mostly uphill through a wooded area. After a few hundred metres I run into Jesus with a guitar across his shoulders where the cross should be.

Buenos dias senor.’

Buenos.’

I show Jesus a photo of Promise that I have on my phone. It is a full face one, complete with sunglasses that I took yesterday. ‘¿Has visto a esta mujer?’

Probablemente ha sido llevado a S’Espalmador por los cultistas,’ he says.

Que?’

She has probably been taken to S’Espalmador by the cultists.’ he says, in English ‘Los Elegidos, The Chosen Ones.’

His delivery is so deadpan, it is hard to tell if he is joking.

Where?’ I ask.

S’Espalmador, it is an island to the north of Formentera. At low tide, you can wade across to it. es deshabitada tal vez.’

He lights a joint, takes a pull on it and offers it to me. I take it. Things can’t get much stranger, can they?

He sits down on a rock in a clearing and starts playing a tune. I’m not sure I know it at first then I recognise the line, don’t think twice it’s alright.

Perhaps she needed to get away from you to find herself. Did you think of that,’ Jesus says, when he has finished playing.

I hand him back the joint. I have not smoked dope since about 1941 and it may not have been so potent back then. My thoughts are racing like a chariot while time itself has come to a standstill. Everything around me is changing colour and dissolving into fractals. It takes me a while to respond to Jesus’s question, if indeed it was a question.

What?’ I say.

She may have thought you were robbing her of her spirit,’ he says and with this starts strumming again. This time, it is Cat Stevens’ Wild World. The same sort of theme really, goodbye and good luck with your new life. I thought I was Promise’s new life.

What is Jesus trying to do and why is he doing it? Does he know something about the situation that I don’t, or is he just playing with my head? I have the joint back now. The jangling guitar chords are echoing around my head, doing cartwheels and somersaults. It is as if a small orchestra is playing. After another toke, the landscape takes on the appearance of a blurred impressionist painting but at the same time, has sharp clear edges. I am transported back to a time before the big bang. What is this stuff we are smoking?

There is another tune coming from my pocket. I finally realise it is my phone from back in the twenty-first century. My heart stops. It will be Promise calling to let me know what has been happening. But it is not Promise, I see from the display. It is Chantelle. Calling from the old planet. What kind of conversation can I have with Chantelle over such distances?

I am talking to Chantelle but I have no idea what I am saying or what she is saying. I’m not even sure if it is friendly or unfriendly; I left these concepts behind on Earth. We talk about something or other for several minutes, but afterwards, I have no recollection of what it was. When we have finished talking, I am alone again. There is no sign of Jesus. He has vanished.

A trickle of holidaymakers in cars and on mopeds pass me on their way to the hippy market and some of them beep their horns or wave in a friendly manner. The sun is nearly overhead already. The chirping of cicadas reverberates in the still air. I remember reading that this is the mating call of the male and can be heard by the female a mile away. Ahead, in the distance, I can see colourful hints of a festive gathering, but as I move towards it, it seems to get further away. A bent old crone in widow’s weeds appears out of nowhere and approaches me. Up close, her skin is like leather and her wrinkles look as though they might have been furrowed by a shoemaker.

You’re looking for the girl, aren’t you?’ she says. ‘You’re looking for Promise.’

I wonder if I have unwittingly entered the twilight zone.

Have you seen her?’ I blurt out.

She’s no good, you know,’ the crone continues. ‘She’s trouble, that one. Sold her soul to the devil, she has.’

It is hard to see what connection there might be between this hysterical witch and Promise.

Do you know where she is?’ I ask, resisting the urge to grab her by the throat.

Harpy ignores my question and carries on with her tirade. I stride off purposefully to put distance between this nonsense and me. When I was very young I remember having nightmares about a hag like this. Night after night I would wake up in a sweat. I hear her ranting now until her chatter gets drowned out by the sound of music from beyond. The music is getting louder but I don’t seem to be getting any closer. They are playing Dark Side of the Moon. I recall that Dave loved Pink Floyd. I can picture him clearly, on the rug in front of the fire, purring contentedly when I put this on. I might not get the chance to mention Dave’s love of classic prog-rock to Promise. I seem to be going backwards in time and space. I may never reach the market in El Pilar de la Mola.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Call Wyatt On The Western Front

callwyattonthewesternfront2

Call Wyatt On The Western Front by Chris Green

Penny hits the button on the bedside clock. 4:33 AM. We’re hardly going to get up and answer the door at this unearthly hour, she thinks. No matter what is going on. She tries to drift back off but again the doorbell rings. She turns over to give Matt a nudge. But, he’s not there. Then she remembers. Matt is away at a Scriggler conference. Matt is a writer. You may have read him. Matt Black. Mystery stories. A little like Stephen King. Love him she might but if Penny is honest, perhaps not as good as Stephen King. Maybe that’s Matt at the door now, she thinks, having returned unexpectedly for some mysterious reason. Perhaps he has lost his keys again and is locked out. But surely, if this were the case, he would phone her. The doorbell rings yet again. The Mozart tune was a novelty when they first fitted the thing but now she finds it irritating.

She checks the clock again. 4:35. She wasn’t imagining it, it really is that early. Whatever the commotion is about, she thinks, it’s not going to be good, is it? She doesn’t like being alone in the house in the early hours at the best of times. Why does Matt need to go away so often? Perhaps it might have been different if they had had children. Even though it’s not her fault, does he still blame her? He seems to find any excuse to be out of the house these days. It should be Matt answering the door, when it’s dark. It’s a man’s job.

The tune starts up again. Her heart is thumping. Her mouth is dry. She braces herself. She takes a look out the bedroom window. It is still dark. The streetlight in front of their row of suburban villas has been out for several days so she can see very little. She pulls on her dressing gown and makes her way down the stairs. She peers through the spyglass in the front door. She can’t see anyone. Gingerly, she eases the door open. She takes off the security chain. Still she can see no-one but her attention is drawn to the package on the front doorstep. She picks it up and examines it. It is addressed to her, Penny Black. But, there is no indication who it might be from. It is square, well, cubic. Matt is always correcting her on her use of simple mathematical terms. A circle and a sphere and all that. The parcel is about ten inches, each way. Retro wrapping, brown paper, string, sealing wax. She tries to remember what she might have ordered from Etsy or Amazon recently. Something perhaps that might warrant period packaging. Whatever it is, why in God’s name, she wonders, has a courier delivered it at this time of the morning?

Suddenly, standing there in front of her is a man in a military uniform. She nearly jumps out of her skin. The soldier is standing just three or four feet ahead of her on the garden path. He can’t have appeared out of thin air. Was he there just now, when she first opened the door, she wonders? Lurking in the shadows of next door’s zelkova tree, maybe? Penny doesn’t know much about soldiering but she knows this is an old type of military uniform, First World War perhaps. He looks like someone from The Passing Bells that she watched recently. He looks as if he is trying to say something. His mouth his moving but she can’t hear what he is saying. The silence echoes. He is a ghostly presence, his figure almost transparent. She is terrified. This is the stuff of nightmares, the kind of thing that should stay in the netherworld where it belongs. Not sure what to do, she ducks back into the relative safety of the house. From round the front door, transfixed, she keeps the spooky soldier in her gaze. Then, before her eyes, his form disappears, bit by bit, like a digital picture breaking up when the Wi-Fi signal drops.

………………………………………

Matt is surprised to get her call or perhaps he is just alarmed that Penny is hollering down the phone at him.

‘What … t’time is it?’ he stammers.

Penny hollers down the phone some more.

‘I can’t make any sense of what you are saying,’ he says. ‘Slow down, will you?’

He’s probably had a late night. These mystery writers’ conference booze-ups can go on until the early hours.

‘There was a soldier at the door in one of those khaki uniforms,’ Penny says, more slowly. ‘You know. The ones with lots of buttons and epaulettes.’

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ he says. ‘I’m getting something about an old soldier at the door.’

‘Yes, Matt,’ she says. ‘A soldier. First World War. Dressed like the ones in Birdsong.’

‘Are you sure? What would a soldier in First World War uniform be doing at the door?’ he says.

‘Well! He was, Matt’

‘He didn’t have a gun, did he?’

‘I can’t remember if he had a gun,’ she says. ‘But he was scary, Matt. Like something out of a horror film.’

‘Where is he now?’

‘He’s gone. He disappeared just like that. You know, like when the TV goes funny. Pixelates. Is that the word I’m looking for?’

‘What the blazes are you talking about?’ he says.

‘And he brought a parcel,’ she says. ‘It was wrapped up in brown paper and string.’

‘A parcel?’ he says. ‘What was in the parcel?’

She realises that in her panic she never got around to actually opening the parcel. She put it down somewhere and got on the phone to Matt. She goes and searches for it in the hallway by the front door and on the path outside but it is nowhere to be seen.

‘Are you still there?’ says Matt.

‘I can’t find the parcel now,’ she says. ‘It’s gone.’

‘Are you all right?’ he asks. ‘Look! Stay put. I’m going to come back right now. I’ll be an hour or so.’

………………………………………

Penny can’t explain why she goes back to bed because there’s no chance that she will be able to sleep after an experience like she’s had. But, remarkably, she does. For five hours. When she wakes, it is 9:45. But, there is no sign of Matt. She realises the rush hour traffic can be bad, especially since they built the relief road to supposedly improve traffic flow, but he should have arrived by now. The conference centre is less than fifty miles away. She tries his mobile. He has a hands-free in the SUV. He should be able to answer.

‘The number you have dialled has not been recognised,’ says the message. Perhaps there is something wrong with the auto-dial. She keys the number in this time. Same message. Her sense of unease returns and when, moments later, she hears the doorbell, this becomes full-scale panic. She trembles with fear. She just knows it’s going to be bad. Perhaps it’s another spectral revenant or maybe it’s someone come to tell her that Matt has been killed in an accident at that notorious roundabout.

With trepidation, she opens the door and there is her neighbour, Lacey Tattler, clutching the brown paper parcel from earlier.

‘Are you OK, Penny?’ says Lacey. ‘You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.’

‘No. It’s all right,’ says Penny. ‘It’s just, er just that I wasn’t expecting you.’

‘No need to be like that,’ says Lacey. ‘Anyway, I found this by the hedge at the front. It’s addressed to you.’

‘You didn’t ….. you didn’t see who delivered it, did you, Lacey?’ she says.

‘No, I didn’t. I don’t know why it was left there,’ says Lacey. ‘I did try calling round earlier, but you didn’t answer.’

Penny is not sure how to play this. She doesn’t want to give too much away. She doesn’t want Lacey thinking she’s losing her marbles. It will be all around the neighbourhood in no time. Bilberry Avenue is a close-knit community.

‘I must have dropped off,’ she says. ‘I didn’t sleep too well last night.’

‘Oh dear! Is something wrong?’ says Lacey, fishing. She has probably noticed that Matt’s car has not been around for a couple of nights. ‘Anything I can do?’

A horse-drawn Red Cross ambulance like the ones in Parade’s End comes along. Its livery bears the scars of battle. The horses look to be on their last legs and the driver looks shell-shocked and exhausted. A rational explanation is difficult to conjure up. This appears to be a moving, three-dimensional image, not a projection. It really is a horse-drawn ambulance complete with the cippety-clop rhythm of hoofs along the street. As the ambulance trundles past, it flickers disturbingly from full colour to monochrome and back again. Penny is petrified. She waits for Lacey to comment but astonishingly she does not seem to have noticed it. Not for the first time today, Penny begins to doubt her sanity.

The anomalies are mounting up. She feels she’s too old to be imagining things that aren’t really there and too young to be doolally. She’s forty three years old, for God’s sake. Something apocalyptic is happening here. Why is she thinking that the Red Cross ambulance might be taking Matt to hospital after an imagined accident on the Western Front? That can’t be right. After an accident at the magic roundabout, perhaps? This is still absurd. But, where has Matt got to? She needs him here. She can’t make sense of this new world with its random strangeness alone. Being a writer, Matt might be able to shed some light on what is happening.

Lacey is going on again about the parcel like there is nothing wrong with the universe. Penny thinks she wants her to open it so she can see what’s inside. She’s afraid to open it. She’s afraid of everything that is happening around her. Why can’t Lacey see that there has been a colossal slippage in reality? She no longer cares what Lacey thinks of her, there are more important things to attend to. She gives her a summary thankyou and although she just wants to throw the confounded package as far as she can away from her, instead she takes it inside.

………………………………………

Penny is fearful of what might be inside the parcel. She turns it over and over in her hands. It seems inconceivably light. She has a sense of dark foreboding. But, she must open it. It has to be done. There’s no backing out now.

She has never opened a package sealed with red wax before. Instead of breaking the seal, she cuts through the coarse string with kitchen scissors and gradually unfolds the brown paper wrapping. Inside is a tightly sealed cardboard box. She manages to prise it open. It appears to be completely empty but she has the uneasy feeling that something is escaping, something ethereal. She is not normally susceptible to such mumbo jumbo but she can sense the atmosphere in the room begin to change. At first, she tries to tell herself that after everything that has happened, she is on heightened alert for weird. But, she definitely does feel something, a presence if you like. Someone or something is with her in the room. Something threatening and hostile. Not so much a physical presence perhaps, but something in the air. She finds it difficult to breathe. She’s burning up. She feels ……. faint.

………………………………………

‘Sergeant Wyatt on the front desk at Western Street police station took a call from the neighbour at 10:17, Sir,’ says P. C. Watson, reading from his notes. Watson is new to policing and is anxious to make an impression. ‘One Lacey Tattler. She felt something strange was going on. Sergeant Wyatt sent a patrol round but there was no response when they called at the premises. An entry team was subsequently sent round but Penelope Black was already dead by the time they gained access. That was at 11:19. The body was taken away at ……’

‘Thankyou for the history lesson, er, Watson,’ says the world-weary Detective Inspector Holmes. ‘Watson? Is that really your name?’

‘Yes, Sir,’ says Watson.

‘I see. Well, lad. I am aware of the details,’ says Holmes.

‘Sorry, Sir. I was just asked to stay on the scene and bring you up to speed when you arrived.’

‘Well, Watson. Things have moved on a little since then. Our crime scene people handed the forensics over to the M.O.D. I’ve just been talking to a fellow there. Brigadier something or other. Mustard gas, he reckons.’

‘Isn’t that what they used in the trenches in the First World War, Sir?’

‘Yes, that’s right, Constable. Deadly stuff, mustard gas. Killed thousands. The curious thing is, lad, Mrs Black’s husband, Matthew was found dead in his car, just up the road. The same thing. Mustard gas. In case you want to make a note that was at 12:39.’

‘That is a bit weird, Sir. …….. Look! I was nosing around the house a bit before you got here and I couldn’t help noticing all these boxed sets they’ve got. Parades End, Birdsong, Gallipoli, The Crimson Field, Our World War, The Passing Bells.

‘And?’

‘They are all First World War TV dramas.’

‘Ah yes, I see, Constable. Good thinking.’

‘Do you think there might be a connection, Sir?’

You mean, Those who use the sword shall die by the sword.’

‘No swords here,’ says Watson, looking confused.

‘It’s from the Bible, Watson. Jesus said it. When Peter cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear. I was using the expression metaphorically.’

‘Meta what, Sir?’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

JAZZ

jazz

JAZZ by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was smitten.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pleaded with him but to no avail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quiero que matar a mi marido,’ she whispered.

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

You want me to kill your husband?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why me?’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about leaving DNA?’

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

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

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

No, but …..’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But would I?’

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

This was about as clear as mud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was shaking.

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

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

See you again,’ he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had resisted the opportunity to kill Kyle.

Kyle may have been a fraud.

Nothing made any sense.

I was bewildered.

I was drunk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

DARK

dark2018

DARK by Chris Green

I am in the garden at The Pig and Whistle on a hot August evening. About a dozen of us are sat around a table. Darkness is descending, rapidly, the way it does in mid-August. The English summer is so fleeting. Blink and it is gone. Every year it seems the locals try to hold on to the disappearing season by savouring these last moments. Soon it will end. It is not like this back home.

I have been holding forth about a painting of Jim Morrison that I have just finished. I have called it Lizard King. It is part of my Twenty Seven Club series.

I’m Matt,’ says the man sitting opposite me. ‘They call me Matt the Hat.’

I already know this of course because I have been sleeping with his girlfriend, Saskia. The last time, not two hours previously, as it happens. But Matt the Hat doesn’t know this. Nor does he know that I know who he is, but even if I didn’t, I might have been able to guess the Hat part of it.

I’m Sebastian,’ I say.

I love The Doors,’ he says.

I’ve just picked up on their music,’ I say.’They did some great songs.’

Did you know Jim had an IQ of 149,’ he says?

No,’ I say. ‘Clever guy, then.’

Or, that his favourite singer was Elvis Presley?’

I did not, Matt,’ I say.

I’m not sure where this conversation can go. I don’t want to come across as too friendly because I must remain incognito. I am not really Sebastian. I took the name from an old Cockney Rebel song that I heard a while back, Somebody called me Sebastian. Quite a dark tune, I suppose. Most of the others around the table know me as Clive and a few of them are amused by the situation, but no-one is letting on. For now, I am enjoying this subterfuge, although I am aware that Saskia, who I am fond of, will be leaving with Matt the Hat at the end of the evening.

I quickly dispense with the Doors conversation and guide the topic round to hats. I ask him if his hat is a Borsalino, knowing full well that it is not. It is not even a Fedora. Matt says he doesn’t know.

What are you doing with a man who doesn’t know what hat he’s wearing, Saskia?’ says Paddy the Poet.

Well, Matt, it’s not a sombrero, is it?’ I say.

Don and Gina chuckle. They are fully aware that I am trying to rile Matt. If it came down to it, they would be on my side. They only know Matt the Hat through Saskia. In fact, most of the people around the table only know Matt through Saskia. Saskia is a popular girl in these parts. The life and soul of the party sort of girl. Matt is seen here as a bit of an interloper. He is not one of the regular Pig and Whistle crowd, whereas I have been coming here for months. When did Matt appear on the scene? Where did he come from? Doesn’t he usually drink at The Blind Monkey along the road?

It’s not a crash helmet, Matt,’ is it?’ says Biker Dennis.

And it’s not a leopard skin pill box hat,’ says the guy who used to be in The Manic Street Preachers.

Hats move on to shoes, windsurfing and Damien Hirst via New York, Dark Side of the Moon, fairground rides, drink drive limits and aliens. The summer evening passes in the way that summer evenings do in the yard of the Pig and Whistle with details becoming more and more blurry. People come and people go, some familiar and some unfamiliar. Who, for instance, are the two Roy Orbison lookalikes dressed in dark clothes sat in the shadow of the brooding zelkova serrata? No-one pays much attention to them. Perhaps I am the only one to notice them.

We have Stella Artois and Fosters to fuel us, Old Thumper ale and something called Stagger scrumpy. Take your pick. They all seem to do the job. The noise level rises, drinks get spilt and spliffs are surreptitiously passed around. By and by, Saskia gets up to leave with Matt the Hat. She gives me a knowing look and says, ‘It was nice to meet you, Sebastian,’ This is the last I ever see of her. Or for that matter Matt the Hat. I’m not too concerned about Matt the Hat. He was never going to be a big feature in my life, but Saskia could have been.

Their disappearance is shrouded in mystery. No one seems to know what happened to them. I may have been distracted as they were making their way out of the pub, but did the two men in dark suits who were sitting under the brooding zelkova serrata follow them out? By the time I looked round for them, they too had disappeared. Might they originally have been looking for me, found out I was seeing Saskia and when they came to the Pig and Whistle formed the impression that Matt was me?

……………………………………..

I like to go walking in the hills, sometimes even when it is dark. It gives me time to reflect on my journey and how far I have come, since. ……. Well, that all seems a long time ago. I usually go walking on my own, although I have met someone called Abi who enjoys the countryside too. From time to time, when the weather is favourable, she tags along. Abi is a little younger than me. Sometimes it appears that everyone is younger than me, but I guess this is all relative. Einstein thought so.

I am fortunate that I can make enough money from my paintings not to worry about having a job or keeping regular hours. Watching the distress that working for some exploitative multinational corporation seems to cause the toiling millions makes me feel that I a blessed to have such a talent. If you should care to look me up on the internet, Augustus Dark, that is, not Sebastian or Clive, you will find my work referred to as iconic nostalgia, fantasy portraiture, outsider art and even pop art, but I am perhaps none of these things. I seem to have discovered a lucrative but as yet untapped market. I have an exhibition coming up at a top gallery. I’m quite excited at the prospect but I hope that it doesn’t attract unwanted visitors. They may have realised their earlier mistake and still be out there somewhere.

……………………………………..

What kind of car do you think that is?’ I say to Abi, pointing to the car in front of us. We are driving down Black Dog Way on our way to the hardware store for storage boxes. I have been living with Abi for a few months now and we are about to move into a new house, out of town. The car we are following appears at first glance to be a run-of-the-mill large hatchback with the tinted rear screen, triangular shaped red tail lights, centre high mount stop lamps and twin exhausts you would expect to find on such a car. Despite these consistencies, it somehow doesn’t look right. There is something unexplainably other about it.

It’s says Hyperion,’ says Abi.

I can see that,’ I say. ‘But Hyperion is the model name. What make is it? Who’s the manufacturer? I’ve not seen that badge before.’

Neither have I,’ says Abi. Abi is normally quite observant.

The design is a rounded M shape over a what looks like a rounded W inside a circle. It’s surprising how easily logos and trademarks from everyday life become ingrained in one’s consciousness and this one has not registered yet. I can’t make out who is in the car or how many of them there are because of the tinted rear window but I have a bad feeling about them. As soon as I get the chance, I take a left turn.

As we move through the slow moving traffic, Abi and I rack our brains, with each of us suggesting names of far-eastern car manufacturers that we are half-familiar with. None of these seems to be the right one. Something about this is not right. Perhaps I am being anal but when we get back home, I do a Google search for Hyperion. I am aware of course of what Hyperion is and my search does no more than confirm this. It comes up with nothing vaguely automobile-related. I then draw the logo design as I remember it and spend an hour or so trying to match my drawing with an image of it on the web, but to no avail. The brand apparently does not exist. The registration number I took down, I discover, belongs to a white Renault Clio. Next, I try to find a picture of a black hatchback to match the shape but this is hopeless. All cars of a certain size look similar these days, at least from the rear.

I am still searching, when Abi comes in, scrolling down her phone. She is wearing the anguished expression she wears when something bad is trending on social media.

Oh my God!’ she says. ‘Lol Popp has died. Under mysterious circumstances, it says here. Drugs, they think.’

Lol Popp? Doesn’t he live somewhere around here?’ I say. ‘Some big house on the hill.’

It says, the star who has sold twenty million albums was found dead by his bodyguard earlier today in his West Country mansion.’

That’s a real shame,’ I say, trying to stay calm. ‘I really liked some of his tunes, Men in Black and what was that other one? Lost in Space? Lol was quite young, wasn’t he?’

Twenty seven,’ she says. ‘I suppose you have to do a painting of him now.’

Does a desire to join the twenty seven club, that growing list of rock icons that died at twenty seven, explain his demise? Or could there be a more sinister explanation? Lol always seemed a bit …… other-worldly. The way he wore that black face mask. The way he always wore purple. The way he never gave interviews. I am back on my laptop now, scanning the news sites. To my alarm, there is a report in Huffington Post saying only hours after he had been found dead Lol’s body disappeared, along with the bodyguard. That’s weird. It was the bodyguard who found him. I don’t share the development with Abi or let her know what I am thinking. She will tell me I am being paranoid.

Over the next few days, I continue to look out for the car with the rogue badge. There are Buforis, Peroduas, Acuras, Hyundais and Ssangyongs aplenty and even an old Lada Riva, but no Hyperion. The thought occurs more than once that the original Hyperion we saw might just have been someone playing a prank. But, I have a nagging suspicion that this isn’t the case. I can’t get rid of the thought that there is a more sinister explanation. I hope I am wrong. I like it here.

……………………………………..

The black Hyperion is at the gate. Two men in dark suits and dark glasses step out. This is it. They have come for me. They will escort me to the landing craft. They will take me back home. It is time. I should be pleased that Abi has gone to Pilates, that she is not here. They would take her too. That would be unfair on her. She might not like it where I’m going. But, I can’t help wanting her to be with me, even though she is from this world and not from ours.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

 

Twinned with Area 51

twinnedwitharea51

Twinned with Area 51 by Chris Green

Warchester – Twinned with Area 51, the sign said. This ought to have triggered alarm bells but it didn’t. Area 51 was just a remote place in the US that I had heard reference to in random conversations. At the time, I knew little about the clandestine goings-on there. Ignoring the yellow and black notices of some clandestine activity that took place behind a barbed wire fence, I drove on into the centre of the town. I was not planning to spend much time in Warchester. I was just using it as a stop-off so what could possibly go wrong?

Warchester seemed quieter than you might expect for a town of its size but I put the lack of people down to the heavy rain we had had earlier in the day. On the plus side, it meant I had no trouble parking the car close to a nice looking café called Dreamland. There was no signal to be had on my phone but this did not surprise me greatly. Coverage was not so comprehensive back then and my network had been having problems. As I ate my mid-morning breakfast, some soft jazz music played, Theolonius Monk or Bill Evans perhaps. A middle-aged couple on a nearby table discussed the previous night’s night’s episode of The X Files and across from me, a geeky man with blue glasses was doing the Guardian cryptic crossword. There was nothing I could consider out of the ordinary. It was not until I got outside and found that my car was no longer there that I got the feeling that things might not be going to plan.

……………………………………….

The bizarre conversation that was going on in Warchester police station did nothing to ease my concerns.

‘Where was it again that you said the craft landed, Mr Spayne?’ Sergeant Sargent was saying.

‘Up by the reservoir,’ the man in the cream windcheater raincoat in front of me at the desk told him. ‘I was out walking Trevor.’

‘And Trevor is your dog, I take it.’

‘No,’ Mr Spayne said ‘Trevor is my ferret. My dog is called Fenton. He’s a terrier. Fenton is a good name for a terrier, don’t you think? Much better than Fido or Rover. I used to have two dogs, Sergeant but sadly now I only have the one, Fenton.’

‘To save time, Mr Spayne, I won’t ask what your other dog was called,’ the Sergeant said.

‘Oh, that’s all right, Sergeant. I’m not in a hurry,’ Mr Spayne said. ‘My other dog was called Flynn. Flynn was a retriever. He died last ……. ‘

‘So let me get this right, Mr Spayne, you were out walking …. Trevor when you saw the little green men emerge from the landing craft.’

‘That’s right, Sergeant, except they weren’t little, they weren’t green and they weren’t men. More like big black blobs.’

‘Mr Spayne. I do appreciate that you may feel that you have witnessed something strange but I’m wondering if the police are the right people to deal with this particular matter,’ Sergeant Sargent said. ‘Is it your belief perhaps that these …… aliens have committed a crime?’

‘I was coming to that, Sergeant but you kept interrupting me,’ Mr Spayne said. ‘These black blobs tried to abduct Trevor. They were after my ferret. Abducting a ferret is a crime, is it not?’

I had been waiting a few minutes now and was anxious to talk to someone. ‘I have a real crime to report,’ I said.

Mr Spayne seemed equally keen to continue with his science fiction story. Landing craft. Big black blobs indeed. What a load of twaddle!

Eventually, Sergeant Sargent managed to placate Mr Spayne with the promise that he would look into the attempted ferret abduction and he left. I joked that perhaps Mr Spayne’s elevator didn’t go right to the top but he just shrugged. Maybe there were a lot of crazy people around those parts. I began to tell the Sergeant about my stolen car.

‘We don’t do any of that stuff here, he said. ‘Car theft is with a ……. private contractor. You could have phoned the details through to them.’

‘No phone signal,’ I told him.

‘Ah yes. That can be a problem around here. You may have noticed there are no phone shops. They don’t do seem to do very well in Warchester. Look. As you’ve been kept waiting, I’ll log your information into CarCrime’s page for you.’

I gave him the details and he keyed these in. Chat was minimal, but I did not feel particularly chatty anyhow.

CarCrime will be in touch,’ he said.

‘When do you think that might be?’ I asked.

‘Difficult to say,’ he said. ‘If you don’t hear from them by ……….’

Should I stay or should I go? I wondered. I didn’t think I wanted to be there. I couldn’t imagine for the life of me why the directions I was given had sent me this way in the first place. There must have been a more convenient place to break the journey, closer to the motorway. But what was done was done. I could have hired a car and been out of here in no time at all. But, I would have still had to return to Warchester when they found my car. I decided it was best to hang around until I heard something. I asked Sergeant Sargent about hotels. He told me he was not a travel agent but directed me to an establishment down the road.

……………………………………….

I found myself at the curiously named Paradise Ranch Hotel. The lobby, although large was theatrical like a 1920s black and white film set but disarmingly dark. A lugubrious man dressed formally in a long-tailed coat and a dress shirt greeted me. He was long and lean, perhaps six foot six tall and moved slowly. He had a dome-shaped forehead which served to emphasise both his age and his baldness. He stopped short of saying, ‘we’ve been expecting you.’ But as his deep voice echoed around the calignous space, his presence felt menacing in an occult kind of way. He handed me the key to Room 109 which he told me was on the third floor. The lift was ancient and instead of floor numbers on the four buttons, there were strange runic symbols. Another theatrical frill, surely. I assumed they must equate to Ground, First, Second and Third but still I hesitated a little before pressing the top one. As the lift ascended, I had a sense of foreboding. I couldn’t help but wonder why Room 109 was on the third floor.

Room 109 must have been the only hotel room I’d taken that had no window. As a result, it felt claustrophobic. An unpleasant aroma pervaded, organic, yet at the same time oddly metallic. To add to this, there was a disturbing background hum, a low pitched sound that appeared to be all around me. I remembered reading that our ears have trouble determining the direction low frequencies are coming from. This is why you can hear the bass from the Reggae DJ down the road from a long way off yet have no idea which house it’s coming from. I tried to get online but no luck. Nor was there a phone signal. How would I know when they had found my car? I needed to get down to some research about what went on in this town. I made my way down to the lobby to ask about it and to see if perhaps I could change rooms but the horror film character had disappeared, I rang the bell on the desk and waited around but no-one appeared.

How had I got myself into this odd situation? Why was all this happening? I had had plans for a fun weekend. I needed to take stock. My head was doing cartwheels. I really needed to get on the internet to find out more about Warchester. What, for instance, was it that went on at the place with the barbed wire fence that I had passed on the approach road? The one that I foolishly had taken no notice of. Was it a surveillance centre? Was it a research establishment? How could I get any information about it? There must be a library in town. They would have computers and they would be bound to have stacks of reference books, then this would all begin to make sense.

……………………………………….

I managed to find the library without too much trouble but it was boarded up. Closed Until Further Notice, said a sign. Cutbacks, I supposed. They were happening all over the country. But, why were the post boxes on the main street all sealed up and why were there no public phone booths? Everything about the town seemed wrong. I made my way back to Dreamland café. At least there were signs of normality here when I had dropped by earlier, although now I thought of it, the coffee had tasted a little bitter. Perhaps I was now looking for further anomalies and shouldn’t get too carried away. I could ask the proprietor what was going on.

Alas, I found that the shutters were down. Dreamland had closed for the day. Strange, it was only 1:30. Perhaps it was siesta time in Warchester. This may not have been the Mediterranean but everything else here seemed out of kilter. I considered asking a stranger on the street for information but looking around me there was no-one about I could ask. I’d only seen three or four people since I’d left the hotel and each of these had looked a little creepy. One or two shops had sign-writing in a strange alphabet but these too seemed to be closed. No Conspiracy Theorists Here read a notice in the window of a Cancer Research charity shop. At least it was open. I was about to go in to look around when I was accosted by two sturdy police officers. This pair were altogether different to Sergeant Sargent. They were dressed in urban camouflage gear and they had guns.

‘Get your ass over there!’ ordered the one with the gallery of face tattoos.

There was really no need as the one with the shaved head and the funky badge on his tunic, brandishing the handcuffs was already escorting me by the collar in the direction of the armoured vehicle parked on the corner. I was terrified but also baffled. If they had wanted to pick me up so badly, why hadn’t they done so when I arrived in Warchester or at the police station when I had gone in to report my stolen car? If they wanted me out of the way, why had they taken my car? I would have been long gone by now.

The one with the face tattoos tied my hands behind my back and blindfolded me. They uttered a few more threats and threw me into the vehicle. In the short journey that followed, I tried to retrace my steps since I arrived in Warchester. To see if anything fell into place. I had noticed very little as I was driving in. I had had no reason to. I was not aiming to be in Warchester very long. The first thing I could remember was the sign. Twinned with Area 51, it had said. Hadn’t I once half-watched a television programme about it on Channel 4? There had been something about the Moon landings having been filmed in Area 51. And, hadn’t an alien spacecraft landed nearby? Weren’t they reported to have captured the aliens? I seemed to remember some excited geeks in woolly hats banging on about all the things that were kept hidden from them. But this was all I can dredge up from the depths. I’d never been good with documentaries. Short attention span.

……………………………………….

We arrived at our destination and I was roughly bundled up some steps and into a building and taken up in a screaky stop-start lift. Because of the blindfold, I could not be sure but I was pushed into what felt like a dark room. I could smell the same disconcerting aromas that I had been able to in the hotel earlier. Might this be the same hotel, I wondered? Might this be Room 109 again?

‘Why don’t you tell me who you are?’ I spluttered.

No response.

‘What have I supposed to have done.’

No response. These paramilitary cops did not seem to engage much in conversation.

‘Why don’t you tell me why I’m here?’ I continued.

There was a lot of shuffling around as if they were rearranging furniture or something. And then they were gone. The door closed behind them.

‘Just tell me what it is you want from me,’ I shouted after them.

‘You might as well save your breath,’ said a voice from behind me. A soft female voice.

‘What? …… Who?’

‘I kicked off a bit when they first left me here,’ she continued. ‘No-one came. ……… And before you ask, I don’t know why they’ve brought me here either. I only came to Warchester because I was told there was a Farfetch designer outlet here.’

‘And I’m guessing there isn’t,’ I said.

‘No bloody shops at all, are there?’ she said. ‘Unless you count that joke shop.’

‘Joke shop?’ I said.

‘The one that sells the quicksand and the chocolate teapots,’ she said.

Was this going to be another of those surreal exchanges that ended up going nowhere, I wondered. But, thankfully things quickly moved on. While we were both bound and blindfolded, we worked out that with a little effort and ingenuity, we would be able to free one another. As we were doing so, realisation began to take hold. This was all part of the plan.

‘I’m Maddie,’ she said, meeting my gaze. A powerful surge of electricity seemed to pass between us.

‘I’m Jon,’ I said. ‘Jon Straight.’

‘Right, Jon,’ she said. ‘I don’t imagine you’ve been bending spoons or have walked through any walls lately. So, any teeny weeny suspicion about why you might be here? ‘

‘Same reason as you, I’m hoping,’ I said.

Arguably circumstances played their part but I was instantly taken by Maddie’s breezy personality. I was surprised that you could actually buy floral dungarees like the ones she was wearing but she was certainly attractive.

……………………………………….

‘So that’s how the two of you met,’ Simon says. ‘Cool.’

‘Yes. son. The Mystery Adventure Weekend Dating Service. Although, neither of us expected that the adventure part would be so ……. surreal. We thought it might involve a little orienteering or white water rafting or something. We certainly didn’t expect to be spending the time in a nightmare place like Warchester. I still don’t know how they did that. It’s not on the map, you know?’

‘Oh well,’ Simon says. ‘You can’t have everything. But, do you know what? I think Mum’s still got those floral dungarees.’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

 

Oleander Drive

oleanderdrive

Oleander Drive by Chris Green

The black Mitsubishi has been parked there for several days now. Les Rubio first noticed it on Monday, when he came back from a business lunch at The Whistle Blower. The big SUV has been there in the same position, on the opposite side of the road fifty yards from his house, day and night. It has not moved once. The tinted windows have made it difficult for him to get a clear view inside but from occasional sorties to the park with his dog, Murphy, he has noticed that the two suspicious-looking characters occupying the front seats are not always the same ones. They seem to be working in shifts. But, whichever pair is skulking behind their newspapers, they seem to be watching his house. What else could they be doing in this quiet suburban neighbourhood? Who else would they be watching? This is a select residential area. House prices start at about half a million.

There are only a handful of houses in Oleander Drive and the others are all occupied by respectable families. It’s a little difficult, Les feels, to imagine they would be looking out for Brice Shipley, who goes off to work at his dental practice at 8:30 sharp every morning or his wife Sally who so far as he can tell spends her time putting together the parish magazine. Equally hard to suspect Mr Masterson, the headmaster at St Sampson’s or Mrs Masterson who puts the little Mastersons on the red bus to Acme Academy every morning. And, as far as he knows, Dr Pilsner’s house has been empty for a while now. Les feels he is definitely the square peg in the round hole, here in this enclave.

The pair surely cannot be private detectives paid by Grace to see if he has another woman dropping by. Les and Grace have been separated for months. In any case, chance to get his rocks off would be a fine thing. He has been too busy trying to find ways to settle the galaxy of outstanding bills she left him with, not to mention having to deal with the descent into darkness that follows a break-up when it was not your decision or preference. At the same time, he has had to keep up with the changes to his way of life that the new government has brought in. They seem to have got it in for entrepreneurs and small businesses. All the forms you have to fill in and all the things you have to register for. Tax returns and VAT receipts. Are they kidding? This is not his forte. He is a wheeler-dealer. He’s been so snowed under by all the bureaucracy he hasn’t even had time to put the house on the market.

It’s equally hard to conceive that they might be hitmen, hired to eliminate him. He hasn’t, so far as he knows, upset anyone. He conducts business in a straightforward way. He might be a bit behind with his paperwork but that would be no reason for HMRC to send in the boys and even if this were the case, surely one marksman would be sufficient. It wouldn’t need Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta to put the bullet through his chest, or wherever it is professional hitmen choose to aim. And the hitmen would hardly be hanging around. They would have made the hit by now and gone back to their lonely hotel rooms to wait for instructions on further missions.

Les has become so paranoid, though, he’s not driven in to his warehouse for the past few days in case they tail him. Granted, he can do much of his day-to-day work at home over the phone or online. He is fortunate too that he can ask his oppo, Zak to step in for a pick-up or a delivery, like the fake Alibaba rugs or the bogus Sennheiser sound equipment that arrived yesterday.

You’ve got a bit of skirt up there, ain’t you, Mr Rubio?’ Zak said when he told him he wasn’t coming in.

I wish,’ he said. ‘Look, Zak! I will be in soon. In a day or two. Three, tops. Definitely Friday.’

I can come over if you like and we can go over things,’ said Zak.

You’d better stay away, Zak,’ he said. ‘I’ve got the …… Zika virus.’

He thinks it best not to let them see someone like Zak visit him. Zak is more Trotters’ Trading than reputable entrepreneur. He wouldn’t look right in Oleander Drive. He’s from Toker’s End. That’s the other side of the tracks. The Mitsubishi men would pounce on him straight away.

I thought you only got that Zika thing in Brazil,’ said Zak.

It has spread, mate, Haven’t you heard?’ Les told him. ‘But don’t worry. I think I’m on the mend now.’

…………………………………………

On one of this reccies with Murphy, Les manages to get a better look inside the SUV. They have the windows wound down and he can almost make out the men’s features. Just a feeling he has, but they do look like they might be police. They have police sunglasses and police haircuts. Beyond that though he is at a loss. There are so many facets to police work these days it’s pointless to speculate which squad these might be from. He recalls being woken by the resonant thrum of the police helicopter hovering over his house on Wednesday night. He pulled back the curtains and could just make out its shape above the back garden. It was so black it was practically invisible, but certainly not silent. His friend, Jimmy Jazz says it was probably a Chinook. The modern police see themselves as a military unit, Jimmy says. It’s to do with all those movies.

Les phones his friend, Robyn Constable downtown to see if she knows what might be going on. Sergeant Constable has helped him out several times before for a small consideration and makes sure a blind eye is turned to his nefarious schemes. Les does not like to think of it as bribes. It’s a bit like paying insurance premiums. Sergeant Constable does not think of it as bribes. It’s just another aspect of police procedure in these troubled times.

I’m being watched night and day,’ Les tells her.

That doesn’t sound good, Les,’ she says. ‘For a man in your position.’

It’s not anything to do with your …… officers, is it?’

I’ve not heard anything,’ she says. ‘But you better fill me in with a few details so that I can check if we’ve got the word out on you. No guarantee I will be able to stop it if its another squad, though, you understand.’

Two men dressed in dark clothes. Parked up in a black Mitsubishi outside my house. Round the clock, 24/7,’ Les says. ‘They do look like they might be plain-clothes if you know what I mean. But it’s not always the same two.’

What are you saying, Les?’ she laughs. ‘Do we look different to others? Is it the prognathous jaw, or the third eye, perhaps? I tell you what. I will ask around and let you know if there’s a match. Your payment is due by the way.’

Again?’

Every three months, Les. The payment is due every three months. Unless of course, you want me to…’

No, it’s OK. I will get it to you. Just find out about these guys, please.

They might, of course, be security services, Les. Had you considered that?’

Sergeant Robyn Constable has a point. They could be from the nearby spy base, the so-called listening centre. There are thousands of people working at the base. Les has often wondered what they find for them all to do all day. Perhaps this is part of their outreach programme. Might it be something to do with the dodgy domain names he bought, the ones with the sensitive addresses? This is the kind of thing that perhaps might be of interest to intelligence services. But there again, given the nefarious things that go on in cyberspace, would the security services be especially excited over the innocent purchase of a few domains with names like bombisrael(dot)com? There was, of course, the domain he purchased that actually had gchq in the name.

Les hasn’t set up websites on any of the domains. He wouldn’t know how to. He just bought the domain names for his amusement after coming back from The Whistle Blower one night. There was a pop-up ad for buy one get one free offer on domain names. He bought forty-eight of them for the price of twenty-four. He bought them purely to see how far he could go with the names before someone would try to stop him. No-one did. He realises he shouldn’t have done it, but when you are drunk sometimes crazy ideas come into your head, and he was very drunk, he recalls. Grace had not long packed her bags.

To cut a long story short, Les Rubio spent time in la-la land. Whisky and gin, along with his appointed psychiatrist Dr Pilsner’s powerful prescription drugs, temporarily got the better of him. He was in such a bad way, he feels lucky now to have pulled through. It was a mistake to stock those cheap spirits from China. You never know what you are drinking and God knows what the pills were. Perhaps he just took too many. It’s so easy to get a digit wrong when you are under stress. He might have taken ten a day rather than one a day. He wonders what has happened to Dr Pilsner. He hasn’t seen him around since his discharge. Perhaps he has taken a sabbatical to write a primer on anxiety disorders or taken a lucrative teaching post in his native Vienna or something.

Whoever the mysterious emissaries in the Mitsubishi are, if they want him, why don’t they just come and get him? What are they waiting for? Surely they don’t imagine he’s armed and dangerous. And why he wonders are they drawing attention to themselves? There must be subtler ways to spy on him. What about drones? Or a rotation of cars parked in different places. A plain white van. Bogus workmen digging up the road. There must be any number of ways for surveillance operatives to look anonymous, even in an exclusive residential area like Oleander Drive. Perhaps he should have driven normally past them a moment ago, then they would have followed him and then they would have to have it out. At least then he would know what was what.

Les is astonished that the well-to-do neighbours haven’t said something to him about it all. It’s not as if the surveillance could have escaped their notice on such a quiet street. Jarvis Heckler lives in the large detached house opposite where they are parked. He is a retired civil servant and he is always outside washing his Jaguar or manicuring his box hedges. You would have thought he would have been around or at least gone over and had a word with them. And the Mitsubishi is practically parked outside Stacey Aragon’s house. She is forever asking him about Grace and when she might be coming back, waiting to see what his reaction is. There only has to be an unexpected conversation in the street for Stacey to be rustling her Cath Kidston curtains to see what’s going on. But somehow the parked vehicle seems to have escaped her attention. Has she gone away to see an ailing relative or something, Les wonders? Why have none of the neighbours registered the intrusion to their settled lives? Perhaps they have all gone off to see ailing relatives. Might they all be in collusion? Maybe the mystery men in the car have phoned them all and got them all on side with the assurance that it will soon be over and they will be gone.

…………………………………………

Today is Friday and Les Rubio does have to go in to the warehouse and the men in the Mitsubishi are still outside. He drives slowly past, hoping that they will realise that he has spotted them and they will realise that he will be expecting them to follow him. So they won’t. Reverse psychology. He thinks that it is the original pair casting a furtive glance over their red-tops, the ones he spotted on Monday. To his relief, no-one tails him and there is no black stakeout vehicle waiting to intercept him at the warehouse. Inside the premises, everything seems to be as it should be. He logs into the computer, half expecting to find some gremlin in the system or some horror in the inbox, but there is nothing. Everything seems to be running smoothly. There are even some new orders. He takes a look around the stock. The silver saxophones are still in the storeroom along with the multicoloured Gucci handbags. The Alibaba rugs and the new sound equipment are there. He needs to get on to moving some of the internet TVs later to make room for the Japanese clarinets that are arriving.

Zak arrives in his beaten up old van, the one he uses to ferry his band, Corpse around. They are death metal or thrash metal or some kind of metal, Les can’t remember which. Zak keeps asking him to go along to gigs but he is delaying this particular pleasure. He comes in with his headphones on, singing along to some crashing guitar chords. With an air of distraction, Les greets him.

Whatcha, Mr R,’ says Zak, taking off his phones. They look suspiciously to Les like one of the sets that came in yesterday, but he lets it go. ‘You recovered from the Zika bug a bit quick.’

Well, you know, Zak. I do keep myself in shape,’ Les says, puffing out my chest and holding his stomach in. ‘Takes more than a virus to get the better of me.’

I drove by your place on the way in, Mr R.’

But you live in Toker’s End.’

I know. I took a bit of a detour. I was going to call in to see how you were, but there were dozens of Old Bill around.’

What?’

Old Bill. You know, the bizzies.’

What? Outside my house?’

Difficult to tell, Mr R. There were shitloads of candy cars around and more of them seemed to be arriving, so I didn’t hang around to find out. Some funky shit is going down, I’d say.’

Come on! We’d better go and see what’s happening.’

Are you sure, Mr R. What if……. You know ….. All right. We’d better go in the van, then. Incognito, like.’

No. It’s too late for that now. Get in the Merc!’

Over the three-mile journey, traffic is slow. The atmosphere is strained. Conversation is sporadic and staccato.

How many police cars, Zak?’

Lots of them. ……. Wasn’t that a red light, Mr R?’

Can’t you stop blowing that in my face, Zak? What do you put in those….. joints?….. Wait. Pass it here! It might help.’

It’s called Northern Lights, Mr R.’

That’s skunk, is it?’

The best. ….. Are you OK, Mr R?’

I’ve not been thinking straight lately, Zak. I’m not sure what is real and what is not.’

I wouldn’t worry too much about that, Mr R. Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.’

I don’t know if I’m in a state to make decisions anymore.’

I can’t help but notice that you have seemed a little weird recently, Mr R. In fact, you’ve not been the same since Grace left.

Is it that noticeable? Tell me, Zak! Why am I going into the lion’s den?’

I think if it were me I might be doing a runner or at least lying low. ……. Didn’t you see that woman in the Toyota pulling out?’

Despite the advice, indecision persists. The Mercedes makes it way westward and before they know it they are approaching Oleander Drive. They are greeted by a battery of flashing blue lights. Police vehicles are everywhere. A bustling crowd has gathered to watch the unfolding drama, including a pack of press reporters and a TV crew. Amongst the confusion, it is difficult to ascertain what exactly is going on. As Les and Zak push their way through the mêlée, it slowly becomes clear that a handcuffed man is being led kicking and screaming by a pack of burly police officers to a riot wagon.

Mad doctor. Multiple murder. Motive unknown,’ says a disarmingly young reporter, bringing the new arrivals up to speed. ‘I’ll have my own byline.’

The thing is, they had been watching his house for days,’ says another whippersnapper, with a bag full of hi-tech accessories. ‘They were on to him a week ago and waiting for him to return home. What they didn’t know was that he was there all the time. This one is going to run for days.’

And night by night, he managed to get into his neighbours’ houses and murder them in their sleep,’ says the first one, as he keys the story into this phone. ‘Right under the noses of the surveillance team.’

Dr Pilsner,’ Les manages to say. ‘That’s Dr Pilsner. What…..’

Dr Pilsner. Yes, that’s his name,’ says the whippersnapper. ‘He’s a psychiatrist, apparently. This is going to sell some papers. They’ll fly off the news stands. Do you live around here by any chance?’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Out Of Time

outoftime3

Out Of Time by Chris Green

The moment Kimberley steps into the refreshment room, she knows something is wrong. Railway station cafés should be a hub of activity in the mornings. This one is almost empty. There are five people and each is seated at a separate table, staring blankly into space. They all register an expression of boredom and gloom. As she casts her glance from one to the other, no one meets her gaze. The room echoes with the sound of silence. The are no signs of life behind the counter. The chances of a cup of tea or a sandwich for the journey are not good.

The colours of the room are just a step up from monochrome. It is as if an autumn fog has descended on the space, or years and years of cigarette smoke have accumulated. The bentwood chairs and grubby checked pattern table cloths belong to a bygone age. The timetable behind a pane of cracked glass is dog-eared and smudged. On the walls, there are a few railway posters like the ones she has seen in the museum. Is Your Journey Really Necessary, reads one of them. A vintage cigarette vending machine advertises Gold Flake and Craven A. It’s like a set from Brief Encounter. The clock on the wall appears to be stopped at quarter to eight. It is now half past nine. Her train is the 9:39. Kimberley checks her watch. Her watch also says quarter to eight. She feels a chill run through her.

She hears the roar of a train arriving. Perhaps it is her train. As she tries to get back onto the platform, she is held back by an invisible wall. She pushes and shoves and ducks and parries. However she tries to negotiate the obstacle, she cannot find a way through. Panic rises in her. Something is seriously wrong. Frightened and distraught she watches through the window as, without even slowing down, the train passes through the station. It is a long train, with perhaps sixteen carriages. She is used to seeing shorter trains. She is used to them stopping at the station. No sooner has the thunderous sound subsided than she hears the rumble of a train approaching from the opposite direction. This one too is a leviathan with sixteen carriages. It travels through the station at breakneck speed. After it has passed, Kimberley notices that both platforms are completely empty. What has happened to everyone? She is certain that there were passengers waiting when she arrived.

She thinks back to when she parked the Qashqai in the station car park. Was there anything unusual, any anomalies she might have picked up on? So far as she can recall, the car park was nearly full and there was the purposeful bustle you might expect at the station on a Friday morning. She even remembers passing the time of day with a man in a wheelchair and moving out of the way for an Asian woman with several small children in tow. She remembers the announcement about an earlier train being seventeen minutes late. It was not until she stepped into the refreshment area that she noticed anything out of the ordinary.

Kimberley desperately needs to talk to someone. She can’t really phone Dan. He is under the impression that she is going to her mother’s overnight. And she can’t phone Ramon. He might not have left for their tryst yet and his wife might pick up. She decides to call their friend Ben, at the secret base. He will know what is happening. Maybe she has inadvertently happened by a sophisticated military exercise. Perhaps there was something on the local news or in the local paper warning of this and she had missed it. She searches in her handbag for her phone. It is not there. Frantically she rifles through her overnight bag. It is not there. She doesn’t have her phone. She never travels without her phone. At home, she doesn’t even go upstairs without her phone.

She looks around the room. No-one has moved. Slowly the blurry figures come into focus. They are so motionless that they might be mannequins. The weary looking soldier in Second World War army uniform seems to be studying a poster on the opposite wall which is telling him to Dig for Victory. He has a khaki kitbag on the table beside him. It has a faded name and a number stamped on it. The middle-aged woman in the brown 1950s New Look twin set is nursing a bone china tea cup. She picks the cup up and returns it to the saucer. The cup appears to be empty. Is she waiting for service? Kimberley wonders. It doesn’t look like this is going to happen anytime soon. There is a thick layer of dust on the service hatch. The balding man in the checked jacket with the wide lapels and the disco collared shirt twists the sides of a Rubik’s cube this way and that. It seems he is doing so more to exercise his hands that with the hope of solving the puzzle. Kimberley ignores the Iggy Pop lookalike in the biker’s jacket and ripped jeans who is lighting a cigarette and goes over to the lady in the purple jumpsuit with the big 1980s hair. Somehow she looks the most approachable of the bunch.

‘Have you been here long?’ she asks. It seems a banal question, but how do you start a conversation with a dummy.

Big Hair continues staring straight ahead. Perhaps she did not hear. Perhaps she cannot see her. Perhaps none of them can see her. Perhaps she is invisible to them. Perhaps they are invisible to each other.

‘She don’t talk much, that one,’ says Iggy Pop. He turns towards Kimberley. Kimberley notices that he has about fourteen earrings in each ear to add to the copious nasal jewellery. ‘She was here before me. She’s been here a long time.’

‘When did you arrive?’ asks Kimberley.

‘Me! I’ve been here since 1995,’ he says. ‘I was the last to arrive.’

This is nearly twenty years. She was expecting him to say last night or yesterday afternoon, or something. She swallows hard, trying to take it in.

‘Time doesn’t mean a lot here,’ says Rubik Cube. I’ve been here since 1976.’

New Look picks up her teacup, puts it to her lips and then places it back in the saucer.

The cup and saucer rattle as another train speeds through the station. Kimberley watches it through the window. It is a perfectly ordinary present-day train, with modern livery on the carriages.

‘No use looking out there, love’ says Iggy Pop. ‘The trains don’t stop here.’

‘I’ve been here since 1945,’ says the weary looking soldier, digging around in his kitbag. He takes out small round aluminium pan and holds it out. ‘Here’s my mess tin. Are you going to cook us something nice? I’ve only had a bar of chocolate.’

‘You’ve been here since 1945,’ she repeats, aghast.

‘I shouldn’t worry about it too much,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘A minute’s the same as a year here. Why don’t you sit down? You’ll get used to it.’

‘It’s nothing at all really,’ says Iggy Pop. ‘Here have a cigarette love.’

‘Did they find out who shot JR?’ says Big Hair, breaking her silence. ‘I think it was Bobby.’

Kimberley goes behind the counter and into the kitchen area in the hope of finding an exit. There isn’t one. There isn’t even a back wall. She finds herself staring into a void. The laws of physics itself are being challenged here.

‘Could have saved you the trouble, love,’ says Iggy Pop, as she comes back in to join them.’ Don’t you think that we haven’t all tried to get out the back way.’

‘What is this place? What is going on?’ she shouts, at no one in particular.

No one in particular answers.

‘Or it might have been Pamela,’ says Big Hair. ‘She always hated JR.’

Working in an office, Kimberley is not used to thinking outside the box. Kimberley doesn’t even like sci-fi. She only reads romance novels. She wishes Ramon were here, or even Dan. Her head is pounding like a jungle drum, as she struggles to come up with some kind of rational explanation. This is not a dream. She is wide awake. She is trapped. There is no way out. She is really here, in this impossible situation with a group of people who say they have been stuck here for years. It is beyond supernatural or scary.

‘What do you do for food and drink,’ Kimberley asks.

‘Is someone making tea?’ says New Look, clinking her china cup against her saucer.

‘Blimey, you got her to talk,’ says Iggy Pop.

‘Make me something nice. I’ve got me mess tin. I’ve only had a bar of chocolate,’ says Weary Tommy.

‘You’ll get used to it,’ says Rubik Cube.

‘Have a cigarette, darlin,’ says Iggy Pop.

These people are looney tunes, thinks Kimberley. They have gone stir crazy. And she is stuck with them. When she was seven she had an imaginary friend called Lucy. Lucy went everywhere with her. Lucy became frightened by some ghoulish gargoyles in the stone mason’s yard that they passed on the way to school. Day by day Lucy became more afraid. She was obsessed, haunted even by the gargoyles. The problem was that this was the only way to school. There was nothing Kimberley could do about it. They had to go that way. They had no choice. This is exactly how Kimberley feels now, stuck here with this grotesque group of ghouls. Lucy of course eventually died, drowned in the lagoon when Kimberley’s parents took them to Venice.

The ghouls here in this twenty-first century railway refreshment room appear not to have aged at all during their stay. Their appearance is exactly as it would have been years ago. The soldier for instance still looks about nineteen. Kimberley does a quick calculation in her head. He should be about ninety. He has been here the longest and the others arrived one by one. They have all been trapped here since their arrival. They are all relics from times gone by. God forbid that she be destined to spend the rest of her days with these fossils in this decaying hell hole.

The windows rattle as a slow freight train pulls through. Kimberley frantically tries the exit again but finds that the invisible force still holds her back. How on earth did she get in here? Also, if there was an opening when someone new arrived, why hadn’t one of the prisoners used the moment as an opportunity to get out?

‘The windows are made of unbreakable glass too, in case that’s what you were thinking,’ says Rubik Cube.

‘Nothing’s going to change, love,’ says Iggy Pop. ‘Take my word.’

‘It might have been Cliff Barnes,’ says Big Hair. ‘He was always up to no good.’

Kimberley’s mind is in turmoil. Why did she arrange a dirty weekend with Ramon? If she had not taken to deceiving Dan, none of this would be happening. To take things back a step further, if Dan had shown more interest in her and not spent so much time training his virtual horses she would not have started having an affair with Ramon. Perhaps she should have spared a thought too for Ramon’s wife. Jackie, Janet, Jill? She can’t even remember his wife’s name. But, who can foresee a trail of consequences? It’s pointless even going there.

More to the point, why are these freaks here and what is she doing in this circus? What could possibly be the connection between them? Do they all share something in common? Including herself? There is nothing to be gained by being precious. She has to get to know them. She needs to test out her skill at detection. She was a big fan of heartthrob Italian TV detective, Aurelio Zen, and was mortified when the series was prematurely axed. Zen used to befriend the suspects to discover their deep dark secrets. With the thought of the dashing Aurelio Zen, she gains some composure.

‘Yes, I will have a cigarette,’ she says to Iggy Pop.

Iggy Pop offers her one from a Players Number 6 King Size packet. Kimberley is not sure, but she feels that this brand disappeared from sale about twenty years ago.

‘Out of interest, where do you get them? ‘ she says. ‘You can’t have an unlimited supply and the cigarette machine on the wall looks empty.’

‘Aha, that would be telling,’ says Iggy Pop. Might the edgy Aurelio Zen have delivered a swift blow to the head at this point? Perhaps, but perhaps not.

‘Can I have a fag too,’ says Weary Tommy. ‘I’ve only had a bar of chocolate.’

‘What does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul?’ says Rubik Cube.

‘It could have been Jock Ewing who shot JR, or was Jock already dead?’ says Big Hair.

Kimberley can see that even the sophisticated Aurelio Zen might have trouble getting information from this motley crew.

‘Has anyone else dropped by?’ Kimberley asks them, trying a new tack. ‘Over the years?’

‘The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once, and nothing happens here, so what does that tell you?’ says Rubik Cube.

‘It suggests that there is no time like the present, or no time but the present, or something like that,’ says Kimberley.

‘That’s right so its as if I’ve always been here then,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘And I still can’t get the red squares lined up.’

‘I’ve been here since 1953,’ says New Look. ‘Things were different then. They had tea dances with a caller and a proper band. Victor used to take me. Of course my husband didn’t know. I don’t think he would have approved.’

‘My, my,’ says Kimberley. ‘Is that why you are wearing that pretty brown dress? Is that for Victor?’

‘This is a Christian Dior dress,’ says New Look, apparently pleased to be getting some attention. ‘Victor and I used to go dancing every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon,’ she continues. ‘And sometimes afterwards, we would go to a hotel. But I can’t do that now the trains don’t stop.’

Kimberley is unnerved by this. This is too close to home. She is wearing a Jigsaw pencil skirt and has Janet Reger lingerie on for the very same reason. She has dressed to please Ramon. And were they not also going to a hotel later for their clandestine liaison?

Iggy Pop interrupts her reverie. ‘All I done was sell someone else’s Beamer,’ he says. ‘I had this duplicate set of keys, see, and a duplicate log book. I can’t even remember how I came by them. I’m not a bad man, not really.’

‘I think I’m probably a bad man,’ says Weary Tommy. ‘I deserted, you know. That’s how I came to be catching the train. I should have been in Normandy, helping to push back the Bosch to secure the new front, but I missed my Maddie. I thought she might be going with another fellow. She’d stopped sending me letters, so I had to come home to make sure there was nothing going on.’

The Aurelio Zen strategy appears to be working. She is drawing them out of themselves. They are no longer coming out with gibberish, but talking about matters that she is able to comprehend.

‘Anyway, to cut a long story short,’ Iggy Pop continues. ‘I drop the motor off with the geezer and have to catch the train, so I come along here to the station and next thing I know I’m caught up in this mad hatters tea party.’

New Look starts to say something about just killing time here but the noise of a passing express drowns her out.

‘Of course, JR might have shot himself,’ says Big Hair. ‘I never thought of that.’

‘I used to cheat at poker,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘I used marked packs of cards.’

‘So you think we are all here because we’ve done something corrupt or cruel,’ says Kimberley. ‘Is that where this is heading?’

‘We used to play Dealer’s Choice and then I would nominate wildcards that were the easiest to spot,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘So, I couldn’t really lose.’

‘I expect a lot of people cheat at cards. I expect casinos cheat at cards,’ says Kimberley.

‘The thing about it was that I played with friends,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘I used to make money out of my friends. I came here to catch a train to go and pick up a Triumph Stag that I had accepted in lieu of a debt from one of my best friends. I’d say that makes me an absolute cad.’

‘I used to tell my husband I was at the Women’s Institute,’ says New Look. ‘I knew that he would never look for me there.’

‘I didn’t tell Maddie of what I got up to in Montmartre of course,’ says Weary Tommy. ‘When I had a forty-eight hour pass. What those French girls can do would make your hair curl.’

It is becoming like a confessional. Kimberley considers the information they have shared. Herself included, they have all done things they know to be wrong. And they were all passing through this station in the process of committing their misdemeanours. You could say that there was a connection here, but millions of people must have passed through the station, and who hasn’t done something they know to be wrong? She remembers the time she sold her mother’s diamond cluster engagement ring to the Wurzel Gummage hippy at the antiques market when she was seventeen to get the money to go to a Robbie Williams concert at Knebworth. And worse, sleeping with Dan’s best man, Chas, on her hen night. She had definitely instigated this. She remembers she had turned up uninvited at Chas’s flat at 2 in the morning. Everyone has their dirty secrets.

So where does this leave her? Kimberley wonders if she might be looking for meaning where there is none. What they are experiencing could just an unexplained blip in the space-time continuum. And because something has gone wrong with relativity, there is no time in this space. They are out of time. This is nowhere. Cause and effect might have no place here. Perhaps there is no why. After all, no-one here has mentioned anything that might warrant a life sentence of this mind-bending purgatory. No one has killed anyone. Not even Weary Tommy, who was in the perfect position to have done so, appears to have killed anyone.

‘I think it was me that shot JR,’ says Big Hair.

Kimberley notices the clock on the wall has moved on to five to eight. Her heart skips a beat. Time is no longer standing still. Is the train that she can hear approaching slowing down?

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

 

Blowing in the Wind

blowinginthewind

Blowing in the Wind by Chris Green

I am walking Malcolm on Panhandlers Hill when I first spot him. In fact, it is Malcolm who spots him first. Malcolm is a cocker spaniel and he is very sensitive to changes in his surroundings. We get a few hill walkers around these parts and at first, I think the shadowy figure in the distance is just another hiker, enjoying the peace that this beautiful stretch of upland has to offer. But cocker spaniels were bred to be gun dogs and Malcolm seems to be able to tell straight away that this is a gunman coming out from behind the clump of trees to the east towards Cascade Falls. When he phones, Milo is always telling me not to go out on the hills on my own in case there are snipers. Milo is away a lot lately. Something to do with the merger, apparently, or is it the takeover? I don’t get into that side of things.

I won’t be on my own,’ I tell him. ‘I’ll have Malcolm.’

A fat lot of good Malcolm will be when you are faced with a battalion of bloodthirsty rebels,’ he says. Sometimes Milo’s outlook verges on paranoia, but it looks as if he may have got it right this time, although he has perhaps overestimated the scale of the threat. The lone figure is ambling towards us, rifle cocked. Have I got the right word? Is cocking something that you do with a rifle? Whatever, it’s still a man with a rifle. And cocking or not, he’s getting closer.

Run, Malcolm!’ I shout.

The stupid mutt starts running towards the sniper. At times like this, I wish I’d continued with his obedience classes at Sit Happens.

Not that way, Malcolm,’ I call out.

I might be pushing fifty but I can still manage a canter if need be. The problem now is we’re heading in the wrong direction for the car park but I dare not double back.

When I feel we are a safe distance from the ridge where we caught sight of the sniper, I get the phone out of my shoulder bag. My heart is racing. Malcolm is now barking furiously. He can smell my fear. How on earth are we going to get out of here? It’s no good phoning Milo, of course. Even if he were to answer, he would just rant and rave about me going up on to the hill despite his warnings. Not that he’d be able to get here anyway. He’s out of the country on business. Most of the people I know live in Richmond which is a good ten miles away or Freeport which is even further. In any case, most of them would probably be tied up at this time of day. People have work to do or people to see. I decide to phone Doobie. He will be able to get here quickly, plus he is streetwise. Unconventional certainly, but resourceful.

Within a matter of minutes, Doobie, his long straggly hair blowing like Bob Dylan’s answer, arrives in a curiously customised Jeep at the arranged spot along the dirt-track lane by the derelict grain store. Crashing guitar chords ring out from an improvised onboard speaker system. I don’t believe that this is Bob Dylan. Thrash metal perhaps. Or nu-metal. Whichever, you don’t hear a lot of this kind of music on Iescos. The Rolling Stones are still considered to be new kids on the block here. I have often wondered how someone who draws so much attention to himself as Doobie does can get through life in such a cavalier fashion without requital. But he appears to do so. Hiding in the light, I believe it is called.

I lift Malcolm into the vehicle and jump in beside him. With a spin of wheels, we speed off, hopefully out of danger.

What was happening back there, Nattie?’ Doobie says. ‘You seem a bit shaken up.’

There was a gunman coming for us and Malcolm was running towards him and …….’

Slow down, will you, Nats? You’ll give yourself a heart attack.’

But he had a rifle and ….. ‘

Oh, I wouldn’t get too alarmed about that,’ he laughs. ‘If it was a sniper, he’s not going to waste a bullet on you. Ammunition is precious when you are a renegade in hiding. You worry too much, Nattie, you know that? Time for a cold one at Mojo I think.’

Unlikely as it may seem, I got to know Doobie through a mutual interest in avant-garde cinema. We met at a rare screening of one of Leif Velasquez’s films in Freeport. I read about Velasquez in Artz magazine, on the internet and went along to the Freeport show out of curiosity. Doobie was there setting up the props. He is an artist of sorts, although, by his own admission, not an easy one to categorise. Interactive guerilla street installation art or subversive performance sculpture mural art. Anyway, something unusual.

Doobie and I were the only two people to attend the Velasquez screening. Even today, it seems few people you speak to have heard of Leif Velasquez. I don’t believe Artz magazine has a wide readership, even in the US or the UK, and certainly not on Iescos. Interactive film has therefore not caught on yet, but it will. Give it time and it will fulfil the MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) criteria for innovation. Milo is not one for the arts, but Doobie and I have now been to a few shows together. Few, because events on Iescos are rare. If you google ‘Iescos’, it will come back with, ‘did you mean Tescos?’

To look at the two of us you would think we were polar opposites, me in my tweedy twin-sets and Doobie in his denim cut-offs with a torn The Bloody Rook t-shirt. Who is The Bloody Rook? Is it a band? An artists’ collective? A group of writers? I don’t want to show my ignorance by asking. I keep meaning to look on the internet but have not yet got round to it. But, anyway, Doobie and I seem to get along. Opposites, and all of that.

The recent uprising was a bit of a joke. Most of the rebels were rounded up within the first twenty-four hours. Iescos is, after all, a small island and because of this it has since its colonial days been relatively easy to govern. A few of the more enterprising insurgents managed to escape capture and most of these headed this way, the cover of the hills providing a treasury of hiding places. As it was such a shambles, I’m not sure that mastermind is the right word here but nobody I have spoken to seems to know for sure who the mastermind behind the uprising was.

Around two hundred ill-equipped rebels stormed the government building and imprisoned the government officials. To announce the change of leadership to that of a popular co-operative and to manage the flow of information, they took control of the radio station and the press. What they overlooked was that hardly anyone on the island listens to the local radio station and even fewer read the newspaper. This is the internet age, even on Iescos. Unfortunately, there was not a skilled webmaster among the band of insurgents. So, unaware that we had to acknowledge a change in fortunes, we all went about our business as usual. By the time the rebels realised what was happening, or in this case not happening, outside help was at hand. GCHQ had already processed the information and, almost before the uprising had started, a pair of British frigates were in Freeport harbour. The freedom fighters who were not captured by their former colonial oppressors took to the hills.

We pull up outside Mojo. It is almost buried beneath lush vegetation. It looks like a former colonial trading post. As we make our way through the greenery, we are greeted by colourful adverts for exotic herbs, hummingbirds, parrots, livestock, alligators and two-headed snakes. Island Sweet Skunk and Gurage Khat. It appears you can buy anything here. Or in Doobie’s case, it seems you can just help yourself. He ushers me inside to the darkened interior, Malcolm at my heels. He directs us to a table, nods to a shadowy figure behind the counter, takes two glistening bottles of Sol Original out from a giant peppermint green fridge and places one in front of me. Clearly, he is a man of standing in these parts.

The gin here is fresh too if you would like one in a bit,’ he says, pointing to a still, visible, despite a beaded curtain, in the corner. ‘And duty-free.’

We settle into a conversation about the complicated topography of Iescos, all the peaks and promontories, twists and turns, ridges and rills, swales and dingles. Or in plain language, the ups and downs.

Although Milo and I have been here for three years and the island is less than forty miles across, I still get lost,’ I say. ‘Even with satnav. Some of the roads are little more than tracks or paths and even out in the open there are next to no road signs.’

The road signs all but disappeared in the uprising,’ he says. ‘One of the rebels’ tactics.’

This is why I take Malcolm out on to Panhandlers Hill,’ I say. ‘It’s an easy journey from the house and it has a safe place to park the car.’

Doobie says he doesn’t need satnav or road signs, he knows every inch of the island. He knows which parts are safe and which bits might be rebel hideouts. I tell him it is just as well he knows his way around because I don’t have any idea how to get back to my car. We have probably only come five or six miles from where he picked me up, but I would never have been able to find my way to Mojo in a million years. I had no idea that places like this existed.

Most of the people on the island never make it out of the towns,’ he says.

In breaks in our conversation, I overhear the murmur of two men in conversation at a nearby table. They are speaking in their native tongue. It is something that you could easily miss, in fact, it is Malcolm who draws my attention to it, but their conversation seems to be interspersed with occasional utterances of Milo’s name. Malcolm’s ears prick up and he gives out a little yelp each time that Milo’s name is mentioned. He misses Milo. At first, I wonder if the pair might be referring to a different Milo. Or perhaps Milo or something that sounds like it is a word in their language. But, when Doobie goes off to speak to someone at the bar, I distinctly hear one of them say the name, Milo Lorenz. He repeats it several times. No doubt then that it is my Milo. This is disconcerting. What connection could they possibly have with my husband?

I look around discreetly, anxious not to draw more attention to myself than I might already be doing. I am aware that a lady dressed in Barbour country clothing as I am might look out of place in a bar like this. A lady of any sort might look out of place. Except possibly a lap dancer. This is a male domain. I’m not at all comfortable that Doobie has brought me here. The lightness of the atmosphere earlier when we were sipping our Sol Original has vanished. Dressed in torn fatigues and baseball caps, the two men don’t look like the kind of associates I would expect Milo to have. They would not fit easily into the world of commerce. For one thing, I don’t imagine that you are allowed to spit on the floor in the meetings that Milo goes to. But, it occurs to me I do not know much about what Milo actually does and he is around so infrequently that there is not much opportunity to find out. I do not believe that he has been home now for nearly a month, in fact, he hasn’t phoned for a week or so.

The longer Doobie spends talking to the sinister man at the bar, the more nervous I become. They have sneaked away into a corner of the bar and I am unable to see what they are doing. The two men on the table behind me now have raised voices. They seem more menacing by the minute. I call over to Doobie, but he completely ignores me. I have a bad feeling about what might be happening here. What if I have been lured into some kind of trap? What if they are all in on it? What if I am being kidnapped? It is perhaps not the conventional way of doing it, but then there has been nothing conventional about today. They might be using me as a way to get money out of Milo. I take the phone out to give him a call but, predictably, it goes straight to voicemail. I can no longer see Doobie. He has disappeared.

Malcolm begins to bark. One of the men at the table, the one with the scar running the length of his cheek, mouths something guttural at him. The other man, the one with the dental problems, then addresses me in a threatening manner. He spits. I don’t understand Iescan but I think I understand the gesture. It is aimed at me. I am not welcome. I look around me for support. There is none. I am scared. I get up quickly and go over to where Doobie disappeared. I push open a door, Malcolm following at my heels. We go down a couple of wooden steps and find ourselves in a murky room. Parrots call out as we enter. There is an overpowering aroma from a potpourri of herbs and spices, tarragon and eucalyptus, coriander and nutmeg. It is like a bazaar. Shelves are stacked with a dizzying assortment of strange artefacts. Malcolm is spooked by the two-headed green snake that peers out from its glass tank. Next to it in another glass tank is a writhing congregation of baby alligators. Are those bats circling overhead? Or are they large moths? This is the stuff of nightmares. There is no sign of Doobie.

I backtrack and along a corridor find another door. I push it open. This is a much larger room. There are no parrots. No two headed snakes. No alligators. Instead, dominating the space and looking completely out of context is a Heidelberg offset printing machine. I do not know much about printing, but this looks like a serious piece of kit. Although it is not in use, it appears to have done its job. Stacked alongside it are bales and bales of printed material wrapped in polythene, newspapers, posters, flyers. I move in closer, brush the dust off the nearest pile and take a look. To my alarm, they have Milo’s photo on. President Lorenz, it says. So do the other bales. President Lorenz? What on earth? Is this some kind of joke?

Gradually it dawns on me that Milo must have been the one behind the failed uprising. This must have been the takeover that I heard him talking about in those clandestine phonecalls late at night. This would explain why he hasn’t phoned me. This must be why his phone is off. He must be in detention somewhere. This will be why I was being spat at in the bar. I can see straight away why the plan might have failed. Milo’s big problem is that he never thinks things through. He has an idea and thinks that this is enough; the job is then done. Not that Milo would have made a good president anyway. His politics are too fickle. He has a low boredom threshold. One thing one day, the opposite the next. He would have been quickly overthrown.

But, why haven’t the authorities contacted me? And why has Doobie brought me to this godforsaken place?

As if summoned, Doobie sidles into the room. His aura seems to have darkened a little.

There was no easy way of telling you, Nattie,’ he says, apologetically. ‘When you called me I wasn’t sure what I should say. Not a lot of people in respectable circles realised who was behind the uprising. And it was seen as important that they didn’t find out. We’re no different here on Iescos than anywhere else when it comes to secrecy. The fewer that know the truth the better.’

I see,’ I say, not seeing at all.

You wouldn’t have believed me anyway,’ he says. ‘So, I thought it would be best if I brought you here and let you find out for yourself.’

I am about to point out that all the people here seem to know about Milo, but, I think I am beginning to get it. After all, the peasants here in the interior don’t have a voice, do they? They don’t have access to one. Nor will they have. The printing press is shut down for now.

So, Doobie. Whose side are you on,’ I say.

Sides, Nattie? I don’t do sides, Nattie,’ he says. ‘I’m too smart for that.’

I put too much faith in people, Doobie. I always expect to find things how I left them. But life isn’t like that. It’s full of surprises. From now on, I’m going to see which way the wind blows.’

I think that’s the answer, Mrs L.’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

The Black Book

theblackbookpic2016

The Black Book by Chris Green

When I was growing up in the nineteen sixties, I was surrounded by books. The bookshelves in Grey Gables, the big old house in Gloucestershire where we lived were full, but there was one particular book I was told I must never read. It was referred to simply as The Black Book. No explanation was offered, but under no circumstances must I even touch it. There were a number of house rules back then, which as I saw it were there to be broken, but for reasons it’s hard to explain I understood this rule to be somehow less negotiable. I had no idea what they were, but I was of the view that there would be grave consequences if I transgressed.

Before you jump to the conclusion that the book may have been some grimoire or occult classic, let me state that this was not the case. This was not The Clavicule Of Solomon or The Book Of Honorius or anything like that. The Bible then, you might be thinking. Bibles are black. A big no here too. My parents were regular churchgoers. Three times a week sometimes. Why would they forbid me to read the Bible? They practically threw Bibles at me.

Sandwiched between old copies of The Compleat Angler and Dr Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, The Black Book looked like an ordinary leather-bound book. The only difference was there was no title or author’s name on the spine, nothing to suggest what might be inside. As you can imagine it was a tantalising mystery. When my school friends came round to visit, they too were curious about The Black Book. From time to time we would idly speculate about what exactly it might be.

Might its pages be black too?’ one of us might say. For point of argument, this would probably be Adam. He was the smart aleck among us.

Wouldn’t that make it difficult to read?’ someone might say. Let’s say, Roger. Roger was the most systematic thinker in our little group.

Probably not as hard as Silas Marner,’ David might say. I would more than likely have agreed with David here. It was after all ridiculous to expect fourteen year old boys in modern times to become interested in a long meandering tale of a Calvinist weaver in the pre-Victorian north of England.

Or King Lear,’ Peter might say. ‘What a load of wank that is.’

You think that Lear is tough going,’ I might say. ‘You will find Coriolanus unfathomable. You might as well be reading a bicycle repair manual in Welsh.’

Truth be told, all of us in the B stream at Greystone Grammar School found most of the required reading difficult. Wasn’t this the intention? Oh! And that the books must be boring. Why do you think we passed Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics around in class?

Obviously, there were times when we were tempted to have a peek inside The Black Book. With so much mystique surrounding it, who wouldn’t? The thinking would be if we had a look and put it back carefully in the same place, no-one would be able to find out. It was not as if the books on this particular shelf were read very often. But each time temptation arose, something, an invisible yet powerful force, held us back. Each of us had the strange intuition that by opening the book we would cross a line that must not be crossed. It would be ….. dark on the other side.

It was not that we were faint-hearted. We weren’t. We did all of the things that rebellious grammar school boys do growing up. Smoked cigarettes behind the Science block. Smoked weed behind the science block. Smoked weed in the science block. Grew weed in the science block. We got bolder and bolder. We constantly dared each other to go one step further. We stole push bikes. We stole motorbikes. We even stole Ugg Stanton’s car. Ugg taught us History. When I say taught, I use the term euphemistically. He was a hopeless teacher, second perhaps only to Hans Orff, who euphemistically taught us German. But despite our insurgent proclivities, The Black Book remained a no-no.

In my later teenage years, what with outside interests and all that, I did not give it much thought. I was not around the house very much. I had no interest in entering into lengthy discussions with Pater about the nature of sin or whether there was life after death. Clearly, you wouldn’t find out if there was a Heaven or Hell until the time came. With hormones racing, there were more important matters to attend to. Diana, Elaine and Fiona for example. My wild oats were there to be sown. What else could I do? There was a reputation to be established. Burgeoning adolescence gave no quarter.

Sometime later, on a rare home visit from university I slipped into the library, as my parents referred to the room. I noticed that The Black Book was now bookended by Great Expectations and Crime and Punishment. I couldn’t be certain, but it seemed to me that it was also on a different shelf.

I asked my father about this.

The cleaner must have moved it, son,’ he said. ‘But she’s ….. no longer with us.’

Been gone a while now,’ said Mum.

Oh well, I thought. Getting rid of home help was one of the few hobbies they had. They had to have some pleasures to brighten up their dull lives. Pops meanwhile got back to berating me, with renewed vigour.

Why don’t you get a hair cut, lad?’ he said. ‘Do they let you wear those ridiculous clothes at Leeds? You look like a pansy. What bloody good is Media Studies anyway? What are you going to do, be a gopher at Thames Television?’

I wasn’t going to be spoken to like this. I decided to take a time out. There was a good pub in the next village. Over a couple of pints of Old Bastard in The Belted Galloway, I got to thinking, if the forbidden book had been moved so unceremoniously, maybe it was not so dangerous after all. The temptation to take a look became stronger than it had ever been. By the end of the second pint, it had become all-consuming. I would finally discover what had been hidden from me for all these years.

After a frosty dinner, trading insults, I excused myself and sneaked off to the library. I took a deep breath and braced myself. Whatever dark secrets The Black Book held would soon be revealed. But just as I was about to take the book down from the shelf and examine it, an invisible force took hold. It felt like I was reaching out into dark and empty space with a thousand watts of electrical current pulsing through my flailing limbs. My whole body became numb and I collapsed in a writhing heap on the floor. I was petrified. The paramedics could not work out what had happened. I kept quiet about the book. If you are going to face ridicule, it is best not to do so in your own home.

I did not go near the library for the rest of my stay. In fact, I curtailed my stay and did not visit my parents again for a number of years.

After university with my hard earned Desmond (2:2), I got a job at Thames Television as Assistant to the Deputy Assistant Regional Promotions Editor. It was at Thames that I met Sarah. Sarah had a job title similar to my own, but then Thames did employ about forty thousand people at the time. There were a lot of errands to run. There was a lot of tea to make. Sarah and I got to know each other quickly and moved in together into a small flat in Hammersmith, West London. In the seventies Hammersmith was the very cauldron of change, as with the empire striking back, London became truly international. Within a square mile, you could find families from every corner of the globe.

I mentioned The Black Book once or twice to Sarah, after a few drinks. I couldn’t help it. It was something that just came out now and again. Regrettably, she began to show too keen an interest in it. I could sense that she was eager to see what all the fuss about. I stood my ground. I resisted. I did not want to go back home yet. I was not ready.

There’s no real point in going to see it,’ I said. ‘Unless we are going to take a look inside the thing.’ I imagined that when it came down to it, the book would work its arcane magic and keep her at bay, as it had with me and with my school friends. I was just saving her the trouble of finding this out.

Then perhaps we should take a look inside,’ she said. ‘This mumbo jumbo about the bloody book is probably all in your imagination. Have you thought of that? You do get worked up about little things sometimes.’

There was another objection. My trump card, I felt.

My parents and I don’t even speak,’ I said, hoping that this would seal it. ‘You know I haven’t been home in years.’

Then you definitely should,’ she said. ‘Look! Your Mum has to my knowledge phoned at least half a dozen times and you’ve not got back to her. And even your Dad phoned once and left a message and you never had the decency to call back. It’s time to lay those ghosts to rest, Clive. Time to put your petty vendetta to bed and start behaving like an adult.’

I shouldn’t have let them have the number.’

In any case, we’ve been together for three years. Don’t you think I might like to meet your parents?’

I can’t think why you would,’ I said.

And you never think about your inheritance, Clive.’

So this is what this is about, is it?’

No but one day …….’

I never think about the future.’

Then you should. You can’t run away from it, because it is going to happen.’

Little by little Sarah used her guile to persuade me to take the plunge and renew my severed ties.

We’ll go in the new year,’ I said finally, hoping that over the festive period she might forget.

Sarah didn’t forget. Over the Christmas holidays, her insistence became stronger. So, on the second Friday of January, we drove across the country to the family pile. The snow we had had earlier in the week was beginning to thaw, but not so much that it spoiled the picture postcard views of the rolling Cotswold hills. Perhaps I had become used to driving in London, but for once it seemed that there was little traffic on the road. We passed a joint back and forth and listened to a cassette of Kaya, Bob Marley and The Wailers new album. We had been fortunate enough to see them play at The Plaza de Toros in Ibiza earlier in the year. They were spectacular.

As we drove through the rural idyll, the winter sun shone and the sky was an azure blue. The wealth of the wool towns and villages of West Oxfordshire set against the frozen landscape offered a bounty of chocolate box views. In the Windrush valley, we watched a red kite swoop down from a great height. I had not seen one for years, not since a group of us went camping in Mid Wales for our Duke Of Edinburgh Award Scheme expedition. I took the sighting to be a good omen. I began to think that I might have been wrong in my decision to keep the family at a distance. Sarah’s family had always been close. She saw them every week. Perhaps, I shouldn’t have taken my father’s comments so much to heart. After all, he had always been a cold fish. I shouldn’t expect him to change now. That he had actually phoned and left a message, albeit quite a sour one was as much as I could reasonably expect. In fact that he had left a message at all could probably be described as progress. Perhaps too I had been mistaken about the perils of The Black Book. Imagination could be a powerful force. Maybe there was nothing to fear.

From a distance, I could see Dad’s grey Rover 3.5 parked on the drive, along with the green Morris Traveller that Mum drove. You don’t expect to see a lot of changes to Cotswold country houses, but it was clear that there were no concessions here to modernity. No double glazing. No extension. No vine covered pergola. The house was exactly as it always had been. Before going in, we took a look round the back. Maybe this was my way of delaying the reunion for a few more minutes, while I got used to the idea of being back, but the garden too was unchanged. The borders were exactly as I remembered them, the lawns carefully manicured as they had always been. The trees were the same size. Five years and they appeared not to have grown an inch. The shrubs were the same size. Even the ornamental statues and the rustic water feature were weathered to the same degree. The summer house was still in the same state of crumbling decay as it was when I left.

Eventually, we went into the house and I introduced Sarah. She made a joke about all the number of layers of clothing she was wearing. This helped to break the ice. The frosty reception I might have received had I come alone was averted by Sarah’s bubbly personality. Mum and Dad were able to focus on a conversation with her and thus able to completely ignore me. This suited me just fine. I listened to them making small talk and watched the hands of the grandfather clock as they moved around to quarter past three. I recalled all the times it had woken me up throughout the night, chiming as it did every fifteen minutes. Surely there must have been a mechanism to prevent this.

By about four o’clock the conversation seemed to have run dry. They had brought up all the embarrassing facts about my childhood that they could remember and Sarah had filled them in on the latest blockbuster that would be going out on ITV. They offered to give Sarah a tour of the house. They wanted to start by showing her her room, my room, our room. I knew that the room would be frozen in time. The posters for Superfly and 200 Motels would still adorn the walls. Pater would make some snide remark about one or the other. I saw this as a good point to sneak off to the library. It had the familiar musty smell of old books. There were probably close to a thousand of them in all. I could not spot it at first, but there was The Black Book, on the top shelf now sandwiched in between Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams and Bertrand Russell’s Has Man A Future? Had the cleaner again been responsible for the rearrangement, I wondered. Had she too since been dispatched?

I reached up and carefully took The Black Book down from the shelf. For the briefest time, I held it in my hand. Then all at once, time became ……. suspended. One moment I was breathing, with blood running through my veins and thoughts going through my head, albeit what if thoughts, soft and foggy thoughts, slipping away thoughts, the next moment there was nothing. No-one, nothing. Like there never had been anyone, anything. Don’t expect a tunnel of light, or St Peter waiting to greet you, when it happens. It’s not even like waiting for a bus that you know is not going to come along, as someone once described it. There is just an empty hollow void. Silence forever. Eternal nothingness.

I wonder who could be writing this story.

Whoever it is instructs you to leave the Black Book on the shelf. You should not take it down until it is time ………

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

 

 

Across The Universe

acrosstheuniverse

Across The Universe by Chris Green

There has been a secret underground line in the south of England for years. It can be accessed through a network of tunnels originating from the basement of a former Turkish dry-cleaners in Dulwich. The line runs for sixty miles deep underneath the Weald to the coast near Newhaven. It is believed to be the deepest underground tunnel anywhere in the world. It took over twenty years to build and it houses the extraterrestrials who were intercepted at Warminster in 1980. Leaving Dulwich, it is thought that there are just two stops, one at a clandestine underground military establishment and the other at a colossal subterranean dormitory village and recreational facility a couple of miles further on. There is a covert service exit at the other end but this is heavily guarded. Walkers are discouraged from going near the area by a series of signs warning against unexploded mines.

Keeping the X-Line, as it is referred to, secret has been a formidable undertaking, surely one of the major achievements of our security forces. You may have been labouring under the misconception that the principal objective of GCHQ and MI5 has been one of global surveillance because this is what we have been told. It now looks as if this may not be the case. Its main focus may have been keeping news of the X-Line project out of the public domain. While initially, the operation’s cover may have relied on the premise that Turkish people do not have a lot of dry cleaning done, this does not explain how its growth from a small shop front to that of a huge edifice covering several blocks has been concealed. Might those that have questioned the development or accidentally stumbled upon the truth have been systematically liquidated?

One or two of the extraterrestrials have been sighted above ground, but these reports have been hushed up. When photos of these taller, thinner, paler creatures were put up on the internet a while back on forddriver.onion, the site was unceremoniously closed down. The proliferation of 9/11 accounts and New World Order explanations has been sufficient to keep most conspiracy theorists busy, so the posts passed largely unnoticed. Weekend conspiracy theorists are not going to spend a lot of time following up the odd alien sighting possibly put up by a paranoid bipolar Photoshop photographer. The post also suggested that military personnel had interbred with the tall aliens and that the resultant hybrid race is beginning to establish itself in the hidden depths below the Sussex countryside.

………………………………………………

Helped along by the reactionary press, in just a few years, the politics of the country has lurched ever further to the right. The abandonment of welfare benefits and the reduction of the minimum wage have resulted and there is a think tank currently looking at plans to cull the disabled. With opposition parties no longer opposing, freedom is rapidly being eroded and, brainwashed or not, Joe Public seems to be going for it. Persecution of minorities is now the norm. The press is full of tirades against Eastern Europeans, Blacks and Asians, unmarried mothers and gays. There are of course no longer any immigrants. Racial purity and ethnic cleansing are the new buzz words. But where there is a discourse, there is also a reverse discourse and some of us are finally getting together to fight back. We can remember the optimism of a bygone era and would like to see a return to love and peace and freedom of speech.

Few people not involved with the secret project have ever been down the X-Line. As an undercover investigative journalist with The Lefty, I am one of a select band who through subterfuge hope to see first hand what is going on. We are an ill-equipped but determined bunch. Otto Funk is nearly seventy but he is as fit as a fiddle. Otto used to publish Undercover, but although this went under a few years ago, he still feels the need to further the revolutionary cause. Otto was the one who first drew my attention to the X-Line. He says that he has been researching the story for years. He says his big break came when he discovered Ford Driver’s unpublished manuscripts. Ford Driver, he says, had been amassing information on the X-Line project since its inception. Otto acknowledges that it might have been a mistake for Driver to put pictures on the internet and his death he says is shrouded in mystery. Otto remains undeterred in his resolution.

May Welby is the editor of Loony Left, a radical socialist magazine that comes out now and again. She is also the one who came up with the photos of the tall extraterrestrials. May’s pictures of them match Ford Driver’s descriptions exactly. They may even have been taken from Driver’s defunct web site. For the benefit of those of you that remember it, May Welby was the one that broke the BorisGate scandal a year or two back. Stanton Polk is the kooky publisher of Peace Frog magazine. Peace Frog is something of a relic of the hippie era. It still talks about revolution in the head and posts pictures of Jimi Hendrix on the cover. To be fair, Stanton has probably only come on board because he is as barmy as a box of badgers and doesn’t appreciate the dangers. Nanci Gatlin puts together The Underdog, a publication sold on street corners which remarkably is still going to print despite an unsustainable drop in sales. The last issue sold fourteen copies. ‘Everyone seems to want to be on the side that’s winning, these days,’ Nanci says. I’m sure I’ve heard that somewhere before but I can’t place where. Calvin Sharp runs Ethical Spy. The title is perhaps misleading as there is nothing ethical about it, nor has it very much to do with spying. At least not in the sense that you think of it. It is a top-shelf porn mag. Calvin though is the only one of us with real military experience. He was in covert ops in the first Gulf war, so that makes him, at least, sixty. He had a stroke last year but there seems to be no holding him back. Importantly, he has a cache of ex-army handguns, which he says may come in handy later.

Otto tells us that the warriors from the breeding programme, although lean, might be endowed with super-human strength. As journalists, although we are always anxious for a good story, we are a naturally suspicious lot. We do not believe everything we hear, well apart from Stanton Polk possibly. Stanton believes Elvis Presley is still alive. The rest of us though realise there is a tendency to exaggerate a story each time it is passed on. Everyone adds their two-penneth. Otto’s story might indeed be one of those.

However, it would be foolhardy to underestimate the risk we are taking by going in. We need to be fully prepared. We sit around the table and speculate about what might be happening below ground. What is the aim of the project? Might it be more than an exercise to hide away a handful of captured aliens? Otto suggests it might be an experiment to investigate the compatibility of their extraterrestrial genes with the human gene. The fearsome levels of security that Otto has told us about appear to suggest something apocalyptic.

To avoid suspicion, we have had fatigues made up to resemble those worn by the rangy strangers in the photos and we have had our skin bleached so that we can blend in with the lanky super-humans. We have browsed reactionary Neo-Con web sites to learn the language of the right. There are hundreds of Neo-Con web sites. If you go through TOR, they are hard to escape. Intolerance has been spreading through cyberspace unchecked, like a malignant cancer. Expressions like calibrated ethnic cleansing, white supremacy and reprogrammed meta-human now trip off my tongue.

We have discovered a remote location on the downs which gives access to the tunnels. This is where in the dead of night they remove the weekly waste from and surreptitiously take it to landfill. This is where we plan to make our entry. We imagine that below it is the main living area. The entrance does not show up on GoogleMaps. Otto suggests that Google could be behind the breeding programme. I think he is joking, but who knows? It is quite difficult to ascertain who is behind what these days. Nothing anywhere is quite what it seems.

………………………………………………

We are surprised by how easy it is to get inside the compound. As soon as the grey garbage truck emerges from the tunnel, we casually walk in the entrance before the hatch closes. The squad of guards that we were told would be there appear to be on a tea break or something. There is absolutely no-one about. We can’t even make out any security cameras, but on the basis that with such a sensitive project there must be cameras somewhere, we try to act as if we belong. We have practised our nonchalance, with an acting coach in preparation. We are able to make our way to what appears to be a service lift, still without seeing a soul. We cautiously press the button and get into the lift. It is much smaller than we imagined it might be. This could not have accommodated the truck that has just left or indeed its cargo. It has just two buttons, Up and Down.

As the lift starts to descend, Beatles music begins to play through hidden speakers. Loudly, especially for such a confined space.

All You Need Is Love,’ Nanci says, apparently unphased by the surreal experience being stepped up a notch. Perhaps she worked a little closer with the acting coach than I did. I am finding it difficult to remain calm. It is bound to be a trap.

Quad sound too,’ Stanton Polk says. ‘It’s the remixed version from the Cirque de Soleil soundtrack album.’ He sees no irony in the juxtaposition. He is on planet Polk. He sees things differently from the rest of us. He has spent much of his life off of his head on one thing or another.

Not what you would expect the neo-Nazis harbouring tall aliens would be listening to, really is it?’ Calvin says, nervously fiddling with one of the several guns that he has secreted around his person. ‘Something is not quite right here, chaps.’

Otto is beginning to look a little unsettled and May, who up until now has displayed steely confidence, tries to hang on to me to stop herself from fainting.

It occurs to me, not for the first time, that none of us, not even Calvin with his military background is really cut out for this kind of mission. How could we ever think we could pull this off? What is it we were hoping to get anyway? Even if we get out of here and one of us manages to publish something about the experience, we are not going to be allowed to get away with it. We will be hunted down.

I don’t want to be stating the obvious,’ I say. ‘But, this has trap written all over it.’

Not a very soldierly approach, giving us time to be ready,’ Calvin says. ‘It would have been more straightforward for them to have intercepted us and taken us out and then. Don’t you think?’

Perhaps it’s easier for them to do that down below,’ I say.

All You Need Is Love is followed by I Am The Walrus. It’s not the most sing-along of the Fabs tunes, but Nanci starts singing along to it. I wonder if perhaps Stanton Polk may have shared some of his substances with her before setting off.

For those of us without the benefit of Stanton Polk’s pick-me-ups, the lift descends agonisingly slowly. It is clearly going down a long, long way. My ears are now popping and my head is bursting.

………………………………………………

They say in the event of a traumatic experience, your brain releases adrenaline which speeds up the rate that it processes information. This is apparently why it is said that your whole life flashes before you when you are about to die. And as we descend into the bowels of the earth, I am certain that I am going to die. What other outcomes can there be? I Am The Walrus gives way to While My Guitar Gently Weeps. We are all going to die.

I am drinking homemade lemonade on a summer’s afternoon. I do not know these ladies in dusty pink cardigans. They are old. Mummy has gone to the post office, they say. Will Mummy be coming back? I ask ….. Why is Miss Crabtree slapping my legs with a ruler? It wasn’t me, miss. It was, it was Ja….. I have done nothing. …… pi equals three point one four one six ….. 1066….. I hope you don’t expect anything from this school, because ………. Is Ann really going to let me do it? Without a rubber Johnny? …….. Do you, David, Andrew Norman take …… I do, I do. ………. I don’t. I won’t. Yes, you will ……. No Nukes, No Nukes, No Nukes. Are you going to arrest me, officer? ……. Don’t go, Kristin, don’t go …… I’m not going to pay that……. We’re going to craaaash….. Publish, and be damned. ……. Aliens, Otto? Really? Where? What? You mean underground?

The lift finally comes to a stop. This is it. We wait in anticipation for, for ….. we don’t know what. But no one now expects it to be good. I can’t put my finger on who or what has changed the mood, but it is now one of discomfiture and fear. Shouldn’t we have expected it to be something like this? It was always going to be dangerous. While My Guitar Gently Weeps segues into Across The Universe. The lift doors stay closed. Is the waiting for the bad thing you think is going to happen worse than facing the bad thing that is going to happen? The others scream at me to press the button, first to open the doors, but then for the lift to go back up, but the button doesn’t work and The Beatles are relentlessly going on and on about going on and on across the universe.

………………………………………………

Eventually, the lift door opens and we are greeted by a pair of rugged-looking thugs with Force Security sweatshirts. They are brandishing semi-automatic handguns. They look alert.

I’m Billy Shears,’ says the bulkier of the two. He is built like a Challenger tank.

The one and only Billy Shears, perhaps? I do not say this. He does look as if he means business.

And I’m Rocky Raccoon,’ says the other. Rocky is the smaller of the two, lean but still mean looking. I can’t help but think that they have chosen their names inappropriately.

Welcome to uh …… The Cavern,’ Billy says.

It seems a well-practised line, but Rocky chuckles.

You are probably wondering what’s going on,’ Billy says.

An understatement.

So long as you remain calm, there is nothing to worry about,’ Rocky says.

Remain calm? Where does calm come from? They have guns. They are guards. We are reporters.

Firstly, We’ll have your guns on the floor in front of you,’ Billy says. Instinctively, we all look in Otto’s direction.

Then we might show you around,’ Rocky says. ‘What do you think, Bill?’

I can see you are reporters,’ Billy says. ‘You have that journalist smell about you. But, you won’t be reporting anything that you see here today.’

We’ve had reporters before, you see,’ Rocky says.

Regularly,’ Billy says.

And we wouldn’t like what is happening here to be misrepresented,’ Rocky says.

We could, of course, lock you up, or send you away with a flea in your ear,’ Billy says. ‘But now that you are here we may as well give you the tour.’

But if we do that we will have to erase your memories before you leave,’ Rocky says. ‘Security, you understand.’

But don’t worry. The procedure is quite safe,’ Billy says.

We’ve used it on all the others who have been curious as to what’s happening here in …… The Cavern,’ Rocky says.

And no-one yet has come to any harm,’ Billy says.

While I do not feel that we are out of the woods yet, the pair do seem to be taking a friendlier approach than they did when we first arrived.

So, if you wouldn’t mind,’ Rocky says. ‘Your guns please.’

That would be you he’s addressing, I believe, Mr Sharp,’ Billy says. ‘I sense that the others haven’t bothered to arm themselves.’

Drop them right there in front of you,’ Rocky says.

We watch as a cache of Brownings, Glocks, and Heckler and Kochs makes its way from Calvin’s person onto the paved area.

Excellent! Then we can begin our little …… magical mystery tour,’ Billy says.

It all started when in February 2008, NASA beamed the Beatles’ song Across The Universe into deep space,’ Rocky says.

This was at the time considered to be nothing more than a gesture,’ Billy says.

It was more to show that we could do it, than with any hope of making contact,’ Rocky says.

Time is, however, relative,’ Billy continues. ‘And this group of odd, but essentially peaceful extraterrestrials travelling through space and time picked up the transmission. They landed at Warminster in Western Wiltshire in 1980, having found the approximate site of the source of the transmission.’

Give or take a continent or two,’ Rocky says. ‘And three decades ahead of time.’

Time travel can be very imprecise, you understand,’ Billy says.

A bit like it is on Doctor Who,’ Rocky says.

They said that they were keen to listen to some more tunes like the one they had heard,’ Billy says. ‘This was the express purpose of their visit. They had no music at all back home, you see. In their haste to explore the cosmos, the arts were completely overlooked. For relaxation, they listened to recordings of power tools and hammers.’

Our government at the time naturally wanted their landing to be kept secret,’ Rocky says. ‘As have all governments since.’

Imagine if our friends from across the ocean had got wind of it,’ Billy says.

Our guests would all probably be in Guantanamo Bay,’ Rocky says. ‘Or on a Saturday night TV special.’

Also, the government didn’t want the public to be alarmed by seeing unfamiliar life-forms wandering about,’ Billy says.

There might have been a panic,’ Rocky says.

There was a responsibility to safeguard the newcomers as well,’ Billy says.

So they built a base from which they could come and go,’ Rocky says.

They have been coming and going for years,’ Billy says. ‘And back home on their planet they now use Beatles music as an energy source.’

Where are the ….. aliens?’ I ask. ‘When are we going to see them?’

There are only a few of them here at the moment,’ Rocky says. ‘The others are off on their …… travels.’

I wonder how they manage to come and go and where they land their spaceships and why no-one sees them. They couldn’t get from here to Warminster every time these days, not even under the cover of darkness, and wherever their landing site is, wouldn’t the comings and goings be seen? Then I remember that according to Otto witnesses get liquidated. But how many witnesses can be liquidated without something getting out? And if they close web sites down, new ones always spring up. There are a million unanswered questions. And how does time travel fit into all this? What is time travel? I’m a rationalist. Well, at least some of the time. But then you do have to have some belief in the strange and unlikely to be a journalist. What is it that is really happening here that they feel the need to erase our memories before we leave? Are there more surprises to come? I begin to wonder, not for the first time today, whether anything at all that Otto has told us is true. But we’re moving on. Things are speeding up now.

What about the breeding programme with humans?’ May Welby asks. Not a good question, I feel at this point.

Billy appears noticeably angered by the insinuation. ‘What on earth are you talking about, lady?’ he says.

I do think that would be impossible,’ laughs Rocky, doing his best to placate his prickly associate. ‘We will introduce you. You will be able to judge for yourselves. Ah, look! Here comes old Flattop. He has brought George and Ringo along to say hello.’

Two tiny mud-grey creatures with domed heads and large eyes waddle towards us. They can’t be more than two feet high. They are wearing brightly coloured clothes. They have headphones on and singing along to the tune. These are a far cry from the seven-foot-three super-beings we were being told to expect. We don’t, however, get the opportunity to register our shock. The pair are accompanied by a burly thug in a Force Security sweatshirt. This apparently is Old Flattop. He stares sternly, firstly at Otto, and then at May. A look of recognition spreads over his face. It is not a welcoming look.

You two miserable hacks have been down here before,’ he barks. ‘We redacted the experience from your minds, but still you are back. Perhaps you would like to explain why that is.’

Things are beginning to make sense. Otto and May may have spun us a line. As we try to work out what their motive might have been, the gun in Billy’s hand is twitching. Cute and cared for the extraterrestrials might be in their safe little haven down here below the South Downs, but I don’t now have a good feeling about our welfare in this situation.

Perhaps Scotty is now our best chance. I hope he gets the message about beaming us up I am about to send from my phone.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

 

Buy and Buy

buyandbuy2

Buy and Buy by Chris Green

When did personal computers cease to be a labour saving device? Without even looking at the Spam folder, it took nearly ten minutes daily to scroll down through the garbage in my inbox, searching for the one or two messages that might have some relevance on my life, or be from people I actually knew. Why would I be interested in insurance for a pet monkey? Who could possible need a battery powered salad spinner or a dog snood? What on earth was facial flex? And wasn’t AirportHostage9™ the same as AirportHostage8™ except that to play it you had to buy a GameBox6™ which would cost you £499? And how did the Deputy Prime Minister find time to write me so many letters? Were bitcoins legal currency? To make the task harder, deleting emails only seemed to ping some widget in Yahoo which told them I would like to receive even more dross.

Eventually it got to me. I became so weary of this daily trawl, I suggested to Kaylynn that we switch off all our devices. We could surely manage without them for a while. I expected her to resist the idea. She liked to skype and generally keep in touch, so perhaps she would regard it as a bigger sacrifice. To my surprise she agreed that it was a cracking idea and before I knew it had taken the battery out of her tablet and unplugged the router. She had been meaning to suggest to me for weeks that we do something about our absurd dependence on electronic media. The volume of unsolicited advertising and feeds on her facebook and twitter, she said, was no longer manageable. She had friended so many people, joined so many interest groups and recklessly clicked the ‘I want more stuff like this’ button so often that some days she couldn’t even keep pace with the feed. Bedeep, bedeep, bedeep went her tablet all day long, about one bedeep a second some days, as the messages landed. It was driving her nuts, she said. It was certainly driving me nuts. Even after I had changed the sound to a gentler plink, it had a grating effect on the nerves. Kaylynn said she could use the time she’d have to take up something creative, stencilling maybe or cross-stitch. It would be easier now that now that both Sonny and Cher had gone off to university. We agreed that we would look at the switchoff as an experiment and give it maybe a month to see how we got along.

Being off line took a little getting used to, as we began to realise that we had been using the internet for many things other than social media, emails and purchasing goods and services. Kaylynn and I were now unable to access our calendars, the local weather forecast, travel information, practical advice, research into a million and one topics into which we developed a sudden interest because we now had lots of time and those nagging little facts that day to day that were just out of reach because we were getting older. For the first few days it took enormous willpower to keep from plugging the wi-fi back in.

One time I caught Kaylynn looking longingly at a billboard advertising the new iphone but we got through the critical first 72 hours with our pledge intact, and once we became accustomed to the change, it was wonderful. Not having to spend all those hours sitting in front of a screen opened up a zoo of possibilities. We stopped worrying about where we were supposed to be and what we did not know. We found we had time to talk and we could stay in bed on a Sunday and make love. We could even venture out of doors and go for walks in the hills if we wanted to. I took up carpentry and in no time at all I had knocked up a kitchen table and four chairs from a pile of wood I had kicking around in the garage. I simply followed the instructions in Woodwork for Dummies, which had been an unopened Christmas gift from several years ago. We cleared out the attic and Kaylynn made a quilt form bits and pieces she found up there. We had a car boot sale, we gave the garden a birthday and began to talk about the vegetables we would grow next year. When the month was up we decided to try it for another month.

We discovered we were not alone in our thinking. Our friends, Mac and Minerva had in fact gone a step further. Minerva explained that when their PC had been crippled a few months back by a backdoor virus with a long name, they had made the decision not to replace it. Freed from the flow of information that the internet spewed out daily they found that their stress levels were greatly reduced. When their television license ran out they decided to get rid of the TV as well. The move, Minerva said, changed their perspective of what was really important. TV news focussed on matters that had little relevance to their everyday lives, its purpose to keep you anxious. The rough and tumble of party politics and the rattle and hum of celebrity indiscretions was so trivial. And, why didn’t someone decide once and for all who was the richest football team and leave it at that? The prime aim of television advertising was to make you feel inadequate. It served no useful purpose. In addition there was the growing sponsorship of programmes by CashCow and Wonga, even on the BBC. With the commercials taken away, Mac and Minerva remained blissfully unaware of new developments in consumer durables. If you really wanted something it was easy enough to find out where to get it.

While we weren’t so paranoid as to think television transmitted subliminal messages to persuade you to purchase particular products, you never knew for sure that this was not the case. What for instance was it that caused those inexplicable headaches if you watched The X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing? And why had we needed to go digital anyway if it was not to feed information back to someone somewhere. We agreed that although we would miss The Sky at Night and Gardener’s World, a switch-off was something we ought to consider.

……………………………………………

Desperation had begun to creep in at the Treasury. Retail was flagging in all areas. No one was buying on the High Street and online sales had dropped exponentially in the last six months. Economic Secretary to the Treasury, Flannery Ainsworth felt she was at the centre of this plight. With the general election only twelve months away, there were plenty of power-hungry chinless wonders on the back benches jostling to take her place. She needed to come up with some reactionary new measures to get the country spending. She had to make the people forget that they had been made poorer over the last four years and to borrow more, and very quickly. To add to her torment, her husband had left her for a younger woman. To make matters worse the other woman had been her Personal Assistant. Flannery’s input to the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement reflected her bitterness. This consisted of a mélange of swingeing penalties for those refusing to borrow. Much of the detail of the new legislation was concealed in political doubletalk, positives emphasised as milestones, negatives buried by obfuscation.

We ignored the letters which arrived daily from our bank, in fact from a whole range of financial institutions, offering us larger and larger loans. It had come to their notice that our purchasing had dropped off recently. We were missing out we were told on this or that offer on a staggering variety of goods and services. All in Ones, Platinum Creditcards and Advanced Mastercards were suggested as payment options with a bewildering array of Cashback inducements. And we could take advantage of APR rates as low as 34.4%. We stood firm in our resolve. The bulky catalogues that hit the mat with a thud were responsibly recycled along with the fast food flyers.

There was a knock on our door. Two beefy roughnecks in navy blue fatigues stood there. They allowed me a fleeting glimpse of their identity cards and told me they were arresting me. I was handcuffed and taken without ceremony in the back of plain white van to the SummaryJustice Fiscal Centre, where I was bundled into a cell with two others. The one in the Jesus Rocks T shirt told me he had been brought in for Using a Mobile Phone that was more than Three Years Old, the one with the Peace tattoo for ‘Not Owning a Blu Ray Player’. I told them I was not sure what I had been brought in for, so many new offences seemed to have been created lately.

‘Lack of Designer Footwear. That’s a favourite,’ said Jesus Rocks.

‘It’s a shame all the charity shops were closed down,’ I said. ‘Quite often you could get a nice pair of boots in one.’

‘Not supportive of the deserving rich, I suppose,’ said Peace Tattoo. ‘The guy they just took in was arrested for Political Activism. He was selling the Big Issue outside House of Fraser.’

‘Perhaps car boots are illegal now,’ I said. ‘The sellers did all seem a bit jumpy when we had the sale recently.’

I soon discovered what my offence was. I was fined £500 for ‘Wilfully Ignoring Promotional Emails for a Period of Sixty Days’. In summing up, the Profit Enforcer informed me that I had now three times dropped below my Required Credit Limit. He stressed the gravity of the offence and reminded me in no uncertain terms that I needed to borrow more. ‘Did I not realise,’ he said, ‘that Growth depended on everyone pulling together and purchasing for Queen and Country.’ If I continued to treat good honest promotional material with disdain, it would result in a custodial sentence.

Intimidated by my surroundings, I thought it might be pushing my luck to point out to him that we the second most indebted country in the world and owed China and the emerging Tiger economies zillions and everything we bought was imported and added to this debt. Or that we were supporting billionaires paying slave wages to minority groups in the Third World to rape the planet of its precious resources. That 1300 individual billionaires have hoarded 94% of the planet’s resources, the other 7 billion were fighting over 6% of the Earth’s wealth. Instead, like the others going through the summary justice process that day, I kept quiet.

Flannery’s initiatives were popular with the party faithful and her plan to disenfranchise the unemployed was seen as a masterstroke. Perhaps the disabled could lose their votes too; they were a vociferous lot these days. Flannery’s name was even being spoken about for higher office, as the next Chancellor perhaps. It was unfortunate therefore that the press uncovered her use of Class A and Class B drugs and her abuse of prescription drugs. Suki, Benedict Ainsworth’s new love interest revealed to The Independent how Benedict’s life with Flannery had been unbearable because of her drug abuse. Her mood swings made Benedict’s life hell, she said. Several times at the Ainsworth house she herself had intercepted phonecalls from Razor, asking how much Charlie she wanted this week, or whether she wanted White Widow skunk or Northern Lights. Another time she had discovered Flannery collapsed over the toilet bowl with a needle hanging out of her arm, heroin paraphernalia all around. Once the story about her decadent life had broken, even the papers that had supported her jumped on the bandwagon. Day after day Keith Struggler in The Sun and Chelsea Grudge in The Star came up with more vicious and bizarre accounts of Flannery’s wanton debauchery. Condemnation was universal. Stories of wild s and m parties and international drug deals made her position at the Treasury untenable.

Flannery had for some time been viewed by some within the party as a moderate. With a matter of months to go to the election and the economy still flatlining, her departure paved the way for former hedge fund manager, Quentin Thief, who was immoderate in the extreme. His view was that it was immoral to have any savings at all when you could be borrowing. If the banks did not make interest on your debt, how were they to survive, for heaven’s sake. The proletariat had a duty to support the banks. Nothing could have prepared the country for Quentin Thief’s draconian package of measures to force people to spend. Everyone’s accounts were scrutinised by a colossal team of monetary police to ensure that loans were being taken out and purchases were made. The expression ‘short sharp shock’ was reclaimed with harsh new prisons built around the country to accommodate defaulters.

We remained unrepentant and did not switch our computers back on, and as we no longer watched TV, all we knew regarding the new legislation was hearsay. But a matter of days later the hired thugs were at the door to arrest Kaylynn. It was her turn for Summary Justice, they said, restraining her. She was charged with Cancelling Credit Cards in Times of Austerity. She was sentenced to 28 days in prison. As if this wasn’t bad enough, all the prisons were full beyond capacity and the construction schedule for the new prisons was being compromised by the number of construction workers being held in custody. Kaylynn was taken to a converted minesweeper moored off the North East coast of Scotland where they allowed no visitors.

By way of protest against Kaylynn’s sentence, I took a tram to the High Street and passed by forty two shops without setting foot in a single one. I dodged the uniformed monkeys trying to corral me into FastBucks and KwikKash, then I crossed over and passed the thirty nine shops on the other side, through the square past the jugglers, clowns and fire-eaters. Surely they would be arrested soon for some black-market transgression. And finally, without paying the toll, I stormed into the hallowed arcade, past its Jerusalem of flashing ATM machines and glitzy pilgrimage of supershoppers. Batteries of LED video walls spewed out a miscellany of competing promotions for a glittering catalogue of top end luxury items. Buy Now! Sale! Sale! Offers! Offers! Save £200. Save £300. Only £699. Only £499. Save! Buy! Lowest Ever Prices. Buy Now Pay Later. Credit Available.

I left without buying anything. Foolish I know, as this meant I would not be able to present the necessary Proof of Purchases to take the tram on its four mile journey back home. Also the banks of cameras on each of the outlets would have recorded my non-compliance and relayed the information to Quentin Thief’s vigilant team of fiscal spies. I realise it could not be considered much of a stand compared to the anti-globalisation protests that you heard so little about, but you have to start the fight back against the commandments of capitalism somewhere. Maybe next time I could bring a gun and start shooting, like they do across the pond.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

NOIR

NOIR

NOIR by Chris Green

It’s early evening and it is beginning to get dark. The street lights are just coming on. Apart from a middle-aged man in a black coat sitting near the door, Bianca is the only customer in Café Noir. She is uncomfortable because the man keeps staring at her. She feels there is something familiar about him, but she cannot put her finger on what it is. She has had this feeling on occasions before and it has turned out to be a bad omen.

Bianca doesn’t usually stop off on her way home from work. After a hard day at Trask and Wherry, she normally goes straight home, but she has had a late meeting, and anyway it is Ronnie’s poker night. There is no sense in getting home much before eleven on Ronnie’s poker night, so she has dropped in for a glass or two of Prosecco to unwind and perhaps a bite to eat, before she goes home. She had wondered if she might see Cathy at Café Noir, but she is not here. She has probably gone to see the film that is on at the Odeon. The one with Hugh Jackman, that she has been talking about. Still, she has the novel that Louise lent her to get on with while she enjoys a quiet drink. Black Veil, a tense thriller.

The half familiar stranger in the black coat keeps up his vigil. Bianca has a nagging suspicion that there might be some connection with her friend Trudi. Might Trudi know who he is? It would be good to have a chat with her anyway to put her mind at rest. She is about to make the call, but she finds that the battery on her Samsung is flat. She suspects it is probably to do with all the background apps that she has installed to check on what background apps are running. At least, this is what Derek at work told her last week when the same thing happened.

Didier, the bar manager has just slipped behind the counter to fetch her a menu when the man makes his way over. Standing, and silhouetted by the backlight, he looks even taller. He sweeps his hair back and Bianca notices he has a scar running up his left cheek. Other than this he has a symmetrical face, reminiscent of a matinee idol from the fifties, so much so that he almost appears to be in black and white. Without asking her if it is OK to do so, he takes a seat at her table. She waits for him to introduce himself, but instead, he starts talking about Ryu Sakomoto. He talks about Sakomoto’s regular themes of journeys into the unknown and the external nature of evil.

‘He feeds on modern-day paranoia,’ he says. ‘That concern we all have that something terrible is about to happen.’

Who is Ryu Sakamoto, she wonders? Is he a film director? Like David Lynch perhaps. A painter? More to the point, why is this man with the piercing eyes talking about him as if she might be interested? It is not exactly a sparkling chat up line.

‘Sakamoto gets up at 4am and writes for five or six hours,’ says the stranger. He is edging closer, invading her personal space.

Ah! So he’s a writer then, she thinks, this Sakamoto. Perhaps Ronnie has read something of his. Ronnie likes authors with foreign-sounding names. There’s that one who wrote The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Larsson is it? Sven? Steig? Steig Larsson. Not that he ever finishes a book. They just lie open face down on his bedside cabinet.

‘Sakamoto never plans a story,’ the man continues. ‘He lets it unfold by itself. He doesn’t know who did it until the end of the story.’

Who did what, she wonders. Why is he telling me this?

…………………………………………………………………………..

Ronnie Kemp is not used to losing at poker, but tonight he has lost hundreds. How often does a full house, aces over kings, get beaten? And losing hands to Tim Little. Tim is the most transparent poker player for miles around. If Tim were a better player, Ronnie might have suspected that he was cheating. After all, what are the odds of landing four queens in 5 Card Draw? It would be stretching the imagination though to see Tim as a bottom dealer or hand mucker. These tricks are strictly for professional card sharps.

But, what a fool he was to then try and bluff his way out of trouble in the next hand with a pair of jacks. This had cost him another ton. When things are not going your way, they have a tendency to go from bad to worse. Isn’t that known as Murphy’s Law or something? Whatever, it’s right, Ronnie reflects. This is exactly how Lady Luck seems to work. In the last few hands of the evening, the best he could manage was two pairs, fives on threes. How are you supposed to win with hands like that? He would have liked to have continued the session a little longer, but Bill, Phil and Tim understandably wanted to call it a day. They were all well up on the night, and all at his expense.

And where the blazes is Bianca? It’s nearly midnight. She should be home by now. She never said she would be late, but he has to admit they don’t communicate well first thing in the morning. They don’t sit down at the breakfast table or anything like that. Perhaps she did say something. Did he imagine it, or did she pack some bottom drawer lingerie before she left? For a clandestine liaison perhaps, or even an overnight stay? He can’t remember exactly, but she did seem to spend a long time getting ready before she went off to work.

Ronnie tries to phone her on his Experia, but he finds his battery is flat. All the resource hungry battery saving apps draining it probably. That’s what Sid Hacker, the techie at work had told him the last time this happened. Perhaps Bianca has been trying to call him. He has no means of calling her now as they no longer have a landline. He cancelled this a while ago because of the volume of nuisance calls they were getting. Accident claims, mis-sold PPI and solar panels, mostly. Oh, and payday loans. He could try a Facebook call but these don’t work well with a wi-fi dongle.

…………………………………………………………………………..

Bianca finds herself in a dark room, windowless and foetid. She has been asleep. A deep sleep. She can hear a drip, drip, drip of water. She is not sure if it is coming from inside the room or outside the room. She is unable to see a thing. There is no light at all. She can’t even make out where the door might be. The floor that she has been lying on feels cold. She has no idea where she might be and has no recollection of how she came to be here.

Last thing she remembers, she was in Café Noir, wasn’t she? Or was this an occasion some time ago? She thinks she may have heard jazz playing earlier, but it could have been a dream. The tall stranger with the piercing eyes and the facial scar. Was he part of the dream too? He was talking about some writer …… and then there was the drink. The drink that he bought her tasted odd. She can remember the taste. It was like ……. like almonds. This must have been last night. She can’t have been asleep any longer than that. Surely. Not in these uncomfortable conditions. She shivers. She is so cold. She has a raging thirst. She needs a drink. She needs the toilet. She needs to freshen up. She needs to know where she is. She needs light. Bianca had been led to understand that in a dark room, your eyes gradually become accustomed to the level of light, or lack of, and eventually you can begin to detect shapes. She finds that this is not the case. This is black. Like blindness is black. This must be underground.

As the gravity of her situation begins to dawn on her, she is terrified. Surely, to be abandoned in an unfamiliar dark room is everyone’s deepest secret fear. It’s suggestive of the grave. It is time for those unavoidable what ifs. What if she hadn’t accepted that drink? What if she had thought to charge her phone, or better still not installed those rogue apps? What if she had gone home instead of stopping off at Café Noir? What if she hadn’t taken the job at Trask and Wherry? Giving mortgage advice is, after all, a little dull. And there are quite a lot of late meetings if she is honest. Those deeper regrets start to creep in. Why hadn’t she had picked a more suitable partner than Ronnie? Someone a little more cultured. Someone with a little more understanding. Ronnie was always going to be a gambler. Why hadn’t she married Boyd Fleming? Boyd had worshipped her. Boyd would have taken proper care of her. Boyd has prospects. Or John Trilby. Someone honest. Someone dependable.

God! She might never get out of here. This might be it. Why hadn’t she taken that opportunity to go to Australia when she was younger? Her brother owns land out there. He is an entrepreneur. Ostrich farms or something along those lines. He could have set her up in business. Not in ostrich farming perhaps, but something more girly. He did offer to put up some money. ‘Anytime you want to come over,’ he had said. ‘You’d love it over here. All the wide open spaces.’ If only she had taken him up on it.

…………………………………………………………………………..

Ronnie is dazed. He has hardly slept. His phone rings. He makes a mental note to change the ringtone from Viva Las Vegas. He takes a look at the display. It is a number he doesn’t recognise, but he is sure it must be Bianca.

‘Hi babes,’ he says coolly, anxious to give the impression that he has not been worrying.

‘Aren’t you the cool one,’ says a vaguely familiar voice. ‘It’s Cathy. Is Bianca there? I’ve been trying to get hold of her, but her phone seems to be dead.’

‘No,’ says Ronnie. ‘She didn’t come home last night. I was wondering if she might be with you.’

‘No. She’s not with me,’ says Cathy. ‘I did say that I might see her at Café Noir last night but it was a loose arrangement. I went to the cinema instead. I expect she’s lost her phone again. She’s probably at Trudi’s.’

‘I’ll try Trudi in a bit then,’ says Ronnie.

‘How did the poker go?’ says Cathy. ‘Bianca said that it was your poker night.’

‘OK,’ he says. Professional card players, he has been told, never let on that they have made a loss. Something to do with positive thinking.

He manages to find Trudi’s number and gives her a call. It goes on to voice mail. He leaves a message, trying to sound casual.

A minute or two later, Trudi returns the call.

‘Hello,’ she says. ‘You called my number.’

‘Yes,’ says Ronnie. ‘It’s Ronnie. I was wondering if you had heard from Bianca. I’m having a little trouble locating her.’

‘No, Ronnie. I haven’t seen her,’ she says. ‘Look. I’d love to stay and chat, but I’m at the lights at the moment. And they are about to change. I’ll tell her that you’re trying to catch her if she phones me.’

Café Noir is not the sort of place that Ronnie normally frequents. He finds it a bit twee. He prefers the more earthy atmosphere of The Black Horse or The Fat Ox, but by lunchtime, there is still no word from Bianca, so he decides to call in to Café Noir on his way to BetterBet.

Didier asks him to describe his wife and following on from Ronnie’s description says that although he cannot be sure, he has the feeling that she was in last night and that she left with a tall man in a black coat.

‘Perhaps I shouldn’t say this,’ he adds. ‘But they did seem to be quite cosy tucked away there in the corner. I would keep an eye on her if I were you.’

………………………………………………………………………..…

While Physics doesn’t actually state that it is impossible for someone to walk through a solid wall, it discourages you strongly from believing that it can happen. Pauli’s exclusion principle and all that. But, this is exactly what appears to take place. One moment Bianca is alone in the darkened room and the next moment she finds she is not. The man in the black coat and the piercing eyes stands before her. Is that a lamp? There is a bright light coming from somewhere. With her eyes shielded against the sudden illumination, she takes in her surroundings. A quick scan of the room reveals four stone walls but there is no windows and no door. No, that’s not right. Is it a room at all? Nothing seems to stay in place. It’s like a digital television picture that is breaking up. Or words dancing on a printed page. The man moves slowly towards her. Is that a gun in his pocket or is he just ……..

A sound she recognises is trying to break through the silence. It takes Bianca a few moments to realise that it is coming from the table in front of her. It is her phone. It is displaying incoming call along with the battery critically low icon. She puts down the thriller she is reading and answers it. It is Cathy.

‘Hi Cathy,’ she says, ‘Am I glad to hear a ……… a familiar voice? Look! I’m in …… ‘

‘Are you all right?’ says Cathy. ‘You seem in a bit of a state.’

‘I’m in Café Noir,’ says Bianca, regaining her composure. ‘But there’s this creepy man in a dark coat with a scar down his cheek who keeps staring at me. I have been trying to hide myself behind a book, hoping that he will take the hint. But, he looks as if he’s going to come over. He is coming over. You know what. I think I will come to the cinema with you after all.’

‘You’d better hurry then. The film starts at 8:20.’

‘I’ll be ri …..… ‘

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Zelkova Serrata

zelkovaserrata2017

Zelkova Serrata by Chris Green

Was it a knock that had woken her? Anna doesn’t like being alone in the big old house at the best of times, but knowing that Ron is on the other side of the world makes her more edgy. She takes a look at the clock. It is 3:23. Much too late for anyone to be calling even if it were an emergency. Perhaps it was the wind rattling the window. She remembers that the weather forecast had not been a good one.

But she is wide awake now. It is too far into the night to be able to go straight back to sleep. She puts on her white full-length Féraud dressing gown and goes down to the kitchen. There is nothing like a cup of tea and a slice of chocolate cake to settle you when you are on edge. While she is waiting for the kettle to come to the boil, she has the nagging feeling that something is not right. She can’t quite put her finger on it, but something feels different. She makes a quick check around the front room, the study, the utility room. Although nothing seems to be out of place, it feels as if there has been some recent movement. She is familiar with this feeling. It’s not something you can put into words. There’s an energy field, a cold spot, something along those lines. She shivers. She recalls reading that the saying about someone walking over your grave originates from the Middle Ages when the distinction between life and death was less distinct.

She checks the conservatory. The lemon tree seems to have been moved. She cannot be sure, but she does not remember leaving the patio doors unlocked. She is careful about things like this. Ron’s work in security and surveillance has instilled this sensibility in her. But whether or not she locked them, they are unlocked now. And if they are unlocked now, then someone could have got in, in fact, they could still be in the house. What should she do? Instinctively, she picks up the nearest blunt object, in this case, the cast iron frying pan that she left on the hob. There are no obvious hiding places in the house but still, the fear remains.

She switches all the lights on and nervously patrols the rest of the house. She looks behind dressers, in cupboards, under the stairs. Nothing. She takes a torch out into the garden. Nothing. With a sense of relief, she pours the boiling water onto a camomile teabag and sits herself down at the dining room table. She is about to give Ron a call but she thinks better of it and puts the phone back in its cradle. There is no point in worrying him unnecessarily. He would not be able to fly back from Singapore just like that, and anyway what is all the fuss about. There is no-one in the house and she doesn’t want to let Ron know that there has been a security lapse, even one so minor.

Anna goes back to bed, but she can’t settle. Rebel thoughts about an intruder keep up their campaign. She tosses and turns. She wishes that Ron were there. He would comfort her. Perhaps they might make love. Making love usually helps to calm her when she is troubled. They say climaxing re-balances the chakras. But Ron’s not there, she tells herself, nor is he going to be for a while, so she has to take command of the situation. She must pull herself together.

Ron’s probably had his chakras re-balanced out east,’ says annA.

There’s nothing to be gained by dwelling on it,’ Anna counters

But you’re resentful and jealous,’ says annA.

If you can’t do anything about something you should let it go,’ her protector offers.

You could even the score.’

But what would that prove.’

Of course, you are on your own and you are scared,’ says annA.

Free your mind from the judgements of others and gently go your own way in peace,’ adds Anna. ‘Things will work out if you trust reason and logic.’

The see-saw continues to rock her emotions. The wind continues to rattle the window. Eventually, at around 6 am Anna manages to get off to sleep. But, after a nightmare about being held captive in a dark dank basement in Blackheath by a one-eyed hunchback, she wakes up in a sweat. She does not normally inhabit such ghoulish dreamscapes. Her night-time world is typically occupied by people from the office or her friends from her decoupage class or the gym where she does her Pilates – in mash-ups of random everyday situations.

She showers and gets ready for work. Her stomach is churning a little and she doesn’t feel like breakfast but manages to force down an oatcake with her cup of tea. She straightens her skirt and puts on a bright summer coat. She fobs her Mini Cooper but it seems to already be unlocked. Now, this is something she never does. The car is her pride and joy and she would never leave it unlocked. Not even on the occasions, she has to go back into the house for something she has forgotten. She is spooked. The plain white envelope on the dashboard sets her heart racing even faster. It has her name on the front in fine black italic capitals. With trepidation, she picks it up and examines it. Finally, she opens it. It is empty.

She needs to get to work. Her line manager, Maurice will know what she should do. Even before she slept with him last Christmas he was supportive, and for that matter, afterwards, even though she didn’t sleep with him again. Maurice is a rock. He will put his arm around her and reassure her. He will tell her that there is nothing to worry about. He will probably tell her it is just someone having a prank. It happens all the time, he will say. She sets off, trying hard to keep this thought in mind.

Another thing she always makes sure of is that the Mini has fuel. She is so cautious that as soon as the level reaches halfway, she fills the tank. But, when the car shudders to a standstill going along the back lane onto the by-pass, she notices that the fuel gauge is registering empty. Why didn’t the red light come on? Emergency Calls Only reads the display on her phone. What is wrong with the thing? She only changed providers last month.

Lovers Lane, as it is affectionately known, is not what most people would think of as a sinister place. It has arable fields on both sides with well-tended hedgerows and further along there is a pleasant area of woodland. Anna gets out of the car. The winds that were blowing through the night have died down and there is a stillness in the air. She cannot even hear the hum of traffic that you might expect to hear coming from the dual carriageway. She is about halfway along the lane. She looks up and down. Should she head back home on foot to phone the AA Roadside Assistance from there? Has her breakdown cover lapsed, she wonders? Ron is the one who takes care of these matters and he has been away such a lot lately. Should she wait for someone to come along? Even though the road is not well used, her car is blocking the highway. She can’t leave it where it is. And she hasn’t the strength to move it to a passing place on her own.

Hello, my lovely,’ says a voice, from out of nowhere.

It is not the knight in shining armour or the good Samaritan she is hoping for. It is the one-eyed hunchback from her dream. He is carrying some kind of axe.

Dozens of stories she has heard of mad killers on the loose momentarily flash through her consciousness. The one who butchered his killers and kept them in the deep freeze. He escaped from prison a year ago. He is still on the loose. The one who skinned his victims? Was he ever caught, or is it just a character from a film she is thinking of? The cannibal murderer that was in the news recently. The line from the song by The Doors Ron sometimes plays in the car, there’s a killer on the road, his brain is squirming like a toad runs through her head.

The axeman is over her now. He has raised his weapon. Anna feels she is going to pass out. The last thing she remembers is …….

She is startled by a knock on the driver’s side window.

Everything all right, love?’ a stranger says. This one is not carrying an axe. He is well dressed and has a winning smile.

What? How?’ she says, as she winds down the window. ‘Where am I?’

Are you all right?’ he asks, in soothing tones.

What happened to ….. the ….. the ….. I was …… What’s going on?’

I’m sorry I startled you,’ he says. ‘It’s just that I need to get by …… and, well, my sweet, you are blocking the road.’

Sorry,’ Anna says, finally realising where she is. ‘I’ve …….. uh. I’ve run out of petrol’

Start it up. Let’s have a look,’ the man says. ‘It may not be the fuel.’

Anna turns the key and the engine fires up.

Look! See! It started first time,’ he says ‘And, you’ve got over half a tank.’

Thank you. Thank you. ……. How did that happen? I could have sworn it was empty. I don’t know what to say.’

I’ll tell you what,’ the man says. ‘You do seem a bit shaken. Now, I live just along the lane, there. Why don’t you come in for a cup of tea to settle you?’

Yes. I think I’d like that,’ Anna says, meeting his gaze. He really is quite handsome.

I’m Lars, by the way,’ he says.

, Anna notices his shirt is almost the same blue as his eyes. ‘Pleased to meet you, Lars,’ she says. ‘I’m Anna.’

My house is that white one on the right, past the row of poplars there,’ he says, pointing. ‘The one with the gables.’

I know that house,’ Anna says. ‘The one that belonged to the mystery writer. I pass by every day. It has a distinctive tree on the lawn. A Japanese elm I believe. I’ve often admired it.’

Yes, a zelkova serrata. Lovely in autumn.’

I’ve read they can live to be a thousand years old.’

Yes,’ he laughs. ‘It will certainly outlive you or I. Just pull into the drive, and I’ll be right behind.’

Anna manoeuvres the Mini the hundred yards along the lane to the white house, followed by Lars in his black Mercedes Coupé. Under the shade of the zelkova tree, they exchange glances. Anna feels something is in the air. It is a feeling she has had before, one involving weakness and knees, her weakness, her knees. Inside the house, one thing quickly leads to another. Before she knows it, they are in one another’s arms, kissing.

Perhaps you would like a glass of white wine,’ Lars says. ‘Or would you prefer red?’

Maybe later,’ Anna says, slipping out of her skirt.

The newspaper open at the story of the axe murderer has escaped her attention. She may not discover, therefore, until it is too late, how the victims were buried beneath a shady tree, similar in all respects to the one she can see through Lars’s bedroom window.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

BALACLAVA

balaclava

BALACLAVA by Chris Green

The coach has just left the bus station. We are waiting at the lights when, through the back window, I catch a glimpse of a man in a balaclava. He is running through the crowd. He has a handgun. He waves it around. He is shouting something. He begins to fire shots indiscriminately at the passengers in the bay next to the one our coach has just drawn out from. I am paralysed. I can’t believe this is happening. The lights change and our coach moves off. The man in the balaclava fires more shots.

‘Did you just see that?’ I shout to the woman who is sharing the long back seat with me.

It is a pointless question. It is clear that she didn’t see anything. She has her head in a Jodi Picoult paperback. Change Of Heart or something like that. She is about forty and dressed for a long journey with lots of layers, maroons and purples. She is surrounded by a good selection of mismatched travel bags. She is using the luggage to guard her space. She does not want anyone else to take the seat. Her body language further suggests that she does not want to enter into a conversation with a strange man on a coach, especially one who is behaving hysterically.

‘What!’ she says, not looking up from her book.

‘There was a man firing shots,’ I say.

‘What are you talking about?’ she says, maintaining a level of disinterest. She even manages to turn a page.

‘Out of the back window,’ I say. ‘Look!’

I point out of the back window, and she starts to pay a little attention, but we are now some distance away and it is difficult to make out anything through the traffic and the drizzle.

The man in the seat in front of us has turned round. He gets up from his seat and comes back to where I am sitting and wipes the window with the sleeve of his jacket, but it is too late. The coach has turned the corner.

‘He was there,’ I say. ‘A man in a balaclava. Firing shots. Into the crowd waiting for the coach.’

‘You sure of that, bud? I never saw nothing.’ he says, leaning over me. He is one of those people who do not appear to understand the etiquette of personal space. He has bad breath, a mop of unruly dark hair and a black beard that is starting to go grey. ‘You haven’t been on the waccy baccy, have you?’

I want to tell him I am sure I saw the gunman, but I feel intimidated. I wonder whether I should try to attract the attention of the coach driver, to get him to turn the coach around to check, but why would he believe me? Even if he were to go for my story, why would he want to put us all in danger? For all I know coach drivers have a procedure to follow when it comes to terrorist activity. They are probably required to put the passengers’ safety first at all times.

I sit back down. Given the others’ reaction, I am already beginning to doubt what I saw. Sometimes when you are stressed the mind can play tricks. And I have been feeling a little odd lately, one way or another. All I want to do is get home.

The coach is surprisingly empty. To avoid her getting any further interruptions, Jodi Picoult takes advantage of this and moves her bags up towards the front. Waccy Baccy, having returned to his seat keeps turning round to check what I am up to.

‘You OK, bud?’ he says. His accent is difficult to place, somewhere between the Midlands and the Moon. ‘You were having a bit of a turn back there.’

I nod. I don’t feel this is someone I could get along with. I want to keep my distance. I wish he too would move further up the coach.

As we get out on to the dual carriageway, I call Halo on her mobile, but for some reason, she is not picking up. Perhaps she is in the garden. Sometimes she sits out in the early evening with a glass of white wine. I try closing my eyes to relax myself but I keep seeing the image of the gunman. I can see him clearly now, much clearer than before, in his dark clothes. He is running, shouting. He has the gait of a young man, perhaps in his twenties. He is slim, athletic. Most distinctively he has a balaclava to conceal his face.

I remember learning at school that Balaclava gets its name from an 1854 battle in the Crimean War which was part of the Siege of Sevastopol to capture Russia’s principal naval base on the Black Sea. British troops used them to protect themselves against the bitter cold. They convey a more sinister message on the streets today. To most people they represent a warning that something bad is about to happen.

The coach is supposed to have wi-fi but I can’t get anything on my phone. What I witnessed though is sure to be on the TV news later. It will be the main story. The gunman will probably have been shot by police marksmen, maybe in another location, He will have gone down fighting to further his cause. Martyrs help to raise the profile of terrorist organisations. This is one of their recruiting strategies. The newsreader will say how many people were killed and a reporter will interview some witnesses to the incident. A security expert with an unlikely name will suggest it is time to raise the threat level from substantial to severe perhaps even critical. Over the next few days, there will be speculation as to how the gunman slipped through the net. Why hadn’t the security services flagged up such an obvious killer? They will talk about radicalisation without anyone explaining exactly what radicalisation involves.

I get home and switch on the news channel. Halo asks me what is wrong. I normally greet her with more fondness and almost never watch the news.

‘Haven’t you heard anything?’ I say.

‘I have no idea what you are talking about,’ she says. I think she may have had several glasses of wine.

There is nothing about it on the news. There are reports of boatloads of migrants arriving on a small Greek island, and update on the Portuguese debt crisis and a lengthy analysis of England’s humiliating exit from the European Championships at the hands of San Marino.

I give a detailed account of what I saw to Halo.

‘What’s got into you?,’ she says. ‘Why do you think it is that no one else saw it and it hasn’t made the news? You have been working too hard. I’ve noticed that you have been a little strange for the last couple of weeks. I’m worried about you. Perhaps you ought to take a few days off or go and see Doctor Stoner.

I do not tell her that I have been taking a few days off work, in fact, I lost my job two weeks ago after they noticed I was behaving strangely, but knowing how disappointed Halo would be I have not got around to telling her. I have been going through the motions of going to work, but instead of staying in my usual accommodation which was tied in with the job, I have been hanging out with my old college friend, Jazz. Apart from anything else, Halo doesn’t approve of Jazz. As his name suggests, he is a musician and she understands that musicians have all kinds of bad habits.

I start searching the internet. The web is often quicker off the mark with breaking news than television. There has to be something here. To my amazement though, none of the news sites has anything relating to this attack, or for that matter any attack. I google likely search terms in case the news media has overlooked it, coach station, balaclava, handgun, that sort of thing. Google comes up with pages and pages of special offers from National Express, cosmopolitan ranges of protective headgear and a bewildering array of handguns.

Over the weekend, I can’t stop thinking about what I saw. More and more details about the incident come back to me. I explain this to Doctor Stoner. He tells me that I am delusional and my delusions, along with my erratic behaviour are likely to be attributable to skunk. Skunk, he explains, doodling on his desk pad, does not affect the brain in the same way that weed does. Traditional weed or hash has a balanced THC: CBD ratio. With skunk, the psychoactive element, THC is not balanced by the anti psychotic element, CBD. In a word, skunk is very high in THC and very low in CBD. This increases the risk of paranoia and even psychosis.

‘But I don’t smoke skunk, Doctor,’ I say.

‘You still like the weed then? Good man!’

‘No! I don’t smoke weed either.’

‘Just hash, then?’

‘No, nothing.’

‘Ah,’ he says. ‘Not even a little.’

‘No,’ I say.

‘Well, it may not be that then. I haven’t prescribed you anything …… unusual lately, have I? Let me have a look.’

‘I think I really did see a man wearing a black three hole balaclava firing shots from a Glock G17 pistol indiscriminately into the crowd in Bay 6 of the coach station.’

‘Then why have you come to see me? I think it’s probably the police you need.’

Sergeant Boss and Constable Newby arrive at the house in response to my 999 call. I give them a detailed account of what happened. Sergeant Boss makes careful notes and contacts colleagues on his radio. Constable Newby is just there for decoration it seems. He flicks through my CD collection. He takes a particular interest in the Nick Cave section. Surely he is not old enough to have heard of Nick Cave.

‘You are telling me that all this happened last Friday,’ says Sergeant Boss. ‘Why didn’t you call in then? Withholding information relating to a serious crime is an offence, you know.’

Why is he trying to be difficult when I am trying to be helpful.

‘I’m telling you now,’ I say, trying to be assertive.

‘Let me see if I’ve got this right,’ he says. ‘You say that Sa’id Yaqub Ali, the slim, athletic looking man firing shots with a Glock G17 Generation 3 9 millimetre pistol into the middle of the crowd of people waiting for the 5:35 for Birmingham last Friday evening wore black Adidas jogging pants, black Converse cutoffs, a charcoal grey SuperDry quilted zipper jacket and a black three hole SAS style double layered knitted acrylic balaclava.’

‘Not the middle of the crowd, Sergeant’ I say. ‘Ali appeared to be aiming at Norris and Shonda Grooms from Handsworth and Rolf Heller from Acock’s Green and they were all just a little back from the middle. He was not a very good shot. Perhaps he had been to the wrong training camp or perhaps he was self-radicalised. The first shot caught Norris Grooms in the right arm and the second shot missed all of them. The third shot hit Rolf Heller in the chest and he fell to the ground. The fourth shot ………..

‘You were able to see all this from the back seat of the coach?’ says Sergeant Boss.

‘Yes. Clear as day.’ I tell him. ‘The fourth shot narrowly missed Shonda Grooms’ shoulder and ended up ….. ‘

‘Even though, you say there was heavy drizzle and the window had misted up.’

‘Yes. And then the man in the military mac with the medals called out for everyone to duck down. Sa’id Yaqub Ali then aimed lower. By then our coach was turning the corner, so I’m not sure what happened next. But even given Ali’s limitations as a sniper someone must surely have been killed.’

‘Yet Division says that no-one else has reported the incident,’ says Sergeant Boss. ‘That’s a little strange don’t you think? ……… Can you check some of these people out, Newby.’

‘Which people would that be Sarge?’ says Constable Newby.

‘The gunman for a start, and try to get the right name. It’s Sa’id …… Yaqub ……. Ali. Then the ones our friend here has been talking about, Norris and Shonda Grooms, was it, and Rolf Heller.’

My phone rings and I pick it up.

‘Hello. Is that Icarus Hynes?’ says the voice.

‘Yes. Icarus Hynes speaking,’ I say.

‘Doctor Stoner here,’ he says. He sounds a little nervous.

‘Hello Doctor.’ I say.

‘You were in the other day and I looked up your, um ….. records to see if I had prescribed anything ….. unusual,’ he says. ‘Well! …….. I’m not sure how to say this. I think I might have made a small mistake. You had been to see me three weeks earlier and I gave you something for your throat infection. Do you remember?’

‘Yes. You gave me some tablets and told me to take them twice a day,’ I say. ‘They cleared it up in no time.’

‘Ah! Did they? Did they indeed? And then you stopped taking them, right?’

‘Well, no. You told me to complete the three week course.’

‘Ah! I see. That is unfortunate,’ he says. ‘What I’m phoning about you see is that I may have inadvertently prescribed the wrong medication. In fact, an experimental new drug. Now, Apocrozil is new to the market and according to this paper I’ve just read in my medical journal, it was not rigorously tested. The report says that it may have a number of undesired and alarming side effects.’

‘What might those be, Doctor?’ I say.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

The Way We Were

thewaywewere

The Way We Were by Chris Green

It was Monday morning and I was not particularly pressed for time. I was off work as a result of an old Pilates injury flaring up. I had been told to rest. I was sorting out some matters that in my busy schedule at the kite repair workshop I never got the chance to attend to. I had updated all of the firewalls, spyware programs and virus checkers on the computer, cleaned the hard drive, and found five friends on Facebook. I had arranged for a tree surgeon to come and take a few feet off the weeping willow in the back garden, contacted the council about the broken streetlights, booked the car in for its MOT, and cleared the mouldy vegetables from the back of the carousel. Although my partner, Danuta, was on the face of it very thorough in cleaning the house, the kitchen cupboard seemed to be one area that escaped her attention.

I spent the rest of the morning watching a welcome repeat of The History of the Harmonica on one of the new Freeview Channels, and over a light lunch, a special report on the prisoners’ strike. This was now into its fifth day with no signs of the prisoners’ demands for an extra £5 per week and a shorter working week being met. ‘The cost of drugs has gone up loads,’ one prisoner who was interviewed had said as justification for their action. ‘Why don’t we just beat the bleep bleep out of them?’ a warden had said not realising that he was on camera. In summing up the presenter, Giles Trevithick took the view of Foucault that perhaps prison was part of a larger carceral system that could not fail to produce offenders, and did nothing to offer a place in society for them if they reformed. It was surprising only that standoffs such as the current one did not occur more frequently.

I had just switched over to the Fishing Channel to watch the semi-finals of the Mid Wales Regional Angling Championships when there was a knock at the door. I was not expecting anyone so, at first, I let it go, but Alan, our Giant Schnauzer, started barking feverishly, so I got up to answer it. Perhaps it was Danuta, home early from her part-time job at the Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre, I thought, but then, she would have a key. Unless she had forgotten it. She had been in a bit of a fluster this morning after Alan had vacated on the hall carpet. ‘You should take him for more walks,’ she had shouted up the stairs. I reminded her that I had been told to take it easy; Dr Shipman had been quite specific on this point.

I found the key and opened it. Standing at the door was Eddie. To say I was shocked would not be an adequate appraisal of the situation. I hadn’t seen Eddie since I was twelve years old. Not since the incident with the cat…… I did a quick calculation. This would have been 1966. The thing was the Eddie that stood across the threshold with a football under his arm still seemed to be twelve years old. He even wore the same red Manchester United football shirt that I remembered with long sleeves and the number 11 on the back and the same green and white Gola Harrier trainers that he had been so proud of back then. He hadn’t changed a bit. He still had the same lank ginger hair and freckles. And the small mark over his left eyebrow where Nick had punched him outside our house and the blood had run down his face. Dad had had to take him to hospital to have four stitches. This definitely seemed to be the very same Eddie. The same gap between his front teeth which seemed too large for his mouth and made him look a little goofy.

Hi,’ he said in a blasé fashion as if he had seen me yesterday. There was no hint of surprise or curiosity on his face. He did not seem to notice that I had changed. That I was over forty years older, with a fuller figure, less hair, and some unsightly facial scars.

Wanna come down the rec,’ he asked.

Eddie had always been the one to organise the kick-arounds. He was the one who owned the football. If his team was losing or if he was having a bad game, he would just say ‘it’s my ball’ and head off home with it, leaving me and Mart and Malc and whoever else was playing stranded. Before that, he had been the one who had the Scalextric or the train set. He was the one whose house we would be able to go round to. He was an only child so his parents had a tendency to spoil him. He was always the first one to have the new trainers or the new football shirt or the new Kinks LP.

Eddie was bouncing the ball now with some vigour, clearly waiting for a reply. I thought perhaps that going to the rec was a little impractical as the rec he was referring to was three hundred miles away. And of course, there was my Pilates injury to consider. I asked him to come on in for a minute, hoping that the improbable situation would somehow resolve itself.

He came in and made his way through to the kitchen. I offered him a glass of Tizer. He remarked on the groovy new bottle. This was the first sign that he might be noticing a time warp.

The phone rang. I let it ring a while thinking perhaps it would make Eddie feel that he was being ignored if I took the call. The phone kept on ringing and Alan started barking at it, so I went into the front room and answered it. It was Danuta to tell me that she would be working late. Magda and Kinga had not turned up for work and things were pretty manic at the Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre. Fridge magnets had apparently featured on a lifestyle programme on Sky and there was a bit of a run on them. She had to go, she said, as there was a queue of people at the desk wondering what would be the best thing to put on their Smeg. I did not get the chance to tell her about our visitor. I wondered momentarily whether Danuta might be having an affair. This was the third time this month that there had been a television-led demand for fridge magnet advice. I dismissed the thought. If she were playing away there would be other signs, like lingerie catalogues coming through the mail, or new bottles of perfume appearing with inappropriate names like Bitch or Hussy. I made a mental note to phone the centre later to see who answered. Meanwhile, I had to get back to Eddie.

On returning to the kitchen there was no sign of Eddie, just an empty glass on the work surface by the fridge. I quickly scurried around the house, then the garden, but there was absolutely no trace of him. He had vanished.

I did not think I would be able to concentrate on the Mid Wales Regional Angling Championship, so I decided to pop to the supermarket to buy some garbanzo beans and some taboule. I had also noticed when I was cleaning out the carousel that we were getting a little low on guacamole and cactus leaf strips. Although Waitrose was not far, I decided to drive. I had recently, against all advice, bought a Chrysler PT Cruiser. The Honest John website had likened it to ‘a Ford Prefect on steroids’, and this was one of the better reviews. Now, even the novelty of its retro styling had worn off, which is why I had got it so cheap. It seemed to get from A to B though, albeit with alarming under-steer on corners.

I had not seen Ros since the spring of 1974 when we had had a brief fling. So imagine my surprise when there she was at the delicatessen counter. With her shoulder length reddish blond hair and flirtatious smile, she was unmistakeable. She was exactly as I remembered her. She had not changed one bit. Her eyes still sparkled the way that they had and she still wore the same pale blue eye shadow and a light coat of black mascara around them. Everything about her seemed suddenly familiar. She even had on the same cheesecloth top that I had bought her from Jean Machine and a pair of flared FU’s jeans with a wide Biba belt. I remembered our first date. We had gone to see The Way We Were, and half way through I had said, ‘this film is rubbish, let’s go back to my place’ and to my surprise, she had agreed.

Back then she was studying to be a chef and around May time, she had found herself with a heavy schedule of exams. With Ros busy revising, I had time on my hands and one night went to the Uzi Bar and come home somewhat worse for wear with a barmaid called Lola. Ros found out that I had slept with Lola when she came round next day and found a bracelet in my bed. I had not heard from her again.

However despite the intervening years, she now appeared to instantly recognise me. And despite my erstwhile infidelity, she greeted me with a big hug and seemed keen to ‘catch up’. Still in a state of disbelief, I struggled hard to find the right words to say, in fact, any words at all. When finally I managed to ask her what she was doing now, she said she was studying to be a chef and had a heavy schedule of exams.

I don’t know if Ros became distracted by the range of Scandinavian furniture and modern art prints in the store or if she was just spirited away, but during the time the delicatessen assistant was weighing out my pitted green olives and taramasalata, she disappeared. I searched the store high and low and even got the shift supervisor to ask for her on the tannoy, but there was no sign.

As I drove away from the store my head was in turmoil. I ran through a red light by Marcello’s All Day Breakfasts, narrowly missing a Murco tanker, and almost mowed down an old lady and her Jack Russell on the zebra-crossing by the Fat Elvis Burger restaurant.

I had read enough of the self-help books that Danuta brought home from the community library to know that I had to pull myself together and get a grip. Perhaps Louise L. Hay or James Redfield had not expressed it exactly in these terms but this seemed to be the general gist of their message. I put my Brian Eno CD on to relax me and tried breathing deeply as I had learned in Yoga. I pulled in by the stretch of water by the leisure centre and sat there for a few minutes, listening to the calming cries of the coots and the moorhens. I closed my eyes and tried to gather my thoughts. I told myself that whatever was happening I was not in a life-threatening situation. Everything could be resolved in fifty-five minutes. This according to someone, whose name escaped me, was the amount of time it should take to adjust to a new situation over which you had no control.

I stretched my legs with a gentle stroll around the park, gradually gaining my self-control. A few joggers were out taking their early evening exercise and one or two people were out walking their dogs. When I noticed that the black collie-retriever bounding towards me looked a lot like Barry, my first thought was that I must have been daydreaming. A lot of dogs look alike. I made a quick calculation. Barry would be about 35. He would surely have died years ago. The dog barked excitedly as he approached. He nuzzled against my leg and then stood on his hind legs with his front paws against my chest, licking my upper arm affectionately. I quickly identified the heavily chewed black leather collar and the gouge on his neck where the fur was missing, the result of Barry’s tussle with a Staffordshire Bull Terrier in the car park at The Gordon Bennett. In the next instant, we heard a loud whistle and Barry went bounding back across the park. I called out to the disappearing figure of Janice in the distance. Janice seemed not to hear. I called again. She did not look around. She was perhaps a hundred yards away but I felt sure it was her, even though she had to the best of my information moved to France shortly after we’d split up in 1983. The tie-dyed green denim jacket and the hennaed hair gave it away. This was how Janice would have looked in around 1983. She had a Walkman on. Probably, although I could not be sure, the one that she used to listen to her Joni Mitchell cassettes on. I stumbled on a patch of rough ground, and before I knew it, she and Barry were getting into the blue Chevette estate that we had bought together at the car auction. I remembered us bidding nervously. Neither of us knew much about cars. We had bought it for £550. I hadn’t seen a Chevette in years; they were not renowned for their durability. This one though seemed to be running well. It moved away with a healthy purr. I looked back. My car was parked too far away to think about driving after her.

The irregularities of spacetime were disturbing. Supernatural forces should remain in the realm of the imaginary. But this temporal upheaval was seemingly real. It was happening, now, and to me. I was scared. I felt like vomiting, my hands were shaking, and I was sweating like a Brazilian on the Victoria Line. Had I unwittingly uncovered a portal for parallel worlds, been sucked into the hypothetical wormhole? I had read about such things in Asimov and J. G. Ballard short stories and, but not given them much credence. It took a good deal of Pranayama breathing and another fifty five minutes of consolidation before I could get up from where I was now crouching. People were coming up to me and asking me if I was all right. A gnarled old crone with a bichon frise attempted to call an ambulance, a scarecrow with a limp offered me a pull on his hip flask, and a rangy Goth with a hair lip tried to sell me some ketamin.

No amount of deep breathing, philosophical principles or stress management techniques could have prepared me for my next encounter, however. Returning to the Chrysler and noticing that the fuel gauge was low, I stopped at the BP filling station to fill up. There, at the adjacent pump, someone was putting fuel into a black Fiat Uno. I recognised the registration plate instantly. It was the Fiat I had owned in 1997. It took a split-second, while I did a double take, before I recognised that the figure in the brightly coloured paisley shirt and combat fatigues bore an uncanny resemblance to me, as I would have looked around fifteen years ago. A lot slimmer and with considerably more hair. This was genuinely scary. I felt a chill run the length of my spine. This was not like looking at old photos of oneself or a video; this was watching a real living, breathing human being in real time. Wasn’t it? Reality was a fragile concept it seemed. Albert Einstein had called reality, ‘an illusion but a very persistent one’. But even this statement suggested there was room around the edges of reality for leakage. Facing myself over a few feet of garage forecourt defied any rational explanation. I was frozen to the spot; I couldn’t move.

I watched as my doppelganger slowly fed the fuel into the tank. I studied his mannerisms and his gestures in slow motion and one by one acknowledged them as my own. I recognised the flick of the neck, the squint against the light showing the lines etched on the forehead, the nervous shifting of weight from one foot to the other as he stood. I remembered buying those cream Converse Allstars cut-offs from a car boot. My heart raced and I felt a tightness in my chest. No doubt about it; the individual I was looking at was me. Amidst the inner turmoil, rational questions like ‘why hadn’t my 1997 personification noticed that the petrol was a little pricey?’ or ‘did the Fiat run on unleaded?’ tried to find a place in my consciousness. These were powerfully swept away by wave upon wave of blind panic as I sensed my whole life might be collapsing into a single moment.

He replaced the nozzle in the pump, and as he did he appeared to look right at me, or right through me. I couldn’t decide which. Could it have been that he did not recognise me? Or to look at it another way, should that be I did not recognise me – now that I was older. No one really knew exactly what form their ageing would take. It was not something you would give a lot of thought to. But of course, Eddie had recognised me, and Ros had recognised me,despite my having changed significantly. And my smell must have been the same to Barry, although this was conclusive. Barry had always been quite a friendly dog.

My other swivelled round. I thought he was about to come over. What would he do? Introduce himself? What would I do? I felt my legs buckle. This was not like one of those dreams where you dream about a past episode and the texture of the scenario as it unfolds is surreal. This was in clear focus in the here and now. I was watching me in an everyday situation in broad daylight. He did not come over. He seemed to hesitate in mid stride and turned to walk in the opposite direction towards the BP shop.

I was not very good on dates but I determined that in 1997 I would have still been with Mizuki. We were very happy back then in our second-floor apartment overlooking the park. At weekends, we would take the children to the pool or go walking in the woods. I remembered Mizuki and I went to see As Good As It Gets at the Empire and realising how happy we were. Our contentment was of course not to last. I had been to see Mizuki’s cherry tree in the park recently. Someone had tied a ribbon around it with a bow. It had made me feel neglectful of her memory. I had lost touch with Sakura and Reiko a long time ago. They would have left school by now. At least, none of them were in the Uno parked at the neighbouring pump; their presence would have cranked my present nightmare up another notch.

My other emerged from the shop with an evening newspaper. I read the headline. It was about Diana’s death. Something about a mystery white car in the Alma Tunnel. As he passed he seemed to look directly at me, or through me again. He could not have been more than twenty feet away. He got into the car. As he wound down his window I detected a hint of recognition….. I didn’t detect a hint of recognition….. I wasn’t sure. My mouth opened to call out to him but no words came. He drove off. The exhaust from the Fiat was still blowing, just as I remembered it. I put the pump back without having put any fuel in the car and set out to follow him.

He turned left down Hegel Avenue. I used to live on the Philosophers’ estate. I had lived there for over fifteen years, and it occurred to me that wherever we were headed was a run that I probably had made many times. I thought back to the types of journey I would have made in the Fiat in 1997. Mostly on account of the Fiat’s unreliability these would have been short journeys. To and from work. To the shops at Kirkegaard Court. Where would I have been likely to have been going at six thirty in the evening? It must have been after I had been made redundant from Gadgets and Gizmos. I usually didn’t finish there till late. Perhaps I was going to visit Mick or Charlie. They both lived in the Schopenhauer Court flats. I might have been going to pick Mizuki up from the Sushi restaurant where she worked. I tried to recall if she had her own car back then. Memories of her came flooding back once again. We passed the Occam’s Razor pub where we used to sit out on summer evenings for a couple of halves of Old Poets.

The exhaust of the Fiat in front of me was now belching out black smoke. We seemed to be heading back on ourselves as we forked right into Rousseau Gardens. A Brimful of Asha (On the 45) read a poster outside The Codfather takeaway. This surely was an old poster. Shouldn’t they have taken it down? We passed the Mahatma Gandhi Primary School where Sakura and Reiko used to go, and then right at the Karl Marx roundabout. It began to dawn on me where we were headed. Usually I would have turned left at the Karl Marx roundabout, taking me home along Darwin Road. Turning right meant we were ………..

I woke up in the Lewis Carroll Memorial Hospital. I had sustained multiple head injuries in the accident. I could not remember very much about the actual collision, but after a few sessions with Dr. Trinidad, I recalled a little about the events leading up to it. An overweight elderly man driving an ugly black Chrysler had been tailgating me. It was a model I had not seen before. It was shaped like a hearse and its registration plate was in an unusual format.

I had first noticed this sinister character with his receding hairline and unsightly facial scars at the BP filling station. My attention was drawn to him because he was behaving very strangely. He stood there at the pump pointing the fuel hose into the air. He stared at me the whole time I was filling up. For a second, I thought he seemed familiar but I could not place where I might have seen him. The more I contemplated this, the more I imagined I had been mistaken. I put my imagined recognition down to the intensity of his gaze.

When I pulled off he got into his car, without putting in any fuel in, and started following me. He kept his distance at first. I took a right at the Karl Marx roundabout into Nietzsche Avenue and ducked into Spinoza Crescent to make certain that he was really tailing me. He was closer now. I slowed down to give him the chance to overtake but he stayed behind. I sped up trying to lose him, but the Fiat was not very fast. The last thing I remember I was driving down Descartes Drive. He was right behind me, driving like a madman.

… heading for Descartes Drive, where years ago I had been rammed by an old maniac in a forties style gangster getaway car. About fifteen years ago. I had been trapped in my …. Fiat Uno.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

FILM

film2

FILM by Chris Green

I have never watched an interactive film before. IF, as it is becoming known, is a revolutionary idea to get the audience involved in what they would like to see happen on the screen. I am watching with an open mind. I feel that democratising cinema in this way has great potential, so long as it avoids the perils of lowest common denominator that have befallen 3D. IF is being hailed as a way to combat dwindling cinema audiences. You will not get this experience at home, is its slogan. The idea behind IF is that at the end of each scene the screen fades to black and the audience is given a multiple-choice question about what they would like to happen next. The director, in this case, Leif Velásquez, might have filmed many different options for each segment. Film budgets have reportedly gone through the roof since IF’s introduction.

There are some very odd camera angles. It appears that Leif likes to keep the cameras running all the time to catch the actors even when they are out of character. He must have had cameras everywhere to get some of the shots. Leif is what is often described as a cult director and this is one of the smaller productions running at the Cinelux. Modest though Screen 19 might be, it seems most of the audience have firm ideas about how the narrative should be driven. With so much audience participation the plot becomes almost incomprehensible, marred by more gratuitous violence and profligate sex than is strictly necessary for a story about the life of an ageing landscape painter in the Lincolnshire Wolds. Bradley and I leave our seats a few minutes before the film is scheduled to finish to catch the 10:30 bus home.

I insert my CineCard into the checkout machine in the foyer and begin to answer the barrage of questions that appear on the touch screen. Did I enjoy the film? How many stars do I give it? Will I recommend it to friends? How often do I visit the cinema? How many are in my party? How far have I travelled? The database has information about me that it tells me I am overdue to confirm. Is Source Code still my favourite film? Is Purple Rain still my favourite movie song? Cinema feedback has become intrusive. Last time I came it was a simple yes or not to did you enjoy the film. Now they seem to be doing everything possible to keep you in the cinema. It gives CineLux yet another opportunity to advertise their upcoming productions, which they fire at you from every corner of the prodigious foyer generating information overload.

A queue of people has formed behind me and Dale, the young male assistant in his turquoise CineLux uniform can see I am struggling with the questions. He comes over to help. Dale has a supercilious customer-service grin. I tell him that I have a bus to catch and he says he will be as quick as he can. You don’t need to answer all of the domestic product questions, he says, deleting the list, and you can skip the ones about your income group if you press this. He guides me through the rest of the questions and as the barrier lifts, I thank him. I cannot see Bradley. I wonder where he has got to. I imagine that he must have made his way through his checkout quicker than me and will be waiting outside.

I leave the warm interior of the CineLux and find myself in the midst of a thick fog. This has descended since we have been in the cinema. I probably shouldn’t see this as too much of a surprise as city fogs have become a regular occurrence. Pea soupers they are calling them, after the London fogs of the nineteen-fifties. Meteorologists blame them on industrial air pollution. There has been much talk about taking measures to tackle them, but with the political impasse little has actually been done to clean up manufacturing processes. The loss of life through tuberculosis is constantly trumped by the drive to match China’s output. The argument put forward by many industrialists that the fogs were made worse by the atmospheric conditions of the summer months is wearing thin now that it is November. There have been half a dozen in the last few weeks, sometimes lasting for days.

Despite the thick fog, the streets are busy. I do not come to these parts often. I try to get my bearings. To move out of the way of the masses that are now leaving the cinema, I carelessly step off the pavement into the trajectory of an articulated lorry which is going much too fast for the conditions. The leviathan narrowly misses me. Why do they have to come through the city at night? Isn’t it time that they re-opened the ring road? Is it really because of a nuclear leak? The driver gives a blast on his horn which sounds like a rock concert. I step the other way and a black Mercedes van with tinted windows narrowly misses me. It has a white logo on the side, MovieMax or something. Isn’t that the name of a film production company? Someone shouts something at me out of the window.

Bradley is nowhere to be seen. I imagine that he is making his way to the bus stop. Bradley is three years older than me, but as his brother, I feel responsible for him. While his autism is what they call high-functioning, it does give him the tendency to go on ahead, unaware of any companions or any complications there might be. He does not always see the need to put his intentions into words. It would be fair to say that he sometimes has difficulty with communication, and social interaction. He might have been fired by a sudden interest in something and already be back at the house we share.

It is but a short distance to the bus stop, but with visibility down to a few feet, I get lost somewhere along Church Street. There is a lot of redevelopment and scaffolding is everywhere. The shops seem to have all changed since I was last in this part of the city and I can’t even see the church. The miasma is all-enveloping. Even if I can find the bus stop, the buses will have surely stopped running. I begin to worry again about Bradley. What on earth could he be thinking, going off like that without me? I wonder about catching a cab. It is unlikely that cabs ever stop running.

I have to wait half an hour for a cab. I ask my cabbie, Gayna if she has by any chance picked up Bradley. I tell her that he is about six two and he is wearing a dark green padded hoodie with an orange logo on the front. I explain that he can be a bit direct and does not make eye contact when he speaks to you. She says that she hasn’t seen him, but she kindly radios her fellow cabbies and puts the word out on the street to look out for him. I am her last fare tonight, she says, as we trundle out to the suburbs at about ten miles an hour. She thinks the fog is getting worse and comes out with stories of the near accidents she has had. Her colleague, Maccy was not so lucky she says. He got mown down last week by an army truck at the Mason Williams roundabout.

Bradley does not turn up that night. I am not at first unduly alarmed. Although we have no family nearby, Bradley does have a number of friends; perhaps not friends in the traditional sense, but people who look out for him. He may have taken it into his head to drop in on one of them. After I have phoned round the ones I have numbers for and drawn a blank, I begin to feel a little concern. I let myself into his room and have a look around. It looks just as it always does, meticulously tidy, books lined up neatly in alphabetical order on pristine shelves and clothes neatly folded in drawers, shirts ironed and hanging neatly in the white-wood wardrobe. Nothing looks out of place. What in these circumstances would constitute a clue? I really do not know what I am looking for.

Heather, Bradley’s Support Worker returns my call from earlier. She says, ‘Bradley was fine last week. We had a great chat about probability. He really knows his stuff with numbers and IT.’

Can you think of any reason he would go off?’ I ask. ‘Or anywhere he may have gone?’

No. But he is quite capable of doing things by himself, Parris. Don’t underestimate his abilities. He is more capable than a lot of people think. He practically runs the centre when he’s here. His only weakness is with customer-facing issues. Although he helped out with a performing arts workshop recently. He seemed to lose his inhibitions a little one he got into it.’

Right.’

He did say he likes playing online poker. He can calculate the odds. Card counting, he calls it. Between you and me I think that he’s won a bit of money. But I think that he thinks you don’t approve.’

I haven’t said that,’ I say. ‘I don’t think we’ve fallen out about it.’

He was excited about being in a film’, Heather says. ‘Excited probably isn’t the right word when you are talking about an ASD with HFA, but he was let’s say very positive about it. While he’s not OCD, he has a strange POV for an HFA.’

What on earth was she talking about? ‘We went to see an interactive film together,’ I say. ‘I think it must have been that. That’s when he disappeared in fact.’

Probably,’ Heather says. ‘I’m always getting details wrong. Look! I’ve got to go into a meeting. But I will have a think and get back to you.’

Heather doesn’t get back to me. When I phone back she is in another meeting.

I don’t feel that Heather has done enough to convince me that Bradley is safe. I decide to report Bradley missing.

Do you know how many people go missing in the fog,’ Sergeant Sangakkara says.

I tell him that I don’t. Does he want me to guess?

He doesn’t give me a figure, but neither does he show much sympathy as he takes the details, even after I mention Bradley’s autism.

How do you spell that,’ he says.

He tells me he will be in touch if there are any developments. It is clearly a practised line, which means he doesn’t give a damn. He doesn’t even ask me to phone him if Bradley turns up. He probably didn’t want to be a policeman, he would have liked to be a pro-wrestler or something.

I rack my brains for an explanation. Am I missing something? Has Bradley said something that might have given me a clue? I begin to look at everyone suspiciously as if they might know something about his disappearance. I keep an eye on the news. The winds have picked up they say and the fog is dispersing. Flights are to resume from several airports. Two hundred people are trapped in a mine in North-East China. Antarctica is now even smaller than they thought. There is tension in Iraq, Iran and Syria. There is always tension in Iraq, Iran and Syria. Why is it still on the news? The ring road is still closed. There is speculation that there might be some connection with terrorism. No-one it seems is available for comment.

I phone the CineLux. Perhaps they can give me some information about Bradley, from his checkout answers. I realise as I am dialling that it is a longshot.

Someone called Keisha introduces herself.

My name is Parris France,’ I say. ‘I came with my brother Bradley France to see Landscape on Screen 19 earlier this week, eleventh of November. That’s 11/11.’

She makes a joke about my name.

Yes, a lot of people remark on that,’ I say. ‘It’s Parris with a double r.’

How can I help, you, Mr France?’

My brother is missing,’ I say. ‘I was wondering if you could have a look at Bradley’s checkout record to see if it might throw any light on his disappearance.’

Do I mind if she puts me on hold? I listen to a minute or two of Miley Cyrus. Ugh!

Keisha comes back on the phone. ‘I’m afraid we have no record of Bradley France being here that night, or in fact any other night. Are you sure you have the right cinema?’

I confirm this and suggest that she may be mistaken. She assures me that there is no chance of a mistake. ‘Perhaps he used another name,’ she suggests. ‘Several hundred people visited that evening. It would take a long time to go through each one and check out if they were genuine.’

I am by now desperate for news of Bradley and keep the phone by the bed just in case. It is a day or so before the silent phonecalls start. There is no pattern to them. They come at all hours. None of them brings up a number on caller display and each time I pick up, there is no one at the other end. I want to believe that these are automated calls, but once or twice I detect some background noise, traffic passing, or a dog barking. The information is too vague to offer any real clues. Predictably each time there is no call return number. I don’t want to think that it is Bradley trying to reach me because his silence during the call would indicate that he is in a particular kind of situation which means he cannot speak. On the other hand, even if he is in danger, it would mean that he is alive. I recall seeing a psychological thriller about a woman who is driven to suicide by silent phonecalls. I cannot remember what it was called. Perhaps it was Silence or Mute or something like that. All I can recall was that it was incredibly scary.

Syreena, my married girlfriend, usually comes round to visit me two or three times a week, depending on when she can get away. To my chagrin, she is only able to come round on Thursday evening this week and the phone rings right in the middle of our lovemaking. I have the impression that Syreena secretly resents my continued support of Bradley. Although she has never said as much, she feels Bradley might be pulling the wool over our eyes with what she refers to as his condition. I hope we don’t fall out over it.

She has to get back, she says because Mikhail will be back at ten. She does not specify where he will be back from. I do not know much about Mikhail. Syreena has never offered the information and I have never asked. Our clandestine liaison probably works better this way.

Sorry,’ I say. ‘I will make it up to you.’

I’ll try and come over at the weekend,’ she says. ‘I expect everything will be fine by then.’

After about a dozen silent calls, I register with a call tracking service. TracknHack promise results, but it seems that they just want my money; they don’t actually have access to any special technology that would enable them to do so. I think about phoning Sergeant Sangakkara to chase up the police’s progress, but something tells me there won’t have been any. I’m sure that he won’t step up the investigation based on a few silent calls. I decide to leave it for another day.

I experiment with different passwords and am finally able to get into Bradley’s Facebook account, but after a good look around I find no clues. Bradley has surprisingly few friends and there are no recent status reports from those he does have. I can’t put my finger on why I feel it, but it feels as if he, or somebody else, has been tidying the account up. I turn my attention towards his gmail account. After an hour of trying to get into his account, I give up. His password is too difficult. He has not chosen something easy like IwntAstrONGpasswd28!! Someone has deleted his file history and there is nothing at all in Documents or Pictures. I do not have a lot to go on.

If there has been a fatality, the authorities surely would have come knocking. Bradley always carries ID and this is after all his home address. I try to use this as comfort, but my sense of optimism seems to be on a rest day. I begin to fear the worst. I do some internet research into the methods investigators use to find a missing person and discover that I am already employing them.

Bermuda is a small British overseas territory near the western edge of the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic. The nearest landmass is over six hundred miles away. Bermuda is famous primarily for The Bermuda Triangle. This is unfortunate if you live in Bermuda and your family fly a lot or sail a lot, as many aircraft and ships have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. My family were in such a position. My father ran a courier business, although it is widely believed this was a cover for his undercover activity with the secret service. My parents light aircraft disappeared with both of them aboard shortly after taking off for Martha’s Vineyard. Searches were not so sophisticated back then; There were fewer satellites and GPS had not come in to being.

The loss of one’s parents in tragic circumstances is not a thing that you ever come to terms with. The pain does not go away. It is nearly twenty years since it happened, but I often think back to the carefree summer days when we enjoyed a family picnic on the beach at Horseshoe Bay with a gentle breeze coming in off the sea. Or swimming in the calm waters of Jobson’s Cove with its pink sands and volcanic rocks. Or Bradley and I playing volleyball with our friends on Elbow Beach in the school holidays. In Bermuda, you are never more than a couple of miles from the coast. This idyllic life was taken away by a freak storm, or was it a magnetic fog that blew the plane’s instruments. Losing my brother in the dismal fogs in Britain’s second city would be adding insult to injury. I’m praying that lightning never strikes twice.

When they finally called off the search for the plane, we moved to England to stay with Uncle Cliff and his partner, Richard in Gweek in Cornwall. I was fourteen and Bradley was seventeen. Gweek is a village on the Helford River which is not, in fact, a river but a ria, a series of creeks flooded by the sea. Activity centred around boats and once we became used to having two uncles, we settled in easily. Bradley became very interested in boat engines and could spend all day taking one apart and putting it back together, withdrawing into his shell. Gradually Bradley’s ASD was diagnosed and his needs became a priority, although it wasn’t until eight years later after I had graduated from Birmingham University, that he moved in with me here. Despite the fogs that over the years began to envelop the Midlands, there are more facilities here that take account of Bradley’s condition and he can more or less lead a normal life.

My neighbour, Dermot is at the door. He looks sober.

This parcel came for yer man Bradley earlier,’ he says. ‘I took it in for the UPS delivery man, so I did.’

I must have been asleep,’ I say. ‘I didn’t hear him.’

No worries,’ he says. ‘I haven’t seen Bradley around a lot lately. Is he all right?’

He’s disappeared,’ I say. ‘Don’t you remember? I told you about it the other day and you said the same thing then.’

I think I may have just got back from O’Reillys’. You’re as full as a catholic school, Niamh says to me sometimes. I like that, full as a catholic school. She’s got a grand way with words, Niamh.’

I was telling you about Bradley disappearing,’ I remind him.

Oh, that’s right. I believe you did say something. Hey, wait a minute! A week ago, no it might have been a bit longer, some men came round for Bradley and they looked a bit odd, so they did. I thought at the time, what’s the craic, they don’t look like they’re from around here. They were in a black Mercedes van with tinted windows.’

But there are lots of vans with tinted windows driving around here.’

No, not drug dealers vehicles. I think this one had some big white writing on the side and a logo.’ Dermot sketches something in the air.

What do you mean, they didn’t look like they were from around here?’

Well they didn’t have Al Qaeda beards, I reckon …… and they weren’t Irish. And they weren’t Caribbean either. The van had a lot of …. you know, equipment in it.’

Would you be able to describe them?’

Some of them had, ……. like suits on, dark suits.’

You don’t remember when this was?’

There was a soft rain fog I remember, but that does not help ye much now does it?’

The fog seems to be descending again as we speak.

I expect you noticed but the ring road is open now that they’ve finished filming, Dermot says. ‘Must be quite a big film, don’t you think?’

With a cheery shrug of his shoulders, he says he must crack on. We have only been talking for a couple of minutes but his departure leaves a vacuum. A creeping desolation settles over me. I’m not very good on my own any more. I need company. What I really need is for Bradley to come through the door and everything to be all right. It would be good to talk to someone. I wonder what I have done with my counsellor’s number. I can’t even remember her name now. Janelle Council? Milly Stover? No, she was my acupuncturist. Clora Kaiser? No! It’s not coming. It was a few years ago that I had my problem.

I am racked with indecision. I don’t seem to know what to do with the parcel. I should open it. Should I open it? It is addressed to Bradley. I think perhaps I should open it, but scared of what I might find, I just stare at the large rectangular box wrapped in brown paper and parcel tape. There is no return address on it, just Bradley’s name and address in black marker pen. What might be inside? The more I look at it, the more I become paralysed with fear. It is very light. Much lighter than a box this size should be. Everything about the balance of the package is unsettling. The chilling thought runs through me that it might contain Bradley’s soul. I recall seeing the film 21 Grams. The title refers to the apparent loss in body weight when the soul leaves the body. Bradley’s soul boxed up, what an absurd idea. But the package is so light. If I put it down I think it might just float away, like a helium balloon. Gingerly, I shake it. There is no sound.

I take the plunge and start slicing at the package tape with a kitchen knife. There is no torque and I have to hold the package down firmly with my other hand to stop it slipping away. I too have a sense of slipping away. My mind begins to wander, my thoughts become more and more fluid. I think about what Dermot was saying about the black van with the tinted windows. I didn’t let him finish telling me about the men who came with the van. He told me about the ones in dark suits but he was about to tell me about the others. There was equipment in the van, he said. Could they have been a film crew? And, what he said about the ring road. They were filming, he said. Filming. I think back to Landscape, the interactive film Bradley and I watched, what now seems like aeons ago. It was Bradley’s idea to go and see the film. With IF, they film lots of different scenes and let the audience choose. Lots of different scenes! Very odd camera angles! I wonder …… It begins to dawn on me what is happening. I notice there is a camera lens in the smoke alarm. And another in the ceiling light. There are small cameras all around the house. There is even one in the flowering bird of paradise plant and two in the eyes of Bradley’s OwlMan poster. They are everywhere. Why haven’t I noticed them before? Isn’t that Leif Velásquez peering through the window? He is wearing a jacket like Bradley’s. It has the same logo on.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

North, South, East and West

northsoutheastandwest

North South, East and West by Chris Green

Sometimes, just for a moment, everything seems in place. For this brief spell of time, a supernatural force seems to be at work. There is equilibrium in the universe. It might be referred to by some as an epiphany, an insight through the divine. Here at the top of the mountain, Gregory North finds such a moment. Gregory’s mountain may be metaphorical, as might the moment, but briefly space and time conspire to offer him that sentient feeling of arrival. He is where he wants to be. It cannot last. Destiny cannot allow contentment. All actions are bound to burst the bubble.

So, how does Gregory find himself at the summit of the metaphorical mountain? What is his story? Gregory is born into a modest but steady background in a small town in the south of England. From an early age, he displays an inquisitive nature and a creative spirit. He passes all the right exams with appropriate distinctions and wins a scholarship to a revered English university. His tutor describes him as a genius. He quickly lives up to this weighty kudos. He invents a life-saving product that the world needs. The life-saving product not only makes him at twenty five the youngest person to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine, it makes him a multi-millionaire. Money does not necessarily buy you love or indeed happiness, and fame is notoriously fickle. Nevertheless, Gregory meets a beautiful woman who he feels he can communicate with on a spiritual level. He marries her. Fairytales proliferate. Clichés abound. He has his crock of gold. He remains level headed. There is equilibrium in his universe. The fame of a Nobel scientist is low key. You would not know who Gregory was. His name is never in the papers.

Where there is light there must also be shadow. They are interdependent. Gregory might like to stay exactly where he is but life insists on change. Change is the only certainty. Other forces are at work. It can only be downhill from here. There are different paths down the mountain. The west would be the best but Gregory North could go for the east putting himself in peril. The compass points may be metaphorical. The trouble that lies ahead may not be metaphorical.

Crime can take many forms. The view that crime is the province of those that do not have a large enough stake in the system, or that there is some biological or psychological explanation that accounts for deviant behaviour misrepresent the evidence. Criminals lurk everywhere. There is one not far from you now. There are many in the vicinity of Gregory. He is right in the firing line. They want to plunder his ideas, hack his computer, or forge his documents. They want to steal his money, burgle his house or steal his identity. They want to beat him up, burn his house down or kidnap his wife.

The descent begins. Gregory gets a phonecall. He does not recognise the voice. It has been disguised by software called geocrasher. You can download geocrasher for free. It makes your voice sound like a robot. The robot voice tells him that they have kidnapped his wife. The caller does not specify what the demands are for her safe return. He says he will call later. He tells Gregory he is not to contact anyone about the call and he should not try to trace it. The whole strategy is calculated to cause maximum uncertainty, something that the kidnappers have been working on. This is not something that should be happening to a Nobel Prize winner who has invented a life-saving product that the world needs.

Gregory’s wife is Italian. She is called Allegra, which means happy. She is not happy, as she is locked in a windowless space miles away from home. She is being held captive by two ruthless villains. One of them seems to do all the talking. He barks orders at her. His accent is hard to place but may be eastern European. The consonants seem to crowd the vowels. His Heckler and Koch handgun has the look of one that has been fired. He is covered in tattoos and has a scar running down one side of his face. He is disarmingly tall and has to stoop to get through the door. His drainpipe trousers are tucked into a pair of jackboots, somehow making him look even taller. He does not look like he would blend in easily anywhere. The stocky one wearing the camel coloured overcoat with the fur collar and the large white Stetson does not say anything. He just slaps her now and again to establish his authority. His eyes seem to point in opposite directions. His skin is pale, like an albino. Perhaps, Allegra thinks, he may be wearing a mask. She is not sure which of the pair is the more sinister. She is terrified.

Psychology is an important weapon in the kidnapper’s arsenal. Abduction can be viewed as a transaction. The relationship is between captor and prisoner, owner and chattel. The captor holds absolute power. He knew the moment was coming. The captive who had no idea the moment was coming holds no power. To show his cards too soon can take away the obvious advantage in negotiations that the kidnapper has. The mechanics of human nature is something the kidnappers have been working on.

Gregory waits for the follow-up call with the ransom demand, but this does not materialise. He waits by the phone. He checks his emails and his social media. He even checks the newspapers, but the Hollywood celebrity divorce and the resignation of the England football manager over match-fixing allegations have kept everything else of the front pages. But even if it got out, it would not be here, would it? Nobel prize winners are not household names.

The finger through the mail comes as a shock to Gregory. This is not what he expected the next step to be. He thought that there might be a phonecall asking him to meet at a remote location with a case full of unmarked notes, as it is in films. This is much more horrifying. He is violently sick. He cannot help himself. It is Allegra’s finger. Whoever has sent it wants him to believe that it is his wife’s finger. It is Allegra’s finger, isn’t it? He cannot be sure. It is the little finger of the left hand. It looks about the right size. There is no message to accompany it, but an hour later the robotic voice comes on the line.

‘You’ve got the message, I believe,’ says the menacing voice. ‘Stay put. Don’t talk to anyone. We will be in touch later.’

Gregory attempts a reply but the call ends. How can things have changed so much in just twenty four hours, he wonders.

Allegra has not told Gregory she is pregnant. She was saving it for the coming weekend when they would be away together. They were going to their favourite hideaway, the one that no one else seemed to have discovered. The fact that Gregory does not know she is expecting makes her situation seem all the more wretched. There are two lives at stake. Jackboots and Overcoat, of course, do not know. It would probably up the ransom demand if they did. Allegra has no idea what their plans are. They have not mentioned the reason for her internment or what any ransom demand might be. She is in a dark room, about ten feet by ten feet. The room has a hollow sound. It could also be below ground level. Although she was blindfolded, she recalls going down some stairs when they arrived. She is no longer blindfolded but she cannot see anything except when her captors visit. She can hear them approaching now. She shivers with fright.

Gregory’s phone rings. He picks it up. The scrambled voice issues a demand.

‘Twenty four hours is not long to come up with five million,’ Gregory protests.

‘In used notes,’ spits the voice. ‘None of your bitcoin or electronic transfer.’

‘That will be impossible,’ says Gregory.

‘Each day you don’t deliver you will get another finger through the post.’

Gregory mumbles something. He is not sure what he is saying. He has the idea that he needs to keep the conversation going. To what ends, we can only speculate. No-one is tracing the call. The phone goes dead. Black clouds tower in the morning sky. There are distant rumbles of thunder. The forecast is not good.

Gregory takes his portfolio and every form of identification he can muster to his local bank branch. He has never actually visited the bank before. He knows nothing about banking. He is not optimistic that he will be able to liquidate his investments, but he feels he has to try something. His wife’s captors seem to be uncompromising, but at this stage, he does not want to risk going to the police. Mr Knock, the bank manager is unavailable without an appointment and he is told there is a three week waiting list. Mr Hater, the deputy bank manager sits him down and bangs on about money laundering. Every question or request that Gregory makes is greeted with a round the houses no. Mr Hater is full of suspicion. He clearly knows that something is amiss, but will not come right out and say so. Gregory gets up to leave. He wonders if Mr Hater will call the police as soon as he has gone. He returns to the Pay and Display to find his Lexus has been stolen. The rain is torrential now.

Sergeant East seems more concerned about the theft of the Lexus than about Allegra’s kidnapping.

‘Which model is that, Mr North?’ he says.

Gregory tells him it is the Lexus LS.

‘Very nice motor, sir. Would that be the LS460 or the LS 600?’

‘The 460, but what about my wife’s kidnapping?’

‘One thing at a time sir. Is that the long wheelbase model or the sport model?’

‘How many Lexus 460s do you see on the road round here? Look! You’ve got everything you need to know you have the registration and the colour and even the chassis number, now what about my wife?’

Jackboots holds Allegra down. Despite her struggles, he begins to force her rings off over her swollen knuckle.

‘We need these, lady’ he barks. ‘I think they might help with our negotiations.’

It is only when they are being taken away that Allegra realises that rings are more than just tokens of affection. They represent her marriage. Everything that Gregory and she have together. Ties that bind in this way are sacred. She experiences the symbolism of the loathsome act that is taking place. It feels to her like murder. She screams. Jackboots covers her mouth with his hand. Her instinct tells her she should bite it. Quick as a flash, Overcoat pulls out his pistol. It is now pointing at her. She has never been more terrified. A trickle runs down her leg.

Jackboots has the rings in his hand now. He holds the engagement ring up to catch the light that filters through the open door. He forms the impression that it is a valuable one. Allegra knows it is a valuable one. It is a single stone Cartier diamond.

‘You’ll get your money,’ stammers Allegra. ‘My husband will give you the money – for my safe return.’

‘You think so,’ barks Jackboots. ‘You don’t know how much we are asking for, lady.’ Overcoat stands there, pistol still raised. Unlike the pistol, his eyes still seem to point in both directions.

‘I could speak to him if you like and tell him that I am safe.’ Allegra bursts into tears once more.

‘That will not be necessary, Jackboots says, a smile emerging from the wreckage of his features. ‘He will get the message soon enough,’

Using his pistol, Overcoat motions her over to the back of the room. Without further ceremony, they leave. She is thrown into darkness once more. Things, according to historian Thomas Fuller, seem darkest before the dawn. Is he stating the obvious or is this axiom more profound?

The ring finger with Allegra’s engagement ring and wedding ring on it arrives by courier, early next morning. It is freeze wrapped in muslin inside a small cardboard package. The courier does not have the sender’s address. He seems a bit vague on everything. Gregory suspects he is not a real courier, but before he has chance to quiz him further he has disappeared on his Honda. Gregory does not have a car to pursue him.

Max Tempo of The West Detective Agency is not what Gregory expects a private detective to look like. The West is the Best is the agency’s slogan, but the diminutive middle-aged figure with the receding hairline, the crumpled blue linen suit and the red and orange striped sunglasses that the agency has sent does not seem to fit with this image at all. As he introduces himself, Gregory who is six foot tall towers over him. Max cannot be more than five foot two.

‘Let’s get down to business,’ says Max, offering Gregory some chewing gum. ‘How did you find out about the abduction?’

‘I got home and found a crude note in red marker pen, at least I hope it red marker pen blu-tacked to the fridge. It said, ‘We’ve got your wife! Stay put!’

‘Any sign of a struggle?’ Max asks.

‘Now you come to mention it, no,’ Gregory says.

‘Could mean nothing. Could mean nothing. Does she have a laptop, tablet or anything? Any sign of her phone?’

‘I’ve looked through her phone, but found nothing out of the ordinary, but laptop and tablet both have passwords.’

‘You don’t know what they are. Am I right?’

Gregory says he does not.

‘No worries,’ says Max. ‘Let’s have a look, we’ll be on in no time.’

Max is able to get in straight away. ‘John the Ripper,’ he says. ‘Great little app.’

In no time at all Max has scanned the emails, recent documents and pictures. Nothing remarkable shows up. This is often what he finds in cases like this. The good detective has to come up with more imaginative methods, he says. Meanwhile, he has wired up a device to record the phone.

Time, of course, is of the essence here. Gregory is impressed with the speed that Max works. First impressions can be misleading. He lets Max know.

‘It’s not every day I get a Nobel Prize winner as a client,’ says Max.

‘How do you know that?’ asks Gregory.

‘I just sensed it,’ says Max, cryptically. ‘Now tell me about the phonecalls, and while you’re at it show me the fingers. We can get to the bottom of this I’m sure.’

Gregory explains the phonecalls and how he is unable to cash in his portfolio.

Max nods, while he examines the two fingers. He draws no conclusions from these. He is more interested in the diamond ring. Why have they sent it back he wonders when it could be worth a hundred thousand in itself.

‘It can mean one of two things, he says. Either they are very confident that they will get the money or they are amateurs.’

It would be difficult for the observer to guess the power relations between Jackboots and Overcoat. Although Overcoat does not, perhaps cannot speak, they communicate effectively. They are a good fit as a team. They operate with a strange telepathy. Perhaps Overcoat has peripheral vision and his function in the team is to be watchful. The observer would not be able to pinpoint their country of origin. Jackboot’s accent might make Romania favourite. His tattoos too are in an Eastern European language. If you are looking for sartorial clues, you wouldn’t know where to begin. There is something theatrical, perhaps filmic about their bizarre appearance. In everyday life, they would be as inconspicuous as a pair of tarantulas in a bowl of fresh cream. All in all, they are an enigma. The indications are that, as in many kidnapping cases, the motive is money. It is time for Jackboots to make another phonecall. He once again makes it over voip using geocrasher.

Allegra wonders how it has come to this. How has she moved from her work with Dior and Dolce Gabbana in the high flying fashion world of Milan, weekends on Lake Garda and skiing in Cortina D’Ampezzo to being held captive in this darkened room, not knowing if she will live or die? It is quite a descent. It all started when she came to London for a fashion shoot. How had she come to meet a Nobel scientist? She didn’t have the slightest interest in science. She was into the arts. Gregory might cut a dashing figure but perhaps she should have found someone that looked after her better. Why hadn’t he come up with the ransom? It was hours since they had taken the rings as a bargaining tool. Why had she fallen for him? Certainly he had a lot of money, but she was not exactly poor herself. The fashion work brought in a decent income. And she gave all this up. They didn’t even socialise that much. He was always working on some paper or had a meeting with the board. If he hadn’t been working, these two murderous villains would not have been able to just walk in and bundle her into the van. She thinks she has been here now for nearly two days. She is hungry. She has had nothing but water for the duration. Even if she could find a way to relax, she cannot sleep. The room gives off a continuous hollow sound like amplified tinnitus.

‘You will have taken delivery of the ring finger,’ says the metallic voice. A green light come on Max’s device to show it is recording. ‘Quite generous of us to return the valuable rings, do you not think. But, my friend, that is all we will be returning until we have five million.’

Gregory says that he is working on this. Max has advised him to do so. He has said that you should never show defiance in such a situation.

‘Good! I’m glad you are beginning to see things our way. I expect your lovely wife will be glad too. I will call at exactly five o’clock and we will arrange a time and place to pick up. You will have the money by then I am sure.’

Gregory says that he will do his best.

‘I expect you would also like your nice car back too. When you deliver the money, we will deliver your wife in the boot of your car.’

On that note, the conversation ends. The green light on the device changes back to red.

‘That was great,’ says Max. ‘Watch this!

He presses a couple of keys on his device and plays the recording. It is now a proper sounding human voice. ‘ModulatorPlus. Great little app,’ he smiles.

The voice, they both agree does sound Eastern European. Max explains that Eastern European languages have consonant clusters so they tend to shorten the vowels when speaking English. To Gregory, it just sounds Eastern European. Max takes a gigantic pair of Sennheiser headphones from his bag to listen more closely. His bag must be dimensionally transcendental, Gregory thinks. He appears to have a whole workshop in there. Max says he is listening for background noise. He closes his eyes in concentration and begins playing with the frequency sliders on the side of the headphones. Finally, several minutes later, he takes them off.

‘I think I’ve got it,’ he says. ‘The call was made by a mobile phone redirected from an unlisted landline from a blue Ford transit van near a railway station, but what I’m not getting is which railway station or the registration of the van.’

Gregory wonders how Max can tell that the transit van is blue but he doesn’t like to ask.

Iancu Emanuel Constantinescu’s career as a lion tamer ended when circuses stopped using wild animals. The Romanian International Circus, which had built its reputation on dangerous stunts, folded. Iancu’s appearance, the legacy of years of taming ferocious big cats and a long relationship with Silvia Daciana Vacilescu, the circus’s tattoo artist, left him with little prospect of getting a job. In a word, he looked scary. He felt he might as well use his intimidating stature to frighten people. Kidnapping seems to be the obvious place to use his skill set. His friend, Dragomir Stan Antonescu had been a clown with the circus. As he was mute, his chances of getting a job when the circus folded were also slim. Dragomir’s lack of speech was however compensated by remarkable eyesight. He had long been collector of handguns and was a crackshot. It seemed natural that he should team up with Iancu.

The only way that you can learn kidnapping is by going ahead and doing it. There are no training manuals or kidnapper’s colleges. If you get it right, you can make a good living and you do not need to work long hours. Iancu and Dragomir start small by kidnapping a pub landlord in a popular seaside town and asking for £500. They find that this does not cover their expenses. Their next outing is a football manager of a Championship team, where they manage to get £5000. They brush up their technique by watching a number of kidnapping films. After watching Fargo, it occurs to them that it might be a better idea to abduct a partner rather than the target himself. They get £20,000 this way by kidnapping a minor celebrity’s wife. They manage to convince the celebrity to pay up when they send him a lock of her hair. Allegra is only their fourth victim. They are thinking of asking £50,000 when they find out that Gregory is an incredibly rich man. He has reaped the benefits of inventing a life-saving product that the world needs. To up the ante, Iancu feels that they need to employ scarier tactics, so he purchases a preserved hand from Stelian Serafim Albescu, a former reptile trainer with the circus who is now working as a mortuary assistant. With so much inexperience the potential for disaster is immense.

‘How do we find the blue van and what do we do if we find it?’ Gregory asks.

‘We follow it,’ says Max. ‘What we do when it takes us to Allegra is probably the question you should be asking. But don’t worry I’ll think of something. That’s what you are paying me for. Now come on! Let’s get to the station. They might still be there.’

‘But, you said you couldn’t tell which station.’

‘Have you any better ideas? Next, you will be saying what if there are two blue vans. There! I’ve diverted your phone. Now let’s get going.’

Max packs his bag, cracks open a new pack of chewing gum and off they go in Max’s grey Yaris.

‘Nobody notices you in one of these,’ he explains. ‘Not even with tinted windows. Inconspicuous but fast.’

Allegra’s miscarriage is sudden. Jackboots and Overcoat arrive just after it has happened. She is covered in blood. At first, J and O have no idea what has happened. It slowly dawns on them both. She seems hysterical. They do not know how to handle the tirade of verbal abuse she subjects them to.

‘$#@!&*^/## $#@$/^ I Need A Doctor,’ she screams at them. ‘$#@!&*^/## $#@$/^&*(())*/$@#: Scum.’

They sense that pointing guns is not the appropriate response, but are not in a position to offer understanding and tenderness. They back off. They can wait in the van. It is parked just down the road by the railway station. They can go back in a few minutes. Allegra, they reason, will have calmed down by then.

Max and Gregory arrive at the railway station car park just in time to see Jackboots and Overcoat getting into the blue van. There is only one blue transit van. They must be the captors. What an odd looking pair they are though.

‘How’s that for timing,’ says Max.

He parks the Yaris a few bays behind the van, in preparation for it driving off. He can follow at a discreet distance. The van, however, does not move. Although the van is fifty feet away, Max manages to rig up a device up to listen to their conversation.

‘A friend of mine borrowed it from the secret government base,’ he explains.

Jackboots and Overcoat’s conversation comes through loud and clear. Unfortunately, they are not speaking English.

‘It will come with a translator in a couple of years,’ Max says by way of apology.

Only one voice seems to do the talking. It is the same voice that made the phonecall earlier. The one wearing the overcoat and the Stetson seems to be nodding or using sign language.

Had Max’s hypothetical translator been operational the conversation they would hear would go something like this.

‘Perhaps we should reduce the demand.’

Silence

‘Count our losses.’

Silence

‘Down to ten thousand. What do you think?’

Silence.

‘We can make a bit more on our next job, maybe.’

Silence.

If Max’s hypothetical translator had been operational, the substance of the phonecall that Gregory receives on his mobile would not have been so unexpected. As it is, he feels he has been let off the hook somewhat. He is sure that Mr Hater will let him have ten thousand pounds from his assets. Why, he wonders, have they reduced the sum so drastically. It feels like bargain basement.

‘Three hours time, that’s five o’clock, Used twenty pound notes’ says Jackboots, establishing the upper hand once more. ‘At the entrance to the disused airfield. Look out for a blue van. Your car will be close by. You won’t be able to see your car from the road. Your wife will be in the boot. No funny business or you know what will happen.’

No-one makes a move. Max wants to stay put so as not to lose sight of the villains. Gregory thinks that he should probably be at the bank, but is dependent on Max for transport, and it seems J and O are in no hurry to move business along.

Max has been in stakeouts before. He understands the terrain. A good deal of patience is necessary. You need a cap to pull down over your forehead. And a pack of cigarettes. Gregory is a stranger to the underworld, university did not prepare him for this. To him, the underworld is something that Orpheus got himself into in Offenbach’s operetta. Gregory does not have a cap to pull down over his forehead. And he has never smoked. Jackboots and Overcoat sense that they still have a lot to learn. Things are not going as planned. And now a police car has drawn up a few cars away. How long will it be until they spot the stolen blue van they are in, or for that matter the stolen Lexus 460 about a hundred metres away, and who are those people in the grey Yaris? Are they watching them?

Miscarriages can be psychologically damaging. The attachment to the foetus it is said begins very early into pregnancy. Women are often reported to lose themselves after such an event. Given the circumstances of Allegra’s loss, this might be the expected consequence, but she finds that there are immediate and more profound results of this cruel termination. Her soul has gone, her spirit has parted company with her physical body and disappeared into the ether. When she screams it is not now her that is screaming, but something that is happening as a result of a bodily impulse. She does not inhabit the scream. It is no longer her scream. It is not her who finds that she can push the door to her prison open, where Jackboots and Overcoat have not secured properly. It is not her who finds herself staggering up an unfamiliar street.

She finds herself in the vicinity of a railway station. Something inside tells her she should recognise it, but she can’t connect with this part of her. The link has been severed. There are a lot of people about. She spots a blue van and a police car. The police seem to be asking the people in the van to step out of it.

‘My God! There’s Allegra,’ shouts a shell-shocked Gregory, making a move to jump out of the Yaris.

‘Stop! No! Don’t,’ yells Max, grabbing him by the shoulder to restrain him. ‘Kidnappers have guns, remember.’

This is a pivotal moment. It could go any way. It depends how competent the police are. It depends how desperate Jackboots and Overcoat are. It depends on whether Max has anything up his sleeve. Certainly Max is aware that the kidnappers would recognise Gregory, but perhaps he should have let Gregory go and talk to the police. Is it his professional pride that is urging against this?

Max seems to have subdued Gregory for the moment and they duck down out of sight. J and O seem reluctant to get out of the van. Allegra lurches on zombie-like and disappears into a throng of people emerging from the station. Gregory and Max’s attention is drawn away by a squeal of tyres and a scattering of police officers. In a daring attempt at escape, the blue van speeds off. With a squeal of tyres to match, the police car gives chase. By the time Gregory and Max focus back on the station, Allegra has disappeared out of sight. There are hundreds of people now, jostling one another for position around the station entrance. Why hasn’t Max got an app on one of his devices that can find someone in a crowd?

As he and Max dash here and there searching for Allegra in the bustling station, Gregory wonders how he has been subordinated to such fickle fortune. He had risen to elevated heights with so little effort. He had never known struggle. Doors had opened easily. His discovery of a life of a life saving product that the world needed had felt as if it were just plucked out of the air. Fortune had up till now always favoured him. He had not even had to put effort into his dalliances. Allegra had fallen at his feet. What in the world is happening to deliver such a dramatic turnaround?

The station has a staggering seven platforms, each one swarming with restless passengers. Trains are arriving from everywhere. Trains are leaving to go to all points of the compass. Allegra finds herself on one of the trains. She does not know where she is heading. She may be going east or she may be going west. It does not matter to a person who has no soul. People stare at her. They do not understand what has happened. They make up their own stories from the true life magazines in their heads. Everyone keeps their distance. Gregory North continues frantically to search the station but cannot spot her. He will never find her. He has lost her. He will continue his way on a train of his own. It will be heading south.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

Cadence and Kascade

cadenceandkascade

Cadence and Kascade by Chris Green

I wake in an unfamiliar room. My head is pounding and my mouth feels like a dried up drainage ditch. I am used to more formal surroundings, when I wake, a comfortable bed and sometimes a cup of tea. My recall of how I came to be here is nil. Across from me, a few feet away lies a naked woman with a snake tattoo running up one of her thighs. She is asleep amongst a heap of Film Noir print cushions. She has her back to me. At first I do not recognise her. It slowly dawns on me this is Kascade. On a small rococo table beside her sits a retro black bakelite telephone. A zebra patterned rug hangs on the wall over her. A large aloe vera plant skulks in the corner. There is musty smell in the air. Four identical black cats sit in different parts of the room at exactly the same angle in the same upright position looking towards the window. It takes me a few moments to realise that they are stuffed. I go over to the window. It looks out on to a pool of dark water. The pool is rich with vegetation and is brown in colour. This is a strange space. The room is large. There is a lot to take in.

Another woman has come into the room. I’m not sure where she has come from. A little of the puzzle falls into place. This is Cadence. She is my partner. Kascade is a friend of Cadence’s. This must be where Kascade lives. Cadence told me that she moved house recently. Even before she took up with Ivan, Kascade struck me as a little kooky. Ivan is a taxi driver or is it a taxidermist. He is Albanian. He may be using his taxi driving or taxiderming as a cover. He may have connections with the Albanian Mafia. This view might be influenced by the stereotype, but who knows? Kascade is a travel writer, but she hasn’t done much travelling or much writing lately. The drugs she takes can have that effect, although she does come over as something of a femme fatale.

Cadence and I must have arrived last night, although I can remember very little. I feel something is wrong. I suggest to her that we need to get back.

‘What!’ she says. She looks as dazed as I feel. Her eyes are sunken and her hair is matted. Her dark mesh tights are laddered and her pale jacket is smeared with something. There is probably no point in asking her anything about last night at present.

‘I think it would be good if we got on home,’ I say.

‘Back home,’ she says. There is something strange about the way she emphasises home. I am not sure why. Perhaps she does not consider our flat as home. Technically I suppose it is my flat although Cadence has been living there on and off for nearly twelve months. Perhaps she feels she has somewhere else to go. Maybe this is why we are at Kascade’s. I try to remember what has happened.

‘Yes, back home,’ I say. ‘I feel weak. I think I may need to eat soon.’

‘And having breakfast is going to solve everything is it?’

‘Well, perhaps we could have a talk at the same time. Find out what’s happening between us.’

Cadence greets this with an icy stare. She goes into another room and returns with a scuffed black leather overnight bag. She throws it across her shoulder. I do not seem to have any baggage. There is clearly something about the situation I am missing. Until I can discover what this is, I decide I must back off.

Kascade is still asleep. Cadence scribbles a note for her. We take our leave along a dark corridor. It is difficult to get one’s bearings. A succession of rooms lead off. Some have doors but others do not. No light comes through from the rooms. It looks as if the space might be used as a storage area. It must be a very large building. Perhaps it is a converted warehouse. Maybe a warehouse in the process of conversion. In the nineties it may have been used for art shows or parties. There is a menacing echo to our footsteps as we tread the floorboards. I cannot find a light switch. I bump into a large spiders web and send its occupant goes scurrying across the floor. Cadence is several steps ahead. She is definitely in a mood about something. I wonder if it is about something that happened last night. The freight train running through my head denies me access to the recent past.

We find ourselves at a staircase and go down some steps. We make it out into the daylight. Where is the car, I wonder. Did we not come in the car? I go through my pockets. I do not even have the car keys.

‘Did we come on foot?’ I ask, but get no reply.

It looks as though it has been raining heavily but it is not raining now. I remark on the flooded streets, but Cadence seems to be giving me the silent treatment. I begin to recognise where we are. It is Toker’s End, a part of town that I have not been to often. It must be two or three miles from where we live.

Toker’s End is named after the nineteenth century philanthropist Sir Charles Toker. While similar areas in other parts of the country have been subject to gentrification, Toker’s End has bucked the trend and is heading towards dereliction. With its tall Victorian buildings, it was once a well to do area, but over the years it has been bought up of Greeks and Macedonians and converted into flats and bedsits. Legendary slum landlord, Dinos Costadinos (Costa) I believe owns the whole of Prince Albert Street and according to urban legend has never once called in a contractor to take care of any maintenance or repairs.

As we walk along, I feel an odd sensation of disengagement. I feel like I’m floating. Street sounds seem muted. A muffled soundtrack of distant voices seems to play in a loop. This is punctuated by the hiss of tyres as the early morning traffic eases its way through the surface water. I feel sense of doubt about my surroundings. At any moment the scene might evaporate. The lines of everything I cast my glance upon seem hazy and indistinct. The bright coloured street art daubed on the run down apartments in George Street is blurred like an impressionist painting. The torn poster of the neo noir movie, Dead Ringer in the bus shelter is dissolving. The shop front of the Bangla convenience store looks frosted over. The roadsigns are melting.

After several blocks we come to the river. It is a fast flowing stretch before it reaches the old mill. The river is normally shallow here, but the water has come up over the low stone bridge. We look for another place to cross. There are one or two places we could maybe wade through, but then we might as well do this over the bridge. Whichever way we cross we are going to get wet. We would need to double back the way we came to reach the main road bridge.

Why have we come this way? I wonder. In my daze, I realise I have just been following Cadence. It occurs to me that we are heading for Finnegan’s Wake, where Irish poets with a lunchtime thirst vent their anger in Open Mic sessions. Finnegan’s is one of Cadence’s haunts when she wants to give life a miss. She seems to be struggling with sobriety lately. A visit to Finnegan’s is unlikely to help. I suspect that soon we are going to break up. I cannot live this way. I cannot take Cadence’s mood swings any more. Should I tackle it head on right now or leave it for later. I feel at forty years old I should have left all of this behind. I don’t like to have arguments in the street. I make the decision to leave her to it and go home instead. The riverbank seems as good a place as any. If Cadence doesn’t come back later, all well and good. This is the end of the road as far as I am concerned.

When I get home there is no sign of the car. I cannot be sure where I left it, but I report it’s disappearance to the police. I tell them it was taken from my home address. Twenty four hours later, much to my astonishment, they return it. It was taken by joyriders, Detective Sergeant Lucan suspects. The forensic boys have gone over it but come up with nothing, he says. Apparently there’s a lot of it about. It happens every Saturday night. Car theft should have become harder with more sophisticated locking systems, but still it is on the rise, he says. Fords are the easiest to steal, his oppo, D.C. Hammer tells me. I check the car over. There appears to be no damage. They have even left my Cocteau Twins CDs in the glove compartment. I sign the form to say that the vehicle has been returned and congratulate them.

Cadence does not come back, that night or the next. At first I am a little concerned, but this quickly passes. When something no longer works, it is good to move on. Presumably the feeling is mutual. I get into a routine of going to work and coming home. Gradually I begin to feel better, but I still have no recollection of what happened that night at Kascade’s. I imagine it involved some kind of intoxication, but I have overindulged on numerous occasions in the past with complete recall afterwards. There is something about the blackout, and the abstraction I felt the following day that disturbs me.

It is nearly a week later that I read in the local paper about Ivan’s corpse being found. The report is splashed across the front page. There is a grainy photo of him. It looks as though it was taken a while ago. He looks younger. While they have not established the cause of death, the police are treating it as suspicious. They are appealing for information. They do not know the actual day or time of his death, but they want anyone who saw him over a three day period to come forward. Or anyone who may have witnessed anything suspicious in the vicinity last weekend. I cannot recall exactly when I last saw Ivan, but I have a strong hunch that it may have been last Saturday at Kascade’s. The report mentions a blue Ford Mondeo. My heart starts thumping like Lennox Lewis in training. Phlegm rises in the back of my throat. I feel I am going to be sick.

I try first to contact Cadence, but as expected her phone is dead. She has not picked up the charger. I have a number for Kascade and try ringing it, but it goes constantly on to voicemail. It may not even be the right number so I do not leave a message. I would not know what to say anyway, under the circumstances. I wonder what I can do about the car. While there are a number of blue Ford Mondeos on the road, my burgeoning paranoia tells me that it is mine that they might be looking for. After all, it was unaccounted for last Saturday night. Surely soon one section of the CID will cross reference it with the other section and come looking for me. I do not know what to do for the best. Needless to say my memory of events has not returned.

That the police have not established the cause of death begins to worry me. I appreciate that there are procedures that must be followed, but how difficult can it be? If the body is found chopped up and put in the freezer, then you can possibly rule out suicide. If the victims head is caved in then you know that he has been hit over the head with a heavy object. If there is a bullet hole in his chest then you can assume that shooting was the cause of death. If the victim is found face down in water then he probably drowned. Why am I thinking that Ivan did not die in any of these ways? Why am I thinking that he was suffocated by a someone pulling a bag over his head? Where is this coming from? Perhaps it is a thriller I have read recently or a movie plot is leaking into my consciousness. Surely it is a common theme in the thriller or horror genres, but despite racking my brain I am unable to come up with an example.

I comfort myself that no matter how wasted I was last weekend, killing someone is not something I would be able to do. It is not in my character. While Cadence is a little unpredictable and has been known to hit out on a few occasions, I cannot imagine that even if she lost control this would run to murder, and what would be the motive? Kascade, on the other hand is every bit as volatile as Cadence. In fact she is possibly more unpredictable in both appearance and behaviour. Furthermore she has had a one on one relationship with the deceased. There would be both more of a motive and more of an opportunity. Designer drugs might have played a part. Ivan comes up with all sorts of things I’ve never heard of. Both of them could just flip in the blink of an eye. I remember the time that Cadence and I went with them to the Stealing Banksy exhibition at the BankRobber Gallery in Notting Hill. They were laying into each other so much that the stewards had to pull them apart. After that they wouldn’t let any of us in to see the stolen street art.

Ivan’s death could have been an accident of course. Probably not if it were suffocation with a bag, but then you never know. Until the cause of death is announced, it is pointless to speculate. The problem I have is that the announcement is only likely to come when the police come and speak to me. What do I have for an alibi? Any way you look at it whether I committed the act or whether I witnessed it, I am in trouble. Even if it was nothing to do with any of us, I am stuck for an alibi. What if there is DNA evidence in the back of my car or the body was carried in the boot. How am I going to get out of this one?

I haven’t seen my therapist, Daniel DeMarco in a long time. Not since my oneirophrenia cleared up and I stopped having hallucinations. He probably won’t be able to get me off the hook for a murder charge. He may not even be able to re-stimulate my memory about last Saturday night, but he will be able to lend an ear. Daniel is good at listening. He uses what he describes as non directive therapy. He is so laid back that sometimes he is asleep by the end of the session. The remarkable thing is that by this time you’ve resolved the issue that you came with. Admittedly with my oneirophrenia it took a little longer, but on other occasions when I’ve gone to him with a problem, he has neutralised my anxiety in a blink of the eye.

He sits me down in a comfortable chair and seats himself opposite me. As he does so he hums a little tune. I think this is designed to relax me. Or maybe he suffers from earworm and has just been listening to John Denver.

I open up about my predicament. Everything just comes pouring out in a torrent of wild emotion.

‘Hmm,’ he says when I have finished.

‘What do you think that I should do?’ I say. ‘Should I get rid of the car in the canal and get on a plane? Should I tell the police it was me? Or perhaps I should just end it all.’

>Yes. I see,’ he says. ‘Which one of those makes you feel most comfortable?’

>’Comfortable! Comfortable. None of them make me feel comfortable. Nothing about the situation makes me feel comfortable. Splitting up with Cadence doesn’t make me feel comfortable. Having blackouts doesn’t make me feel comfortable. Being a wanted man doesn’t make me feel comfortable. I’m at my wits end. I don’t know where to turn. I’m desperate, Doctor DeMarco.’

‘Dan. Dan. You can call me Dan.’

‘I’m desperate, Dan.’

It is the middle of the night. Cadence has let herself in and has snuck into bed beside me. I am still awake. I cannot sleep much at the moment. She snuggles up to me and we make love, as if nothing has happened. It may not be the tenderest of couplings, but we are both happy with the result. There has never been anything wrong with the physical side of our relationship. It’s all the rest that is the problem. Is has often puzzled me how the physical and the emotional can be so separate.

It’s all very well lying here sated, but I can’t ignore the problem at hand. It is not going to go away that easily.

‘Ivan’s dead,’ I say. ‘Someone killed him.’

Cadence studies my face for a moment and sees that I am not joking. ‘What are you saying? she says. That you think it was me. Is that it?’

>It seems our peaceful reconciliation was short lived.

‘No that’s not what I’m saying. I’m just trying to find out what happened.’

‘He probably had it coming,’ she says, giving no indication of what this means.

‘So you don’t know anything more about it than what the papers say. What happened last Saturday night?’

‘That’s typical of you isn’t it? You fuck my best friend and then you claim you can’t remember.’

‘What!’

‘I suppose you thought that I was sleeping with Ivan. That’s why you slept with Kascade. Is that what you are going to say? And now that Ivan’s dead you think I killed him. Perhaps it was you who killed him. Have you thought of that?’

‘As it happens I have thought of that. In fact I’ve been thinking of little else.’

‘I suppose you can always blame it on that condition of yours. You have an excuse for everything, don’t you?’

She is already putting her clothes back on. I try a more gentle approach and ask her to calm down.

‘Whatever it is, we are in it together,’ I say, but this does not stop her walking out on me again.

I am no further forward. In fact if anything things have moved backwards. I still have not eliminated myself or Cadence from the murder suspects but there is the additional complication of my apparent clandestine liaison with Kascade to consider.

I get up and do some research into Ivan Luga on the internet. Perhaps there will be a clue buried in there somewhere. There are a number references to people with this name. I hone in on the Facebook profile of an Ivan Luga in the UK. This is our man. His profile photo shows him with the head of a stuffed tiger. He likes David Lynch films and death metal music. He reads Haruki Murakami and nihilistic poetry. I would have thought he might be a little challenged by the language barrier with some of his choices. He has posted a number of pictures of circus freaks. There is a shot of him brandishing a Remington hunting rifle and another of him posing with a pistol. He has 64 friends, about 50 of which have Eastern European names. The photos of them suggest that these are shady characters. There are some statuses in a language I take to be Albanian. The English expression crystalline powder occurs in the middle of one or two of the posts, along with the name, Molly. It seems an odd subject to be mentioning on social media. But this is an odd profile. What sinister world am I uncovering? I feel a chill run down my spine.

It occurs to me that whatever I might reveal here, I am not going to get anywhere with it, as I cannot go to the police. Anyway, Ivan is dead isn’t he? I am just about to leave the site, when I notice that one of the statuses is dated yesterday. That’s impossible. There must be some mistake. I take another look. The content of the post seems to be of little significance. It is just some gobbledegook about TOR and SHADOWCAT. I have no idea what it means, but it is a status and it was definitely posted yesterday. The Keyser Söze that has commented on it is presumably an alias. It cannot be the real Keyser Söze. But this is a development in the puzzle. Either someone else has taken over the account or Ivan Luga is not dead.

Kascade’s arrival is a bolt out of the blue. There she is on my doorstep. She has on a little red dress showing nearly the full extent of her snake tattoo. She has a smile that would get her noticed in any crowd and a twinkle in her eye. This does not look like a woman who has recently murdered someone, but then neither did Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.

>’Didn’t we have a great time last weekend,’ she says, ‘We ought to do it again. Why did you leave so suddenly?’

I explain to her about Cadence and I going our separate ways.

‘I wondered if that might happen,’ she says. ‘Never mind. I’m here now.’

I start to explain to her about developments since we last saw each other.

‘No! I haven’t read the paper,’ she says. ‘What do you mean, Ivan is dead?’

‘But he may not be,’ I add.

‘He hasn’t called me,’ she says. ‘I am thinking that perhaps he has gone off travelling somewhere and couldn’t take me. But you are saying he is dead.’

‘But may not be,’ I repeat.

‘Show me the paper!’ she says.
I show her the report.

‘That’s rubbish,’ she says. I don’t even think that the photo is of him. He has younger brothers. It might be one of them.’

‘You’d better let me in on what happened last weekend,’ I say.

‘I don’t remember too many of the details,’ she says. ‘But I do remember us ending up in bed together.’

‘I don’t remember this,’ I say.

‘Well, then you should,’ she says. ‘You were sensational. The Molly probably helped though, don’t you think?’

‘Who’s Molly,’ I say.

‘Not who, it’s a what. I thought you had taken Molly before,’ she says. ‘Don’t you remember? We’re not talking MDMA here. This was the real deal, straight out of the lab. Ivan brought a new batch of it round.’

‘Did he? And I took some?’

‘Yes! We all did. It was dynamite. Anyway, we all went out to Frenzy and then that new club, Vertigo. And we ……. I wonder what has happened to Ivan.’

I can’t tell from her expression if she is trying to be ironic or not. She doesn’t seem to want to elaborate. Her present intentions it seems are elsewhere. I try to remember what happened in Basic Instinct. Catherine Tramell, the Sharon Stone character got away with it, didn’t she? Also, I seem to recall that there was a sequel.

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved

Metaphorical Compass

metaphoricalcompass2

Metaphorical Compass by Chris Green

Sometimes, just for a moment, everything seems in place. For this brief spell of time, a supernatural force seems to be at work. There is equilibrium in the universe. It might be referred to by some as an epiphany, an insight through the divine. Here at the top of the mountain, Gregory North finds such a moment. Gregory’s mountain may be metaphorical, as might the moment, but briefly space and time conspire to offer him that sentient feeling of arrival. He is where he wants to be. It cannot last. Destiny cannot allow contentment. All actions are bound to burst the bubble.

So, how does Gregory find himself at the summit of the metaphorical mountain? What is his story? Gregory is born into a modest but steady background in a small town in the south of England. From an early age he displays an inquisitive nature and a creative spirit. He passes all the right exams with appropriate distinctions and wins a scholarship to a revered English university. His tutor describes him as a genius. He quickly lives up to this weighty kudos. He invents a life saving product that the world needs. The life saving product not only makes him at twenty five the youngest person to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine, it makes him a multi-millionaire. Money does not necessarily buy you love or indeed happiness, and fame is notoriously fickle. Nevertheless Gregory meets a beautiful woman who he feels he can communicate with on a spiritual level. He marries her. Fairytales proliferate. Clichés abound. He has his crock of gold. He remains level headed. There is equilibrium in his universe. The fame of a Nobel scientist is low key. You would not know who Gregory was. His name is never in the papers.

Where there is light there must also be shadow. They are interdependent. Gregory might like to stay exactly where he is but life insists on change. Change is the only certainty. Other forces are at work. It can only be downhill from here. There are different paths down the mountain. The west would be the best but Gregory North could go for the east putting himself in peril. The compass points may be metaphorical. The trouble that lies ahead may not be metaphorical.

Crime can take many forms. The view that crime is the province of those that do not have a large enough stake in the system, or that there is some biological or psychological explanation that accounts for deviant behaviour misrepresent the evidence. Criminals lurk everywhere. There is one not far from you now. There are many in the vicinity of Gregory. He is right in the firing line. They want to plunder his ideas, hack his computer, or forge his documents. They want to steal his money, burgle his house or steal his identity. They want to beat him up, burn his house down or kidnap his wife.

The descent begins. Gregory gets a phonecall. He does not recognise the voice. It has been disguised by software called geocrasher. You can download geocrasher for free. It makes your voice sound like a robot. The robot voice tells him that they have kidnapped his wife. The caller does not specify what the demands are for her safe return. He says he will call later. He tells Gregory he is not to contact anyone about the call and he should not try to trace it. The whole strategy is calculated to cause maximum uncertainty, something that the kidnappers have been working on. This is not something that should be happening to a Nobel Prize winner who has invented a life saving product that the world needs.

Gregory’s wife is Italian. She is called Allegra, which means happy. She is not happy, as she is locked in a windowless space miles away from home. She is being held captive by two ruthless villains. One of them seems to do all the talking. He barks orders at her. His accent is hard to place but may be eastern European. The consonants seem to crowd the vowels. His Heckler and Koch handgun has the look of one that has been fired. He is covered in tattoos and has a scar running down one side of his face. He is disarmingly tall and has to stoop to get through the door. His drainpipe trousers are tucked in to a pair of jackboots, somehow making him look even taller. He does not look like he would blend in easily anywhere. The stocky one wearing the camel coloured overcoat with the fur collar and the large white Stetson does not say anything. He just slaps her now and again to establish his authority. His eyes seem to point in opposite directions. His skin is pale, like an albino. Perhaps, Allegra thinks, he may be wearing a mask. She is not sure which of the pair is the more sinister. She is terrified.

Psychology is an important weapon in the kidnapper’s arsenal. Abduction can be viewed as a transaction. The relationship is between captor and prisoner, owner and chattel. The captor holds absolute power. He knew the moment was coming. The captive who had no idea the moment was coming holds no power. To show his cards too soon can take away the obvious advantage in negotiations that the kidnapper has. The mechanics of human nature is something the kidnappers have been working on.

Gregory waits for the follow up call with the ransom demand, but this does not materialise. He waits by the phone. He checks his emails and his social media. He even checks the newspapers, but the Hollywood celebrity divorce and the resignation of the England football manager over match fixing allegations have kept everything else of the front pages. But even if it got out, it would not be here, would it? Nobel prize winners are not household names.

The finger through the mail comes as a shock to Gregory. This is not what he expected the next step to be. He thought that there might be a phonecall asking him to meet at a remote location with a case full of unmarked notes, as it is in films. This is much more horrifying. He is violently sick. He cannot help himself. It is Allegra’s finger. Whoever has sent it wants him to believe that it is his wife’s finger. It is Allegra’s finger, isn’t it? He cannot be sure. It is the little finger of the left hand. It looks about the right size. There is no message to accompany it, but an hour later the robotic voice comes on the line.

‘You’ve got the message, I believe,’ says the menacing voice. ‘Stay put. Don’t talk to anyone. We will be in touch later.’

Gregory attempts a reply but the call ends. How can things have changed so much in just twenty four hours, he wonders.

Allegra has not told Gregory she is pregnant. She was saving it for the coming weekend when they would be away together. They were going to their favourite hideaway, the one that no one else seemed to have discovered. The fact that Gregory does not know she is expecting makes her situation seem all the more wretched. There are two lives at stake. Jackboots and Overcoat of course do not know. It would probably up the ransom demand if they did. Allegra has no idea what their plans are. They have not mentioned the reason for her internment or what any ransom demand might be. She is in a dark room, about ten feet by ten feet. The room has a hollow sound. It could also be below ground level. Although she was blindfolded, she recalls going down some stairs when they arrived. She is no longer blindfolded but she cannot see anything except when her captors visit. She can hear them approaching now. She shivers with fright.

Gregory’s phone rings. He picks it up. The scrambled voice issues a demand.

‘Twenty four hours is not long to come up with five million,’ Gregory protests.

‘In used notes,’ spits the voice. ‘None of your bitcoin or electronic transfer.’

‘That will be impossible,’ says Gregory.

‘Each day you don’t deliver you will get another finger through the post.’

Gregory mumbles something. He is not sure what he is saying. He has the idea that he needs to keep the conversation going. To what ends we can only speculate. No-one is tracing the call. The phone goes dead. Black clouds tower in the morning sky. There are distant rumbles of thunder. The forecast is not good.

Gregory takes his portfolio and every form of identification he can muster to his local bank branch. He has never actually visited the bank before. He knows nothing about banking. He is not optimistic that he will be able to liquidate his investments, but he feels he has to try something. His wife’s captors seem to be uncompromising, but at this stage he does not want to risk going to the police. Mr Knock, the bank manager is unavailable without an appointment and he is told there is a three week waiting list. Mr Hater, the deputy bank manager sits him down and bangs on about money laundering. Every question or request that Gregory makes is greeted with a round the houses no. Mr Hater is full of suspicion. He clearly knows that something is amiss, but will not come right out and say so. Gregory gets up to leave. He wonders if Mr Hater will call the police as soon as he has gone. He returns to the Pay and Display to find his Lexus has been stolen. The rain is torrential now.

Sergeant East seems more concerned about the theft of the Lexus than about Allegra’s kidnapping.

‘Which model is that, Mr North?’ he says.

Gregory tells him it is the Lexus LS.

‘Very nice motor, sir. Would that be the LS460 or the LS 600?’

‘The 460, but what about my wife’s kidnapping?’

‘One thing at a time sir. Is that the long wheelbase model or the sport model?’

‘How many Lexus 460s do you see on the road round here? Look! You’ve got everything you need to know you have the registration and the colour and even the chassis number, now what about my wife?’

Jackboots holds Allegra down. Despite her struggles, he begins to force her rings off over her swollen knuckle.

‘We need these, lady’ he barks. ‘I think they might help with our negotiations.’

It is only when they are being taken away that Allegra realises that rings are more than just tokens of affection. They represent her marriage. Everything that Gregory and her have together. Ties that bind in this way are sacred. She experiences the symbolism of the loathsome act that is taking place. It feels to her like murder. She screams. Jackboots covers her mouth with his hand. Her instinct tells her she should bite it. Quick as a flash, Overcoat pulls out his pistol. It is now pointing at her. She has never been more terrified. A trickle runs down her leg.

Jackboots has the rings in his hand now. He holds the engagement ring up to catch the light that filters through the open door. He forms the impression that it is a valuable one. Allegra knows it is a valuable one. It is a single stone Cartier diamond.

‘You’ll get your money,’ stammers Allegra. ‘My husband will give you the money – for my safe return.’

‘You think so,’ barks Jackboots. ‘You don’t know how much we are asking for, lady.’ Overcoat stands there, pistol still raised. Unlike the pistol, his eyes still seem to point in both directions.

‘I could speak to him if you like and tell him that I am safe.’ Allegra bursts into tears once more.

‘That will not be necessary, Jackboots says, a smile emerging from the wreckage of his features. ‘He will get the message soon enough,’

Using his pistol, Overcoat motions her over to the back of the room. Without further ceremony, they leave. She is in thrown into darkness once more. Things, according to historian Thomas Fuller, seem darkest before the dawn. Is he stating the obvious or is this axiom more profound?

The ring finger with Allegra’s engagement ring and wedding ring on it arrives by courier, early next morning. It is freeze wrapped in muslin inside a small cardboard package. The courier does not have the sender’s address. He seems a bit vague on everything. Gregory suspects he is not a real courier, but before he has chance to quiz him further he has disappeared on his Honda. Gregory does not have a car to pursue him.

Max Tempo of The West Detective Agency is not what Gregory expects a private detective to look like. The West is the Best is the agency’s slogan, but the diminutive middle aged figure with the receding hairline, the crumpled blue linen suit and the red and orange striped sunglasses that the agency has sent does not seem to fit with this image at all. As he introduces himself, Gregory who is six foot tall towers over him. Max cannot be more than five foot two.

‘Let’s get down to business,’ says Max, offering Gregory some chewing gum. ‘How did you find out about the abduction?’

‘I got home and found a crude note in red marker pen, at least I hope it red marker pen blu-tacked to the fridge. It said, ‘We’ve got your wife! Stay put!’

‘Any sign of a struggle?’ Max asks.

‘Now you come to mention it, no,’ Gregory says.

‘Could mean nothing. Could mean nothing. Does she have a laptop, tablet or anything? Any sign of her phone?’

‘I’ve looked through her phone, but found nothing out of the ordinary, but laptop and tablet both have passwords.’

‘You don’t know what they are. Am I right?’

Gregory says he does not.

‘No worries,’ says Max. ‘Let’s have a look, we’ll be on in no time.’

Max is able to get in straight away. ‘John the Ripper,’ he says. ‘Great little app.’

In no time at all Max has scanned the emails, recent documents and pictures. Nothing remarkable shows up. This is often what he finds in cases like this. The good detective has to come up with more imaginative methods, he says. Meanwhile he has wired up a device to record the phone.

Time of course is of the essence here. Gregory is impressed with the speed that Max works. First impressions can be misleading. He lets Max know.

‘It’s not every day I get a Nobel Prize winner as a client,’ says Max.

‘How do you know that?’ asks Gregory.

‘I just sensed it,’ says Max, cryptically. ‘Now tell me about the phonecalls, and while you’re at it show me the fingers. We can get to the bottom of this I’m sure.’

Gregory explains the phonecalls and how he is unable to cash in his portfolio.

Max nods, while he examines the two fingers. He draws no conclusions from these. He is more interested in the diamond ring. Why have they sent it back he wonders when it could be worth a hundred thousand in itself.

‘It can mean one of two things, he says. Either they are very confident that they will get the money or they are amateurs.’

It would be difficult for the observer to guess the power relations between Jackboots and Overcoat. Although Overcoat does not, perhaps cannot speak, they communicate effectively. They are a good fit as a team. They operate with a strange telepathy. Perhaps Overcoat has peripheral vision and his function in the team is to be watchful. The observer would not be able to pinpoint their country of origin. Jackboot’s accent might make Romania favourite. His tattoos too are in an Eastern European language. If you are looking for sartorial clues, you wouldn’t know where to begin. There is something theatrical, perhaps filmic about their bizarre appearance. In everyday life they would be as inconspicuous as a pair of tarantulas in a bowl of fresh cream. All in all they are an enigma. The indications are that, as in many kidnapping cases, the motive is money. It is time for Jackboots to make another phonecall. He once again makes it over voip using geocrasher.

Allegra wonders how it has come to this. How has she moved from her work with Dior and Dolce Gabbana in the high flying fashion world of Milan, weekends on Lake Garda and skiing in Cortina D’Ampezzo to being held captive in this darkened room, not knowing if she will live or die? It is quite a descent. It all started when she came to London for a fashion shoot. How had she come to meet a Nobel scientist? She didn’t have the slightest interest in science. She was into the arts. Gregory might cut a dashing figure but perhaps she should have found someone that looked after her better. Why hadn’t he come up with the ransom? It was hours since they had taken the rings as a bargaining tool. Why had she fallen for him? Certainly he had a lot of money, but she was not exactly poor herself. The fashion work brought in a decent income. And she gave all this up. They didn’t even socialise that much. He was always working on some paper or had a meeting with the board. If he hadn’t been working, these two murderous villains would not have been able to just walk in and bundle her into the van. She thinks she has been here now for nearly two days. She is hungry. She has had nothing but water for the duration. Even if she could find a way to relax, she cannot sleep. The room gives off a continuous hollow sound like amplified tinnitus.

‘You will have taken delivery of the ring finger,’ says the metallic voice. A green light come on Max’s device to show it is recording. ‘Quite generous of us to return the valuable rings, do you not think. But, my friend, that is all we will be returning until we have five million.’

Gregory says that he is working on this. Max has advised him to do so. He has said that you should never show defiance in such a situation.

‘Good! I’m glad you are beginning to see things our way. I expect your lovely wife will be glad too. I will call at exactly five o’clock and we will arrange a time and place to pick up. You will have the money by then I am sure.’

Gregory says that he will do his best.

‘I expect you would also like your nice car back too. When you deliver the money, we will deliver your wife in the boot of your car.’

On that note, the conversation ends. The green light on the device changes back to red.

‘That was great,’ says Max. ‘Watch this!

He presses a couple of keys on his device and plays the recording. It is now a proper sounding human voice. ‘ModulatorPlus. Great little app,’ he smiles.

The voice, they both agree does sound Eastern European. Max explains that Eastern European languages have consonant clusters so they tend to shorten the vowels when speaking English. To Gregory it just sounds Eastern European. Max takes a gigantic pair of Sennheiser headphones from his bag to listen more closely. His bag must be dimensionally transcendental, Gregory thinks. He appears to have a whole workshop in there. Max says he is listening for background noise. He closes his eyes in concentration and begins playing with the frequency sliders on the side of the headphones. Finally, several minutes later, he takes them off.

‘I think I’ve got it,’ he says. ‘The call was made by a mobile phone redirected from a unlisted landline from a blue Ford transit van near a railway station, but what I’m not getting is which railway station or the registration of the van.’

Gregory wonders how Max can tell that the transit van is blue but he doesn’t like to ask.

Iancu Emanuel Constantinescu’s career as a lion tamer ended when circuses stopped using wild animals. The Romanian International Circus, which had built its reputation on dangerous stunts, folded. Iancu’s appearance, the legacy of years of taming ferocious big cats and a long relationship with Silvia Daciana Vacilescu, the circus’s tattoo artist, left him with with little prospect of getting a job. In a word he looked scary. He felt he might has well use his intimidating stature to frighten people. Kidnapping seem to be the obvious place to use his skill set. His friend, Dragomir Stan Antonescu had been a clown with the circus. As he was mute, his chances of getting a job when the circus folded were also slim. Dragomir’s lack of speech was however compensated by remarkable eyesight. He had long been collector of handguns and was a crackshot. It seemed natural that he should team up with Iancu.

The only way that you can learn kidnapping is by going ahead and doing it. There are no training manuals or kidnapper’s colleges. If you get it right, you can make a good living and you do not need to work long hours. Iancu and Dragomir start small by kidnapping a pub landlord in a popular seaside town and asking for £500. They find that this does not cover their expenses. Their next outing is a football manager of a Championship team, where they manage to get £5000. They brush up their technique by watching a number of kidnapping films. After watching Fargo, it occurs to them that it might be a better idea to abduct a partner rather than the target himself. They get £20,000 this way by kidnapping a minor celebrity’s wife. They manage to convince the celebrity to pay up when they send him a lock of her hair. Allegra is only their fourth victim. They are thinking of asking £50,000 when they find out that Gregory is an incredibly rich man. He has reaped the benefits of inventing a life saving product that the world needs. To up the ante, Iancu feels that they need to employ scarier tactics, so he purchases a preserved hand from Stelian Serafim Albescu, a former reptile trainer with the circus who is now working as a mortuary assistant. With so much inexperience the potential for disaster is immense.

‘How do we find the blue van and what do we do if we find it? Gregory asks.

‘We follow it,’ says Max. ‘What we do when it takes us to Allegra is probably the question you should be asking. But don’t worry I’ll think of something. That’s what you are paying me for. Now come on! Let’s get to the station. They might still be there.’

‘But, you said you couldn’t tell which station.’

‘Have you any better ideas? Next you will be saying what if there are two blue vans. There! I’ve diverted your phone. Now let’s get going.’

Max packs his bag, cracks open a new pack of chewing gum and off they go in Max’s grey Yaris.

‘Nobody notices you in one of these,’ he explains. ‘Not even with tinted windows. Inconspicuous but fast.’

Allegra’s miscarriage is sudden. Jackboots and Overcoat arrive just after it has happened. She is covered in blood. At first, J and O have no idea what has happened. It slowly dawns on them both. She seems hysterical. They do not know how to handle the tirade of verbal abuse she subjects them to.

‘$#@!&*^/## $#@$/^ I Need A Doctor,’ she screams at them. ‘$#@!&*^/## $#@$/^&*(())*/$@#: Scum.’

They sense that pointing guns is not the appropriate response, but are not in a position to offer understanding and tenderness. They back off. They can wait in the van. It is parked just down the road by the railway station. They can go back in a few minutes. Allegra, they reason, will have calmed down by then.

Max and Gregory arrive at the railway station car park just in time to see Jackboots and Overcoat getting into the blue van. There is only one blue transit van. They must be the captors. What an odd looking pair they are though.

How’s that for timing,’ says Max.

He parks the Yaris a few bays behind the van, in preparation for it driving off. He can follow at a discreet distance. The van however does not move. Although the van is fifty feet away, Max manages to rig up a device up to listen to their conversation.

‘A friend of mine borrowed it from the secret government base,’ he explains.

Jackboots and Overcoat’s conversation comes through loud and clear. Unfortunately they are not speaking English.

‘It will come with a translator in a couple of years,’ Max says by way of apology.

Only one voice seems to do the talking. It is the same voice that made the phonecall earlier. The one wearing the overcoat and the Stetson seems to be nodding or using sign language.

Had Max’s hypothetical translator been operational the conversation they would hear would go something like this.

‘Perhaps we should reduce the demand.’

Silence

‘Count our losses.’

Silence

‘Down to ten thousand. What do you think?’

Silence.

‘We can make a bit more on our next job, maybe.’

Silence.

If Max’s hypothetical translator had been operational, the substance of the phonecall that Gregory receives on his mobile would not have been so unexpected. As it is, he feels he has been let off the hook somewhat. He is sure that Mr Hater will let him have ten thousand pounds from his assets. Why, he wonders, have they reduced the sum so drastically. It feels like bargain basement.

‘Three hours time, that’s five o’clock, Used twenty pound notes’ says Jackboots, establishing the upper hand once more. ‘At the entrance to the disused airfield. Look out for a blue van. Your car will be close by. You won’t be able to see your car from the road. Your wife will be in the boot. No funny business or you know what will happen.’

No-one makes a move. Max wants to stay put so as not to lose sight of the villains. Gregory thinks that he should probably be at the bank, but is dependent on Max for transport, and it seems J and O are in no hurry to move business along.

Max has been in stakeouts before. He understands the terrain. A good deal of patience is necessary. You need a cap to pull down over your forehead. And a pack of cigarettes. Gregory is a stranger to the underworld, university did not prepare him for this. To him the underworld is something that Orpheus got himself into in Offenbach’s operetta. Gregory does not have a cap to pull down over his forehead. And he has never smoked. Jackboots and Overcoat sense that they still have a lot to learn. Things are not going as planned. And now a police car has drawn up a few cars away. How long will it be until they spot the stolen blue van they are in, or for that matter the stolen Lexus 460 about a hundred metres away, and who are those people in the grey Yaris? Are they watching them?

Miscarriages can be psychologically damaging. The attachment to the foetus it is said begins very early into pregnancy. Women are often reported to lose themselves after such an event. Given the circumstances of Allegra’s loss, this might be the expected consequence, but she finds that there are immediate and more profound results of this cruel termination. Her soul has gone, her spirit has parted company with her physical body and disappeared into the ether. When she screams it is not now her that is screaming, but something that is happening as a result of a bodily impulse. She does not inhabit the scream. It is no longer her scream. It is not her who finds that she can push the door to her prison open, where Jackboots and Overcoat have not secured properly. It is not her who finds herself staggering up an unfamiliar street.

She finds herself in the vicinity of a railway station. Something inside tells her she should recognise it, but she can’t connect with this part of her. The link has been severed. There are a lot of people about. She spots a blue van and a police car. The police seem to be asking the people in the van to step out of it.

‘My God! There’s Allegra,’ shouts a shell shocked Gregory, making a move to jump out of the Yaris.

‘Stop! No! Don’t,’ yells Max, grabbing him by the shoulder to restrain him. ‘Kidnappers have guns, remember.’

This is a pivotal moment. It could go any way. It depends how competent the police are. It depends how desperate Jackboots and Overcoat are. It depends on whether Max has anything up his sleeve. Certainly Max is aware that the kidnappers would recognise Gregory, but perhaps he should have let Gregory go and talk to the police. Is it his professional pride that is urging against this?

Max seems to have subdued Gregory for the moment and they duck down out of sight. J and O seem reluctant to get out of the van. Allegra lurches on zombie-like and disappears into a throng of people emerging from the station. Gregory and Max’s attention is drawn away by a squeal of tyres and a scattering of police officers. In a daring attempt at escape, the blue van speeds off. With a squeal of tyres to match, the police car gives chase. By the time Gregory and Max focus back on the station, Allegra has disappeared out of sight. There are hundreds of people now, jostling one another for position around the station entrance. Why hasn’t Max got an app on one of his devices that can find someone in a crowd?

As he and Max dash here and there searching for Allegra in the bustling station, Gregory wonders how he has been subordinated to such fickle fortune. He had risen to elevated heights with so little effort. He had never known struggle. Doors had opened easily. His discovery of a life of a life saving product that the world needed had felt as if it were just plucked out of the air. Fortune had up till now always favoured him. He had not even had to put effort into his dalliances. Allegra had fallen at his feet. What in the world is happening to deliver such a dramatic turnaround?

The station has a staggering seven platforms, each one swarming with restless passengers. Trains are arriving from everywhere. Trains are leaving to go to all points of the compass. Allegra finds herself on one of the trains. She does not know where she is heading. She may be going east or she may be going west. It does not matter to a person who has no soul. People stare at her. They do not understand what has happened. They make up their own stories from the true life magazines in their heads. Everyone keeps their distance. Gregory North continues frantically to search the station but cannot spot her. He will never find her. He has lost her. He will continue his way on a train of his own. It will be heading south.

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved

 

Come Rain Or Come Shine

comerainorcomeshine2

COME RAIN OR COME SHINE by Chris Green

ONE: RAIN

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

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

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

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

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

TWO: BIG COUNTRY

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

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

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

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

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

‘Perhaps they wear cork hats either.’

‘Or play cricket.’

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

THREE: FLAG

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

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

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

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

FOUR: BOOMERANG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think we both knew where we wanted to be.

FIVE: FLOOD

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

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

I need it by Friday,’ he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A black flag’

A transparent flag’

A mirror flag’

An invisible flag’

A virtual flag’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SIX: ALICE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Is your Dad home’? the farmer asked.

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

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

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

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

‘He went with Mum and Dad.’

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

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

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

The boy considered for a moment.

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

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

SEVEN: CHAT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EIGHT: OUTBACK

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

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

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


© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved

You Will Not Get This Experience At Home

experience2

You Will Not Get This Experience At Home by Chris Green

I have never watched an interactive film before. IF, as it is becoming known, is a revolutionary idea to get the audience involved in what they would like to see happen on the screen. I am watching with an open mind. I feel that democratising cinema in this way has great potential, so long as it avoids the perils of lowest common denominator that have befallen 3D. IF is being hailed as a way to combat dwindling cinema audiences. You will not get this experience at home, is its slogan. The idea behind IF is that at the end of each scene the screen fades to black and the audience is given a multiple choice question about what they would like to happen next. The director, in this case Leif Velásquez, might have filmed many different options for each segment. Film budgets have reportedly gone through the roof since IF’s introduction.

There are some very odd camera angles. It appears that Leif likes to keep the cameras running all the time to catch the actors even when they are out of character. He must have had cameras everywhere to get some of the shots. Leif is what is often described as a cult director and this is one of the smaller productions running at the Cinelux. Modest though Screen 19 might be, it seems most of audience have firm ideas about how the narrative should be driven. With so much audience participation the plot becomes almost incomprehensible, marred by more gratuitous violence and profligate sex than is strictly necessary for a story about the life of an ageing landscape painter in the Lincolnshire Wolds. Bradley and I leave our seats a few minutes before the film is scheduled to finish in order to catch the 10:30 bus home.

I insert my CineCard into the checkout machine in the foyer and begin to answer the barrage of questions that appear on the touch screen. Did I enjoy the film? How many stars do I give it? Will I recommend it to friends? How often do I visit the cinema? How many are in my party? How far have I travelled? The database has information about me that it tells me I am over due to confirm. Is Source Code still my favourite film? Is Purple Rain still my favourite movie song? Cinema feedback has become intrusive. Last time I came it was a simple yes or not to did you enjoy the film. Now they seem to be doing everything possible to keep you in the cinema. It gives CineLux yet another opportunity to advertise their upcoming productions, which they fire at you from every corner of the prodigious foyer generating information overload.

A queue of people has formed behind me and Dale, the young male assistant in his turquoise CineLux uniform can see I am struggling with the questions. He comes over to help. Dale has a supercilious customer service grin. I tell him that I have a bus to catch and he says he will be as quick as he can. You don’t need to answer all of the domestic product questions, he says, deleting the list, and you can skip the ones about your income group if you press this. He guides me through the rest of the questions and as the barrier lifts I thank him. I cannot see Bradley. I wonder where he has got to. I imagine that he must have made his way through his checkout quicker than me and will be waiting outside.

I leave the warm interior of the CineLux and find myself in the midst of a thick fog. This has descended since we have been in the cinema. I probably shouldn’t see this as too much of a surprise as city fogs have become a regular occurrence. Pea soupers they are calling them, after the London fogs of the nineteen fifties. Meteorologists blame them on industrial air pollution. There has been much talk about taking measures to tackle them, but with the political impasse little has actually been done to clean up manufacturing processes. The loss of life through tuberculosis is constantly trumped by the drive to match China’s output. The argument put forward by many industrialists that the fogs were made worse by the atmospheric conditions of the summer months is wearing thin now that it is November. There have been half a dozen in the last few weeks, sometimes lasting for days.

Despite the thick fog, the streets are busy. I do not come to these parts often. I try to get my bearings. To move out of the way of the masses that are now leaving the cinema, I carelessly step off the pavement into the trajectory of an articulated lorry which is going much too fast for the conditions. The leviathan narrowly misses me. Why do they have to come through the city at night? Isn’t it time that they re-opened the ring road? Is it really because of a nuclear leak? The driver gives a blast on his horn which sounds like a rock concert. I step the other way and a black Mercedes van with tinted windows narrowly misses me. It has a white logo on the side, MovieMax or something. Isn’t that the name of a film production company? Someone shouts something at me out of the window.

Bradley is nowhere to be seen. I imagine that he is making his way to the bus stop. Bradley is three years older than me, but as his brother I feel responsible for him. While his autism is what they call high functioning, it does give him the tendency to go on ahead, unaware of any companions or any complications there might be. He does not always see the need to put his intentions into words. It would be fair to say that he sometimes has difficulty with communication, and social interaction. He might have been fired by a sudden interest in something and already be back at the house we share.

It is but a short distance to the bus stop, but with visibility down to a few feet I get lost somewhere along Church Street. There is a lot of redevelopment and scaffolding is everywhere. The shops seem to have all changed since I was last in this part of the city and I can’t even see the church. The miasma is all enveloping. Even if I can find the bus stop, the buses will have surely stopped running. I begin to worry again about Bradley. What on earth could he be thinking, going off like that without me? I wonder about catching a cab. It is unlikely that cabs ever stop running.

I have to wait half an hour for a cab. I ask my cabbie, Gayna if she has by any chance picked up Bradley. I tell her that he is about six two and he is wearing a dark green padded hoodie with an orange logo on the front. I explain that he can be a bit direct and does not make eye contact when he speaks to you. She says that she hasn’t seen him, but she kindly radios her fellow cabbies and puts the word out on the street to look out for him. I am her last fare tonight, she says, as we trundle out to the suburbs at about ten miles an hour. She thinks the fog is getting worse and comes out with stories of the near accidents she has had. Her colleague, Maccy was not so lucky she says. He got mown down last week by an army truck at the Mason Williams roundabout.

Bradley does not turn up that night. I am not at first unduly alarmed. Although we have no family nearby, Bradley does have a number of friends; perhaps not friends in the traditional sense, but people who look out for him. He may have taken it into his head to drop in on one of them. After I have phoned round the ones I have numbers for and drawn a blank, I begin to feel a little concern. I let myself into his room and have a look around. It looks just as it always does, meticulously tidy, books lined up neatly in alphabetical order on pristine shelves and clothes neatly folded in drawers, shirts ironed and hanging neatly in the white-wood wardrobe. Nothing looks out of place. What in these circumstances would constitute a clue? I really do not know what I am looking for.

Heather, Bradley’s Support Worker returns my call from earlier. She says, ‘Bradley was fine last week. We had a great chat about probability. He’s really knows his stuff with with numbers and IT.’

‘Can you think of any reason he would go off?’ I ask. ‘Or anywhere he may have gone?’

‘No. But he is quite capable of doing things by himself, Parris. Don’t underestimate his abilities. He is more capable than a lot of people think. He practically runs the centre when he’s here. His only weakness is with customer facing issues. Although he helped out with a performing arts workshop recently. He seemed to loose his inhibitions a little one he got into it.’

‘Right’

‘He did say he likes playing online poker. He can calculate the odds. Card counting, he calls it. Between you and me I think that he’s won a bit of money. But I think that he thinks you don’t approve.’

‘I haven’t said that,’ I say. ‘I don’t think we’ve fallen out about it.’

‘He was excited about being in a film’, says Heather. ‘Excited probably isn’t the right word when you are talking about an ASD with HFA, but he was let’s say very positive about it. While he’s not OCD, he has a strange POV for an HFA.’

What on earth was she talking about? ‘We went to see an interactive film together,’ I say. ‘I think it must have been that. That’s when he disappeared in fact.’

‘Probably,’ says Heather. ‘I’m always getting details wrong. Look! I’ve got to go into a meeting. But I will have a think and get back to you.’

Heather doesn’t get back to me. When I phone back she is in a another meeting.

I don’t feel that Heather has done enough to convince me that Bradley is safe. I decide to report Bradley missing.

‘Do you know how many people go missing in the fog,’ says Sergeant Sangakkara.

I tell him that I don’t. Does he want me to guess?

He doesn’t give me a figure, but neither does he show much sympathy as he takes the details, even after I mention Bradley’s autism.

‘How do you spell that,’ he says.

He tells me he will be in touch if there are any developments. It is clearly a practised line, which means he doesn’t give a damn. He doesn’t even ask me to phone him if Bradley turns up. He probably didn’t want to be a policeman, he would have liked to be a pro-wrestler or something.

I rack my brains for an explanation. Am I missing something? Has Bradley said something that might have given me a clue? I begin to look at everyone suspiciously as if they might know something about his disappearance. I keep an eye on the news. The winds have picked up they say and the fog is dispersing. Flights are to resume from several airports. Two hundred people are trapped in a mine in North East China. Antarctica is now even smaller than they thought. There is tension in Iraq, Iran and Syria. There is always tension in Iraq, Iran and Syria. Why is it still on the news? The ring road is still closed. There is speculation that there might be some connection with terrorism. No-one it seems is available for comment.

I phone the CineLux. Perhaps they can give me some information about Bradley, from his checkout answers. I realise as I am dialling that it is a longshot.

Someone called Keisha introduces herself.

‘My name is Parris France” I say. ‘I came with my brother Bradley France to see Landscape on Screen 19 earlier this week, eleventh of November. That’s 11/11.’

She makes a joke about my name.

‘Yes, a lot of people remark on that,’ I say. ‘It’s Parris with a double r.’

‘How can I help, you Mr France?’

‘My brother is missing,’ I say. ‘I was wondering if you could have a look at Bradley’s checkout record to see if it might throw any light on his disappearance.’

Do I mind if she puts me on hold. I listen to a minute or two of Miley Cyrus. Ugh!

Keisha comes back on the phone. ‘I’m afraid we have no record of Bradley France being here that night, or in fact any other night. Are you sure you have the right cinema?’

I confirm this and suggest that she may be mistaken. She assures me that there is no chance of a mistake. ‘Perhaps he used another name,’ she suggests. ‘Several hundred people visited that evening. It would take a long time to go through each one and check out if they were genuine.’

I am by now desperate for news of Bradley and keep the phone by the bed just in case. It is a day or so before the silent phonecalls start. There is no pattern to them. They come at all hours. None of them brings up a number on caller display and each time I pick up, there is no one at the other end. I want to believe that these are automated calls, but once or twice I detect some background noise, traffic passing, or a dog barking. The information is too vague to offer any real clues. Predictably each time there is no call return number. I don’t want to think that it is Bradley trying to reach me because his silence during the call would indicate that he is in a particular kind of situation which means he cannot speak. On the other hand even if he is in danger, it would mean that he is alive. I recall seeing a psychological thriller about a woman who is driven to suicide by silent phonecalls. I cannot remember what it was called. Perhaps it was Silence or Mute or something like that. All I can recall was that it was incredibly scary.

Syreena, my married girlfriend, usually comes round to visit me two or three times a week, depending on when she can get away. To my chagrin, she is only able to come round on Thursday evening this week and the phone rings right in the middle of our lovemaking. I have the impression that Syreena secretly resents my continued support of Bradley. Although she has never said as much, she feels Bradley might be pulling the wool over our eyes with what she refers to as his condition. I hope we don’t fall out over it.

She has to get back, she says, because Mikhail will be back at ten. She does not specify where he will be back from. I do not know much about Mikhail. Syreena has never offered the information and I have never asked. Our clandestine liaison probably works better this way.

‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘I will make it up to you.’

‘I’ll try and come over at the weekend,’ she says. ‘I expect everything will be fine by then.’

After about a dozen silent calls, I register with a call tracking service. TracknHack promise results, but it seems that they just want my money; they don’t actually have access to any special technology that would enable them to do so. I think about phoning Sergeant Sangakkara to chase up the police’s progress, but something tells me there won’t have been any. I’m sure that he won’t step up the investigation on the basis of a few silent calls. I decide to leave it for another day.

I experiment with different passwords and am finally able to get into Bradley’s Facebook account, but after a good look around I find no clues. Bradley has surprisingly few friends and there are no recent status reports from those he does have. I can’t put my finger on why I feel it, but it feels as if he, or somebody else, has been tidying the account up. I turn my attention towards his googlemail account. After a hour of trying to get into his email account I give up. His password is too difficult. He has not chosen something easy like IwntAstrONGpasswd28!! Someone has deleted his file history and there is nothing at all in Documents or Pictures. I do not have a lot to go on.

If there has been a fatality, the authorities surely would have come knocking. Bradley always carries ID and this is after all his home address. I try to use this as comfort, but my sense of optimism seems to be on a rest day. I begin to fear the worst. I do some internet research into the methods investigators use to find a missing person and discover that I am already employing them.

Bermuda is a small British overseas territory near the western edge of the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic. The nearest landmass is over six hundred miles away. Bermuda is famous primarily for The Bermuda Triangle. This is unfortunate if you live in Bermuda and your family fly a lot or sail a lot, as many aircraft and ships have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. My family were in such a position. My father ran a courier business, although it is widely believed this was a cover for his undercover activity with the secret service. My parents light aircraft disappeared with both of them aboard shortly after taking off for Martha’s Vineyard. Searches were not so sophisticated back then; There were fewer satellites and GPS had not come in to being.

The loss of one’s parents in tragic circumstances is not a thing that you ever come to terms with. The pain does not go away. It is nearly twenty years since it happened, but I often think back to the carefree summer days when we enjoyed a family picnic on the beach at Horseshoe Bay with a gentle breeze coming in off the sea. Or swimming in the calm waters of Jobson’s Cove with its pink sands and volcanic rocks. Or Bradley and I playing volleyball with our friends on Elbow Beach in the school holidays. In Bermuda you are never more than a couple of miles from the coast. This idyllic life was taken away by a freak storm, or was it a magnetic fog that blew the plane’s instruments. Losing my brother in the dismal fogs in Britain’s second city would be adding insult to injury. I’m praying that lightning never strikes twice.

When they finally called off the search for the plane, we moved to England to stay with Uncle Cliff and his partner, Richard in Gweek in Cornwall. I was fourteen and Bradley was seventeen. Gweek is a village on the Helford River which is not in fact a river but a ria, a series of creeks flooded by the sea. Activity centred around boats and once we became used to having two uncles, we settled in easily. Bradley became very interested in boat engines and could spend all day taking one apart and putting it back together, withdrawing into his shell. Gradually Bradley’s ASD was diagnosed and his needs became a priority, although it wasn’t until eight years later, after I had graduated from Birmingham University, that he moved in with me here. Despite the fogs that over the years began to envelop the Midlands, there are more facilities here that take account of Bradley’s condition and he can more or less lead a normal life.

My neighbour, Dermot is at the door. He looks sober.

‘This parcel came for yer man Bradley earlier,’ he says. ‘I took it in for the UPS delivery man, so I did.’

‘I must have been asleep,’ I say. ‘I didn’t hear him.’

‘No worries,’ he says. ‘I haven’t seen Bradley around a lot lately. Is he all right?’

‘He’s disappeared,’ I say. Don’t you remember? I told you about it the other day and you said the same thing then.’

‘I think I may have just got back from O’Reillys‘. You’re as full as a catholic school, Niamh says to me sometimes. I like that, full as a catholic school. She’s got a grand way with words, Niamh.’

‘I was telling you about Bradley disappearing,’ I remind him.

‘Oh, that’s right. I believe you did say something. Hey, wait a minute! A week ago, no it might have been a bit longer, some men came round for Bradley and they looked a bit odd, so they did. I thought at the time, what’s the craic, they don’t look like they’re from round here. They were in a black Mercedes van with tinted windows.’

‘But there are lots of vans with tinted windows driving round here.’

‘No, not drug dealers vehicles. I think this one had some big white writing on the side and a logo.’ Dermot sketches something in the air.

‘What do you mean, they didn’t look like they were from round here?’

‘Well they didn’t have al Qaeda beards, I reckon …… and they weren’t Irish. And they weren’t Caribbean either. The van had a lot of …. you know, equipment in it.’

‘Would you be able to describe them?’

‘Some of them had, ……. like suits on, dark suits.’

‘You don’t remember when this was?’

‘There was a soft rain fog I remember, but that does not help ye much now does it?’

The fog seems to be descending again as we speak.

‘I expect you noticed but the ring road is open now that they’ve finished filming, Dermot says. ‘Must be quite a big film, don’t you think?’

With a cheery shrug of his shoulders, he says he must crack on. We have only been talking for couple of minutes but his departure leaves a vacuum. A creeping desolation settles over me. I’m not very good on my own any more. I need company. What I really need is for Bradley to come through the door and everything to be all right. It would be good to talk to someone. I wonder what I have done with my counsellor’s number. I can’t even remember her name now. Janelle Council? Milly Stover? No, she was my acupuncturist. Clora Kaiser? No! It’s not coming. It was a few years ago that I had my problem.

I am racked with indecision. I don’t seem to know what to do with the parcel. I should open it. Should I open it? It is addressed to Bradley. I think perhaps I should open it, but scared of what I might find, I just stare at the large rectangular box wrapped in brown paper and parcel tape. There is no return address on it, just Bradley’s name and address in black marker pen. What might be inside? The more I look at it, the more I become paralysed with fear. It is very light. Much lighter than a box this size should be. Everything about the balance of the package is unsettling. The chilling thought runs through me that it might contain Bradley’s soul. I recall seeing the film 21 Grams. The title refers to the apparent loss in body weight when the soul leaves the body. Bradley’s soul boxed up, what an absurd idea. But the package is so light. If I put it down I think it might just float away, like a helium balloon. Gingerly, I shake it. There is no sound.

I take the plunge and start slicing at the package tape with a kitchen knife. There is no torque and I have to hold the package down firmly with my other hand to stop it slipping away. I too have a sense of slipping away. My mind begins to wander, my thoughts become more and more fluid. I think about what Dermot was saying about the black van with the tinted windows. I didn’t let him finish telling me about the men who came with the van. He told me about the ones in dark suits but he was about to tell me about the others. There was equipment in the van, he said. Could they have been a film crew? And, what he said about the ring road. They were filming, he said. Filming. I think back to Landscape, the interactive film Bradley and I watched, what now seems like aeons ago. It was Bradley’s idea to go and see the film. With IF, they film lots of different scenes and let the audience choose. Lots of different scenes! Very odd camera angles! I wonder …… It begins to dawn on me what is happening. I notice there is a camera lens in the smoke alarm. And another in the ceiling light. There are small cameras all around the house. There is even one in the flowering bird of paradise plant and two in the eyes of Bradley’s OwlMan poster. They are everywhere. Why haven’t I noticed them before? Isn’t that Leif Velásquez peering through the window? He is wearing a jacket like Bradley’s. It has got the same logo on.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

Black Fiat Uno

blackfiatuno2

Black Fiat Uno by Chris Green

It was Monday morning and I was not particularly pressed for time. I was off work as a result of an old Pilates injury flaring up. I had been told to rest. I was sorting out some matters that in my busy schedule at the kite repair workshop I never got the chance to attend to. I had upgraded all of the firewalls, spyware programs and virus checkers on the computer, de-fragmented the hard drive, and found five friends on Facebook. I had arranged for a tree surgeon to come and take a few feet off the weeping willow in the back garden, contacted the council about the broken streetlights, booked the car in for its MOT, and cleared the mouldy vegetables from the back of the carousel. Although my partner, Danuta, was on the face of it very thorough in cleaning the house, the kitchen cupboard seemed to be one area that escaped her attention.

I spent the rest of the morning watching a welcome repeat of ‘The History of the Harmonica’ on one of the new Freeview Channels, and over a light lunch, a special report on the prisoners’ strike. This was now into its fifth day with no signs of the prisoners’ demands for an extra £5 per week and a shorter working week being met. ‘The cost of drugs has gone up loads,’ one prisoner who was interviewed had said as justification for their action. ‘Why don’t we just beat the bleep bleep out of them?’ a warden had said not realising that he was on camera. In summing up the presenter, Giles Trevithick took the view of Foucault that perhaps prison was part of a larger carceral system that could not fail to produce offenders, and did nothing to offer a place in society for them if they reformed. It was surprising only that standoffs such as the current one did not occur more frequently.

I had just switched over to the Fishing Channel to watch the semi-finals of the Mid Wales Regional Angling Championships when there was a knock at the door. I was not expecting anyone so at first I let it go, but Alan, our Giant Schnauzer, started barking feverishly, so I got up to answer it. Perhaps it was Danuta, home early from her part-time job at the Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre, I thought, but then, she would have a key. Unless she had forgotten it. She had been in a bit of a fluster this morning after Alan had vacated on the hall carpet. ‘You should take him for more walks,’ she had shouted up the stairs. I reminded her that I had been told to take it easy; Dr Shipman had been quite specific on this point.

I found the key and opened it. Standing at the door was Eddie. To say I was shocked would not be an adequate appraisal of the situation. I hadn’t seen Eddie since I was twelve years old. Not since the incident with the cat…… I did a quick calculation. This would have been 1966. The thing was the Eddie that stood across the threshold with a football under his arm still seemed to be twelve years old. He even wore the same red Manchester United football shirt that I remembered with long sleeves and the number 11 on the back and the same green and white Gola Harrier trainers that he had been so proud of back then. He hadn’t changed a bit. He still had the same lank ginger hair and freckles. And the small mark over his left eyebrow where Nick had punched him outside our house and the blood had run down his face. Dad had had to take him to hospital to have four stitches. This definitely seemed to be the very same Eddie. The same gap between his front teeth which seemed too large for his mouth and made him look a little goofy.

Hi,’ he said in a blasé fashion as if he had seen me yesterday. There was no hint of surprise or curiosity on his face. He did not seem to notice that I had changed. That I was over forty years older, with a fuller figure, less hair and some unsightly facial scars.

Wanna come down the rec,’ he asked.

Eddie had always been the one to organise the kick-arounds. He was the one who owned the football. If his team was losing or if he was having a bad game, he would just say ‘it’s my ball’ and head off home with it, leaving me and Mart and Malc and whoever else was playing stranded. Before that he had been the one who had the Scalextric or the train set. He was the one whose house we would be able to go round to. He was an only child so his parents had a tendency to spoil him. He was always the first one to have the new trainers or the new football shirt or the new Kinks LP.

Eddie was bouncing the ball now with some vigour, clearly waiting for a reply. I thought perhaps that going to the rec was a little impractical as the ‘rec’ he was referring to was three hundred miles away. And of course there was my Pilates injury to consider. I asked him to come on in for a minute, hoping that the improbable situation would somehow resolve itself.

He came in and made his way through to the kitchen. I offered him a glass of Tizer. He remarked on the groovy new bottle. This was the first sign that he might be noticing a time warp.

The phone rang. I let it ring a while thinking perhaps it would make Eddie feel that he was being ignored if I took the call. The phone kept on ringing and Alan started barking at it, so I went into the front room and answered it. It was Danuta to tell me that she would be working late. Magda and Kinga had not turned up for work and things were pretty manic at the Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre. Fridge magnets had apparently featured on a lifestyle programme on Sky and there was a bit of a run on them. She had to go, she said, as there was a queue of people at the desk wondering what would be the best thing to put on their Smeg. I did not get the chance to tell her about our visitor. I wondered momentarily whether Danuta might be having an affair. This was the third time this month that there had been a television-led demand for fridge magnet advice. I dismissed the thought. If she were playing away there would be other signs, like lingerie catalogues coming through the mail, or new bottles of perfume appearing with inappropriate names like ‘Bitch’ or ‘Hussy’. I made a mental note to phone the centre later to see who answered. Meanwhile I had to get back to Eddie.

On returning to the kitchen there was no sign of Eddie, just an empty glass on the work surface by the fridge. I quickly scurried around the house, then the garden, but there was absolutely no trace of him. He had vanished.

I did not think I would be able to concentrate on the Mid Wales Regional Angling Championship, so I decided to pop to the supermarket to buy some garbanzo beans and some taboule. I had also noticed when I was cleaning out the carousel that we were getting a little low on guacamole and cactus leaf strips. Although Waitrose was not far, I decided to drive. I had recently, against all advice, bought a Chrysler PT Cruiser. The Honest John website had likened it to ‘a Ford Prefect on steroids’, and this was one of the better reviews. Now, even the novelty of its retro styling had worn off, which is why I had got it so cheap. It seemed to get from A to B though, albeit with alarming under-steer on corners.

I had not seen Ros since the spring of 1974 when we had had a brief fling. So imagine my surprise when there she was at the delicatessen counter. With her shoulder length reddish blond hair and flirtatious smile she was unmistakeable. She was exactly as I remembered her. She had not changed one bit. Her eyes still sparkled the way that they had and she still wore the same pale blue eye shadow and a light coat of black mascara around them. Everything about her seemed suddenly familiar. She even had on the same cheesecloth top that I had bought her from Jean Machine and a pair of flared FU’s jeans with a wide Biba belt. I remembered our first date. We had gone to see ‘The Way We Were’, and half way through I had said, ‘this film is rubbish, let’s go back to my place’ and to my surprise she had agreed.

Back then she was studying to be a chef and around May time, she had found herself with a heavy schedule of exams. With Ros busy revising, I had time on my hands and one night went to the Uzi Bar and come home somewhat worse for wear with a barmaid called Lola. Ros found out that I had slept with Lola when she came round next day and found a bracelet in my bed. I had not heard from her again.

However despite the intervening years she now appeared to instantly recognise me. And despite my erstwhile infidelity she greeted me with a big hug and seemed keen to ‘catch up’. Still in a state of disbelief, I struggled hard to find the right words to say, in fact any words at all. When finally I managed to ask her what she was doing now, she said she was studying to be a chef and had a heavy schedule of exams.

I don’t know if Ros became distracted by the range of Scandinavian furniture and modern art prints in the store or if she was just spirited away, but during the time the delicatessen assistant was weighing out my pitted green olives and taramasalata, she disappeared. I searched the store high and low and even got the shift supervisor to ask for her on the tannoy, but there was no sign.

As I drove away from the store my head was in turmoil. I ran through a red light by ‘Marcello’s All Day Breakfasts’, narrowly missing a Murco tanker, and almost mowed down an old lady and her Jack Russell on the zebra-crossing by the Fat Elvis Burger restaurant.

I had read enough of the self-help books that Danuta brought home from the community library to know that I had to ‘pull myself together’ and ‘get a grip’. Perhaps Louise L. Hay or James Redfield had not expressed it exactly in these terms but this seemed to be the general gist of their message. I put my Brian Eno CD on to relax me and tried breathing deeply as I had learned in Yoga. I pulled in by the stretch of water by the leisure centre and sat there for a few minutes, listening to the calming cries of the coots and the moorhens. I closed my eyes and tried to gather my thoughts. I told myself that whatever was happening I was not in a life-threatening situation. Everything could be resolved in fifty five minutes. This according to someone, whose name escaped me, was the amount of time it should take to adjust to a new situation over which you had no control.

I stretched my legs with a gentle stroll around the park, gradually gaining my self-control. A few joggers were out taking their early evening exercise and one or two people were out walking their dogs. When I noticed that the black collie-retriever bounding towards me looked a lot like Barry, my first thought was that I must have been daydreaming. A lot of dogs look alike. I made a quick calculation. Barry would be about 35. He would surely have died years ago. The dog barked excitedly as he approached. He nuzzled against my leg and then stood on his hind legs with his front paws against my chest, licking my upper arm affectionately. I quickly identified the heavily chewed black leather collar and the gouge on his neck where the fur was missing, the result of Barry’s tussle with a Staffordshire Bull Terrier in the car park at The Gordon Bennett. In the next instant we heard a loud whistle and Barry went bounding back across the park. I called out to the disappearing figure of Janice in the distance. Janice seemed not to hear. I called again. She did not look around. She was perhaps a hundred yards away but I felt sure it was her, even though she had to the best of my information moved to France shortly after we’d split up in 1983. The tie-dyed green denim jacket and the hennaed hair gave it away. This was how Janice would have looked in around 1983. She had a Walkman on. Probably, although I could not be sure, the one that she used to listen to her Joni Mitchell cassettes on. I stumbled on a patch of rough ground, and before I knew it, she and Barry were getting into the blue Chevette estate that we had bought together at the car auction. I remembered us bidding nervously. Neither of us knew much about cars. We had bought it for £550. I hadn’t seen a Chevette in years; they were not renowned for their durability. This one though seemed to be running well. It moved away with a healthy purr. I looked back. My car was parked too far away to think about driving after her.

The irregularities of spacetime were disturbing. Supernatural forces should remain in the realm of the imaginary. But this temporal upheaval was seemingly real. It was happening, now, and to me. I was scared. I felt like vomiting, my hands were shaking, and I was sweating like a Brazilian on the Victoria Line. Had I unwittingly uncovered a portal for parallel worlds, been sucked into the hypothetical wormhole. I had read about such things in Asimov and J. G. Ballard short stories and, but not given them much credence. It took a good deal of Pranayama breathing and another fifty five minutes of consolidation before I could get up from where I was now crouching. People were coming up to me and asking me if I was all right. A gnarled old crone with a bichon frise attempted to call an ambulance, a scarecrow with a limp offered me a pull on his hip flask, and a rangy Goth with a hair lip tried to sell me some ketamin.

No amount of deep breathing, philosophical principles or stress management techniques could have prepared me for my next encounter however. Returning to the Chrysler and noticing that the fuel gauge was low, I stopped at the BP filling station to fill up. There, at the adjacent pump, someone was putting fuel into a black Fiat Uno. I recognised the registration plate instantly. It was the Fiat I had owned in 1997. It took a spilt second, while I did a double take, before I recognised that the figure in the brightly coloured paisley shirt and combat fatigues bore an uncanny resemblance to me, as I would have looked around fifteen years ago. A lot slimmer and with considerably more hair. This was genuinely scary. I felt a chill run the length of my spine. This was not like looking at old photos of oneself or a video; this was watching a real living, breathing human being in real time. Wasn’t it? Reality was a fragile concept it seemed. Albert Einstein had called reality, ‘an illusion but a very persistent one’. But even this statement suggested there was room around the edges of reality for leakage. Facing myself over a few feet of garage forecourt defied any rational explanation. I was frozen to the spot; I couldn’t move.

I watched as my doppelganger slowly fed the fuel into the tank. I studied his mannerisms and his gestures in slow motion and one by one acknowledged them as my own. I recognised the flick of the neck, the squint against the light showing the lines etched on the forehead, the nervous shifting of weight from one foot to the other as he stood. I remembered buying those cream Converse Allstars cut-offs from a car boot. My heart raced and I felt a tightness in my chest. No doubt about it; the individual I was looking at was me. Amidst the inner turmoil, rational questions like ‘why hadn’t my 1997 personification noticed that the petrol was a little pricey?’ or ‘did the Fiat run on unleaded?’ tried to find a place in my consciousness. These were powerfully swept away by wave upon wave of blind panic as I sensed my whole life might be collapsing into a single moment.

He replaced the nozzle in the pump, and as he did he appeared to look right at me, or right through me. I couldn’t decide which. Could it have been that he did not recognise me? Or to look at it another way, should that be I did not recognise me – now that I was older. No one really knew exactly what form their ageing would take. It was not something you would give a lot of thought to. But of course Eddie had recognised me, and Ros had recognised me,despite my having changed significantly. And my smell must have been the same to Barry, although this was conclusive. Barry had always been quite a friendly dog.

My ‘other’ swivelled round. I thought he was about to come over. What would he do? Introduce himself? What would I do? I felt my legs buckle. This was not like one of those dreams where you dream about a past episode and the texture of the scenario as it unfolds is surreal. This was in clear focus in the here and now. I was watching me in an everyday situation in broad daylight. He did not come over. He seemed to hesitate in mid stride and turned to walk in the opposite direction towards the BP shop.

I was not very good on dates but I determined that in 1997 I would have still been with Mizuki. We were very happy back then in our second floor apartment overlooking the park. At weekends we would take the children to the pool or go walking in the woods. I remembered Mizuki and I went to see ‘As Good As It Gets’ at the Empire and realising how happy we were. Our contentment was of course not to last. I had been to see Mizuki’s cherry tree in the park recently. Someone had tied a ribbon around it with a bow. It had made me feel neglectful of her memory. I had lost touch with Sakura and Reiko a long time ago. They would have left school by now. At least none of them were in the Uno parked at the neighbouring pump; their presence would have cranked my present nightmare up another notch.

My other emerged from the shop with an evening newspaper. I read the headline. It was about Diana’s death. Something about a mystery white car in the Alma Tunnel. As he passed he seemed to look directly at me, or through me again. He could not have been more than twenty feet away. He got into the car. As he wound down his window I detected a hint of recognition….. I didn’t detect a hint of recognition….. I wasn’t sure. My mouth opened to call out to him but no words came. He drove off. The exhaust from the Fiat was still blowing, just as I remembered it. I put the pump back without having put any fuel in the car and set out to follow him.

He turned left down Hegel Avenue. I used to live on the Philosophers’ estate. I had lived there for over fifteen years, and it occurred to me that wherever we were headed was a run that I probably had made many times. I thought back to the types of journey I would have made in the Fiat in 1997. Mostly on account of the Fiat’s unreliability these would have been short journeys. To and from work. To the shops at Kirkegaard Court. Where would I have been likely to have been going at six thirty in the evening? It must have been after I had been made redundant from Gadgets and Gizmos. I usually didn’t finish there till late. Perhaps I was going to visit Mick or Charlie. They both lived in the Schopenauer Court flats. I might have been going to pick Mizuki up from the Sushi restaurant where she worked. I tried to recall if she had her own car back then. Memories of her came flooding back once again. We passed the Occam’s Razor pub where we used to sit out on summer evenings for a couple of halves of Old Poets.

The exhaust of the Fiat in front of me was now belching out black smoke. We seemed to be heading back on ourselves as we forked right into Rousseau Gardens. ‘A Brimful of Asha (On the 45)’ read a poster outside the ‘Oh My Cod’ takeaway. This surely was an old poster. Shouldn’t they have taken it down? We passed the Mahatma Gandhi Primary School where Sakura and Reiko used to go, and then right at the Karl Marx roundabout. It began to dawn on me where we were headed. Usually I would have turned left at the Karl Marx roundabout, taking me home along Darwin Road. Turning right meant we were ………..

I woke up in the Lewis Carroll Memorial Hospital. I had sustained multiple head injuries in the accident. I could not remember very much about the actual collision, but after a few sessions with Dr. Trinidad I recalled a little about the events leading up to it. An overweight elderly man driving an ugly black Chrysler had been tailgating me. It was a model I had not seen before. It was shaped like a hearse and its registration plate was in an unusual format.

I had first noticed this sinister character with his receding hairline and unsightly facial scars at the BP filling station. My attention was drawn to him because he was behaving very strangely. He stood there at the pump pointing the fuel hose into the air. He stared at me the whole time I was filling up. For a second I thought he seemed familiar but I could not place where I might have seen him. The more I contemplated this, the more I imagined I had been mistaken. I put my imagined recognition down to the intensity of his gaze.

When I pulled off he got into his car, without putting in any fuel in, and started following me. He kept his distance at first. I took a right at the Karl Marx roundabout into Nietzsche Avenue and ducked into Spinoza Crescent to make certain that he was really tailing me. He was closer now. I slowed down to give him the chance to overtake but he stayed behind. I sped up trying to lose him, but the Fiat was not very fast. The last thing I remember I was driving down Descartes Drive. He was right behind me, driving like a madman.

… heading for Descartes Drive, where years ago I had been rammed by an old maniac in a forties style gangster getaway car. About fifteen years ago. I had been trapped in my …. Fiat Uno.

 

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved

Kosmik Kitchen

kosmikkitchen

 

Kosmik Kitchen by Chris Green

June 1970

Mark Friday is eighteen years old and like many others of his generation has not given any serious thought what to do with his life. Plans are not cool. Plans are for straights. Something will land in his lap when the time comes; when the world realises how talented he is. Perhaps he’ll be a rock star. He can sing Get Back just like Paul McCartney and on a good day play John’s guitar solo note for note. And he has written four of his own songs.

Mark is sprawling on a pile of paisley cushions in a room painted in psychedelic patterns. Although it is hot outside, the windows are closed and a haze of blue smoke hangs in the air. As soon as a joint gets near its end, one or other of Mark’s loose group of companions rolls another. People might drift in and drift out without ceremony, but while they are here, this is an unspoken house rule. Mark has only recently boarded the metaphorical starship and is still a little disorientated by space, but the feeling of strangeness seems to him an altogether pleasant one.

Ummagumma is playing. Ummagumma is one of three LPs that are played in random rotation, along with Hot Rats and Trout Mask Replica. Ummagumma and Trout Mask Replica are double albums so perhaps that should be five. None are ever returned to their sleeves. Sometimes Electric Ladyland takes a turn or The White Album, although this is badly scratched on side two and sticks on Bungalow Bill. ‘What did you kill, what did you kill,’ ad infinitum. Led Zeppelin 2 completes the record collection but this never leaves its sleeve. Led Zeppelin are too popular and therefore, uncool. The cover, therefore, is just used for rolling joints on. Gold Leb is around at the moment, but Mark has a piece of Nepalese black, which he is saving for later.

Ummagumma is the best one for astral travelling, Mark thinks, especially Astronomy Domine. Pink Floyd are his favourite band. In between conversations with his fellow conspirators about mystic discovery, thought control and the brain police, Mark has the hots for Varushka. Varushka is about five feet ten and has recently arrived from the coast, or was it the moon. Short-term memory loss is a frequent problem. She came through the door, or was it the bathroom window, with a denim tote bag, an acoustic guitar, and a kite and said, ‘Hi. I’m Varushka. I’ve come to stay.’ She has taken her jeans off now to be more comfortable and is sitting in her pants but no one seems to have taken much notice, except Mark. She is a Sagittarius.

The cottage, which they are squatting, is called Kosmik Kitchen and is painted in bright colours outside, mostly orange and yellow, to attract visitors from outer space to this quiet corner of the middle of nowhere. Quasar comes from outer space, they suspect. Quasar arrived yesterday or maybe it was last week. (time disorientation is a frequent problem) in a jet-black left hand drive VW camper with runic symbols stencilled on the sides and is now asleep on a rug upstairs, dreaming perhaps about black holes and quarks. There is no proper furniture in Kosmik Kitchen, just one or two saggy mattresses and an assortment of mismatched cushions and rugs. As sleep is a last resort here on the frontiers of time and space, Quasar must have come a long way.

June 1994

Stacey Looker is driving to see a client in her GTE. She is listening to Nevermind. She likes Nirvana because Kurt Cobain killed himself with a gun. ‘I swear that I don’t have a gun,’ he is singing. The song is Come As You Are, recorded four years before he shot himself. Stacey is thirty four but on the phone, she says she is twenty eight. She is five feet ten but does not draw attention to her height. She is a dress size too big, through habitual overindulgence, but on the phone describes herself as nicely curved and calls herself Luna Moonlight. She is Luna Moonlight now in her short skirt and black stockings as she drives too fast down country lanes towards the place with the unpronounceable name. She describes her periodic amphetamine weight management programme as seeing Billy. She has seen Billy twice today. The GTE has a digital display speedo and she amuses herself by watching the orange numbers soar as she puts her foot down.

Her mobile phone rings. It is Ben from the agency. She does not know who Ben is and Ben does not know who she is. They have, as far as she is aware, never met. Ben phones her up at her home to let her know the numbers of prospective clients. She then calls them to arrange a time and place and after she has done the business she sends banknotes in an envelope to a PO Box. Ben is phoning her now on her mobile to tell her that the number the caller gave for this job does not check out with the information on his database. He says he has been trying to call her for ages, but it seems there is poor coverage in this quiet corner of the middle of nowhere.

Luna is apprehensive now. She does not know whether to go on or turn back. Some of the people in small Welsh villages have unusual sexual preferences. But, of course, there is the money. And what’s the worst that can happen? A few bruises maybe. ‘I love myself better than you,’ sings Kurt Cobain. The song is On a Plain. This is Stacey’s favourite. She turns it up and drives on, faster now.

June 1970

Mark gets up and turns the record over. His mouth is dry. No one ever makes tea or coffee in Kosmik Kitchen. Perhaps there is none. Or if there is, there is almost certainly no milk or sugar. He is hungry. He is sure that there is nothing in the kitchen, other than some sunflower seeds, some shrivelled carrots and a bag of flour. He has a vague recollection that he checked the kitchen for comestibles earlier, or maybe it was yesterday. Nourishment does not the prime concern for the seasoned space traveller. The last time someone cooked was he thinks when Rollo made the acid pie, with a batch of the purple haze. This, Mark reckons, was three days ago. It certainly rocked the starship. The whole universe seemed to be melting at one point.

No one in the house has done any shopping for as long as he can remember, other than the occasional run to the garage for pasties and crisps in Ben’s A30 van. The nearest shop is four miles away, and Ben went off somewhere yesterday in the A30 van with Rabbit. And of course, Quasar is upstairs asleep, dreaming of matter and antimatter. Mark hopes someone will arrive soon with some chocolate. All things must pass and people do have the habit of dropping in unexpectedly in this haphazard corner of the cosmos.

‘Go with the flow,’ Maggot keeps telling him. ‘Light is light and shadow is shadow, like yin and yang. When you’re meant to go up, go up to the highest point and when you’re meant to go down, go down to the lowest point. Sometimes there is no flow. If there is no flow, then be still and wait for the flow to begin again. But never resist the flow.’

Maggot along with Maggie was one of the first to arrive at Kosmik Kitchen. They had considered calling it Maggie’s Farm, even Maggot’s Farm, but someone, perhaps it was Rockit, came up with the Kosmik Kitchen and the name just stuck. Mark sits down again, next to Varushka now. Marvin, who recently arrived from California, or was it Andromeda, hands him a fat spliff. Mark takes a greedy pull on it and feels revived. As Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun swirls around his consciousness he has visions of Luna and orange skies.

June 1994

As the GTE powers its way through the Welsh hills, Stacey reflects on the time before she did all this running around the country. The ennui of daily repetition as she sat at home raising children and watching Pebble Mill, Neighbours, repeats of Dallas and mindless children’s programmes while Roy was out fixing boilers to bring home the bacon. Before the fire and before Holly and Polly were taken into care.

She remembers too, endlessly taking advantage of Roy’s naivety and trust. When early on in their relationship she had told Roy that she had a deep dark secret, he had said that it didn’t matter. So she had never told him about it. As she changes down into third to overtake a procession of slower cars, she remembers Roy accepting that she needed a break from twinkling little stars and the wheels on the bus going round and round. And that she liked to go out in the evenings, leaving him to clear up and put her girls to bed. And leaving him to do all the housework at weekends, while she went to the hairdressers or shopping on the High Street for shoes she never wore. And he did not seem to mind that she frequently came home noisily in the early hours. He may even have realised that she had a string of lovers. Surely it must have been obvious that she did not go out dressed like she did to go to evening classes or girly chats over a bottle of Liebfraumilch. And the messages men left for her on the answerphone must have hinted at her infidelity. Not that he ever complained on the occasions she woke him in the middle of the night to give her a good seeing to. What she is doing now she feels is not so very different from what she has always done, except that now she gets paid for doing it. And she loves the roar of the engine and the squeal of brakes as she negotiates a blind bend in the middle of the road and narrowly misses a cattle truck.

June 1984

Mark is sitting in a coffee shop in Amsterdam with his friend, Ben. They are a little drunk and a little stoned. A blues band is playing Third Stone from the Sun, an old Jimi Hendrix song. Mark has just had an argument with his girlfriend, Sasha. She has stormed off, and Ben’s girlfriend, Laura has gone after her. The four of them have come to Amsterdam for a stress-free break from their nine to five jobs. After the initial regret about their argument, Mark feels relieved that Sasha has gone. Something was in the air between them all day. Nothing that he said or did met with her approval. Perhaps Sasha is premenstrual, he thinks. Why else would she get upset about the magazines that he had bought, or that he had suggested they take in a strip show instead of an Indonesian restaurant. They will make up later, he expects.

He apologises to Ben and orders two more pilsners for the two of them, and Ben lights a spliff to cool things down. They talk about Piet Mondrian, avant-garde cinema and Dutch taxi drivers. Mark has his eye now on a statuesque beauty with long dark hair who is standing with another girl at the other end of the bar. She is dressed in black and must be about five foot ten, he thinks, and she is wearing high heels. He remarks to Ben that the girl, who he is convinced is also giving him the eye, reminds him of Varushka. Ben agrees that she does at this moment in time present a tempting alternative to Sasha, but says that he never met Varushka. Mark tries to jog his memory, reminding him of the crazy days all those years ago at Kosmik Kitchen. Ben suggests that perhaps Varushka may have arrived after he had gone off with Rabbit to work on the oil rigs. Whatever happened to Rabbit? they wonder. Or Flipper? Or Jesus? And what about Dave and Dave Too? Do you remember when they used to sell acid along with hamburgers from the hot dog van? Ben asks. And what about Quasar? With his monologues about quantum theory. And ley lines. And orgone energy. Quasar was, they agree, a nutcase.

The band starts to play a slow traditional twelve bar blues. Ben expresses the need to relieve himself and goes off in search of the toilet. The girl dressed in black comes over flicking her hair back seductively as she does so. She produces a thin neatly rolled spliff from her handbag and asks Mark for a light. He swallows nervously and digs deep into his pocket for his lighter. She introduces herself. Her name she says is Stacey. Mark notices that she does not have a drink. They strike up a conversation about cocktails and he orders her a tequila sunrise. She says that she and her friend come to Amsterdam four or five times a year and that there is no place like it for getting your rocks off. She rubs her hand slowly down her thigh to communicate to Mark what she means. Mark tells her it is his first visit. Having said it, he feels at a disadvantage and a little apprehensive. He is more accustomed to being in control of the situation. He is not sure how to react to someone so forward. He looks round for Ben, who has not reappeared. The bar has suddenly become more crowded. A poster advertising Galaxy Coffee Shop catches Mark’s attention.

‘What star sign are you,’ he asks, out of desperation for something to say.

‘Sagittarius with Leo rising,’ she says. ‘And my moon is in Sagittarius too.’

‘A lot of fire there for someone who doesn’t have a lighter,’ remarks Mark.

Stacey does not seem to wish to pursue the astrological theme. Instead, out of the blue, she says, ‘I expect you’d like to come back to my room and fuck me .’

Mark is taken aback and wonders perhaps if she might be a prostitute, but does not want to ask. Sensing his concern, Stacey quickly clears up the misunderstanding. Giving Mark little chance to decline the offer leads him away by the hand.

June 1988

Quasar is living on the island of Lanzarote in an imposing villa built out of black volcanic stone. To maximise its darkness, the doors and window frames are painted matt black, and the windows themselves are tinted. It is perhaps the largest house in the village and it blends in perfectly with the volcanic ash in which it is set but stands out dramatically when viewed against the other buildings nearby, which are uniformly painted white. It is surrounded by a collection of arcane sculptures in various stages of completion. The largest of the sculptures, dominating the lunar landscape appears to be a model of the solar system. Some of the other pieces too seem to represent stellar objects. Another according to its plaque depicts the angel of death, and on the black tiled patio, there is a sinister study of a twisted human skeleton. There are also sculptures of erotically entwined limbs scattered at random amongst tenebrous towering cacti. The sculptures all have one thing in common; they are jet black. A tall radio mast stands in the grounds of the house and there is an immense satellite dish on the roof between the solar panels and the water storage tanks. An astronomical telescope is positioned to catch the light from the stars of the southern sky. The island is reputedly one of the best places in the world for stargazers to view the cosmos.

Quasar keeps himself to himself. To add to the mystique, he wears Arab dress and makes no attempt to learn to speak Spanish. If anyone speaks to him in English too, he pretends not to understand. Given the potential for communication he has with other worlds, perhaps he doesn’t feel the need for social intercourse. He works in an underground studio where he plays reverberating electronic music that sounds as if it is coming from the bowels of the earth or perhaps the outer reaches of the Milky Way.

It is Thursday. A red Renault draws up outside Quasar’s gate and a Sylvia Krystel look-alike in a short red dress steps out. She looks conspicuous in this achromatic setting. Dogs bark and an old man outside the historic black and white church down the road makes the sign of the cross. Sylvia is about five feet ten and is wearing heels. A stiff breeze coming in from the Sahara lifts her dress as she makes her way across the picon. The front door opens and she disappears inside. She will stay for three hours, as she does every Monday and Thursday. The old man crosses himself once more. Set in tradition the people in the village understandably disapprove of Quasar. They view all of his activities with equal proportions of suspicion and fear. Rumours have circulated among them that he is a Satanist or worse, the devil. Some even believe he is a cannibal. Shortly, following the disappearance of a girl from a neighbouring village, the strength of bad feeling towards him will see him deported from the island.

June 2006

Leo is twenty one. He is sitting at his desktop computer eating a poppy bagel and a kabano sausage. He has a bag of Doritos, a selection of dips that he bought earlier at Morrisons, and a glass of Belgian cider. He is catching up on the emails in his inbox. He has about two dozen, about half of which are introducing him to new mobile phone offers with hundreds of free minutes and free texts, or trying to sell him penis enlargements or Viagra. Does everyone receive these? he wonders. Others suggest ways to make his business more profitable. What business? Or try to sell him cheap software. All his software is unregistered, anyway. He does not need Guaranteed Cheapest Prices on Office 2007, Adobe Creative Suite, or Quark. And he has never heard of Quasar. Perhaps it is a new web browser. He sets about deleting the mail, pausing briefly to read one or two messages that he thinks might be of interest.

Leo has been trying to trace his parents for several months now since he became aware that he had been adopted. He discovered that Dave Too and Varushka were not his real parents when he came home from university for the winter break to find the house empty and the estate agents board outside. ‘Under Offer,’ it said. He phoned his paternal grandfather in Swindon, who had been glad to have someone to talk to about the slugs on his allotment and the new road they were building outside his house, despite protests from all the residents in his street and a letter to the Deputy Prime Minister. After a chat about his arthritis and the lamentable state of the NHS, Leo had managed to get a number that he could phone his father on.

‘I think there’s been a bit of a rift, young Leo,’ Grandfather Too had told him. ‘Tread carefully.’

He caught up with his father, drowning his sorrows in the pub. Over a pint and chaser, followed by a chaser and chaser, Dave Too told him that he and Varushka had separated, but that it didn’t matter because he was not their son anyway. They had he said been meaning to tell him for years, but there was never seemed to be a right time to break the news. From the angry exchanges that ensued and a bitter reunion with a tearful Varushka later the same day in another pub, Leo was only able to deduce that their breakup may have had something to do with an unexpected visit from Dave (One). With oceans of alcohol by now washing through his brain, he was unable to establish exactly what the connection was, or what had happened, or who was to blame. He left with the profound feeling of betrayal and abandonment, and the conclusion that both parents were selfish and remorseless. The cold light of day only served to strengthen his feeling of detachment and he has had no contact with either of them since.

Since returning to university, where he is reading Creative Writing, Leo has spent dozens of hours trawling through internet websites, following links to ever more unconventional source material and has discovered that his real mother may have been called Stacey Looker. And that she may have died in 1994 when she disappeared in mysterious circumstances in Wales. An Astra GTE registered in her name was found abandoned in a local beauty spot, but investigations into her disappearance which briefly occupied the divisional police force were able to draw no conclusions, and the case was closed. His own efforts tracing her have drawn a blank. There has been no record of her since 1994. None of the people he has managed to track down that knew her have been able to shed any light on the circumstances of her disappearance, although one or two did mention someone called Ben that she was in contact with. Ben, of course, is a fairly common name.

Leo pours another glass of Belgian cider and picks up a half smoked joint from the ashtray and lights it. The television is on in the background. It is the World Cup. England are playing Sweden, but Leo is not really paying much attention. It will probably be a nil-nil draw, he thinks. It often is in these big games where there are high expectations. He shares a house with three other students, but they are in the Union bar. It is nearly the end of term and they are all getting ready to go home for the summer. Leo, having no family home to go back to, thinks he may stay on for a few more weeks.

Leo has also had little success in tracing his real father, the only clue to his identity coming from a newspaper report in the archives of the North Devon Gazette and Advertiser, dated September 1984, about a Mark Friday and a Stacey Looker winning a karaoke competition in Ilfracombe sponsored by Luna Fashions singing It Takes Two. Given that he was born in April 1985, this would have been the early months of his mother’s pregnancy. The fact that Stacey and Mark were at the seaside together, in a particularly low-key resort, suggests to Leo that they must have been very close and that Mark Friday might, therefore, be his father.

Despite Friday being an uncommon surname, all his investigations have produced no trace of Mark. The closest match is a Mike Friday who is 86 and living in a nursing home in Lyme Regis. The email with the subject Man Friday that has just arrived in his inbox and he is about to open could be of significance, he thinks. It has an attachment. What Leo does not know is that the attachment contains a virus that will cripple his computer and with it destroy the intricate murder mystery he has been writing about a latter-day hippy and a femme fatale.

Without his computer, it may also take Leo a little while to see that Mark and Ben have become Facebook friends. The computers at the university will not allow you to log in to Facebook.

Had he been able to he would have seen that Mark would be listing his place of residence as Mundesley, North Norfolk. Not a large place.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

 

 

No Time At All

notimeatall2

No Time At All by Chris Green

Tara was finding it difficult to remember things. Friends of hers, in their fifties and sixties, suggested that her memory was unlikely to get any better. As you grew older those periheral places where the past was stored were harder to find, they said. They told her how they constantly forgot important dates and events and often asked for the same information over and over. increasingly they needed to rely on the internet and other memory aides to remind them of things they thought they knew.

‘A diary is essential,’ said Naomi, who was 58. ‘How else would I know where I have been, or who I have seen?’ Tara did not see Naomi as someone who led a particularly chaotic life. Taking the dog to the vet was a bit of an outing.

‘You can use a diary to express your feelings,’ said Emily, who was 61. ‘You can really let off steam when you put your mind to it, and I find this helps a lot.’ Married, as Emily was, to Colin, Tara could see that she might sometimes need this outlet.

‘A‘ve kept a diary since Ah was a wee lassie. an’ noo a’ve got no-ain tae gab tae at nicht, Ah fin’ mah diary’s a stoatin comfort,’ said Fiona, who was 64 and recently widowed. Murdo had died last year as a result of a hunting accident in the Highlands, or was it a rare blood disease.

Tara, who was still only 48, began to put aside five or ten minutes each night before she went to sleep to record the day’s events and to put down her thoughts. She became quite disciplined about this ritual. She quickly found that writing a diary simplified her life. No matter how late she went to bed, she would put pen to paper.

Memory is a fickle apparatus, its performance imprecise and unpredictable. Tara could remember some things from long ago clear as a bell and she was able to reconstruct large sections of her life around a particular episode from way back, but when she tried to remember what happened last week or earlier that day, she drew a complete blank. Sometimes the reverse was true. This was particularly frustrating. She would lie awake at night trying to piece together what happened in the Summer of 1984 or the Spring of 1997. Or what she had done in the months between splitting up with Hugh and meeting Grant. She would get so far and then draw a blank. She could feel a pulsing ache from the feverish activity taking place in far reaches of the hippocampus as the fruitless search for information progressed. As well as gaps in her recollections, Tara was also faced with the bewilderment brought on by false memory. Where did random rogue recollections come from? There appeared to be no way of checking the accuracy of her account of anything that happened long ago. She wished that she had started keeping a diary sooner.

It was June 6th, a Friday. Tara had had quite a full-on day. It had started well with the news that Alice and Alex were going to make her a grandmother, but had gone downhill with the shunt in the Lexus at lunchtime, and got worse when she found out her car insurance had lapsed. Why hadn’t she had a reminder? Perhaps she had had a reminder. Why hadn’t she put the renewal date in her diary? The office in the afternoon had been a nightmare. Her computer picked up a virus and the photocopier broke. Dinner with Denzel at the Dog and Duck had been a disaster. Denzel drank far too much and had embarrassed her in front of clients. The phonecall from Phil at eleven asking her to work in the morning was all she needed.

To put down her reflections on the day, she took out her diary, which she kept in a drawer in her bedside cabinet. To her almighty astonishment, she found that the page for June 6th had already been filled in – in her neat handwriting, as had the pages for June 7th, June 8h and June 9th, in fact every day up until July 5th. She read the day’s entry in horror. It gave an accurate description of her day, complete with an up to date appraisal on how she was feeling towards Denzel. Those were the exact words she had used, when he had asked her to run him home.

Charlotte, Tara’s friend from the amateur swimming club, was not pleased to get the call. She had been in the throes of passion with her new man, Piers, at the time, and had only answered on the premise that any call after midnight must be important. It was a few minutes before she put Tara’s call into this category, but Tara had been a friend for years and she could tell that she was distraught. Pleas for her to calm down only brought on another outburst.

‘What does it say for tomorrow?’ Charlotte asked finally. ‘I mean today.’

Tara read out the diary entry for June 7th.

‘Simple! Don’t go to work in the morning, then the diary entry will be proved wrong,’ said Charlotte.

‘I think I do have to go to work. Important deadlines, and all that. June as you know is always a busy time at East Asian Travel.’

‘Then you must make sure that you do not go to town in the afternoon and then the rest cannot happen,’ Charlotte said. ‘You don’t have to buy the surrealist painting of the naked saxophone player with the New York skyline by the unknown Spanish artist.’

‘I suppose not, but its one of a pair along with a blind trumpet player looking out to sea that I’ve already got. The pictures are quite amazing.’

‘Tara!’

‘OK. You’re right, Charlotte. ‘I won’t go, and I won’t buy the agave plant from Treehugger Nurseries. I won’t even pick up the Lexus from the panel beaters.’

‘And you don’t really need to get a wetsuit from Albatros Diving, do you? So that’s your diary day cancelled out.’

After a night of tossing and turning, and a dream about drowning in a rip tide off the Bay of Biscay, Tara made it into work. Her in-tray reflected the busyness of the summer season. She was faced with a long list of people to phone about their travel plans, and hundreds of tickets and letters to be sent out. Why couldn’t East Asian Travel operate over the Internet like everyone else?

Phil, normally so aloof, was being exceptionally helpful and had even brought in some cakes.

‘I’ll give you a lift in to pick up your car, my sweet,’ he said, putting his arm around her shoulder. Was he flirting with her? No, it turned out. He was just softening her up to work Sunday. She did not find this out until after they had picked up the wetsuit. bought the painting, been to the garden centre and she had helped choose a birthday present for Phil’s wife.

If Tara had remembered her diary entry for the day, depending on viewpoint, she would have seen that she was going into work, or according to what was written, had been in to work, on the Sunday. She would also have anticipated, or recalled, Denzel’s unwelcome call in the afternoon. And what was she doing at Frankie and Benny’s with Toni? She never went out on a Sunday evening and she hated pizza.

Following this, Tara decided to read the entries carefully for the whole period that was filled out. She tried to commit the events of each day to memory. But, over the next few days, no matter how hard she tried to contradict her proscribed schedule, circumstance conspired against her and she ended up doing exactly what was written in her journal. Even the most unlikely episodes took place. How could you predict that a TV celebrity was going to die in a balloon accident? And what were the chances of meeting your primary school teacher who you hadn’t seen for forty years in the traffic free area outside Monsoon?

‘I can’t see what the problem is,’ said Naomi. ‘It takes the hard work out of keeping a diary if its already filled in.’ Naomi hated surprises and liked everything to be just so.

‘It makes it seem like fate,’ said Emily. ‘I met a clairvoyant the other day. She does readings over the phone. Colin says its a load of old crap but I believe things happen for a reason.’ In Emily’s world, everything from tarot to tea cup readings could help to simplify life’s great mysteries.

Fiona was more sympathetic. ‘Ah can ken wa yoo’re scared. ,’ she said. ‘Ah woods be terrified. quantum leaps ur somethin’ ye expect tae bide in science fection where they belang.’

Much of Tara’s diary-week was predictable, inasmuch as it consisted of things she usually did, like go swimming after work on Tuesday, or go to her evening art class on Wednesday. She did not know why she put it down. About half of what she wrote was meaningless. Did it matter that she had cooked a casserole or had an erotic dream? Or that the cat had been in a fight or the parlour maple was flowering. After all, it flowered every June at about this time. Because it was written in the diary, she made a special effort not to call Eric, the cooker repair man in to replace the faulty oven fan, but he called round anyway on the off-chance that she might need a domestic appliance repair done. However, some of what she had apparently written for the week was unusual. She had the same dream that she had recorded in the diary of her travelling, as a man, on a bus in Barcelona, listening to The Cinematic Orchestra on a music player with oversized headphones, while the Christmas dinner was cooking. She was looking out for the railway station where she had to catch the 5:25 train to take her back to the place where she caught the bus. She calculated she would just about make it on time. The family, not her family but a family put together from unconnected people remembered from childhood, were waiting in the Las Ramblas apartment and when she arrived back the pheasant roast would be ready to serve. Not the kind of dream you would expect to have twice.

The Mariachi band marching past her house playing Bésame Mucho every morning was a bit random too, and the dead owl on the doormat definitely unexpected. And what were the chances of finding yourself in a lift with the author, Frank Biro? For the whole week, the mundane and the exceptional matched exactly what was recorded in the diary. It seemed her free will was gradually being broken. By Friday she was in panic mode.

‘Confusion of this nature is commonly caused by overwork,’ said Dr. Chandrasekar, the young locum who was filling in for her regular GP, Dr. Sadness. ‘What is your job?’

Tara told him she was in the travel business.

‘Ah!’ he said. ‘This is one of the worst jobs for work related stress and anxiety. And of course its worse in the summer months, am I right?’

Tara thought that perhaps he was stating the obvious, but agreed.

‘Do you drink alcohol regularly?’ he asked. ‘Alcohol as you probably know can make one delusional.’

Tara confessed that she had popped an extra bottle or two into the supermarket trolley in the past few days, to help cope with the trauma, but as a rule she didn’t overindulge.

‘How many units a week on average would you say?’

There was a time for honesty, but this wasn’t it, she felt. ‘About eight or nine,’ she said.

‘No recreational drug use, I take it.’

‘Absolutely none, not for many years.’

‘I think what I’ll do is write you out a prescription for some tablets. Now you take six a day and in a few days I think you should start to feel less anxious.’

‘Risperdal!’ said Charlotte. ‘He gave you Risperdal! That’s what they give to people with schizophrenia. Six a day! Definitely not, Tara.’ She listed the side effects. They included hypersalivation, insomnia, mood disorders and suicidal tendencies.

‘So what do you suggest?’ said Tara.

‘I’ve started seeing a Sand Tray therapist,’ said Charlotte.

‘What on earth?’

‘She gets me to to alter the positions of miniature objects which represent people and events. She says that will help me make the same changes in real life.’

‘And has it helped?’

‘Well its early days, but I do enjoy playing in the sand pit.’<