The Moons of Uranus

themoonsofuranus

The Moons of Uranus by Chris Green

‘Look, Sean! There are some avocets,’ says Mara, excitedly. ‘They are avocets, aren’t they?’

Mara turns and notices that instead of looking out of the window at the expanse of estuary they are passing, Sean is studying his train ticket.

‘You’ve been poring over that ticket for about ten minutes,’ Mara says. ‘Is there a problem with it?’

‘Has it been that long?’ Sean says. ‘No. No problem, dear.’

‘Don’t you want to see the wading birds?’ Mara says. ‘This is the best time to see them. The tide’s just going out. Look! There’s a curlew.’

‘Sorry,’ Sean says. ‘I got distracted. I’ve not noticed it before but there’s lots of interesting information on a train ticket. For instance ….. ‘

‘You’ve been getting …… distracted a lot lately,’ Mara says. ‘We don’t have many days out together. You could at least try to enjoy it.’

I am enjoying it,’ Sean says. ‘It’s just …… ‘

‘I couldn’t help but notice you were studying the menu at the station café earlier, long after we had ordered. And we only went in for a cup of tea. You’re behaving rather strange lately. What’s the matter with you?’

‘It’s always worth knowing what a railway station café has on offer,’ Sean says. ‘This particular menu was well presented on good thick card and nicely laminated. And it was set in an unusual typeface. I was trying to work out what the font was. I think it might have been ……’

‘And I could be wrong but it looked to me as if you were counting the ceramic tiles on the kitchen wall yesterday. What was that all about?’

Sean is about to tell her that there are 5,096 one inch squares, made up of 104 blocks of 49. But, he stops himself. He doesn’t want to admit to Mara that he is aware he has become more anal of late. He can’t put his finger on what might be causing it but he finds he becomes interested in unlikely things that just a few weeks ago, he would not have given a thought to. He has to find out all he can. It’s like a compulsion. He can’t seem to help himself.

While Mara was away on a training course recently, he caught an episode of One Man and His Dog on the BBC and before he knew it, he was binge-watching all the episodes that were available on catch-up TV. Twenty four of them in all. He had to take a day off work to fit in all his viewing. He even took a trip around the local countryside to take photos of sheep and then made a collage of the best shots in the design program on his iMac. Then, for no apparent reason, he became fascinated by Quoits. He read up on the rules and the history of the sport and became familiar with the names of all the top players. He even joined one or two Quoits forums. Which somehow led him to snooker. After watching hours of the Masters tournament, he started to think about the trigonometry of the shots. In an attempt to calculate the precise angle of Neil Robertson’s long shot to the top right-hand corner pocket, he replayed the shot over and over on iPlayer. But then he became distracted by the design of the TV remote control and wanted to know how it worked so he dismantled it and could not get it back together again so he had to buy a new one on eBay. Even that was not straightforward because it led him into researching the history of PayPal.

Mara is quite often away on training courses. Apparently, there is a lot of tuition required these days to become an administrative assistant. New systems and the like, Mara has explained. Having so much time on his hands, though, is part of Sean’s problem. It wouldn’t be so bad if the children were still around but David is at Essex reading Computer Science and Debbie has moved in with Harry. Every day, Sean finds he needs to explore more subjects that he has not previously been interested in. In great detail. He feels the need to amass the information quickly, cramming he supposes you might call it, worried that if he doesn’t find out, he might die without ever knowing. Then, of course, while he is busy researching, he becomes fascinated by something else and finds he needs to understand this too. He hadn’t realised, for instance, that the cravat had enjoyed such a colourful history or that there were so many species of snails. Social media doesn’t help. How could he not be interested when he gets intriguing posts about Tuvan throat singing? Or the moons of Uranus? The Uranian moons, he discovers, are all named after Shakespearean characters. There are twenty seven of them. Twenty seven is apparently a significant number. It is the cube of three, the trinity of trinities. It is the result of a prime reciprocal magic square of the multiples of one seventh. It is the first composite number not divisible by any of its digits. There are twenty seven bones in the human hand. There are twenty seven books in the New Testament. Land mass makes up twenty seven percent of the planet Earth. Mozart was born on twenty seventh of January and wrote twenty seven piano concertos and twenty seven concert arias. Dark matter is thought to make up twenty seven percent of the universe. Then, there is the Twenty Seven Club. And, something else, oh yes, Sean and Mara have been married for twenty seven years.

‘You haven’t heard a single word I’ve said, have you?’ Mara says, interrupting his train of thought. The train is now pulling into their station.

It’s true. He realises he hasn’t been all that attentive. For the latter part of the journey, he has been busy counting the electricity pylons that line the track. There have been twenty seven of them, including some of those snazzy looking T-shaped ones by the Danish designer whose name escapes him.

‘Something about the work on the road bridge, was it, Mara?’ he says. This he feels is perhaps worth a try. It is a likely topic of conversation. They have frequently discussed the slowness of progress on the bridge widening scheme in recent weeks. On a bad day, it can take as long as half an hour to get across and they can’t remember when they last saw anyone actually doing any work. This is the reason they have taken the train for their day out today.

‘That was five minutes ago.’ Mara says. ‘We passed the bloody bridge five minutes ago, Sean. What I said was, it would be nice to have lunch at that whole-food place by the cathedral. Why don’t you ever listen?’

‘Sorry I was ……’

‘I know. You were ……. distracted,’ Mara says. ‘Look, Sean! I’ve been pretty tolerant but I think it’s time you went to see someone about this ……. distraction. Doctor Hopper, perhaps.’

‘I’m not sure about that,’ Sean says. ‘Besides, I normally see Doctor Bolt.’

‘Doctor Hopper’s better,’ Mara says. ‘He adopts a more holistic approach. Doctor Bolt will just say ah yes in that supercilious way he does and write a prescription for more pills. ……. By the way, are you still taking those ones he gave you for your ……. anxiety? …… Pira…. Para ….. Pramira….. Oh, what were they? You know, the ones with the long complicated name. …… Didn’t we discover they were a new experimental drug?’

A haunted look of realisation spreads slowly across on Sean’s face as it dawns on him that his random fascination for unlikely subjects started when he began taking the Piradictamyl27.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

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TIME OUT

timeout1

Time Out by Chris Green

The train has never been this late. It is nearly 10 o’clock. Max has been waiting for over an hour. He has been through nearly all of the Thelonious Monk selections on his iPhone. He may have missed something but so far as he can tell, there have been no announcements giving a reason for the delay. Before the departures display stopped working for some unexplained reason, it stated that the 8:39 to Broadchurch was on time. Thus, Max kept thinking it would soon be along. One or two trains going in the opposite direction have stopped at the other platform and a trickle of people have got on and off. Churston Stoney is not a busy station

Max is in no hurry. It doesn’t matter what time he opens All About Jazz on a Tuesday. Few people come in to buy anything so early in the week. For most, jazz seems to be primarily a weekend fascination. But, curiously, the handful of other passengers waiting on platform 2 for the 8:39 seem similarly unperturbed by the train’s delay. From time to time, one or other of them wanders up to the Take the Train poster to see if it provides a clue or feigns interest in the safety procedures notice but, in the spirit of train travel, each keeps his distance and avoids conversation or even eye contact with the others. The cordylines in their raised wooden planters have never attracted so many admiring glances.

Max is beginning to suspect that something may be wrong. There should be some news by now. There are no railway staff on hand to ask what the issue might be and the ticket office is on the approach to the other platform over the bridge. He takes his earbuds out and sidles up to the broken bench where a young girl in a purple duffle coat is sitting. She is probably a student, he thinks. At Broadchurch College. Positive Pathways, most likely. This would explain why she herself is not in a hurry to get anywhere. In fact, it’s probably a little early for her first class. Most of the students there don’t turn up much before lunchtime.

At Max’s approach, the girl’s fingers stop playing with her phone for a moment.

Max does not want to sound too hung up about the lateness of the train, but equally, he doesn’t want it to seem like he is chatting her up. He is more than twice her age.

‘Good tune?’ he asks.

She looks the newcomer up and down. She is wary of middle-aged men wearing striped linen jackets and Fedora hats thinking they look cool.

‘You wouldn’t like it,’ she says, taking her buds out. ‘Rat Boy. Probably not heard of him, have you, Granddad? It’s called Get Over It. Essex hip-hop.’

He seems undeterred by the offhand way she addresses him. Perhaps she should have just blanked him, she thinks, and turned her head. Now he wants to chat about trains. Is there an 8:39 train? What has happened to it? How would she know? She is happy to sit here until one comes along. She has nothing pressing to get on with. She is often the only one at her mime class, so it probably doesn’t matter if she attends or not. The world as she sees it is on her phone. This is where the important things happen. People of a certain age don’t seem to have caught on yet that there is no need for personal interaction.

‘I’m sure the train will be along soon,’ she says, turning her attention to the screen once more.

‘I manage a jazz shop in town,’ he says. ‘You might want to pop in sometime to see if there is anything you like.’

Why is he telling her this? Does she look like she cares?

In the nick of time, she is saved by another passenger coming along. This one seems happy to talk to Max about trains and timetables. The new arrival, she thinks, looks considerably more sinister than the other. Although it is Spring, he wears darkness like an overcoat. There is no mistaking that look of serious intent. It does not belong in her world. She puts her head down and gets back to her hip hop. Best to leave the two men to their concerns over punctuality.

‘I’m hearing that this section of the line is experiencing some unexpected temporal turbulence,’ the newcomer says. ‘A rupture in time, you might call it.’ He has that look of dark formality about him that Max notices when he visits his accountant. But despite his seriousness, there is something other-worldly about him.

‘A rupture in time?’ queries Max. ‘Is that an elaborate way of saying that the train is late?’

‘No. Not exactly,’ the shadowy figure continues. ‘While, yes the 8:39 is indeed late, it is on its way. However, you may notice some ……. differences.’

Detecting some activity, at last, other passengers have begun to gather around the two of them, curious to know what the new developments might be.

‘How are you getting this ……. information?’ asks the man in the ill-fitting beige zip up jacket and the striped shopping bag who is probably younger than he looks.

‘Or lack of,’ adds the woman in the orange shell suit carrying a small child in a papoose.

‘Aliens landed in Westmallow this morning,’ says the man with the long hair and the Syd Barrett t-shirt, who has just arrived. This overshadows all the other comments and gets everyone’s immediate attention. Westmallow is just five miles away, in fact, the next station up the line.

‘Only joking,’ he adds. ‘Got you going, though, didn’t it?’

‘So tell us! When will the train be here?’ says Beige zip up.

‘And what is happening?’ says Orange shell suit.

‘Just be aware that the train might seem a little strange today,’ says the shadowy figure. ‘I will not be travelling with you.’

With this, he takes his leave. They watch him aghast as he makes his way down off the platform and hotfoots it down the steps. No sooner has he gone than the train drifts into the station. It appears to be the usual two-car multiple unit that is used for this service with the usual shabby dark blue livery.

Max gets on and takes a seat. He glances around nervously, trying to spot anything that might be considered odd. The layout of the carriage is familiar. There is the usual amount of grime suggesting it might be due for a deep clean. The proportions of old and young, men, women and children are what you might expect at this time of day. In fact, Max recognises many of them. Not that he is in the habit of speaking to any of them, but they are regulars on the route. He decides to settle back and listen to a little Miles Davis. He finds Miles’s mellow mute is perfect for relaxation. He selects Miles Davis from the playlist. To his alarm, what he hears is not Miles Davis at all but some terrible hip-hop music. He glances at the cover art on the phone’s display. The track is called Get Over It by Rat Boy. How could this have happened?

Then he remembers. The girl in the purple duffle coat had been listening to Rat Boy. Perhaps she has somehow bluetoothed the tune to his device. He looks around for her, half expecting to see her somewhere in the carriage laughing, perhaps with Syd Barrett t-shirt sharing the joke, but neither of them is anywhere to be seen. He makes his way down the aisle and into the adjoining carriage. They are not there either. Did they not actually get on the train? The assumption is that passengers waiting for a train board the train but, at the time, he had been too pre-occupied with his anxieties to notice who did and who didn’t get on.

Puzzled, Max returns to his carriage. There now seem to be extra passengers. He is certain, well, almost certain. The lady with the bichon frise was not there previously. Nor the two soldiers. Sometimes the memory can play tricks, especially at times of stress, but surely he would have noticed the soldiers. Shouldn’t they have got off at Gunleigh, where the army base is? That’s two stops back up the line, no wait, three stops. The man in the mac is no longer there, nor the man with the Ronnie Wood haircut and the dark glasses who kept blowing his nose. He can’t see the man who was reading the book on string theory either. Max takes a look at his watch. 8:56. The train now appears to be on time. Proper time. Well, perhaps a few minutes late, but certainly no more than you would expect on a normal working day. Unless. ……….

The train passes through the Blackstone tunnel. This is definitely further back up the line. The tunnel is before you reach Gunleigh. How can this have happened? Max continues to puzzle over this as the train pulls into Gunleigh, where the soldiers leave the train. The train stays in the station for several minutes. There is no explanation for this and the restless murmur of conversation around the train reflects the growing frustration of the passengers. No-one seems to know what is going on.

‘I’m going to miss my connection,’ says the man in the mac. ‘If I miss it, I’m going to be writing to someone.’

‘I’ve got an important iatric appointment in Broadchurch,’ says the man with the Ronnie Wood haircut and the dark glasses, the one who keeps blowing his nose.

The man who is reading the book on string theory nods his head.

‘Insulting, the wait they treat us,’ says the man in the mac. ‘It never used to be like this.’

‘Not so much as a word of apology,’ says the man with the Ronnie Wood haircut and the dark glasses, who keeps blowing his nose.

The man who is reading the book on string theory shakes his head.

Max tries his phone to see if he can find out anything from the internet to explain what is happening but predictably, given the unusual circumstances, he cannot get a signal. He is struggling to work out what he might be doing on the train on this part of the route when he lives in Churston Stoney, which is still eight or so miles up the line, coupled with the fact that he remembers getting on the train at Churston Stoney, just now. To go to work. He is dressed for work.

Max closes his eyes and begins to count slowly from one to a hundred in French, German and Spanish, a distraction exercise he taught himself to overcome confused states of mind. Sometimes he uses this exercise to help himself get off to sleep after a busy weekend at the Broadchurch Jazz Festival. By the time he has reached ochenta y siete, it is ten past ten and the train is pulling into Churston Stoney station. To his amazement, there on the platform are the girl in the purple duffle coat with her head in her iPhone, the man in the beige zip up jacket with his striped shopping bag who is probably younger than he looks, the woman in the orange shell suit with the baby in the papoose, the man with the long hair wearing the Syd Barrett t-shirt and to his great horror, he notices the sinister man from earlier is just leaving the station, hotfooting it down the steps. To his greater horror, there by the cordylines in the raised wooden planters he himself is, dressed in his striped linen jacket and his Fedora hat, carrying his leather work bag. Up until this moment, déjà vu had been just an expression that he had heard bandied about by people who, he realises now, had no comprehension of what it might feel like to really experience the trauma of it.

The train is soon on its way and hurtling down the line. For the benefit of those who boarded at Churston Stoney, the conductor apologises for its lateness. The delay, he says, was due to a giant clown on the tracks. He goes on to announce that the train will be stopping at Bymoor, Pitfield, Littlechurch and Broadchurch. The man in the mac and the man with the Ronnie Wood haircut and the dark glasses, who keeps blowing his nose are in Max’s carriage, along with the man who is reading the book on string theory. He has been joined by a man who looks a little like him, but is perhaps a little thinner. His lookalike companion, Max notices, is wearing a Heisenberg t-shirt and reading something called The Uncertainty Principle.

The girl in the purple duffle coat, who seems to have made a point of taking a seat opposite him says, ‘There was no need to copy that bloody jazz to my phone. It was terrible. How can you listen to it?’

‘What?’ says Max. He is still trying to imagine what could have possibly happened to his doppelgänger. Perhaps he is the doppelgänger.

‘That Duke of Wellington, or whatever he is called, says the girl in the purple duffle coat. ‘That Mood Indigo.’

‘Ellington, it’s Duke Ellington, one or other of him says.

‘Whatever!’ says purple duffle coat.

This development suggests to Max that not only is there a rupture in time which is turning all rational thinking on its head but music is getting muddled too. Music and time makes him think of musical time. Musical time makes him think of Dave Brubeck and Time Out, the seminal album based on the idea of unusual time signatures, 9/8, 5/4, 6/4 and the like.

But, Max realises none of this explains what is really happening or why what is happening is happening. Reduced to its simplest form, he had a long wait on Churston Stoney station for the 8:39 train to Broadchurch, during which he had some unaccountable experiences, including travelling on the train that had not arrived. The train that had not arrived has since arrived and he is on it, again, possibly along with his doppelgänger and the other passengers who were waiting at Churston Stoney station, who have not previously boarded the train, with the notable absence of a mystery man who had maintained that something was wrong with the universe.

But, it’s all part of life’s rich pageant. What’s past is prologue. Max must move on. Take what comes and do what he can to have a say in this. This is as much as anyone can do. As the great novelist and jazz enthusiast, Haruki Murakami says, ‘don’t let appearances fool you, there is only one reality.’ But is this really true, Max wonders as his eyes are drawn once more to the man reading The Uncertainty Principle? As he recollects, the principle states that nothing has a definite position, a definite trajectory or a definite momentum. Trying to pin something down to one definite position will make its momentum less well pinned down and vice-versa. What about the other fellow, Max wonders, the one that is reading the book on string theory? Perhaps he would have an explanation for what is going on. String theory, as he understands it, proposes that the fundamental constituents of a nine or ten-dimensional universe are one-dimensional “strings” and not point-like particles. Thus, the universe that we are familiar with is not the only one; multiple universes exist parallel to each other. Any number of different realities then? He could, for instance, also at this moment be still waiting for the train at Churston Stoney, travelling on the train further up the line and travelling on a different train and in another dimension, he could never have been on a train in his life. Equally, the girl in the purple duffle coat and all the others might be on multiple trains or not at all. He decides it might be best not to talk to the fellow reading the book on string theory just yet.

‘Tickets please!’ says the conductor, making his along the aisle. ‘Anyone who got on the train at Churston Stoney.’

Max fishes around in his jacket pocket and finds that he has dozens of tickets. Baffled, he turns them over in his hand. The conductor eyes him suspiciously. Max glances once again at the man reading the book on string theory. Perhaps he does need to speak to him after all.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Barber, Ball and Bilk

barberballandbilk

Barber, Ball and Bilk by Chris Green

The opportunity to see Barber, Ball and Bilk, the three B’s as they are being billed, in Bridgedown is too good to pass by. Bridgedown is eighty miles away and I don’t drive, but the train journey from Sheepdip Halt is easily doable. It involves just one change, at Starmouth. Although it is a Friday and Friday is a busy day I have managed to get the day off from Freeman, Hardy and Willis in Leighton Constable. Mr Littlejohn has not said as much but I think he is a closet trad jazz fan. Once or twice I have caught him sneaking a peak at my Melody Maker during his tea break and I think I heard him humming The Green Leaves of Summer the other day. It’s a shame though that the new stock of tan winkle pickers he said he’d ordered didn’t arrive in time for today, but you can’t have everything.

Chris Barber and Acker Bilk are of course great but it is Kenny Ball that is the real star. I have long been a fan of Kenny’s. The recent chart success of Midnight in Moscow is no more than just reward for his long years on the road, playing trumpet in Sid Phillips, Eric Delaney and Terry Lightfoot’s bands. Belated recognition for all the brilliant records Kenny has made since then with his own band The Jazzmen that have up until now gone unrecognised. Forget all the weak, cissy tunes by Cliff Richard, Adam Faith and the other preening minstrels that you hear on Pick of the Pops. Bloody nancy boys, my mate Matt reckons. I don’t know about that, in fact, I don’t care, but there’s definitely nothing dodgy about Kenny Ball. Or his music. I’m not sure quite how a cool cat would put it, but Kenny’s trad jazz is cool, where it’s at, the cat’s pyjamas, the dog’s bollocks, the real deal and all the rest, dadio.

I was planning to take Maureen to the concert and even bought her a ticket, but she has an important cross-stitch project she wants to get on with. I began to notice a while back that Maureen was not so keen on jazz as me. I don’t completely understand why. I have played quite a lot of it to help with her appreciation. Sometimes for hours on end. And not just Kenny Ball or Acker Bilk. I have played her Mick Mulligan, George Melly and Mike Cotton too. I realise that trad jazz with its rich mix of instruments can seem a little complicated at first. But Maureen seems to be quite resistant to it. In fact, she has stopped talking to me altogether.

As the 10:40 puffs its way out of Sheepdip Halt station, I am delirious with anticipation of the big concert. Imagine, the three British jazz greats all on the stage within minutes of one another. Perhaps they might even perform together although there probably won’t be room for all of them and their bands even on the Empire stage.

……………………………….

In my reverie about the jazz greats and dreamy thoughts about the lights going up on the stage at the Empire, I must have drifted off. I awake to hear an announcement coming over the loudspeaker.

‘This is Starmouth. Starmouth. Change here for Biggerchurch, Waverley Bluff and all stations to Bridgedown.’

As I gather up my things, I can’t help but notice that Starmouth station has had what Mr Littlejohn, always one to pick up on the new Americanisms coming into circulation, would call a makeover. The old stone buildings are gone and everything seems to be rectangular and smooth edged. There are strange looking digital displays showing the train times and illuminated glass fronted advertising hoardings. Coke, the great new taste, says one of them. It looks like Coca Cola in a can. Wow, what an idea! There’s another one, advertising 501 shrink fit jeans showing a man in boxing trunks sitting in a laundrette. What is that all about? Admittedly, Sheepdip is a bit of a backwater, lucky perhaps to have a station at all, but we don’t get any of these adverts back home. It’s all Brooke Bond Dividend Tea and Oxo. They haven’t even taken down the Careless Talk Costs Lives poster yet.

I step off the train. I’ve never been a trainspotter so I’m no expert on these matters but I could swear we set off with a normal black steam locomotive with a footplate and a tender pulling three or four coaches. It is now what I believe are referred to as diesel multiple units. I have of course heard that diesel is set to replace steam. This is common knowledge, but the transition seems to have been a bit sudden. I didn’t expect it would happen this way. How in God’s name could this have happened without it waking me up?

I look around frantically for someone to ask what is going on, but the station appears to have no staff. I spot some more adverts. These for seaside entertainment taking place at Starmouth. Paul Daniels, Bernie Winters, Little and Large. I’ve not heard of any of these people. Bloody Hell! There is a poster advertising Kenny Ball and his New Jazzmen at the Little Theatre, Starmouth. But in the picture, Kenny has long hair covering his ears and a strange central parting. He is going grey. What on earth has happened to him? He looks about fifty years old. And the Little Theatre. It is hardly the Empire is it? As its name suggests it’s tiny. I should think it holds less than a hundred people. Ticket prices seem a little expensive, though. £5, that’s more than I get in a week. I have a confession to make. I don’t really work for Freeman, Hardy and Willis. I’m in between jobs at the moment. Mr Littlejohn doesn’t exist. I made him up. But all the same, is the whole thing some kind of joke?

As the train pulls out of the station, I make my way up the platform, my head spinning. I look this way and that hoping to find someone I can talk to about what might be going on, but the passengers from my train, probably in a hurry to get to the beach, have all left. The platform is empty. Over on the other platform, I spot a dark-skinned man. This in itself is strange as you do not get many coloured people down here in the south-west. Come to think of it, I can’t recall ever seeing one, but this one is black as the Ace of Spades. When the boatloads of Caribbeans came over few years ago, they didn’t settle any further south than Bristol. That’s a hundred miles away. The man is puffing on a large fat cigarette. He catches me staring at him.

‘Wot you want, mon?’ he shouts.

‘What year is it?’ I call over.

‘You been smokin’ the ‘erb, too have you mon?’ he hollers, waving his long cigarette at me. ‘The year? It’s uh, 1985, mon.’

Surely, he’s having a laugh. I can’t have been asleep for twenty three years.

How can I explain my predicament to him? What can I say that won’t make him think I’m mad? Perhaps I am going mad. It certainly feels like I’m going mad. Perhaps I’ve always been mad. I have had a few distracted moments lately. Dr Rheinhart calls this disassociation. Like the time I accidentally put weed killer in Jon Kandy’s tea. Or the time I tried to bury next door’s cat. It was a good thing that Maureen was there to stop me because Kitty wasn’t dead. So I ……. Well, another time perhaps. Dr Rheinhart has said that the medication should be working by now. While I am mulling over my …… lapses of concentration, the coloured man vanishes into thin air.

I’m still trying to gather my thoughts when a gangly fellow about my age comes onto the platform. He is wearing a brightly coloured shirt and has a strange haircut. It is short on top and long down the sides and back, with green streaks in it. He is wearing a gold earring. He has some kind of headphones on which attach to something hanging from his belt. He is jigging his head and singing along to some tune on his gadget. I don’t know what it is. It doesn’t look like a transistor radio. As I get up close I see it is called a Sony Discman. A Sony Discman. Crikey! I haven’t seen one of those before.

He notices I am staring intently at his Discman. ‘Great sound on these portable CD players,’ he says. ‘Have you heard one? Here! Have a listen!’

He leans over and hands me the headphones. I cautiously put them on. I grimace as my ears are assaulted by what appears to be a man screaming in pain over a barrage of screaming guitars. It sounds as if it was recorded in a foundry or a sawmill. Or perhaps an underground cell in the Soviet Union. It’s torture. It’s making me feel nauseous, like that time before when …….. when. I can’t remember the details right now but I know it was not good. I hand the headphones back to him.

‘Grim Reaper,’ he says, waiting for me to give my approval. ‘Aren’t they amazing?’

Not wishing to offend him …… or knock him senseless, I nod my head and move quickly up the platform.

Others begin to arrive. It must be nearly time for my connecting train to Bridgedown. A middle-aged woman in tight jeans with a glossy looking magazine smiles and says hello as she passes. Wherever you are, a friendly greeting counts for a lot. For no accountable reason, I think that she is called Magda, but I don’t know where this comes from. Perhaps she is going to the Barber, Ball and Bilk concert. There again, perhaps not. Perhaps I am not going to the Barber, Ball and Bilk concert. Perhaps there no longer is a Barber, Ball and Bilk concert. Without me realising, things have moved on. And perhaps Kenny really is fifty years old. What would that make Acker Bilk and Chris Barber? They are older than Kenny. A man in a business suit, carrying a rolled up copy of the Starmouth Gazette comes and stands alongside me. I try to make out the headline on his paper. Something about a mass murderer who has escaped. They haven’t caught him it says and he might be dangerous. I think I’ve seen the man in the picture. It’s …….

Coming along the platform now is another scruffy looking ruffian with an earring and a bewildering haircut wearing a Sony Discman. I wonder if he is listening to Grim Reaper too. By the pained expression on his face, he looks as if he might be. And here’s a lad riding along on a painted board with roller skate wheels. Two of them, in fact. Both are wearing ripped jeans. Whatever is happening and whatever year this is there still seem to be pockets of poverty in Starmouth. The lad with the faded blue Tommy Hilfiger t-shirt calls out to the other one. He’s going pretty fast down the slope. He’s heading towards me. He’s not looking where he’s going.

‘Look out!’ I shout. ‘Look where you’re go…….. ‘

But, it turns out that he is not a scruffy looking ruffian with an earring at all but a uniformed police officer. They are all uniformed officers. Sometimes when you are under a lot of stress, you can get things very wrong. I hope that they don’t think that I ………..

……………………………….

‘Don’t you remember me?’ says the woman in the blue smock. ‘I’m Magda.’

‘Hello, Magda,’ I say. ‘So who am I, Magda?’

‘You are Maxx Madison, Maxx Madison. You must remember that.’

‘Maxx Madison, I’m Maxx Madison. And I’m a time traveller, aren’t I, Magda? Only the other lady said I was a mass murderer and a fantasist.’

‘Danuta shouldn’t have said that, Maxx.’ Magda says, typing something into her smartphone. ‘I will have to have words with her.’

‘I’m glad I’m a time traveller, Magda. And not those other things.’

‘It’s time for your medication now, Maxx.’

‘After I’ve had my medication, Magda. Can I listen to that Barber, Ball and Bilk record again? The one with Midnight in Moscow on.’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

 

The 16:06

the1606

The 16:06 by Chris Green

The 16:06 from Paddington is usually on time. I rely on its punctuality to catch my connecting train from Taunton to Bridgewater, where I live. It runs at the right time for me. I do not like to work late on a Friday and I don’t want to spend a lot of time travelling. After all I have been up in town all week and feel I deserve a break. I want to get home. As a bonus, in summer this service gives me a chance to listen to the closing stages of Test Match Special on my iphone.

The train is often nearly empty. Most people travelling from the capital catch later trains. But, after five thirty I find the trains are a nightmare, on any day of the week. Paddington station becomes like something out of a wartime evacuation blockbuster. Why would anyone put themselves through this day after day?

Had the 16:06 been on time, the seat next to me would in all probability be empty, perhaps for the entire trip, and I would be able to relax and prepare for the weekend.

‘Is this seat taken?’ she asks. She is wearing an Afghan coat and her hair is braided.

I am tempted to say yes, but my better nature prevails. And she does have a nice smile, but this is as far as it goes. I am twice her age and I think we would have little in common. I mean. Afghan coat? In June? In 2015?

She spends several minutes depositing, arranging and rearranging a startling array of hand luggage. There are haversacks and rucksacks and tote bags of every colour. There are scarves and hats and even a potted plant. The tent alone needs its own seat. How did she manage to carry it all. At least she doesn’t have a dog.

She takes off her coat and places it on top of the tent. She finally sits down. She is wearing a tangerine cheesecloth smock. My nasal passages are invaded by the powerful aroma of incense and patchouli. I try to ignore her by turning away to look out the window, but it becomes clear that she wants to talk. I try turning up the volume of the cricket commentary, but she carries on chattering, as if I am hanging on her every word. Eventually I take my headphones out and look her way.

She explains that she has been camping out. She came up to London last weekend to go to a concert and stayed on.

‘Who did you go to see?’ I ask, out of politeness.

‘Blind Faith,’ she says, excitedly.’ They played a free concert in Hyde Park.’

‘Who?’ I say.

‘Blind Faith,’ she repeats. ‘You know, Eric Clapton. Steve Winwood.’

‘Oh,’ I say, while I turn this over in his mind. To say, have they reformed I feel would just prolong the conversation, but to the best of my recollection the concert she is referring to took place in 1969. I think my parents went …. both of them ….. together.

‘I’m Luna,’ she says. ‘But you can call me Loon. Everybody does.’

Tempted to say, sounds about right, I manage to resist. ‘Pleased to meet you, Loon,’ I offer instead.

‘You’re a Pisces, aren’t you? Luna says, looking me in the eye.

‘That’s right, Loon. I am as it happens. How did you know?’

‘You are imaginative, creative and kind.’

‘Am I?’

‘And compassionate and intuitive.’

‘That’s pretty good, isn’t it?’

‘But, you are lazy, weak willed and pessimistic.’

‘Ah, I see. Not so good then.’

‘But you have Leo rising.’

‘Is that good? I knew a Leo when I was in the army but he wasn’t very good at rising.’

‘And the Moon in Scorpio.’

After a few false starts (what do those whistles and flags mean), the train finally sets off. I look at my watch. It is twenty to five. Even if the driver goes like Harry in the night, there’s no chance of catching the connection now. I have no idea what time the next one leaves Taunton. I am about to check on my iphone, but Luna interrupts me.

‘Don’t be uptight,’ she says. ‘Be here now, man. Just go with the flow.’ These are expressions I remember my dad using, yet oddly he never seemed to practice them. Dad wanted to control everything. And you had to watch out if things didn’t go according to plan. This is why I moved out at eighteen. This was why Mum ran off with Didier, a Belgian gymnast.

As the train powers its way towards Reading, Luna talks about macrobiotics, Malcolm X and The Mothers Of Invention. She talks about International Times and Oz. Everything about her is retro, backdated. She does not seem connected to the modern world. It is as if she carries her own time bubble around with her which keeps her separate from the here and now of this railway carriage. She is either completely unaware of this, or is acting a role. I begin to wonder if it is not perhaps an enormous hoax at my expense, a television spoof maybe. I look around me for cameras. I do not see any.

Luna holds forth about cosmic evolutionary development, transcendental understanding and what she does to balance her chakras. I am not convinced I have chakras. Perhaps my parents had chakras. They were a a bit far out. They seemed to go for all this Eastern mysticism. Guru this and Swami that. I narrowly avoided being taken to an ashram in Rishikesh one time by feigning yellow jaundice and was sent to stay with Aunt Trudi in Fife, while they buggered off to the subcontinent. They came back just the same, arguing at the slightest opportunity.

I try to divert the conversation on to more earthly matters. I am anxious to get back to the Test Match commentary. The match had reached a critical stage when I left it. Following another famous collapse, England were eight wickets down with twenty overs left, trying once more to save the game.

‘What good is all this …… esoteric wisdom?’ I say.

‘Wisdom is your third eye,’ she says. And knowledge is your third arm.’

I do not think I want a third eye or third arm. They sound just plain ridiculous.

Luna is still away with the fairies. She begins to talk about the journey, but it is not the train journey she is referring to, it is life’s journey.

‘Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls,’ she says.

What a load of twaddle, I am thinking. She needs to work in the city for a couple of months. She would soon realise that the universe didn’t give a damn about you.

As we pull out of Reading, Luna says that the train will soon sweep past the Westbury White Horse, a giant chalk horse carved into the landscape. It is meant to represent the Celtic horse goddess, Rhiannon. She explains about The Golden Bough, earth magic and ley lines.

‘Do you know they levitated the stones for Stonehenge from Wales along ley lines,’ she says.

‘I don’t believe in magic,’ I tell her. ‘It’s all done with mirrors.’

‘Watch this!’ she says, and with it she vanishes. Her luggage disappears too. All of it. It is as if she never ………..

In fact everything has changed. I find myself aboard a completely different train. The carriage is old. From the 1970s. It has ripped cloth seats, no smoking signs and windows you can open. It is the type I remember from the trips to Torquay that I was forced to go on as a teenager to please one or other of my parents. Twelve year-olds don’t build sandcastles, I would tell Mum. Or, no thankyou dad, I’m too young to smoke dope. And why would I want to if it makes you listen to Emerson, Lake and Palmer?

To my astonishment I discover that I have a Mohican haircut, a studded leather jacket, ragged drainpipe jeans and an old khaki rucksack. How old would I be? About fifteen or sixteen? Despite the amazing transformation, I find my train of thought is still linear. I am still in the mindset of going home to Bridgewater for the weekend on a train that is a few minutes late which means that I will probably miss my connecting train. I take a look at my watch. It is a old watch. A digital model with a silver strap. It says 17:25. I look out the window to assess the train’s progress. I know this journey like the back of my hand. We are halfway between Reading and Swindon. I do a quick calculation. This is consistent at this stage with the 16:06 being a few minutes late.

In the seat next to me is a girl in her late twenties wearing a charcoal office skirt suit and dark patterned tights. She has long black hair and cakey make-up. She reminds me a little of the actress, Megan Fox. She has kicked off her high heels. Perhaps she has been on her feet all day. At the perfume counter of a department store maybe. Or running up and down the corridors of an advertising agency. She is scrolling through some pictures of celebrities on her laptop. One of the celebrities is in fact none other than Megan Fox. The lookalike Megan Fox seems to be in her own world, protecting her space with an air of disinterest. She does not want a train conversation. When I look her way, she pulls her skirt down an inch or two and turns herself slightly to face the aisle. She is wised up to the ways of teenagers with strange haircuts, frenzied eyes and nasal jewellery.

I pick up the rucksack. It has some half recognised names of bands scribbled on it in felt-tip pen. The 4 Skins, The Slits, The Dead Kennedys. I find a silver Sony transistor radio in the front pocket. It looks oddly familiar. I switch it on. I fiddle around with the tuning dial and find a crackling cricket commentary. It doesn’t take long for me to realise that I am now listening to a different match. One from a bygone era. This one has Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd batting. Ian Botham is bowling. This would make it England versus West Indies….. 1979? Megan looks around, disapprovingly.

I switch the radio off. I feel the sudden need to start a conversation with Megan. I have to find out what she feels might be going on. What is her take on this major lapse in logic and reason? Surely she is out of time in this 1970s railway carriage, the same as I am out of time. We both belong to 2015. The real world. Surely. Why are we so misplaced? Has Luna really had something to do with this ….. this shifting time? Sorcery? Magic? We are passing the Westbury White horse. Should I tell Megan about the horse goddess, Rhiannon as an opener to show her that I am not just a dissident punk? Not an spotty adolescent on an inappropriate train leering at her lovely long legs.

My youthful demeanour precludes much in the way of approaches to an attractive older woman. I cannot for instance say, ‘are you going all the way?’ This would be like saying, ‘are you up for it?’

‘I’m getting off at Swindon,’ she says, looking up from her laptop.

‘Oh,’ is all I can manage. Is she telepathic?

‘So. You will have the seat to yourself, all the way to Taunton.’

‘Thankyou.’

‘Do you really like those bands, by the way?’

‘Which bands?’

‘The ones on your, what would you call it ….. rucksack?’

‘Well. I did. Once.’

‘But you’ve moved on.’

Given my appearance, I figure she is not going to believe me if I says that I go to lunchtime concerts at St Martin in the Fields, listen mostly to chamber music and sing in the choir at St John The Baptist church. I settle for the less committal, ‘I guess so.’

‘I do like Nirvana,’ she says.

I cannot tell if she is winding me up. Is she aware of what is going on? Might she be in on it? Could this be a phenomenon that is more widespread? Something that’s happening all over? Like Mr Jones in the song that Dad used to play, I certainly doesn’t know what it is.

‘Could you log on to some news sites,’ I say. ‘Huffington Post, …… BBC News, …… Google News. See if there’s anything there about temporal irregularities.’

Megan looks at a bit of a loss. These aren’t sites that she visits often. She shrugs.

‘See if there’s anything trending on Twitter or Facebook maybe.’

The train slows down. A hazy announcement comes over the loudspeaker, ‘the next station will be Swindon. Change here for ……….. ‘

Megan starts to gather up her things and gets up to leave. ‘Look out for me in your dreams,’ she says, cryptically.

The train waits, the diesel engine idling. Being alone brings no clarity. It only serves to add to my confusion. My reason is so ravaged that my brain wants to shut down. A sinister tune plays in my head. Descending chords over and over as the sound of the diesel engine resonates. Change here for …… Change here …. Change. ….. Change. ….. Change. ….. Change. The lights go out. It is dark. The blinds are all drawn. Why are all the blinds drawn? Have I descended into …. Descended into? Descending chords. Over and over. Dark. Dark. Dark. Change here for. …..

When the lights come on I find that time has shifted once more. I am no longer a fifteen year old punk. I am a British soldier in uniform. Royal Welch Fusiliers. With service ribbons. Bosnia. Srebrenica. Battle honours. All the stuff you take home on leave neatly packed. The carriage too has been through a transformation. It is cleaner, shinier, newer, the seats no longer torn. I look around. I have no fellow passengers. The couple with the corgi have gone. The old lady who was reading the murder mystery has gone. The man with the silver euphonium has gone. The barber’s shop quartet with the red striped jackets have gone. The carriage is empty. I make my way to the end of the carriage and lean my head out of the window to see what is going on. The platform too is completely deserted.

I decide I must get out to investigate, but just at this moment I feel the familiar shudder of rolling stock as the train starts to move. There is a second or two when I could still climb down if I wish, but the train accelerates quickly and the opportunity is lost. I look at my new watch. Five past six. This one is not digital. It is analogue with a vengeance. With its many dials it tells you the time all around the world. I take a seat and look out the window. I could pull the communication cord, but I don’t want to do this, at least not yet. Maybe there’s no need to panic. I recognise the buildings as we pull out of Swindon. They are the ones I have become familiar with. Perhaps the train is still headed for Taunton, even if everything else about the journey is wrong. I must go with the flow and see what happens.

‘Tickets Please!’ calls out a voice.

A wizened old man in a black uniform with some shiny bits and badges shuffles along the aisle. He is short and thin with little round glasses. He looks like Gandhi.

I ask him if I am on the right train. If I can establish this, the fine details of my misadventures can be worked out later. Along with some rational explanations. At home. On the internet. On the phone. You can get to the bottom of most things retrospectively. The important thing right now is to get home.

‘Yes sir. The train is going to Taunton,’ says Gandhi. ‘Unfortunately, we are 58 minutes late due to an alien spacecraft on the line at Wootton Bassett. It has gone now though, so we should be able to make up some of the time.’

‘Alien spacecraft?’

‘Yes sir. Just down the line at Wootton Basset. Is that where you are from, sir?’

‘No. There’s an RAF base there, isn’t there?’

‘We get a lot of people for Wootton Bassett. It’s where they hold the funerals for the dead soldiers. But then you would know that wouldn’t you sir? Being in the army and all that.’

‘Yes. Yes I suppose I would. Now. About this alien spacecraft.’

‘Yes sir. We get a lot of those around here, too. Salisbury Plain, Stonehenge, Avebury, Warminster. They seem to like this part of the country.’

‘They probably navigate along the ley lines.’

‘Ley lines, sir?’

‘Ley lines apparently are mystical alignments which harness the earth’s magnetic fields. They work like a primitive GPS. Now tell me. Where did all the other passengers go?’

‘They all left the train at Swindon, sir.’

‘What’s going on at Swindon?’

‘Oh. Some TV cook is giving a talk there, I think, sir. I’d love to be able to stay and chat with you, sir, but I’ve got to get along the train. Could I see your ticket please?’

I search for his ticket, but I don’t seem to have one.

‘I realise that you are in the army, sir, but travelling without a ticket is against the law and we cannot make exceptions. I’m going to have to charge you the full single fare plus a penalty which is the equivalent of the full single fare. That will be let me see. London to Taunton is it? Two hundred and eighty four pounds.’

I offer him a Visa card.

‘What am I supposed to do with this?’ he says. ‘In any case it has expired.’

‘Excuse me,’ I say. ‘But could you tell me what year it is?’

‘You can pretend to be stupid if you wish, sir,’ says Gandhi, ‘But it won’t wash with me. I can issue you with an Unpaid Fare Notice, if you like. But you will still have to pay it. Army or no army.’

Isambard Brunel always had a sense of drama. His Great Western Railway from Paddington to Penzance is full of surprises. I know as soon as we enter the two mile long Box tunnel that something is bound to happen. It does. The lights go out once more. We are in darkness. As we emerge from the tunnel, I catch a whiff of patchouli. Luna is back. Not only that, somehow we are back on the original train. I am back in my city suit. I have my iphone in my hand. I am logged in to the cricket live text. The match is in the final over. England are nine wickets down and the tail enders only have to survive three more balls to save the match.

I might be back in present time, but Luna is cutting in to normality like static on the airwaves. She is the radio interference from a rogue FM station on a stormy night.

I take a look around the carriage. All the other passengers are reading their papers, playing with their tablets or talking on their phones. One or two are looking out the window as the 16:06 from Paddington crosses the River Avon on its way to Bath. Each one of them seems confident in the authenticity of their worlds. There appears to be consensus among them that this is 2015. Luna is the stranger at the party. She is stuck in a 1969 mindset. Forget the magic tricks for now, 1969 is clearly her reality.

She starts to tell me more about going with the flow.

‘Going with the flow isn’t about being passive or being lazy,’ she says. ‘It’s not aimless wandering. The flow that you are going with is the ocean of cosmic intelligence. Going with the flow is about wakeful trust and …….. ‘

The train is coming into Bath now. I make the decision to get off here to take a cab the rest of the way. I have made a note not to catch the 16:06 from Paddington in future. It’s a bad choice. It takes far too long. Too much time travelling.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

It Takes A Train To Cry

ittakesatraintocry2

It Takes a Train to Cry by Chris Green

It is pitch black and I can make out no shapes at all. The bruising I can feel pretty much all over and the throbbing lump on the back of my head suggest I may have taken a savage beating. I am dressed in ripped jeans and a quilted shirt. The front of the shirt is covered in something thick and dry, perhaps caked blood. From the regular clickety-clack sound I can hear and the occasional squeal of steel wheels on steel rail, I work out that I am travelling on a train. I am being rocked gently from side to side with the motion. There is a musty smell. The air is stale. I appear to be in some kind of freight truck.

Eventually, after groping my way along one side of the truck, I discover a bolt which releases a catch and I manage to open a vent of some kind. The dazzling white light coming in blinds me at first and forces me to cover my eyes. Gradually, I become accustomed to the brightness. I establish that I am alone and that apart from me and a pile of sundry debris, some blue plastic sheeting and a low bench type structure with a tubular frame, the long truck is empty. How long have I been in this rank truck in the dark? I have no recollection at all of how I came to be here, but I cannot imagine I am travelling this way by choice. Of greater concern still, is the sudden realisation that I have no recollection of who I am. This brings on a moment of utter panic. I can remember nothing. I search my pockets for clues. They are empty. I appear to have no belongings with me. No keys, no wallet, no phone, no watch, nothing.

I take a look out of my makeshift window. The train is navigating a lengthy bend in the track. Turning my head through an arc, if I squint, I can see both to the front and to the back of the train. It is titanic. It must be about three miles long, several hundred dark trucks of assorted shapes and sizes. On the side of some of the wagons, there is stencilled grey script which is in a language that I do not recognise. It is pulled by several immense leviathans that belch out diesel fumes some distance ahead. The train looks as if it is designed to travel vast distances. The landscape is featureless, barren and flat, miles and miles of scrub for as far as the eye can see.

I try once again to determine how I came to be here. Why would I be on a freight train? Why would I be travelling at all? I draw a blank. All the cerebral passages seem to be blocked. My head is pounding like a pile driver. I am both hungry and thirsty. When did I last eat? It may have been days ago. Surely the train will at some point stop. I try as a mental exercise to think of the names of some stations I might be familiar with but can come up with nothing. They remain an abstract possibility. The train will surely have to stop to refuel – unless of course those tank wagons I can just make out behind the locomotives are equipped with giant hoses that automatically feed the diesel in. I estimate the train to be travelling at a steady thirty miles an hour as the great locomotives struggle with the formidable cargo. It could be travelling for days. I calculate that even should I be able to get the door to open, it would be dangerous to jump out. This is not the world described in ‘On the Road’. I am not Sal Paradise hopping trains for the adventure. On The Road by Jack Kerouac! A book! I am a book reader. With a penchant possibly for spirituality and jazz. This is of little comfort, as for the moment nothing more particular is channelling through. Back to the present situation then. Where do I go if I do jump the train? This is open country. But which country? The inhospitable windswept tundra suggests that this is an alien place, that with my resources, I would be ill-equipped to navigate.

My boxcar lurches as the train negotiates an uneven piece of track, and a large zinc can emerges from the pile of debris at the end of the truck and rolls towards me. It has no label, but it looks like a catering size food container. I have nothing to open it with, but by hitting the lid over and over against a bolt in the side of the wagon I manage to make a sizeable hole. It is full of salted edamame beans. I work on the hole I have made until it is large enough to get my hand in, and greedily I scoop up handfuls of the beans. They taste delicious. Opening the can seems to have released the catch on the sliding door of the boxcar, which I find I can now open.

Hours pass as I rack my brain for explanations. Parts of my memory seem to be intact, for instance, I was able to identify emdamame. I have been able to make judgements with regard to the train, based possibly on previous experience of trains, and am able to calculate speed and distance. I do not know the time, but with so many unknowns, would a watch be of any help? It is light. It has been light for hours. It must now be afternoon. Where is the sun? Where should it be in the sky? Which direction are we heading? Where have we come from? Who am I? Biographical details continue to elude me. How is it that I can remember these random facts, but no personal information?

As the train moves on through the unforgiving terrain, it grows warmer inside the truck. There is a thick cloud cover now. A strange, thick, heavy smell comes into the truck on the warm air. I cannot identify the smell, but it feels like a storm is brewing. Big angry cumulonimbus clouds rise overhead. The sky turns ink black in a matter of seconds. The rain begins to fall in torrents. I hold my head out to drink in the massive drops. The rain persists for an hour or so and I manage to find a plastic container I find lying around and fill it with water for the journey.

Eventually, I fall asleep. I dream that I am telling a class of primary schoolchildren about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyre of marine litter, debris and chemical sludge the size of Texas, and explain how long it takes for waste products to break down. 700 hundred years for a plastic bottle, 500 years for an aluminium can and 1 million years for a glass bottle. I tell them about the destruction of the Aral Sea, which was 26,000 square miles, the largest body of fresh water in the world that had the most fish. Now thanks to irrigation projects it is little more than a boating lake, except that because of the pollution it would not be safe for boats. The school is planning an Eco Fun Party. We talk about floods. I say we should expect more extreme weather events as climate change takes hold.

‘Should I buy my dad sandbags for Christmas,’ says a little girl called Aqua. She has a tattoo of a meerkat on her cheek.

Her teacher who is dressed in a harlequin suit and has an unpronounceable name says that this is very thoughtful.

‘It’s not all doom and gloom,’ I say. ‘Scientists are making plans to store carbon dioxide under the sea-bed which could help to reduce global warming over the coming century.’

Perhaps I am or was an environmental campaigner, I speculate on waking. Has one of my crusades undermined vested interests in some unethical activity and is this my punishment? Have I been witness to something that I was not meant to see? I ransack my consciousness for more information about my possible past but nothing emerges. I remain a prisoner of the present.

The train travels uninterrupted through the night, the beat of the wheels over the tracks regular and unchanging. It is like a metronome. I doze off a few times and when I do, someone called Carol comes to mind. Or is it Coral? Charlotte? Cherie? I can almost form a picture of her. She has long dark hair and brown eyes, or long blonde hair and blue eyes. Is it red hair? I think I can hear her speak. She is saying kind things to me. She has a faint trace of an accent. I cannot make out what the accent is. I can taste her salty skin. I have a sense of her, but firm connections seem just out of reach. I have what might be a sense memory of a more intimate saltier taste. Could Cheryl be my partner perhaps or a girlfriend?

I appear to still have what I might think of as procedural memory. I can remember how to do things with my hands for instance, and my brain sends the right messages to my senses, or should that be my senses send the right messages to my brain. I can see, hear, smell and speak. I have what might be called semantic memory. I can remember words and what they refer to. I seem to be able to think, and should it ever be necessary, speak in English. What I don’t have is memory to recall past experiences, or episodic memory where the information is tied to any time before I was aboard the train. I feel that the information is there. Hazy half images of names and faces and places I might have been are bubbling away just beneath the surface; it’s just that I can’t reach them. Unidentified figures appear as shadows and silhouettes, and flickering scenes flash quickly on a retinal screen inside my head and are gone. It’s as if the wires have been cut.

When it becomes light, I take a look out of the window. The sky is blood red as the glittering disc of the sun balances on the horizon. To my amazement, the landscape has changed to desert. A camel caravan is sweeping across the shifting sand from left to right. There are about a hundred fully laden beasts in silhouette. In other circumstances, this would be a magnificent spectacle to behold, but I feel I am too old for this kind of adventure. How old am I? There is nothing here I can use as a mirror, but there are a lot of lines on my hands, and liver spots on my arms which might suggest I am not in the first flush of youth. I instinctively feel I must be quite old, it feels as if there is a weight of experience somewhere just out of my present reach. The camel train is disappearing now as we move steadily onward. I try to think what parts of the world have camels and as I go through them one by one, the answer comes back, most continents have them, but perhaps camels are not common in Europe. Am I assuming here that I am European? I seem to be thinking in English. Can I regard this as one biographical fact? I say a few sentences out loud. It’s a start, I suppose. Camels. Camels make me think of cigarettes? Have I given up, or did they become unavailable when I was put onto the train? The latter, I feel. Technically then I am still a smoker. I have felt no withdrawal, but maybe this is because there have been more pressing concerns about my situation. I want a cigarette badly now.

I watch as a cauldron of dark wide winged raptors flies in a spiral over the desert. There is an encampment of some kind in the distance up ahead. Hundreds of ramshackle tents. Is this a refugee camp? Are we travelling through a war zone? We pass a cluster of prefabricated buildings that might be an army post. There are flags flying, none of which I recognise. The camp seems deserted. Later in the morning just over the horizon, there is a fire that lights up the sky. I wonder if it is an oil well burning. An apocalyptic cloud of thick black smoke rises above the inferno, blowing towards the train on a strengthening wind. The air has an acrid stench.

My solitude saps my spirit. It would be much easier to endure this present hardship if I were to have some company. I feel desolate and frightened. I feel I am not used to being alone. I imagine I have colleagues at work and loved ones at home. I can hear replayed snippets of conversations and repeated phrases in my head, but I can’t make any sense of them. I can’t remember the names or the faces or the context of the words. Faces flash before me, but before I can identify them, they are gone, and next time they appear they are changed. A song about being up all night leaning on the windowsill comes into my head but I can’t remember the rest of it. Something about a train getting lost, but nothing will stay in place for long enough for me to get a handle on it.

It is a clear night. The temperature outside has dropped and now I am beginning to feel cold. The sky is resplendent with stars. Are those luminous blue ones The Pleaides? Mr Rossi called them The Seven Sisters. Mr Rossi taught me – Environmental Science? or was it Economics? It does seem a long time ago. He let me look through his telescope, an eight-inch refractor. ‘You ken see dzee Pleaides een weentair een dzee Noathen Emeesphere end een summair in dzee Soathen Emeesphere,’ I can hear him saying, with his sharp Italian vowels. So, is it summer or is it winter? The trees have been in leaf, haven’t they. There have not been many trees. The sun has been bright. Has it been low in the sky? Maybe it’s Spring or Autumn. It probably doesn’t matter.

The catering sized can of couscous comes as a surprise, and much needed, as I have finished the edamame. I had not thought to look under the plastic sheeting amongst the rubble. Perhaps I am not as attentive as I should be. There are also several cans of soup, a tin opener, and a three litre bottle of water. Whoever is taking me to wherever, it seems for whatever reason wants me alive. Without any knowledge of who I am I find this a little difficult to comprehend. My comfort was clearly not a consideration, but they appear to want me alive on arrival at my ultimate destination. I shudder at the prospect of what this might hold.

The sound of the wheels over the rails changes subtly from a clickety-clack to a clickety-clickety-clack. I take a look outside. The train is crossing a monumental cantilever bridge. It is painted oxide red and so far as I can make out from my limited viewpoint the bridge is as long as the train, perhaps longer. With its gigantic girders and elephantine tubular struts, it is a breathtaking feat of engineering. This is the type of bridge that might span continents. I wonder which continents it might be spanning. Although my fact retention is a little better than my memory, I have not heard of such a bridge. A few hundred feet below is the foaming grey ocean. The tangy smell of the sea enters my passages. Where does the smell come from? From somewhere way down it comes to me that part of the smell is salt, but most of what you smell is a sulphur gas released by micro-bacteria. I remember an experiment we did in Miss Liddell’s Science class. This represents recall of a fact backed by a personal experience – progress at last.

Over the next few days, we pass through blue tipped mountains and abundant forests, through cavernous tunnels and over towering viaducts, as the train continues its perverse odyssey. One morning I wake up to a luminous green river snaking through a vertiginous gorge and later we come upon a bright pink salt lake stretching for miles. Thoughts race, seemingly on a road to nowhere. I am here. I am there. Where am I? I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. Where have I been? Here, there and everywhere. Let me take you down. Overundersidewaysdown. Houston, we have a problem. When? When what? Thirty days hath September, April, June and November. September in the rain. Who with? Who was I with? Who was I with when? Is it Wednesday? Did I put the bins out? I am here again. You are here again. I can hear you. Who is this? Who are you, oo oo, oo oo? I really want to know. Carol, is that you? Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone at home? Knock, knock. Who’s there? Arfur. Arfur who? Arfur Got. Who am I? To be or not to be. What is the question? What is this? Where did it come from? It sounds like thunder. Mama Mia! Here I go again. Train coming round the bend. My interior monologue hurtles its way through fragments of fractured narratives, none of which helps much with the puzzle. I feel I need to find a green edge first. That’s what they say isn’t it? Solve the green side first, start with green side up, find a green edge.

We pass through a deserted station with an unpronounceable name. There are no plasticine porters with looking glass ties and we do not stop. I went to Carnaby Street and Kensington Market, I remember. On the tube. Lots of tubes. There are lots of tubes around me. Tubes and ca ….. I had long hair. It is not long now and there is not much of it. I must be old. Clickety clack, clickety clack. Clickety clack, wheels on the track. This part of the world does not seem to be overpopulated. We must have travelled two or three thousand miles and we have yet to pass through a town of any size. This route is clearly not much used. I speculate about what the train might be carrying to justify travelling such great distances. It’s impressive itinerary of rolling stock includes shipping containers, refrigerated cars, hopper wagons, grain trucks, low loaders, flatcars, boxcars and tankers. It could conceivably be transporting a whole city. Maybe Chloe would know. I mean Charlotte. She knows about Geography. Weren’t we together earlier. I don’t remember her leaving. We weren’t going to catch the train. My thoughts blur again. Who is Charlotte?

Eventually, I drift off. I dream I am in an estate agents’ office. There are details of houses for sale around the walls and details of houses for sale pinned everywhere. They all look the same, brick semi-detached replicas of one another. There is a large map on a board at the far end, but I cannot make out which town it is. There are no desks. Instead, there is a piano. Thom Yorke of Radiohead is sitting at it, playing the same passage over and over. He says he is writing a song. The song he says is about his home town, Oxford, in the Second World War. A curious subject for a song I think. He says he is looking for a phrase to rhyme with aerial bombardment. I suggest railway compartment. He tries it to see if it scans. The song sounds to me like ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ from one of Radiohead’s earlier albums.

‘I don’t expect you’ve come in to write a song,’ he says, finally. ‘I expect you want to look for houses.’

I explain that we are looking to buy a bigger house as Carol is pregnant expecting a girl and we have a boy already and will need an extra bedroom.

When I wake we are approaching a busy marshalling yard. Our locomotives’ horns sound out a strident declaration of the train’s arrival. In the yard, other powerful diesels are limbering up on an elaborate network of tracks. Through the volatile haze, I can make out rolling stock of all shapes and sizes, with abbreviated writing on some of the wagons in a number of languages. There are also lines of passenger carriages with brightly coloured livery. This suggests to me that we may, at last, be nearing civilisation. The yard leads on to large Gothic engine shed. I have a faint recollection of a visit to a marshalling yard and engine shed from way back when I was a boy with my ‘Ian Allan British Railways Combined Volume’. I think it was Swindon, at the time that steam was making way for diesel. You could wander freely over the tracks amongst the engines then, in the days before health and safety.

The train slows down and I think it is going to stop. Wagons might be added or detached here. I tense myself in readiness for some development. Several minutes pass with the train idling, then with a boisterous roar of acceleration from the locomotives and piercing squeals from the wheels, we take off again. I am so far from the back of the train that I am not sure if the train has been added to or has shed some of its load. At least, no-one sought me out. I entertain the idea for a moment that my being here is an unhappy accident.

The landscape is changing once again. There are signs of settlement now, logistics warehouses and tall apartment blocks. There are roads, something that haven’t been much in evidence along the way. Cars and trucks make their way slowly along the congested carriageways. Where have they all come from? We pass a huge landfill site where orange industrial garbage trucks are shedding their loads. Gigantic yellow bulldozers are compacting the mountains of waste. Flocks of shrieking gulls circle overhead, wheeling down to land on a new heap of trash. Why is there so much landfill? Why do they not recycle more? They are, right now, this minute, impoverishing the future for the sake of present convenience and profit. There should be targets set out. Sprawling suburbs of uniform dwellings appear as we make our way into the hubbub of the city. Gradually great temples of capitalism dwarf the residential dwellings. Names like Samsung and Siemens vie for attention. Cities it seem look the same the world over. How do I know this? Have I travelled a lot or have I learned it from television. Anyhow there is nothing particular about this city that might suggest where we are. As we get further in, a thick fog descends, urban pollution I imagine. The train plays a cacophonous tune on its horns to signal its arrival. I can see nothing now through the fog.

‘Welcome back to the land of the living,’ says a deep voice. ‘The nurse told me you had come round.’

I open my eyes. A tall man with a white coat and a white beard is standing there. What is he doing in my boxcar? Is he my interrogator? Wait a minute! They have moved me. I’m in a trolley bed in a dull grey room. I’m wired up with tubes and catheters. Tubes and ca ….. My hair was long . It is not long now. My head is heavily bandaged and there is blood on my pillow.

‘I’m Doctor Ramirez,’ says the man in the white coat. ‘You’ve been unconscious for seven days. At one point you stopped breathing. We were worried.’

I look around. The room is small and has no windows. There is a fluorescent strip light on the ceiling. The room is littered with vital signs equipment and smells of disinfectant. There is a chair by the side of the bed and a small table with a box of tissues and a Get Well Soon card on. Observation charts are clipped to the bottom of the bed.

‘You’re in Saint Gilbert’s Hospital,’ says the Doctor. ‘You lost a lot of blood and we have been monitoring you round the clock and feeding you intravenously.’

I feel I ought to be asking some questions, but I feel very tired. Dr Ramirez acknowledges this and says he will call in later. I ought perhaps to take a look the card to see who it is from and find out what my name is, but my attention span is short and I drift off again.

The train is being unloaded now. A miscellany of pulleys and cranes, platforms and fork lift trucks is being manoeuvred up the length of the train. Dozens of burly men in army fatigues scurry around. I watch from inside my boxcar. Anxious not to be discovered I close the vent a little. Several of the cars have been separated from the rest. Danger – Hazardous Waste, it says on the huge casks they carry. I recognise the symbol for Radioactive Substance. The operation looks very clandestine. I feel that I am not supposed to be witnessing it. It is Classified. Top Secret. My depot only handles domestic waste. I need to phone someone. I have no phone of course, but my head runs through the call anyway. ‘Hello. This is Shaun Flynn – of ReCyco Waste Management Services.’ I’ve remembered my name. Shaun Flynn!

I am back in the hospital room once more. I have a visitor. It takes my eyes a while to focus properly, but eventually I recognise her. It is Charlotte. Charlotte? Cheryl. It is Cheryl. She has had her hair cut. Has she had her hair cut? It is short and light brown. She is smiling. Why is she smiling? One of her hands is bandaged and the other arm is in a sling. I am at a loss of what to say. I am not sure that I can even speak. My bewilderment quickly registers with her.

‘You don’t remember anything do you?’ she says. ‘About what happened.’ Her words are gentle but echoey. There is a delay in them reaching me, as if they are coming from a great distance.

I try to form a reply.

‘We were on our way to the O2,’ she continues. ‘Do you remember?’

I shake my head.

‘To a benefit concert for that environmental cause that you are involved with. You had this idea that we should take the train. I thought it would be easier to drive to the gig, but you insisted. You have this thing about trains, don’t you?’

Every day after school when I was about six if I timed it right I could make it to the station a few hundred yards away to see a different Castle class engine pulling the 3:35 express. I am lost for a moment in this reverie. It is all coming back now. The summer sands at Salcombe, Linda’s lovely long legs in her sixth form skirt on the railway bank after school, The Stones in the Park, the trial for Charlton Athletic, the travels on the subcontinent in the late seventies, a trip or two down the aisle, then the wheels on the bus going round and round. And here I am, but how?

‘W-what happened?’ I ask Cheryl, aware now of my swathe of bandages, some of which still have dried blood on them. ‘Did the train crash?’

‘No, no, no! We did not get as far as the train, Shaun. There was a terrorist attack outside the station. A Yemeni suicide bomber. Islamic Jihadist. There were dozens of casualties. Fortunately, we were far enough away from the blast to escape the worst of it. You were a few feet ahead of me and you shielded me a little. I’ve just got a broken arm and a few bruises.’

‘Oh, I see.’ I do not feel like I have escaped the worst of it. I wonder when the Doctor will be round with the morphine again.

‘I didn’t even want to see Radiohead,’ she laughs. ‘All their songs are so miserable.’

Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved