White Stuff

whitestuff

White Stuff by Chris Green

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men. Gang aft agleyRobert Burns

It is said that accident is the real the director of life. Accident, of course, is not the same thing as destiny or fate and has nothing at all to do with synchronicity. Accident is pure random chance.

It is by accident that Sergio Blanco and Chelsea Moon’s paths should cross at Bilbao Airport as neither Sergio’s flight from Bogotá or Chelsea’s flight from Milan is scheduled to land there. That they both do is due to freak weather conditions over the Iberian peninsula which prevents them navigating Spanish air space. Sergio’s flight was heading for Madrid and Chelsea’s, London Heathrow. Pure random chance that both Sergio and Chelsea have picked identical black Samsonite luggage to travel with, more so for Chelsea perhaps as her original colour choice was red but the small town department store were waiting on a delivery. Accident that they both find themselves temporarily housed in the same section of the same Departure Lounge waiting to hear about the revised schedules for their flights. Under normal circumstances, in this striking modern airport designed by the audacious architect, Santiago Calatrava, doubling up on departures would simply not happen. Pure random chance that Sergio Blanco and Chelsea Moon pick adjacent seats, each hoping for reasons of their own that they will not have to engage in casual conversation with anyone. Accident too that when the time comes to move, each picks the other’s suitcase mistaking it for their own. Neither has thought to try to replace the weather-beaten baggage tags, an action which more than likely would have prevented such an error or at least minimised the consequences.

It is up to the airlines now to replace the unreadable tags at the check-ins for their revised flights. Part of the service, of course, along with sugary apologies for the circumstances beyond their control which forced the delays. With so many flights daily such matters have become routine. Neither Sergio or Chelsea have the slightest suspicion at this stage that anything might be amiss with their cases. Why would they? They are told that the blizzards over Spain have now eased and the snow on the runways is being cleared. They will shortly be able to board their onward flights.

………………………………………

Relieved to finally be back on home soil, Chelsea makes her way through Passport Control in Heathrow Terminal 2. She retrieves her suitcase from the carousel. She makes her way to the Nothing to Declare blue channel but hangs back to adjust a contact lens. One of the customs officers, a family man called Norman Daley views Chelsea’s hesitation as suspicious. Hanging back and looking nervous are things that he has been trained to look out for. He calls Chelsea over and politely asks her to accompany him to a side room, where he and a female officer, Bethany Chambers, a mother of two, inform her of the procedure they are about to carry out.

‘Did you pack this suitcase yourself,’ Norman asks, while Bethany goes through Chelsea’s hand luggage and prepares her for a body search.

‘Of Course,’ she says.

That Chelsea shows surprise when Norman Daley discovers the false bottom in the Samsonite suitcase does not phase him. He is an experienced customs officer. Feigning surprise is something that suspects usually do. The three kilos of cocaine he discovers in the secret compartment is also something that is becoming more commonplace for arrivals at Heathrow, if not usual on flights from Milan, albeit an interrupted flight. Despite Chelsea’s vigorous protests, the thing that seals her fate is that the suitcase does appear to be hers. Sergio Blanco has taken steps to cover his own tracks, should he be pulled over at Madrid by filling the suitcase with random ladies clothes. He could then claim that the suitcase had been switched without his knowledge. Unfortunately for Chelsea, the random clothes in the suitcase just happen to be her size and match the style of outfit she is wearing. The have the same labels, FatFace, Boden, White Stuff, mostly White Stuff. Even the underwear that he has chosen to pack is similar to that which Chelsea is wearing, Agent Provocateur, Janet Reger. Her protests fall on deaf ears. Norman Daley informs her that she is under arrest.

Sergio Blanco arrives at Madrid Airport. Understandably, given the circumstances, he is extremely nervous. He is physically shaking as he approaches Customs, and sweat is pouring from his brow. He has had a few practice runs in the past with small amounts of cocaine, secreted as everyday items like talc and dried food. But, he has never done anything remotely on this scale. This is big league. This is make or break time.

To his great relief, he makes it though Nada Que Declarar with little more than a nod. Feeling buoyant, he takes a cab to his hotel. He settles down with a cool glass of orujo and begins to make calls on the anonymous pay as you go phone he purchased at the airport. He is arranging to make drops of the drug for the following day. He is a happy man. Soon he will be rich.

When he opens the case he finds that it is full of ladies apparel. Familiar labels, FatFace, Boden, White Stuff, mostly White Stuff. But, to his horror, these are different clothes. The same labels but different clothes. More critically, the case has no false bottom. No secret compartment. No ….. well, no white stuff, no cocaine. It is a different case. How can this have happened? Whose case could it be? He goes through the contents, over and over but finds nothing that might help to identify its owner. The person who packed the suitcase is to all intents and purposes untraceable.

Without his product, Sergio has no way of paying his sizeable debts. Debts accrued largely through setting up his present venture. The gangsters he owes money to are unlikely to be understanding about his inability to pay them. They are not the kind of people who listen to excuses. He sees little choice but to go on the run.

………………………………………

Accident does not conform to universal laws. It can unleash an unstoppable chain of events. You might call it the domino effect. Once one goes, the others will follow. When this happens you cannot refer to fate or destiny. You cannot say this was not in the plan. This is a departure from the plan, a spiral of descent driven by a chance happening.

Chelsea Moon’s plea of Not Guilty is laughed out of court. Her barrister, Grayson Willoughby, Q. C. embarrassed to be taking such an obvious no-hoper of a case is more than a little half-hearted in his presentation. He wants to quickly bury this one and take on something that will win him acclaim, a case that he has a realistic chance of winning. His defence that the black Samsonite case must have been switched is quickly torn apart by the prosecution. The prosecution acknowledges that in theory the case could have been switched but as there is no evidence of this, the allegation is absurd. It is indisputable that it was Chelsea Moon’s case. The check-in desks at both Milan and Bilbao airports have supplied CCTV video evidence for the court. The footage shows Chelsea Moon checking in with this very same black Samsonite case. It is clear too that the clothes found in the case belonged to her. All the clothes were the right size and a search of her home revealed many similar outfits with the all too familiar labels, Boden, FatFace, White Stuff, mostly White Stuff.

‘And isn’t white stuff also a slang term for cocaine?’ says prosecution barrister, Roland Silk, Q.C. ‘Isn’t it the case, Ms Moon, that you were trying to be clever with your choice of brands?’

Judge Stover’s summing up is brief and the jury needs little persuasion. The jurors unanimously agree that Chelsea Moon is guilty of Importing commercial quantities of a border controlled drug and Judge Stover has no hesitation in handing down a six year sentence.

If you are going on the run there are a number of things you must first consider. You cannot afford to trust anyone so you need to cut all ties with friends and family. This is hard for Sergio as he has a large and varied network of friends in and around Madrid but fortunately, he has no long term partner and so far as he knows, no children. He now needs to stop using his email, social media accounts and all the other online accounts that might be traceable and he needs to liquidate his assets. The assets part is easy for Sergio. For assets, read debts but it is not until he is faced with the idea of closing accounts that he realises how tied into email and the like his life is. He needs to move out immediately leaving no trace of where he might be going.

With this in mind, Sergio makes his way to his apartment and under the cover of night takes off in his Seat Leon with just a couple of holdalls. He abandons the car at a small town near Toledo and takes a series of trains to the coast where he hopes he can blend in for a few days while he considers his options. The important step as he sees it is to change his appearance as quickly as he can and establish a new identity. This cannot be done overnight, but growing a beard and wearing big black sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat will help in the interim.

Sergio manages to call in a favour and his long term associate, Hugo Perez sets him up with a Canadian passport and Social Insurance number with the name, Charlie Snow. Charlie is able to travel to Nova Scotia where he is slowly able to build up his identity and blag a job with a small garage as a car mechanic. From here he manages to get to grips with the language and settle in. after a year or so, in keeping with his name perhaps, he manages to become a ski instructor at Ski Martock, a small undertaking near Halifax, Nova Scotia. Ski Martock is remote. He is able to rest easy in the belief that no one will find him here.

Ironic then that Chelsea Moon’s sister, Siena should decide to treat her to a skiing holiday, following her release after serving three years of her six year sentence. Siena might have chosen a European ski resort, Courchevel or Val d’Isère. Madonna di Campiglio or Val Gardena. But, accident continues to show its hand. Siena chooses a small resort in North West Canada.

‘It’s called Ski Martock,’ she tells her sister, as they drive up in the hire car. ‘We can ease you in here as there will not be many people about and the slopes are gentle.’

‘Looks nice. I’ve always wanted to come to Canada,’ Chelsea says. ‘But I would have been thinking more of Toronto, or Vancouver perhaps.

‘You’ll be the height of fashion here,’ Siena says. ‘That White Stuff jacket you’re wearing, for instance.’

‘You like it?’ Chelsea says.

‘I was going to say, it’s quite apt for the piste,’ Siena says. ‘That’s where the idea for the White Stuff label came from, isn’t it?’

‘What! I thought it was ….. ‘

‘Oh! Sorry, sis. You thought it meant ……. the other white stuff. How insensitive of me!’

‘It’s all right, Siena. There’s nothing can be done about it now. I have to put all that behind me.’

‘Still, it must have a big impact on how you think about everything.’

‘Of course, but I have to move on. Hey! I do like the look of that fella. That beefy one with the beard. Do you think he’s going to be our instructor?’

‘What are you like! You’ve only been out five minutes and you’re lusting after the first hunk you set eyes on.’

Charlie is flattered by all the attention he is getting from the two sisters that have just arrived, especially the younger one, Chelsea. She is dark, beguiling, mysterious. He has not had too many chances to form a relationship in this far-flung corner of the North American continent so he is still footloose and fancy free. He guides Chelsea through the easy slopes and in no time at all she is ready to broaden her horizons. On the second night of their stay, she finds her way to his cabin and they make love. This becomes the pattern over the next ten days. Skiing, dinner, drinks in the bar, goodnight Siena, reconvene in Charlie’s cabin. Charlie is a little secretive about his background but as Chelsea is not anxious to share her recent history, she does not probe too deeply. She imagines though that he must have some Spanish blood. He has the faint traces of a Spanish accent.

The problem with holiday romances is that they don’t tend to last. They are based on nothing more than chance meetings. Seldom could such random encounters be considered destiny. Charlie Snow and Chelsea Moon’s brief affair, although passionate to begin with, is in this respect no different. As soon as distance separates them once more, they begin to forget one another. None of the promised letters. No phone calls. Not so much as a text. As neither of them are aware of the coincidence of their paths crossing twice, how could they imagine that their destinies might be entwined? Things do not necessarily happen for a reason. The real director of life is accident. Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

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Tara’s World

tarasworld3

Tara’s World 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 peripheral 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 aids 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 8th 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 it’s 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 it’s 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, it’s 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 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 sandpit.’

Tara went instead to Aurora, a non-directive psychotherapist she found in Circles of Light. Sessions consisted of Aurora listening to a free-flowing narrative of Tara’s inner world while she clicked a set of coral worry beads.

‘I am in a large institution, a sort of self-contained metropolis, and I am being initiated into an elaborate catalogue of rules and regulations and procedures that apply there,’ said Tara. ‘Leader issues me with instructions for classes I have to attend. When I have finished one, he tells me I have to attend the next one which will start at 10pm and then the next one at midnight and then one at 2am and so on. I accidentally miss one and am reprimanded. He tells me I will have to go to extra classes as a result. The procedures are very rigorous. I have to walk this way or that way along corridors and up staircases by following arrows. I have to take particular colour coded emblems that I have been issued with along to each class. It has to be the correct colour, and I do not know how to choose. No one has told me and I keep making mistakes. I have to keep a record of my progress. In my small room, I spend hours filling out a spreadsheet, which in turn makes me late for my next class. Other people I meet seem to accept the regime as normal.

‘And how do you feel about it?’ asked Aurora.

”I feel trapped of course, as if I am imprisoned. I want to get out,’ said Tara.

‘Go on,’ said Aurora.

‘I am walking through one of the large covered spaces and I see a sturdy figure swimming with powerful strokes through a central channel, helped by the flow of a fast flowing stream. I try to point this out to one of the acolytes and he says there is no stream, it is a gravel path. I mention it to Leader, and he is pleased that I have told him. It means that someone is trying to escape and now he will be able to stop them. As a result, my status within the institution seems to change. I no longer have to go to classes. I am now in a massive glass atrium. I am sitting on the grass along with some others, eating doughnuts, with a texture like styrofoam. The atmosphere here seems much more relaxed. I notice there are tall glass sliding doors at the front of the atrium. I see people on the outside going about their daily life. They appear sketchy, like figures in an architect’s drawing. Someone in a harlequin suit says to me that it is an illusion, fate has no outside. You are always inside. I do not want to believe him, and I make for the doors, which slide open, but close just as I am about to reach them. I try this several times but there is no way out….. Then I wake up.’

‘I will see you again next Tuesday,’ said Aurora. ‘We can talk more about it then.’

Phil felt Tara might be able to distract herself by working longer hours while Denzel suggested she ought to stop being so selfish and think about others for a change. Tara wondered if it might not be better to just go with the flow and see what happened. After all, according to the diary nothing fatal was about to happen before July 5th. She decided that she would not deliberately try to follow what was written, but neither would she try and avoid it.

This scheme worked well for a few days. Everything went according to plan. What was written in her diary and what happened each day continued to match, but on Thursday she noticed an anomaly. She had gone to see True Story at The Plaza and not Never Lose Focus at the Savoy. When she looked through the diary entry again, the original entry had changed, which would mean that in her absence the diary was rewriting itself. It had changed, hadn’t it? Tara could not be sure of anything anymore. Her memory, even over a few days, or hours, was not to be relied upon. This was the reason she had started writing her diary in the first place.

The cheque from the insurance company didn’t arrive on Friday and she didn’t win the ebay auction for the Gaggia Espresso machine. It seemed that her real life and the diary account were getting out of sync. When she checked later, however, there was no record of the cheque or the coffee machine on the page for Friday. She was certain there had been. And it was not the hottest day of the year on the Saturday as reported; in fact, it was cold wet and windy. On checking, she found this entry too had changed. On Monday she noticed that there had been an omission in the diary account. Surely she would have recorded something as important as winning tickets for Ladies Singles Final Day at Wimbledon.

‘You’re not really sure, are you?’ said Naomi. ‘I told you this would happen to you.’

‘ Join the club! I can’t remember what happened yesterday,’ said Emily.

‘It’s an early sign ay Alzheimers,’ said Fiona. ‘Age creeps up oan ye, ye ken.’

‘You’ll have to start making copies of your diary,’ said Naomi.

‘I don’t think Colin approves but I know someone who does remote viewing,’ said Emily.

‘Ye coods keep th’ diary oan line,’ said Fiona. ‘An’ save it tae google clood.’

On Monday evening, Tara scanned the remaining the remaining eighteen completed pages on to her PC. She felt pleased with her resolution and that night slept without the usual apnoea or bad dreams. The next morning before work, when she checked, she found that the diary had an updated entry ‘scanned the remaining eighteen completed pages of the diary’. Her meticulous script (the rounded s, the well-formed c, the curls on the a, the lazy elongated n) was unmistakable. The scanned version, to her alarm, also had the same entry. Summer it might have been, but Tara felt a January chill run through her. She was spooked.

Her apprehension was about to get worse. Tara had not given much consideration to why the diary entries finished on July 5th. When one possible explanation did occur to her, it hit her like a bombshell. It came as the result of a dream in which she was driving fast towards a level crossing. It was a crossing that she was familiar with, in fact, she drove through it most days. Without the warning of the red flashing lights, the gates ahead of her closed. Realising the stopping distance at the speed she was travelling would not bring her to a halt, she tried to turn away from the crossing into a road to the right, but the car’s steering was not functioning, and when she tried to apply the brakes, she found the vehicle only had bicycle brakes. The car pushed through the gates and came to a halt in the middle of the tracks. Large black steam locomotives pulling freight headed towards her from both directions. They were approaching at breakneck speed. She had no time to get out of their path. She was going to die. On waking, it occurred to her that the out of control car signified that she had no control over her life. This was perhaps why her diary finished on July 5th. There being no record of July 6th, she was overtaken by a powerful foreboding was going to die the following day.

She examined the diary once more. The dream was now recorded in detail in both the diary and the scanned document. She unplugged the scanner and took it up to the attic. She shut down the computer. Files could not be updated and no new files could be created if it was not switched on. She turned her attention to the diary. She contemplated destroying it. She decided that this might not be the best solution, but from now on she would keep it with her at all times. She read each page again carefully, looking for clues. There was no mention of a degenerative illness or a scenario that would put her life in peril anywhere. She paid particular interest to the page for Thursday, July 5th. What was written here now became of great importance to her. She felt she had to avoid the sequence of events on this day at all costs.

For the next two weeks she did not let the diary out of her sight except when she was asleep, and then, although it was uncomfortable, she had it strapped to her waist under her nightdress. Except for a few omissions and oversights her day to day experience and the account in the diary matched each other. The same things happened at work and she went to the same activities that the diary said she would. The Mariachi band now played El Jarabe Tapatio each morning and she had lunch at the new Albanian restaurant that no-one had heard of. She even had the same unexpected phonecall from Denzel in the middle of the night. While the synchronicity was still spooky, she was relieved that nothing untoward seemed to now be happening. She appeared to have established an equilibrium. She was even wondering whether she now had to avoid the events of July 5th.

On Friday, July 4th in the early evening, Tara was taking a shower after a hot sticky day at the office. Before stepping into the shower, she had left the diary face down on the top of the laundry basket, but when she stepped out, it was gone. There had been a few seconds that she had her eyes closed while she rinsed her hair, but no one could have got into the bathroom and taken it. The door was bolted and she had not even drawn the shower curtain. Caught between panic and desperation, she emptied the linen basket and threw discarded clothes and bath towels this way and that, but there was no sign of the diary, and yes, the door was still locked. She was absolutely certain that she had put the diary face down on the top of the basket, hadn’t she? Once she had given up the search and composed herself, she booted up the PC to check the diary files. These too had disappeared.

That night, in her brief spell of sleep, she dreamt that she was on holiday in a foggy former Eastern bloc country. It was the last day of her holiday and her flight was due to leave in two hours. She had not packed, and her belongings were scattered everywhere. They had a charred look about them as if they had been in a fire. She could not remember who she was with. Her travelling companion’s identity kept changing. Alice was with her now and she produced a large shiny old fashioned black pram with lots of chrome fitments. She wanted to take it on the plane. Tara wondered how such a large item would fit into the luggage. It did not look as if it would fold away. Next, she was driving to an old church, which had recently been restored. Suddenly the sun visor in front of her dropped down. Somehow, it covered the whole of the windscreen. She could not see where she was going. She could not take her foot off the accelerator. She could hear the loud hum of the traffic ahead. She realised she was heading towards a busy main road. She woke with the sheets bathed in sweat.

Despite her shattered mental state, she made it into work. To her surprise, the day started well with the news that Alice was, in fact, expecting twins, but went downhill with a knock in the Audi at lunchtime, and got worse when she found she had not transferred her insurance from the previous vehicle. The office in the afternoon was a nightmare. Her computer monitor showed the blue screen of death and the fax machine broke. Her dinner date with Danny at Denny’s Diner was a disaster. Danny did not drink, and after a bottle of wine, Tara ended up embarrassing herself with her outpouring of emotion. The phonecall from Phil at eleven, telling her that East Asian Travel was to cease trading and that she was out of a job, was all she needed.

Before remembering that it had disappeared, she instinctively reached into the drawer of her bedside cabinet for her diary to record the events of the day. But, there the diary was, in the usual place beside the night creams and lotions. She opened it up where it was bookmarked, only to find blank pages. Why, she wondered, had she not written in it for nearly a month.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

The Continuing Story Of Wet Blanket Ron

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The Continuing Story Of Wet Blanket Ron – Part 1 by Chris Green

Fortune has not favoured Ron Smoot recently. He has suffered one setback after another. He was just coming to terms with losing his job in the drawing office when he was knocked down by a hit and run driver on Black Dog Way. Hospitalised with a catalogue of injuries, he went down with Norovirus. While he was in the isolation ward, his wife, Heather ran off with his best friend, Frank who had been giving her lifts to work. How long had they been having the affair, Ron wondered. On release from hospital, he was given notice on the flat by their unscrupulous landlord, Kostas Moros, who saw Heather’s absconsion as an excuse to subdivide the deceptively spacious two bedroomed apartment and make more money. Perhaps he too had been having an affair with Heather. To cap it all Kostas Moros ordered Ron to pay £2000 for damage incurred to the flat during the tenancy. This had cleaned him out.

Ron is looking after his friends’ house in Queen’s Road while they are away. Tom and Tom are honeymooning in California. They are due to return in two weeks, after which Ron has nowhere to go. He has been looking for a flat, or even a bedsitter, but the letting agencies all want formidably large deposits these days. Unlike his friends, he has no money. His Jobseeker’s Allowance barely covers the storage for his furniture.

Ron is beginning to notice that when things are going badly, friends tend to distance themselves. He has had such a bad run now that he has no friends left, apart from Tom and Tom and he has no credit on his phone to speak to them. He feels he does need to speak to someone. He finds he does not have a wide choice of 0800 numbers on his network.

‘Is that the Samaritans?’ he says. He has been trying to get through for an hour. The line has been engaged.

‘Sorry, but office is closed now,’ says Magda, the office cleaner. ‘Can you try please tomorrow?’

As a temporary measure, he decides to double the dose of the anti-depressants that Dr Bone has prescribed.

Cheered a little, he reasons that Tom and Tom might not actually throw him out on the street. But does he want to impose further on their hospitality? A newly married couple need privacy to bond, without having to feel inhibited about there being a person in the next room. While Tom Carlevaro, a computer technician does go out to work, Tom Soft, an interior designer works mostly from home. He is not going to want Ron under his feet all day long.

Ron is at his wits’ end. He is desperate for a job. Although his CAD is up to speed and he is well qualified in both engineering and architectural drawing, he has had no luck here. With labour so plentiful and openings so scarce, employers no longer see the need to reply to applications. The few that have replied have all said the same thing. Perhaps there is a regret to inform template in Microsoft Word.

One afternoon, after he has thoroughly scanned the vacancies column in The Gazette, he spots an unusual ad in MidweekMag sandwiched between an article on origami and an advert for hair remover. The ad says simply N Vision Inc. is recruiting and gives a mobile phone number. He phones the number and without interrogation or ceremony, a man with a Farsi accent gives him an address and asks him if he can come along right away. He doesn’t even ask Ron for his name. Although this seems highly irregular, Ron feels he has nothing to lose. After all, it is the first interview he has been offered.

N Vision Inc. offices are situated in La Traviata Heights, a prosperous part of town. Ron is encouraged by this. It suggests they are not fly by nights. Ron presses the buzzer and is admitted by entryphone. He finds himself in large quirky office space. It is open plan with an outdoor theme featuring an abundance of greenery. A tall olive skinned man with a neat balbo beard wearing a shiny white suit appears. He has a peregrine falcon on his arm. He introduces himself as Amir.

‘Have a seat,’ he says. There is no formal arrangement of office furniture to suggest where he should sit, but Ron senses it would be prudent to put distance between himself and the tiger that has just walked in.

‘Don’t worry about Felix,’ laughs Amir. ‘He’s quite domesticated.’

Ron feels a little overawed by the plush surroundings. It is a far cry from the sterile drawing offices he is used to. He nervously brushes his grey Burton’s suit which he forgot to iron while Amir talks cryptically about balance and power and balance of power. He talks about courage and destiny and death. His colleague, Majid duly arrives in a flowing djellaba with a cup of sweet mint tea.

‘The post requires you to deliver bad news to victims before the event actually happens,’ continues Amir. ‘Timing is the key.’

While Ron does not believe in fate, he feels too intimidated by the situation to ask the obvious questions, how do you know that something is going to happen and what is the purpose of letting the victim know. Instead, he nods politely. After all, he does need a job, no matter what it entails. On the plus side, he is an old hand at delivering bad news, in fact, he has something of a reputation for being a wet blanket. Someone once described listening to him as being like reading Hank Williams’ diary. Hank Williams he discovered was a country singer. For years he had not realised that he gave off that impression, but since he found out that people cross the street to avoid him and actually hide when he calls round, he has begun to accept that he is not the cheeriest of mortals. The position might have been made for him.

‘Now, Majid will take your details and then we can get you started,’ continues Amir.

‘You mean, I’ve got the job,’ says Ron. He wonders whether he should really be stroking the tiger.

‘Yes, you have the job.’ says Amir. He does not tell Ron that he has been the only applicant. ‘Welcome aboard. You start tomorrow. 9am.’

I wonder what kind of snake that is, Ron thinks when he arrives for work the following morning. It is yellow and black. It is skulking in the corner, behind the coconut palm. Aren’t the yellow and black type the ones that wrap themselves around you? Fortunately for Ron, the snake is either very tired or seems to have already eaten. He takes in his surroundings. The ornamental ginger is flowering and, is that brightly coloured one a paradise plant? There is no sign of Amir, but Majid looks debonair in his fitted white Islamic thobe. He is clean shaven and has on an expensive fragrance, a little like the woody eau de toilette that Tom Soft favours.

However, Majid is not as chatty as his colleague. There is no mint tea today. It is straight down to business. After typing vigorously into his laptop, the wireless printer purrs into life and he hands Ron the printout which has the instructions for his assignment.

‘Phone this number when you’re done so that I can process it,’ Majid says.

Before setting off for the West Midlands in his ageing Saxo, Ron reads the brief over and over. He is perplexed by the instructions. Who could benefit from Eileen Grimwald knowing that her son Maxwell will die in a gas explosion at their house in Conduit Street early tomorrow morning? Perhaps the warning will mean that Eileen Grimwald and Maxwell will take heed and stay somewhere else. But what if they take no action? Much could depend how he delivers the news, on whether Eileen Grimwald regards him as a reliable source of information or whether she sees him as a crank. He has to tread a fine line. After all, the last thing he wants is for Eileen Grimwald to report him to the police. He draws on his experience of telling Tania that her friend Speedy had died of a heart attack a couple of years ago. The key is not to beat about the bush or engage in preamble, but to come right out with it.

Although she seems a little vacant, Eileen Grimwald seems to take the news very well. She seems unphased that her son might be going to die. Perhaps she is on very strong anti-depressants that make her indifferent to everything. Mrs Grimwald seems so disinterested, Ron wonders if her GP actually has a licence to practice. However, he is just the messenger. It is not his job to reason why He phones N Vision Inc. to report back as instructed. The answering machine comes on. In this cloak and dagger world, is it indiscreet to leave a message about his errand? He settles by saying ‘Spoke to Mrs G. All OK.’ No-one returns the call.

When he goes in to NVI the next day, Amir shows him the headline on the news website. Gas Explosion Kills Budding Young Research Scientist. He scans the report. It appears that Maxwell Grimwald was the only casualty. The report says that British Gas were unavailable for comment and Chief Inspector Truss could not confirm whether or not they were treating the death as suspicious.

‘So it goes,’ Amir says. ‘Kazumi will be here shortly then we will find out what she has for you today. Do have a seat.’

Ron is about to ask where was Eileen Grimwald when the explosion took place, and why she didn’t get her son out of the house if she knew this was going to happen, but he does not feel that Amir will give him the answers. Anyway, he had done what he was asked to do and he does want to keep his job. There is no sense in rocking the boat. He sits down and a marmoset jumps onto his lap and starts playing with his paisley kipper tie.

Kazumi breezes in wearing a bright red full-length floral kimono and wooden geta sandals. She places a tea tray on a low wooden table. She bows, to which Ron stands and makes a similar if less graceful gesture. She offers him a cup of Japanese green tea.

‘You are enjoying your new job, yes?’ she says.

Ron is not sure what to say. Does enjoyment feature much in the job that he does? It is a far cry from the drawing office, from the world of straight lines and precise measurements. He replies politely that he is finding it very interesting.

‘Good,’ she says. ‘Let us see what we have for you today.’ She sits down at her laptop.

‘Today you are to tell the entrepreneur, Garret Wing that he will be shot twice in the head outside Stockport Masonic Guildhall tomorrow morning. Can you make it to Manchester by midday today? He will be in his office until then. Here is Mr Wing’s address.’

It is now 9:30. Manchester is about a hundred miles. He has no satnav, the Saxo has 110,000 miles on the clock and struggles to get up to seventy. ‘It will be touch and go,’ he says.

Kazumi is not familiar with English idioms. ‘That is good,’ she says. ‘Let me know please when you have informed Mr Wing.’

While Ron appreciates that the phone is not a subtle form of communication, as he is driving up the M6 he begins to question why it is so important for him to deliver the news face to face. Who exactly are N Vision Inc? He could find no reference to the company on the Internet. What are they up to? How can they be getting this information? Perhaps they are arch villains. This raises another concern. Is he actually going to get paid? They have not yet spoken about salary. He must mention it next time he goes in to the office. He should be getting a substantial amount for what he is doing; he is one step away from a being a hit man.

He comforts himself that Amir had referred to it as a job, so perhaps he doesn’t need to worry unnecessarily. Tom and Tom will be back in less than two weeks and even if he hasn’t been able to find somewhere to live by then, at least, he will be able to offer to pay for his keep. Perhaps he might be able to put the deposit down on a new car, he thinks as the Saxo coughs and splutters in a tailback at the Stoke on Trent junction.

Having in his haste driven down at least two one way streets the wrong way, Ron arrives at Garret Wing’s offices just before 12. Garret’s secretary, Chloe finishes doing her nails and asks if he has an appointment, knowing full well that he doesn’t.

‘No,’ Ron says. ‘But it is incredibly important.’

‘I’m afraid he’s about to go into a meeting,’ says Chloe.

‘I think he would want to see me,’ says Ron.

‘Can I ask what it is about?’ says Chloe.

At that moment, Garret emerges from his office.

‘This gentleman is here to see you, Mr Garret,’ says Chloe, sliding her black skirt up an inch or two. ‘Mr ….’

‘Smoot,’ says Ron. ‘Ron Smoot.’

Garret Wing looks Ron up and down disapprovingly. He is not used to seeing square toed brown slip ons with a grey suit. ‘Yes, what is it?’ he says. ‘It had better be good. I’m late for a meeting,’

‘Do you think we could go somewhere quiet for a moment?’ says Ron.

Garret is anxious to avoid a scene. He asks Chloe to take go and polish her face or whatever it is she does on her breaks.

‘I’m afraid it is not good,’ says Ron. ‘You are going to be shot outside Stockport Masonic Guildhall tomorrow morning. Twice. In the head. You are going to die.

‘Is this some kind of threat?’ says Garret.

‘Not a threat, Mr Wing. I’m just passing on a message from …… from people who know that this is going to happen. Might I make the suggestion that you avoid the venue tomorrow, then it cannot happen.’

‘Get out of my office,’ yells Garret. ‘Before I call the police.’

Where did it all go wrong with Heather, he wonders in the tailback near the Keele service area? He remembers last Christmas at the works Christmas party his colleagues were ribbing him about how downbeat he was. Here he comes over the hill, dragging his wet blanket behind him. And has Christopher Robin forgotten to give you your haycorns today, they were saying. He remembers becoming very upset about it and leaving the party early. When he got home, their friend, Frank was in the shower. Heather had explained that Frank had got dirty helping her in with the Christmas tree. While he didn’t put two and two together there and then, he had the feeling something was wrong. Only latterly did he remember that Heather had greeted him in her dressing gown and there were two wine glasses on the dressing table alongside with the empty bottle of Blue Nun.

‘Thank you for reporting back yesterday,’ says Amir. ‘I see from WebNews that Mr Wing ignored your advice. His death is causing quite a stir. I see also that the marksman seems to have avoided capture.’

Amir shows no emotion as he reads the report, so Ron cannot tell what his preferred outcome might have been or whether he was completely indifferent either way. In which case, what exactly is the point in NVI sending him to tell these people about the peril they face? Are they just testing out the old question if you tell someone about something, do they take heed?

‘Can I introduce you to Kojo,’ says Amir. The newcomer is resplendent in an African print grand boubou and a brightly coloured kufi hat.

Kojo stops feeding the pygmy goat and shakes Ron’s hand firmly.

‘You have struck lucky this time, my friend. You must have the djinn,’ he says, offering a Cheshire cat grin. ‘You’re off to sunny California.’

‘California?’

‘Yes, Cal-eef-or-ni-ay, the land of orange groves, The Golden Gate Bridge, and The Beach Boys. But of course you will not be seeing much of that. You have a job to do. In three days time, Tom Carlevaro and sixteen other passengers will die when a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago comes down in Kansas.’

Ron’s heart skips a beat.

‘Oh my God!’ he says. ‘Where are you getting that from? Let me have a look’

He pushes the sturdy African out of the way and goes over to the computer. On the screen is the front page of the Daily Telegraph dated June 13th, three days time.

N Vision Inc. look at tomorrow’s news stories,’ says Amir. ‘Or in this case, the newspaper from three days time and, although we cannot intervene directly, we can take measures to alert the victims that something is going to happen. If the victim takes notice then the page will never have existed. A different page will be there instead. That’s just the way it is. Reality isn’t a straightforward business.’

‘You mean this is actually the newspaper that will appear on June 13th, says Ron.’

‘Unless you manage to change it, yes it is,’ says Amir. ‘As you will see if you read down the actual crash happens the previous day, June 12th. Time isn’t linear, you know.’

‘But I know this ….. person, this Tom Carlevaro,’ says Ron hysterically. ‘And another of the passengers, Tom Soft. They are friends of mine.’

‘Then you had better get your ass out to California, how do you say, PDQ,’ laughs Kojo.

In the departure lounge at Heathrow, Ron speculates at what point an outcome is decided. On the plane that is apparently destined to plunge into Lake Michigan, perhaps two hundred outcomes are dependent on a chance happening. It is possible that the whole course of events could be changed by persuading his friends not to travel, but it is more probable that it will not. It is more probable that the actual crash is not dependent on the movements of Tom and Tom. In which case the Daily Telegraph report will merely need minor changes to its passenger list. On the seat opposite Ron, a man dressed in a Drizabone overcoat and a Bute hat is reading a book entitled In Search of the Multiverse. Perhaps he is planning to catch all of the planes simultaneously. Perhaps there is always more than one answer to a question.

‘Oh my God! It’s Wet Blanket Ron,’ says Tom C taking a peek through the chinz curtains of their Hermosa Beach bungalow. ‘What the fuck is he doing here?’

‘Christ on a bicycle! You’re right,’ says Tom S.

‘Get down! He may see you,’ says Tom C.

‘I thought we’d seen the last of that loser,’ says Tom S. ‘Didn’t you say he’d be gone by the time we got home?’

‘Why did we ever let him stay with us?’ says Tom C.

‘We? It was your idea,’ says Tom S. ‘You felt sorry for him because Heather left him for your freaky friend, Frank.’

‘OK. I realise it was a mistake,’ says Tom C. ‘God knows what state the house is in.’

‘He’s probably let it burn down and has come over here to tell us,’ says Tom S.’

There is a brief lull, before the battering on the door continues with renewed intensity. Ron is hollering out loud for them to open up. A crowd begins to gather as curious residents from adjacent bungalows try to find out what manner of disturbance has shattered their tranquillity.

‘The whole world and its neighbour is out there,’ says Tom C. ‘Perhaps we ought to just see what he wants.’

‘No way! He’s bound to give up eventually.’

‘Yeah, like when. He must have come all this way for a reason. He’s hardly likely to just leave it and get back on a plane.’

‘We are not going to answer the door and that’s final.’

‘It’s three o’clock now. We will miss our flight to Chicago if we are not careful.’

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

 

Diamond White

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Diamond White by Chris Green

Every night Natalie would come back home from St. Saviour’s Hospital, where she was an orthopaedic nurse, to find Shaun slumped in a chair in front of the television, watching darts. More often than not, Shaun’s friends, Bernie, Mac and Tosser would be there too, shouting their crude encouragement to fat darts players with monikers like Wolfie and Big Robbo as they aimed their arrows. They would be surrounded by empty cans of John Smiths Bitter and Domino’s pizza boxes. Sometimes the gelatinous remains of takeaways from Hard Wok Café or the leftover bones from KFC bucket meals. The laptop would be open on the BetFred webpage. The commentator’s demented cries of ‘one hundred and eiiiiiighty’ would be greeted by cheers or boos around the room.

‘You could, at least, empty the ashtray,’ Natalie might say to Shaun, as Double Dekker or The Dutch Destroyer slammed darts relentlessly into the sisal fibre. Or perhaps, she might say, ‘Tesco’s was murder tonight. Can you help me in with the shopping?’

‘Do it in a minute, love,’ he might reply to whatever the particular request was. ‘this is the last leg of the set.’

Natalie had no idea what the last leg might be. Or what a set was. Or a match. Was a set the same as a match maybe? It certainly appeared to have no finality about it. Nor did ‘nine-dart finishes’ actually finish anything. The World Matchplay Championship seemed to be going on forever. One pair of beery brutes with ridiculous sobriquets would be replaced instantly by another pair. Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor and Free Willy would become The Tornado and Sparky. The Assassin and the Undertaker would become Bravedart and Ironman. No-one ever seemed to be the outright winner. It took a while before she realised that the competition had been decided weeks before, and Shaun, Bernie, Mac and Tosser were now watching DVDs of previous championships. God knows what they were betting on. The winner of Celebrity Space Walk. Whose wife would be the first to leave them perhaps.

‘Have you walked the dog, Shaun?’ would not even be a question worth asking. Most nights Natalie would have to give Axel a quick run in the park around the corner to do his business, before her bath, and then it was time for bed.

In the morning, after a night disturbed by Shaun’s snoring, Natalie would get up, make an attempt to clear up the squalid mess and freshen the house with Febreze, before setting off once more to the hospital. Since Shaun had lost his job at the packaging plant, Natalie found herself working double shifts to pay the bills on their semi in Francis Bacon Close.

Natalie and Shaun had been together over twenty years. Shaun had once possessed a rugged charm and used to keep himself in shape. He would, even before it was fashionable, go to the gym several times a week and, until a year or two ago, was involved with Rod’s youth football team. Natalie had once thought of Shaun as an attractive man, although lately the illusion she had of his masculine physique was wearing thin. Shaun’s libido had taken a tumble too. Whereas once he had pressed all her buttons, now it was once a month, if she was lucky. Even then it was more of a grope and a fumble rather than an act of passion. It was sad to see a man go to seed, worse still that she was married to one. She couldn’t help but notice that lately she had to order larger sizes when buying his clothes out of the Great Universal catalogue. Shaun’s girth was beginning to resemble that of Bernie, Mac and Tosser, all of whom were a few years older and a few miles further down the road of self-destruction. Sometimes she would find one or other of them asleep on the rug when she got up, having failed to make it home. They were one step up from vagrants.

‘Why don’t you leave him?’ her colleague, Blessing suggested, almost daily. ‘Or better still boot him out. My life has moved forward in leaps and bounds since I got rid of Kofi.’

‘I know I should,’ Natalie would agree. ‘Especially now that Rod and Maggie have left home. But somehow I just can’t. He’s just going through a bad patch. He’s lost his focus a bit, that’s all. Besides, who would look after Axel while I was at work?’

‘Bad patch?’ Suki thought. At what point would Natalie see it as terminal decline. Twenty years ago Shaun had been a high flier. He was swept along by the ‘loadsamoney’ culture. He had a flat in docklands and a Saab 900 Turbo. Over a few years as the family grew, he went from being ‘something in the city’ to ‘something in the town, and later ‘nothing in the town.’ A series of factory jobs had followed. Eventually, even the packaging plant gave up on him. That was probably three years ago. Since then he had gone from bad to worse. He had even stopped going to the pub and the bookies. Rod and Maggie were too ashamed to visit. ‘Bad patch?’ Suki did not want to upset Natalie. She said nothing. Natalie would have to decide for herself.

Natalie met Kane at Fortnum and Mason. Her friend, Claudia had taken her to London to cheer her up and was treating her to lunch at The Fountain Restaurant. Claudia had been worried about her lately, she said. They ordered the recommended whitebait starter and the fish pie, along with a bottle of New World Sauvignon Blanc. A jazz trio played. Out of the blue, a tall man with Mediterranean good looks came over and sat with them. He was an imposing figure. From the cut of his suit and his diamond-encrusted Girard Perregaux watch, Natalie wondered if perhaps he was Mr Fortnum or Mr Mason. Or maybe Simon Templar. With a brisk flick of his hand, he called the wine waiter over, ordered a bottle of Château something or other with a fancy name and introduced himself as Kane.

As the fine wine massaged their palettes, the conversation touched upon air travel, the theatre, Venice, Henley Regatta, Japanese food, Hispano Suizas, haute couture, Shakespearean lovers, The Cocteau Twins, château vineyards and graphite cooled tennis rackets. Darts did not come up at all. Kane did most of the talking and laughed a lot, showing a set of teeth that were whiter than a Klu Klux Clan parade. He had noticed her the moment she walked in, he said, and had not been able to take his eyes off her. He described her as sexy, radiant and beguiling, not terms that she was used to hearing in relation to herself of late. Most embarrassing perhaps was when the band played ‘Embraceable You’, dedicated to her. Before he left Kane asked for her phone number. Perhaps he was an incurable flirt and did this to women all the time, Natalie thought. Surely he would not phone. The next day however he called her and after flattering her with comparisons to Hollywood starlets (smile like Jessica Alba, hair like Eva Mendes), invited her down to his pile in Dorset for the weekend. Natalie did not know what to say. She had never had this kind of approach from a stranger before. Certainly not a suave, sophisticated one like Kane. She stalled him by saying she would check her diary and could he phone her later. She then phoned Claudia and asked her what she should do.

‘I know what I would do in your position,’ said Claudia. ‘Besides, what have you got to lose.’

As things had been particularly fraught with Shaun over the previous few days and it was her weekend off, she felt she needed a bit of a lift. When Kane called back an hour later, she accepted. He had found out her address he said, and would send his chauffeur round at six on Friday evening.

Natalie was unaccustomed to a lifestyle of fast cars, heliports, ranch styled villas, and private beaches. She had not been to Monte Carlo or Venice. She had not been to Thailand or Singapore. The most exotic place she had been were the Costa Brava and Majorca and this had been when Shaun was earning proper money, before he had lost his entrepreneurial verve. But when Kane suggested she ‘throw a sickie’, to spend some time travelling, she did so. In fact, his personal physician with a Harley Street address signed her off for six months with Synaesthesia, a form of scrambled perception. Faraway places with strange sounding names beckoned. They started with the Caribbean. To most people a holiday in these seas means Barbados or St. Lucia. Few have heard of Pine Cay in the Turks & Caicos or Canouan, St. Vincent. These were off limits to all but the very wealthy. Kane was very wealthy. Siesta Key, off the Florida coast, is best experienced at sunset, when its white beach gently takes on an orange glow and the sky is painted with strokes of tangerine and vermilion. Fortunate then that Kane owned one of the best-situated residences in the Siesta Key village, along with a modest forty-footer to cruise to dockland fish restaurants or explore the mangrove.

Although he seemed to own property in every corner of the world, the source of Kane’s wealth and prosperity was slow in revealing itself to Natalie. He never once referred to the origins of his fortune and offered no clues. He didn’t go to the office as such. He took no interest in the stock market and there were no clandestine meetings with business associates so far as she could gather, so it was unlikely he was in finance or in commerce. The only time he used the phone or the internet were to make travel arrangements, or make some frivolous purchase. She had variously entertained the idea that he might be a key secret service agent, minor royalty from a deposed dynasty, or Raffles, but the truth was though that she didn’t know. They moved from place to place, but she only discovered small fragments on a need to know basis.

‘How do they do that,’ she asked him at El Circo de la Magia in La Habana Vieja. The elephant had just vanished before their eyes.

‘It’s all done with mirrors,’ he said. ‘It’s an illusion. There is only one reality.’

Natalie was left wondering what this reality was. If there was only one reality, why did people see things in different ways, and where did those night-time images come from that inhabited her dreams? Perhaps the waking world was, like the vanishing elephant, no more than an illusion. One thing was certain, Kane was surrounded by mystery.

From time to time, she would phone or email Claudia with a concern, for instance that Kane appeared to have no family, or that she did not even know what nationality he was. Claudia’s advice was always to count her blessings. In her experience, it was never an advantage for a partner to have a nimiety of relations or a wealth of surplus baggage.

‘I don’t even know how old he is,’ she said. ‘He’s never said, and he doesn’t know that I’m 43 because he’s never asked. He must be a few years younger than me, though. What if he gets tired of me?’

‘Cross that bridge when we come to it.’

‘I spend hours a day applying Cle de Peau’s Beaute La Creme and ReVive’s Intensite Volumizing Serum to fight off the ageing process. I have Evian rose petal baths, Oriental Harmony rubdowns, and I have my own hairdresser and a portable gym shipped everywhere we go. ‘

‘Sounds great. I can’t see what the problem is. I would swap places with you,’ said Claudia.

‘Then there’s the Yoga, the Indian head massages and the pelvic floor exercises.’

‘And the Brazilian waxes?’

‘No. I have my own personal stylist. He’s given me a Kyla Cole trim. ‘

‘What?’

‘ Kyle Cole, she’s a Slovakian glamour model. We had her over to the hotel for a threesome when we were in Vienna.’

‘You little hussy.’

‘It was fun actually.’

‘You seem to be having a fabulous time. Its all good surely. I’d swap places with you.’

‘We went to see a Buddhist monk in Saigon. He told us that there is no light without shadow and no shadow without light. There is no good and no bad. Good and bad are not stable entities. They are continually trading places. The most important thing is to maintain the balance between the two. Balance itself is the good.’

‘So you are worried that that there is no balance to your life at the moment? You’re afraid that the bubble’s going to burst?’

‘I just have nagging doubts about it all sometimes.’

Natalie also discovered that Kane carried no cash, never seemed to have to pay for anything and the name on his correspondence and credit cards just read ‘Kane’, neither a Christian name or a surname. When they travelled, Customs never bothered them. Wherever they went, even Teheran and Moscow, they were always waved on through, no consideration given to they might be bringing in or out. Kane remained a man of mystery. Once or twice she even considered he might be an international drugs dealer or a weapons trader.

One night in Barranquilla, Colombia, she tackled him on the subject.

‘I know next to nothing about who you are,’ she said. ‘Sometimes when we’re walking I check to see that you have a shadow and I even look in the mirror to check that you have a reflection.’

Kane listed some of the things that she did know about him, mostly concerning the physical characteristics of his lovemaking.

‘And you’ve completely taken me over. I don’t know who I am anymore. You don’t even let me pack my own suitcase. Everywhere we go we have brand new ones, packed with a brand new wardrobe. Why do we have to keep travelling anyway? Sometimes I’d like to just stay in one place.’

Her wish was granted. Kane owned a substantial villa on the shores of Lake Garda that had once belonged to Mussolini. Here they spent the month of July among the olive groves and vineyards, taking his Vivace speedboat out now and again to visit the stunning scenery of Sirmione, Garda, Malcesine, Bardolino, Limone, and Riva del Garda. The lake seemed to swallow you up in its splendour. The low-lying countryside around the southern stretches of the lake became increasingly dramatic to the north. Here rocky cliffs, swathed in pines hugged the shoreline. It was the most beautiful scenery that Natalie had seen. In the evenings with a full compliment of staff on hand, they entertained guests like Daniel Craig, David Bowie, and the illusionist, David Blaine. Gifts for Natalie would arrive daily, shipped from all corners of the world. This was all a bit Hans Christian Anderson, the stuff of fairytales. One Sunday afternoon, to Natalie’s great delight, her favourite singer, Damien Rice arrived with his band and performed a private concert on the lawns. He played a version of ‘Windmills of Your Mind’. The lyrics seemed to express the confusion she sometimes felt.

One afternoon after a langoustine linguine lunch on the Grand Canal in Venice, Kane announced that they would be returning to England for a few days. When they arrived in London, Natalie made the decision to go and look in at Argyle Avenue to pick up some personal papers she had left. She had left it long enough. It had been over six months since she had had any contact with Shaun. She parked her new white BMW outside. The front garden was like a jungle and the gutter was hanging down the front of the house. There were ‘Dagley and Thorpe’ For Sale signs outside the houses on either side. Inside the house, the first thing that struck her, apart from the fetid smell in the hallway, was that the front room had been stripped of its furniture. Even the TV had gone. All there was left was a gnarled dartboard mounted on a rubber tyre on the wall. Shaun, Bernie, Mac and Tosser, along with two other down and outs, were sitting on the floor, amongst a smorgasbord of Gregg’s bags. They were passing round a three-litre bottle of Diamond White cider and listening to darts on the radio.

‘Killer 153!’ screamed the commentator. ‘D’Artagnan’s back in it.’

There was a cheer from around the room.

Disgusted, Natalie went through to the back of the house. Gingerly, Shaun followed her.

The kitchen too was bare. All the white-ware was gone and the shelves were empty. The was no longer even a kettle.

‘What happened to the furniture?’ she shouted.

‘I had to sell it to pay some debts,’ said Shaun.

‘Where’s Axel?’

‘He died on Sunday, love,’ said Shaun. ‘I did all that I could.’

‘Is that him in the garden?’ she said, looking out the kitchen window. ‘You couldn’t even call a vet.’

‘The phone’s been cut off,’ said Shaun. ‘Otherwise, I would have let you know.’

‘What about your mobile?’ said Natalie. ‘You might have made a bit of an effort.’

‘If you remember, you took my mobile,’ said Shaun.

‘One of you must have a mobile,’ said Natalie in exasperation.

‘Bernie’s got one, but he’s got no credit and Tosser’s with Three Mobile, so his doesn’t work,’ said Shaun.

Natalie was in such a hurry to leave, she did not bother with the unopened mail. This seemed to belong to another lifetime. It looked like the bailiffs might have been anyway and what did she care if the house was repossessed?

Natalie had arranged to meet Kane at Fortnum and Mason and they would, he said, go to a show, stay at The Dorchester overnight, and then to drive down to Dorset. She parked the BMW in Arlington Street and made her way along Piccadilly. It had only been a matter of hours, but she missed Kane. For months, they had been almost inseparable. She went up to The Fountain Restaurant. She ordered a glass of Chablis, and then another. She waited and waited, glancing nervously around the room. The waiters asked her several times if she was waiting for someone. ‘Had Monsieur been delayed perhaps? Was there anything they could do?’ ‘No,’ she told them, ‘her partner would be along in a moment.’ The minutes ticked by. Still there was no sign. It was not like Kane not to call if he was going to be late. Had he had an accident? Had he been arrested, kidnapped even? She had several mobile phone numbers for him and tried them one by one. Each came back with ‘The number you have dialled could not be recognised’.

Natalie realised she could not stay in the restaurant all afternoon. There were people waiting for tables and she was beginning to attract attention. She called a waiter over to pay her bill, but the card processing machine would not accept her gold or platinum cards, and she had no cash. She registered her embarrassment. The maitre d’ was very good about it. After all, he explained, she had only had a modest hors d’ouvres and four glasses of Chablis, and it was not the most expensive vintage. She left the restaurant and went to the nearest cashpoint. After rejecting the pin on each of her cards three times, the machine proceeded to swallow them up. She phoned The Dorchester, but they had no record of a booking in Kane’s name. She phoned Claudia, but her phone was on voicemail. She left a long garbled message and afterwards her phone showed ‘Emergency Numbers Only.’ She had run out of credit.

Fortunately, she had paid her parking in advance and the BMW had more than half a tank, so she drove down to Dorset and, after some difficulty with the Satnav, which was giving directions in German, found the house. Although large, it was not nearly as grand as she remembered. It was to her dismay occupied by a darts promoter and his family. Mrs Goldberg explained that they had lived there for three years and, no, they had never heard of Kane.

Natalie was by now distraught and severely disorientated. She was not even sure where she was driving to. Her friends and family were far flung. She had changed her mind several times. Her driving reflected her confusion. She managed to take the wrong exit off the M27 and was unable to get her bearings. To make matters worse, the satnav was now directing her through Frankfurt. She pressed a series of buttons and managed to switch it off. This was no help. She had never been good at navigation. She had a long history of taking wrong turns, even close to home. She did not have a map and she had never heard of any of the places that were signposted. She was hopelessly lost.

The thunder came on without warning. It had not been forecast. The speed at which the black cumulonimbus clouds swallowed up the light alarmed her. The sky rapidly became a mass of black. Raindrops the size of pebbles smashed against the roof of the car. Visibility was down to a few feet. The rumbling grew louder and louder, claps so powerful they might be signalling the end of the world. Strangely, there was no lightning. A thunderstorm without lightning – what did this mean? Wasn’t thunder the result of lightning? You saw the lightning first and then waited for the thunder, counting the seconds to work out how far away it was. Frightened, She drove on, into seemingly solid sheets of black summer rain. The thunder followed her, always overhead, but still there was no lightning. Natalie felt nauseous and breathless. This was way out of her comfort zone. Something extraordinary was happening here.

After fifty or so miles during which she seemed to be driving round in ever decreasing circles, the BMW chose a particularly inhospitable location to run out of petrol. She had no idea where she was. It was now midnight and pitch black. There was no moon and no stars. She could see nothing, except the narrow stretch of flooded track that was in the beams of her headlights. She was bathed in sweat. It was streaming down her face and her dress was sticking to her like a second skin. She wound the window down. The thunder had stopped. The rain had stopped. All that she could hear outside were the cascade of water gushing down the incline and the distant bleating of sheep. She could not even see the sheep, let alone locate a possible farmhouse to seek assistance. Anyway, you could not expect to wake a farmer up in the middle of the night. She quickly realised she was stuck. She had no money and no phone, and for that matter, no walking shoes. Mostly, though, she felt completely exhausted. Better to wait until first light. Meanwhile, she would grab some sleep in the back seat of the car.

She dreamt she was looking after a garden. It seemed to be her garden. It was maybe a secret garden, although she had told Claudia about it. The garden had lots of trees. One tree, in particular, displayed spectacular multicoloured blossom, all the year round. She had always looked after this tree. She did not know what species of tree it was. She called it Serendipity tree. It attracted beautiful iridescent birds that playfully chorused The Goldberg Variations. And fireflies that danced an approximation of the fandango. Damien Hirst came and painted a song of the tree. One day she got back from walking by the lake and a team of men were cutting down the tree. They had large chainsaws. ‘No!, No!, No! You can’t do that,’ she shouted, but they could not hear her over the noise from the chainsaws. She grabbed one of them by the arm. Branches from her tree were striking her in the face. She began to bleed. One of the men noticed her and switched off his saw. The tree was leaning away from them, almost felled. ‘We have to cut down these trees to make dartboards,’ the man said. Natalie screamed.

She was woken by a brisk tap on the back window of the car. Standing there was a uniformed policeman. A patrol car was nearby, blue light flashing.

‘This your car is it?’ he asked suspiciously.

‘Of course!’ Natalie replied indignantly.

His colleague meanwhile was looking the car over checking the tax disc. It was four months out of date. He was not slow in pointing out the implications of this.

‘Can I ask you to step out please?’ the first policeman said.

He barked something into the radio, ending with the registration number of the BMW.

‘What’s the story then,’ he asked aggressively.

Perhaps he had had to get up too early for his shift, Natalie thought. This might explain the lack of politeness. She gave a brief resume of her predicament.

The officer’s radio sparked into life.

‘I’m afraid that this is a stolen car,’ he said. ‘I’m going to have to ask you to accompany me to the station.

The uncut white diamonds they found in the lining of Natalie’s Marc Jacobs handbag were of the finest quality. The custody officer felt it would not be appropriate to grant bail with such a large sum involved. Even her defence solicitor, Dale Charmer, found her tale implausible. Furthermore, the solicitor’s clerk had been doing some background research and could find absolutely no trace of Kane on records anywhere. Their client was quite clearly some sort of fantasist. Also, the clerk had discovered that her husband, Shaun, who she depicted as a down-and-out, was an up and coming darts player. He had recently won the Diamond White Allcomers Challenge and had qualified for the UK Open Darts Championship.

‘Why don’t you change your story? Dale suggested. ‘Make something up for the trial.’

Natalie was disappointed. Weren’t the defence team supposed to zealously represent your case, even if they did not believe you?.

She was remanded in Holloway to appear in court in late September. While on remand, Natalie received a letter with a postmark from Siesta Key, Florida. It was in Claudia’s handwriting.

Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved

 

It Takes A Train To Cry

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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