When your best friend is fictional

THE WRITER’S LIFE

While I remain in the government’s social cleansing machine, now in my sixth month of battling to win back my personal independence (a ‘benefit’ which some might call a human right), I’m not normally expecting anyone to visit me unexpectedly, so I was surprised when my doorbell rang earlier. Then I remembered I’d replaced the batteries.

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Whoever was there (it could have been anyone, given I was expecting no-one), I was always going to be surprised when I opened the door, but I hadn’t imagined I’d be as surprised as I was to see who it was, which was surprising in itself, seeing as I’m a writer who’s meant to be able to see these things. But I write best when everyone else is asleep.

It was Doctor Hannah Jones, a character I created originally for Cyrus Song, and who’s appeared in various short stories, where she’s met Simon Fry many times. He’s been over before (first when he suggested we meet, when we had Pi, then when we made flans), but I’d never met her, until now. She was just as I’d imagined (I wrote her): attractive, smart, and disarming.

Hi,” she said. “What happened to your face?”

Hello Hannah,” I replied, “nice to see you too. What about it?”

Well, I’m used to seeing you in character. Now I can see what’s beneath the words.” Which was odd, as I was at pains to explain.

That’s odd,” I replied, “because I knew what you looked like before you ever started talking, but when you did, the way you looked changed.”

Well, you wrote me.” Which was true, but Hannah had actually written herself, which I could never really explain. She sat at my desk. “Why did you ask me round?”

She’d brought her own drink, which was handy. And Hannah swigs from the bottle, because she’s a thug. So we drank, with her at the desk and me on the couch, like it was her office and I was her psychiatric patient (she’s a vet).

Tell me about your childhood,” Hannah said. “Could no-one else be bothered to come over?”

People visit,” I replied, “but I can’t really engage with them at any depth.”

And you find me deep?”

I thought I might see if I could do what you do, and write myself.”

But you’re you; why would you need me to do that?”

Because I don’t feel like I know myself lately, and I need a way to do that.”

And that’s me?”

I suppose it is.”

But who am I? Aren’t I a part of you?”

Only a small part. Each of us is partly everyone else we know. Not just because we’re all connected to the universe anyway, but none of us is truly ourselves. We’re all a montage of other people and their stories.”

But we each have our own lives and history, which surely makes us what we are?”

Yes, but what if there was no-one else around to know that? See? We’re all made of the people we know, including ourselves. Most of us are afraid of that if we’re honest.”

That’s deep, Simon.”

Steve.”

Oh yeah.”

I don’t get many visitors, and little conversation. I can talk to myself and to my blog, but I find it easier if I’m talking to a person, even if I don’t have anyone to do that with. And I can be more open like this, writing fiction which isn’t really that, but real life told as such.”

Is that you ducking the issues?”

Far from it. I spend too much time wrapped up in myself and getting confused. This is my way of clearing my mind, getting things off my chest, confronting myself.”

So you don’t really need me.”

I need someone to talk to.”

You need someone to write for. This is an outlet for you, a means to write.”

It’s my coping mechanism. Even when I do see real people, I can’t open up. They’d have to have immense patience, I wouldn’t get everything out, I’d feel I’d burdened them, and I’d be in their debt.”

So you invited me round to be a captive audience.”

I wasn’t even sure you’d turn up.”

Is that why you’ve not cooked tonight?”

Yeah, I normally do that when I’m on my own.”

But you’re not.”

Other than you, I am.”

But when you’re here talking with me, you feel like a writer?”

Yes, because I’m writing this.”

This is quite surreal.”

I’m a surrealist.”

Do I have free will?”

Of course you do. Even though I wrote you. In fact, I wrote you with more freedom than I’ve ever known.”

I need to eat, so you’d better get some food in. But never forget, I don’t really exist.”

Doctor Jones decided to hang around for a while to help me, but she’d sleep on the couch.

Maybe I can keep writing, despite outer influences intent on stopping me. Only if I let them. To be continued (again).

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Doctor Hannah Jones first appeared in Two Little Things, the short story which spawned Cyrus Song. She’s also cropped up in various related prequel (A Story Tied by Strawberry String), sequel (Quantum Entanglement in Hamsters) and sideline stories (The Invention of the Pencil Case).

The origin of unpacked furniture

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FLASH FICTION

A recurring theme in my writing is The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s a fictional place (and there’s a book), which exists to tell the stories of others who are unable to tell their own.

The agency is also an analogy of the writing world, where writers crave an audience, in a place where people don’t have time to read. It has parallels, to how inner frustration made my own mind up to write down everything in it.

Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them, and sometimes I wonder if we may have a greater purpose, but haven’t worked out what it is yet…

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THE OFFICE OF LOST THINGS

They are afraid of the sun, shrinking away as it climbs in the sky, and they are liveliest at night. They follow us, and we can’t outrun them. They are The Shadows.

I first became aware that I’d picked one up when my own shadow started carrying a guitar. No matter where I walked, indoors or outside, my shadow followed me. And regardless of what I myself was carrying (a bag, my jacket, thrown over my shoulder…), my shadow still travelled with its guitar.

This being Bethnal Green, I found an Italian greasy spoon, where the proprietor, a doctor, explained my condition. His Cockney dialogue was easy for the Babel fish in my ear to translate, and when he told me I was Hank Marvin, he offered me a cure, pointing to an item on the menu: “GSEG”, which was scrambled eggs, and my hunger was gone.

I was on my way to Islington, delivering a manuscript, to a place I’d heard about from other writers.

Above Hotblack Desiato’s office near Islington Green, is The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s where all the storytellers send their stories, and sometimes meet to share them, like a secret society, but open to all.

I climbed the stairs to the agency office, a windowless room in the loft. The lights were out and no-one was in. I tried the light switch but it didn’t work. Fumbling around, I found a desk, which I discovered had drawers, and the fourth one yielded a box of candles. I lit a cigarette, then a candle, and looked around the small office, which a broom might call luxurious.

On the desk was a typewriter, and next to it, a stack of papers: hand-written manuscripts. Besides the desk and a chair, there was just a large book cabinet occupying one wall. It held possibly hundreds of unwritten books, all from writers seeking attention, and all in a place where the sun never shines.

I sat at the desk and looked at my flickering shadow, cast by the candle. There was no guitar, just my cigarette dangling from my mouth, like a smoking tulip.

With no-one else around, I decided to stay for a while and started typing.

© Steve Laker

Dreams play TV

Wherever our lives may lead, we are all but a plot device.

The Unfinished Literary Agency (my second anthology) is available now. 

The invention of the pencil case

“The most intellectual species to ever walk this planet was intent on destroying its own home, and while humans were busy with their own imploding evolution, the animals took a back seat and concentrated on the obvious things: Shelter, food and telepathy. All under the noses of the humans. It was a brilliant plan.”

FLASH FICTION

Dog Pencil Case

THE INVENTION OF THE PENCIL CASE

The strangest lunch I ever had was with a veterinary doctor, and it was the meal which finally turned me vegetarian. I should note at the start, we didn’t eat any domestic pets.

I first met Dr Hannah Jones when we worked on a film together, and we’d remained friends since. We’d meet up every now then, I’d tell her stories from the writing world and she’d give me ideas from her field of science. It was Hannah who’d suggested we meet, as she said she had something important for me.

We met at a pop-up cafe at the Camden end of Regent’s Park. It was an indifferent day weather wise, unable to decide what it wanted to do. We sat outside nonetheless, as we both like to people-watch: me making up stories of what people in the park might be away from that setting, Hannah priding herself on identifying the bits of cross-breeds and mongrels, and sometimes scoring the dogs’ humans on parts of their anatomy.

The Camden end of the park is quieter nowadays, and at one point on that particular Saturday, we counted only 16 legs besides our own. It’s been that way since the last fire at the zoo, and that’s what Hannah said she wanted to tell me about. But first we ordered food. I went for a rare steak with fries, and Hannah chose a vegetarian pizza.

The cafe backed on to the old zoo, now a construction site. The distant sound of hammers and saws competed with the clatter of dishes from the cafe, which was quite arresting. The animals’ former home was being demolished in the background, while I was waiting for part of a former animal to arrive before me.

So I turned to Hannah, and asked her what she wanted to tell me. Something she’d been working on perhaps, some veterinary breakthrough, or anything I might use as a story.

You remember the first fire,” Hannah said, “and the cause was unknown?” She didn’t have to remind me. The London Zoo fire of 2017 killed four meerkats and Mischa the aardvark, and the cause of the blaze was never made public. I nodded. “Well,” she continued, “some colleagues of mine found out what started the latest one.”

Many more had perished in the great fire of 2020, and there was extensive structural damage. Most of the remaining exhibits had been moved to other zoos, and all who remained were the rarest and most threatened in the wild. Our food arrived and suddenly, char-grilled animal wasn’t terribly appetising.

So what was it?” I asked, as Hannah chewed righteously on her veggie pizza.

The kind of thing,” she said, “that is never likely to be made public.”

So why would you tell me?” I wondered.

Because you’re a fiction writer. If you write it, no-one will believe you.” I wasn’t sure how to take that, but I smiled nonetheless as I ate a fry.

Go on then,” I prompted. Hannah looked at my steak.

Aren’t you going to eat that?”

It doesn’t have the same sort of appeal it once had,” I said.

But that’s such a waste.” She was right. “Such a shame that not only does someone have to die to feed you, but their selfless act is unappreciated and their sacrifice goes to waste.” She had a point. “And pity the poor chef, cooking that for you, only to have it returned like there’s something wrong with it.” The only thing wrong was me eating it. As I chewed reluctantly, Hannah told me the story of the great fire.

I’ve got a friend who was in the forensics team. She told me this, and she told me not to tell anyone.”

So you’re telling me,” I said, “because if I write about it, no-one will believe it.”

But you’ll believe me,” she replied. “So, after the fire brigade put out the fire, they identified the seat of the blaze, in a pile of hay.”

Someone’s bed?” I wondered. “Did it catch in the sun?”

No,” Hannah replied, “it was deliberate.”

Someone started it deliberately?”

Yes.”

Arson. Why?”

We don’t know if it was. It started in the mountain gorilla area.”

Someone threw a lighter in?” I imagined it wouldn’t take long to work out how a lighter worked.

No,” Hannah said again. “It was all enclosed in strengthened glass.”

A keeper dropped a lighter?”

Nope.” She was getting quite smug now, knowing what I didn’t. I tried again.

So maybe the sun did start it, like the magnifying glass effect.”

All of the above remained possibilities for a while, and that’s how it’ll remain on the public record. Just like the first one: cause unknown.”

So what do you know which no-one else does, including me?”

This.” She unfolded a sheet of paper, a photo, and handed it to me. It was like a scenes of crime picture: little plastic signs with numbers on, dotted around the ground, like a golf course for ants, and an arrow pointing to a singed spot of earth about the size of a dinner plate. “That’s the seat of the fire.”

And this is inside the gorilla enclosure?”

Yes. Where this came from.” Hannah rummaged in her bag, then handed me something rolled in newspaper. “It’s what’s inside.”

Inside was a piece of dried wood about the size of a pencil case, with a small crater burned into the centre.

What the actual…” I didn’t finish.

Hold on,” Hannah said, “there’s this as well.” She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out what looked like a burnt pencil.

I knew by now what it really was, and it had a much bigger story to tell.

It seemed somehow poetic to write it down, lest anyone hear, so I used the charred, sharpened end:

THEY DISCOVERED FIRE?

Hannah nodded.

© Steve Laker, 2018

Gorilla FFF

Many of my stories are connected in some way (just like all of us, to everything in the universe), and this could be a prequel to a plot device and the best laid plans. My second anthology – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is available now. Hannah Jones and Simon Fry are characters (and friends) from Cyrus Song

The short and simple dog’s life

ANIMALS

I’ve long thought of animals as people, reasoning that humans are animals too, just a different species with more entitled rights. I believe that if we could talk with the animals, humankind might stand a better chance of saving the one home we all share. We might need to think less but more deeply. We may need to regress to a childhood, where we might ask why dogs have shorter lives than us, and be able to answer the question unlike any adult. It’s why I wrote Cyrus Song.

The book notes how dogs make for terrible activists, because they’re generally contented people, with low expectations in life. Once he’s had some biscuits and a decent run in the park, a dog’s pretty much nailed his day. Humans no more understand their ultimate goal than a dog knows how to drive a car he’s chasing.

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Many animals pass through the veterinary lab of Doctor Hannah Jones in the book, including dogs, and one – Frank – provides an insight into the canine mind as he gains his wings. In my book, animals in individual homes are not pets, they’re part of the family, and there’s much we can learn from them.

While clicking idly around the internet, I happened upon an anecdote from a veterinarian of many years, struck by the wisdom of a child. Dogs can teach us a lot, and so can children, before they’re conditioned as adults.

Being a veterinarian, I had been called to examine a ten-year-old Irish Wolfhound named Belker. The dog’s owners, Ron, his wife Lisa, and their little boy Shane (aged six), were all very attached to Belker, and they were hoping for a miracle.

I examined Belker and found he was dying of cancer. I told the family we couldn’t do anything for Belker, and offered to perform the euthanasia procedure for the old dog in their home.

As we made arrangements, Ron and Lisa told me they thought it would be good for six-year-old Shane to observe the procedure. They felt as though Shane might learn something from the experience.

The next day, I felt the familiar catch in my throat as Belker‘s family surrounded him. Shane seemed so calm, petting the old dog for the last time, that I wondered if he understood what was going on. Within a few minutes, Belker slipped peacefully away.

The little boy seemed to accept Belker’s transition without any difficulty or confusion. We sat together for a while after Belker’s Death, wondering aloud about the sad fact that dogs’ lives are shorter than human lives. Shane, who had been listening quietly, piped up, ”I know why.”

Startled, we all turned to him. What came out of his mouth next stunned me. I’d never heard a more comforting explanation. It has changed the way I try and live.

He said, ”People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life — like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right?” The six-year-old continued,

Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don’t have to stay for as long as we do.”

Live simply.
Love generously.
Care deeply.
Speak kindly.

Remember, if a dog was the teacher you would learn things like:

When your loved ones come home, always run to greet them.
• Never pass up the opportunity to go for a joyride.
• Allow the experience of fresh air and the wind in your face to be pure Ecstasy.
• Take naps.
• Stretch before rising.
• Run, romp, and play daily.
• Thrive on attention and let people touch you.
• Avoid biting when a simple growl will do.
• On warm days, stop to lie on your back on the grass.
• On hot days, drink lots of water and lie under a shady tree.
• When you’re happy, dance around and wag your entire body.
• Delight in the simple joy of a long walk.
• Be faithful.
• Never pretend to be something you’re not.
• If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it.
• When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by, and nuzzle them gently.

That’s the secret of happiness that we can learn from a good dog.

Dog and human

I was struck by its simplicity, and it blew some sand in my eyes.

Animals in captivity are a human construct, and we give them too little credit for the empathy they have towards us. They’re grateful of our care, even though it was us who destroyed many of their homes and orphaned them (as the London Zoo chapters of Cyrus Song explain). We should question why they even tolerate us, when we’re such a plague on the one planet we all share. Science fiction writers have speculated that they might rise up against us. I’m more drawn to a post-human world where the planet becomes toxic to humans (which we’re doing a very good job of ourselves, but nature will prevail once we’re gone). Perhaps they pity us. Maybe our children will hear them.

Sometimes we over-complicate our lives (as adults at least). We’re conditioned by media and commerce to live a material existence, so we can compete with others. We lost touch with the simple things. It’s the human condition. We will have to live very differently, and return much of the planet to nature, if our home is to survive.

Cyrus Song proposed that while humans were floating blindly towards an extinction legacy, the animals concentrated on the important things, like shelter and food, and telepathy. They were here first, they have a greater collective wisdom than humans, and a closer fundamental connection to earth. They have a future, and there must be more they could tell us if we listen. Our survival strategy needs to be short and simple. We need to hear the Cyrus Song itself, the sounds all around us, beyond human nature.

Cyrus Song is available now as a paperback and eBook.

Life can be a gift (subject to status)

FLASH FICTION

Life in Tory Britain is subject to status. With social budgets cut, services out-sourced to the cheapest private bidder (usually a company one of the cabinet or a spouse is a stakeholder in), and parts of the NHS poised to be sold to US ‘care providers’, it’s nothing short of social cleansing. If you have money, you can afford to live. If not, the fascist regime will grind you down…

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TICKS

To continue enjoying this programme, please top up your viewing card. Thank you for choosing Living Loans.

She’d embraced the Living Loans rep at their first meeting. So friendly, right down to the company logo, a smiling cartoon figure, with comically long arms. Short-term credit loans were just the icing. The cake was the free Smart TV: fifty inches of ultra high definition, with all the streaming services her and the kid could eat. The rep installed it for her, and did away with complicated and confusing subscriptions. Weekly loans were loaded onto a single debit card, which doubled as a viewing card. Her whole life, on one simple piece of plastic.

Topping up was a simple £2 call on her Living Loans mobile. The week just lived was paid for. Television time would have to be rationed, and food for her and the kid would come from the bank.

With the kid fed and asleep, she microwaved a ready meal, with an extra 30 seconds, ‘just to be sure’. She lit a candle, and got cosy in a Onesie for Eastenders.

To continue enjoying this programme, please top up your viewing card. Thank you for choosing Living Loans.

£2 can do so much. With a quick call, it can summon another human soul, a friend to talk to and sort out problems. A chat with a smiling person, with long arms to reach into their pockets and help. She eagerly signed the new contract, ticked the boxes, and regained her life. She needn’t fear the postman any longer.

***

Dear valued customer,

There are insufficient funds in your account to maintain your contractual agreement with Living Loans. We understand that you may be experiencing financial difficulties and we are sympathetic to any partner who finds themselves in this position, so we would like to assist you in any way we can.

To ensure that you continue to enjoy the benefits of your Living Loans membership, we simply ask that you join our exclusive Living Lives Health Plan. Members are automatically contracted out of the National Health Service and benefit from private healthcare in our nationwide network of clinics. Our clinics offer one-to-one consultations, treatments and surgical procedures.

What’s more, initial consultations are free, so that you can get a feel for the level of care which we offer at our clinics. Thereafter, to receive ongoing medical care, simply insert your Living Lives membership card into any of our on-site drug or treatment administration terminals, located conveniently around our facilities.

The Living Lives Health Plan, brought to you by Living Loans: Loans for Life.

She signed where the crosses indicated, and ticked the boxes.

© Steve Laker, 2014.

My books are available from Amazon.