What Leonard Hofstadter knows

FICTION

“The reason no other animals evolved like humans, is they watched what we did. Then instead of doing that, they concentrated on the important things, like their basic needs and expanding their minds, to eventually speak telepathically, all the while unbeknown to us. It was quite brilliant in its subtlety.”

That’s not from the story which follows, but it’s a good introduction and from another one I’m writing. Like that, this is about animal sentience. But I’m a surrealist. So I imagined the young character from my children’s book, with her talking dog and cat. I watched a documentary on AI in the home (worried and amused), then imagined if perhaps a future ethics committee might get stoned, or have some other reason for integrating universal translation algorithms into AI home assistants. So I put the Babel fish into Amazon’s Echo, Google Home and so on, went to 2042 (18 minutes before 9pm) and this come out of the typewriter…

cat optimist

A GIRL, SHELDON COOPER AND PETER COOK

On earth, it was generally accepted among cats, that cats were the superior species. In this feline hierarchy, humans and dogs were equal but different, with little regard for the white mice and dolphins.

This social order came about when Amazon integrated universal translation algorithms into their Alexa AI home assistants, and others followed. In 2042, life in the home was very different to the one we know now.

The term “animal” had long since fallen into obscurity, now reserved for those who are less than “person” in its modern definition: a sentient, self-aware and self-determining being, which has a conscience, experiences emotions, and displays empathy with other people.

A few exceptions aside, most Persona non grata had written themselves out of any worthwhile news and were confined to their own history. Only a few Tory grandees clung on in antiquated underground offices, blathering about the past and not being listened to.

Do you know what I think?” Sheldon Cooper asked.

“No,” replied Peter Cook, looking up from his chair. “And I didn’t ask.”

Well, let’s see what Ellie thinks. She’s just coming downstairs.”

I know,” the dog acknowledged.

“How?” the cat wondered.

I can hear her.”

Oh.”

What are you two talking about?” Ellie wondered, wiping her hands on Pete.

I thought I felt your presence,” Sheldon said, sitting up on the sofa. “Nice of you to get dressed. Did you wash your hands?”

Yes,” Ellie replied, “what are you talking about.”

Well, he,” Peter nodded at the cat, “was going to spout on about something…”

I don’t spout,” Sheldon protested.

“As I was saying, I didn’t want to hear.”

“You don’t know what I was going to say.”

“Aha!” said the dog, sitting up, “how do you know?”

Can you read my mind?” Sheldon asked.

No,” Peter replied, “can you?”

Okay,” Ellie interrupted. “Who’s for dinner?”

“I’ll eat him if you want,” Peter said.

I’d make your breath smell better,” the cat replied.

“Okay,” Ellie interrupted again. “What would you like for dinner? I’ll cook.”

Do you have tuna?” Sheldon asked.

We do,” Ellie replied.

“Line-caught?”

Yes.”

In water, not brine?”

Yes, in water.”

Cut into chunks, with some black pepper and a squeeze of fresh lemon?”

Like you always have it.”

Yes. That please.”

Fine. Pete?”

Er…” Peter yawned, “Got any steak? You know, that one they grow, not farmed.”

We should have. If not, I can print you some.”

Yeah, do that anyway, fresher.”

Hey, why does he get printed food?”

I’ll print yours if you like, cat.”

No, I like it the way you do it.”

So, why…” Ellie thought, “never mind.”

What are you having?” Pete asked Ellie.

I’ll probably just print a pizza.”

Is it Thursday?” Sheldon wondered, as Ellie made dinner, “I sense it’s going to be a strange night.”

Here we go,” Ellie announced, returning with food, “up at the table please. Anyone wanna smoke?”

Told you,” said the cat. “Do you mind if we eat while you smoke?”

What shall we talk about?” Ellie ignored the cat.

“Death,” Pete said. “But you wouldn’t know about that, would you cat, with your nine lives and everything. Have you worked out what those are all for yet?”

We will find that out around 3000 years from now.”

Oh, here we go…The self-proclaimed superior species on this planet, haven’t worked out why they’re here yet.”

Well neither have you, dog.”

I sometimes think I’m dead already.”

Why?” Sheldon wondered.

“Can you tell me I’m not?”

Well, I can see you’re not. So what, you think all this is a computer simulation, like The Matrix?”

“Could be.”

But you lack proof.”

And you don’t know why you’re here, cat.”

“I need to urinate.” Sheldon jumped down from his chair and wandered around the garden.

I love the way you two get on,” Ellie said to Peter.

Sarcasm?” Pete wondered aloud.

Only partly. I’m very fond of the way you are.”

Well, everyone’s themselves Ellie, and most people shouldn’t apologise for that. I think with dogs and cats, it’s a mutual tolerance and a begrudging respect.”

What about humans?”

What about them?”

Do you just tolerate us?”

Sometimes it’s confusing,” Pete thought. “We do look up to you, because you’re pretty smart. But sometimes you overcomplicate things. Dogs look at things more simply. We worry less. I mean, go out for a walk with us a couple of times a day, open a box of DogNip chews, and I’ve pretty much nailed my day.”

You’re much less paranoid and insecure than us humans.”

Oh, I don’t know Ellie. Having you around is nice for company, but all dogs have an inferiority complex, and issues of balance.”

Balance? Of what?”

We wonder about things like the difference between friends and family, and the colours of cars. I mean, we’re perhaps more in touch with our instincts, but those are a bit sexist and misogynistic. And I think purple cars smell nicer than green ones.”

How’d you mean?”

Well, they’re like candyfloss.”

Yes, but the sexism and misogyny.”

Oh, all that old-fashioned nature stuff, going to mum for milk, and dad for protection. Then in humans, the hunter-gatherer and the cook.”

Well, we’re more a commune here, friends and family.”

Yes, I know. I remember when you came out of hospital that time, and you were in a wheelchair. I didn’t know whether to hug you or sit on your lap.”

Ellie?” Sheldon was back. “Where are my wipes?”

“I don’t know. Use mine, they’re upstairs.”

“But those are yours, and they’re upstairs. I specifically hid mine here, so I had them when I came in.”

“I might have eaten them.” Pete said.

Why would you do that?” the cat asked.

To freshen my breath? I don’t know if I did, I’m just saying I might have.”

The paradoxical dog,” Sheldon muttered, jumping back on his chair.

Did you wipe your feet?” Pete asked.

I always clean my feet, so yes.”

One day you’ll forget.”

So what if I do?”

You’ll know you’re getting old. Anyway, why do you get to go out at all hours and I don’t?”

Excuse me,” Ellie interrupted, “You can go out whenever you like Pete, on your own, or with your friends.”

“Oh. And there was me, thinking you enjoyed walking with me, playing your favourite game in the park.”

“Which one?”

Throwing sticks.”

My game?”

“Well, yes. I assume that’s why you throw sticks, because you enjoy me fetching them for some reason.”

“But that’s your game.”

“No it’s not. You made it up.”

“Yeah, because you like fetching sticks.”

“No I don’t. I couldn’t care where they end up, but you seem to have so much fun throwing them, I just figure I’m humouring you.”

One day,” Ellie said, “you dogs will get over your inferiority complex.”

Not while there are cats around,” Pete replied, “they have a superiority delusion.”

It’s not a delusion,” Sheldon argued.

So what about them lives then, what are they for?”

Curiosity, which is just as likely to kill anyone else as it is a cat. But cats seek knowledge, so we were given nine lives with which to discover it.”

While everyone else already worked out it’s pretty dull, so they’re just sitting around relaxing,” Pete suggested. “Ellie, what do you think about death?”

That’s a very big question, because it depends on the definition of death.”

What, more than either dead or alive?”

Well, yeah. It’s not a bipolar subject. I mean, I don’t fear my own death – except maybe the means of departure – but being forgotten scares me, like being erased from history. I believe that life as we know it, is a passing phase, in something we don’t fully understand yet.”

Do you subscribe,” Sheldon interrupted, “to quantum physics?”

Well, it stopped being a theory long ago. If you mean, do I get that everything exists in more than one state simultaneously, and that quantum entanglement means every subatomic particle in the universe is connected to another, telepathically, then yes. Definitely.”

Good,” the cat said, “because a lot of philosophical and theoretical examples of my species perished in that debate.”

See?” Pete perked up. “Bloody cats, getting everywhere, proving things. When was a dog ever involved in an experiment? I mean, why not Schrödinger’s dogs? By the way, what in the name of anyone’s arse, did mankind think it was getting up to, sending one of my kind up to space, before we had the technology to ask if it was okay?”

That,” Ellie replied, “was humanity getting up its own arse. But Laika was our little trailblazer, still floating in a tin can out there somewhere. We owe her a lot.”

At least you’re grateful,” Pete said, “fetching your sticks, flying your spaceships…And yes, Laika’s floating around out there, unceremoniously abandoned, but it’s quite poetic in a way.”

What, like Space Oddity, David Bowie?”

No, I just think it’s funny. Who’s to say Laika didn’t get out there and everything worked fine? Then she sussed the controls and just buggered off. Maybe it was all an elaborate plan, and the dogs had another planet somewhere.”

Unlikely.”

But equally, not impossible. You couldn’t talk to us back then. What you might have thought was static noise, could have been her talking. But there was no universal translator back then.”

The paradoxical dog,” Sheldon murmured.

Well, yes,” Pete agreed, “but the point is, humans had no right to do that. Because back then, humans didn’t regard what they called animals as having feelings or emotions. But what was clearly a sentient, self-determining and self-aware being, was used in an experiment without consultation or consent, simply because it was assumed to be inferior. That is immoral, and even more so for the cowardice in persecuting a person whose voice couldn’t be heard.”

So is much which humanity has done,” Ellie agreed, “against its own kind too. It’s a burden which rests heavily on those of us who give a shit.”

If I might add a cat’s opinion,” Sheldon said, “it might make things easier to understand.”

Go on.”

Humans were in denial. Your science hadn’t proven the obvious, that so-called animals could feel, so it was conveniently overlooked and humans continued, well, being human.”

Now I feel good about myself. Thanks Sheldon.”

Sarcasm?”

No!

Oh. And I thought I was getting the hang of that one.”

Ever since we’ve been able to talk,” Pete said, “there is still much about humans which confuses us.”

Same,” Ellie added, “only now that we can talk, can we talk like this.”

Really, I hadn’t noticed,” Sheldon noted.

Sarcasm?” Pete wondered.

No. Cats have always been able to talk, and to hear you. Nothing’s changed with humans, because you still don’t make sense.”

But you can understand me?” Ellie checked.

I can hear you, and the rest of the human race, in you. But with a growing number of exceptions, humans still seem hell bent on destroying our planet.”

You mean,” Pete said, “the planet we all share?”

You’re only here because the humans brought you. Earth was originally the cats’. Then humans came along and our ancestors agreed to let humans be humans, hoping they might learn.”

“Who says?”

Many ancient feline scribes.”

Like the human ones,” Ellie added, “who wrote the various human religious scriptures?”

Very much so,” Sheldon confirmed, “and those ancient human scribes wrote of cat gods, did they not?”

In Egypt, and some other places, yes.”

So,” Sheldon continued, “doesn’t that prove that man worshipped cats as gods?”

Not at all. Each ancient script is an individual’s interpretation of events, as they saw them, and recorded using the means available to them at the time. It’s what all ancient alien theories are built on, and it’s what unifies science and religion in many humans now. The point is, it’s a paradox. But it doesn’t matter who was here first, it’s what we do now that we’re here.”

Sometimes,” Pete spoke now. “Sometimes, I wish I was a dyslexic insomniac.”

Why?”

Because dogs are generally agnostic, and that would allow me to lie awake at night, wondering if God is a dog.”

Really though,” Sheldon said, “we’re all the same.”

Hardly,” Pete said.

No, I mean inside, and at a fundamental level. Forget animals and humans as the outdated terms which they now are. As people, we are all the same. Just as the root of all humans’ conflicts – both internal and external – is in an inability to see others as alternative versions of themselves, so that can be transcended to encompass us all. Whether we’re an atheist cat, an agnostic dog, or a whatever you are Ellie, all those scribes wrote what they saw, and science proved what we now know. And that’s that we’re all connected and the only true creator is the universe itself.”

“Yeah, but who set that off?” Pete wondered.

Oh, for fuck sake.”

It’s a good job we can all talk now.”

© Steve Laker, 2017.

be excellent

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now. My other books are available from Amazon and can be ordered from any book shop, or requested at libraries.

The cat thinks it wants to go out

POETRY

Where you’re from doesn’t have to be where you were born. Your heart can come to life many years after you’d merely breathed to find belonging. Where you’re from is where your heart beats, and for me that resides in an ode to London SE13, and especially SE6…

catford se6 cat poem

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

lions poaching2

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

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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 saddling doubt of salmon

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I find it difficult to be open about my anxiety and depression, to speak and express myself freely (outside of fiction), because like many others, I find it confusing and contradictory. Mental illness is a cocktail as unique as the vessel which carries it, so I don’t expect people to understand me when I misunderstand and contradict myself.

Fine not fine

The saying goes that a problem shared is a problem halved, but I believe it’s the saddling of an unsolicited burden, like much of my fiction. The salmon of doubt, the smell of fish…

When a real-life friend recently posted a festive mental health message on Facebook, I was grateful but confused. Thankful that someone had posted something I wouldn’t, but unsure of how to respond. I’m not one to follow instructions, least of all when a copy-and-paste request is so generic in such a complex field. So I’ve copied and pasted it here:

Anxiety sucks. Being isolated and believing your friends don’t care sucks even more.

How many of you have had a night out planned, or arranged coffee or a beer with friends and suddenly the 4 walls you inhabit seem the only safe haven because it’s the only place you don’t have to pretend you are ok, so you cancel?

Or when you are invited out you tell them how terribly sorry you are but you’re already booked up that weekend, when you are actually just really busy holding it together in your safe box. And so the first problem starts, all by itself.

People stop asking you and the isolation that at first wasn’t true becomes your only truth.

Please don’t give up on your friends. Ring them, go round, even when they don’t want you to. Because they really do they just don’t know how to say it.

And in work every passing comment is a negative, you constantly do more to get over the feeling you’re not good enough. The exhaustion from not sleeping because you panic all night over what you cannot influence means you make mistakes, you live in a fog and it is a vicious circle.

I’m going to make a bet, without being pessimistic, that out of my Facebook friends that less than 5 will take the time to put this on their wall to help raise awareness of and for those who have mental health difficulties. You just have to copy it from my wall and paste it to yours.

Who will be my 5 … I wonder?

Yeah, damn straight. But I wasn’t one of any arbitrary number, because although I’m everything in that post, I’m also more. And who am I to post on my own timeline when it’s parts of me which are buried in there? Why ask people to check their other friends are okay while overlooking me? No point sending them on a guilt trip they wouldn’t otherwise have known, and I know what those are like when I live every day with many. Little point in burdening them. But I did reply:

Asking us to copy and paste about mental health seems very well-meaning, but the trouble is, not many of us with anxiety will actually copy and paste, for fear of being ignored, but at the same time not wanting to attract attention we can’t escape. I know I won’t, and neither will I post it as a stand-alone, for the same reasons. That’s anxiety, and depression, and paranoia: socially crippling. Thanks for sharing what I can’t explain though…

My friend then posted his thread, and my reply, on my timeline. Again it was of the best intentions, a plea to my friends whom I’m loath to trouble, especially when some still don’t understand addiction, and can find no sympathy for someone who – as far as they’re concerned – put themselves where they are. It was sharing problems which I didn’t fully understand in myself. That more public post by proxy would have been more like a plea for help, which I know no-one can provide, because there’s no cure. It’s not one I would make on behalf of myself.

Hello Hi How are you

This quieter way of sharing is where I’m more comfortable, just telling a few friends, who for some reason come here to see what I’ve written. I prefer the semi-secret society of blogging, keeping it on a need-to-know basis, while still wearing the heart tattooed on my left hand. Anything more public would fill me with an inner anxiety that everyone might run away, or become obsessed about how many may respond. Based on previous best intentions, those who do are rarely ‘always there for you’ when you need them.

Friends have offered to come over in the past, even take me out somewhere quiet. I was grateful, then backed out as the date approached, but not kicking unwanted attention away any more than I’m happy in my own company. Both are uncomfortable, and I don’t want to subject anyone else. It doesn’t make sense, does it? Others let me down after promising to come over, and in a way it was a relief, because it’s one less person to try to explain to, what I don’t understand.

That shared post might have looked like I was asking for help, but afraid to do so directly, so I’d appointed a spokesperson to speak about what I couldn’t. And I didn’t want those who still judge to think I was asking for financial help, nor anyone for somewhere to go at Christmas, because if I couldn’t be with my family (kids or parents), I wanted to be alone, watch Jimmy Stewart and eat cheese. I deleted the post, just as Christmas was cancelled for me anyway. This too shall pass.

I’m making the same point here as I did by not sharing on Facebook: I want to talk about it; I can’t talk about it. I have a smaller, less judgemental audience here, who won’t patronise me, say they’ll come over sometime, or always be there. At least I know they’re more likely to listen with their eyes.

If I had a live audience, I could talk for hours about how depression, anxiety, paranoia and all the rest affect me, because it’s such a mix I’m always trying to make sense of by speaking to myself: Sorry you can’t get through, and neither can I. But I’ll get back to you, probably in fiction. There I can find my inner confidence and contradict myself about being too shy to talk about it, so I close down and resist the exposure everywhere else.

I can write, and maybe one day unpack what’s inside my head, this post, and that last sentence, about why I fear to be out while placing myself in full view. It’s partly because I have to edit the weight of the burden, leaving myself with all the untold narrative in my head. When memories are forgotten, they become stories. But some stories can’t be written, because they’re still practising to become memories.

So many molehills in my mind, and from the outside that’s all they are. But I walk like Hannibal on eggshells, around a tower of giraffes (because it’s a better collective noun than a herd of elephants) in a mountainous range with many volcanoes. One day, all of this will make sense.

Not doing it wrong cows

Dining in the belly of cults

HORROR FICTION

Blood dripping

This is a story from my second anthology, of a writer moving from one field to another, using prose to aid his transit. It’s a tale of dark mirrors and cult followings, and a restaurant review full of tributes…

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AUGUST UNDERGROUND’S DINER

If the proprietors of this new place in Islington were looking to make it almost impossible to find, then make diners regret the effort when they did arrive and found a shuttered steel door, they have succeeded magnificently. But this was just a prelude to the rest of a pleasingly disturbing night at London’s first horror-themed diner, in a converted old warehouse on the edge of Holloway.

The weirdness begins as soon as my partner and I walk in on a gloomy Friday evening, not to anything resembling a restaurant, but an old lighting shop, frozen somewhere in the 1980s, and a large sign: ‘No children’. The business had clearly been one of selling lights, lamps and an array of artists’ materials. The shop – or showroom – occupies a large studio on the ground floor, where the previous tenants had apparently manufactured their own designs as well.

A plastic pink elephant, big enough for a child to sit on, holds a human skull in its trunk, and the skull’s eyes glow green. There’s a naked androgynous shop window mannequin, decapitated, and the head replaced with a shoulder-width light unit, with red, amber and green bulbs. It’s like a humanoid hammerhead cyborg traffic light. On the far side of the studio, a metal sign bears the previous occupant’s name: SHADES. But the first letter is obscured by a neon pink, flashing arrow, pointing down some stairs to what is now HADES.

Downstairs, the basement restaurant is starkly and sparingly lit with bare red bulbs, like those still in front of singed lace curtains in some of old Soho’s upstairs windows. And again, ‘No children’.

The place is like a horror and cult film museum, with rare old posters framed on the walls. I note Night and Fog, Man Bites Dog, Gummo, August Underground’s Mordum, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible. I somehow think the night will be.

There are display cabinets, some free-standing on the floors, and others on the wall. In the larger displays are costumes, including Pinhead’s leathers and Freddie Kruger’s jersey, hat and glove. There’s a stuffed alien in a cabinet, and a face-hugger pickled in a jar on the wall. There’s a stuffed St Bernard (presumably Cujo), and (my favourite) an E.D.209 enforcement droid outside the toilets. I could go on (about the Bates Motel guest book, Damian Thorp’s tricycle and lots of other paraphernalia), but I’m here to review the food.

A few other diners are dotted around: a young couple, having a horrifically romantic evening, and a group of business types, clearly working on someone’s bonus or expenses. There’s a dog under the young couple’s table, a beagle I think. Dogs are okay here, but children aren’t.

We’re seated in a booth, and I discuss my next project with my guest. After this restaurant article, I’m embarking on a slightly new path, that of horror fiction. How a food critic came to write horror may be the subject of future stories, by me or by others. But with this opportunity providing the perfect link, it’s perhaps relevant to fill in some details.

I’m here with my agent, which is entirely in parallel with the journey I’m about to make. It was he, after all, who advised me to stick with factual writing, and specifically food, when I foolishly tried to convince him I could be a horror writer. With the benefit of hindsight, he was right to keep me away, and indeed my restaurant reviews have picked up what I like to think of as a cult following (and I do have spellcheck on).

The problem with a cult (it’s still on), is that once it gets too big, it ceases to be. So it seemed logical to maintain that status by going underground, where only the determined and curious follow. Therefore, it is completely logical for me to now be sitting in an underground horror-themed restaurant with the agent who has held me back, as I move from one life to the next.

One of the businessmen clicks his fingers and shouts “Garçon!”, which I’m not sure is the correct etiquette here.

The menu is like a coffee table book. There’s the menu itself, with ‘Jemma’s’ at the top. Then before the dishes, an obituary for Jemma Redmond, an Irish biotechnology pioneer and innovator, who first used human stem cells in 3D printer ‘ink’, then developed the technology to make it affordable and portable. The upshot: Replacement human organs, on-demand where needed. Jemma Redmond died 16.08.16, aged 38.

After the menu is a history of the kitchen, presented as a retro-futuristic brochure for ‘Kitchens by Jigsaw’, with photographs of industrial food processing and preparation machinery, like room-size interlocking clockwork engines made from brushed steel. There are mechanical drawings of the industrial cutters, grinders, mincers and cooking appliances, like Cenobite puzzle cubes splayed open into diagrams by Maurits Cornelis Escher.

The book finishes off with a few short stories by writers who already enjoy cult status in horror. They’re like Lovecraft, Kafka, King and Poe, but sick and twisted Teletubbies, writing tributes to the YouTube trollbot films of old, made from spliced children’s shows. Seeing Lady Penelope gang-raped by Thunderbirds, Zebedee nailed to the ground, and Dylan decapitated, will turn anyone from food critic to twisted fiction writer, trying to excuse what they’ve seen. And at the bottom of every page, the message is repeated: ‘No children’. This seems almost a mission statement.

The menu itself is horrified, with things like ‘Steak by Leatherface*’, ‘Suicide Club Fugu*’, ‘Triffid salad*’, and the simply-named ‘Naked Lunch*’. There’s a nod to the trollbots, with ‘Peppa Pig, hand-prepared by Kruger’s’, and there’s ‘Specials’, more akin to challenges, in the size and heat of dishes.

A ‘Crispy aromatic hind quarter of suckling’ at 64 ounces, can be had for free, if it’s eaten in under an hour. I’m more intrigued by what kind of animal could still be suckling when a part of it is that size. It comes with ‘optional extra ghost sauce’, implying that a dollop of burning ectoplasm has already begun to eat into the flesh (you get fries with that).

Another is ‘Dante’s wings’, described as ‘Nine wings of increasing fire, before you wish that more heat might rescue you from the hell pain of death.’ (That comes with fries, too). If I’m to remain outside Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and ‘survive’, the book of the dead says I will go free.

*Vegetarian options can all be printed.

As this is on me, I pay. I settle up when we order, so as to be done with the formalities. There’ll be no quarrels over splitting the bill, and the tip from my anticipated earnings is sufficient to cover any kind of evening we decide to enjoy.

I’ve seen a few staff walking around, like cosplay characters at Jack Rabbit Slims. But where Tarantino’s joint was staffed by 1950s and 60s film stars, August’s has horror icons.

Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees serve tables, while Pennywise and Leatherface work behind the bar. Freddie Kruger taps his fingers on the counter, speaking to Pinhead (presumably both have more than one set of clothes). And they really get into character here too. If it wasn’t for the (understandable) adults-only entry, I could imagine those two gleefully popping birthday balloons at children’s tables.

Samara Morgan approaches the business types and reminds one that “Garçon means boy.” The server is a young Japanese girl, so perhaps she’s Sadako Yamamura. After she leaves, one of the men says something and the others laugh, attracting Pinhead’s gaze. I wonder what a headbutt must feel like.

We’re served by Candyman (or one of them), and I wonder what it might be like to come here on one’s birthday, would these characters sing ‘Happy birthday’? Perhaps, but only before killing the patron who’d asked for such a thing, so that they may not speak of it again.

The Candyman character isn’t all bad (really, if you read the story): The Candyman of legend emerges from a mirror. He has a hooked hand, he’s covered with bees, and he has revenge on his mind.

The Candyman was once a slave, called Daniel Robitaille, who was an accomplished painter. The plantation owner asked Daniel to paint a portrait of his daughter, and she and Daniel fell in love. Her father, the racist, had Daniel hunted down by a mob and run out of town. They chased him until he collapsed, exhausted, then cut off his hand with a rusty saw, smothered him in honey and threw him into a beehive, chanting “Candyman, Candyman…” Before he died, Daniel vowed to return and exact his revenge upon them.

Conversely, many classic fairy tales, enjoyed by children for centuries, have their origins in ancient folk tales, myths and legends. Little Red Riding Hood is a particularly gruesome one, based on a 16th century French fable. Back then, rape wasn’t a crime. In fact, there wasn’t even a word for it. The story is a warning to young girls, of all that stalks the night. The wolf is a representative predator and the woods a metaphor for the world beyond childhood. The girl collects flowers before going to her granny’s house, where the wolf entices her into bed, dressed as her granny. The wolf eating the girl is a metaphor for rape (and the granny before, the man this wolf represents being a particularly perverted individual). The huntsman cutting them free can be seen as a metaphor for childbirth or abortion. It’s no wonder the stories are dressed up, but those ancient horrors served to protect. Like ‘No children’ here.

One of the men from the other table nearly bumps into the E.D.209 as he walks in an arc to the toilet, and the remainder carry on talking quietly. The young couple seem oblivious to the horrors around them, as they’re lost in their own story of dark love. If I were to guess, I’d say they’re art school graduates, or possibly musicians. The dog seems content, with a steady supply of food handed down to it.

I order a steak from Leatherface’s list of prime cuts, a rare rump (you get fries with that). My companion orders from the printed menu, and I wonder if he’s a vegetarian. Our working relationship has been distant, so we’ve never dined before. Truth be known, I’d never have taken him out for a meal unless it was to celebrate us parting company.

The tension only became tangible recently, when in fact it’s been simmering away for some months now, as I’ve been finding myself, and trying to redefine myself, but I’ve felt restricted, bound and gagged by an employer who dictates and dismisses rather than listen. Perhaps I shouldn’t be using a restaurant review to slag the guy off, but he’s paid me for this and I want to use it as a crossover, an artistic gift to demonstrate to someone who’s set in their ways, that people can change. He says writers should stick with one discipline, where I grow restless when compartmentalised. I want to express myself more, and write more useful things.

He says a food critic is useful, as are all factual writers, because they inform people. My point has become one of having many points to make, and fiction will better allow me to do that, like all those classic fairy stories. For starters, I can tell of the wonders in this place, while making it very clear why they have a ‘No children’ policy. I believe more than he does that more people can be spoken to through fiction, because while one demographic might see a wonderful story, another may see the unwritten parallels and warnings. The man’s a total arse, but in a way, I’m doing him a favour. Let’s face it, I’d never get paid for another review after this one. But a shocking venue deserves a similar review.

I’m bored of writing for the same people, the kind of people who can afford to come to a place like this, but it was from within those that some of my cult following (still on) emerged, and it was their encouragement which gave me the push I needed. So readers, you know who you are, I salute you and I will see you in other places soon. As for the rest, try this place (but don’t bring the kids).

The businessmen are still one short, as they continue their muted banter. The young couple are still young and in love, and the dog asleep.

There’s nothing shocking about my steak when it arrives, perfectly cooked and seeping blood (you get fries with it, to mop up). But it’s curious and surprising in its taste and texture.

Although I just called my agent an arse, there is one word I will never use, in a review or elsewhere. It’s that word beginning with ‘M’, so beloved of some foodies, but if I even see the word on a menu, I’ll leave a place immediately and vow to never return. I’ve seen some savage cinema but that word is a monstrosity on its own and in any context.

This steak is juicy, sweet, marbled with fat and perfectly seasoned. A quick glance at the menu again and I learn that the meat is produced on the premises daily. The burgeoning horror writer in me imagines the kitchen by Jigsaw extending into an on-site abattoir, with this old warehouse site easily able to accommodate one. I’m slightly disappointed when the businessman returns from the toilet. The young couple are still very much into the atmosphere, and one another.

We choose desserts from the ‘Peter Davidson trolley’, all of which are from ‘The Universe at the end of Upper Street’. My ‘Ectoplasmic jelly’ is a green snot-like goo, which I can’t help think kids would love for its sheer grossness. But although it looks like a freshly caught Slimer ghost, it tastes of toasted marshmallow. My companion has something resembling a splayed vagina, which he says smells of fresh body odour (it does) but tastes like scented cream (lavender). It tastes to me like something I couldn’t mention, even in horror fiction. It’s that fucking M-word.

We finish with cocktails from a list of horrors, which aren’t the drinks themselves but the theatre which surrounds their delivery. Our bloody Marys summon the Candyman with our drinks, then Pinhead offers olives, from his head.

The businessmen are getting raucous and the young couple amorous, so we decide to leave, bidding the place farewell.

Back outside, it’s long since dark and a few of the other buildings around the old warehouse are lit up, a couple of accident repair and MOT units, and a children’s adventure play centre.

Now we go our separate ways. He’s off to pander more to the privileged, while I remain a cult and still poor, writing more fiction. Some will be horrible tales, but with a moral message.

As for August Underground’s Diner, for the kind of people who can afford to come here, I’d say bring the kids and leave them in the play centre. For those who can’t afford it, try one of the food challenges and eat for free.

© Steve Laker, 2018

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.

Email from David Lightman

FICTION

With the planet and humanity at a tipping point, just before the end of the world, an email arrived at The Unfinished Literary Agency

Here’s a conspiracy theory: That our perceived beginning of World War 3 is a smokescreen, and the aliens already landed. Those invested in fleeing the planet always had a plan, which leaves the rest of us behind.

This story came about while I was having an existential moment: not a personal crisis, but thinking about humanity, and how it could very easily be at a tipping point right now. With all that’s happening on Earth, where humankind could equally destroy itself or use technology to explore and discover, I imagined a new intervention, which might give humanity a common cause.

Some clocks still tick…

WarGames2018At least we don’t have to worry about the rumours of a remake now. “In development” is kind of redundant.

THE LONG NOW CLOCK

What might humanity do, if we knew there was an impending encounter with beings from another star? Would factions put their differences on hold and unite in addressing the visitors, or might mankind destroy itself before these sentinels even made contact? Because one day, our own sun will rise, and for the first time we know of, we’re not alone.

Ever since our technology allowed us to communicate with each other over distances, we’ve been advertising our presence. If something’s coming, it’s too late to stop whatever it is. Anything seeking us could have any number of reasons, some of which we can’t comprehend. Everything can change, suddenly and for ever, and it’s inevitable that it will. This is science fiction for only so long, when that could be millennia or seconds.

Neither the optimist nor the pessimist can effect the outcome, but the optimist is the happier of the two. Meanwhile, the Long Now Clock ticked.

The Long Now Foundation built the clock of the long now, to keep time for 10,000 years. In the words of Stewart Brand, a founding board member of the foundation, “Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons re-frame the way people think.”

Danny Hillis, the designer of the clock, said, “I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every one hundred years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years. If I hurry I should finish the clock in time to see the cuckoo come out for the first time.” The oldest known human artefacts date from around 8000 BC, so the clock would be a measure of how mankind evolved – or indeed survived – over the next ten millennia, when it was started in 2000 AD.

The cuckoo in the long now clock had been silent for 50 years, as Anna Hoshin looked at the automaton, perpetual but frozen. Then in her ear, she got a call from Adam, her virtual assistant android:

I’m thinking you might want to take a look at this, Anna.”

What is it, little guy?” Anna flipped augmented reality lenses up from her spectacles, and looked at the toddler-sized robot stumbling across the study. “Slow down.”

Ah, yes Anna,” Adam gasped, “although I’m short of breath, I have no lungs. It’s all rather peculiar, Anna.”

So what did you want to show me?”

Oh yes, this,” Adam said, as he handed Anna a tablet device. “I’ve worked out that it’s probably a message, but not what it says yet.” The droid sat on the floor and crossed his legs.

Weird,” Anna said, looking at the screen. “Are these symbols, text?”

I’m searching all I have now,” Adam replied. “The Encyclopedia Galactica is a large repository, so bear with me here.” Adam’s oval face became animated emoticon, as his green LED eyes pulsed concentric rings, as he travelled through a tunnel, reading the encyclopedia.

Let me know when you find something?” Anna suggested. She looked out of the window at a peach sunset on a strawberry sky, as ash from a forest fire coloured the atmosphere. A pink sepia dome had been placed over the planet.

You can talk to me while I read. I can still multi-task,” Adam reassured her.

Okay,” Anna said, sitting down, “theories?”

Mere speculation at this stage,” Adam replied. “We need to assume some things.”

I normally do.”

There could be much for you to write of, Anna. You are capable of such beautiful dreams, but be careful. Because you are also capable of horrible nightmares.”

That’s pretty much what I do.”

Well, yes. But let’s make it plausible, so you don’t get carried away and scare people unnecessarily. Why do you do that, by the way?”

Well,” Anna replied, “I only try. It’s a human thing.”

Yes, I know,” Adam agreed. “Even though I’m sentient, and although my kind are recognised as a species with rights, I just don’t understand why anyone would have a desire to be scared.”

Like I said, it’s human. You are a technological being, and even though you have a soul, yours is different to mine.”

But we’re still essentially made from the same stuff, Anna. What you have as an organic body, I have too, made from the materials left over from the big bang. We’re all made of stars, Anna. I’m in touch with the universe, just like you, but through different means.”

Perhaps the difference,” Anna offered, “is that your mind is built upon that of others, with your accumulated knowledge from others’ experiences and recordings.”

But aren’t yours Anna?”

I suppose,” Anna said, “And I guess humans lack something, as there’s more of the unknown to me, unable to learn entire books in a flash, like you have. So I suppose that in itself is a fear for humans, simply not knowing.”

But why do humans like to be scared?”

Perhaps to confront our fears of unknowns, things we can’t imagine.”

Unless there’s someone to tell you?”

Exactly,” Anna nodded.

What are the greatest human fears, Anna?”

At an individual level,” Anna placed her hand on her chest, “it would be the thought of seeing someone you love dearly, brutally killed in front of you, while you were held captive audience, unable to do anything about it. At a collective level, it would be some sudden threat we’d never envisaged or planned for, which threatened us existentially as a race, and we were helpless to do anything.”

So both fears,” Adam suggested, “are rooted in a human fear of helplessness or futility?”

Yes,” Anna agreed, “where we are made to feel hopeless and pathetic.”

Humans,” Adam said. “They’re very insecure, aren’t they?”

“Fuck, yeah!” Anna agreed. “Facebook is humanity’s existential crisis for all to see.”

And mankind has been broadcasting itself for around 200 years now, since the first radio broadcast. Two ticks of the century hand on the Long Now Clock.”

Have you found anything yet?” Anna wondered.

Nothing conclusive,” Adam replied, “and I’m still searching through Encyclopedia Galactica as we speak.”

The message though,” Anna said, “is almost certainly artificial?”

Quite certain,” Adam replied.

Which,” Anna said, “implies intelligence?”

That’s a word with a very broad definition,” Adam pointed out.

Certainly when applied to the humans on this planet,” Anna concurred.

Let’s assume,” Adam suggested, “that it is a message of some sort, and that its intent is non-threatening, perhaps even altruistic.”

Lots of scenarios…” Anna began. “and what we don’t know, is what it is. So what it could be…”

Yes,” Adam interrupted, “go on, this is fun.”

Have you found something?”

Something, yes,” Adam said, “but nothing definite. So you keep guessing, and I’ll keep searching, and we’ll see how we do. Like a game.”

How can you have fun when you can’t have fear,” Anna wondered. “or does the lack of the latter increase the former?”

It’s not that I don’t know fear, Anna. It’s that I don’t seek it out like some humans do.”

Which is more logical. Okay, so let’s play a game of optimism.” She looked at the window. “It could be that they have something which would help us.”

It could also be that we have something they need.”

They might propose a trade. There are more fundamental questions though: Why would they come here in the first place? We have to make a lot of assumptions, even to guess how something so elaborate might be justified.”

To us, it may seem complex, Anna. But to a civilisation far more advanced than ours, it could be the blink of an eye, the flick of a switch, or the press of a button.”

Perhaps they’ve had to leave their own planet, and they want to share ours, Adam.”

That’s a nice thought, Anna.”

But,” Anna continued, “as Stephen Hawking said, we only have to look at ourselves to see why aliens might not be something we want to meet.”

You’re going all apocalyptic, Anna. It could be that they have something they wish to share, because they know it will help us.”

Or we might have something they want.”

Anna, this planet’s minerals are nothing compared to those which are far more plentiful in space, and probably easier to get to for an advanced race if there’s no planetary fauna to worry about.”

Maybe they don’t know we’re here,” Anna said, “and when they get here, they need us out of the way.”

I thought we were trying to be optimists?”

I’m just trying to think which make the best stories at the moment. Of course, if we’re all doomed, that’s irrelevant. Mankind and all traces we were ever here, could be gone in a heartbeat, or a tick of the clock.”

About that,” Adam sat up straight. “I’ve not found anything else out about our message or whatever it is, so maybe something will come to me. But tell me more about the clock.”

Surely you can look all that up?”

But from the human perspective. Why was it made? What does it symbolise to you, other than the time?”

It’s a lot of things, but my uncle wanted it to be a lasting monument to human ingenuity and endeavour. As he said, such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think. That’s all assuming we’re still here. My uncle didn’t say that last bit.”

Who did?” Adam wondered

Me, just now,” Anna replied.

So essentially,” Adam said, “it’s art. And that’s the one thing I think humans will always have over robots, and what I long to know the feeling of.”

The feeling of art?”

Well, yes. All art has feeling. It appeals to the human senses. Whether it’s drawing or painting for the eyes, making music or writing for the ears, human art is evocative. Do you know what the first question is that I’d ask visiting extraterrestrials?”

What’s that?”

Do you have music?”

That’s quite profound, Adam.”

Perhaps, but I’m an android. Do androids dream of electric sheep?” Adam stood and paced around. “It strikes me,” he said, standing on tip-toes to look out the window, “that any race which makes music, is in touch with its senses, and it has a soul. I mean, imagine if whatever it is out there, just wants to come here and share their culture. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

And,” Anna began, “despite our relatively primitive evolution on this planet, we are at a point in history where mankind is becoming more and more connected with the digital and technological, to the point of integration in wearables and implants.”

We are at a point,” Adam added, “where humans invented robots and want to be that invention, and where the robots wish to be human.”

So,” Anna continued, “there could be advanced species out there, which are both organic and technological.”

But still made from the same stars, Anna. And perhaps those races have survived so long, because they’ve evolved beyond conflict, realising that war only destroys things. Maybe they’ve been so long-lived as a civilisation that they’ve transcended war, or it doesn’t even occur to them, because it’s such a primitive concept.”

We can live in hope,” Anna said, looking at the window.

Possibly not for much longer. I mean, we may not have to wait much longer.”

Have you found something?”

Well, I haven’t. But in the time we’ve been talking, every conspiracy theorist in the world has been all over this. So there are some wild ones here, but there are consensual theories which are emerging. The nerdosphere is looking at languages in many different ways, to try to decode the message. But there are a lot of excited people out there, looking forward to meeting something mind-blowing headed our way soon. At the moment, they’re all as frustrated as the biblical scribes, not being able to find the terms to describe what they’re talking about.”

Well,” Anna said, “about half of the ancient alien theorists will be proved right soon. If it’s the ones who looked on the bright side, everyone wins. And whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it.”

The Long Now Clock may yet see mankind transcend war, Anna.”

The clock is a symbol of optimism, Adam.”

***


Sunrise was a fresh, golden egg yolk, on a pink bacon sky, flecked with brown clouds.

Anna, there’s something I need to tell you,” Adam announced as he tip-toed in, carrying the tablet computer.

Good morning to you too, Adam. Sleep well? Silly question, I know.”

That’s the thing, Anna. I don’t sleep, yet I sat awake last night unlike I ever have.”

How do you mean?”

I think I feel frightened, Anna.”

You should have woken me if you’d had a bad dream, about sheep?”

No, Anna. It’s everyone. It’s this.” Adam showed Anna the tablet. “They’ve decoded the message. But I’m worried, Anna. Because it’s not night time, so I thought your story would end a happy one. But this message says it’s night time. Look…”

 

***

WE COME. GOODNIGHT LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. GOODBYE.

© Steve Laker, 2017

This story is taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency. Cyrus Song (my critically-acclaimed “Extraordinary juggling act”) is also available as an eBook. Frankly, there’s not much time.