Face to face with the man who…

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Bowie heels

Gender bending icons who looked killer in heels: Dazed

Oh no, not me; I never lost control: The man who sold the world; And I looked around and the monster was me; Rebel, rebel… I have lived my life with the words of David Bowie. Ever since he taught me – aged 14 – that it was okay to have a crush on your best friend at an all-boys’ grammar school, the Star man has been there. After almost six months in my studio, the person inside me is finally coming out. It’s a relief from a burden I didn’t even know was there. Time takes a cigarette.

“Here I stand, foot in hand, talking to my wall. I’m not quite right at all, am I?” If this is madness, then please don’t set me free.

Here I sit, on the leather sofa in my small cube of a flat, with the typewriter conveying what’s going on inside while Bowie plays on the hi-fi. It’s a lovely place in space and time right now and one which took a long time to find.

I’m sitting in faux judgement of those who still judge me, for drinking and for the company I choose to keep. I will not deny my company to those who seek it. The only problem with some of those friends being teenagers is those who judge. I can deny those people any further existence in my life. To those who continue to judge and make assumptions: I died the last time you saw me drunk. Move on, like I am. Get a life, like I have.

I have battled for three years and those who know me now, know me now. I continue to suffer every day, dealing with the guilt. I’ve written extensively about the struggle which me and others endure. I won the battle with alcohol but the war is one which will be life-long. I’m clean now: no parasites.

Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis; perhaps it’s to make up for other inadequacies: Others will make their minds up and I won’t give a shit. I’m from London and you can’t take that out of the boy.

I’ve changed and I continue to metamorphose into someone different. It was in me all along but it was stifled. It’s only now I have the freedom that I’m able to truly express myself. No boss to answer to; Just me.

I’m metro, retro, ska punk, atheist, anarchist, feminist, pacifist: a bit of a mixture. I’ve found life and it’s unlikely I’ll ever share it with anyone: I’m too complicated. I work in the gig economy, so I’m skint. Like everyone and everything else, I am made from the big bang and I will continue to exist forever. These are things I’ve learned in life. Life was stifling me, through jobs, marriage and having to be “normal”.

I’m a human; I’m an Earthling; I’m a space invader. But only for now.

So what if I’ve got a load of metal in my face? One of my piercings is a safety pin through my ear: The symbol of protection. So what if wear a headband sometimes? Sometimes I’ll wear a bandanna: So fucking what?

Look me in the eyes and I will stare right back at you, reflecting the void behind your visual cortex. If you judge me, you will see nothing but contempt.

When I wear skinny-fit black jeans with 2″ pixie heels, a loose-hanging shirt with a waistcoat, and perhaps a cravat or a loose scarf around my neck, all topped off sometimes with a trilby, so what? So what, so what, you boring little cunt (The Anti-Nowhere League).

I feel comfortable. I feel confident. I feel expressive. I feel flamboyant and eccentric. I feel a little provocative. I feel like myself. I used to be the kind of person who would frown at anything out of the ordinary, make assumptions and judge. Now that I’m on the other side, I want to provoke those who might judge.

I’m very lucky to have a good friend as a next door neighbour: a 63-year-old, ex-con; Very metrosexual and comfortable in his sometimes eccentric outfits. He’ll go out in our little village, dressed in a three piece suit, with a pocket watch in his waistcoat and a hanky in his breast pocket. So what? He looks good. Frankly, he’s not the kind of person people are likely to question and neither am I.

People will always point and look, making assumptions. Now it’s different: Am I gay? Am I a transvestite? Actually, neither. So what if I was? So in fact, I don’t give a toss about the false assumptions: An existential end to the judgement.

Like another personal hero – Eddie Izzard – I’m just someone who’s comfortable being themselves. Sometimes I’ll express it. Talk to me and you might find me quite engaging. It was through talking to others that I broadened my horizons and now I’m free.

“Are you going to a fancy dress party?” / “What have you come as?”

“Myself.”

And when I feel like myself, it comes across in my writing, like the whimsical tales I sometimes write and which readers tell me they enjoy more than the dark stuff. It’s why Cyrus Song (the next novel) is going so well.

Of course, writing is a form of self-expression and other people enjoy my stories. But I don’t want to have to explain myself to everyone: no-one should have to. I’m inclusive and I respect people for who they are; more so if they’re a little eccentric and flamboyant. It might explain why I have so many gay friends. It’s also why so many of my friends are young: I hope they don’t have their individuality beaten out of them like I did.

“You’ve torn your dress. Your face is a mess. How could they know? Hot tramp: I love you so.”

The Studio has made me what I am and helped me to find myself within it.

I didn’t turn out gay but I don’t shy away from that side of my sexuality. It’s not a shell, a veneer or a disguise; It’s what was always shielded by holding down a job, being married with a family and running a business. “Life” took the life out of me. I had a lot of money then and now I have next to none, but I’ve found the life within me and I’m beginning to enjoy living it. Without excusing it, the drinking was a shield too. Having lost everything and with no means of expression, I got drunk. I’d have done better to join a drama group perhaps, but I eventually found writing.

I’m changing. I have been for a couple of years now but it’s only in the last six months that I’ve really had my own place, where I can work things out. Despite me being a bit introvert, there was someone struggling to get out; to express themselves. Always a closet flamboyant and eccentric, now I’m able to experiment.

This is me: The man who looked in the mirror and realised that the monster was me.

I’m a gender bender and I’m fucking proud.

The man who sold the world: I’m glad I did.

A week in solitary refinement

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Pink heart

After a week spent at my parents’ house with my kids, I’ve now had another week to settle back in at home. Although I was in good company while I was away, it was nice to return to my comfort zone. Pleasant company aside, all I longed for was solitude. It’s one of many parts which have never fitted together in the puzzle which is my particular brand of depression.

Although I can be quite extrovert in the right company, I’m a reclusive person by nature. All of my other traits are equally observable in either situation: Opinionated, offensive to some; not giving a shit. I can be challenging company and I travel with my own atmosphere: That’s why my comfort zone is my studio, where I can be reclusive.

Depression is not inherited but I know that my parents (and others) find it frustrating when they don’t understand something, just as I do. My diagnosis was hastened by alcoholism and I continue to fight the fire with gasoline, but depression can strike anyone and it’s a slow stalker; only letting you know that it’s there once it’s enveloped you.

And it is frustrating: Having an IQ of 147, a grasp of quantum mechanics and entanglement which pretty much explains everything, yet not being able to understand what goes on in my head.

I also know that I’m unlikely to ever be cured of my illness. There’s not a day which passes when I don’t miss my children and rue everything which led to my breakdown. And yet, it was down to me and it’s me who serves the life sentence.

This isn’t self-pity. If anyone were to check social media for the last time I posted a needy “me” comment, they’d have to look for a very long time, because I never do. Why burden others with something which I myself find perplexing? And so I remain reclusive.

All of which and more, I need to convey to a judge and a panel at tribunal in order to be re-awarded the increased benefits I once received. It’s difficult to explain how a mental illness can affect one’s physical abilities but at my last tribunal, I was fortunate enough to have a judge who was more insightful than most of the people I’ve had to deal with in benefits land.

It’s in that hearing that I’ll finally have an opportunity to pour out my heart. Everyone knows what I put everyone else through when I had my breakdown. Now that’s in the past, I wonder if anyone, one day, might think to consider what I went through and what I continue to go through every day. No wonder I keep myself distracted by writing.

Writing this blog is always an outlet and my writing in general is a therapeutic coping mechanism. As I’ve continued to read the regular column in The Guardian, where better-known writers describe their working days, I find more and more kindred spirits. Many writers have mental health issues and some use their work to express what they are unable to to others, and even themselves.

I realise how suited I am to this job for many reasons. With no-one to talk to (and I don’t want to) – like my peers – it’s sometimes a matter of writing a story which gets it all out. Most of those stories are never seen but this old typewriter knows it all. And it’ll be here when I’m gone, like those diaries in The Unfinished Literary Agency, found outside the abandoned building. Like some of those other writers, I’m happiest when it’s dark outside and my studio is lit only by the desk lamp over the laptop: I’m cocooned then.

Some of those stories end up getting a second airing and occasionally become something else. Like most of my writing though, it’s the deep thought between the lines which can make the stories so affecting.

A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie sat in my virtual filing cabinet for 18 months: Praised by the editor of Writing Magazine when it won first prize in a “Life-changing” story competition, it languished. Because like most writing, there was room for improvement. I edited that story quite heavily and made it appropriate to a greater readership, with more inclusive circumstances in the story.

Those circumstances are a family break-up and the loss of a family friend; things which many people can relate to. Although it’s a children’s story first and foremost, it’s still pretty deep, as my beta readers would testify. Although my own daughter is only nine, when she offered to illustrate it for me, I was amazed at how much of the sub-text she seemed to have understood and which is portrayed in her pictures. The book is available on Amazon for Kindle (here) and I hope to attract the attention of a mainstream publisher. It’s a story which needed to be told and which I hope many will read and be affected by.

When I write stories for children – including the ones I now write specifically to keep up with my own – I don’t dumb them down too much. As I found with all of the teenagers I met when I was homeless, society does young people a disservice when it comes to understanding. I try to be more respectful.

A week of solitude and thought has given me many more ideas for writing, both current and future. My short fiction output has reduced, as I predicted it would. I’ll still do the marketing and PR work, but I’m at a stage where I’m having to look at writing from a more commercial angle. With a couple of paying gigs in the pipeline, as well as the Cyrus Song book going well, it’s good to be back.

Horror, science fiction and fantasy: That’s my life.

Given my solitary and reclusive nature, a busy writer is a good thing for me to be.

Running round in circles in my mind

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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REO Speedwagon, I can’t fight this feeling: One of many guilty secrets in my eclectic music collection and a song I’m listening to now, which means a lot to me. Like so many songs, this particular track takes me back to a specific time and place, where there are fond memories. I threw away those oars a long time ago.

It’s nice to be able to listen to music again, after a week away with my kids at my parents’ house. It was a break which was three years in the making, so it was pretty affecting. I lost a lot of time when my only love was alcohol, so there was a lot of catching up to do now that I’m sober. I knew it might be difficult but I only had a couple of wobbles.

Generally, I was paranoid: It’s part of my unique condition and I assume that any tension I perceive is because of me; I come with my own atmosphere. The jitters weren’t alcohol-fuelled. I did get a little angry and upset but it was with myself and the situation I’ve created. I was among people whom I love dearly but for all the time I was drunk, I was hurting them. I’ve written before of how I can sympathise with alcoholics who lapse: Fuelled by my chronic depression, I have very weighty feelings of guilt. It would be very easy to numb them by getting rat arsed. Last week was always going to be the biggest test but if I ever lapse, things will go back to how they were and I won’t see my family. So I didn’t succumb. Being an alcoholic really is a life sentence.

We had days out and days in, with visiting relatives. On the in-days and in the evenings, I spent most of the time writing: It’s therapy but I was also writing stories for the children. They did confirm that it’s pretty cool to have a dad who’s a writer. So I wrote a couple of stories, with the children’s bedtime companions as the main protagonists. The premise was that the cuddly toys go on adventures while the children sleep, and vice versa. That turned out to be a pretty good way of getting the kids to sleep.

They loved the stories and I’ve promised to write more and send them by email. It’s not the same as having the author read them to you but we’re back to monthly meetings now and the stories are a good way to keep in touch. It also means that I can hold on to last week and keep it going in some ways.

I brought the kids over to the studio in the week, just so they could see where I live. The studio isn’t big enough to have them stay but they thought it was a cool little place. I must admit that I’ve looked around a couple of times since I’ve been back, as I thought I caught a glimpse of one of them. But they are gone and I’m empty. The coping mechanism is to just carry on, writing for comfort and to keep my kids close.

As well as the stories I wrote specifically for them, the eldest (11) and youngest (9) love the Cyrus Song stories and can’t wait to see the book which has evolved from them. It’s not a children’s book and they probably won’t get some of the deeper sub-texts but that’s part of the point: Cyrus Song is a story for everyone, which some will understand at a deeper level than others. It’s a skill I’ve been praised for in the past: An ability to effectively write two stories in one, dependent on a reader’s perspective. I can also change styles very easily, so I can still feed the adult horror audience as well as writing the more fun stuff.

Back to my parents’ and I was let loose on the kitchen a couple of times, because I’d not cooked for the children in a long time and there are a couple of my signature dishes which they love: Nothing gourmet; just waffles and eggs; and southern fried chicken with fries. There’s a very specific way that I cook waffles and eggs. I make my own southern coating for the chicken and the fries are home-made too. To me, the best fry-up is my mum’s. To my kids, the best waffles and eggs, and the best fried chicken, are cooked by their dad.

We had some fairly lengthy discussions: Despite seeing the kids regularly, there are few opportunities to talk in any depth when walking around Milton Keynes, which is all there is to do there. Without prompting, the eldest stated that he doesn’t believe in God. The youngest does and their mum’s a Christian but not the kind to force views upon the kids. I wondered if the eldest had stopped believing because of everything which went on with me (They were told that I was ill; They know it was because of alcohol). No: He just got bored of school assemblies.

I would never force my atheist views on the children but my beliefs do at least have a grounding in science. Losing my religion was one of the most enlightening things that has happened to me. I did tell Louis though, that I can’t fully rule out the existence of a superior intelligence, when science still has questions which it can’t answer. I just don’t subscribe to a religion. What doesn’t exist is God, as created by Christianity. But I can’t deny that there may be something else: That’s fuel for the science fiction writer in any case.

Despite their relatively tender years, my children are remarkably grown up (alcoholic father; honest mum) and intelligent. I shouldn’t be surprised, given the genes they’ve inherited. Where I had my IQ measured at 147, my ex-wife isn’t so vain, but I’d wager she’s smarter than me. I’d not spoken to the kids at length before last week and they’re a credit to their mum and step-dad. They’re still kids though. For now, one of them is perhaps agnostic: I know what that feels like; to be confused.

My daughter is less easy to define, as she’s just herself. She’s endearing, more care-free than my son, and has a personality ten times her size, without being in any way objectionable. Paternal bias perhaps, but they both seemed to win over everyone I introduced them to. They bicker like siblings do but they’re best friends. They make me smile, especially when the littlest comes out with one of her idiosyncratic observations (Pointing at a black and white cat: “Cow cat!”). They like Pointless and The Big Bang Theory as well.

My auntie said the sweetest thing, as she watched me writing for the kids: “I wish I had the brains.” Trouble is, I’ve had an IQ of 147 for a long time; It’s only recently that I realised what it was for. A life wasted, or a life spent just wondering? My kids seem to think the latter. For me, it’s been the realisation that I can do something: Something which affects others. It was a long journey; I paid a heavy price but I’m a much better person.

It was good fun, last week. It’s good to be back but I wish I was back there. I suppose a part of me is. I wasn’t judged and people know that I’m a writer now.

I was treading water while I was all at sea and many metaphorical ships had sailed. Then I was without a paddle for some time, before a life boat picked me up. The drinking is under control now but others will always judge me.

It’s time to bring this ship into the shore and throw away the oars forever.

On a magic QWERTY ride

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Calvin and Hobbes Ritalin

One more sleep, then the kids go home. Last night, they asked if it was possible for there to be a story which kind of wrote itself, so that when they go, it will carry on.

I went outside and it must have been raining, because my face was a bit wet. I rubbed my eyes and I had a tiny drop of water on my hand. I blew it into the wind, so that a small part of me is out there somewhere. The sun will shine and the water will evaporate. It’ll become part of a cloud and then one day, there’ll be a raindrop with a tiny part of me in it. Maybe the kids will be outside the next time there’s rain.

So I got thinking about what they’d asked for: a self-perpetuating story. I realised that the stories about the kids’ bedtime companions – Greg and Snorty – could be a series. Even when the kids are gone, I can email them new tales of their friends’ adventures.

I’m supposed to be a fucking horror / sci-fi writer. I do love being a children’s author though:

The infinite QWERY drive

It’s very easy to make dreams come true. All you need is a little magic. And you don’t need to be a magician or a sorcerer. There’s a magic which everyone can use and it’s all around us: It’s imagination.

Snorty and Greg were just toys in the daytime: A stumpy stuffed pig and a Swedish dog with aspirations of being an actor. Each was responsible for a giant child and as the children slept, Snorty and Greg would go on trips. They never knew where they would end up because the adventures were the dreams of the giant children.

Floating around – always just out of sight – was a man; a ghost: He existed but he was rarely seen; Always just out of sight, he was benign and he didn’t even have a name. He was like an owl, flying silently at night in a dream ship: He was a ghost bird.

Many things are only awake at night: Owls, bats; Snorty and Greg; The ghost bird and his space ship. The dream world is another universe; The universe we live in is a construct of our imaginations. It was the ghost bird who brought it all to life, because the dream ship had a QWERTY drive.

The QWERTY drive is a curious device: It’s essentially an engine. It uses fuel from a sustainable source: Dreams; Imagination and thoughts. That’s at night. During the day, it’s powered by solar, wind and tidal power: The sun, the air and the sea. The QWERTY drive is fuelled by nature. But it’s not the engine of a car, a boat or a plane; The QWERTY drive creates everything around itself. No-one has ever seen a QWERTY drive but rumour has it that it looks just like an old typewriter.

Snorty and Greg yawned, not because they were tired but because they were just waking up: The giants were asleep. Everything changed when the children slept. Snorty was less polygonal than he was in Minecraft, and Greg was even more Swedish than he was in IKEA. Greg had a coat, which was all the colours of the rainbow: It was his pride coat. Snorty had a wonky leg.

“Greg?”

“Yes Snorty?”

“Where are we today?”

“We’re exactly where we were when we fell asleep. Actually, that’s not entirely true. We’re in the same place in three dimensions, but time has passed. So we’re where we were but not when we were. Get it?”

“I think so. Even though we’ve not moved, time has?” Snorty looked quizzical.

“Pretty much”, Greg confirmed. Snorty looked less quizzical.

“So what now?”, said Snorty, looking around.

“Now is now”, said Greg. “The giants are asleep and their batteries are recharging.”

“Their batteries are their brains, aren’t they Greg?”

“Yes Snorty. Once they start drawing power from the universal grid, we’ll be transported to wherever it is they’re dreaming of.”

“The universal grid?”, said Snorty. “That’s like the National Grid for electricity and gas?”

“If you like”, said Greg. “But the universal grid is thoughts. And, do you know the best thing?”

“Yes I do!” Snorty smiled. “The best thing is potato waffles with poached eggs on top, with special sauce.”

“What are you talking about, piggy?”

“Well, it’s four parts ketchup to one part Worcester sauce.”

“No, not that.” Greg rolled his eyes. “The best thing is that the universal grid is free!”

“Should we keep that a secret Greg?”

“What, that there’s a free energy source which can allow you to travel all over the universe? Do you think we should keep that a secret, Snorty?”

“No!”

“Same here.”

“So what now?” Snorty sat on the bed, propped up against his giant girl.

“We wait.” Greg was leaning back on his giant boy, as he looked around the dark room. He gazed up and after a while, he said, “I think this might be a start.”

“Of what?” asked Snorty.

“A dream”, said Greg. “Look up at the ceiling. There are stars starting to come out.”

Snorty looked up at the sky. “Oh yes.” He pointed at a bright star. “What’s that one Greg?”

“That’s Alpha Centauri.”

“Can we go there?”, asked Snorty.

“Yes”, said Greg. “But it’s only four light years away.”

“How far’s that?”

“Not very far at all in space. Sort of like going to your local shop. There are stars out there as far away as London, Paris or Berlin in comparison. Then there are other galaxies, as far away as countries like the USA, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.”

“How far’s that?”, asked Snorty.

“The other side of the universe”, said Greg. “Basically, the further you travel, the weirder it gets.”

“Let’s go somewhere far away!” Snorty said excitedly.

“Okay. All we have to do is close our eyes, imagine it and we’ll be there, in another galaxy, on the other side of the universe.”

“Like Australia?”

“If you think of Alpha Centauri as being like the local shop, then yes”, said Greg. “Now close your eyes and think, really hard; You need to wish for it and will it to happen.”

“What, like this?” Snorty squeezed his eyes really tightly shut.

“Haha!” Greg laughed. “You look like you’re straining for a poo!”

“No I don’t!”

“How do you know? You can’t see yourself.”

“Well, you shouldn’t be looking at me! You’re supposed to have your eyes closed. Unless you want me to go on my own? Do you want me to Greg?”

“No, silly piglet. We’re a team.”

“And best friends. Sort of”, said Snorty.

“Exactly.” Greg confirmed.

They both closed their eyes and didn’t know what to wish for. How can you wish for something you’ve not seen before and which you didn’t even know existed?

Just out of sight (because everyone’s eyes were closed), the ghost bird was floating around. He switched on the QWERTY drive and this is what happened next:

Snorty and Greg opened their eyes and saw that they were on a beach. It was pretty obvious that they were on an alien planet, for a number of reasons: The ocean was pink, and the waves were flowing backwards, breaking into the sea, rather than onto the beach. The sand was gold: Not like the golden sands on earth, but actual gold dust. The sky was light purple and there were three suns. A planet with rings, just like Saturn, hung in the sky, just as the moon does above the earth.

A huge shape broke the surface of the ocean and spouted water: It was a whale. It blew a cloud of pink mist from its blowhole, then before it dived back down into the pink ocean, it raised a massive fin in the air. It waved.

The pig and the dog looked around them as they sat on the beach: There was no-one else around. A couple of small crabs walked in a straight line, forwards and into the sea, but that was it.

“What strange crabs,” said Snorty. “Walking forwards.”

“They must be drunk”, said Greg. “I’m hungry.”

“Me too”, agreed Snorty.

Behind them were palm trees, with big, green leaves like the trees on earth. From a distance, it looked like the trees might be diseased, as there were dark marks all over the leaves. Snorty and Greg decided to take a closer look.

Up close, the dark marks on the leaves were more like symbols: Not numbers or letters like they knew, but some sort of code. Some of the dark patterns looked almost like faces. Then they heard a voice:

“G’day mates.” It was a soft, quiet voice; like a girl’s whisper. Snorty and Greg looked around but they couldn’t see anyone else. Greg lifted a palm leaf to his nose and sniffed it: It smelled of coconut.

“This smells good enough to eat”, said Greg. Then they heard the soft voice again:

“I wouldn’t do that, Bruce.” Where was the voice coming from? Who was it?

Snorty looked around again but he still couldn’t see anyone.

“Up here mate.” Snorty and Greg looked up. Just above them in the tree, was a large snake, like a python. It had different coloured stripes, or rather rings around its body: Red, white and blue; Red, white, blue; Red, white, blue and so on. “G’day”, said the serpent, and smiled.

“Hi”, said Snorty.

“Hi”, said Greg.

“G’day Bruce. G’day Bruce.” The snake looked at the pig and the dog in turn.

“I’m Greg and this is Snorty”, said Greg. “What’s your name and where are we?”

“This is the planet Oz mate,” said the snake. “I’m Sheila. It’s nice to meet you, Bruce.” Sheila smiled at Greg, then looked at Snorty. “And you, Bruce.”

“Are you going to eat us?”, asked Snorty.

“Noooooooo mate. I’m vegetarian.”

“A vegetarian snake?” asked Snorty. “But that’s not natural.”

“Maybe not where you’re from,” said Sheila. “But I made a personal choice not to eat meat a while ago. Anyway, you’re safe little Bruce and little Bruce.”

“But I’m Snorty”, said Snorty.

“Yeah, I know mate: Bruce!”

“Oh dear,” said Greg. “Could we eat these leaves?”

“Oooooh no Bruce”, said Sheila. “You can’t eat our money.”

“Your money?” asked Snorty. “Money grows on trees here?”

“Yes. Despite what people tell you, money does grow on trees. But only here. And the trees are very rare and very fragile. If we pick the leaves, the trees could die.”

“So what do you do about money?” Greg asked.

“We don’t. We gave up on it a long time ago. We realised that it was the cause of many problems, so we stopped using it. We have everything we need, all around us. And we have each other. We realised there are things which money can’t buy.”

“But you’ll need money one day.” Greg said. “When you evolve.”

“Oh, young Bruce: we did evolve. You have much to learn. Humans have a long way to go before they really appreciate everything that’s around them. They are capable of incredible dreams but terrible nightmares. They have done so much harm to your planet but they’re learning. Youngsters like you and Bruce here can help.”

“How?”

“By being yourselves. By using your imagination and having dreams. By making stories: It doesn’t cost a penny and it creates things which are priceless. Never stop dreaming.” Sheila looked around. “It’ll be daytime soon. You should head home.”

“Can we come back?” asked Greg.

“In time. Small moves, Bruce. Small moves.”

Snorty and Greg sat back on the beach and watched the sunset. Imagine that: Three suns. It was like watching giant neon ghosts, dancing on the horizon and stretching long, spectral arms around the planet, embracing the little pig and the dog.

“Safe journey, Bruce. Safe journey, Bruce”, said Sheila from the trees.

After a long blink of the eyes and a simple wish, the animals were back with the giant children. The giants were still asleep but they were stirring.

“What a wonderful place”, said Snorty.

“A bit like magic”, said Greg. “I wonder if the children will remember?”

As the giants began to wake up, the animals became toys again: A stumpy stuffed pig and a Swedish dog with aspirations of being an actor.

Just out of sight, the ghost bird powered down the QWERTY drive and prepared to sleep: Even the ghost bird and the QWERTY drive need to recharge their batteries.

It’s very easy to make dreams come true. All you need is a little magic. And you don’t need to be a magician or a sorcerer. There’s a magic which everyone can use and it’s all around us: It’s imagination.

(C) Steve Laker, 2016

Calvin and Hobbes

Snorty and Greg’s original adventure was written a few days before.

A world with soft edges

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

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(Crochet toys!)

There are many things which make my life good, when I’ve served myself so many shit sandwiches in the past. For me, the main ones are having kids and being a writer. Looked at the other way around, it’s even better: I’m a writer and I have kids. From their point of view, it’s one of the greatest things ever: When you’re 11 and nine-years-old; when you want a bedtime story and your dad’s a writer, you can just have a completely new story written for you.

Louis (11) and Lola (9) gave me the cast: Their bedtime companions; A Minecraft cuddly pig and a stuffed puppy from IKEA, called Snorty and Greg respectively. Then I asked my kids what super power they’d most like to have: Lola would like to fly and Louis chose invisibility. So I wrote a story: A completely new bedtime story, and my children were at the world premier, read by the author. But it’s a story for everyone:

A world with soft edges

Lots of people have wondered what it might be like to make a dream come true. But what if someone’s dream was simply to be awake? Then, what if you could share your life and your time with them? What if you could make their dreams come true, just by sleeping, so that when you were asleep, they were awake?

That was Snorty’s wish and Greg’s dream.

Snorty was a small Minecraft pig: Just a simple collection of polygons in the Minecraft world, made real and less cube-like as a soft toy, and with a back leg which hung a little loose. Greg was a Labrador puppy from Ikea: His coat was a bit faded and he was small. But he was Swedish: He could bark very loudly if someone said or did something he disagreed with, or if something happened which he didn’t like.

The pig and the dog would spend their nights exploring, but always aware of the giant children, in case they woke. Because when the giants woke up, the animals would immediately fall asleep: That was just the way things worked. The giant children would look after the animals during the day.

“Are the giant kids asleep?”, asked Snorty.

“Yes they are. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t be able to answer you and you wouldn’t have been able to ask me in the first place, would you?”

“Oh yes”, said Snorty. “My leg’s a bit loose”.

“How many times do I have to tell you, your leg is fine.”

“But that giant girl has had me for so long, and she loves me so much that she’s made my leg loose.”

“Yes, and the giant boy loves me a lot, so I’ve got faded fur. But when we’re awake and those two are asleep, I put an amazing technicolour dream coat on.” Greg gave Snorty a Thespian twirl.

“Ooh, look at you!” Snorty smiled, then looked at his leg. “But what about this?”

“You look fine!”, Greg said. “Your leg might drag a bit, but I won’t leave you behind. When the giants are asleep and we’re awake, your leg is as new as my coat.”

“Greg? Do you wish you could talk to your giant?”

“I can’t talk to him. He has to sleep, so that his batteries recharge.”

“Have they got batteries?”

“No. Just big, developing brains. I can’t talk to my giant kid and you can’t talk to yours. They have to be asleep, so that we can get up to things. We have to explore and have adventures while they sleep. Some of what we do, they see as dreams and that feeds their batteries.”

“Their brains, you mean.”

“Same thing really, Snorty. But yes. Then while we’re asleep, they go off and do nice things, so that we have pleasant dreams.”

“So it is like we can talk to them? I mean, we live their dreams while they sleep; And they live ours while they’re awake? Is that right Greg?”

“I think so Snorty. Do you know what your one dreams of?”

“She said that if she had one superhero power, she’d be able to fly. What about yours, Greg?”

“Mine said that he’d like to be invisible. If you could wish for something though, what would you want your giant to do?”

“Well, she wants to fly. That means I can fly. But we’re different to the giants. I think I’d want her to know that if she really wants to fly, she can. Maybe one day, she might fly in a different way. Or maybe, she might actually fly. I want her to keep imagining. Would you want to be invisible, like your giant does?”

“That would be a lot of fun. There could be intrigue and espionage, which would be very exciting. We have to be responsible though and not misuse the superpowers. All superheroes have to be careful not to reveal their powers. We do have a bit of a problem though”, said Greg.

“How so?”, asked Snorty.

“Well, if you can fly and I can be invisible…”, Greg began.

“Then I can’t see you.” Snorty finished the sentence.

“Hmmmmm…”, said Greg.

“Hmmmmm…”. Snorty agreed. “So, I could be flying around and not know where you are.”

“And I could see you flying around but you wouldn’t be able to see me.”

“Hmmmmm…”

“Hmmmmm…”

“I know!” Snorty shouted. “If I’m flying and you need me but I can’t see you, you could just call my name.”

“And if I’m invisible and you want to find me”, said Greg, “You could call mine.”

“We’d be a a superhero double act. A bit like siblings”, said Snorty.

“But without having to admit that we’re best friends”, said Greg.

“Yeah.”

“That’s quite cool.”

Suddenly and for no reason whatsoever, a castle appeared: Not in the distance; not just in front of them, but all around them.

“We’re in a castle,” said Snorty.

“You do have a habit of stating the obvious, piggy.”

“But why are we in a castle?”, said the pig.

“I don’t know. One of the giants is dreaming. And they’ve given us a castle.” The dog looked thoughtful. “Shall we have a look around? I mean, seeing as we’re here?”

“What are we looking for?”

“I don’t know. But a castle has just materialised around us. It would be a bit silly not to look around, wouldn’t it?”

“Isn’t it a bit rude to look around other people’s houses?”

“Well, yes. But we’ve been put inside this one, so it’s kind of ours.”

“Perhaps we’re trapped? Maybe there’s no way out.”

“If anything really bad happens, then the giants will wake up. When they wake up, all of this will be gone.”

“But I like it here.” Snorty looked around. They were in a huge entrance hall, with large wooden doors on either side and a grand staircase, leading up to a balcony which ran all around the room.

“I like it here too”, Greg said. “As long as nothing bad happens, we can stay here until the giants wake up. So we must look out for anything which looks like a bad dream and use our superpowers to keep them away.” Greg stood on his back legs, so that he looked more dramatic in his colourful coat.

“What am I supposed to do?”, Snorty asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you can stand up like that and look like a twonk. I’ve got a wonky leg, remember?”

“I do not look like a twonk. I am being theatrical. Besides, your leg is fine in here. How many times do I have to tell you, Snorty?”

“Oh yes.” Snorty stood on his hind trotters and looked down. “The floor’s further away.”

“Don’t say you’re afraid of heights. I thought you wanted to fly.”

“I do. I’m not afraid of heights. Aren’t you afraid of not being seen?”

“I’ll only use my invisibility if I have to. I can bark. I mean, I can shout, remember? It’s got a bit cold and dark in here. I am a little bit worried. “

“So am I.”

“I think there might be a bad dream here somewhere.”

“Me too. Don’t go invisible yet, Greg.”

“I won’t. But don’t you fly off either.”

“I won’t. What does a bad dream look like, Greg?”

“I don’t know. The whole point is that the giants wake up and then it stops. All we can do is…”

“What?”

“The best we can, I suppose. I feel strange, Snorty.”

“So do I Greg. I think this might be how bad dreams start.” Snorty looked at Greg. “Hey!”, he shouted. “You’ve got my legs!”

Greg looked down. “I thought the ground looked closer.” He walked around for a while on his new trotters. “There’s nothing wrong with this leg you’re always moaning about. It just looks like I’m wearing pink trousers. It is cold in here. Hey! You’re wearing my coat!”

“Ooh! I am.” Snorty looked at the coat, then down at the floor. “The floor is even further away. Greg! I’ve got your legs!”

“I’m glad you’ve got them, because I was wondering where they’d gone. I think we should see if we can get out of here. This is a bit weird.”

“There are two doors”, said Snorty. “Shall we check one each?”

“That sounds like a plan”, said Greg.

But both doors were locked. Greg trotted back to the middle of the room, using Snorty’s legs, which he now had. Snorty padded, on Greg’s legs, which he now had.

They looked around and there were no other doors. The castle had materialised around them after all; They’d not walked in through a door. The only other way of leaving the entrance hall was the staircase leading up.

The dog and the pig walked to the stairs. But the stairs had turned into an Escalator, which was running down.

“What in this world has happened?”, said Snorty.

“One of the giants is dreaming this,” Greg said. “What will they think of next?”

“Shall we try going up it? The moving staircase?”

“We can try. We’ll need to run. And keep to the left.”

“Why?”, asked Snorty.

“Stand on the right, remember? And we’d better be quick.”

“Why?”

“Because the walls are closing in.”

“And the ground is shaking. Do you think the giants are waking up?”

“I hope so. Whether they are or not though, there’s only one thing we can do to get out of here.” Greg looked up.

Snorty looked up too. The walls stretched up as far as they could see and were closing in on all sides. They couldn’t run up the Escalator: It was running too fast; The walls were closing in. And besides all of that, they each had the wrong legs.

“You need to fly up”, Greg said to Snorty. “And I need to shout as loudly as I can.”

“Erm, Greg?”

“What, Snorty?”

“Actually, I am afraid of heights.”

“Oh you twonk! Why did you get that superpower? Well, you need to fly and you need to carry me. And I need to shout. Hopefully, we can wake someone up.”

“But I can’t carry you!”

“You can if I’m invisible.”

“How?”

“Because I’ll weigh less. I’ll be with you, so you don’t have to be afraid.”

Greg closed his eyes and became invisible. He shouted to Snorty: “Now, fly piggy. Fly!” He shouted and shouted; He barked and shouted some more.

Greg’s coat became Snorty’s wings and his legs dangled beneath as he rose into the air. The higher he went, the quieter Greg’s shouting got.

The walls continued to shrink in around them and the whole world shook, as Snorty’s wings grew tired and Greg’s barking was drowned out by the earthquake around them.

How long does a blink of the eye last? A blink is the time between the eye closing, then opening again. Usually it’s less than a second. Sometimes, it’s a whole night; or perhaps a lifetime.

In the blink of an eye, Greg and Snorty were back with the giants.

“Is there any way we can tell them about this, dog?”

“The only way to change things, piglet” Said Greg. “…is to end the dreams.”

“Could we tell him about it? That man on the typewriter.”

“I think he already knows.”

Lots of people have wondered what it might be like to make a dream come true. But what if someone’s dream was simply to be awake? Then, what if you could share your life and your time with them? What if you could make their dreams come true, just by sleeping, so that when you were asleep, they were awake?

It happens every night. All over the world.

It’s rather wonderful, if you think about it.

(C) Steve Laker, 2016

Postscript

Nailed it, according to the test audience, aged 11 and nine.

Post Postscript

[SPOILER ALERT]

Floored someone, when I heard from a contemporary who’d got all of the subtext and said they had a wet face at the end. Because there’s a very tragic thing at the end, subtly hidden: I put that in, so that a parent reading it to their kids might be as deeply affected by it as those whose heads it should drift over.

The Choristers at dusk (The cyrus choir)

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

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Image: X over it

A couple of months ago, a few strange things happened at around the same time: I found myself batting fruit flies away from my screen as summer finally happened and I tried to write a story; There was a girl on my mind; And I was listening to The Division Bell by Pink Floyd. I was in the midst of a classic writer’s block period, when a track from that album came on: “Keep Talking”, AKA “Cyrus Song”: It’s the one which samples Stephen Hawking:

“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination: We learned to talk.”

And so I wrote a story called Cyrus Song: Lots of people liked it, including my own children, aged 11 and nine. Because of all that went on with my alcoholic breakdown, it’s been a very long time since I had the kids to stay with me, and since I stayed at my parents’ house. Now we’re all staying at the latter for a week.

Tonight is the first of seven spent on a holiday, which has already become that of a busman: Rather than listen to a bedtime story, my kids wanted to make one up: Why wouldn’t you, if you’re that age and your dad is a writer?

So now I have the back stories for my children’s bedtime companions: A cuddly Minecraft pig called Snorty and a Labrador called Greg from Ikea; so he’s Swedish. Apparently one of Snorty’s trotters is his lucky one. Apparently, Snorty will lose his lucky trotter and Greg will find it for him. Apparently, I’m supposed to make all of this happen.

All of this has come about because two kids are proud of what their daddy became; Because it’s apparently quite cool to have a dad who’s a writer.

So, with the encouragement of the children and others – and because it’s so much fun to write – Cyrus Song has spawned a book. Before I started properly on that, there was another short story which needed to be told. Published now in Schlock! – The webzine where myself and other emerging talents found our feet – I can also publish it here.

This one’s for Louis and Lola:

The Cyrus Choir

Some of the most amazing things can happen right in front of your eyes, but only if you realise they’re happening. If you’re not paying attention, they can just happen and be gone, without you realising that they were practically up your nose.

It was over a cup of coffee in Mountsfield Park in Lewisham that something quite remarkable happened to me: Time stopped and I realised that I could talk to the animals. Time stopping is of course impossible but it’s figurative in the sense of this story and it happens all the time in my job: Pauses in a narrative. I hadn’t yet spoken to any animals but I’d heard them speak.

I was having coffee with Doctor Hannah Jones, from the PDSA hospital in New Cross. There was much to like about the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals: They are a charity, financed by donations; They prefer the term, “Companion” to “Pet”; It’s a hospital, not a vet’s; And Hannah Jones is a doctor there. It was Doctor Jones who’d started the whole amazing story, when she’d introduced me to a quantum computer program she’d helped to write: The Babel Fish. The problem was, I wasn’t allowed anywhere near it.

The Babel fish could translate any language, to and from any other. Doctor Jones had invented it, and yet it sat idle in her veterinary practice. As Hannah herself had once said, “As if leaving work for the night wasn’t hard enough, can you imagine what might happen if the patients could talk to me?” It was emotional detachment for her.

The Babel fish was of as much potential importance to the sciences as the doctor was to me: I’m a writer. And yet, we were at an impasse. I had a conflict of interests: Keep the whole thing to myself, or share it. I surmised that if I wrote about it, just a few people might be interested and I might be able to keep the doctor away from other interested parties. But that would be to deny Hannah her moment. And yet, she wouldn’t go public herself, because she couldn’t bring herself to open this Pandora’s box that she’d designed. Although I was the writer, she was my protagonist; the one who took the story forward, because she had the Babel fish. The animals we could listen to in the lab had stories to tell. Muting them denied me stories to tell in turn, as a translator.

I could see why the doctor would want to remain detached: If I wasn’t a writer, I would too. In all of my writing career, the Babel fish had been the biggest metaphorical switch I’d ever had to consider. I’d debated internally for what seemed like a very long time before I’d flicked that switch. But now it was done; I could hear the animals.

Every good story has conflict. The conflict here was that the Babel fish was in doctor Jones’ lab. I needed the fish, because it had opened up so many possibilities. Therefore, I needed the doctor. It wasn’t such a big conflict.

The story I was supposed to write was a paid piece for a magazine: a slight departure for me as a fiction writer and a welcome one, as I do like all of the non-human animals who let us live on their planet with them. So much diversity, co-operation and conflict is what makes Earth such a wonderful, albeit slightly teetering thing; A bit like Lewisham. I was there in the park to interview Doctor Jones for my magazine piece.

I’d never seen Doctor Jones on television but out in the park, she looked smaller in the real world. The only setting I’d seen her in was her lab. Perhaps she looked bigger there because her lab was smaller than the park. She wasn’t sitting any further away from me than she had in the lab, so it couldn’t be that. Perhaps it was because she was of greater importance at her place of work, whereas outside in Mountsfield Park, she could just be anyone. I liked that.

“Doctor Jones.” I said that first, as it was the first thing I thought people would like to see in the magazine article: That way, they knew who I was talking to.

“You can call me Hannah, Mr Fry.” That’s me – Mr Fry – because I was writing this.

“Of course. I mean, naturally. But for the purposes of the article, I need to refer to you as Doctor Jones.”

“I would imagine you might but there’s only me and you here.” I looked around and this was indeed true. “So you can call me Hannah when you’re actually talking to me, then refer to me as Doctor Jones in the article.” She was right; I could.

“I could,” I repeated aloud. Being a fiction writer, I sometimes find it difficult to separate the facts from what I do with them in my imagination.

“I don’t mean to tell you how to do your job, Mr Fry. Whatever works for you.” Doctor Jones paused for a moment, as if to give me time to decide. “So, the Babel fish program: I assume that’s central to your article or story?” It was at that point that I realised I might be able to write both.

“So, Hannah”, I said. Because that was me talking to her before I started my magazine piece; Sort of off the record. “Off the record, The Babel fish could be the greatest invention of all time: One which could change our thinking; our understanding of the world. It could potentially earn you a Nobel prize in science. I understand that you have reservations but dare I say, that’s perhaps a little selfish?” Had I just said that aloud?

“My reasons are personal, Mr Fry. I agree that others need to know about the Babel fish.” There was a pause. “Why do you think I chose to speak to a fiction writer?” That was very clever.

“I’m just too close to the patients”, she continued. “I know it might make me more efficient as their carer if I could understand them but I’d never stop working. It’s a very selfish thing to drive a wedge between work and home but I need that separation. I trained in human psychology before I decided to work with non-human animals and I understand them just as well as anyone else in my job, without the Babel fish program.”

I’m pretty sure she’d just referred to her patients as non-human animals and that I hadn’t made that up. Hannah could be the greatest non-human animal doctor to ever have lived. But still, I understood her reluctance.

We arranged to meet the next day, when I would visit Doctor Jones at the hospital. I was to observe her working with the patients and there’d be a microphone next to her table, connected to the quantum computer which ran the Babel fish program. I was to watch and to listen in on a pair of headphones. I’d be able to hear the animals speak but Doctor Jones wouldn’t. It seemed like a perfect solution.

I pondered the situation as I walked home. I was living in Catford at the time, so it was a short walk. Although I could understand Hannah’s professional reservations, I would have welcomed any kind of company in my personal life and given my aversion to humans, a non-human companion would be just the thing. One which I could talk to would be perfect. I imagined debating current affairs, or watching science documentaries on BBC4 with a learned cat. We could share my book shelves and swap literature. If a dog needed a home, I would be just as welcoming. Perhaps the dog and me might watch soaps or sport together; Go for long walks and discuss the many colours which cars are made of; Then run home together, simply because it’s fun and because one day we might not be able to.

It’s a myth that dogs are colour blind: They see more than just black, white, and grey. However, the colour range they perceive is limited compared to the spectrum we see. To put it in very basic terms, the canine colour field consists mostly of yellows, blues, and violets. And they’re probably really amazing.

My landlady would not allow pets; I wanted a companion. If I were allowed one, I would actually have two: both cats. One tortoiseshell and one pure white, they would be called Ziggy and Slim respectively. Being a science person and a writer, I was familiar with Erwin Schrödinger. Not long after moving into my studio, I purchased two boxes and labelled them: “Ziggy” and “Slim”.

So now I have two cats. Or maybe I don’t. No-one will ever know because the boxes may not be opened. What happens with them when no-one is looking is supposition and a paradox: Like the tree falling in the woods; If there’s no-one around to hear it fall, does it make a sound? Ergo, it cannot be denied that I have two cats. And as another universe is created at a sub-atomic level, where the catalyst of my thought brings a parallel universe into existence, no-one can prove that I don’t have two pet cats. But I couldn’t have a conversation with Schrödinger’s Cats.

It was the famous Catford cat which caused me to pause. Catford may be a little rough but my heart beat in that place. And it had a twenty foot fibreglass cat. Once upon a time, a bored clerk in a municipal office had a sense of humour.

It was early evening and the weather was clement, so I took a slight detour to a shop I knew called “Supreme Animal Foods”. They do indeed sell pet food: a vast range. They also sell the animals which eat the food: Rodents, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates.

Looking into the various cages and tanks, I imagined what I could do with the Babel fish in there. As I peered, I seemed to catch the eye of a mouse. There were two white mice in this particular cage: One was chewing on a piece of wood and the other was drinking from a water bottle attached to the side of the cage. She looked at me with pink albino eyes as she drank, then she stopped drinking but she didn’t stop looking at me.

I realised how Hannah might feel and had second thoughts about the Babel fish. I couldn’t separate the two mice, so I bought them both and carried them home in their cage. My landlady aside, my two new companions would be good cover when I went to the animal hospital the following day.

When we all arrived home, I checked around the studio, as is my custom. There were no signs of intruders and if anyone had decided to test the Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox, I couldn’t tell: That’s the whole point of having Ziggy and Slim. There is a scenario where someone had gone into my studio, opened the boxes and brought two cats into existence. Based on the evidence, if that were the case, the boxes had been closed afterwards and there were two cats out and about somewhere. And nothing had been taken. And there were no signs of forced entry. The mice were in a cage, but I placed the cage next to the bed, just to be sure. The last thing I remembered before I drifted off to sleep, was thinking of names for my new companions’ trip the following day.

I arrived at the PDSA with an hour of the day left: I couldn’t and shouldn’t be doing what I was about to do for too long.

I had to complete a form, including the names of the patients: Pretty obvious, considering how I’d first seen them in the pet shop. There was no-one else in the waiting room and fairly soon, we were called:

“Mister Fry”: That’s me. Doctor Jones said my name slowly, as though unfamiliar with something. “Mister Fry”. She said it slowly again. I looked up and Hannah was doing the most peculiar thing: She was wearing half-rimmed spectacles and they were crooked; Her head was tilted in such a way that she was looking down at her clipboard through her glasses with one eye, and directly at me with the other. Had she had a stroke? “Mister Fry,” she said for a third time, then continued: “Mr Fry, Miss Victoria Wood and Miss Julie Walters.”

“Aha. That’s us”, I said.

“Come with me please, Mr Fry.” We were barely on the other side of the door for a second when she said something odd: “What the fuck?”

“Pardon, doctor?”

“I knew you were coming; You didn’t need to employ subterfuge. Reception were expecting you too.” Hannah straightened her glasses: She’d not had a stroke.

“Were they?” Hannah walked ahead, along a corridor.

“Yes, because I told them you were coming. But not with two mice called Victoria and Julie.”

“Well, I saw them in the shop and one was chewing on some wood and the other was drinking water, you see? So, the receptionists might think me a little odd I suppose.”

“I’d go with slightly eccentric, Mr Fry.”

“Yes, quite doctor Jones. I suppose I just like to make the everyday more interesting. That’s probably why I decided to be a writer.”

“It suits you. Anyway, here we are.” We’d arrived at Hannah’s consulting room.

“Indeed we are”, I said, agreeing that we were indeed there.

In the centre of the room was a table with a lamp above it. There was a microphone attached to the lamp. A work bench occupied one wall and on that sat an optical microscope and a scanning electron one with a computer terminal. In the overhead cupboards and on shelves were things like beakers, syringes, gloves, bandages and so on. I was to sit in a corner while Doctor Jones attended to her patients for the rest of the day. In that corner was the computer which ran the Babel fish program.

“Now, Mr Fry”, Hannah said. “Do your mice need my attention?”

“Well, I’m sure they’d appreciate it but I didn’t bring them here thinking there might be anything wrong with them. I was rather hoping I might be able to talk to them with the Babel fish.”

“Now, about that”, Hannah said, pointing at the computer in front of me. “Your purpose here today is to listen in on my patients: I’m okay with that. You have a job to do and so do I. I am an animal doctor and you are a writer. I trust you to write as you see fit in the circumstances: I am not a writer. Please remember that you are not a vet.” Under the circumstances, that seemed perfectly reasonable and logical.

Doctor Jones gave me a quick induction on the Babel fish program: The interface was essentially a digital radio dial on screen. The operator could slide a bar from left to right with the computer mouse to scan through various frequencies. On the left hand side of the screen were various drop down menus: “Age”, “Weight”; and a whole series of others which dropped down from one another: “Life”, “Domain”, “Kingdom”, “Phylum”, “Class”, “Order”, “Family”, “Genus” and “Species”; Then a blank search field. “You only really need to worry about the search function”, said Hannah. “Just say what you see: Dog, cat or whatever. Put the headphones on, then use the slider to fine tune.” It was beautiful in its simplicity.

The first patient was a cat called Clive, and his companion, Derek. There is the old saying about dogs and their owners looking alike but I was more persuaded by the less obvious: That dogs and cats, and their human companions, have similar personalities. I’d surmised this long before I’d encountered the Babel Fish, and Derek and Clive were my thinking personified on first sight: Derek was an elderly gentleman, clearly comfortable in his dotage. He was thin-set and slightly stooped, with piercing blue eyes and thick, grey hair. Clive was a feline Derek.

I typed “Cat” into the Babel fish and put the headphones on. I could still hear Hannah and Derek but it was Clive’s voice I was tuning into. He wasn’t purring, growling, hissing or mewing; He was simply being a cat, just out of his carry basket and standing on Hannah’s table. I moved the slider bar slowly across the screen and stopped as quickly as the static hiss became a voice:

“…nice.” That was all I caught. There was something before it as I tuned in but I only got that one word at first. It was definitely Clive, because the voice was right in my ears. I could still hear Derek and Doctor Jones:

“…So he’s just been a bit under the weather?” said the doctor.

“Yes”, said Derek.

“Just for a couple of days”, added Clive. He sounded like Brian Sewell: Incredibly posh. But of course, only I could hear Clive.

“He doesn’t look dehydrated”, the doctor said, looking at Clive’s gums.

“Gnnnnnn….”

“Is he eating?”

“Not at this precise moment in time”, said Clive.

“He can be a bit fussy”, replied Derek.

“I am a cat. I caught a rat. I ate half of it and it tasted funny. So I brought the other half in to show you, on the kitchen floor.”

“Has he been going out as normal, doing his business?”

“I have many businesses”, said Clive. “Good Bastet, woman; you’re rough.” Doctor Jones was feeling Clive’s gut. “She’s very pretty though, isn’t she?” Had Clive just said that to me or himself?

The ancient Egyptians worshipped cat gods. One such was Bastet: Goddess of cats, protection, joy, dance, music, family and love. Humans once worshipped cats as gods: Cats have never forgotten this. Hannah put Clive back down on the table and stroked his back.

“That’s nice. Base of the tail. I’ve got an itch.” Clive looked up at Hannah, then stood up and moved forward, arching his back a little: Even without the Babel fish, I recognised Clive’s facial expression as the universal code which cats use when they approve of a human: The smile. Clive continued: “Now, tell her about the rat, Derek.” Clive sat back down and looked at Derek. “The rat, my dear old man. It was on Tuesday. Today is Friday, Derek: FRIDAY!” Just as Clive said “FRIDAY!”, I also heard him meow, outside the headphones. So that’s what it sounds like when a cat shouts. Clive continued: “Derek, my dear; please. It was only three days ago. Have things got that bad? Have you taken your medication? I knocked your pills off the top of the bathroom cabinet and into the sink. What more do I have to do to remind you?” Of course, I could say nothing but I was trying to will Derek on. If only I could talk; If only I could translate Clive for Derek.

“Has he brought you any presents lately?”, Hannah asked. “He looks like a very generous and caring person.” Derek looked down at Clive. ‘Come on, Derek!’, I thought. The poor man shook his head. ‘Someone help Derek!’ Then Hannah said “I think young Clive here has ingested some rat poison.”

“She’s very clever”, said Clive. Great minds think alike. Clive looked at Hannah: “I assume you know what that man over there is doing?” Had Clive rumbled me, or was it a rhetorical question? I wished I could talk to him. Then he said a very strange thing: “I can feel the force in this room.”

Clive got back into his transport, Derek was given some pills for Clive; Hannah looked at me as she showed them out; And I could only hope that everything would be okay.

“How did that go?” Hannah asked when she returned.

“More questions than answers at the moment”, I said. For a moment, I didn’t know what to say next. Then, “Who’s next?” Doctor Jones looked at her notes.

“A young lady called Amy and her Scottish Terrier, Frank.” Hannah gave one of those false smiles which TV news presenters do when they’re really not sure how they’re supposed to react to a story. “I fear this might be the last time we see Frank. He’s not been well for quite a while.” I wondered if now might be the time to disconnect from the Babel fish. Soon enough though, Amy and Frank were in the room.

Frank was a splendid looking old man: like a distinguished Scots gent with a long, thick beard, he was small and stout. I could imagine having a wee dram with Frank in a tavern somewhere. He stood on Doctor Jones’ table, looking alternately at Amy, Hannah and the table.

Amy was a storybook personified: A slim volume, with much dark material and turmoil between the covers. She was young but she had clearly lived her life: Stories were printed on her skin and carved into her arms. She was a work of modern art; She was sculpted from life; She was unconventional; She was beautiful. And she was troubled: If only the Babel fish could tune into her thoughts.

“How are you?” Hannah asked Amy, in a tone which suggested a tired but resigned familiarity; As though Hannah wanted to ask more but knew that she’d never be able to probe into that deep soul of a girl.

Amy was small – almost frail – but her soul leaked from her eyes. I paraphrased The Beautiful South in my mind, as I estimated Amy’s age: “Take a look at these crow’s feet (just look), sitting on the prettiest eyes; Thirty twenty fifth of Decembers, twenty nine fourth of Julys…”

“Yeah, okay”, said Amy. “Better than him.” She nodded down at Frank.

I thought about stopping the whole thing: Just leaving the Babel fish and walking away. This was precisely why Hannah couldn’t use it. The only thing that made me put on the headphones was the thought that Frank might say something which would give Amy hope.

I typed “Canine” into the Babel fish and was presented with a list of options: “Lupine”, “Vulpine” and so on. If I so desired, I could listen to wolves, dingos and all sorts of other dogs, if they were ever to find themselves in Hannah’s consulting room. If I’d entered “Feline” instead of “Cat” for Clive, presumably I’d have seen all of the cat family too. In its current location, the Babel fish program was clearly aimed more at domesticated animals but the algorithms seemed to be in there for pretty much everything. I typed in the search box again: Simply “Dog”, and immediately got static feedback in my ears as the slider appeared on screen once more.

“…Oh, dear.” Frank’s voice was like that of hard drinking Glaswegian smoking a Woodbine. He had a Scottish, Cockney accent. “Och, dear”. I wished I could give the little old boy a hot toddy. “Och, dear.” Frank looked up at Amy: “Och, dear.” He looked over at Hannah: “Och, dear.” He looked down at the table and around the room: “Och, deary, deary me…”

I placed the headphones around my neck for a moment and listened to Doctor Jones and Hannah:

“It’s for the best”, said Hannah. It was a cliché, but that’s what she said. I had to resist artistic license and record things as they were for the magazine article: Factual.

Assuming that the article would be read of course: It was a huge scientific story which could change the world. Only two people knew about the Babel fish though. I wasn’t some qualified expert and no-one read my writing anyway. If anyone read this in a factual publication, they’d probably think it the work of a crank and dismiss it. It would read more like one of my stock in trade whimsical stories. The truth is often stranger than fiction. “I’m sorry.”

Amy looked at Hannah and gave one of those newsreader smiles: neither happy nor sad. Then she looked at Frank. I put the headphones back on.

“…Och, dear.”

How was I to write in scientific terms about what happened next, when the words I wanted to use, which best conveyed the moment, were merely sentimental?

I had a wet face.

Hannah held Frank’s hand and Amy hugged her little old, rugged, bearded Cockney Scotsman. If he’d been wearing a tartan cap, that’s when it would have slipped.

“Och, dear.”

That little dog, with such a limited vocabulary; Once heard through the Babel fish, he had a voice. Just those two words were emphasised by feeling and inflection as they took on different meanings: Pity for himself and love for all around him. Of all the times to reflect on that day, the most poignant was when Frank closed his eyes: “Och, dear. That’s better. A wee sleep…”

Hannah left the room for a while and I looked at Frank on the table, through salty eyes.

I thought of what I’d said to Hannah earlier about all of this: Questions; Ideas; Thoughts. Now I could really understand and would even defend Hannah’s resistance to the Babel fish. But to the fiction writer; to me in my job, it was a game changer. I was lost and confused in a long silence.

I remembered Victoria Wood and Julie Walters, the two white mice under the table where I’d been sitting. In the hands of a better writer, the mice would be protrusions of multi-dimensional beings into our universe, conducting experiments on humans. Of course, humans always thought it was the other way around: Such brilliant subtlety.

Hannah was out of the room, so I placed the mouse cage nearer to the microphone and returned to the Babel fish program. I typed into the search field: “White mice” and moved the scanning bar across the screen with the computer mouse. I peered over the monitor and my two mice were facing one another, cleaning their faces with their paws and twitching their noses; Being mice.

“…The best laid plans of mice.” It sounded like a child who’d inhaled helium. ‘And men’, I thought. But that story had already been written. I didn’t speak, just as I couldn’t speak to Hannah about all that I’d heard; Nor Derek, nor Amy.

“It’s working”: Another high-pitched voice. “There’s only one human left, over there.”

“Do you know what they’re doing, humans? While they rush around, scavenge and make a mess?” There was a pause. “No, neither do they.”

“Aren’t they supposed to be aphrodisiacs?”

“I wouldn’t put it past them.”

“Do you think that one knows what’s going on?” For once, I was the subject of a discussion, between two higher beings.

“It probably can’t even hear us.”

“Imagine if it could. Not just us but all the others as well.

“If only they could hear the dawn chorus. All those voices: The sopranos in harmony with the baritone of the sun: Earth’s choir. Then they’d hear the whispers from the trees, the humming of the clouds and the ghosts in the wind. But they don’t listen.”

“Maybe one day they’ll understand. Perhaps they’re not ready yet. They just need to slow down and think more.”

Maybe one day we will.

Until then, this story is both a beginning and an end. Myself and Doctor Jones were still at an impasse regarding the Babel fish and I was siding with her. Perhaps some things are better left as they are, like so many things which might have been.

We left the room together. I could say nothing. But I wondered: Why would she insist on me calling her by her first name, when she wouldn’t call me by mine? She knew my name: It was on her paperwork.

Then I got it: I’d never asked her to.

Some of the most amazing things can happen right in front of your eyes, but only if you realise they’re happening. If you’re not paying attention, they can just happen and be gone, without you realising that they were practically up your nose.

(C) Steve Laker, 2016.

Chips off the old writer’s block

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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(Image: Ukfrozenfoods.com)

It would appear that next week’s break with my children may be a bit of a busman’s holiday: Based on the emails I’ve had from both of them, we’re going to be doing quite a lot of writing. I’ve checked, double-checked and checked again; made sure that they’re not just humouring me: No; For whatever reason, they want to write some stories.

I suppose if you’re nine or 11 years old and you’ve got a dad who’s a writer, it could be quite cool to write some stories with him. For my part, I’m proud; of my children, but what father isn’t? I’ve been told that I should be proud of myself: Something I’ve not been for quite some time, since I let everyone down. As with so many other things, I wish I’d not had an alcoholic breakdown but the life which has come about since is better than any period in my life before, even when I had money.

My daughter has drawn all of the pictures I need for the children’s book I (WE!) are publishing, so we’ll be putting that together over the course of next week. My son is using three of my short stories for a website he’s building and I dare say I’ll be helping with that as well. What’s most exciting though is the new book: Cyrus Song. Both kids love the two short stories which started that off and both are keen to be a part of the ongoing process. I suppose when your dad is a writer and he can imagine talking animals, that’s pretty cool too.

Of course, we’ll be going out to various places with my parents but the main thing the kids want to do is help with my new book. I’ve got a pretty vivid imagination (It helps in my job) but to have their input will make this new project even more magical than it is already. I suppose it doesn’t get much better when you’re their age than having a dad who’s a writer and who can bring characters of their imagining to life, as they sit with me and watch that process. For the sake of everyone, I’ll set appropriate times for me and my co-authors to work together.

It really is the case that my kids are proud of me, despite everything. I already knew that my parents have a sense of pride in what I’ve become and next week, we’ll all be in the same place, where the elders can see the youngsters writing with me. What a wonderful life. It’s just a shame it took such a long time to realise.

So, a week off? From writing? Difficult though it may have been to drag myself from something I enjoy so much, my kids are more important. If they want to watch, learn and provide input, who am I to argue? The writing life never stops and it’s even better when there are people along to enjoy the ride.

So far in the Cyrus Song book, there have only been a small cast of animal characters, as I try to concentrate on the ongoing plot and narrative. By the end of next week, I expect to have a large menagerie. I can see how it’ll go already: The kids make it all up during the evening and I turn it into magic later, for them to read the next day. I’ll post updates as the schedule permits but I really don’t think I’m going to get much free time: How fucking splendid!

Almost as splendid as all of that is a little program I’ve installed on this very typewriter (a Windows 10 laptop): It’s the best retro geek thing a writer could wish for; Called “Qwertick”, it makes my keyboard sound like a typewriter: My life is complete. And the typewriter will travel with me next week.

I never qualified in my last diary entry, quite why it’s comforting to remind myself that I’m a writer: It’s for when I’m out of my comfort zone. Away from home. I get anxious and paranoid, so being able to reassure myself that I’m a writer is a coping mechanism. Next week, when I’m out and about with the kids, I have two little reasons to be proud. I shouldn’t need my coping mechanism.

But if anyone asks my kids what their dad does, I know that they’re quite proud to tell people that he’s a writer.