THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION
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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?”
“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.
“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.
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.
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.