A warming chill from the past

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

It was two years ago that I first had the courage to call myself a writer. I’d been writing quite solidly for two years before that, but it took that long to get a few stories published. Then I wrote my first flash fiction novel, so when I proclaimed myself as a writer, I at least had a track record I was willing to be judged on.

Nowadays, people ask me the usual questions: Have I written anything they’d know (probably not), why did I become a writer (it happened), what’s my favourite short story (Echo Beach), and so on. Just recently, someone asked what my first story was. And actually, before I became a writer full-time, I did write some other stories. There are two of those old ones in my anthology, and this is an adaptation of the eldest. Written in 1999 (in the millennium before this one, FFS), when I was having a lesser personal crisis than the one which saw me homeless, then become a writer, like I’d one day be able to call myself.

This is a very short story of reunions, and of identity…

the_crow_by_latyrx-d5edu0rThe Crow by Mikko Lagerstedt

LADDER LANE

It’s easy to find something you’ve not seen for a while, if you remember what it looks like. But only if the thing still resembles the memory, and hasn’t been changed too much with time. Nat knew what it looked like as it once was, but couldn’t be entirely sure when that was.

Things looked different on foot, and in the dark. He often drove down this lane, but always during the day, and it was many years since he’d parked with Sam in the lay-by, near the bridge that crossed the stream. Nat would could collect Sam from work and they’d dine out, on fish and chips served in yesterday’s news, with a 1966 Ford Cortina their dining car.

Here was the woods, where they’d shared many moments. There, the fields where they’d run, walk, sit and talk, or lie down and pedal on sky bikes. Behind were places they’d grown up, and all around were their lives.

Sam flew a year ago, a free spirit which should never have been caged. Tonight was their anniversary. To either side, familiar trees, hardly changed in so many years, and a constant, surrounded by much change. Some of those trees bore the scars of Nat and Sam, carved into their gnarled skin. Once they would skip along this road, pushing one another into the bushes. Today it was a walk alone, the trees no longer alive in the dark, now just monuments to the past.

The bending road glowed a dull white, as the headlights of a car approached a figure ahead, then slowly passed. Nat walked towards the figure, a young woman at a bus stop. She clutched her long black coat around her face, her peroxide hair damp, and clinging to her face with the smudges of smiles.

“Hello,” she said, her claret lips forming a piano smile.

“Hello,” said Nat. “Been waiting long?”

“Three weeks. I needed to sort some things out first. You?”

“Spur of the moment really, sort of found the wings no-one thought I should have. I’m Nat by the way.” He extended his hand.

“Tash.” She darted her hand quickly out of her coat pocket, just long enough to gently shake Nat’s. “As far as some of mine were concerned, I’d died a long time ago.”

“How do you mean?”

“They gave up on me. I had only one love. They thought they were helping, but I was a prisoner. I kicked back too many times. They gave up. I was dead to them, no longer the person they knew. Only I know who I am, and I’m me, the same person who destroyed their friend. It was premature mourning: their coping mechanism. And here I am”

“I suppose in some ways, we’re similar.”

“How so?”

A light lit up Tash’s face. Nat turned to see a car approaching. It slowed down and the driver lowered the window. Tash reached for the handle, then Nat placed his hand on hers. “I think I was unfairly judged,” he said.

“Need a lift?” asked the driver. The warmth from the car steamed the air, and Nat leaned down to look in. A man in the back seat looked unwell.

“No thanks,” Nat replied, “the bus should be here soon. Is he okay?”

“He’s not so good. I’m taking him down town. I can drop you off if you like.”

“It’s okay. We’re going the other way. Thanks all the same though.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want you to be late for anything. The buses can be pretty unreliable around here.”

“It’ll be here soon.”

“Okay, if you’re sure.” The driver smiled, and drove away.

The rear lights of the car disappeared around the corner in a red mist. Then the fog turned pink, as the headlights of a bus approached.

“Here we go,” Nat said.

“Here we go,” said Tash.

“Are you meeting anyone when we get there?” Nat guided her onto the bus.

“I’ve got a couple of old friends I want to look up,” she replied. “You?”

“Yes, my husband,” said Nat.

Tash looked out of the window, as the bus passed an old Ford Cortina, parked in a lay-by. The windows were misted, so she couldn’t see if anyone was inside.

© Steve Laker, 1999

My books are available on Amazon.

Missing persons outside my comfort zones

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

This story begins with me sitting on a bench, much like I did in my homeless days, when I wrote many of the stories in my anthology. But I wasn’t homeless this time, just out of my comfort zone, away from home and on my way to see my kids in Milton Keynes. Now that I have what every human craves – a secure base – being away makes me somehow paranoid that I’m going to lose it. It’s an irrational fear, but it’s firmly nested in my own insecurity. But then some not entirely unexpected things happened, as I began to plot a new story in my notebook, about a cat from Catford.

Catford CatCatford: This writer’s spiritual home

First, was a phantom train. I plan my journeys to Milton Keynes well in advance, bearing in mind Network Rail’s rather splendid work on London Bridge Station, Thameslink, Crossrail, and HS2, all of which have affected my journey via London. In the midst of many weekends of engineering work, there was what appeared to be a new or ad-hoc service running into Victoria from my village station. I’d had plenty of time to ease my paranoia about this unknown quantity, by simply walking to the station and asking a human what was going on, rather than trusting everything to a website. But anxiety and paranoia prevent all but the most necessary of brief outings, once every day or two to Tesco, two minutes away, and the monthly trip to Milton Keynes via London. The latter is exhausting, and only possible because of what awaits (my children), but it’s at least a known quantity, so I’m able to plan, but for that ghost train. Long story short, in the month since I last travelled, the timetable has changed. And so have the fares (albeit, not much). I needn’t have stressed, if I’d followed my own advice and checked. Me, who believes that being an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome (because it doesn’t), but the optimist has a better time leading up to it (because they do). Welcome to my world, and the idiosyncratic way my brain can work.

It was mainly that unnecessary (and ungrounded) fear which kept me awake on Saturday night, so that by the time I went to bed at 3 o’clock on Monday morning, I’d been awake for 44 hours. I normally roll in at about 3am, it’s just the way my body clock has settled. It’s said that when your day isn’t dictated by anything much, a natural sleeping pattern will emerge. I struggle to understand what’s ‘natural’ about mine, when sometimes I simply can’t switch my brain off, even at 3am, and even with prescription sedatives. It’s the time of day truly in the twilight between the last and the next. At 2am, the previous night is still unwinding and straggling home. At 4am, early morning workers and services are waking up. But at 3am, the least happens, but not in my brain. In there, 3am became eternal.

So I dream lucidly, which I’ve been writing a lot of lately, as I’ve embraced it in favour of fighting it and trying to get some actual dead time sleep. My sleep seems to be more subconscious than unconscious, in that zone between wakefulness and proper REM sleep (where ‘They’ exist, in The Paradoxicon), and where I’ve found that I can take some degree of control of my dreams. If I’m getting all spiritual about it, I’ve learned that it’s like talking to the universe (from this blog). And that can be complicated and confusing, but better to embrace it and learn from it, than to fear it and flee. In the same article, I wrote of how others think the universe talks back. When it’s explained in the way I wrote that I get it, it makes sense at least to the superstitious and those who believe in luck and guiding spirits (and to an extent, me). Some would call these universal interactions signs from God, but I’m an atheist. ‘God’, extraterrestrials, a higher intelligence, the universe: they’re all interchangeable. I’m a scientist, not an agnostic though, so I appreciate ‘The force’ as that of the universe. I certainly witnessed messages and signs on Sunday, as I deliberately set out to look out for them (they tend to be only as obvious as necessary, sometimes not even occurring to the less observant).

The first interaction came early on, as I boarded the train to London. There were two particularly unpleasant, well-to-do looking people on the platform. It is said that one should not judge a book, and I’m an advocate of that, as I don’t wish to be judged for what some see as my cover. But I believe it’s fair and accurate to base an initial general opinion of someone on the newspaper they read. And in the vast majority of cases, I will confront potential conflict with dialogue, to encourage debate, so better to understand an opposing point of view. But this vile couple, probably in their 70s, were reading The Hate Mail on Sunday, and the Sunday Pun. I was quite prepared to change seats, carriages, or trains to avoid them. But they travelled in First Class, like the fascist capitalists they are. The universe had stepped in, and saved at least one life.

The train journey to London is quite pleasant when all runs smoothly, with full-length, on-time trains, as was the case on Sunday. Then it’s 50 minutes into London Victoria, via the Bowie lands of Bromley and Brixton, and then past my favourite London structure, Battersea Power Station. On Sunday, the journey was even nicer, albeit ten minutes longer, as engineering works diverted my train onto a different line for a leg of the trip. I was jotting notes in my journal, and happened to glance up to see Catford outside. Having lived there for ten years, SE6 is where my heart still beats.

A further treat was provided at Victoria Station when I alighted from the train, as a load of Pullman carriages parked up on the adjacent platform. Unfortunately for those privileged enough to travel in those on Sunday, the steam locomotive was out of action, so they got a diesel engine instead, which for me was just as nice (I like trains).

A quick trip through London’s light blue vein (the Victoria Line), and I was at Euston, where I’d hoped to meet a street girl called Zoe.

I first met Zoe five weeks ago, as I was smoking a cigarette outside Euston Station, and she asked me for a roll-up. I was happy to oblige, because I can’t roll for shit, so she rolled them both. It was obvious the young lady was on the streets, and naturally, I can empathise, although I submit that it’s far worse for a lone and vulnerable female. So we chatted for about ten minutes, about life on the streets and the world at large. That’s what it’s like out there. You find humanity in people who are only there because, for whatever reason, their lives fell apart, and most are judged as having brought it all on themselves. Trust me, it’s no-one’s greatest wish, and it’s not something people deserve. I know that addiction can transcend all other needs, I’m an alcoholic (sober now, but always with Alcohol Dependence Syndrome on my list of doctors’ diagnoses). When you’ve been there, you form a bond with that community, and it’s one which you can only get if you’ve been there, as others would confirm. Trouble is, few people ask them. There’s a deep human connection with someone in that situation, past, present and future. Lest we forget we are human.

I left Zoe to catch my train to Milton Keynes, leaving her some money and a promise to meet her four weeks later. As far as I was concerned, she could spend the cash on whatever she needed or wanted, I can hardly preach about feeding an addiction, and I wouldn’t. If a can of cider or a joint helps her to ease the fear of the streets, so be it. She’d asked what I do. Seeing as I’ve got used to it now, I told her I’m a writer. I don’t know of many occupations which illicit the kind of intrigue or amazement in people that being a writer does, and it had been just such a ‘WTF’ moment as usual. She asked me what I’d written, and I told her. She was especially intrigued by the concepts behind Cyrus Song, so I promised her a copy when I next passed through Euston, four weeks from then.

Come the time to plan ahead for the usual (routine, after 18 months) trip to see my kids, two weeks ahead, I checked the National Rail website. Unfortunately, the Sunday I was due to return to London was one of those when multiple engineering works conspired together, to make the journey all but impossible. Even if I was prepared to change trains five times and trust all connections, I wasn’t going to make it to Euston at the time I’d said: about 10.30. So I put a request out on Facebook, asking anyone who lived or worked in the area to keep an eye out for Zoe, as she’s regularly around Euston Station. It was a simple message to say that I couldn’t make it, but that I’d be there the following week (I’d checked that I could, aboard that phantom train at the top). The message was shared a few times, and I placed my trust in social media and humanity.

Was I being presumptuous or having delusions of importance? Did I consider myself so special that this girl would make the effort to meet me again? Who the fuck was I to foist a copy of my book on her, like some self-important evangelist giving a starving person a bible (‘Gee, thanks. This looks delicious’)? Well, she’d asked for the book, as she said she liked to read, as I did when I was out there. It’s the only affordable distraction. But again, I’ve been there, and I know what it’s like to crave human contact, and to have so little that you pin your thoughts on some distant promise. I remember how nice it is to have a ‘member of the public’ (because most homeless people don’t value themselves as such, and neither does much of society) simply give you some time, to talk and listen, not of your life and your problems, but of hopes and dreams. Invariably those people are financially generous too, but the monetary is not the greatest value the homeless place in their contact with others. Anyway, I couldn’t make it, and when I arrived on Sunday, I’d had no confirmation that she’d got my message.

Before setting off with the book, I’d looked on what3words, to find Zoe an address. The concept is the brainchild of Jack Waley-Cohen, Mohan Ganesalingam and Chris Sheldrick:

what3words provides a precise and incredibly simple way to talk about location. We have divided the world into a grid of 3m x 3m squares and assigned each one a unique 3 word address.

Better addressing enhances customer experience, delivers business efficiency, drives growth and supports the social and economic development of countries. With what3words, everyone and everywhere now has an address.

And it’s that social element which is one of the most important, because the system is being adopted by national and international address databases. The upshot of this, is that ‘everyone and everywhere now has an address.’ Having an address is essential to gaining some sort of foot back into humanity, because with an address, you can apply for a bank account and for any benefits owing. I came up with what I thought was a radical plan to solve homelessness, a universal basic income, financed by a social tax on personal data. But for as long as such a solution is a slow political plod in the distance, and while attitudes of the homeless deserving their lot are still only too common, those people remain downtrodden and forgotten. They wouldn’t be human if they didn’t crave a base, somewhere of their own. While that’s just a plot of land or a park bench, that place can be used as an address, recognised as such, and allowing those of otherwise no fixed abode to make a start on rebuilding their lives. It would take a particularly humanitarian postman to actually deliver a letter or a parcel to these three-word addresses, but there’s nothing more practical to prevent such an act of humanity, as to deliver something to someone who has a place where they belong, even if that address is a tent. Traditionally, the homeless have made use of the charity afforded by most churches offering to serve as a postal address (for the purposes of bank accounts and benefits etc.) The what3words system gives more of a sense of belonging, even if that’s a patch of concrete, grass, or woodland.

So I found Zoe an address, assuming she’d be unaware of what3words, and in case she needed it (as I didn’t pry into her personal affairs any more than she was prepared to tell me in confidence). Then I waited at engine.dice.cheek (her place) but she wasn’t home, and she didn’t return in the 20 minutes I could hang around. Of course, she may not have even remembered we’d met, let alone arranged to meet, but I thought at the time that she would. Equally, she might have been housed. But although I try to remain optimistic, I know what it can be like out there, so I just hope she’s okay.

I’ve kept Zoe’s copy of the book (I can’t give it to anyone else, even if I wanted to (I don’t), as I’ve signed it for her), and I’ll take it with me next time I’m passing through, in the hope that I can find out she’s okay. And if not, the months after that…

The final leg of the outward journey has coping mechanisms in Virgin’s Pendolino trains (The tilty ones: I like those) to Milton Keynes. I was amused for a moment, by a young lad, seated on the other side of the aisle with his parents. Probably about my own son’s age (12), he was saving family numbers in what I assume was a new phone. My own kids are fortunate to have both sets of grandparents still intact, with my parents and my ex-wife’s being ‘nanny and granddad,’ and, ‘nanna and grampy’ respectively. I didn’t catch the train boy’s paternal grandparents’ names, because I was so enamoured by the nans’: ‘Nanny’, and ‘Granno’. Granno: The images it played out in my mind were many, based only on the genius of a family who call one of the parents’ mum’s ‘granno’. My social anxiety and paranoia are eased when I witness such human thinking.

I met the kids at Milton Keynes, and there was no foreword, no caveat, nor addenda from their mum and step dad, so we were free to gallivant. First, to the pub (with the full knowledge of mum and other dad, because I can do that now, even with kids in tow) for lunch: a ‘spoons, so a known quantity. The food, company and ambience were fine, but it was in the pub that things unravelled a little: I paid cash for lunch and drinks, and my change was 43p. Can we see where the problem is? The three of us ordered exactly the same as we had the last time we were there, but something had reduced in price by a penny. Because the change last time was 42p. It wasn’t planned the last time, and even though I keep an eye out for 42, it’s not an obsession, apart from ‘mild’ OCD. But there was now an imbalance in the universe. Salvation came later, in the unlikely form of McDonald’s, when we later went for frappés, and ours was order 41.

Shopping and further gallivanting kept us busy for another couple of hours, then it was time to leave. I always get the most painful separation pangs, when I give the kids a hug, and we descend to our respective platforms to wait for trains in opposite directions. I’m in the habit of just walking away and not looking back in those situations, I just have to keep going. ‘Trains pass at high speed and can cause suction on the platforms,’ the signs read. Sometimes I look at my kids over the other side of the rails, with their mum and other dad. Sometimes I just spend some time in the gents, then sit against the wall, far from the platform edge. I like trains, but I don’t want to play with them any more. But I did get a little reassuring sign from the universe, when my 16.41 train was a minute late: It’ll be okay.

The return journey is a reverse of the first, but lighter of wallet and somewhat heavier in shopping and heart. I stopped for a while at Euston to smoke, but still no sign of the person who lives around engine.dice.cheek.

I get home and I’m exhausted. I used to commute to London every day for 25 years, but nowadays, even a leisure day is mentally tiring. It’s the best day of the month, the one spent with my kids, and with life all rather good for everyone now. But when you have depression, you may have all of your wishes granted, yet still there will be times. It never goes away.

I’m home, I’m dry, and I’ve worked hard to get better. I smile, but I can never be complacent. The reminders and the guilt remain, including those who still judge but lack the confidence for confrontation.

It’s life-long, every day, and it’s personal. The Catford cat looks down, watching over the people and frozen. I miss my kids, and I apparently deserve the pain. The only way I have of exorcising even some of it, is to write it down.

Thanks for listening.

Zoe is probably in her mid-twenties, about 5′ 3” and slim, with blonde / ginger frizzy hair. She’s often around at the front of the station, in the retail square. It’s always nice for a homeless person if someone speaks and listens to them. Human contact is what the lonely and lost crave the most.

Three wishes: for not-things, and one for luck

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Just over two years ago, a dog theme cropped up in my short stories. First, there was A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie, the story which won Writing Magazine’s ‘Life-changing’ story competition last year, and which became a children’s book, now being used in some family learning classes. It’s the story of a young girl, dealing with loss and life’s changes, helped by her talking dog, and by wishing for ‘not-things’ to happen. That story was written when I was sofa-surfing, then lodging with a family, whose dog died. They’d lost a friend and family member, and that’s what the book is about.

After that, I moved into the flat above the pub, where the landlady acquired a very small dog. It was while I sat in the bar one night, watching the little thing, that I decided to write an antithesis to my children’s book. I was only in the bar for a while, so this is flash fiction, coming in at just over 500 words:

Gothic dinner

TWO WISHES

There’s an old lady who’s very upset: she’s lost her dog. She’s here at the pub where I live with mum and dad: the lady; not the dog. Because the lady lost her dog. The lady and the dog are regulars but it’s just the lady today because she’s lost her dog. She’s telling mum and dad about her dog: it’s lost. The lady doesn’t know what happened to the dog. It just disappeared when she was at the pub last Sunday. Today is Sunday, so the dog has been missing for a week and the lady is upset.

While all this is going on in the pub, I’m creating a wish in the kitchen. I may only be eleven years old and a bit slow, but I can make wishes come true. Simple is a label: like a label on food. I pay no attention to the label placed on me, any more than a chicken would to its packaging. The chicken is dead and unable to read the label on its wrapping. I’m not dead but I have this label of being simple. Unlike a chicken though, I can grant wishes. And besides, simple is how I look at life and solve problems.

I know that I’m best off in the kitchen, because it’s where people can’t hear me and I can’t hear them. I know they talk about me, and I try to do what I think they want me to, but that sometimes gets me into trouble. I do as I’m told and more: if someone asks me to do something, I’ll usually do it. If someone wishes for something, I’ll do my best to make that wish come true.

I asked the sad lady in the pub what she wished for and she said she wished she could have the nicest roast chicken dinner she’s ever tasted. So I’m making a wish come true by cooking lunch. They say I’m a good cook, but I know they’re humouring me and just want me out of the way. I’m a savant, rather than a servant, and I’m both in the kitchen. I’m in charge of the kitchen: I choose the ingredients and I cook them to make nice meals. On this occasion, I’m not only cooking a meal but I’m granting a wish as well.

The chicken is nearly finished roasting; the potatoes are in the roasting tin as well. I put the vegetables on to boil, before going into the pub to lay the place settings for lunch. The old lady is still upset. She’s saying she wishes someone could bring her little dog back. As I lay out the cutlery, she’s saying how she misses the little wagging tail and the cute yapping noise her little baby made.

All I can do is grant the old lady her wish, so I serve up what I hope will be the nicest roast chicken dinner she’s ever tasted: she gets a leg and so does mum. Dad’s greedy, so he gets two legs. I wait while my diners taste their meal, and they all comment on how it’s the nicest chicken they’ve ever tasted. They’re just humouring me of course.

I return to the kitchen, happy that I’ve granted two wishes: I remember my dad saying a week ago, “I wish someone would shut that old woman’s yappy fucking dog up and shove it down her throat.”

© Steve Laker, 2015.

My anthology, The Perpetuity of Memory, is available now.

Talking to the universe with cannabinoids (how to use the force)

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

Have you ever bet something on a ball of paper going into a waste basket? Then when it doesn’t go in, made it best of three? Whether consciously or not, we all ask questions – rhetorical and specific – of whom? Who are we speaking to when we ask if a certain person likes us, or whether this too shall end? God? Ourselves? No-one? And sometimes we might notice little things, like a certain thing or person being in a particular place, something someone says on TV, or just a weird coincidence. Could those be the answers to our questions, or at least clues?

Cannabis-BrainImage: Waking Times

Am I off my nut on weed? No, but cannabis does open the mind. It’s a medically proven fact: A cannabinoid is one of a class of diverse chemical compounds that acts on cannabinoid receptors in cells that alter neurotransmitter release in the brain. It was more imaginatively summed up in a recent Lifehacker post:

Essentially, cannabinoids’ effect on our brains is to keep our neurons firing, magnifying our thoughts and perception and keeping us fixed on them (until another thought takes us on a different tangent). That’s why when you’re high, it’s really not a good time to drive, study for a test, or play sports that require coordination, like tennis or baseball. Like alcohol, caffeine, and sugar, cannabinoids also affect the levels of dopamine in our brain, often resulting in a sense of relaxation and euphoria.”

It’s a subjective thing, but for me it means that I can think much more deeply about things, and for longer, not just when I’m high, but as a regular user of cannabinoids. My own atheism is explained on this blog, most recently in my quasi-religious posts about quantum physics and lucidity. Together with the personal statement on my Typewriter page, these are the means by which I reconcile religion with science. Smoking weed has been helpful in allowing me to consolidate things in my mind, and take on a more spiritual view of life, the universe and everything. Living alone helps too.

So very often, I’ll sit and read, write, question and learn, for many hours. And sometimes, I’ll stare out of the window from my desk, or make a nest on the sofa and listen to some music, and I’ll think aloud (yes, I talk to myself. I live alone). My IQ and my knowledge will only get me so far, and I’m hungry for more, so I ask questions of my heart and my head. I balance my own needs with those of others, but I can’t help but follow a dream, however unscientific that may seem. And if I dream, if I put my mind out there, sometimes I get an answer.

Religious people might call it a message from God, but I believe the universe talks back. I believe there is something out there, and the best term I can think of, is it’s a force (not unlike that in Star Wars), which can be used. I’ve not started practising Voodoo yet, but it’s one of many belief systems based ultimately in spirituality. But I’m no more a spiritualist than I am a Christian: I’m an atheist and I believe in forces greater than us in the universe, which is perfect common sense really.

At an existential level, the universe (The Force, “God”…) can give us huge signs as a wake up call, whether individually or collectively. My personal non-religious epiphany came when I was quite literally in the gutter: Drunk and on the streets, with no-one and nothing. Many agencies conspired to get me better, including a great deal of work on my part, but it was something which made me reflect on things I didn’t understand. It’s obvious to me now, that if I’d been more attentive of the warnings in the first 42 years of my life, I might have avoided a breakdown. But with hindsight, I’m grateful it happened.

Nowadays I’m a writer. I’ve only had the courage to call myself that for almost two years, since I built a portfolio and a track record. But I’ve been writing full-time now for nearly four years, mainly fiction. My stories are imaginative, but I like to think that they’re plausible (they’re researched thoroughly), certainly in the sci-fi genre (where much of the research is scientific). A good story needs to be affecting but believable. As writers, we can’t rely too much on chance, even though wildly coincidental things do happen in the real world.

As someone who’s been accused of relying on coincidence in the past, Paul Auster no less, set out to demonstrate how strange coincidences happen in real life, by asking National Public Radio’s Weekend All Things Considered listeners to submit their own stories. And lots of people had tales to tell, with over 4000 submissions to Auster’s request. My personal favourite was this one, from Linda Elegant in Portland, Oregon:

The Chicken

As I was walking down Station Street early one Sunday morning, I saw a chicken a few yards ahead of me. I was walking faster than the chicken, so I gradually caught up. By the time we approached Eighteenth Avenue, I was close behind. The chicken turned south on Eighteenth. At the fourth house along, it turned in at the walk, hopped up the front steps, and rapped sharply on the metal storm door with its beak. After a moment, the door opened and the chicken went in.

Weird things really do happen, and not just in America. And not many in my fiction writing, but those odd signs and coincidences are there in my real life, like they are in everyone’s, but often unseen or dismissed.

Through learning and practising, I am able to dream lucidly. Essentially, when I’m asleep, I’m aware of being in a dream, and I can interact with whatever that contains. My dreams are still surreal, but I’ve learned how to recognise when I’m actually in them.

Dreams, or the dream scape, are visions of the universe, much of which we don’t understand yet. One day, perhaps we will. For now, dreams are a representation, some of which we understand. That’s what surreal is: Not quite real, but comprehensible. Only with further thought and learning do those things become easier to accept. As Ted Arroway said to Ellie, near the end of Carl Sagan’s Contact, “We thought this might make things easier for you.”

Much has been written (by others) of dream meanings and interpretations. As far as I’m concerned, that’s as subjective as the dreams themselves, and people’s personal interpretations are therefore what they make of their own dreams. But I also believe that three people live within each of us: the person we think we are, the person others think we are, and who we really are. I treat my own dreams as a combination of the three.

There are no great messages or revelations in my dreams, but they fuel my active mind. Others may recommend keeping a dream diary. All of my thoughts (both wakeful and dreamed, as the two become virtually indistinguishable sometimes in lucidity) are in notebooks, my short stories, my novels, and on this blog. This is my universe as I see it. If I can get all of that, just by keeping an open mind and dreaming, it gives you an idea of how much is out there. Again, none of my dreams contain neon signs, but now that I look back over four years of writing, I can see that I’ve been somehow guided.

Dead people do exist in the dream scape, but they’re not always the cast of a nightmare. I’ve written before of how quantum physics allows ghosts to exist, and I wrote a story – Cardboard sky – about exactly that. People in dreams are real people, alive or dead, who are able to be there: The living who imagine and dream, and the dead who now live in a different physical form. Dreams are our way to meet them, out in the universe, where they now live. Lucidity in dreaming took me months to achieve, but it’s ultimately easiest to get there (eventually) by repeating, before sleep:

“Tonight I will receive and remember the messages of the dream world.”

Look out for synchronicity, those strange little coincidences. A call from someone you were thinking of; suddenly seeing something which suggests a third way, when we’d already considered two competing ones; a book falling open, a snippet of information, a number popping up. These are coincidences, but we know that those are common outside the realms of fiction. They seem more common than they actually are, because coincidences are more memorable than anything less subtle. It’s the way of the force, to guide us gently. So conversely, when things are a bit shit, that’s because we didn’t notice the more subtle signs. I’m living proof of this. Now I’ve learned to not live blindly thrashing around, but with a greater awareness of all around me. I opened my eyes and my mind.

There are those who believe that physical health can be improved with spiritual healing. Not being a practitioner of anything particularly physically strenuous, I’m not qualified to have an opinion. But what I do know, is that my mental well-being has improved over the last four years. Now with a permanent base, I feel secure enough to question my mind, rather than fear it. My depression and anxiety are chronic, and I have medication to help, but my questioning and exploring mind keeps the dark dog to heel most of the time.

By questioning and examining even the small things, I can play devil’s advocate with myself. If I have any kind of internal or external conflict, I’ll always try to understand my opposer’s point of view, so that I might better understand it. I much prefer debate to argument, because the latter always breaks down by definition, never leading to a solution. If you try to see things from another perspective (how others see you), that viewpoint becomes easier to understand. And it can be applied to bad things happening too, and how those could just be one of many subtle signs from the universe. To use an example:

Some unspecified time ago (many, in fact), I was involved in a relationship. For whatever reason, that partnership ended. In one particular case, I was very deeply affected. Essentially, I’d lost a life, and I was trying to hang on to it. I treasured a particular bracelet: Just a cheap, leather strap, but it had an emotional connection. So when that bracelet was stolen, I was distraught. I’d lost my one and only link to a person who’d been a part of my life. I was upset, and I was angry, at whomever had taken it from me. But then I realised there was no point. With that last connection gone, so was she. And the thief was the one who’d facilitated that. That was a whole different way to look at it. And just like my breakdown, as time went on, I realised it was for the best. And like my breakdown, it was of my own making. But unlike that, it’s as though I had a guide. Some would say, a guardian angel. From an atheist point of view, given the science behind my own atheism, angels do exist. Like the ancient gods and aliens of theorists, angels in religious texts are one scribe’s interpretation of a witness statement, or of their own vision. So mine are of my own dreams and imaginings.

Problems and delays can often be overcome if you think differently. Where there are two obvious but conflicting routes, there is often a third, less obvious one. If you’re stuck somewhere, use the time to think. As I myself once said: “Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit: how do you get out? You could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination.” If I’m ever delayed by trains, unable to leave a train station, I’ll find somewhere to sit and write.

If you pay attention to things around you, it will inevitably lead to further discovery. Something you see while you’re out and about in the world, something on TV, in a book, or in a newspaper: Look it up and learn more about it. This works especially well for me when I’m adding to my film collection. If I like a film’s direction, production, camera work, costumes, or whatever, I’ll make a note of the crew credits and look up more of that person’s work. If I watch a documentary, I’ll often look into a subject further, inevitably leading me into a day-long Wikipedia session. And from all that learning, sometimes a question will pop up in conversation that I’m able to give a qualified answer to. It’s nice to be informed. Another recent personal example, from nature:

One of the many avian visitors to the flat roof outside my studio, is a wagtail. The window in front of my desk looks out on the flat roof, so I see the little chap quite a lot. So I decided to learn more about him. He wasn’t pissing me off, but I wanted to know more, and as well as wagtails’ characteristics and taxonomy, I looked into their spiritual meanings (because I was writing):

“Seeing a Wagtail is a reminder to stay cheerful. It is a healthy practice to make ourselves feel light and happy. Being cheerful and gregarious to others will earn us the same treatment which in turn makes our lives happy and worth living.”

I live a life of discovery and exploration, not of conflict and blinkered belief. Whether you’re awake or dreaming, smoking weed or not, the universe is out there.

My books are available on Amazon.

On quantum entanglement and meditative states

SCIENCE | THE WRITER’S LIFE, THE UNIVERSE AND EVERYTHING (PART 2)

I wondered at first if I should include this in my recent essay, ‘Lucid dreaming and the quantum human soul’, my attempt to explain life, the universe and everything, in accessible writing, and backed up by science. In that article, I explained in my own words, how I understand quantum physics to mean that the human soul is immortal. And I tried to explain how being able to lucid dream can take the explorer into the quantum universe. Quantum entanglement is just one logical step beyond, so I’ve written a post script to that blog entry.

QuantumEntanglement

Einstein theorised quantum entanglement, and it’s later been proven by science. It’s actually quite easy to explain, now that I’ve thought about it.

We know the old traditional science: Once, the holy grail was splitting the atom. We’ve done that, and in doing so, we have unleashed the power of the nucleus. At the moment, that can be used to build nuclear weapons of mass destruction, or to fuel exploration craft to the stars, surely the destiny of any technological race. We’ve made it that far, and now we find ourselves and our planet on a pivot, between destroying ourselves, or co-operating to populate other planets and expand our race. It’s in the nuclei of atoms that the chemical reactions of fusion and fission happen, to produce the power we now have.

The universe began with the Big Bang. Even if it didn’t, there are nuclear reactions taking place, all over, all the time, and the universe has been doing that since it began, however that was. Our earth wasn’t always here, and neither therefore, were we. Ancient aliens theories which posit that we were left here by supreme beings aside (or not), we were all created somewhere, and from something. It is a fact, that all of the matter in the universe was created at the start. Ergo, we are all made of stars. Inside every one of us, are sub-atomic particles which existed and which were split by nuclear reaction at the beginning of time.

Just as things exist in parallel states in quantum physics, quantum entanglement suggests that when a sub-atomic particle is split, it retains a link (a communication channel) with its counterpart, regardless of their distance apart. This has been proven by scientists on Earth, where a reaction in one sub-atomic particle was observed to be reacted to by another.

So if we accept that the universe is roughly 14 billion years old, and that everything in it came from the same place, it gets a bit brain fart. Because every single one of us is made of cells, which are made of atoms, all of which have nuclei, containing sub-atomic particles. Those particles fused together at some point, after they were all blown apart by the nuclear genesis of the universe. Therefore, every one of the trillions of sub-atomic particles in your body, has counterparts, somewhere in the universe, to which they are still attached, in a quantum telepathic way. We are all part of the living universe.

Given the almost infinite possibilities out there, as a science fiction writer, this throws up many thoughts. It is now scientifically proven, that every particle in my body is connected to another, somewhere in the universe. So I might have connections with ancient extraterrestrials, who have the other half of those particles. Some of me may be in some vast ocean, on a planet in a galaxy billions of light years distant. The possibilities are only limited by imagination. And just as science fiction often becomes fact, those possibilities are most likely probabilities. I know for a fact that I’m connected to trillions of things in the universe, I just don’t know what or where they all are.

Even as a science fiction writer, I keep my scenarios and ideas at least plausible, because a lot of them have their basis in contemporary science. I read a lot of scientific texts, and I make sure I understand them, by doing extra research if necessary. This is why many of my sci-fi stories carry so much weight: because they have firm foundations in science, and like other sci-fi authors, my imagination can see futures, and expand on accepted wisdom.

So in my previous essay, I attempted to explain how the quantum universe works. Then I described how I’d achieved lucidity through dreaming, and how I’m able to use that to explore the universe in my sleep. What I’d missed out, is how we’re all connected, and a part of it. Counterparts of trillions of parts of the universe are within each of our bodies, and if we can meditate, we can connect them.

This may sound new age, spiritual, or insane. But it’s the basis of many religions, and proven scientific fact. This is the piece of the jigsaw which allows me to reconcile science and religion, fact and fiction.

If you can achieve lucidity through dreams, or some other meditative state, you can start to join the trillions of dots and see the bigger picture. Open your mind and you will see.

My books are available on Amazon.

Philosophical jigsaws and see-saws

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

I like to read, and I read a lot: Newspapers, books, blogs, and all sorts of internet research. For the latter, I use many sources relevant to different areas. But Wikipedia is always there: a depository of human knowledge, and kind of a hitch hiker’s guide, made by the people, for the people. It’s free, because it’s financed by donations (I’m a donor). It’s a fact, that every article on Wikipedia, eventually links back to the section on philosophy, which sits at the opposite end of the see-saw to ignorance.

Socrates

Over the last four years, I’ve developed my own philosophies, as I’ve got in touch with life and questioned it. Along with my previous essay on lucid dreaming and the quantum human soul, these philosophies help me through life, understanding it in the best way I can, and trying to convey some of that in words. Some I picked up from others and adapted, and others I wrote myself:

  • Life is like a jigsaw puzzle: all the pieces fit together eventually. But don’t spend your life following rules and convention. Do the edges whenever you feel like it. Think differently.
  • It’s your life. Do with it as you please, but with due consideration for others.
  • There are three people who occupy every human body: Who you think you are, who other people think you are, and who you really are.
  • Being a pessimist or an optimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has the better time leading up to it.
  • If you’ve done something wrong, you have a moral duty to put it right.
  • Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit: How do you get out? You could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination.
  • You need to understand what misunderstood means.
  • Be the best that you can, at the thing you enjoy most.

I say those things to my kids, and to curious people who ask me questions, about life, the universe, and everything. My philosophies are partly a personal coping mechanism.

So why am I getting all philosophical? In short, because in the not too distant future, I can imagine the world at a pivotal point, even if I wasn’t a science fiction and horror writer. Some of the scenarios I’ve written about, in my short stories and my books, are now looking more real.

For humanity, the see-saw has been the splitting of the atom, once the holy grail of science. In achieving our race’s goal to unlock the nucleus, we unleashed a power which could destroy or save our species. Until now, we’ve used our discovery to create weapons, and to destroy each other. And yet, as one race, we’d be destroying ourselves. For the most part, we agreed that nuclear weapons had been a bad idea. But rogue states still threaten to upset the status quo. And now, we’ve perfected nuclear fusion: splitting the atom to release limitless free and clean energy. Soon we could be using nuclear fusion drives to take us far into space. We are on the verge of becoming a technological race, which uses that technology to explore, not to destroy. But the see-saw could still tip the other way.

It’s an existential thing: Through ignorance and quick, aggressive action, we could extinct our species. By thinking bigger, we could evolve and travel to the stars. All we need to do, is keep talking.

Whether I’m a writer or not, I repeat my optimism vs. pessimism philosophy over and over again in my head. And I try to believe it.

My books are available on Amazon.