Adventures in Nan’s dentures

FAMILY LIFE

With my next collection of short stories finished (and published in a couple of weeks), I’ve returned to the book which will follow. When I left it, my dad was a chimney sweep, so I’ve been back to childhood to pick up from there, trying to leave my dark fiction writer self in the future.

Desk and skull

Sundays at Nan’s followed roughly the same routine: Lunch and a long walk, then tea, and any remaining jobs Nan had listed for dad (after he’d swept the chimney). Sunday tea wasn’t so much quintessentially English as idiosyncratic, with Nan normally taking her afternoon drink with a slice of toast, browned under the grill on one side only. No-one can remember when Nan lost her lower set of dentures.

For reasons known only to those who took me there, we’d sometimes pop in to see Nan’s next door neighbour, in an adjoining war memorial bungalow. I remember very little of the discussion, but Nan’s friend Franie (Frances, I think), lived alone, and sat for the most part at her dining table by the window overlooking the front garden onto the road, and on the other side, the farm. She liked to “watch the folk go by…” quite a lot.

The farm opposite Nan’s was Simmons’ Farm in those days, run mainly by the brothers, who all had occupational nicknames. The most fragrant was ‘Spuddy’, whose brother (‘Digger’) had a son in my class at secondary school. There were fewer things to occupy teenage boys’ curiosities in the 1980s, so producing a severed turkey’s foot from one’s school bag was guaranteed to draw attention, especially when the foot had tendons attached, allowing it to be operated as a puppet claw. Acquiring such niceties was a simple matter of walking over the road from Nan’s to the farm around Christmas time.

We were very close to our food in those days, with most that fed the family taken from the land. At Oldbury Place in Ightham, dad would sometimes escort his boss, Mr Byam-Cook, on shoots, both on his own land and further afield. ‘Mr. B.C.’ had a black Labrador gun dog (Beta) and dad was his human beater, scaring game from the undergrowth with a stick.

Many were the days us children helped mum in the kitchen, plucking pheasants, skinning rabbits, and picking lead shot from various unfortunate Beatrix Potter characters. These would be served with vegetables, fresh from the kitchen garden. Having little money didn’t mean going hungry when the boss was a wealthy altruist with a gun.

The main landscaped gardens (by Dad & Co.) were host to a tennis court, and many visitors on weekends when the main house was open to members of the public with an interest in history, or where their neighbours lived. There was at least one occasion when I opened the door of our annexe stable cottage to a curious traveller, who no doubt grew gradually confused when she was shown around the wrong house by an over-eager kid.

The whole estate – the houses and the grounds – were an adventurer’s playground when we were young. The big house was ridiculously so, with rooms bearing names I never knew existed. It had separate rooms for general dining and taking breakfast, supplied by a cathedral-like kitchen, with its own walk-in larder and a maid’s room. There was a library, a games room and a drawing room, which I never saw anyone drawing in (there was also a scullery, but no skulls). There was a main living room and a vast bathroom, and a chequered corridor ran throughout from the main reception hall. That was the ground floor, then there were two storeys above and one below.

When the owners of the big house were away, mum would sometimes let us go with her to the mansion in school holidays, when she was cleaning or cooking. I dare say it caused her more stress than we ever knew, as she worked downstairs and we were two floors above, strangely silent among treasures but still very much in someone else’s house. Wealthy people too, who had real treasures.

These were people who were well-travelled, so there were various curiosities from around the world strategically placed. Where we had a family photo album, they had oil paintings of ancestors on their walls. But even though I was only young, I questioned these. Although they were fine paintings by talented artists, to me they were unreal, at least because they weren’t as honest as a photograph.

There was the subterranean level too, in the wine cellar. No doubt there were many great vineyard vintages ageing and increasing in value down there, but to a kid, it was yet more adventure.

And then of course, there were guns. But these were locked in a cupboard, within a locked room, which was out-of-bounds to all but Mr Byam-Cook. I recall at least one time, when he came to our door at night, and there’d been intruders in the big house. There may have been far more anecdotes to recall, if those guns hadn’t been so responsibly kept. Or maybe not, if we’d all died.

Seven days a week it seemed, mum and dad both worked. Even days out were usually wrapped around something which someone else needed doing, and my parents would take us kids along. But I recall no resigned shrugs or kicking of heels, because even the working days were adventures for enquiring minds whose lives didn’t depend on it. We depended on our parents and it was both of them who worked and made sacrifices to put food on various tables.

Despite my research spanning several centuries for parts of this book, and the many old houses that’s taking me to, the mystery of Nan’s missing dentures remains thus far unsolved.

Silent Gardens will be published in March.

An aardvark in the air tonight

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Like everyone else, I was saddened by the news of the fire at London Zoo. It’s a place I know very well, from several visits over many years, and one very close to my heart when I wrote Cyrus Song. Four meerkat brothers are missing presumed dead, an aardvark called Misha perished, and I lost a little friend.

Misha and OttoMisha and Otto

I first visited London Zoo in 1977 on a primary school trip. Back then the big draw was Guy the gorilla, and we happened to visit on the day he died. Hoping I hadn’t cursed the place, I’ve returned many times since without incident, and most recently for the chapters of Cyrus Song which are set there.

A lot of research went into the book, to make the science plausible and the characters real. The three human leads each have a notebook on a shelf in my studio, containing their life stories, very little of which made it into the novel, but it was knowing the characters which allowed me to bring them to life in the unwritten words. I familiarised myself with London Zoo’s ‘Inventory’, and researched many of the species therein, so that I could give them voice and personality through the Babel fish.

Unfortunately on the day Simon Fry visited, the aardvarks were asleep:

There were too many interesting animals I wanted to speak to for me to be able to place them in any sort of order. So I decided to just go from A to Z. In the time available, I’d probably be able to speak to the aardvarks and the zebras, but very few others. But the big draw for me was the reptile house: Not because of my fascination with snakes in general, but because London Zoo is home to one male and one female black mamba.

Of course it would be handy if London Zoo laid out all of their exhibits alphabetically, but that wouldn’t be practical, so they didn’t. This being a warm spring Sunday afternoon, the zoo was quite busy. The aardvarks are in the ‘Animal Adventure’ area, which is mainly for young people. And aardvarks are nocturnal, so they were asleep. Which was a shame, because Misha and Otto looked like a couple very much at ease in one another’s company, at least when asleep. Otto had arrived from Berlin Zoo in 2014, so I’d have liked to ask him about that city, and whether he’d seen David Bowie.

It’s cold comfort that the post mortem shows she died of smoke inhalation in her sleep. But there she was, little Misha, curled up with Otto and both looking very pleased with themselves in dreams. I can only imagine how the guy from Berlin must be feeling now, but I do know that the zoo staff are very socially aware with the animal people, so he’ll be getting some sort of aardvark counselling. If only he could read my book, he’d see that I put him and Misha (she was from Holland) in a story which changed a lot of lives, and gives a perfectly reasonable answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything.

I’ve written many times of how I don’t write for the money, because there’s hardly any for the undiscovered self-publishing masses. I have my basic needs covered, so anything I make from writing I give away. I can hardly be called a philanthropist, as it’s really not much, but it’s what I don’t need. When life decided to give me a second chance, I resolved I’d pay it back.

As well as the charitable donations, I make my books available in libraries (on request), as I realise not everyone can afford books (I couldn’t once, and I used to base myself in a library when I was living on the streets). For those who can afford books, buying mine benefits good causes (mainly animal, homeless and addiction) and hopefully delivers a good read. Of course, anyone can donate directly to the charities but if we’re honest, most won’t. If someone’s buying a book anyway (because it’s received good reviews), the altruism by proxy is a small bonus. So it seemed only right to donate any proceeds from the sale of Cyrus Song in January to the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the whole science side of the zoo which the public displays and learning support.

I shan’t milk the passing of every individual leaf cutter ant to plug my book, but Misha has a place in my heart from it.

History predicts that each new book increases interest in preceding ones, so with The Unfinished Literary Agency almost finished, Cyrus Song might get noticed more. And that’s good for Misha and Otto.

In loving memory of Misha Aardvark, 20.06.07 – 23.12.17

Parking the bus on a lake

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Living with depression means that many of us are expecting a shit sandwich in the post any time, even if we know there’s no reason for one to have our address on it. For those of us who live alone, these can be difficult times, especially when the time of year is tinged with dark memories. For the writer, it’s material for another time, while pots boil on burners over Christmas, and I just float around in books.

Bus StationAutoEvolution.com

In the real world, one book is finished, one not, and a third is gathering around, circling sharks to play with from my Laker’s boat (a Laker being one who fished from lakes, in the history of family names): the finished, the unfinished, and the finned.

I’ve been busy with many things worthy of their own future stories, and my busman’s Christmas is very much one to look forward to, now that everyone else of concern is settled in their respective best places (with others simply ignored). Top of this list has been my sister by another mister, the young girl I met four years ago on the streets and who remains close. Now a new mum (not by me), The Courts got a bit of help keeping hold of the kid, and now they’re safe together in a foster placement for new mums. While everyone else was crawling over the new baby, and one in particular trying to claim some sort of credit for leaving a trail of destruction, I’d just been quietly working in the background, so that what they were cooing over could actually be cooed over and not taken away. I can only speak of it now, because the story has a happy beginning. The young one is called Cleo, which makes me an auntie.

The Unfinished Literary Agency (the book) is compiled and going through proofing. It’s 20 stories in all, available in January in paperback (272 pages) for £7.99 (other currencies are available). I out-sourced the back cover text, because I didn’t want it to sound too much from my own arse. I gave it to an editor acquaintance. ‘Friend’ would be stretching it, which is exactly why I went to him, as I knew I wouldn’t get sycophancy back. I knew he wouldn’t slag me off, and perhaps it’s a bit thick with the praise, but as the words of someone else about me, I was pleasantly surprised:

These are collected tales from an author variously compared with the surrealists Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas, the horror writers Kafka, Lovecraft, King and Poe, and with Douglas Adams, Arthur C. Clarke, Roald Dahl and Paul Auster.

“A writer who can hold a black mirror to the soul, and who has a deep insight into the human condition,” these are stories of fairy tale fantasy, plausible and whimsical science fiction, near-future vision and surreal dreams, with drops of dark humour. Tales of post-human landscapes mix with everyday slices of life to tell a longer story with a dark heart.

“A weird and thought-provoking journey…”

So that’s nice, to read about oneself, by someone else, in a published work, as most of my family will in the other book I can now concentrate even more fully on.

In Silent Gardens, I’m still fishing around my nan’s old house, with the farm opposite, where myself and a school friend used to procure turkey feet at this time of year. My friend’s uncle would obligingly leave the tendons protruding from the feet, so that we could use them as grasping claws on unsuspecting friends and family, and to pick up litter. It was all very Christmassy.

After the silence of the gardens, a third anthology is already taking shape. The Unfinished Literary Agency is lighter on pure graphic horror than The Perpetuity of Memory, and more suitable for all ages (my son co-wrote one of the stories). Given some of the material I’m being gifted in real life, the third collection will likely contain more surreal horror and mindfuckery, because it’s nice for people to read about fictional characters they can relate to in a published work.

Living alone with depression and anxiety at Christmas can be like keeping a bus afloat on a lake. If the lake has sharks in it, it’s even more fun.

Schrödinger’s Christmas cards

THE WRITER’S LIFE

This year I’ve sent out Christmas cards, for the first time in five years. They have watercolour pictures of various pink-scarf-wearing, smug-looking cats on the front, and they have glitter all over them, probably from fairies’ farts.

Schrodinger Quote

I’ve used Christmas as a smokescreen for sentimentality, and written personal greetings in each card, then I’ve drawn a collar and tie on the back of the envelopes. Sealed then, not with a kiss, but by a cartoon neck (no subliminal messages intended, just that ‘SWAN’ is nicer than ‘SWALK’).

The last time I sent cards would have been 2012, as it was in Christmas 2013 that I found myself self-deposited on the streets. The situation hadn’t improved much the following year, when I was sofa-surfing and estranged from most of my family. The re-gatherings of the family began two years ago, but I’ve still eschewed cards.

To my mind at least, cards are disposable, damaging to the environment, and really don’t serve much purpose, when a typical greeting reads “To Mary, Love from Dave x”. They have a short life, end up in the bin and drop glitter everywhere (and glitter everywhere is a very annoying thing). Most “Charity” cards have little right to call themselves that, with the most generous giving around 15% of the price to their nominated charity. There are 100% charity cards, made by small personal enterprises in developing countries, but despite being someone who eats liberal vegetables and reads The Guardian, I left it to late to order any.

In the last couple of years, I’ve donated money directly to charity in lieu of family Christmas cards, as I’ve still not been able to submit to the whole flogging of the Christmas vehicle. I also thought it might be nicer for non-recipients of cards to know that a starving child had a warm blanket, because a card would be no good to that child. But sometimes the obvious has a habit of punching you in the face.

And so it was when I was telling a young friend all of this, and while she gets that I’m not into Christmas, she picked up on something I myself said (It’s really nice to have someone to talk to who actually listens). I’d said how this year’s family gathering will be in January, and that no-one should need a date on a calendar to tell people they love them.

She reminded me I’m a writer (because sometimes, in all the confusion of life, I do forget), and that people like reading my words. So perhaps it might be good for me to get over myself, as it would be nice for other people to get a hand-written note from me. One day my autograph might be worth money. Although the latter will remain in the realms of fiction, she had a point, and it was an obvious one.

All of which is why I chose the smug cat cards. I’d love to know what cattery they’ve all been up to, as they do look very pleased with themselves indeed. The glitter could even be a feline design: when it’s seen in formations on carpets for months to come, perhaps those could be stellar maps. Probably not, but in any case, cards from me have always had to be expectation-managed, in that they probably wouldn’t happen. This year, several of Schrödinger’s cats are in transit with messages to deliver from a sci-fi writer. I checked the envelopes, and they definitely contained cats when they left me.

My other current writing genre hat (local and family historian) is on my head at the same time as my sci-fi one for a while, as I finish one book and continue writing another. The Unfinished Literary Agency running order is confirmed, which is pleasing in itself as the stories (some adapted for the book) tell a longer narrative when arranged in this way. I also spend more time than many writers just coming up with the titles, which is particularly evident in the forthcoming collection:

1. The office of lost things
2. Are ‘friends’ emojis?
3. Reflections of yesterday
4. Pink sunshine
5. Of mice and boys in 1984
6. A young captain plays it safe
7. Can angels get fleas?
8. The girl with the snake scarf
9. Subject to status
10. Quantum entanglement in hamsters
11. So long and thanks for all the animals
12. The long now clock
13. A Girl, Sheldon Cooper and Peter Cook
14. Zeigarnick’s kitchen
15. August Underground’s diner
16. Frankie says relax
17. The best laid plans

I’m fairly well-lubricated in the compiling and editing parts of a book, this being my fifth, so I’ll know the final page count and cover price sooner than I thought. If there’s room, there may still be some bonus tracks. I’ve already had someone comment on the first book draft, “This is one weirdly wacky ride…”, so that was nice.

With those cats in the post, children’s presents bought, and everyone tucked in for their own Christmas, I’m free to write alone. Recently I worked for 17 hours almost solid, writing one book, compiling another, and writing a critique for another writer. It wasn’t because I had to, nor that I even wanted to. I simply got lost in writing.

Silent Gardens is becoming a pleasantly meandering tale, using subjects to hop around time frames and locations, where another writer might favour chronological chapters. This non-conformist approach isn’t a deliberate defiance of convention, it’s just the way the book has guided itself (I do have a spirit guide, in my auntie Margaret).

I get lost in writing, yet sometimes I forget I’m a writer. I’ve always known I was a bit lost in life, and now I know why. It’s because I want to explore and discover. It’s because I’m not afraid. It’s because I like being lost.

Next year, my only wish is that more people read me, because then they might buy my books. And that means a socially anxious writer can talk to more people.

The Unfinished Literary Agency is published in January, and Silent Gardens in March.

Unopened, not unwanted

THE WRITER’S LIFE

It’s curious how things can turn out when you don’t plan them at all, like being homeless at Christmas, or a black cat landing in your lap. But then when looked at from a long-game perspective, it’s like the plans were there all along. Lately it’s been things in real life coming together which are freeing me up at a handy time to be writing. It’s like having atheist prayers answered, so that everything fell into place, despite Christmas.

Black heart gift

It was four years ago now that I tried the life of the tramp, and like Charles Bukowski, I eventually used it to write. The last few Christmases have been family occasions to a gradually greater extent, but with my mind still very aware of the rest of the world (including the homeless, near to our own homes) while most people shut themselves away in a family bubble.

The girl I wrote about a few weeks ago found some answers she wasn’t looking for, in places she wasn’t expecting. In another sci-fi story, she spoke as the last human, to animals and to technological beings, and her alien angels subtly intervened. She remains the Marmite filling in her family’s generational sandwich, and it’s a family extending far beyond pure blood bonds. But it turns out that it doesn’t matter who likes white and who likes brown bread, so long as they all like the filling.

For my part, I’ve finished The Unfinished Literary Agency, that being the second collection of short stories from my typewriter. It’s 17 new stories, some of which have appeared on this blog and been published elsewhere. Others are unique to the book, and there’ll be a further few bonus stories, re-imaginings and adaptations of old ones. The stories are complete, with just a few changes to make to one, to increase the effectiveness (offensiveness), then there’s just the publishing bit to do.

I’ve decided on the running order, so that the collected tales tell a longer story in the context of the book. Once the remaining compiling, editing and proofreading are done, I should have a final page count, cover price and publication date in about a month.

There are other stories coming out of the typewriter and there’ll be further volumes. With Christmas now available to get this next one out not in time for Christmas, I can concentrate more fully on my family and local history book. It’s a journey I’m enjoying, even more now because things have conspired to give me the space.

So at a time when others will be with family, I’ll be writing about mine, then when we all meet in January, I’ll have a new book. And when the kids come to stay with me at their grandparents’ house at Easter, the whole Marmite sandwich will be in another.

Christmas is a placeholder for many dark memories, and the roots of at least one of my PTSD diagnoses, but this will be the one which puts it back in its place. And you don’t need a date on a calendar to tell people you love them. 

I didn’t have to pray, and no-one had to get on their knees. Somehow, everything just came together, overseen by unseen alien angels. And it’s only weird if you make it that way.

The Unfinished Literary Agency ISBN-13: 978-1979983556
Silent Gardens ISBN-13: 978-1974367900

My previous books are available on Amazon, and can be ordered from most book shops and at libraries (for reference and borrowing).

A twisted restaurant review

HORROR FICTION

I don’t get out much (whether this is a good thing is debatable), but when I do, I’ll go somewhere I could only make up. So when a retiring restaurant critic dined out with a colleague, he wrote a review of the evening (which includes unpalatable content)…

August Underground CoversAugust Underground’s films are deeply disturbed

AUGUST UNDERGROUND’S DINER

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few other diners are dotted around: a young couple, having a horrifically romantic evening, and a group of business types, clearly working on someone’s bonus or expenses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Vegetarian options can all be printed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s nothing shocking about my steak when it arrives, perfectly cooked and seeping blood (you get fries with it, to mop up). But it’s curious and surprising in its taste and texture. Although I just called my agent a cunt, there is one word I will never use, in a review or elsewhere. It’s that word beginning with ‘M’, so beloved of some foodies, but if I even see the word on a menu, I’ll leave a place immediately and vow to never return. I’ve seen some savage cinema but that word is a monstrosity on its own and in any context.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Steve Laker, 2017

My next collection of short stories – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is published in January.

Ghostwriting with Botnik

THE WRITER’S LIFE | AI FICTION

In between sci-fi, family history, and other people’s real lives all getting mixed up with my own, I sometimes go off and do something random, to see what happens. So I read an article in The Guardian, of how a predictive AI wrote ‘Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash’. Then I wondered what would happen if I let it loose on Cyrus Song. It might even help me write what I’m really thinking…

robot-writing_1024

As one reviewer said of my (critically-acclaimed) sci-fi RomCom, “Anything is possible in a quantum multiverse, and Steve Laker explains how.” In times when many human jobs are threatened with redundancy by machines, and with the lines of sentience blurred, I wanted to see if a computer could replace me as a writer.

The Guardian article begins, After being fed all seven Potter tales, a predictive keyboard has produced a tale that veers from almost genuine to gloriously bonkers…” And Robotnik (the AI) came up with some interesting prose:

He saw Harry and immediately began to eat Hermione’s family. Ron’s Ron shirt was just as bad as Ron himself.

If you two can’t clump happily, I’m going to get aggressive,” confessed the reasonable Hermione.

The whole process is explained fully in the article, and it was the same one I used for this exercise: I fed the entire manuscript of Cyrus Song into Robotnik’s predictive text keyboard, initially guiding it in its penmanship. As far as the AI is concerned, it’s picking up from the end of the book. It’s effectively beginning a sequel, as it has all the information it needs from the first novel. I just had to choose a few of the opening words from lists of alternatives, before letting it find its own way…

The babel fish program works for some purpose…

Really? That first sentence was constructed by Robotnik alone, with me just confirming the first words on the lists of possibles. So, yes it does work for a purpose. And?

…I was to sit awkwardly with many people…

Just a normal day then, okay…

…because it thinks I could talk with them.

It seemed to be on to something, so then I just let it run…

…I thought that was what the whole thing was I’d written about. Hannah was talking German, so I twiddled the knobs on the Babel fish to tell her. But that’s not how it works she reminded me, in German.

I pondered aloud whether the doctor might be outside with animals. She was checking. Then she said the oddest thing: “Och.” Was Hannah unwell? She seemed contemplative. Then she said, “Can I be Frank about things?” She usually was, I’d heard. “Mr fry,” Why was she calling me that? “I mean, Simon, we might find answers elsewhere.” Where were we going?

“Hannah,” I said, “I speak as others probably think, and I’d say anything to the animals if they could translate it more. I think we need another mind, and I think we should use the quantum computer in your lab. If it’s been listening in.”

As soon as possible, the AI seems to have introduced the computer to the story, like it’s bringing in a mate to help…

“I wondered if you might think that. I really wanted to say something and then we just don’t. We scanned around the planet with the patients and they indicate something which could change our thinking about the really small things. As a translator, I thought you people are always different to mammals. They seem to have nothing but good intentions and pose no threat whatsoever. Marlene said something…

Marlene makes a brief appearance in the book, but I don’t know why she’s cropped up here. In fact, I’m not sure why anyone’s doing what they are.

…I do have other patients to see what that might be and did she know that today was Saturday?”

Now Marlene’s a vet too, but she seems as lost as everyone else. Safe to conclude then, that Botnik read the book, didn’t fully get it, or got it and is making its own attempt even more surreal. But it lacks human heart (mine, at least). Perhaps AI is sentient, but in a way we don’t yet understand. Maybe it was on something, rather than onto.

Of Cyrus Song itself, a reviewer wrote,“…If this all sounds a bit weird, that is, because it is. But it all somehow works and knits together in the manner of surrealist writers like Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas, with a substantial nod, of course, to Douglas Adams, who can make the impossibly strange seem mundane and ordinary. Steve Laker pulls this extraordinary juggling act off admirably well, producing a very good, thought-provoking, page-turning, and also at times darkly comic read.”

Tempting though it may be to let the bot write its own story, I’d hope people might notice I’m missing. Perhaps the machine does have something in mind for later in the book, which would explain the weirdness, but it’s probably some sort of AI in-joke, which humans wouldn’t get. So I’ll keep writing, while the lines between plausible surrealism and outright insanity remain reasonably well-defined, on this typewriter I’m using now.

Cyrus Song is nothing like the brief acid trip above, instead giving a perfectly plausible answer to the question of life, the universe and everything. It’s available now.

Walking in time with Nan

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Recently in the real world (after advice from another writer), I’ve tried not to be ashamed to be proud. Even more lately, I’ve realised there are other people around who are simply proud to be themselves, which has encouraged me. People who’ll laugh as you stumble, but catch you before you fall. Those are people I’ve been spending some time with in writing too, as I’ve travelled back in time to the era of a barbed but cuddly matriarch…

Fairytale CottageNot my Nan’s house

Back in the 1970s, and mum’s mum’s war memorial bungalow in Tudeley, it was small, basic and communal. There was a living room, a kitchen and a double bedroom. When us kids stayed, we’d sleep on the living room floor. It was like camping.

There was no bathroom, just an outside toilet. The bath was a tin one, hung by the coal shed out the back. Water was boiled in a kettle on the stove, and in a water heater over the sink. Us kids tended to eschew a bath on the odd night we stayed, with my mind at least assuming that baths would be very shallow and very hot. And the way Nan sometimes sat in that chair, and that cat…

Nan’s oven apparently had two settings: Incinerate, and off. Fortunately, we had roast beef most Sundays, with potatoes roasted in the dripping, and home-made Yorkshires.

Before my radical auntie Margaret started renting X-rated films for the teenage me, we’d all go for long family walks on a Sunday afternoon, sometimes to other countries it would seem, to little legs. One such journey into foreign lands was to “The Old Church”, St. Peter’s in Pembury village. This from the church website:

The first known record of Pembury, originally Pepingeberia, is to be found in the ‘Textus Roffensis’ (c1120). It tells of the manors of Pepenbury Magna (Hawkwell) and Pepenbury Parva (Bayhall).

The Advowson was granted by Simon de Wahull to Bayham Abbey c1239. (Advowson is the right in English Law of presenting a nominee to a vacant parish. In effect this means the right to nominate a person to hold a church office in a parish).The current Patron is Christ Church, Oxford University.

Pembury has two churches dedicated to St Peter. The oldest, known as the Old Church, stands outside the modern village in the woods to the north of the A228 bypass. The newer building, known as the Upper Church, stands in the heart of the village on Hastings Road.

The plan of the Old Church and the little Norman window above the South door indicate that the original Church dates from 1147 at least, or even 1100AD. Most of the present Church was built in 1337 by John Colepeper of Bayhall. He also built the chantry chapel of St Mary in the churchyard in 1355 but this was pulled down at the Dissolution of the smaller Monasteries in 1547 and three windows in the body of the Church were inserted with the money gained from the sale of the lead which had covered the chapel.

There was another church, nearer to nan’s house: All Saints (now Capel United Church). From that church’s website:

Tudeley has had a church since the beginning of the seventh century – it was one of only four in the Weald at that time. The earliest parts of today’s church are the sandstone footings of the nave and tower, which date from before the Norman conquest. It is mentioned in the Domesday Book under Tivedale – one of its many name variants:

Richard de Tonbridge holds TIVEDALE of the bishop of Bayeux. It is assessed at 1 yoke. There is land for 1 plough, and it is there on the demesne and a church, and woodland (to render) 2 swine…”

It’s where granddad Funnell and uncle John are buried. They both died from consumption (tuberculosis), with John aged only four (it’s from my uncle that I get my own middle name). Their graves are un-marked, just a large and small grass mound. Occasionally they were decorated with flowers, side by side, a young man and his son. There were many more graves like granddad’s and John’s, mainly farm workers from the area.

There’s a ‘Prayer labyrinth’ in the churchyard:

Labyrinths were a feature of many medieval churches, most famously Chartres Cathedral in France.

Their origins go back much further, long before the birth of Christ. They were adopted by the church to be used as shortened pilgrimages, probably because of their cross-like symmetry.

The labyrinth has no walls and only one path. The path way leads to the centre and then continues outwards. There are no dead ends.

The labyrinth at All Saints is based on a design found in a fountain in Damascus. At the centre is a carving designed by Frances Hawken and executed by Joe King, depicting The Cross and the hands of God:

“The eternal God is our refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms.” (Deuteronomy 33: 27).

To earn some extra cash on the side, my dad would sometimes go foraging. Back then, fly-tipping wasn’t a scourge, but neither was the country big on recycling. So official dumps were dotted around, and there was one just down the road from All Saints church. It was a children’s adventure playground cavalier to health and safety. This was the rubbish of the wealthier, away from those upper class homes my parents worked at. These were middle class treasures, as the late 1970s and early 80s saw a rise in consumerism with increasing earnings among white and blue collar workers.

In the days before reclamation yards became an industry, and long before the internet, there was a make-do-and-mend working class, and the beginning of Sunday boot fairs. For a while, my dad was a bit of a trader and many exciting cardboard boxes would find their way home to the house in Ightham, including once, when a box the size of us kids was full of Scalextric track.

Back at Nan’s, we’d have Sunday tea, which included optional beef dripping on toast, from the congealed joint juices. There was an open fire in the living room and a coal scuttle in the back garden, topped up every few weeks by a coal man. One of my dad’s many talents around the houses (besides the gardening), was as a chimney sweep, and he was nan’s sweep.

Dad’s kit was that of the traditional sweep: a bundle of interconnecting bendy sticks, with a wide brush on the end. There’s a long and fascinating history of the chimney sweep to be read elsewhere, and a small trade survives today, with many practitioners hiring themselves out as good luck omens at weddings. It’s a profession which included many humanitarians, eventually leading to The Chimney Sweepers and Chimneys Regulation Act 1840, which made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to sweep chimneys.

This was a Britain long before the NHS and when the mean life expectancy was 41, a low figure weighted by the size of the poor population. Before that 1840 Act of Parliament, boys as young as four were sent up chimneys as narrow as nine inches square. If they got stuck, they’d be prodded from below, and some master sweeps weren’t averse to lighting a fire in the fireplace to encourage the boys up. Of course, many perished and large numbers led only short adult lives, because of the impact the job had on their health.

The best bit for us kids, was seeing the sweep’s brush pop out the top of the chimney, not after dad pushed us up ahead of it, but when we stood in the garden and dad waved at us and all around, with his chimney sweep’s brush a conqueror’s flag.

Silent Gardens is published in March (ISBN: 978-1974367900).

From The Human Library

DEAR DIARY

I’m lost in a day with nothing to do, yet there’s so much nothing that I don’t know what to do with it. Rather than go looking for things to do, those have found me. Things are changing, these are nice problems to have and I’d rather be writing, but that’s the same story. These are daily anxieties, always worse in the middle of the week. I never could get the hang of Wednesdays.

Steampunk librarianSteampunk robot librarian, by Keith Thompson

If I was keeping a diary like I did when I was on the streets, this would be a volume in the teens. Some of those old journals are still here, in the studio. I salvaged or retained seven (of ten) in the end, and most of what’s in them is on this blog, when I used to use the public access machines in the library to get my words out.

I’ve looked at some challenges a fictional young girl faced, to help with my own. I find other people’s issues easier to deal with than mine, perhaps because detachment helps me to step away and see things as a bystander. My own issues remain the internal ones I have to deal with alone (sometimes while I stand there), but it’s nice to have someone around to talk to, even if it’s not about what’s confusing me in my head. And there’s always more of that when those other people aren’t around, like separation anxiety. But there’ll be more stories.

My fictional side has had to sub-divide like my actual life, as more and more writing seems to land in my lap. A small job I’m very much enjoying at the moment is reading some children’s stories for another writer, after they asked in a writing group if there was anyone they could approach, and I found myself referred. They’re stories with more than one level, very much like my own children’s book which deals with life issues, but more about life’s small matters and manners of etiquette, much of which can be applied to a more grown-up context as well. But in these stories, those small eggshells are about equally important things, like letting the slowest one catch up in a race.

I have enough of my own stories to compile The Unfinished Literary Agency collection, but there are more short works in progress, so the final running order isn’t finalised. There’ll be 17 stories, with possible bonus material, some previously published in various places, and others unique to or adapted for the book. By my own admission, this second collection is better than the first as a stand-alone, but the two also work together as 42 short stories. I should have the book compiled and edited soon, so that I can get a page count (and cover price), then publish in January.

Some of those other stories are only at the planning stage, as the inspirational basis for them is in development itself. The one with the most potential has a bit of the Cyrus Song about it, wherein a young doctor brings a rescued cat to live with a writer, and the author and the cat sit up talking at night using the Babel fish. There’ll be a third anthology yet, so it’s nice to have so much developing to write about.

Silent Gardens is still doing its quiet thing in the background (I’m writing it, quietly) and my fervent appetite for interesting things is being rewarded, as I find out more of the history connected to the people and places around my parents in history. That book is still very much out in March, and I’m far more confident now that my chosen style will gain it a wider audience than the small one it’s written as a gift for.

Before any of that, there are two more fictional tales published over the next couple of weekends, ‘August Underground’s Diner’ (a restaurant review), and ‘Another Nativity (a Play)’, my alternative nativity, adapted for the stage.

There’s much more I could write about, with all that’s in my head, but there’s simply not time. That’s why it’s sometimes nice to have someone around to just talk to, or at least a lot to write about once it makes sense. Most of the time though, the socially anxious writer just writes.

I’m glad I have you, my diary. I think I’ll get the hang of this.

Worlds apart, connected by words

FICTION

Some time ago, someone started writing a story, and not long after, they stopped. It made its way to The Unfinished Literary Agency, where some writers got together to tell the story. And writers create worlds…

Return to Innocence

THE BEST LAID PLANS

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

The animal people live alongside a different race: sentient, non-organic, technological beings. And the robots are correct, that they came from the stars, as did we all, and that theirs was a slow evolution with a sudden growth spurt.

There’s a human there, finding her way around on a planet where her ancestors once lived. She’s trying to find something for her son, back on their own home world. It’s a plot device, which allows people to speak in fiction about that which they can’t in real life. It’s what The Unfinished Literary Agency was set up for, way back in her family’s history, and she thinks it will help her son. He’s lost, as she once was, unsure of how worlds revolve outside of physics. But it’s quantum physics which connects us all.

Her son once wrote a plan, presumably one of many, as this was ‘Plan 96’. At the time, he’d said it was a story he was working on, but he wasn’t sure where it was going or how it would end. So he left it behind when the humans left Earth. Now the boy is grown up and lost on the home world, wondering what happened to it.

On Earth 3.0 for the most part, industry is confined to the cloud cities, while the planet itself has been left to nature. In 2142, The Shard is a glacial Christmas tree, abandoned by humans a century before and now a towering forest, as nature quickly moved in.

As Eve walked over London Bridge, the locals – known for their tameness – were keen to greet her arrival. Beavers looked from their dams on the Thames, and a group of crows congregated on the handrail. As a collective noun, they were more a horde than a murder. “Hello, human,” one of them said.

Hello,” Eve replied.

What’s your name?” The crow asked.

Eve.”

Oh no, not again,” the crow said. Then the horde departed, without any enquiry of her business there.

In Threadneedle Street, the old lady slept under a blanket of ivy, as the Bank of England sat on vaults of human gold. The Old Bailey was tightly wrapped in green vines, where various birds conducted industry, and squirrels and monkeys picked fruit. The British Museum somehow looked as it always should, the building itself now preserved as a record of humanity and maintained by wildlife. The British Library too, where all of mankind’s writing is archived, everything with an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Goswell Road is still long, but now a wide, wooded path to Islington, and Hotblack Deisato’s old office.

A winding wooden staircase took Eve up to The Unfinished Literary Agency, a small, dark room on the top floor, with a crudely-cut window, about the size of a letterbox, at waist height on the far wall.

Inside was surprisingly clean for an office vacated a century before. Eve wondered who’d maintained it, or perhaps who’d remained after the human exodus. She sat at the desk and tried the lamp. It worked.

The walls were full of shelves, with manuscripts stacked a foot high. More were piled on the floor, and in the tray on the desk. There were hundreds of unwritten books, all untold human stories.

Eve looked in the drawers of the desk: Pens, notepads and other stationery, some candles and a tobacco tin. Then she found a name plate, the Toblerone sort that sits on a desk. In Helvetica black upper case, the name proudly proclaimed itself:

PROF. J.C. HESTER

Eve picked up a bound manuscript from the tray and began to flick through it. Someone had gone to the trouble of drawing a flick book animation in the bottom corner, a simple space rocket taking off in a cloud of smoke, with a person’s face looking from the only porthole. After this five second stick cartoon, the manuscript was entitled ‘So long, and thanks for all the humans, by MC Katze’. It was the story of a man and his cat, in which the cat takes her human to another planet, so that he can see the utopia awaiting mankind in the land promised to them. The twist in the tale is, the cat was an agent of Erwin Schrödinger, who told the human she was operating the spacecraft from inside a box on the flight deck, when she was actually flying it by remote control, and not in the box at all.

Eve heard a noise she wasn’t expecting, which worried her more than it would if it was expected. Her ostiumtractophobia (specifically, a fear of door knobs) was rooted in childhood, when someone (or something) outside had tried the handle of her locked bedroom door. The sound of keys in the door – perhaps ones she’d lost earlier – would be more paralysing still, if it were her door the keys were in.

The already-unlocked door of the office slowly swung open, and a character from one of the Earth 3.0 documentaries she’d watched on the home world walked in.

Looking very much professorial, in a tweed three-piece, topped with a flat cap and a monocle, a chimpanzee walked upright into the room. “Greetings,” he said, not seeming at all surprised to find Eve in his office. She must have looked puzzled. “It’s the Babel fish,” the chimp said. “Well, it’s not a fish,” he continued, “but that’s what started it. I assume that’s what you’re wondering, how you can hear me?”

Erm, yes,” Eve replied, “I’ve heard of the Babel fish…”

Well,” said the chimp, then paused. “Sorry,” he said, “I’m Jules.” He offered a hand.

Jules.” Eve shook his hand. “I’m Eve.”

Yes,” Jules said, “short for Julio, see, Jules I mean? Except it’s not, it’s still got five letters. It’s just quicker to say, with only the one syllable. Here’s a funny thing…” Jules lowered himself onto a pile of manuscripts.

Would you like your chair?”

Oh no, that’s not my chair. That was here when I arrived, so I’m sort of squatting here now. Besides, sometimes it feels more natural like this. Instinct I suppose.”

So,” Eve sat back, “this funny thing?”

Oh yes. Just one of many anecdotes left over by the humans. You’ll be aware of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, I assume?”

Yes, he invented the world wide web.”

Clever chap, yes. But here’s the funny thing. The words, world wide and web, are all one syllable. But abbreviated, it’s double-you, double-you, double-you. That’s nine syllables, which is a lot. But I read somewhere that someone suggested he called his invention ‘The Internet Machine’. Well, abbreviated, that would be TIM. And apparently, he was such a modest man, that not only did he give it away for free, he didn’t seek fame or fortune, he just did it for the greater good. It may be apocryphal, but we like it. It’s a rare example of man’s humility, and the web was altruism which could have saved many species. But it all went a bit King Kong didn’t it?”

It did,” Eve paused. “But you were saying about the Babel fish?”

Oh yes, I was, wasn’t I? Well, the name just stuck, in a tributary way. You know, not like the geographical river ones, but an historical – and it is an an, with a silent aitch – tribute. But now it’s the universal translation system for the world population.”

But how can I hear you?”

Oh, I see, yes. Well, it’s not an implant or anything now, no. No, without getting too technical (not my area), it’s carried in the wind, in radio waves, which are only audible to the subconscious. The upshot is, everyone speaks the same language. And really, that was mankind’s biggest mistake.”

One of them.”

Yes, there were a few. But there’d been researchers and ethics committees, scientific essays and peer-reviewed papers, and they all agreed that giving universal translation to the public would generally be a bad idea. Then Google just did it anyway.”

And others followed.”

Many. Then everyone.”

So,” Eve wondered, “the professorship?”

Oh that. The prof is in English, language, yes. Before that, my doctorate was in human psychology. I think the way the world changed was what guided me more into the languages, you know, in case they died out, with everyone using the Babel fish and all, and technology always hurrying them along. And the thing about being a professor is, I teach teachers how to teach teachers to teach, which I rather like. Took a jolly lot of work though.

But next, I want to do something different. I’m studying history, so I can teach the teachers about how it all went wrong. Because although the humans are gone, their past can teach us a lot.

I’m not a religious man, but whenever someone said everyone shouldn’t speak the same language, they might have been right. It’s a good thing if you’re a species evolved enough to debate, but take away certain barriers and an immature race will abuse it, with some using it for their own gain and not for the greater good. Someone was always going to package it up and sell it as a religion, or make it some kind of privilege, when it was around all the time. Us animals – as you used to call us – us people, had been communicating for many thousands of years before humans came along. Then the humans found out and wanted it for themselves.

It’s a tragic story but it’s a lesson from history which I’d like to tell others about, and of how that led to the evolution of the planet we see around us now. So it was all for the good really. I only hope humanity took that lesson away with them.”

It might be too early to tell,” Eve said.

How are things over there?” the professor wondered.

Lonely.”

That’s the thing with humans. When we look at your monuments, buildings, and many follies, you are capable of such beautiful dreams. But within those are some terrible nightmares.”

I know, Carl Sagan said something similar.”

Who’s she?”

He. He was a scientist, a thinker, and an inspiration.”

A dreamer then? And that’s the sad thing. Humans who dream are ridiculed if they speak of their visions. They become suppressed. But allowed to explore and discover, those people can transcend accepted human wisdom, in things like politics, which was a human invention anyway.

Anarchy is not chaos, when people are trusted to be individually empowered. An evolved race will sort it all out. But the ones who rise above it all are feared by those who govern and rule, and that leads to conflict. Conflict gets no-one anywhere, but debate can increase mutual understanding to find peaceful solutions. Too many humans were greedy, not just financially but morally.

I studied human politics for a while, and I had to conclude, it was quite a waste of time, for the humans. All it did was hold them back. It was a system which kept radical thinkers beyond its borders of conditioning. And the radical thinkers were only just getting a voice when everyone else did, so it got deafening.

If you ask me, I’d say most humans are essentially left-wing by nature, only becoming conditioned otherwise. Wherever you lie (or tell the truth) on the political spectrum, beyond that, you’re all human. Yet the one thing you all have in common is the very thing which drives you apart. Individuality is to be encouraged, but you can’t think as one. You’re generally a socially aware species. It’s just a shame there were so many who didn’t qualify by that credential.”

You have a deep understanding of the human condition,” Eve said, looking around the room.

Sometimes it helps not to be one to know one.”

Do you have a theory, on why the Babel fish was the catalyst?”

I think there’s one thing it will never be able to do, because it shouldn’t, and it ought to remain impossible. That thing, would be the interpretation of messages, of how they’re perceived by the receiver, which of course is completely subjective on the part of the individual, regardless of the intention of the messenger. Words only have meaning for some people if a specific person says them. The Babel fish is a translation device, not an interpreter. Too many humans, in their cut-off personal worlds, their microcosm universes, their ignorance and laziness, quite literally took too many things far too literally. And a breakdown in communication is conflict by any other name.

But even more fundamental, was humans’ sense of entitlement. A progressive race, but for their own gains. I know there are millions of exceptions, and it’s equally tragic that their voices were silenced. But back in human politics, that would be a victory for the right. More of you need to find your left wings, outside of your politics. You need to metaphorically fly free, or be allowed to, without those wings being clipped.

There’s a passage I’ve memorised, from one of your films. ‘I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone’. It was a film one of the crows showed me. Her ten-times-great grandfather had a cameo in that film. He’s uncredited though.”

That was The Shawshank Redemption, a prison film.”

Yes, very good too. Now there was a human who used an unfair situation which had been forced upon him, to do good for others, to blow a whistle and bring down a dictatorship. He quietly went about a longer plan, rarely drawing attention, then escaped the tyranny. I suppose we miss those kinds of people, the free in spirit. We are all spirits when we sleep, after all, with the means for the enquiring mind to explore the universe.”

Some more than others,” Eve added, looking out of the window. “When all we needed to do was keep talking.”

Quite ironic really, isn’t it?”

Looked at like this, yes.”

But you’re looking at something no-one’s seen for some time. For you it’s nostalgia.”

It’s a feeling of being home. And you speak of humans quite sentimentally.”

Well, I felt I got to know a few, through my grandfather’s stories from the zoo.”

He was in London Zoo?”

Chester actually. We moved down to London when the zoos closed. All my family as far as I can trace, were captive bred, as they used to be called. But my great, great grandfather was an immigrant from New York, and he’s the first I can find with the family name Hester.”

Er, how?” Eve turned to Julio.

The professor stood up and stretched. “Well, Boris – that’s my great, great grandfather – was rescued by a writer called Hester Mundis. She found him in a pet shop when he was young. She bought him, not as a pet, but to liberate him, and he lived with her and her eight-year-old son, in their apartment in Manhattan. I know Hester was expecting another child, so she found Boris a home with other chimps in Chester, and I gather he was on TV a few times. She wrote about him too, so he was immortalised in books, which must be a nice thing to have happen to yourself.

So we took her name, because she became mum to my orphaned or kidnapped great, great grandfather. If it wasn’t for her, I might not be here. I may never have been.”

And you didn’t mind being in captivity?”

I worked a lot of other things out there. You do, when you have the time and your basic needs are taken care of.”

You didn’t feel imprisoned?”

I’d never known anything else. I was never in the wild. Perhaps one day I’ll visit my own home country, but I learned a lot when humans were in charge. There are lots of arguments for and against on both sides. Those are less relevant now, but future historians will have plenty to write about. For now, I have plenty to write of here.”

Why’s that?”

Let’s rewind a little. A long time ago, a human said that given an infinite supply of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys would reproduce the Complete Works of Shakespeare. And it stands to reason that, given those resources, they would. But we wondered, why? What would be the point?”

It was a human thing?”

It was. But there was a flaw in that original plan.”

Which was?”

The monkeys. No offence to those with tails, but what it really needed was apes. You don’t even need an infinite number of them.

So after we’d finished reproducing Shakespeare’s works, we got started on the next plan. Then we quickly realised we might need more writers. Not an infinite supply, but far more than we have. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible.”

What’s not?”

Plan 96 is to discover and write the answer to the ultimate question, that of life, the universe and everything. But infinite apes aside, I don’t think humans are looking in the right place.”

So where do we look?”

Look into your heart, and don’t be afraid of yourself, because people might like that person. This was only your temporary home. You were squatters here before your nomadic race continued their journey, to find themselves. For now, you are gone from here, and you need to return to yourself. But there’s a record of how it all started, and how things panned out is recorded in our history. This is where it began and you are always welcome back, wherever you are.

But keep this. This is yours. You made this.”

© Louis Laker and Steve Laker, 2017.

This story will be included in The Unfinished Literary Agency (ISBN: 978-1979983556), available in January.