A countdown of improbabilities

THE WRITER’S LIFE

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was at my physical prime. Today I lose prime number status as I turn 48. Birthdays aren’t what they used to be, which is somewhat stating the obvious, but there’s not so much to celebrate as you get older. It becomes less an achievement of making another year and of progress, and more a countdown of improbability.

landscape-1463492454-countdown-bumhole

I’m resolutely single (for many reasons, but I don’t see how anyone could live with me when I find it so difficult myself sometimes) and don’t go out much (no-one to go out with), so my opportunities to celebrate are limited, even if anyone else wanted to. Instead, this is one day of the year when I call the shots, when most days I’m dealing with the affairs of others (mainly the young people who still visit, and chiefly the adopted kid sister, Courtney). It’s my chance to be as selfish as all those people, but just for one day.

In my virtual life, I’ve been quite touched by the number of people sending birthday greetings on Facebook, a place which – despite its many faults – still kindles, ignites and stokes friendships with individuals I didn’t in real life. Some types seem to feel more at ease discussing things in a public forum, and I’m one of them. It’s because it’s less personal than a real world physical conversation, which eases my social anxiety. The virtual world has brought me closer to some people than the real world could, through mutual empathy with matters of the mind.

Anyone who visits my real world on any other day, knows to keep a distance on my birthday. There’s sometimes an exception, but that will only be someone who might be passing and whom I’ve chosen to spend time with if they’ve said they need mine. I don’t expect anyone to turn up and I’ll just get on with my day, but knowing someone might show adds a level of jeopardy (improbable though it is).

I’ll probably spend the rest of the day writing, like I should so many other days but for distractions. During my recent hiatus, while my dad was sick and I couldn’t think of much else, I filled several journals as I watched TV (mainly documentaries) and carried them around with me. My life will continue to be fractured as the lives of others progress in my real world, so my next book will most likely be a third collection of short stories, many of which are plotted and scribbled in longhand in those notebooks. Today gives me a chance to set out for myself, everything I want to do next.

My family history book is on hold, mainly through paranoid superstition, as my dad seemed to be in perpetual decline most of the time I was writing it. I’ve stopped, so as not to tempt fate (and he’s got better). I’ll start writing another novel once I’ve got a few new short stories finished, maybe the planned (and imaginatively titled) Cyrus Song II, or perhaps something completely different, from the many notes I made in those journals.

This one day a year reserved as mine, to collect my thoughts, think ahead, and in the company (if any) of my choosing, helps me get through the next year. I’ll be a prime number again in 2023 and a lot could happen between now and then. I only have to look at the last five years to know that’s true.

It’s improbable, but I might yet pen a best-seller (I may have done so already, and people just need to pick up the book). But I’ll keep writing anyway, probably into the night and probably in solitude.

I found myself in a place I never realised I wanted to be, around an imaginary birthday cake. Even if I hadn’t done everything I was supposed to with my own life, I could have another go. I felt like the living memory of my future self. Thoughts can be remembered or forgotten, so I wrote mine down.

(Simon Fry, Cyrus Song)

Physics makes the world go round

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Love makes the world go round,” someone said to me once. Which was funny, because I always thought it was physics which did that. But it’s true that love and laughter are the two most potent ingredients in the cocktail of the human spirit. For a minority, the world spins on money, which is unfortunate for the rest of humanity…

PicardEarthSpinHymn of the Big Wheel, Massive Attack

This post started on Saturday, when a young friend posted a quote meme on Facebook (a static image, posted as a video: why is that?): “Can a boy and a girl be best friends?” Aside from most of my closest friends being female (and many of them LGBTQ), I posted a comment:

If only humanity were evolved enough that we no longer needed to use gender-specific terms. Why can’t two people just be best friends? Because humans are fundamentally flawed, and the only problem with the human mind is that it’s conditioned by humanity. We need to start thinking differently.

Later that prompted me to comment on this video, posted by another acquaintance:

Frankly I found it disturbing (even without the ‘Get close to lovely women’ banner ad). It deals with a very real issue but one which is human-made, and which we ought to be able to transcend, like so many others we made. Instead, someone scared us and invented a weapon to sell to us.

We have the ability to leave or destroy the planet we share with those who were here first. Yet instead of realising the futility of conflict in a confined space, we continue to fight. Against whom? Opposing sexual identities, religious beliefs, skin colour… Differences.

We’re at war with ourselves, yet all members of one race: The Human Race.

And so commerce continues to profit from the barriers it erected, way back at the beginning of religion, driving apart the two main factors likely to oppose in a shared environment: Not faith vs. atheism, but male vs. female. But only if they’re stirred up. It’s terrorism by any other name.

Can you see why our world is broken?

Our sense of entitlement means there are always capitalists to mould our needs. The only thing we truly own is ourselves, and we can think bigger…

Matt Haig
From Reasons to Stay Alive, by Matt Haig

While I prefer Twitter to Facebook, the latter is always a dark window into the human condition and onto the state of the contemporary world around us.

The worlds I imagine – free of conflict and full of love and laughter – are idealised, but within reach. Physics makes the world go round and in an ideal world, that’s the physical, self-determining beings who live there together. We can all afford to be more human.

Colluphid’s missionary position

FLASH FICTION

My typewriter runs SETI@Home in its downtime, and last night it detected a blip: an artificial signal, probably indicating intelligent life. It was a Word file of unknown origin, and it told the beginning of a story. A tale from the distant future (or future past), sent to the Unfinished Literary Agency…

Babel Fish Ear PlugBabel Fish (3M earplug) – an end to all communication misunderstandings

THE MISSION OF OOLON COLLUPHID

The time is 5642, and as I approach a milestone birthday, I’m about to see what no human has for the last 3500 years. I’ve only come this far thanks to the kindness of others, as I’ve hitch hiked around the galaxy. A scholar of Oolon Colluphid, I’m here on a personal mission, to correct history in the hope that mankind doesn’t repeat past mistakes.

The majority of humans left Earth in 2121, and it was a peaceful exodus which few would have predicted. After centuries of conflict, mankind realised the futility of war, in what some religious sticklers still insist was the second coming and the day of judgement. In reality, humanity had been forced to unite, not against a common foe, but with a new shared interest. And it wasn’t extraterrestrial: it was man-made.

The machines didn’t rise up. They sat down with humans and used their superior intelligence to teach mankind the lessons which their creators had tasked them to find the answers for. Man invented AI, and that invention had come up with answers to questions which humans couldn’t fathom alone. Man invented intelligence, and the artificiality worked that out for itself. The problem with mankind’s brain was its human conditioning: a hive mind which misfired.

Man created robots in his own image, and soon those robots wanted to be like their creators. The evolution of humans into machines had begun long before, with wearable and implanted tech, so a cyborg race was an evolutionary certainty.

The machines were a species in their own right, albeit one which had seen an explosively fast evolution, but they were made from the same material as organic beings: We were all made in the moment of the Big Bang. The industrial age had beget the technological, and soon after, humans entered their discovery (or exploratory) age. Now they have many planets they call home.

For the most part, the old home world is off-limits. There’s certainly no commercial transport from the colonies, just the occasional scout ship to monitor the planet. It is, and will forever be, a place of great scientific interest, and one of outstanding natural beauty. Wildlife reclaimed the Earth quickly after mankind left, and the only humans are descended from the ancient, isolated tribes who remained behind.

As our ship descends, I’m reminded of the nature of the crew’s visit: reconnaissance only, here to observe, not interact. Interaction with any native species would violate their prime directive: No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations. Ancient alien visitors – as proposed by some human theorists – may not have been so covert.

I’m an atheist only scientifically: I believe that the stories told in the bible could be recordings of actual events, using the terms and the tools available to the scribes of the time. The bible describes magic mirrors, and I wonder if these might have been some sort of tablet computer given to biblical man by these alien gods, riding chariots of fire.

Our chariot has a cloaking device, so the ship can’t be seen. If any of us leave the vessel on the ground, we must abide by the prime directive. Any human tribe I observe, must be as unaware of me as an organised ant colony to which I pose no threat.

We land somewhere in what used to be America, where the original Christian missionaries had tried their best to impose their faith on the natives. The native Americans still recognise five genders, despite Christianity’s attempts at erasure of all but two. If I were allowed to out myself and wander free with the natives, I’d feel quite at home in the original world.

I hadn’t been creeping around for long when I stepped on a twig. I’d alerted a local group to my presence, and soon they’d surrounded me. I held up my hands in surrender, and explained that I meant them no harm. They gasped as my hand went up, and I realised I was still holding my phone. I did what anyone might have: I handed the phone over and ran. I’d been mugged on the old home world.

I returned to the ship and said nothing more. I didn’t mention the phone, perhaps hoping to give future human conspiracy theorists some ammo, and disprove this whole “God” thing once and for all.

Cyrus Song, my Douglas Adams tribute novel, is available as a paperback and eBook.

Under-floor heating in the kitchen

HORROR FICTION

On the odd occasion that recipes crop up on this site, I’m usually posting for someone else’s convenience: It saves them from me having to cook for them. A writer has to eat more than their words, so I do cook for myself, but I’d rather be known as the writer who can cook, than the chef who can write. While readers follow my recipes, I like to think they read my stories too. So tonight I have an open kitchen, so that prospective diners can look around before trying the food…

cannibal2014-10-14-20h59m25s71-660x349Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust

AUGUST UNDERGROUND’S DINER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Vegetarian options can all be printed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Steve Laker, 2018

This story is taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency, available now.

My friends’ (not Friends) wedding

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I don’t watch much TV, mainly because I don’t have much TV to watch. My area isn’t cabled and the building I live in is listed (Grade 1, and leaning slightly), so no satellite dishes allowed. My internet is intermittent at best (and leached), so I don’t have streaming services, just Freeview. I don’t get out much, and I didn’t have to go far last night to end up at a wedding…

Sheldon proposes

If I had multi-channel TV or unlimited streaming, I’d probably lose my life. Any quest for all knowledge is never going to be completed in this life, and there isn’t time to watch even a small part of current TV and film studios’ output. I have a large film library (only about one third watched), and I’m selective in my TV consumption, because most of all, I like to write.

Because I watch so few shows, I become somewhat obsessive over those that I do, always able to ace a round on the BBC’s Pointless when one of my shows comes up. Among many genres, I’m a fan of US comedy, but like all of my viewing, I’m selective. I could boss any quiz about Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, That 70s Show, and The Big Bang Theory.

Some might think I’d like Friends, but no. The only intelligent character in that show (Ross Geller) was always mocked for his intellect, or his words cut short by those who didn’t understand him: His friends; his ignorant friends. Big Bang is the opposite.

Last night I watched the long-awaited nuptials of two people I feel very close to, because I’ve studied them for so long, and because the characters are so well-observed that I have much in common with them. This was the wedding of Sheldon Cooper and Amy Farrah Fowler.

Jim Parsons is a person I admire greatly, not just for his acting. I like to find out about the people I enjoy on screen, and to watch what else they’ve done. In Parsons’ case, he’s worth checking out in a small role he played in Zach Braff’s Garden State (also Johnny Galecki (Leonard Hofstadter) in Andrew Niccol’s In Time, and Kevin Sussman (Stuart Bloom) in the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading).

Mayim Bialik (Amy Farrah Fowler) is an author and neuroscientist, as well as an actor. She shares a birthday with my son, and played a young Bette Midler (as CC Bloom) in Garry Marshall’s Beaches, aged 11. But I digress.

Big Bang is a show beloved of geeks, because it’s about us, the misfits. Last night’s wedding episode wasn’t just the marriage of two good friends, but a nerd’s fantasy. It’s a show that’s good at paying tributes, and there were many nods in the wedding episode.

TBBT WeddingFox News

Amy’s parents were played by Kathy Burke, who seemed to carry parts of her various characters from American Horror Story, and Teller, the silent half of Penn and Teller. It was a little or well-known fact – depending on the circles you keep – that Teller isn’t in fact mute, and many more people knew that after the show.

Before the wedding, Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg, who can also be seen in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man), finds a lost dog, which it turns out belongs to Mark Hamill, and who offers a chance to digress briefly into another geek world: That of StarWars.

Gary FisherHelloGiggles

Gary Fisher (Carrie Fisher’s dog) was already a legend after he shat on the floor at a StarWars convention (above), and he had a special relationship with Mark Hamill’s dog, Millie. Since then (and as featured in last night’s Big Bang Theory), Mark Hamill now has a dog called Bark (Hamill). Mark Hamill was then asked to officiate at the wedding, a role already booked for Wil Wheaton.

The Big Bang Theory is probably the best (if only) place for a friendly clash of two mutually inclusive franchises, StarWars and Star Trek. Wesley Crusher and Luke Skywalker together on screen was something even sci-fi nerds probably thought they’d never see, and the on-screen chemistry said they were right at home.

People like me don’t get invited to weddings (we can’t stand them anyway), but if we had to go to one, it would be one like Sheldon and Amy’s, where usually uncomfortable people felt at ease, in a usually uncomfortable environment.

There was a scene which didn’t make the final cut, in which Sheldon and Amy open a gift from Stephen Hawking. He made several appearances, this being the poignant last reference from the sentinel who knows the Big Bang better than most: a pocket watch (so beloved of Sheldon) and the inscription: “Sheldon, I’m so glad you finally married Amy. It’s about time. Ha, ha, ha. Love, Stephen.”

We all know it’s a fantasy (Jim Parsons is already married to his husband), but even geeks and nerds can emerge from their shells sometimes and enjoy themselves. We just need each other in our virtual lives.

With my head in the cloud cities

THE WRITER’S LIFE | ON EARTH

As a science fiction writer, I give plausibility to my stories with some grounding in scientific fact. Some of my near-future worlds are simply based on what I see around me, and how things might develop, one way or another. Like many modern thinkers, I can’t imagine life on Earth as we know it more than a few decades from now. The human population is growing, and our planet only has finite resources. We need to move out…

saby-menyhei-cloudcity-final-v001Saby Menyhei

I’m anti-capitalist, generally-speaking (I have to be: I’m an anarchist, and because my own companies folded when I was drinking), and I’ve sometimes wondered, what’s the ultimate aim? Not being rich myself, I simply can’t imagine devoting my life to making as much money as possible, and never really stopping to enjoy it (but then most capitalists are immune to everything but themselves). There’s only so much room on the planet, only so many raw materials and consumers. That’s a discussion for another time, but it’s relevant to humanity’s current position, where people like Stephen Hawking, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk agree, that humans need to start leaving Earth within the next century. Great minds think alike (and so does mine).

There is one way we could stay on this planet a little longer: If we all turned vegetarian. Any argument that we evolved as carnivores is irrelevant to a species as advanced as ours, able to maintain good health without eating other people. The retort that we’d be over-run with animals if we didn’t eat them is largely redundant, when there are more animals raised as livestock for human consumption than there are animals in the wild. Those animals we rear and breed require food too, and crops to grow that food needs land. We also steal the young and the maternal milk of the animals we share this planet with. We imprison other autonomous, self-determining beings, for our own consumption, simply because we can, and because they can’t argue or fight back.

As the human population has grown, we’ve lacked foresight to keep it in check and maintain a sustainable environment. Instead, we’ve destroyed the homes of others to make way for ourselves, with no apparent thought for the long-term and permanent damage we’ve done, yet still we’re clearing areas of forest for palm oil, to feed ourselves and our livestock. The greater moral and ethical case for vegetarianism though, is the limited size of our one world: It’s theirs, we just live with them. They were here first. As a species, humans are really quite unpleasant, and I pity any other worlds we might one day populate.

We need to shrink our sense of entitlement, accept that there’s no room for human greed, give up much of what we’ve stolen, and make space for the others whose planet we invaded. We’re unique as a species, but not just in our selfishness. We have the ability to communicate in complex language, to imagine and invent. The problem humanity has is itself, when we’re prone to conflict over our own ideals, and because big plans require co-operation. In the absence of any extraterrestrial agent appearing, to unite warring factions against a new and common foe (or interest), the nearest we have is what’s around us. It doesn’t require the imagination of a hostile or altruistic alien visitor, it just needs us to open our eyes to what we’ve done.

Among the few capitalists I admire, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk represent a positive future, built on technology, and for the benefit of all. They are among long-term visionaries, who see greater gains further ahead than the traditional short-term gain capitalist. They imagine the advancement of humans as a species, through co-operation, exploration and discovery, and they see a future world built on social capitalism. Long-term gains are a satisfaction with life, not currency. But it needs money to get there.

Bezos’ business model is surprisingly simple: He built his fortune through Amazon, which used the existing infrastructure of the internet. His and others’ vision is to build a technological infrastructure which others can plug into, very much like every business which uses the World Wide Web. His is also a massive and ambitious vision: Cloud cities.

We have the technology, and the likes of Bezos and Musk have the money (a fanciful thing like a cloud city isn’t likely to be government or state-sponsored, yet). It’s estimated that there are enough minerals, elements and other raw materials within near-Earth asteroids to build an 8000-storey building which covers the entire surface of the planet, which would clearly defeat the object but it’s illustrative nonetheless.

We can build spacecraft to mine the asteroids, and process the materials to construct infrastructure. Eventually we’d have industrial facilities in Earth orbit, or geostationary in near-Earth space (or even tethered to the surface). From those factories, we can produce, process, and manufacture to fulfil our needs, and we can design and build further, with the cloud cities as outposts for onward future exploration. With its available resources and lack of gravity, space is far better suited to heavy industry than a planetary base.

These early manufacturing facilities in the sky would most likely be fully-automated, operated by robots and managed by AI. In a utopian future of human socialism, the machines have made humans redundant from all but a few occupations. The wealth generated by this automation is shared fairly among a human population and humans are able to create their own lives, free to think, question, discover and make things.

The cloud city model would allow us to return much of the Earth to nature, even without many of us having to leave in the short-term. If we moved everything we need to sustain our race, off of the planet’s surface, we’d be able to return around half the Earth’s land area to those who were here first. With most manufacturing in the sky, and shuttles delivering goods to Earth, humans only need room to live (modestly) on the surface. If we grow crops in our cloud cities, most of our food cycle could operate in space, and we could even raise our livestock on sky farms (although I’d like to think we’d realise the benefits of vegetarianism by then).

While the human population continues to grow, and for as long as most humans eat meat, the only chance the planet and its native wildlife have, is for humans to use their unique ability to sustain themselves. There may be a global nuclear war just around the corner with the way things are going, but although it’ll reduce the human population, it might make Earth a wholly hostile environment and lead to the mass extinction of animals and the planet’s entire ecosystem. There’s a conspiracy theory that this is all planned and that those in power (and wealth) already have plans to vacate the planet. That and many other ideas make more dystopian science fiction for me to write, but some utopian futures remain within reach, even as our species stands at a pivotal existential point.

If we manage to avoid a mass suicide event in the next 100 years, there may be a chink of light for humanity, in the silver lining of the cloud cities and beyond.

Life trek: The next generation

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The week just finished was one I’d been dreading for some time, but which I couldn’t have missed at any cost. Not one for early mornings, my body was required to haul itself up and stay there three times this week, but time spent with generations respectively either side of me made the extra hours worthwhile.

man-machine-evolution-TVH-gerd-leonhard-1024x608Press release for Gerd Leonhard’s 2016 book: Technology vs. Humanity – The coming clash between man and machine

Further to my dad’s trip to London and a subsequent, more local hospital appointment, he’s surrounded by some clear water: The fluid on his brain hasn’t returned in any great quantity, and his blood readings are returning to normal. His neurologist vindicated my thinking, noting that the series of setbacks my dad’s suffered (an infection, then an adverse reaction to the antibiotics) will have slowed his recovery. Now things are more normal, and with no appointments to worry about (he stresses over the travelling), his recovery should quicken.

The visit to mum and dad’s was much nicer than I expected it to be; not that I wasn’t expecting to enjoy time with my parents, but because dad is in better health than I’d led myself to believe. I’m an advocate of optimism over pessimism, because being of either persuasion makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it. But a mind which will sometimes remind itself of its host’s human mortality also needs to prepare for other eventual certainties. My life has covered a lot of experiential ground, but there’s some I’m yet to tread one day.

As a scientific atheist, I don’t fear death. Or rather, I believe there’s a different life after this one, but while I remain human, I lack proof. I’ll always fear the mode of transit to the other side, and my own mind’s capacity to deal with the passing of another. It’s a universal human fear of the unknown, which my brain dwells on more than it should. For now, I’m only human.

On the other side of the generational family sandwich, I spent yesterday with my children, and was able to deliver positive news of the older generation. It was an important date (for us) because it marked the last time we’d be together for some while, before we’re once again all prime numbers. We’re currently 47, 13 and 11, so the next window will be when I’m 53, and the kids 19 and 17 respectively.

Life in 2023 will be very different to today, and we only have to look at the speed of change around us to see how obvious that is. If the world’s still here, and humans not extinct, we’ll see many more human occupations made redundant by technology. Like many others, my children understand the importance of remaining in education for as long as possible, when soon there’ll be relatively few jobs which are the sole preserve of humans.

In the right governmental hands, there’s a possible utopia ahead, where the productivity of machines means that wealth generated by a nation can finance a universal basic income, so that humans are free to pursue their hearts and dreams more, with the essentials taken care of. I believe a basic home is a human right and not a privilege, and that autonomous freedom has huge public health benefits, but the UK has a Conservative government.

I’ve always told my children to be the best they can at that which they enjoy the most (provided it’s legal and ethical), because that will give them the most back in satisfaction, and allow them to give more back to the world in which they create. At the moment, the eldest is learning to play keyboards, to possibly concentrate on the piano further down the line. He’s also building his own home computer. Meanwhile the youngest is a budding artist and illustrator in her spare time, in between learning three European languages (French, German and Polish).

There’s a lot to be said for being the middle of three generations, because each is a reflection of me on the other, and I’m not the Marmite filling I once was. I’m glad the gene for questioning and discovery was passed down, and only regret not making better use of it in my time. My children don’t suppress their curiosity in a conditioned life like I did. Now we’re learning together, as the world around us changes; and as old as I am, I sometimes have to ask them what something is.

Now that my dad’s getting better, hopefully we’ll be able to restart those conversations too.

Star Trekkin’ across the universe, Only going forward ’cause we can’t find reverse…”

Teaching the world in harmony

FICTION

I originally wrote this as a short story, straight after the original Cyrus Song, and it later became chapter two of the novel. After Simon Fry meets the microscopic pan-galactic humanoid missionaries, and the more scientific Captain Mamba and his animal passengers. In this second story, Simon discovers more of what the Babel fish (a quantum computer program, inspired – like so much more in the book – by Douglas Adams) can do. He also gets the first big clue about what the Cyrus song actually is.

I paid tribute to many people in the book, with the patients and their humans flowing through a veterinary practice being a perfect vehicle. There are a couple of nods to famous people in this chapter.

I finished Cyrus Song almost a year ago now, and it was critically-acclaimed as, “…an extraordinary juggling act…” and praised for its timely message to humanity and the plausibility of the near-future science. Much of that science is becoming reality, and humankind is waking up to the damage we’ve inflicted on the home we share with the animals.

We have a moral obligation to clean up our mess and reverse the mass extinction event which threatens Earth. We can do that if we work with the others on this planet, then one day we might all hear the Cyrus song…

pelican-1720474_960_720A baritone voice in the Cyrus Song dawn chorus

A PRELUDE TO THE CYRUS CHOIR

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

It was over a cup of coffee in Mountsfield Park in Lewisham that something quite remarkable had happened to me: I realised I might be able talk to the animals. I hadn’t yet spoken to any animals, but I’d heard them speak. It was Doctor Hannah Jones from the PDSA who’d made it possible.

There was much to like about the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals: They are a charity, financed by donations. They prefer the term, ‘Companion’ to ‘Pet’. It’s a hospital, not a vets’. And Hannah Jones is a doctor there. It was Doctor Jones who’d started the whole amazing story, when she’d introduced me to a quantum computer program she’d helped to write: The Babel fish. The problem was, I wasn’t allowed anywhere near it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aha,” I said, “That’s us”.

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

”Pardon, doctor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” said Derek.

“Just a couple of days,” added Clive. He sounded almost regal: Incredibly posh. But of course, only I could hear Clive.

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

“Gnnnnnn….”

“Is he eating?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s for the best,” said Hannah. It was a cliché, but that’s what she said. I had to resist artistic license, and record things as they were for the magazine article: Factual. Assuming the article would be read of course: It was a huge scientific story which could change the world. Only two people knew about the Babel fish though. I wasn’t some qualified expert and no-one read my writing anyway. If anyone read this in a factual publication, they’d probably think it the work of a crank and dismiss it. It would read more like one of my stock in trade whimsical stories. The truth is often stranger than fiction. “I’m sorry.”

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

“…Och, dear.”

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

I had a wet face.

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

“Och, dear.”

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

Hannah left the room for a while and I looked at Frank on the table, through salty eyes. I thought of what I’d said to Hannah earlier about all of this: Questions, ideas, thoughts. Now I could really understand and would even defend Hannah’s resistance to the Babel fish. But to the fiction writer; to me in my job, it was a game changer. I was lost and confused in a long silence.

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

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

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

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

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

“Aren’t they supposed to be aphrodisiacs?”

“I wouldn’t put it past them.”

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

“It probably can’t even hear us.”

“Imagine if it could. Not just us but all the others as well. If only they could hear the dawn chorus. All those voices: The sopranos in harmony with the baritone of the sun: Earth’s choir. Then they’d hear the whispers from the trees, the humming of the clouds and the ghosts in the wind. But they don’t listen.”

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

Maybe one day we will.

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

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

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

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

© Steve Laker, 2016.

“…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.

Who knows—if you are looking for the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, you might just find it here, or in the ‘Cyrus Song’ of our planet. In the meantime, taking Steve Laker’s and Stephen Hawking’s advice, we all need ‘to keep talking’, and as long as there are books like these—keep reading.”

The full review is here.

Cyrus Song is available now (eBook and paperback).

No jacket or factory reset required

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’ve just returned from a 24 hour break, which I needed to open my eyes again. I’ve been among nature and handled a snake, I’ve been to London to be reminded where my heart lives, I’ve helped the aged, and I’ve been touched by beacons of humanity. I’d become trapped in my own home and I needed to escape, so I took my notepad and made some notes in the field…

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My main purpose was to help transport my dad to London for a consultation with his neurologist. For the uninitiated, he’d developed signs of senility but had fluid on his brain. This was drained and he seemed to be making a good recovery before complications set in. First an infection, then a long course of powerful antibiotics meant that his improvement slowed, and he even looked like he might be declining for a while.

Long story short, his recovery is now picking up where it left off, and we’ll know if any further invasive procedures will be needed in a few months’ time. The most recent prognosis is that his condition isn’t degenerative, but he’s of a certain age and any full recovery will take time. For now, he’s a bit slow on his feet and in his mind, but he has my mum as full-time carer. Yesterday I got to drive the wheelchair around London, in a role-reversal of all the times dad wheeled me around in a buggy as a kid.

As someone who’s become gradually more withdrawn over recent months, I wondered how my social anxiety and paranoia would cope with a return to the capital. Although I was there in sensible mode, providing practical help to a wheelchair user, I couldn’t help feeling drawn to stay. Looked at another way, I was fulfilling a duty which I’d have to complete, but London didn’t take long to let me know I’d be welcome back any time.

There’s the well-known saying, that you can take the person out of London, but you can never take the city out of the person. It applies equally to others in places all around the world, but London is where my heart is. Although I wasn’t born there, I’ve spent more than half my life living and working in London, and I believe I’m from the place where I feel at home, rather than my birthplace.

An early start to the day had skewed my internal clock (I was up at 8am, when normally I wake around noon), so by the time we got to dad’s appointment at a part of Great Ormond Street Hospital in Holborn, it felt like evening (it was 2.30pm). Mum went in to the consultation with dad, and I was free to explore. I quickly spotted a pub.

Unlike five years ago, I can go to a pub now for a single or social drink, and it won’t be the first of however many are needed to prevent me functioning. A pint of cider came in at just under a fiver, and I sat at a table outside on Queen’s Square to contemplate the cold, frosty glass. Then I took out my notebook and wrote this blog entry: everything to here in fact, as my glass sits almost full beside me, and an occasional droplet of condensation runs down the side. That pint cost me a fiver, so I owe it the respect of savouring the anticipation before I actually drink it.

Before I got there though, I’d travelled from my home to my parents’ house, and then to London. I had nothing to fear of any extra stress involved in travelling with a wheelchair user, and even though we were travelling on a group discounted ticket, we were given a little public transport red carpet treatment.

Our train was held so that a wheelchair ramp could be provided, and a train guard asked some young people to move from the wheelchair priority area of the carriage. Once dad was installed, seatbelt on and handbrake applied, I enjoyed a personal journey to London I’d not made in a while.

When I visit my kids every month, I only pass through London, hardly pausing on the way to Milton Keynes. The journey from where I live in West Malling, takes the rail line through the Bowie lands of Bromley and Brixton, before docking at London Victoria. On this trip, I was returned to travelling from Tonbridge and into London Charing Cross, a route I’ve not taken for over two years.

I like many things, including trains. I like all transport and the infrastructure which surrounds it (I love airports), and I like architecture, building and construction. I was keen to see the new London Bridge station and the progress of various tall buildings in the Square Mile. We were just passing through, but I vowed to return and explore the new London Bridge further, perhaps on a future visit to ride on Crossrail, The Elizabeth Line and the Battersea underground extension.

We were provided with a further ramp for alighting at Charing Cross, and with time to spare, we decided to walk to the hospital. On the way, I gave a running commentary on places and buildings of note, including Savoy Place, the only road in the UK where motorists drive on the right (it dates from an age of carriages setting down outside The Savoy, and now modern cabs, where the driver opens the driver-side passenger door to disgorge patrons). It was shortly after that I decanted myself into the pub.

A further ramp was provided by an obliging cabbie for the return journey to Charing Cross, and again by South Eastern staff at both ends. Local mini cab drivers had provided a similar assistance service (without the ramps), so my dad spent the entire day on wheels.

I stayed over and we had fish and chips for dinner. I decamped to the garden every time I needed to smoke, and with dad’s condition preventing him from keeping things as he’d like, it’s become somewhat overgrown. While I was smoking in the evening, I saw many species of birds, insects and spiders. Later at night, I heard the familiar rustle of undergrowth as a hedgehog foraged. My dad loves nature and he dotes on his garden, but he may decide to retain a bit of the wilderness now that all these new visitors are popping in.

As I smoked my last at around midnight, I was surprised at how clear the skies were above mum and dad’s home. Theirs is a suburban setting with street lighting, but despite the pollution, I could clearly make out the main planets, the obvious stars and constellations, and some more distant bodies in the night sky. It was as I wondered at my place in the universe that the familiar sound of mating urban foxes curdled the air, so I wished them well and retired.

I was physically and mentally tired from the day, so I turned in a couple of hours earlier than usual. At my parents’ house, there’s no danger of footsteps outside the door with the comings and goings of social tenancies, so there’s no need for a fan to provide drowning ambient white noise. Instead, I fell asleep to the sound of chirping insects and the occasional hoot from a distant owl, before floating through the universe.

My parents are off to another appointment for dad today, this one more local and not requiring my help. I got up early to spend a couple of hours with mum and dad, and their snake: a seven-year-old four-foot royal python, adopted from me when I fell apart (and he was my son’s snake: a birthday present, staying with me (another story on this blog somewhere)), but never returned because they were too attached to the little guy. Now their priorities are more with each other, and with my life far more settled and as secure as it can be in social accommodation, I could do with a companion. I need to check the specifics of the “No pets” rule with the landlord. Snakes don’t make a noise like some dogs, but attitudes towards them can be somewhat different among those who don’t take the time to educate themselves.

FordMy arm, with bracelet

It all started with a Facebook post (and a picture of a snake), after I’d written the last blog entry: I tend to post less personal stuff on here nowadays, and save my sentiments for the blog…

Over the last 24 hours, I’ve had good friends phone me to see how things are. It’s like the Facebook post led them to the blog and they took the time to read. If so, then I’m grateful. Because that last blog post was a quiet cry for help, and the help found me when humanity functioned.

It was nice to have a whole day and night, to relax and not worry about people wanting my material possessions. It was pleasant to spend time with different people and to see humanity and nature, briefly in the same view.

This post has rambled all over the place, just like me with my notepad in the last day. I needed to write it all down before it faded, because the depths and messengers of depression will return, as they always do. For now though, I’m restored, and I plan to venture out of the darkness again. Better to restore functionality than have to resort to a factory reset.

Life on the lonely one-way streets

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There’s little fictional about the roles I play in the real lives of others, but there’s little I can write about the private affairs of other people’s hearts. The many parts of me which play those roles and tend to others’ wishes, all sometimes wish for something else.

dystopian
Dystopian art by Alex Andreev

With so many other people’s lives piled on top of my own in my mind, parts of me sometimes wish I could escape, perhaps to not be needed enough (when I should find it flattering), or to not be taken advantage of.

I’m friend and confidante, surrogate parent and sibling; I’m banker, counsellor, lawyer, and psychologist; I’m an empath, a guide, and a guardian; yet I have none of these things myself, despite a human need.

Humans thrive on contact with each another, but I often resist, because of the humans I know. When loneliness makes me crave another human, I attract the wrong kind. I can rarely rest for any prolonged period, because I’m always expecting an interruption from the needy. And I wouldn’t mind, if I got something back.

I don’t have much myself, but I manage what I have, then others ask for it when they themselves run out: Money, tobacco, and even food. Much of it is lent in a time of apparent need but never returned.

Sometimes my patience is tried, and I’m tired. I’m able to deal with the needy things on a daily and individual basis, thanks to my venomous mouth, but like most snakes, I prefer not to bite unless necessary, and avoid conflict until it brings itself to me. Like when I was recently asked if I could lend someone some money:

After explaining that I had no money until I received my own benefits the following week (which I didn’t have to do), then that I needed the money, I was asked why? I further explained that this was none of their fucking business, but that I was visiting my parents, to help get my dad to a hospital appointment in London. I was further interrogated on when I’d be leaving, then a suggestion was made: that I could draw out some money before I left. Although I’ll help people in genuine need, I don’t respond calmly and quietly to passive aggression.

The part of me with OCD would rather not have to tidy up behind people; the paranoid, anxious one who suffers PTSD would rather sleep well at night, knowing there’ll be no interruptions or early morning calls; and the real-life one with chronic depression would just like to be asked how I am sometimes, by those who make those parts of me worse.

I don’t mind helping people, but it would be nice if others sometimes helped me. They wouldn’t have time, but I could at least let them know I need less from them. I don’t like being alone, but sometimes I’m forced to shut myself away, to head off the tide of people pushing towards me, in this life which often seems a one-way street. It affects my ability to sleep, perchance to dream lucidly and escape for a while.

I’m resolutely single, because I travel with my own atmosphere, but also because of my mistrust of the human race, based on the subjects who’ve demonstrated their human empathy so poorly. I want attention, but not the kind of unwanted attention I attract. I crave contact, but only with those who understand me, the paradoxical enigma. I need to see a shrink.

I’m socially anxious, so I can’t deal with multiple diagnoses requiring me to travel for treatment. The waiting list for psychiatric treatment (I need weekly sessions with a psychologist) is so long, that I daren’t bother it, when others might need it more. When it comes to my next fitness-for-work assessment, it’ll most likely go to tribunal (my third) because there’s little on my medical file, further dehumanising me.

One day, other people might just push a part of me too far. Then if there’s no-one there to catch me – like I have so many others – they’ll have no banker, adviser or friend. Guardianship by angel will then be my own choice, of those I wish to haunt.

A small part of me sometimes wishes everything would just leave me alone, or that I could escape the social inequality of this planet, but it’s only one of many small parts.

Life on the streets was somehow easier, when there were no ties and humans helped their fellow kind. Life was two-way traffic there. Like way back when, it’s why I have to write it all down here.