The cardboard sky effect

FICTION

Like most writers, I don’t do it for the money (there isn’t much). For me, it’s therapeutic, allowing me to get my thoughts and frustrations, hopes and visions out in the world. If it’s not me on my mind, it’ll be someone I can empathise with, or aspects of me turned into a fictional character. Cardboard sky was one such story, and if others enjoy what I do, then I’ve done my job.

The story below is in my second anthology, but I gave it away as a stand-alone story, to someone who said she’d like to read it. This was what she said:

This story just whacked me in the chest. I can see elements of myself and many other people in there, and the way it’s written puts me right inside the story, because I know what that [the story’s content] feels like. It’s sad, but it’s funny, showing a coping mechanism. It’s both weird and wonderful. I love it!

This is what she loved:

Cardboard sky4

CARDBOARD SKY

The story of how I became a ghost is surprisingly ordinary: I died. My actual passing was like that moment when you fall asleep every night: You don’t remember it. The next day, you’ll remember being awake before you slept; you know you’ve been sleeping and you may recall dreams. But you won’t remember the transit from wakefulness to slumber. So dying was just like that, for me at least.

It didn’t take long to realise I was dead because people just stopped talking to me. I could still walk around but no-one could see or hear me. A couple of times, people just walked straight through me, as though I wasn’t there. I wasn’t but I was.

When someone walks through you when you’re a ghost, you get to know a lot more about them on the inside. I don’t mean how their internal organs look (just like in a hospital documentary or horror film) but a feeling of their inner self. It’s surprising how many people you thought you knew turn out to be complete twunts.

Even though I was invisible and inaudible, I felt vulnerable in this brave new world. I’m used to being looked at. I like it. I do dress quite provocatively. But here, no-one was looking at me and that made me feel anxious. I felt invisible. I was invisible. That’s how I ended up sleeping under George’s bed.

So kids: It’s not a monster under the bed, it’s a ghost.

It was while I was under there that I decided to write this story.

I’d suddenly found myself homeless. I had no personal belongings, nowhere to go and nothing to do. But like any child’s bed, George’s had cardboard boxes underneath it. I wouldn’t pry into something which might be private but like most children’s beds, George’s sat above a wasteland of discarded ephemera: a little-used word but for the purposes of this story, it was the right one. It’s a collective noun, for things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time. Or collectable items that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity. Ephemera also has a certain supernatural aura about it (Ephemeral, an adjective meaning lasting for a very short time), so to a ghost and a writer, it suits the story very well.

As a ghostwriter, I could be anyone I wanted to be. I could do that in cardboard city but I had less to worry about under the bed.

It wasn’t me writing the story; I was employing someone else. When a man writes something, he is judged on his words. When a woman writes, it is she who is judged. Being a ghost was perfect. Because if a ghost writes the story, then they control it. If a ghost tells this story, it doesn’t hurt as much.

Among the discarded stationery, I found a note: ”If you don’t finish that story, I will personally punch you in the face. Cool?” I had no idea who’d written it, nor the circumstances surrounding it. I assumed it was a note given to George. Or it might have been one he’d planned to give to someone else and thought better of it. It could just as easily have been addressed to me. Whatever and if nothing else, it was a kick start. Sometimes that’s what we need.

It wasn’t a physical kick (There was no room under the bed) but it was a mental jolt, like the friend who places an arm around your shoulder and tells you they believe in you. That’s a very brave thing for them to do, because the kind of person who says that kind of thing is going to end up stuck with you.

I needed something to sustain me while I wrote. But I was under George’s bed. I had no idea how the rest of the house was laid out, so I wouldn’t know where to find the food. It occurred to me that even if I found any food, I was ill-equipped to cook it. One revelation leads to another: Ghosts don’t eat. Do they?

Eventually, I’d gathered enough odd sheets of paper to make a useful pad. All I could find to write with was a crayon. A fucking green crayon. So then I began to write, in green crayon.

Should I really have been denied drugs, when it was that which drove me, once I learned to control it? Should those who thought they knew better have removed my lifeline? If I’d allowed them to do so, I’d surely have died from the withdrawal. At least that’s what I was afraid of. So I kept going. I kept shooting up. Then I ran away. I was 16.

Once you’re 18, the law says you can leave home without your parents’ or guardians’ permission. Strictly speaking, if you’re 16 or 17 and you want to leave home, you need your parents’ official consent. However, if you leave home without it, you’re unlikely to be made to go back home unless you are in danger. You are extremely unlikely to be obliged to return home if that’s where the danger lies.

It didn’t matter to me that I had nothing. Just as long as I could get a fix, I had all I needed. Even personal safety and well being become passengers when the heroin is driving.

There’s a dark magic within you. A frightful thing I cling to.

But as a ghost I couldn’t score, just as I couldn’t eat.

So I had nothing to do besides write. It would be romantic to write that the flow of ink from my pen replaced the alchemy running through my veins. But I was writing with a green crayon.

The writing was a distraction but it couldn’t mask the withdrawal symptoms. It turns out that even being dead can’t do that. So I was faced with the prospect of cold turkey, a cruel joke as I was hungry and couldn’t eat.

So how could I write but not be able to eat? Actually I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure if it was delirium tremens brought on by my withdrawal, or the limitations of my new body, but I had no fine motor skills. I could rummage through things and pick them up but I couldn’t do something like thread a needle if anyone had asked. I probably wouldn’t have been able to put a needle in a vein if I was alive and I certainly couldn’t make my hands write. My fine motor skills were like those of a toddler. So I simply did what many authors do: They have an idea, some thoughts, a plot, and they’ll employ someone else to write their story for them: A ghostwriter. I was both a writer and a ghost. So I just thought my story; I willed it, in the hope that someone else might write it one day, now that I couldn’t.

I needed to haunt George.

I read a lot and I’ve learned through this self-teaching. I could have been so many things if it wasn’t for chasing the dragon. But that dragon must be chased, just as a puppy must be played with. So I’d read up on ghosts and the various types of haunting.

The “Crisis Apparition” is normally a one-time event for those experiencing it. It’s when a ghost is seen at the time of it’s predecessor’s passing, as a way of saying farewell to family and friends. It would be like going about your daily business, then suddenly seeing your mum outside of normal contexts. Minutes later, you receive a call to tell you that she’s passed away. With practice, the deceased may be able to visit you more than once, to reassure you. If they do that, you might have a guardian angel. In my case, a fallen one with broken wings.

“The reluctant dead” are ghosts who are unaware they’re deceased. They go about their lives as if they were still living, oblivious to their passing. This innocence (or denial), can be so severe that the ghost can’t see the living but can nonetheless feel their presence: A kind of role reversal. This can be stressful, for both the haunter and the haunted. In films, it’s usually someone moving into the home of a recently deceased person. Perhaps they lived and died alone in their twilight years. To them, the living might be invaders. These are not ghosts which need to be exorcised: Simply talking to them about their death can help them to cross over and leave your home.

Then there are ghosts who are trapped or lost: They know they’re dead but for one reason or another, they can’t cross over yet. Cross over into what? Some may fear moving on because of the person they were in life, or they might fear leaving what’s familiar to them.

There are ghosts with “unfinished business” broadly split into two categories: A father might return to make sure his children are okay. Or a lover might hang around, making sure their partner finds happiness and moves on. But there’s also the “vengeful ghost”; perhaps a murder victim, back to haunt their killer.

“Residual ghosts” usually live out their final hours over and over again. They often show no intelligence or self-awareness, and will walk straight by (or through) you. Many think that these types of ghosts left an imprint or a recording of themselves in our space time.

Finally, the “intelligent ghost”: Where the entity interacts with the living and shows a form of intelligence. I certainly wanted to communicate with George. In fact, to lesser and greater extents, I fitted parts of the descriptions of all types of ghosts. I’d not long been dead and already I had a multiple personality disorder.

All I could see of George when he first came into the room was his feet: Black elasticated plimsolls and white socks, like I used to wear for PE. I couldn’t say what size his feet were but I imagined them having a boy of about ten years old attached to them. I guessed George was quite a hefty lad by the way the sky fell slightly as he climbed onto the bed above me.

I laid still, because even though I myself was inaudible, my developing motor skills would betray me if I dropped the crayon or kicked anything. I could hear pages being turned and I was aware of movement above me. It could be that George was writing; doing homework perhaps. I didn’t want to entertain an alternative. I hoped he was writing.

No matter what we do in this life, we may eventually be forgotten. It’s a comfort I gain from writing, knowing that whatever is published is recorded and will be out there long after I’ve gone. The democratisation of publishing and reporting has meant many good and bad things but for as long as the conversation is global, we need to keep it going. There may be voices with whom we disagree but through writing, we can posit an alternative opinion and seed a debate. Beyond all that is happening in our constantly evolving universe is a simple fact: What is right will win. What is right can emerge from the anarchic democracy which is the internet, but only if there are enough voices. There will always be sides and factions but with everyone involved, those who engage the most because they are passionate enough will prevail. We don’t need to shout louder than the other side; we simply need to educate the ignorant. Evolution will tell the story of whether we became a liberal race and prospered, or if we destroyed ourselves because we were unable to evolve. Either way, history will record it. If we destroy ourselves, eventually our history will be lost in the vastness of space and time, and it may be as though we never existed.

There is only one race on this planet and that’s the one we all belong to: The human race. Where death may scare most people, it doesn’t trouble me. I’m seeing evidence that the human consciousness exists independently from the body and continues to live after our bodies give up or we destroy them. What does scare me is even more existential: Being forgotten, as though I never existed. The human race faces an existential threat: That of ignorance. Simply by talking, we can make a difference. Listen to the previous generations, for they are our history. Talk to the next generation and don’t patronise them: They’re intelligent beings. They are the human race and the future.

After a while, the sky fell further and the lights went out. George had retired for the night.

Ghosts can see in the dark. As soon as George had been quiet long enough for me to be sure he was asleep, I was getting restless. I moved around and stretched a bit. I’d managed to keep the shakes under control but now that George was asleep, the withdrawal was becoming quite uncomfortable. Despite my anxiety and a developing agoraphobia, I was tempted to just get out and run around; to do something to distract myself. I decided against it. I’d be like a child who’d just learned to walk. I would bump into things and knock things over. I didn’t want George to have a poltergeist: They’re bad. I’m not bad and I didn’t want to be the victim of an exorcism, made homeless all over again.

I thought I’d try my night vision out and have another go at writing. I managed to draw a crude stick man, a house with a smoking chimney and a space rocket with flames coming out of the bottom. He was a green man, who lived in a green house (so shouldn’t throw stones) and he had a green rocket which burned copper sulphate fuel (copper sulphate produces a green flame). I wasn’t evolved enough to write.

I fought an internal flame: One which was a danger I wanted to flee but at the same time, a beckoning warmth. I didn’t know what time of day it was and I had no idea how long George slept for. He might be one of those kids who was in and out of the bathroom all night, or he might be near enough to adolescence that he hibernated. Either way, or anywhere in between, I couldn’t keep still for even a minute.

The shakes were more like tremors now: Delirium tremens: a psychotic condition typical of withdrawal in chronic alcoholics, involving tremors, hallucinations, anxiety, and disorientation. Heroin withdrawal on its own does not produce seizures, heart attacks, strokes, or delirium tremens. The DTs were the manifestation of my other addiction, which I’d used heroin to cover up. It was somehow less shameful to be an addict of an illegal substance and hence a victim, than it was a legal drug which most people can consume with no ill effects. As an alcoholic, I was less of a victim. I was a sadomasochist.

As soon as you tell people you’re an alcoholic, if they don’t recoil, they just assume that you’re always drunk. Or they assume that you must never touch a drop. Both are true in some alcoholics but there’s the “functioning alcoholic”, who still drinks far more than anyone should but who doesn’t get drunk. They can get drunk but most functioning alcoholics simply drink throughout the day (a kind of grazing) to keep the delirium tremens and other dangerous side effects of alcohol cessation at bay. It’s called Alcohol Dependence Syndrome but most people saw it as a cop out. I couldn’t educate the ignorant, or I couldn’t get them to listen long enough for me to explain. So I started taking drugs. I got so tired of trying to explain alcoholism to people, educating their ignorance, that I gave up. You get much more sympathy as a drug addict. Yeah, right!

So as in life, this once functioning alcoholic is now a ghost.

For the brief period that I was on the road in the last life, one saying; one sentiment, was always to be heard in the homeless community: “Be safe”. Those two words convey much more than their brevity would suggest. But when you’re homeless, relationships and lives are fragile. It’s quicker and less sentimental to say “Be safe” to someone you may never see again than “I love you”.

Even if I was restless, I felt safe under George’s bed. To keep busy, I broke a promise and looked in the cardboard boxes. I placed the green crayon in my mouth, like a green cigarette. I sucked on it like a cigarette and the taste of wax was actually quite pleasant. It helped just a little as a distraction from the shakes.

The first box was a complete mixture: Sheets of paper, smaller boxes and random other stuff; like a model car, some Lego and, well, just all sorts. I gathered the papers first.

Some of George’s notes were seemingly to himself: They were in a handwriting different to the first note I saw, so I couldn’t be entirely sure but one such note read, “You came close a few times but you backed off. You didn’t want to be one of those boys who made her cry. That’s the only reason you did it.” If they were intended for someone else, he’d not delivered them.

There were unopened presents and gifts addressed to others which George hadn’t given to them. Some things were wrapped while others weren’t, but they were clearly intended for someone else as they had notes attached. A packet of 20 Marlborough Lights: “Should really have got two tens, then I could have given mum and dad one each. Like that’s going to stop them arguing.”

I’d not seen or heard the parents. Without knowing even what day of the week it was, there could be many scenarios. In one, George’s parents argued a lot but they were very much in love. Perhaps they were frustrated and united against a common foe. With my parents, that was me. Whatever it was, I imagined something bonding them and keeping them together. That could have been George I suppose.

I wondered at what point in human evolution it might have been that we started analysing things and where it might have been that we started to over-analyse. Marriage guidance, or relationship management; fucking couselling, from professionals and the plastic police alike: We all have someone. We all love someone. They care about us and vice versa. But over time, something’s not right, so we take the lid off and start poking around in that jar. We keep chipping away, feeling more free to say things in an environment which we might not in another. And eventually we say something irreversible. Something that’s niggling us deep inside and which doesn’t affect us until it’s dug up. And from there, the relationship breaks down further and ever more of the undead join the feast.

Rather than encourage engagement, that kind of situation can invoke the fight or flight reflex in the previous life; the past. And whether fleed or not, the past is history.

So we arrive in the next life with so much unsaid. We want to say it but we have to learn all over again, how to speak. And I suppose that’s why we want to haunt people.

George woke up. A light was switched on and the sky above me moved. I waited for the feet from above but there were none. There was movement like before, and the sound of paper. George must have been writing. Or drawing. After what I guessed to be around 20 minutes, he stopped, the light went out and the sky moved again. I was trembling quite violently by then, so I bit down on the crayon between my teeth and returned my attention to the boxes.

I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.

Do the first one: Get to know yourself and be happy with what you are. Then do the second: Those who loved you first time around will be the ones who are still there. So you’re not lonely.

Life, packaged.

The human body is merely a temporary host.

Put like that, we simply inhabit a body for a period of time, like a possession; In “life” we are already ghosts possessing bodies which give us physical form. That organic structure will age and eventually die but our consciousness is separate from what we look at as a living body and it goes on living, long after the host gives up. Life, as we know it, is merely one part of an ongoing existence, the greatness of which we don’t yet understand. Knowledge comes with death’s release. You may well have lived in another body in a previous life: Deja vu tells us that; that feeling that you’ve been somewhere before.

The trembling had reached my head. There was more than one person in there and the dialogue was two-way. I wasn’t talking to myself; I was talking to another person.

I began to realise that perhaps George and I were somehow connected. I always subscribed to predeterminism in principle. A part of me knew that the Big Bang carried an imprint equal to its original noise; that everything was mapped out in that pre-spacetime manifestation of knowledge and understanding. I was drawn to believe that our futures were mapped out long ago, but that they were as inaccessible as our pasts: We had no control over either. Great swathes of George were alien to me. But why wouldn’t I explore, if George was my destiny? Or it could be the withdrawal, and I may have been withdrawing to a comfort zone. I couldn’t do that to George. What had this kid done to deserve me, inside him?

Life had been very much a game of give and take: If George had taken something, then he was indebted to someone else. If he received something and it wasn’t in recognition of anything he’d done, he was in someone else’s debt. When he gave something, he expected nothing back. It was simply an accepted fact that life gave back far less than was put in. No-one understood him, least of all himself. Did I? Could I?

If what life gave was indirectly proportionate to what he put in, then the more George worked, the better the life would be which he eventually made.

His life revolved around visits to toy fairs with his father. They couldn’t afford the mint-and-boxed or the ready-made, so dad would just look around and George would use pocket money to buy spacecraft parts.

Broken and incomplete model kits were fuel for George’s shipyard in a cardboard box under the bed. When weekends were over, the shipyard had to remain where it was. The direct upshot of this was that, when George was at his dad’s to build his craft, he didn’t. Because time was too valuable. So we were at George’s father’s house and it was the weekend.

When he wasn’t constructing, he was thinking. And he made more notes. He made the normal in my life fantastical, by explaining how science fiction writers were just one small step ahead of the real world. George knew I was there, or at least that it was possible for me to physically be there.

There were clippings from newspapers and magazines in the next box, including an obituary: Jemma Redmond was a biotechnologist who died aged 38 in 2016, like so many others in that awful year. The passing of her life was overshadowed by many more well-known figures in the public eye. But like George, she worked quietly, tirelessly and passionately. And she achieved some incredible things. She developed a means of using human tissue cells as “ink” in a 3D printer. She also helped in the design of 3D printers which reduced the cost of their manufacture. Jemma Redmond made it possible to “print” human organs for transplant into patients, and she reduced the cost so that the technique could be applied in the developing world. This is not science fiction. This is science fact, just a few years from now. Most people wouldn’t have known, unless it was brought to their attention and they then had the attention span to listen. But if anyone were to Google her name, her work is recorded in modern history.

There was a printout of a scientific paper about NASA’s EMdrive. The Electro Magnetic drive is a fuel-free means of propulsion which could replace rocket fuel and all its limitations of bulk and speed. The EMdrive could take a spacecraft to Mars in 70 days. At present, it’s a two year trip, with a lot of psychological and physiological risks to any humans making the journey. Many of those problems would be overcome with the EMdrive. It’s due for testing soon and with development and improvement, could make other stars in the galaxy viable destinations for exploration and research. This is not science fiction. This could be possible within George’s lifetime.

But very few people know about these things because all of the bad news in the world shouts louder. If more people knew about the technological and scientific thresholds we’re at, they might talk about them. Others would then learn and eventually there might be a chorus of voices so loud that mankind has to listen and consider another way forward for the species.

George thought what a wonderful world ours could be if we concentrated on this stuff, rather than religion, conflict and capitalism. Of course, George was young and naïve in the eyes of most. He’d never be taken seriously if he proposed an alternative plan for humankind. So he kept and curated records, and he wrote about them. Like so many other people, he was recording his thoughts in the hope that someone might discover them later, or when he was older and might be taken more seriously. He was aware that he was documenting the present and the contemporary, and that it could become either history or the future.

My trembling had almost taken control of my limbs by now. Where previously it was first shaky fingers, then hands, now my arms and legs ached as though they needed to spasm.

The light went on again and the sky moved. There was more rustling of papers and scribbling with a pen or pencil. I started singing a song in my head, as I wondered something: I knew I didn’t need to eat, but would I need to get my hair cut out here? It was a song by the Crash Test Dummies: God shuffled his feet. If crash test dummies were to have nervous systems, I knew how one might feel by now. The light went off and the little big man upstairs settled back down. I needed coffee: lots of cream, lots of sugar.

My coffee used to come from a jug on a hotplate. George was planning a replicator. He explained in his notes how a replicator was just one step further on from a 3D printer. Scientists could already print human body parts after all. To print a cup, then some coffee to fill it, was actually quite simple. George was keen to point out in his notes that one should always print the cup before the coffee.

Like the quiet voices of mankind, George could only imagine. He could only wonder at the sky, or lie in bed and dream of what was beyond the ceiling. Humans travelling to other stars was one lifetime away. It was only a matter of generations before the dream could be anyone’s reality. George wanted to be anyone.

George escaped in his sleep. And he explained in his notes how it was possible to travel all over the universe. Not only was it possible but everyone does it, every night. Everyone has dreams and George wrote his down. The spacecraft and all of its missions were in the same cardboard box; a microcosm universe beneath George’s bed. He explained how time travel could be possible:

It’s essentially a simple matter of thinking of space and time as the same thing: Spacetime. Once you do that, it’s easier to visualise the fourth dimension: I am lying beneath a bed and I’m occupying a space in three dimensions (X,Y and Z); my height (or length), width and depth. Trembling limbs aside, I will occupy the same space five minutes from now. So the first three dimensions have remained constant, but the fourth (time) has changed. But also, I did occupy that same space five minutes previously. That, and every moment in between is recorded in the fabric of space time: I am still there, five minutes ago. I know the past. I don’t know if I’ll still be here five minutes hence: I can’t predict the future, even though it may be pre-planned from the start of all time as we understand it.

Of course, there is what’s known as The Grandfather Paradox: This states that if I were to travel back in time and kill my granddad, I would cease to exist. But if we assume that in George’s new world order, various ethics committees exist in the future, then time travel to the past could be undertaken in a governed, regulated and ethical manor. It might be a little like the First Directive imagined in many science fiction works, where it is forbidden to interfere in any way in a species’ development, even if that means remaining invisible whilst watching them destroy themselves. This in itself is a paradox because no-one is qualified to say that it hasn’t already happened, conspiracy theorists aside.

When you’re despairing late at night and you just wish someone was there, but you don’t really want anyone around. When you’re confused, perhaps by internal conflict. That’s when you need a guardian angel. If someone would just phone you at that time, that would be perfect, because you’re not bothering them. You’ve not caused them any trouble. Gaurdian angels need a sixth sense and the ability to travel back in time.

George estimated his brave new world to be around 200-250 years from now; perhaps ten generations. There was a long way to go and a lot to do, and George would most likely not see any of it. Or so he thought. He was young and he had much to learn, then he needed to learn how to deal with it. The things which George wanted to do were the things I regretted not doing.

All things considered, I thought it might be better to not let George know that one of his prophesies does come true. It was too soon. He wasn’t ready. I couldn’t let him know that it was possible to send letters from the future, or that people from the past could be visited. It was a one-way street, a bit like going to see grandma because she can’t get to you. The departed are still around, we just can’t normally see them. Often they’re just watching over us. Sometimes they might want to speak to us but we need to be receptive.

By now, my arms and legs were in full spasm and I could feel my torso waiting to convulse. I cleared everything from around me as quietly as I could, so as not to interrupt whatever dream was unfolding above me.

The human body has an internal mechanism which shuts it down when stimuli get too much. An inconsolable baby will cry itself to sleep, and if a pain becomes truly unbearable at any age, we will pass out. I hadn’t tried to sleep since I’d been dead but it looked like I was about to be shown how to.

I don’t know how far I travelled in the fourth dimension but I was woken by a voice:

“Georgie?” It was a man’s voice. Dad was home.

“In here dad.” George calling to his dad was the first time I’d heard him speak.

“I got you your magazines.” Dad was now in the room, quieter but closer. He had big feet.

“Thanks dad.” George’s voice had changed. Now that he was speaking at a lower volume, his voice was deeper: Young George’s voice was breaking.

“Card making, jewellery and papercraft. Is that right?”

“That’s the ones. Thanks.”

“What’s all this?”

“Notes. I’m writing a story. Here.”

There was a long period of quiet. George was shifting about on the bed and his dad was pacing around the room. There was that same distinct sound of pages being turned that I’d grown used to.

“Jemma Redmond. I read about her. Amazing woman. Deserves a posthumous Nobel.

“The EMdrive, eh? That’s exciting.

“There’s some pretty deep stuff in here Georgie. Did you do this all yourself?”

“Well, I kind of had some help.”

“From whom? I’d like to meet them.”

“You can’t dad.”

“Why not?”

“Promise you won’t laugh?”

“Can I smile?”

“You may smile”. There was a pause. “So, I had a dream.”

“We all have those. What about?”

“Nothing specific. Just a load of dreams mixed into one I suppose.”

“So you wrote about it. It’s good to write down your dreams.”

“But not all of that writing is mine. See, there was this girl.”

“A girl? In your dream?”

“Yes. A small girl, with blonde fizzy hair. And green teeth.”

“Green teeth? Was she a witch? Is she under the bed?”

Shit!

“No. Well, she was kind of a witch. A dark witch but a good one. She was just wandering around, like she was showing me things. She might have been lost. I want to see her again.”

“I imagine you do. Well, you pretty much hibernate anyway. At least your witch has somewhere to live now.”

***

George left at the end of that weekend but it wasn’t the end of the story. He visits every weekend and he continues to record things for historians of the future. Eventually, he may realise that he was part of the machinery which kept the conversation going. He didn’t know this yet but he was encouraged in his chosen vocations.

I was there, under the bed. If I’d been able to write, I’d have just added a note for George:

Do what you enjoy. If you enjoy it, you’ll be good at it and people might notice you. If not now, then in the future. Don’t put off till tomorrow that which you can do today. Because if you do it today and you like it, you can do it again tomorrow.

Your life is not empty and meaningless, regardless of who is in it or absent from it. Your life is what you make it, for yourself and for future generations. Don’t give up. Hopefully George will continue this story, now history, but in the hope that it might be read in the future.

Dust to Funky. Be safe George.

To this day, Dad has never gone through George’s things under the bed. I’d have noticed.

© Steve Laker, 2016.

Advertisements

A short circuit of Deep Thought

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Like a shit sandwich in the post, and like death, a computer crash is one of my life’s expectations. The postman delivered, my computer had a fit, but the world didn’t end and I didn’t die. I had to do some finding of the self though, in the worlds I’ve created.

Kasparov Deep ThoughtKasparov – Deep Thought. Game in one gate, Geek Magazine

I lost a few work-in-progress short stories but I still have the ideas, so I can start them again. I’d also written a fairly definitive post on how the world might end or not, as well as theorising some more on life, the universe and everything. It’s not lost as it’s still in my head, much as it was in Arthur Dent’s at the end of the original Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The world’s current predicament is complex, with many actors and possibilities. In an age where the daily news is sometimes like watching a surreal cartoon, where disinformation and misinformation have devalued (or destroyed) democracy, it’s easiest to just cut through everything that’s unpredictable and variable leading up to to an outcome and just think of the latter: the ultimate goals, or how the film ends (spoiler alert).

I’ve written before of how humankind needs a common focus. In the absence of a previously-undetected alien invasion to unite warring factions against a common foe, the world and its population needs a unifying cause. The planet we all share with those who were here before (the animals) might be a good starting point. Given our stunted evolution, this is the only planet we have.

We’re essentially witnessing the beginning of World War 3, and it’s a technological war between left and right. If we’re ever to evolve as a species beyond our technological age and into an exploratory era, we need to sort ourselves out. The main problem on Earth is that as it stands, there isn’t enough room for everyone.

The right-wing solution is population reduction. We see it in the domestic and foreign policies of the US and UK, where social cleansing is sold as protectionist security. We’re lied to about threats, but a gullible population will believe what it’s told if it’s repeated enough.

The geopolitical stage is set for any number of conflicts which could escalate into global war, with 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons controlled by Trump and Putin, the former a neo-Hitler personified, looking to purify the planet’s population through extermination. Such short-term, blinkered vision, typical of fascists. At the moment, some kind of war seems as inevitable as my computer crash. Even if no-one presses a button, the unrest is palpable and in the UK at least, I foresee an uprising. Like much else, that’s another story for another time, now that I have the typewriter back.

There’s another way, but the time and co-operation it would need is probably beyond humanity as it stands, on the brink of war. The other way is for us to return much of the planet to the animals, to convert to vegetarianism, or eat lab-grown meat.

We use more land for our livestock and to grow food for them than we occupy ourselves. If we accept that we’re not entitled to eat someone who has to die to feed us, we’re out of arguments to eat meat (not that that one’s a good one). Meat grown in the lab is grown from stem cells, just like in a real animal. The only difference is it doesn’t come from an actual sentient, self-determining being. If that remains anyone’s reason to eat, they themselves ought to be eaten. It’s another story I can write now I’ve reclaimed the computer.

In yet another story, we free up all that land which imprisons populations destined for slaughter, nature reclaims it and there’s plenty of room for us all to live together.

There’s a third way, which involves the far right getting its own way by the introduction of a species test. Being sub-human, they all fail and are used as food for those who insist on eating meat.

We need to accept that we’re tenants on this planet and not owners, to lose our sense of entitlement. Then there’s the damage we’ve done and our moral responsibility to clean up after ourselves and repair our damage, whether or not we evolve to colonise other planets. If we do, I hope we treat them with more respect than we gave Earth.

Humankind (as it stands) is an infection, gradually doing its best to eradicate itself. The planet which supported us for so long will reclaim itself for all those who were here before. We can only hope the next ones to find Earth treat it with more respect, or that nature makes it a world which is toxic to humans. Universal karma.

I’d written all of that and more in one coherent article, then I lost it in the computer crash. I’ve written it all before and the various articles are all over this blog, but my unifying entry went missing. It’s all still in my head somewhere and I’ll try to remember it all, or find some white mice willing to remove my brain and replace it with something more simple.

While the computer was down, the post arrived and I put myself through the bi-annual dehumanising process of applying for PIP (a disability benefit). It’s now in the hands of the department of social cleansing, who will no doubt require me to attend a fitness-for-work (real work) assessment. Among other things, I’ll be asked if I can walk 200 yards. I can, but there’s no accounting for the silent assassin which is the panic attack always in tow. My invisible disability will then see me referred to tribunal, like twice before. My benefit claim will most likely be approved at that stage (like twice before), but not before the social machine has done its best to reduce the size of the population by one. I, Steve Laker…

I’m still here, even if I’m one who matters little in the greater plan. I’m socially anxious and excluded, but life’s about finding your own place in the one place you feel at home, even if you’re paranoid. For me, that’s in the world I created, even if the physical borders don’t extend beyond my studio. That’s where I create other universes.

Only by moving forward will you find true redemption, if not from your persecutors then in yourself. I understand the human condition, and that only really came about because I had an alcoholic breakdown. In the greater scheme of things, everything still worked out for the better, if I consider where else I might have been now.

This planet we all share is the supercomputer of Douglas Adams’ imagining: Deep thought, which replaced the original Earth, destroyed by the Vogons to make way for a hyperspace bypass in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’m just one part of that Earth 2.0 and my own Earth 3.0, with all the answers inside me, like all of us as parts of the grander scheme (the computer program). A computer works best if all the component parts work together.

All we need to do is keep talking, and we need to involve the animals in the conversation, as they’re part of the program too. We’re not far off realising a real-life Babel fish, once AI and quantum computing are let loose on the task.

Many animals with larger, more complex brains than ours, we dismiss, simply because they can’t talk. We don’t give them sufficient credit for having, for example, a sense of humour. I wrote a book about it. And I’ll write more books, in the hope that people read and see that there really are perfectly plausible answers to the questions of life, the universe and everything.

wopr_joshua_by_dragontamer75-d4qnf6v

There won’t be anyone to stop you if you’ve truly made up your mind, but no matter how bad it is, and how little people might seem to care, every lost life affects others. You’ll only be aware of the splash you make, not the ripples you create.”

I wrote that, while I was rolling like a stone.

Stockings with go-faster stripes

TRUE EVIDENCE OF LIFE

I’m still suffering writer’s block somewhat, not because I’m stuck for ideas but my head is full of them. On a personal front, in my real life, there are ongoing issues of my dad’s health, my son being a teenager, and family drama where I’m always the black scapegoat.

In my fictional worlds, I’m writing more short stories and a couple of books. None of which I can write about here because they’re works in progress. It’s like writerly constipation.

I hope other people read my stories and often I happen upon other people’s. There are only so many storytellers, but there are close to eight billion of us on this planet. None of us will ever hear every story, but while there are readers and sharers, stories live on. Like Paul Auster collecting true tales of American life, which can sometimes be indistinguishable from fiction.

Auster American Life

This one started with a question in my Quora list:

If you are visibly disfigured or disabled and a random three-year-old loudly asks their parent(s) about you, what would you prefer the response of the parent(s) to be?

It had already been answered by Cecelia Smith, from Dallas in Texas:

It happened today … a very lively and curious 3 year-old was running through Starbucks, making her sparkly neon shoes blink, and nearly landed in my lap because she overshot the spot where she planned to turn. As she backed away, she noticed that I don’t have feet … her eyes got wide and she spun around “Mommy!! This lady doesn’t have feet!”

Mommy was looking mortified but was balancing a baby in a carrier while trying to say “I’m so sorry” and get the child to come back to her … but the bright little spot of energy had already spun around to me again and was studying the bright knit socks I wore over the stumps.

Where did your feets go?” I told her I’d been in an accident.

Will you grow new ones?” Nope. They don’t grow back. But that’s ok, because I have the chair to let me get around.

How fast can your chair go?” … Which turned into a discussion of who was faster, me in my chair or her with her pretty, neon shoes that lit up when she moved!

We ended up having a “race” across the store .. and she WON! She was so excited, and showed me how her shoes sparkle when she dances too!

Then she suddenly stopped and got a seriously sad look on her face.

“You can’t dance can you?” I had to admit, no I can’t dance like she does. BUT if she holds my hand while she is dancing, then it is like we are dancing together.

So she grabbed my hand with a big smile and danced with me!

Everyone was just delighted watching her – because she was just delightful.

Mom still looked uncomfortable – she wasn’t sure how she, as the parent, should respond. When the dance ended, Mom came over to apologize – and I told her there is no offense in the honest innocence of a child. I had enjoyed our talk and our dance.

I was really glad Mom had another child to tend to, so that I had the opportunity to have such a positive interaction with the little girl. When a child notices me and my “invisible feet” … all too often the parents pull them away, and tell them they are being rude and teach them to avoid interacting with people like me. I understand the parents think they are being polite and teaching their children manners – but what they really are doing is teaching their kids to ignore the existence of disabled people. I’d much rather have them see me as just someone who is a little different.

I didn’t bother to answer the question myself. I’m not sure why it appeared on my answers (requests for) page. Despite social anxiety disfiguring me in the eyes of the blinkered, I’m not one who necessarily draws glances.

I could make it into a sci-fi tale: I could strap rockets on those feet, make it a meeting of races from different worlds experiencing music for the first time… I could do so much, but it stands alone as a story which touched me, in that small part of the heart which still hopes for humanity. Despite what has happened to our countries, the UK and USA will always have a special relationship among those of us who see it for what it is.

Some stories require no embellishment. But there are billions of fables, anecdotes and thoughts of whimsy in all of us, which would go untold if there weren’t writers. I once had nothing, but I found the written word. We can all tell stories.

Maybe this one accidentally ended up in my list of questions for a reason.

Douglas Auster and Paul Adams

THE WRITER’S LIFE

As a writer in a few genres, I’ve been favourably compared to many I admire in each: Lovecraft, Kafka, King and Poe, the Teletubbies of horror; Roald Dahl and others for children’s fiction; Douglas Adams in sci-fi; and the surrealists Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas (as well as Adams) for Cyrus Song.

Monkey-typing

Today I was asked a question on Quora: If you could take a writing class from a successful author, who would it be?

As a writer who writes, I’ve been compared to Paul Auster and the way he can tell stories, both real and fictional. Like him, I place a part of me in everything I write, whether it be a mannerism in a character, or a place from the fringe of experience. It allows me to live in my characters and stories, telling them like a storyteller reading directly to you as you read to yourself (not all writers do) and like Paul Auster does.

For me, reading someone like Paul Auster and then, say, Dan Brown (to name but one), is like listening to vinyl records then MP3s. There’s a depth and richness to Auster’s writing, where much more is said than actually written. I’ve found this technique especially useful when writing surreal fiction, as it allows me to paint parallels and to tell more than one story at the same time.

He often crosses his stories over, so that the attentive reader might spot a character or location in more than one of his works. He builds themes which he dots about in his stories, creating microcosm universes which only he and his readers populate. He taught me to do all of that, and it can be seen in the recurring themes, places and characters in my separate-but-linked short fiction. Auster writes short stories and novels, but many of the former can be linked to form an entity greater than the component parts. This is what I sought to do in both of my anthology volumes (many of the individual short stories are on this blog).

I have many influences but I like to think I’m unique, as most writers do. Paul Auster and others have allowed me to take something from each to arrive at the way I write, which is to work somehow lucidly and detached, as if writing subconsciously.

It was ten years ago I learned I might be a writer, by reading Paul Auster’s ease of prose. He’s always been there, an invisible mentor in my mind, and if I were fortunate enough to have tuition from another author, it would be the one I respect most in his craft. Auster is so natural as to be indistinguishable from, and the definition of, the word ‘Writer’. That’s what I aspire to.

But truthfully, if I could go back in time or somehow change the past; if I could book some one-to-one time with any author, I’d choose Douglas. I’m not sure I’d learn a lot, but we’d probably have a fun and mutually self-deprecating time. I’d love him to read Cyrus Song, written in tribute to him and heavily influenced by him and Stephen Hawking.

I’d love to have Douglas Adams and Paul Auster round to dinner sometime, just to see what happened when those great minds met. They’ve both been there influencing my writing, so perhaps they already did.

He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it,” Douglas said.

Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them,” Paul replied.

Incoherence in the past tense

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The more I have on my mind, the less inclined I am to write. I can’t write much of what’s in my head (mainly unfinished and mostly involving other people), but I can still write. There’s only so much you can get from a blog about a depressed writer, writing about being that, but I have a past I’ve written little of. There was a time when I couldn’t, when I was too drunk. Life’s a quieter affair now and I can make better sense of some of what went before.

Cat asleep at desk

I have plenty of interests but not many hobbies, as most involve meeting people with a common interest. That’s not as much of a problem as having to leave home to meet those people, only to find you have just the one thing in common and the conversation quickly runs dry.

Real-life friends I’ve known for many years (since before my alcoholic breakdown) have tried to extract me from home, but I’ve always grown too anxious as the event approaches and ducked out. Lately this has included the chance to see a play at a local theatre about David Bowie, and to meet John Hegley for a book signing at Tate Modern.

It seems nothing is so important that it will cancel out my anxiety and paranoia, and of course, I always regret missing these things and letting people down. So the depression grows deeper with more time spent alone, and I hardly dare trouble anyone for company when I’m so prone to backing out at the last minute. It’s why the few friends I have come to me: I’m not likely to leave them.

The depressive does not make their own life easy, which is pretty much how depression works (it’s self-propagating). It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad company, but they’re generally complicated, with higher- or differently-functioning brains, which is handy when it comes to my main interest beyond writing: I play poker.

An alcoholic gambler: what a mix. The perfect storm, where each feeds the other and generally turns out badly. That was indeed the case once, but before I was ill I played well and made some money. At my peak, I was playing live cash games daily at The Empire Casino, and there’d be a pub tournament most nights around where I lived in Bexley. Failing that (or as well as) there was often a home game at someone’s house, and I played online too. Those were heady days and long weeks, usually endured with a Colombian cold.

I have little to show for those days besides a PokerStars.com baseball cap, but anyone familiar with the game will know how many Frequent Player Points you need to get one of those. I host my own home games but they’re mainly heads-up (two players), as I only have a small table.

Since I dried out and got my brain fully functional, I can play again. Despite what many say, poker is not a game of luck. I play No-limit Hold Em (Texas Hold Em), and the maths in calculating odds, the psychology of bluffing or reading another player, and everything else a successful player needs to be aware of, make it far more a game of skill than luck (about 70 and 30 per cent respectively). Unwilling or unable to go out much, I found myself coaching other players, so that they can.

This blog post has virtually no literary merit, it doesn’t make many points, and it’s not the usual unloading of my mind or chest. But there’s more to me than that, I just don’t get out much to meet people and tell them. It’s helped just to sit at the desk and type away with almost gay abandon, and that’s why I originally started writing this blog, as an escape and a coping mechanism. It doesn’t matter how many people read it, just that I said it.

These are the kind of notes I normally scribble down longhand throughout the day, then review every now and then trying to make a coherent narrative. When my own life and mind are as incoherent as any confused, lost and lonely depressive, I don’t feel so abandoned when I write.

There’s much to tell which I’ve not written before, mainly because it’s from around the time my life changed (the alcoholic and mental breakdown of 2011-13), when so many other people were affected. Now that I’ve moved on from places others would rather I’d stayed, I can look back and find chinks of memory in the dark.

There are many anecdotal stories I could tell of the poker life, some of which would be more plausible written as fiction. I have other interests besides, which fellow recluses might like. When I think of all that, I realise how little those who only know me online actually know me. They know the writer, but one who hasn’t ventured far from the depressive narrative. I’m really not that depressing in real life, and anecdotal memories are a good way of reminding me.

I can never claim to have nothing to write when I’ve done so much. Even if I can’t make my thoughts coherent, I can at least share them, and some will make good stories. It was right under my nose, like all I put up there in the poker days.

Life might be shit sometimes, but I have another one, a better one I once lived to look back on. That life, to be continued…

The psychopathy of typeface

FICTION

This is a re-write of a story I first wrote four years ago (which in itself is an irony, given the narrative). Like then, it’s about getting into character, clearing the mind, and of severance pay in the name of art. It’s a new puritan tale with no dialogue…

Helvetica Neue

HELVETICA NEUE HAUS

I’m a writer with mental health labels, writing about a writer with mental health labels: Kind of Hellraiser with Post-It Notes. I write stories too. In this one, I’m writing about a writer. The writer is writing about a writer. That is to say, the writer whom I’m writing about, is doing as I am.

The paper I’m writing this original manuscript on is from Smythson of Bond Street. My pen was a gift: hand-made by Waldmann Adámas from Titanium and Gun Metal. The ink is sticky and thick, like the tarred blood of a heavy smoker, stored in the barrel as many thoughts yet to take form. It flows through the pen, a symbiosis of ergonomics and aesthetics, as my words spill onto the page like so many injuries. The true art of the storyteller is breathing life into the words.

When I’m at my most prolific, I turn to my Royal Epoch typewriter: I can type much faster than I can write freehand. I like holding my syringe-like pen but I gain equal satisfaction from typing. Each depression of a key on a manual typewriter needs to be of a certain force: too gentle and the words are faint; whispered. Too hard and the ink will impress too deeply into the virginal paper. Just the right amount of pressure in the finger delivers an optimum amount of black ink. I had the hammer heads of the characters individually carved by a Monotype compositor of my acquaintance.

Once upon a time, stories weren’t written on computers and word processors, where they leave an indelible imprint, even if deleted. Long ago, there was the letterpress printing machine, or platen press. Individual characters of type were arranged in a frame, then ink applied and the words pressed into sheets of paper. It was the pre-press art which I found most fascinating: A compositor (like my acquaintance) produces the individual printed letters from hot metal on a Monotype machine. The operator uses a keyboard to enter the characters and the machine creates each as a metal block. My friend is not just typing the words which will tell a story, but creating the very letters themselves. Instead of putting ink on paper, he’s typing the mechanisms which will later do so: he’s writing a machine which will print.

To make the words which come from my typewriter, the individual metal blocks were soldered to the ends of the hammers, so that every character I type is in the Helvetica typeface.

Often I’ll type up my hand-written notes, and there are several motivators: something which I’ve hand-written whilst on the move or in haste will take on sufficient merit to be typed up as a manuscript for publication. Sometimes haste itself will dictate that the incessant presses of keys is a more efficient way to hasten my thoughts into reality. Typing is rough, violent and more invasive than handwriting. Occasionally, I just like to type and see my words in Helvetica. I can make anything appear in physical form in semi-permanence. That piece of completed writing then exists in only two places: my mind and printed onto the paper. I can destroy the paper at will. Sometimes I burn blank sheets of paper so that the words I planned for them may not be seen.

Besides the indelible nature of electronic words, I eschew computers for many reasons. Screen fonts have naturally had to be digitised: this is introducing an impurity, as well as leaving messy marks, like some typographical incestuous rape. It’s the same as comparing LPs and MP3s: the latter are digitised and lose much depth and nuance in the process. To the casual, uneducated listener, there’s no difference. But to the trained ear, listening on quality equipment, the two recordings are identical, yet worlds apart. There’s simply no substitute for the platen impression of type pressed forcefully into a sheet of paper and there is no place in my writing for digital typefaces or printing machines. I refuse to refer to digital printing vehicles as presses, simply because they aren’t; they don’t: they don’t physically press the type into the paper.

My manual typewriter is an instrument of beautiful torture. A metal skeleton, a mechanical device made productive automata through my fingers. It produces the flesh and blood which are my stories, in the purest font: Helvetica. The letterpress printing machine is the mechanical animal which spews out many copies.

The typeface itself is a thing of naked beauty. When each individual perfect character’s form can be joined with others to make words, the collective aesthetic is greater than the sum of the parts. My typewriter, as unique as the writer who uses it, creates stories more real than any written using anything else.

When I’m happy with what I’ve written, my original, typed manuscripts are delivered to the printer: Smith & Young in Bermondsey. Like me, they view print as an art, not technology. Like vinyl records, the connoisseur can feel and appreciate the depth and richness of letterpress printing.

I do my best to make first draft and final copy the same. I don’t use correction fluid: it spoils the otherwise pristine, two-tone typed page with a smudge of grey, and an error on my part. Mistakes happen and when they do, I simply begin the page again and destroy the original. Given an infinite number of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys will eventually produce a faultless, complete works of Shakespeare. My compositor is not a monkey operating a machine: He’s a writer, like me. His is a highly skilled trade and he is one of only a very few remaining.

When this story is finished, it will leave me as the one and only copy which exists. I don’t use carbon paper, nor take photographs. Once the copy leaves me, I have no record of it. I can’t revise it: the manuscript I despatch is the final draft. For a while, the story doesn’t really exist: it’s sheets of paper in an envelope in a courier’s bag. That courier cares no more for what he or she is delivering than they do my motivation. Should they be involved in an incident and my parcel is displaced, then that is a story which will never be told.

The courier will wait with the printer, while the Monotype operator typesets my manuscript. It’s written again, by a different writer. My key strokes on paper become the voice of the mechanical animal which will spew out potentially infinite copies of this story. Once the typesetting is complete, the courier returns with my original manuscript.

For a brief period, two copies of my work exist in physical form: I have an ink-on-paper typed copy, which I can destroy at any time. The other copy exists as potential energy, written in metal, and can print an undefined number of copies of my story. As an entity, the work’s power has increased, because it now exists in both a physical and potential form which is much harder – if not impossible – to destroy. The work could well exist in two minds, if the Monotype operator absorbed the story as he wrote it.

With all that potential, a problem troubles the puritan mind. I trust the man at Smith & Young: he’s a good friend and respected in print. He can type almost as speedily on a Monotype setting machine as I can on a manual typewriter (A small piece of trivia for the buff: the Monotype keyboard doesn’t use the QWERTY layout). I trust my colleague to use my specified paper stock when printing the orders I send him but it’s those copies which cause me discomfort. I have no control over the format, media or device which a subsequent reader may see my work presented upon. If it were anything other than my specified stock and printed letterpress in Helvetica, then the reader would be seeing something which I’ve not given them the authority to view and which is not in the pure form it was intended.

This story isn’t finished. It needs an intermission and to that end, I shall excuse myself for an evening out.

The walk from London Bridge station into Bermondsey always evokes memories: through the tunnels under the station, where much of The Specials’ Ghost Town video was filmed, then a quick stop at The Woolpack on Bermondsey Street for a late morning gin and tonic.

Ink, paper and alcohol have always been uneasy bedfellows. Just as the meat porters of the old Smithfield market used to drink in The Hope pub at dawn, so did the writing communities around Fleet Street, Soho and Bermondsey, the print bloodlines of London.

I used to drink in The Hope some early mornings with a meat porter, appropriately called Red. His white overalls would be smeared in the blood of more than 100 pigs. The shades of red were like splattered timestamps, the darkest dating back to midnight. “I can chop a pig down and cut it up in five minutes,” he said, clutching a fresh copy of the Guardian against his belly. “Legs, shoulders, loins. All done proper like. It’s an art. Chopping a pig down’s an art.”

As Smithfield Market wound down after a night of dismemberment and meat trade, men in white coats breathed in the still, chilly air as the sun rose above Farringdon. Wholesalers – the ones with clean coats – emerged too, wheeling the last of their purchases towards refrigerated Transit vans, dodging a few early risers in suits on the sober march towards the City.

The blood would elicit gasps in any other part of town and some coats were grislier than others. “You get bloodier when you’re cutting up lambs,” explained Red, who had the bearing of a retired boxer. “Lambs you put on a block, and cut towards you. When you do pigs, they’re hanging up so you cut away from yourself.”

I saw a few familiar faces from the past at the Woolpack but couldn’t quite place them.

A few doors down, I popped in to see George in his eponymous barber’s shop. For some reason, in all the years I recall going to George’s, George has been the same age: early seventies. He’s probably over 100 by now.

George still does a military short back and sides. The haircut, a shave with a badger hair brush and a cut-throat razor, burning wax tapers flicked into my ears and a hot towel compress, are all complete within twenty minutes and George has me looking as I like to for important meetings. Like me, George doesn’t talk as he works, which suits us both. Time in his skilful hands is relaxing and contemplative, while he goes about his craft perfectly and to the exclusion of all external distractions. He’s a perfectionist, like me. He invests in fine tools, maintains them with love and employs them with precision. Over a drink at the Woolpack one night, George showed me exactly how sharp one of his cut-throat razors was, by requesting a whole tomato from the kitchen. George opened the razor and rested the blade on the tomato on the bar. Merely steadying the blade with one hand, he raised the handle with his other hand and the blade began to cut through the skin of the tomato under its own weight alone. George noted my fascination with the implement and allowed me to keep it that night.

As is custom, I declined something for the weekend, tipped George and bade him farewell. From there, I decamped briefly to M. Manze, just down the road. Manze’s is the oldest – and best, in my opinion – pie and mash shop in London.

Pie and mash is nineteenth century fast food: the somehow grumpy but friendly staff plate up one’s food in the manner of a borstal inmate high enough in the pecking order to be placed on kitchen duty, then one joins others and quickly eats, head down in a booth where the seats are made of wood and the tabletops are white marble. I eat pie, mash and liquor, with chili-infused sarsaparilla vinegar, staring down at the chequered floor and playing mind chess.

After that, a quick dash over Tower Bridge Road and down an alley through some housing blocks, to The Victoria in Page’s Walk. The Victoria was the Evening Standard pub of the year in 1972 and the green and white plaque still adorns the wall, alongside black and white photographs of the building. The rest of the pub is at it was then as well: a great little south east London drinking den, where many go only because they need to and others because they happened upon it.

Smith & Young in Crimscott Street was just around the corner from the pub, so my compositor joined me after he’d locked up for the weekend. We had an agreeable few hours, him unwinding with a few pints and me on Tanqueray gin and Indian tonic water.

Suitably lubricated, we agreed it might be time to eat (great minds think alike), so we made our way back by foot toward London Bridge Station, and to Charing Cross by rail, across Hungerford Bridge and from where we would eventually part company. It was no concern of mine where my companion had to travel to but the terminus afforded me a ten minute ride home, so it was convenient.

We walked the cobbles of Villiers Street and crossed embankment, clogged with weekend traffic; mainly coaches and black cabs taking workers home and bringing a different life into the West End. This part of London is roughly half way between the old writing districts of Fleet Street and Soho, the bohemian heart where Jeffrey Bernard once held court in The Coach and Horses, whilst being famously unwell.

The two of us boarded The Tattershall Castle, an old steam ferry moored permanently at Embankment. We chose to sit on deck and enjoy the view: dominated by the graceful London Eye and Art Deco wonder of Shell Centre on the south bank, and the brutal but beautiful Hungerford rail and foot bridges spanning old lady Thames; it was a conflicting postcard.

The steamer was built by William Gray & Co. in 1934 as a passenger ferry on the River Humber for the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). She plied a route between Corporation Pier in Kingston upon Hull and New Holland Pier Station, New Holland. During the Second World War she found service as a tether for barrage balloons and for troop transfer on the Humber estuary. After the war, with the nationalisation of the railways in 1948, she became part of British Rail’s Sealink service. In 1973, after long service as a passenger and goods ferry, she was retired from service and laid up. In 1976 the ship was towed to London. Repairs on the ship were deemed too costly and she was retired from service. The opening of the Humber Bridge made the ferry service, known to have existed since at least Roman times, redundant. PS Tattershall Castle was first opened on the Thames as a floating art gallery until her eventual disposal to a brewing company. Now it’s a floating bar and restaurant, where we ate.

The meal functioned as such, with no need for friends to engage in casual banter at the expense of the enjoyment of good food. We enjoyed a post-dinner hand-rolled cigarette in pleasant silence, leaning over the handrail of the deck. For my part, I reminisced about a fine and productive evening and looked forward to seeing my story in finished form. He said it looked good to him when he typeset it.

Great minds: I don’t know what went through his, but the eyes remained open as his head fell away from me. The lights of the South Bank danced on the river as the head splashed down like a full stop on my typewriter hitting the page, then floated away. The barber’s cut throat razor sliced through the neck as easily as Red’s meat cleaver dismembered pigs at Smithfield.

My writing is art. I bring things to life with my words by putting myself in the stories. I’ll burn this copy of the story but it still exists by design, ready to be printed by the mechanical animal, in Helvetica and on paper from Smythson of Bond Street. Just as I intended it to be read.

© Steve Laker, 2018

The history of the potting shed

THE WRITER’S LIFE

A question asked directly of me (and I assume of others) on Quora was, What made you realise you were a writer? I didn’t really have a lot of choice in the matter, and the enquiry gave me the chance to pot some history. When you’re feeling shit about yourself (depression does that) and have no-one to hand, sometimes you just have to go over it all again for your own benefit.

Alien smoking pot

They say not to dwell on the past and to move on, but I must never forget that my ability to travel forward in time obliges me to travel back every now and then, lest I forget. The penitent man in the eyes of God seeks forgiveness in a life of servitude in return for entry to heaven. The atheist with many more questions will forever carry the burden of guilt, but never seek the forgiveness of a deity made in another man’s image. So I write open letters to the other humans around the world, to whom it may concern…

Robot writingTechRadar

As a human who writes, I don’t fear redundancy by technology just yet. For now there’s enough pure humanity still detectable in our own species to protect (most) writing as a human interface, where the readers’ and writers’ gains are more about preserving life than getting paid for what we do.

Every writer will tell you a different human story (their own), and mine is probably as original as most. I started writing on the streets, like a budget version of Charles Bukowski. I didn’t so much realise I was a writer as happen to be one.

I worked in London in print for 25 years, from the days of hot metal and the trade as an art, to the digital revolution and print as technology. From corporate finance and security printing in the 80s boom, to working with design agencies in the West End, print was always an industry fuelled as much by alcohol as ink. Deals were done in pubs and bars, and a lot of people made a lot of money.

I went on to run my own companies, latterly home-based when I was married with kids. But the alcohol in that environment wasn’t the same lubricant it had been in the city. Eventually my drinking got the better of me and I lost everything in 2011: Home, marriage, kids, business.

I found myself on the streets and only then realised that anyone, no matter who they are, could be just one or two luck-outs away from there. I literally had nothing but the clothes I was wearing. I had no TV, radio or internet. I was cut off.

Being December, I’d seek warmth in McDonald’s after I’d got enough money together for a coffee. I could read the free newspapers but there was nothing else to do. So I begged some money for a notepad and stole some pens from a bookmaker, and the rest is quite literally history.

Becoming a writer just happened, but what made me realise I was one? I’d never had time like that alone with my thoughts, and the opportunity presented itself to get some of them down. Many went into the blog as I’d use library computers, and others became the foundations for short stories (some of what I experienced out on the road people wouldn’t believe, so it’s easier written as fiction).

I got back on my feet, but I’m always an alcoholic (albeit a functioning one) so I couldn’t go back to work. After all that, I didn’t want to. In some respects, I was happier on the streets just writing than I’d ever been in well-paid jobs. I’d rather not have lost everything else, but were it not for that, I wouldn’t have become a writer.

It’s about freedom and satisfaction with life (there’s no point being a writer if you’re out to make a lot of money). My alcoholic breakdown left a lot of scars (on me and others), but those who knew me throughout said that I emerged a better person (and a pretty good writer). I look at the world differently now, in a way no-one can until they’ve been at that all-time low.

I don’t know what I’d do without writing, when I have so few physical people around my in real life. It’s hard enough living with myself, let alone burden anyone else, so I address much of what’s real in fiction. It’s not so much virtual detachment as the only coping mechanism I have, when to write beyond the headlines would be speculation. So long as that remains fictional, there’s hope, because the real life news is that my dad’s health is deteriorating and my son is the same teenage lost boy I once was. I hope we all get better as I’m the Marmite filling in a generational sandwich.

The whole of my life, before and after the fall, is in my books and online writing, a mixture of fact and fiction, real and virtual. From Linotype print to the scars of the road, ink flows through my veins and written into my skin. My words on the page are as deep as the tattoos on my arms: my children’s names, in Helvetica typeface.

Nowadays I tell my kids, be the best that you can at that which you enjoy the most, because then you give the most and you get the most back. My dad told me something similar once, and I hope that one day I will. I know I have good guides.

I may not Douglas Adams