Dining in the belly of cults

HORROR FICTION

Blood dripping

This is a story from my second anthology, of a writer moving from one field to another, using prose to aid his transit. It’s a tale of dark mirrors and cult followings, and a restaurant review full of tributes…

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One of the many images looping on screens around August Underground’s Diner

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

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.

The perpetuity of memory

HORROR FICTION

Blood dripping

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THE PERPETUITY OF MEMORY

When you see what Dom Pablo has done, at first you may recoil. But Dom’s art is personal and subjective. Each work is unique and creates another life for the owner. A gift from an admirer.”

The invitation to be part of a rare commission by Dom Pablo Solanas was a work of art in itself: exquisitely crafted by the artist and a future priceless piece. This alone was a luxurious gift, even to someone of Christiana Kunsak’s means, yet it was merely an invitation to a private audience with Solanas himself. A box, carved from a single piece each of ebony and rare boxwood, interlocked to form a puzzle.

The piece is entitled La armonia. The accompanying notes state that the name only exists for as long as the puzzle is in its unsolved form: once the puzzle is solved and the two pieces separated, a mechanism inside the piece ensures that they cannot be re-joined. Once the puzzle is complete, La armonia ceases to exist and the work becomes La ansiedad.

La armonia was a rare and beautiful thing. It also held a secret: an invitation to meet with Dom Pablo Solanas. The nature of that meeting was unknown and therein lay a form of gamble; a wager with oneself: La armonia was unique and intricately crafted; its aesthetics were unquestionable in that initial state. Further value must be added for the simple fact that the piece contains a secret. If that secret is revealed, it may reduce the value of the work. The invitation will be spent. La ansiedad may not be as pleasing to the eye as La armonia and it is the permanent replacement, with La armonia destroyed forever. Conversely, the construction of the work is so fine and detailed as to invite curiosity, more of what it might become than what it is: should that beauty be left as potential, or revealed? Is it something which may be left to a subsequent benefactor? What might they find inside La armonia? Christiana could not deny herself a pleasure which someone else might yet have, and which she may never see.

As soon as the first link clicked audibly out of place somewhere inside the box, La armonia was no longer. There were no instructions on how to create La ansiedad: it was a work to be created by a new artist from the original. Only when the puzzle was complete would it reveal its secret and until then, it was nameless and in flux.

Held in both hands, the wooden box – around the size of a large cigar box – felt as heavy as it should, carved from solid wood and not hollowed out. It was slightly heavier at one end than the other. The seamless interlocking of the ebony and boxwood formed variously alternate, interlocking and enclosing patterns of dark and light. Aside from the initial click, no amount of tilting, pressing, pulling, twisting and pushing of the device produced any change. Christiana alone had been privy to that first movement, so to anyone other than her, La armonia still existed. But she wanted to create and to see La ansiedad.

The box remained unaffected by manipulation, until Christiana’s housemaid picked it up to clean around it. Snatching the box from the maid’s hand, Christiana heard another click from the device and almost immediately noticed a change: the box remained a cuboid but the dimensions and patterns had altered. Closer examination of the new patterns revealed some to have assumed shapes which suggested movement: swirls, series of dots and even directional arrows. The introduction of a third party had revealed a form of instruction.

Over a period of around four weeks, the wooden box became a collaborative project, with guests to Christiana’s apartment invited to examine the puzzle and attempt to solve it. During that time, the box took on many geometric forms: pyramid, cone, octahedron and latterly, a perfect cube, with opposite ebony and boxwood faces: it was more perfect in form that it had ever been but it still harboured something inside.

The geometrically perfect cube would let up no further information and remained static for a number of days, until the housemaid picked it up once more while she was cleaning. The top half separated from the bottom, the base now a half-cube on the table. The surfaces of the half cubes where they’d separated were a chequerboard design: a game of miniature chess could be played on each ebony and boxwood surface, the size of drinks coasters.

Christiana placed the two halves back together and a perfect cube once again sat upon the table, for a while. After around five seconds, the cube began to make a whirring sound, as though a clockwork mechanism had been invisibly wound inside. Slowly and with a smoothness suggesting the most intricate mechanical construction, the individual tiles on top of the cube folded back from the centre to the edges, eventually forming a five-sided cube with a checked interior. It was seemingly the lack of any further outside intervention which allowed the wooden device to complete a long transformation by self-re-assembly and after a while, the device resembled a chequered wooden hand. A slot opened in the palm and a card was offered between the forefinger and thumb: a card roughly the size of a visiting card and folded with such accuracy as to disguise the fact that it was anything other. Yet unfurled, it was an octavo sheet: eight leaves. The reverse of the flat sheet was blank but the eight pages to view on the face were images of art.

Oil and watercolour paintings; portraits, landscapes, sill life and abstract; cubist, surrealist and classical. Wooden, metal and glass sculptures; pieces made using prefabricated materials, notably shop window mannequins, plastic dolls, action men and tin soldiers. Body art as well: tattoos drawn in such a way as to give them a third dimension: an arm with skin pulled back to reveal muscle and bone beneath by way of a zip; a human chest splayed open to reveal a metallic cyborg beneath: living art made from human flesh, these two suggesting something beneath the skin visible only with the benefit of intimacy with the bearer. Another tattoo made the wearer’s right leg appear as though the limb were an intricate sculpture made from wood: one organic material transformed into another, which can be transformed in a way that the material it’s made from cannot, to create the illusion of just such a thing. All of these things had been made by the hands of Dom Pablo Solanas. All were arresting at first sight and invited closer inspection. Even as facsimiles and at such small sizes, the works of Solanas were breathtaking. At the bottom of the sheet was a phone number: apparently a direct line to Dom Pablo himself.

La ansiedad quietly whirred into motion again, the mechanical fingers retracting into the wooden flesh of the hand until the sculpture was briefly a chequered ovoid, before flipping open like a clam shell. It continued to change form, seemingly with perpetuity.
Dom Pablo arrived promptly and attired in a fashion exhibited in many public portraits of him: conflicting primary colours which somehow worked, on a man who also wore a fedora hat at all times, and who sported a perfectly manicured handlebar
moustache.

Ms. Kunsak. A pleasure to meet you.”

Please sir: Christiana. Likewise, Mr Solanas.” Christiana offered her hand, which Solanas held firmly.

As you wish. And please, call me Dom Pablo.” His voice was deep and relaxed. “Christiana: what is it that you’d like to do today?”

I already have a great gift before me. This is a chance for me to turn your natural gift into something I can share. I have everything I could need around me, but this is an opportunity to own something which is so treasured, I may not wish to leave this apartment again.”

Indeed. That is one of the rules I apply to my arts. Just as I turn my raw materials into others – like flesh into wood – so I wish to allow others to use me as a creative tool, so that what I create is their own. My subjects and prefabricated materials are artworks in themselves but together, we make unique pieces. By allowing a subject to commission me, I am subverting the art and holding a mirror to the process.

You will of course have an idea of who the giver of this gift is. Association with such a person is to be in the membership of a society which respects certain things, like privacy. Therefore, I never discuss the details of a commission with the subject. It is highly unlikely that anyone should wish to attract attention to anyone outside of a certain group, that they have been a part of my work. All of my pieces are unique and personal.”

It is those very people, those within my inner circles, that I have in mind as I enter into this: it was within my closest circles that I came to receive this, and only those of a certain standing will have access. Dom Pablo: I should like to carry your work with me in those circles; I would like you to use me as a canvas and make me a living work of art.”

A truly beautiful idea. Although the canvas is living, I must render it inanimate so that I may work. As such, I shall administer a general anaesthetic, so that you feel no discomfort. I don’t like to talk when I work. When you awake, we will have new art and the Dom Pablo art changes lives. You will enter an even more exclusive, innermost circle of my very own. Excited? Sleep now…

***

“…When you see what Dom Pablo has done, at first you may recoil. But Dom’s art is personal and subjective; each work is unique and creates another life for the owner. My art remains with you, just as the motion of La ansiedad is perpetual. This latest work is entitledThe perpetuity of memory.”

Christiana stared into the mirror, and the illusion of wood carved from human flesh was real. It would take a level of intimacy permitted to very few, to see the original material beneath the artwork, made by Dom Pablo. The mannequin beneath the wooden skin.

© Steve Laker, 2015

Both The Perpetuity of Memory and The Unfinished Literary Agency, are available now in paperback.

Lifestyles of the disposable people

THE WRITER’S LIFE

It’s now eight weeks since my reassessment for PIP and I’ve still heard nothing. It could be that the Department for Work and Pensions are still processing me, but my money was cut to a statutory amount a month ago, when my last two-year benefit period expired. I’m surviving without the money I used to live an independent life (the whole purpose of the benefit), but I have nothing beyond essentials. Everything else, I can no longer afford. I’m disabled, dehumanised, and it feels, disposable.

Broken Dolls Heads

The timing couldn’t be more cruel. If I’m forced through the tribunals machine, the process could drag on for another 4-6 months. During that time there’s Christmas and my kids’ and parents’ birthdays. I can’t afford anything more than token gifts. I have just about enough money to maintain my monthly visits with the children, but little else. I’d like to visit my parents more, but I can’t afford to.

My dad’s diagnosis has changed. For the last six months, doctors thought he had hydrocephalus. He had fluid on his brain, which was drained, and everyone hoped he’d get better. But he got worse for a while. His condition was complicated by a serious neural infection requiring powerful intravenous antibiotics, and a fall resulting in three cracked ribs. All of which seemed to explain his long recovery. But although he’s better, he’s nothing like he was before this all started, when he got lost driving at night and I reported him missing and vulnerable to the police.

The latest prognosis is that dad probably has Parkinson’s, and I’d like to visit him while he still remembers who I am. But with my independence payment taken away, I can’t afford to. What a shame, that the UK benefits system is designed that way, to deny quality of life (independence), to aggravate mental illness with all this anxiety, and take away what was left of a life. A life is not a singularity, and each affects many others.

Shame on some of my so-called friends, who I loaned money in their times of need, but who never repaid me. I hope they enjoy their family Christmas, but that it’s marred by the prickly guilt of knowing they denied a friend what might have been his last. If a house is exorcised and you don’t pay the priest, will your home be repossessed? Karma can be a bitch of a haunting, but exorcism is easily arranged by settling debts (There’s a ‘Donate’ button on this blog).

Like most social tenants, my electricity is on a key meter, so like most poor people, I pay more for electricity and have to pay in advance. I won’t be troubling the meter too much, just putting on extra layers of clothing. A cynic might call it another social cleansing measure, by a fascist Tory government intent on population reduction by writing off costs, like disposable people.

I’m struggling, but I’m still here, hoping to find some humanity in the Department of Waste and Recycling that’s the benefits system. I’ll keep fighting to get what I’m entitled to, and hopefully regain my independence. Don’t forget me dad.

A Pot Noodle of his story repeated

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There are few sounds more terrifying than someone trying your front door, but hearing keys in the lock is one of them. Lately I’ve been scrambling blindly for the keys to life, and put one in the lock to see if the door might open onto the string theory which contains my place in something, a history of me in a pot. Being British, I apologised to the door when I walked into it, and on the other side, something like a Korean re-unification…

Not PoodlePot Noodles feature in Cyrus Song

Also lately (for a day) I’ve been removing the strangeness from an estrangement I had with an old friend. It was a sad and frustrating falling out, as we went back so far, to our days at school together in the 80s. When it was Nazi salutes and steel-capped boots, when we had Punk and Ska, when The Specials asked: Why? Given that I’ve been going through the Tory social cleanser, I was reviewing my situation anyway. My friend just asked how I’d been. I’ll put the kettle on. It won’t go with the rest of me, but I’ll try anything once.

It began when we parted company because I was a fascist drunk. Not the goose-stepping Nazi-type, but figuratively, a thoroughly objectionable capitalist and a drunken narcissist into the bargain. Quite how I’d turned out like that, I can’t think.

Drink took over and I just lost it. Lost the plot and the will to live, not knowing what was worth living for besides a constant battle with the craving. Why do we have to fight? I don’t know why I pushed everyone so hard, towards somewhere I didn’t know, so that eventually they pushed me. Did they really want to kill me?

A brief chronology then of my breakdown (as it’s come to be known, because it was an alcoholic and mental meltdown). We’d have to pick up from around 2003, when I met my ex-wife and we moved to London. I’d been working in print since school, and ended up spending 25 years married to the paper and ink, including three years of running a brokerage with the wife.

Print was traditionally a booze-fuelled industry, with deals being done in Bermondsey pubs just as they were in the bars of Fleet Street. I always liked a drink, so I suppose some things were inevitable. They get in your blood. Running a firm was the top of a steep final slope.

My customers were the ones who’d followed me from other firms, so the business just rolled in with little effort from me. I adopted some mental line in my sandpit, that I’d spent years working for other people, as sales director on commission, when I could take all the profit, and I felt I was owed a retirement (entitlement). While the wife ran the business from home, I was seeing customers and getting pissed. Always a temptation, the booze became my absolute ruler.

I got to the point where I’d wake up and have to go to the fridge for a swig of White Ace, just to stop the tremors. By the time I’d dropped the kids off at school and got to the local corner shop, I’d be rattling so much the owners would have to take the change from my shaking hand. I’d get outside, neck a can of tramp juice, and the tremors would stop. I’d get out of the flat every day as soon as I could, so that I could go drinking, even if that was in Mountsfield Park in Lewisham, with all the other drunks.

If there was a singular catalyst, it would be the knifepoint robbery in that same park. It was after that, in 2011, that I got a diagnosis of PTSD and eventually, underlying depression, from whence besides my alcohol-fuelled mind, never digressed.

I was in the care of an excellent psychologist for a while, but I was still drinking more, and I took it too far. I lost contact with Dr Martin when I had to leave the family home, and my wife, so long a single parent already because of me.

From Catford to Bexley, where the wife and father-in-law put down a deposit and paid the first month’s rent on a flat; a nice one in a converted manor house with a swimming pool. In the village, I found a love of drinking among the locals, and an area at the centre of the live poker scene. And drugs. Already playing online, I embraced this new opportunity, the drugs and the late nights. I started playing in casinos and I did quite well for a while.

Don’t play poker while drunk though (you never would). Because I did that. I ended up thanking my wife for all she’d done, by running the business into the ground and taking it for every penny as my addiction won, to the exclusion of all others.

I was headed down to a life of not caring, while my wife was made redundant, applying for benefits, and replacing the furniture she’d let me keep with Argos Basics. I’d visit once a week or so to see the kids, but I was always itching to get back to poker, drink and cocaine.

From Bexley, I went to Sidcup. I was in another relationship (with a fellow alcoholic) and I abused that as well. Three years after leaving the family home in Catford, I was on my way back to the other chez Laker, my parents’ in Tonbridge.

The last chance saloon was one I was sure I wouldn’t be thrown out of; these were my parents after all, so I could carry on drinking, knowing places to hide it. By her own admission, my mum policed me too heavily, but she was never going to be qualified to deal with an alcoholic.

To this day, mum throwing me out of the family home was the greatest act of love and courage I’ve ever know. We’re fine now and it was a bilateral thing, with dad having to support mum. But where me and mum didn’t talk for a while, dad came to find me a couple of times.

It was when we laid Jay to rest that I found out the upset I’d really caused, when some friends told me how badly it had affected my parents (mum and dad visited with friends while I was absent, with possibly only the leave of nature). My sister still blames me for the way dad is now, even though his ongoing neurological condition was diagnosed long after we all made up (except for my sister), and he now says that having me around makes him feel better. They say boys are closer to their mums, but never mind the bollocks. We’re equally close to any parent, but in a way unique to each of us.

When dad came and found me those times (in McDonald’s), he gave me some loose change. He didn’t specify what it should be spent on, least of all tell me not to spend it on booze. When it comes to the debate about giving homeless people money, I found my personal sidings when I went off the rails.

Alcoholism is an addiction, just like drugs. Unlike most drugs though, alcohol cessation – complete cold turkey – can be fatal. That’s when I found myself at an impasse, living on the streets, of no fixed abode. Because the cessation drugs are powerful, and those administering them need to know where the addict is. So I was prevented, excluded from doing that.

It’s a chicken and egg, the home and addiction thing. A couple of ex-servicemen I was on the streets with had the same problem: You’ll be given shelter when you cure your addiction, when the former was precisely what we needed to address the latter. When it comes to giving money to the homeless now, I do so without question or instruction. I know that temporary escape from the cold and threatening outdoors can be found in a blue tin. I know that can stop the delirium tremens, keeping an alcoholic alive. At least until they find shelter.

In the end, I went through a controlled drinking programme, a reductionist measure which required me to attend a rehab facility at random times of the day over a three month period. I could get called any day of the week – sometimes two, others five – at anywhere between 8am and 6pm, and I’d be required to give a breath sample within the hour. By then I was sofa-surfing, so I did at least have a base, albeit not a home.

To illustrate the extremes, near the beginning of the treatment, I blew 126 (microgrammes of alcohol to 100ml of breath, where the UK drink drive limit is 35 (I had no plans to drive)) at 9am. At that point, I was drinking nine litres of tramp juice a day. Towards the end of the programme, I blew 21 at 4.30pm. Now I drink normal cider throughout the day (a functioning alcoholic using controlled drinking, to keep the rattles at bay) and I smoke weed. One addiction for another, but smoking broadens my mind and has allowed me to write some pretty good sci-fi.

After sofa-surfing, I got a room above a pub (the irony) and spent a year there, before the landlord turned out to be a criminal and started threatening me, which played right into my hands with the local council housing team. They moved me here, to my tiny studio, with a social landlord, and where I’m on a rolling tenancy. That gives me the security of shelter I need to make whatever I do, with the rest of whatever life I have left.

It’s been a thoroughly dehumanising process, but one which has made me human again. Now with multiple PTSD diagnoses picked up from various events on the street (beatings, a bottling, a throttling, being set light to (which apart from the aggressor, is hilarious when you’re trying to sleep in a sleeping bag which complies with EU regulations and isn’t flammable), broken bones), chronic depression and anxiety, at least I know what I am: a Pinhead with a load of Post-It notes stuck on it, outward signs which I try to make sense of from inside my head and my solitary surroundings.

It was all my fault and I deserved to end up where I did. What most don’t give me credit for is having it within me to grieve every day. When you’re a recovering alcoholic, that’s tough, not to simply reach for a drink, like all those times before. But as at least one person (‘Millwall Tony’) has pointed out, to me (and I hope others get it): “You were fucking ill mate.” My parents get that too, having taken the trouble to educate themselves, so that they can educate others, who no longer question the terms ‘functioning alcoholic’ and ‘controlled drinking’.

I make no comparisons, but Dad’s been through a lot, with me and latterly his illness. He says it’s nice to have me around, that the past is done, and that he’s proud of me. Them being bilateral, mum concurs. If only my sister would join the remaining happy family dots, a final crossing of the winding river we all went down. I built bridges but she just can’t get over it.

On her last birthday (which she shares with Kirsty MacColl), I told my ex-wife I’ll never forget how she and her family gave me a chance, and of how I’m grateful to her and the kids’ step dad for saving the two young ones.

The kids are fantastically funny and intelligent young people, one a budding musical and computing scientist, and the other a multi-linguist. Everyone’s better off (except me. I’m fine and I have all I need, but it’s hardly what you’d call comfortable), most importantly, the kids. I’ve said all my apologies to them and their mum, so many times I’ve been told to stop. That was a long time ago, but I can’t help feeling guilty. That’s my life sentence, of missing them every day, but being able to value the time we now get together, and without the need to be chaperoned. It took a lot of work, on all sides.

I did all that. I caused all that for other people. But I also did something for myself: I found myself and I’ve tried ever since to make myself a better person to know than the sub-human I was.

The state of the country – divided far more than it was when we were punks in the 80s – and the world at large, they fuel my depression, and my writing. At home, we’re headed for open civil unrest. In America, I see civil war. I fear for the world my children have inherited, and it’s only in some vain hope that my small voice can join with others and get noticed that I keep going. Why should I live in fear? Because we and the next generation are the exploited, and so were our fathers (and mothers).

The_Exploited_Pushead_Skull_BP_1024x1024

We are the pushead skulls. We are the stranglers and they are the damned, our two generations: La folie, and the history of the world, part one. There’s a guy called Pete here, rattling some test tubes around: says he’s got a plan.

I’m ashamed of what I did, and when I was drunk I tried twice to rid the world of me (the evidence of shoddy workmanship remains). I’m ashamed of what I represent: a human, when our species has so much to answer for; and a white British man, when the days of empire and the Christian forefathers killed and enslaved more people than the Nazis. History repeats and we’re seeing it now. I was the cause, and I have a moral duty to put things right, as we all have. My anxiety is crippling, and trips outside are rare, but better an armchair activist and still here, when there’s so much to do.

So what? So what, so what, you boring little…

It helps that I’m able to tell all this to a friend.

That’s why I write. Initially because I didn’t have anything else to do on the streets, but also because I found it easier to address some situations in fiction. It was never to make things somehow less real, but much of it wouldn’t be believed outside the medium of fiction, it’s too far-fetched. I had an epiphany, even though I’m a scientific atheist now. At the time, it was like my right wing got broke and I found the left one. Sort of a fallen angel, an Antichrist angelic upstart.

Somehow I managed not to drown. I found a way to kick my legs and keep my head above the water. It helped that there were others who saw me waving, and who came back to see what had washed up on shore: A liberal socialist, I swapped the boots for something more comfortable to be around. But I’m still crass. Doors like me, because I’m polite enough to apologise when I walk into them. I’m glad we could patch things up, when others are less accommodating. Why can’t they be the same?

I don’t care if any other friends return from estrangement. If they want to stay there, it’s where they placed themselves, and that’s out of my mind.

The longer story is on this blog, which I started when I was homeless. I regret a lot of what I did, but just as history can’t be erased, I leave it here as part of the narrative.

All things considered, I’m happier now. Like Douglas Adams, I ended up somewhere I never realised I wanted to be. So far I’ve written five books. That’s the story that was, and now is the start of the remainder.

Let’s leave the past where it belongs. We can pull it apart forever, but that would be a waste of the future.

As soon as you get your own things into what’s the nearest you’ll get to your own home, no matter how brutalist, you have life. Someone shut the door.

The Unfinished Literary Agency tells a longer story still, and Cyrus Song is worth a read. Signed copies are available on request, which will never be worth anything other than recording a moment in time.

“…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.”

Stephen Hernandez, translator and interpreter.

A little anarchy defines democracy

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Today is seven weeks since my PIP assessment, and still no word of a result either way to calm my anxiety. I’ve had to learn not to worry about something until it happens. If I hadn’t adopted that bit of Buddhism, I’d have ceased to function by now, the awfulness of the last few months compounded by the state of the world outside my head.

Democracy is freedomCrimethInc

Much has been written (by me) about the need for a common foe or collective focus, to draw humans from different sides and of different opinions together. Lately the Brexit issue has become precisely that. Besides being a complete hatchet job by an incompetent government, this weekend it had the handy side effect of reacquainting me with some friends I’d fallen out with. We hadn’t become estranged because of Brexit, but that was the common focus for those on both sides to agree, we need to talk.

I didn’t go on the People’s Vote March, though I’d have liked to be among the voices of dissent. No matter that they’re mostly like-minded people, my social anxiety wouldn’t have coped with the estimated 700,000 crowd. Instead, I was at home, commenting on social media and joining in conversations.

The main argument in the ‘Leave’ camp is that Brexit is the will of the people, it was voted for in a referendum, and that should be respected. The ‘Remain’ camp holds that the referendum wasn’t a mandate to sell out the country and set us adrift in an unsteady wider world. When it’s clear the government is incapable, surely we, the people, all of us, need to take action? What the Brexiteers are advocating is simply standing by while a nation falls around us.

“Any idea that a second referendum would be an affront to democracy died on Saturday afternoon” (Independent).

In my opinion (on Facebook), ‘Democracy’ needs to evolve, now that it’s been hacked and redefined by a capitalist fascist ruling (not governing) political party. Throughout the history of humanity, we – as one race – have found better ways. Brexit, as it was steamrollered through us, was a wake-up call to the otherwise-blinkered.

The right to fight against something we don’t believe in remains, regardless of the vote. Parliament, your elected representatives, recently voted on your behalf that animals feel no pain. Are you happy to let such a result, made in full compliance to the constitution, stand?

Or, do you fight for what you believe in; by any means necessary?

Why should we accept what our politicians say when they’re murderers anyway, not least at home with their social cleansing agenda?

There’s a much bigger conversation which needs to take place over the next few decades, as we recover from this divisive episode. Brexit was sold on lies. This time, we’re more informed. And those who still believe in ‘democracy’, not that dictated by a fascist regime, need to move on together with the rest of us.

It all started in 1945, when our forefathers, and our allies in Europe and around the world, liberated a neighbour European country of people just like us from a fascist dictator and mass-murderer. History repeats.

Around this point, conversation turned to the debate on poppies. As a liberal lefty, I was asked if I could explain why a group of Cambridge students had sought to ban the wearing of poppies on their campus. Firstly, the story is only partially true and has been twisted by the right-wing tabloid press. Secondly, I couldn’t explain why they’d want to do such a thing (if indeed they had), but if they had, that was their human right, to have an opinion. They’re not preaching hate.

Jez Hunt

There was equal unrest on the right over the decision by the British Transport Police to not allow stickers on company vehicles:

How do we know it’s poppy season again? The foaming rage of war-hungry gammons – and I say that as a veteran” (The Independent).

On social media again, I pointed out that like the majority of us on the left – even the pacifists – I don’t have a problem with our fellow humans who defend us (our country). We respect them just as anyone should (and I’m humbled by them), especially as many are fighting against their political will.

We understand that they’re doing a job. Also that thousands of Muslims (but why should I single them out, when Christianity has more blood on its hands?) fought for their country (Britain), and that together with our allies, Britain liberated a European neighbour from a fascist dictatorship in 1945. History repeats, and so do I.

Our problems – and they’re all of ours – are with the politicians who use those humans for political, religious and financial gain, often with a personal invested interest. It’s the same political system which repeats lies until we believe them to be the truth, blinkering us with protectionist propaganda about invisible outside threats.

And that’s what we should all have a problem with: Being pawns in a global game of chess. Or poker. Game theory holds – right up to the universal scale – that success favours the long-termists, those who can think ahead and see a bigger picture.

The time for a people’s vote has arrived, when our politicians have messed up and screwed us. If they’re too arrogant to listen to the estimated 700,000 who turned out on Saturday in London, and the millions who were there in spirit, then the next demonstration could be bigger. It might be a people’s revolt, the revolution we so badly need in our political system for the survival of our species.

If the people did rise up, the ruling fascists would most likely impose martial law. We could end up face-to-face with all those soldiers ordered into conflict by their government. Maybe we’d all sit down for a cup of tea in London, the public and the armed forces, questioning the common foe of a dictator. It might make for some ‘up-lit’ sci-fi at least: an uplifting near-future imagining.

AnarchyInTheUK

I put a label on Saturday’s march and the conversation surrounding it: I called it ‘Anarchracy’ (and it was entirely peaceful), because a bit of anarchy can change definitions.

I’d rather be writing hard-fi sci-fi

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’m into week seven since my PIP assessment, and none the wiser still. But having spoken to a friend (after being given a glimmer of hope by the mothership), I’m managing to reverse a paradigm. Rather than fear the unknown, I’m making the most of it. I’m still anxious, but I can multi-task while worrying.

Octopus MotherfuckerPatricia Correl’s Writing Blog

My friend (we’ll call him Jacques, because my friend is neither a man nor French) has just been through the initial dehumanising stage of the DWP and Tory government social cleansing machinery. Jacques only got his Personal Independence Payment decision after eight weeks of waiting for the self-appointed powers to decide if he was worthy of a continued oxygen supply. They found in his favour, so now Jacques is a character in a story I’m writing.

What’s the point of waiting on the phone for 20 minutes to speak to someone, only to be hung up on when you ask the wrong question, or to be told my case is still being reviewed? Better to make use of time I can do nothing other with, to write.

After committing myself to finish this story in my last post, it’s developed. It now has a tentative working title of ‘The Plastic Population’, which actually doesn’t give too much away, and I don’t think anyone will see the ending coming anyway. As far as I’m aware, it’s a completely original idea, or at least a different plot device.

The story has a plausibility in science, and it pulls together a few recent phenomena: Plastic pollutants in the oceans have been found to be breeding grounds for new kinds of bacteria; Micro-plastics in every living organism on Earth could have carcinogenic properties we don’t know of yet; and humans have been attempting to find evidence of extraterrestrial life in cosmic radio waves. But maybe we’ve been looking in the wrong place. The story begins roughly (first draft) like this:

What if all of life, with its meandering trails, high rises and deep slopes, was the path leading us to something, somewhere we’d once wished for? We might have forgotten what that was, or it might be buried deep within our species’ subconscious, but still, dreams can come true.

Like a homeless drunk on the streets, there because it’s where the path he’d chosen led, what humanity needed was a new player in the game of life, one which would fundamentally change the way we look at ourselves and our understanding of the universe.

It wasn’t a common foe to unite previously warring factions, although in a way it was. It wasn’t an alien invasion, but in some ways it was that too. It was a cure for cancer, which ironically arrived like a message in a plastic water bottle…

Those are the bricks, and the cure for cancer is more analogy than literal spoiler. It’s a large tower to build, but it’s one to a kind of Babel. I’d much rather be writing and finding answers over the next couple of weeks in limbo, than staring at the walls not knowing, and counting the days in notches.

Barring a shit sandwich in the mail from DWP withdrawing my oxygen supply, The Plastic Population should be out in the length of a piece of string.

The lights of the mothership

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Today is six weeks since my assessment for PIP, and still not a word from The Department for Work and Pensions. It seemed my benefits had been withdrawn when less money than usual went into my bank. Strange (or just plain rude) then that no-one had the decency to tell me. It’s been playing on a primal human fear within me: that of the unknown. I was grateful for the wisdom of the mothership, telling me to slow down.

mothership_by_jambi20-d6nq2yvMothership by ShahabAlizadeh

My mum pointed something out which gives me a glint of hope: It could (just about) be, that my last period of benefits (two years) ended, while DWP are still considering my re-application. It’s a faint glimmer, but it’s a small light at least.

It could just be that someone has found some inner humanity, and decided not to put me through the social cleansing machinery. It’s more likely to be weeks of making calls, waiting 20 minutes to be connected, then hung up on as soon as someone can’t answer a question.

I’m usually the optimist – despite having chronic depression – my reasoning that neither the optimist nor the pessimist can affect or predict the outcome of something unknown and beyond their control, but the optimist has a better time while not knowing. I must admit – because a government department is involved, and a Tory one at that – the pessimist is more to the fore of my mind at the moment.

But even if I have been declined, I know what I have to do now. I can’t fully relax like I would if I wasn’t facing the tribunal appeals process, but now I have the knowledge, it helps. So much so that I’ve started writing some new stories.

There’s one I’m particularly excited about, but too much reveal would be spoilers. It’s a science fiction yarn, about plastic pollution on Earth, a way in which aliens might communicate with us which hasn’t occurred to us to look for before, and a message in a plastic bottle. The central idea is not one I’ve seen used in fiction before, and it needs a bit of explaining, but I can do that in fiction with show-don’t-tell and with dialogue. It’s a rare departure for me into long-form short stories (I’ve written a few before), of anywhere between 6,000 and 12,0000 words. The kind of length which could be made into a feature film.

I don’t even have a working title for the story yet, but I feel compelled to record my intention to finish it, lest any DWP shit sandwich arrive in the post and throw a spanner in my brain’s workings. There’s a lot in there, troubling me, including (but not limited to) the end of the world and of human extinction.

Now that I’m getting back to writing, perhaps I’ll deal with the rise of the right, their invention of fear with a rhetoric of unseen outside threats, placing a protectionist dome over their captive audience as they repeat lies with such frequency they become the truth. I’ll use the coping mechanism of the keyboard to write of the hacking of democracy, and the various ways humanity may commit mass suicide or save itself. One story will see humankind in a new paradigm, one in which extraterrestrials arrive in our solar system, a common new actor uniting previously hostile human factions. The arrival of a mothership might force all humans to slow down and take a look at themselves, just like my mum, who gave me this computer, because she “…thought it might help with your writing.” When I first started, it was for therapy.

I’m busy on the typewriter: The laptop computer which actually sits on a desktop, where a desktop was always really a ‘Floortop’. There’s an analogy, perhaps for more fiction, of computers placed as though by a superior intelligence on ever-higher shelves as it brings up kids. A technological Tower of Babel. A protectionist mechanism, telling us not to grow up too fast.