An outlying region of humanity

THE WRITER’S LIFE

As I’ve written this, I’ve realised how almost indistinguishable some of my fantasy can be from real life. The surreal and out-there sci-fi aside, I’m a horror writer. I deliberately write a lot of fiction to be life-like, to draw the reader in, and I write much which is fact within my stories. This took as long to write as it did to find the end, then it was just like giving a statement to the police.

“Hit me with your rhythm sticks…”

crime-scene-body-outline-murder-web-generic

OUTLINE

I’m trying to work out how guilty I should feel about the death of my associate. I’m trying to calculate my level of responsibility for his demise, my reasons to be cheerful.

Whether friends or enemies, your proximity to your next-door neighbour is dictated by masonry. Mine and me didn’t always bring out the best in one another. While we shared many common interests in film and music, our politics were poles apart.

My neighbour was a caricature of himself, representing much of what I’m opposed to. A more engaging character might have been a good debating partner, but his views on life nevertheless had a place in his head.

He’d seen active service and was a damaged man, like so many others thrown into social housing with little support. Over time, I became that reluctant crutch. He was schizophrenic, sometimes needing my help and often resenting it later, after he’d had time to brew on whatever mixed in his head, and with no-one else to blame it on, he’d go next door.

I became adept at judging his intent at the doorway, then gradually skilled at guiding him either in or away. Nevertheless, I could never judge his mood before I answered the door.

So although we’d become begrudging friends, every visit brought a fear of the unknown, which all humans share. I’d never know what awaited me as I opened my door. Sometimes its was a tirade about the way I’d looked at him a week ago; other times a random meandering through a day out he’d returned from; and sometimes he’d bring me a gift (the last one was a welcome addition to my David Bowie library).

In daily encounters and a chapter which spans over three years, I couldn’t move away, and latterly I wouldn’t want to. He never confided in me, because he didn’t have the vocabulary or capacity to express himself. He really needed more than me for help.

Sometimes he’d fill my doorway three times a day, bald and with a belly, somewhat phallic and unable to coherently vocalise himself. Then he might not need anything for a few days. I’d enjoy the silence while wondering what was brewing, and how and when it would be served. Sometimes it would be to borrow some sugar, but always with an agenda. He was as paranoid as me.

There were four of us in this old building, all divorcees, ex-offenders, addicts, or a cocktail of the three. Mix that in with the mental problems which men keep to themselves when they keep themselves to themselves, and it can become quite volatile. Although there were no serious physical exchanges, there was much verbal and psychological torment. As the main recipient of the former, part of the guilt in my mind is my instigation of the latter.

Some of the confusion was how he thought little of encroaching on my space for his own reason, yet he respected my existence. He was a paradox. He knew I’m nocturnal and would always wait until he heard me plodding around before troubling me with requests or unsolicited advice. That being said, I sometimes sensed he’d need me as he made frequent and unnecessary visits to the communal hallway outside our flats (bedsits) without knocking.

There’d be times when I’d hear him around my door, and I’d snore. Invariably I’d then wake to a note on the door, asking me if I could do some shopping for him. Despite being aggressive when he was out under his own steam, he was as anxious as me about going out, even locally. But he never thought to ask what was wrong with me. Instead, I’d get the blame and have to give a refund for anything I wasn’t able to get and had substituted. The balance of gratitude would be restored when he’d returned from one of his drinking days and procured me a gift (it was a tobacco tin before the Bowie book).

The last note was on an electricity bill envelope, scrawled in green highlighter (he had a writer next door, but never asked for stationery):

Steve,

Have to stay in. Doctor’s orders. Chest infection. Give me a knock if you go to Tesco.

I didn’t knock as I wasn’t going to Tesco that day. Nevertheless, once he heard I was up, he was at my door:

You going to Tesco?”

No,” I replied, “probably tomorrow.”

Fucksake. Why didn’t you knock?”

Because you said to knock if I was going to Tesco, and I’m not. But I’m going tomorrow.”

That was typical. That’s the clash of logic in a door slammed in your face. He didn’t need me to collect medication, just to do his shopping. Always happy to in the past, it’s always been on my terms; when I go out, then I’ll attend to his will; but I won’t submit to his whim when I’m not going out anyway. Now I don’t have to worry.

He got one of our other neighbours to get his orange juice that day, so he survived the night. The next day, he went to Tesco himself. I’d told him the day before that I was going that day (the day after), but judging by the number of shopping bags he returned with (four: all 5p carrier bags, as he never used his own bags), he was planning to stay in for a while. I asked him if he’d remembered sugar.

Oh, for fuck sake.”

Don’t worry, I said. I was going round there today anyway. I told you.

So I got him some sugar. He came to the door, took the sugar and went back inside, bolting the door behind him. I didn’t mention the inside bolt before, because you get used to the sound of it over three years; the clink from within a cage. I’m pretty sure that’s the last time I saw him breathing.

This all happened just over a week ago. After that, I had a day out with my kids in London, returned home and expected a knock at the door. When it wasn’t forthcoming, I watched TV, played some poker, then slept.

The next three nights were good for banking sleep. I was uninterrupted, by footsteps around the door; unburdened with the lack of notes; and enjoying the blankness.

On Thursday I was up even later than my usual nocturnal hours. I’d stored up some sleep and found myself still awake at 6am. I’d watched a couple of films and was playing poker, when I heard a noise. I can’t come up with the onomatopoeia, because it was neither a thump nor a crash. It could have been the drunken thuds I often heard from next door as he moved furniture around at any hour, sometimes waiting for me to wake up (because he needed my help in his own mind), or the coffee shop downstairs placing empty chairs at tables.

I slept.

When there’s a power cut, it’s impossible to get white noise from my fan. In the event of such a breakdown, I have a portable DAB radio which also picks up FM broadcasts. Just like the nest of bees on an old TV set, the hiss of the radio contains the noise of the original Big Bang which gave rise to us all, connected by quantum apparatus inaudible to the human ear.

As a result of previous trauma I have a narrowed oesophagus, which means I’m prone to choking. Because of this, I manage my diet and I know how to perform the Heimlich on myself (use the arm of the sofa in place of someone else’s fists). Because I’m a heavy smoker, I’d find it easy to detect a choking cough over a smoker’s, or one with a chest infection. I’d heard nothing to alarm me from my neighbour.

I was in a place of peace. If he wanted me, he’d never hesitated to call round in the past. By the same token, when he wasn’t at my door, I wouldn’t disturb whatever he was brewing up next door. Better to wait for a bullet to find you than hit it with a hammer, when it’s in someone else’s place and it has your name on it. Best to just wait it out.

After a while the silence which you’ve grown used to becomes more disconcerting, because of the peace which it brings to an island of reflection.

It was on Saturday that I sat on my quiet beach, almost ready to welcome a fascist invader on my shores; one I’d repelled so many times when ideologies had clashed in the doorway. One I’d retreated from, closed the door on; one who’d done the same to me; a man I’d wished dead in my head, like he’d told me to my face in not so many words.

You know the ending: He’s dead. I’m telling this and you’re writing it down. I’m writing and you’re reading.

I phoned the landlord. Long story short, he came round on Sunday. Even longer story shorter, he needed a witness if he broke into the flat (bedsit) next door. First he knocked.

Do you not think I’ve tried that?” I wondered.

There was no answer, so the landlord tried his key. The door was bolted from the inside. My paranoid neighbour was almost certainly in.

When people find dead bodies in squalor in films, they normally recoil at the door. There was no smell, other than that of my neighbour having been a smoker. I’d only called the landlord because my sense of hearing was wanting, somehow my neighbour.

An extraterrestrial lay there, grey and cold. On discovering such a thing. One might also call the appropriate emergency services, police and ambulance. It’s another paradox that the ambulance is picking up someone beyond help, and that the police have to attend; and that police have to respond to a corpse, but an ambulance as redundant as the body needs to be there. Such are the intricacies.

Is the patient breathing?”

No. He’s dead.”

Are you sure?”

He’s cold and grey…”

And so on.

All the while, a government strangles public services so that the underclass has to take care of its own.

There were no sirens, no fanfare. I sat outside with the landlord, mainly smoking. The paramedics arrived first. Unsurprisingly to all present, they declared a death on the block.

The police were next, questioning all but the paramedics about who’d seen whom last. I was the last one to see him alive and the second to see him dead.

The two police officers’ ages almost certainly didn’t add up to mine. One of them said this was his first. At least I knew those youngsters had support in their friends and colleagues. I’d just lost my nearest tormentor but my closest friend.

The police gave me a moment to wish my colleague a safe journey, once he was in his bag. He was on a stretcher, destined for the local hospital. I wondered aloud what they might be able to do for him.

No body removal is complete without comedy potential, and this story is made complete by the undertakers banging the head of the deceased on a door post.

And then he was gone, just that patch on the floor where he’d laid for however long before we found him.

I don’t know how long he’d been there waiting. If my concern had arisen sooner, while I was enjoying some peace, perhaps I might have saved him. If I’d not attributed onomatopaeia to elsewhere, maybe I’d have gone to his door to see if he was okay. If I’d listened beyond the doorway, I might have heard him calling.

Often, after I’d closed my door in his face, I’d mutter something inaudible, just to get the last word. Once I’d wished him dead. I’m sure he did the same as he shut the door behind him.

Inter-personal space is a very tricky thing to define, and to negotiate outside a social democracy. Dealing with this has played with my mind. Blurring it is a coping mechanism. There are three of us living here now, all leading solitary lives on the fringe of society, and unlikely to know if the others are in trouble. The room next door will be host to someone else I don’t really know. No-one knows much about people in social housing anyway. The greatest human fear is the unknown.

Look out for your neighbour. Break down their door if you have to, even if you may not be welcome. I’ll just keep keeping myself to myself, on the edge of humanity. Only he’ll know if I killed him by not doing enough.

The invention of the pencil case

Get rid of the word and there’ll be another one…

FLASH FICTION

Dog Pencil Case

THE INVENTION OF THE PENCIL CASE

The strangest lunch I ever had was with a veterinary doctor, and it was the meal which finally turned me vegetarian. I should note at the start, we didn’t eat any domestic pets.

I first met Dr Hannah Jones when we worked on a film together, and we’d remained friends since. We’d meet up every now then, I’d tell her stories from the writing world and she’d give me ideas from her field of science. It was Hannah who’d suggested we meet, as she said she had something important for me.

We met at a pop-up cafe at the Camden end of Regent’s Park. It was an indifferent day weather wise, unable to decide what it wanted to do. We sat outside nonetheless, as we both like to people-watch: me making up stories of what people in the park might be away from that setting, Hannah priding herself on identifying the bits of cross-breeds and mongrels, and sometimes scoring the dogs’ humans on parts of their anatomy.

The Camden end of the park is quieter nowadays, and at one point on that particular Saturday, we counted only 16 legs besides our own. It’s been that way since the last fire at the zoo, and that’s what Hannah said she wanted to tell me about. But first we ordered food. I went for a rare steak with fries, and Hannah chose a vegetarian pizza.

The cafe backed on to the old zoo, now a construction site. The distant sound of hammers and saws competed with the clatter of dishes from the cafe, which was quite arresting. The animals’ former home was being demolished in the background, while I was waiting for part of a former animal to arrive before me.

So I turned to Hannah, and asked her what she wanted to tell me. Something she’d been working on perhaps, some veterinary breakthrough, or anything I might use as a story.

You remember the first fire,” Hannah said, “and the cause was unknown?” She didn’t have to remind me. The London Zoo fire of 2017 killed four meerkats and Mischa the aardvark, and the cause of the blaze was never made public. I nodded. “Well,” she continued, “some colleagues of mine found out what started the latest one.”

Many more had perished in the great fire of 2020, and there was extensive structural damage. Most of the remaining exhibits had been moved to other zoos, and all who remained were the rarest and most threatened in the wild. Our food arrived and suddenly, char-grilled animal wasn’t terribly appetising.

So what was it?” I asked, as Hannah chewed righteously on her veggie pizza.

The kind of thing,” she said, “that is never likely to be made public.”

So why would you tell me?” I wondered.

Because you’re a fiction writer. If you write it, no-one will believe you.” I wasn’t sure how to take that, but I smiled nonetheless as I ate a fry.

Go on then,” I prompted. Hannah looked at my steak.

Aren’t you going to eat that?”

It doesn’t have the same sort of appeal it once had,” I said.

But that’s such a waste.” She was right. “Such a shame that not only does someone have to die to feed you, but their selfless act is unappreciated and their sacrifice goes to waste.” She had a point. “And pity the poor chef, cooking that for you, only to have it returned like there’s something wrong with it.” The only thing wrong was me eating it. As I chewed reluctantly, Hannah told me the story of the great fire.

I’ve got a friend who was in the forensics team. She told me this, and she told me not to tell anyone.”

So you’re telling me,” I said, “because if I write about it, no-one will believe it.”

But you’ll believe me,” she replied. “So, after the fire brigade put out the fire, they identified the seat of the blaze, in a pile of hay.”

Someone’s bed?” I wondered. “Did it catch in the sun?”

No,” Hannah replied, “it was deliberate.”

Someone started it deliberately?”

Yes.”

Arson. Why?”

We don’t know if it was. It started in the mountain gorilla area.”

Someone threw a lighter in?” I imagined it wouldn’t take long to work out how a lighter worked.

No,” Hannah said again. “It was all enclosed in strengthened glass.”

A keeper dropped a lighter?”

Nope.” She was getting quite smug now, knowing what I didn’t. I tried again.

So maybe the sun did start it, like the magnifying glass effect.”

All of the above remained possibilities for a while, and that’s how it’ll remain on the public record. Just like the first one: cause unknown.”

So what do you know which no-one else does, including me?”

This.” She unfolded a sheet of paper, a photo, and handed it to me. It was like a scenes of crime picture: little plastic signs with numbers on, dotted around the ground, like a golf course for ants, and an arrow pointing to a singed spot of earth about the size of a dinner plate. “That’s the seat of the fire.”

And this is inside the gorilla enclosure?”

Yes. Where this came from.” Hannah rummaged in her bag, then handed me something rolled in newspaper. “It’s what’s inside.”

Inside was a piece of dried wood about the size of a pencil case, with a small crater burned into the centre.

What the actual…” I didn’t finish.

Hold on,” Hannah said, “there’s this as well.” She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out what looked like a burnt pencil.

I knew by now what it really was, and it had a much bigger story to tell.

It seemed somehow poetic to write it down, lest anyone hear, so I used the charred, sharpened end:

THEY DISCOVERED FIRE?

Hannah nodded.

© Steve Laker, 2018

Simon Fry first meets Doctor Hannah Jones in Cyrus Song, where this story was born.

Buy me a coffee one off

The Genesis of Esperanto

MICRO FICTION

delirium-tremens-pink-elephantDelirium Tremens Pink Elephant*

INFANA KOLONIA

The aliens visited yesterday, and they left artefacts. These were clues, a kind of test for the resident population of the planet. And so began a paradox.

Since then, and for thousands of years, the extraterrestrials have observed our Earth as human science has evolved.

Today humanity has the technology to detect the visitors, even communicate, but they’re using it instead to observe, control and destroy their own kind.

Such an inward-looking, short-termist species is not what the aliens were looking for, a primitive ant nest, unaware of its observers or hive mind.

And so they resigned themselves to never visit again, leaving an entire species to spend its formative years debating about who they might have been. So long and thanks for all the animals who developed telepathy, rather than different languages.

They called it religion, and concluded that humans were an insular race who’d probably never work out anything beyond themselves. And so a paradox was perpetuated.

It was only one planet. The visitors moved on to the next. A different tomorrow.

© Steve Laker, 2019.

*An image search for ‘Infana Kolonia’ (Esperanto for ‘Infant colony’) leads to my upcoming (in 2021) sci-fi soap space opera; either a 1000-page single volume, or more likely a series of books. The flash fiction here is just a synopsis of a synopsis of the first chapter. Google has a sub-section for Infana Kolonia, ‘Delirium Tremens,’ which is the name of this blog of course. The two search terms together lead to a beer, which is ironic for an alcoholic, especially one who’s also a writer often finding themselves the elephant in the room. It’s all quite poetic when the universe connects. When galaxies collide, you can hear the music.

Suggested reading: Master Yehudi’s Flying Circus.

 

Självmonterande möbler

FLASH FICTION

Alien typewriterThe Verge: It began with ‘Spacewar’, a history of science fiction in video games

APPARENTLY

Although I’m nocturnal, I usually spend nights alone, apart from the chat windows in onine video games. It’s rare that I expect visitors in the early hours, least of all an invisible entity I’d invite into my studio. But apparently that was what I did last night.

The doorbell played the five tones from Close Encounters as it always does, regardless of the time. Normally I’ll expect to find someone behind the door when I open it but at 3am, it was apparent there was no-one there.

I poked my head out the door and looked around, perhaps for someone in need of help. I walked down the steps to the car park and saw nobody. Pranksters would have gained too much ground for me to give chase, so I returned inside, apparently alone.

With no sign of activity outside, the place where I least expected to see movement was back in my studio. As I raised my hand to push my front door, it obligingly opened for me, and one of my dining chairs slid into the hall. The chair paused before passing me, pushed by some invisible force, apparently grateful I’d held the door open.

Inside, my sofa had been moved into the middle of the room and was loaded with some of my books. Was I being moved out? Why hadn’t I heard from my landlord? How had that chair pushed itself past me? Nothing was apparent.

Nothing was moving around in the studio, so I sat at the desk; this desk, where I’m sitting now, except now I’m apparently not in my studio, with furniture which assembles itself around me.

Now I’m looking at the screen of the typewriter, the same one I talk to you on, and where I play video games; at my chat window from last night, and a message I sent in a pessimist sufferposting online gaming group:

Send my current location to any interplanetary craft which may be within scanning range.

They took me literally. Apparently, they took me, and all my stuff. Apparently literally.

© Steve Laker, 2019.

This was a writing prompt: ‘IKEA’. So I made a Swedish planet.

There’s a crustacean on the dog

THE WRITER’S LIFE

“Lobsters have hands (of sorts), which they could use to pick up the phone every now and then.”

Lobster Phone

It’s been a while since I confided in my personal diary, partly because it’s online for all to see. It’s a paradox when I’m a writer craving readers, but my absence has been for want of words; not writer’s block so much as too much say and not enough time to tell the story with a sore throat. With little else to do tonight, I thought I’d seek momentary expression in my typewriter, the depression of keys…

As a writer, I should be able to tell my own story just as I can a horror fable, or a story of another life. I’ve always been able to combine the two in the past, placing a part of myself in every story I wrote, some of them stories of various futures which I may inhabit only in part.

The past is a story already written, the future what we make, and the present, how we make it. In reality, we’re all connected and living the same life, however we tell the story. None of us is any further than a few steps from where anyone else lived.

Amidst the dust in my keyboard, there are many untold stories: fiction which I’m trying to use as a medium to explain my prevailing confusion; poetry, in all its forms of speaking sentences with single words; and fact, which is almost overwhelming my mind, there’s so much I can’t unburden it on this blog in the time I can make or create in any space.

This place – this blog – was something I started when I was homeless, my means to communicate when segregated and sidelined, by a world which didn’t want to listen when I had so much to say, to myself. A means to an end. It’s still that, and a mixing pot of reality and the surreal, life and the fiction I created.

My ongoing isolation is a personal construct coping mechanism, for a life which only differs from the birth of this blog in the roof over my head, and a keyboard which isn’t chained to a library desk. That was when I was drunk. I still drink, the functioning alcoholic, which – not who – few understand.

I’ve been moping around my inner self for a few months now, as I’ve allowed those vascular passages to become compressed by a situation designed with suppression in mind, like being buried alive; the fascist machine which is currently consuming my country and my friends, by turning each on themselves. While I’ve been quiet here, I’ve not ceased the political debate on Facebook and Twitter, none of which will help me engage with a crumbling mental health and social structure, dismantled by a regime intent on social cleansing.

If I regress to that time when this online version of me was in its infancy, when I slept on a packing crate, I’d wear my heart on my sleeve and tell it as it is with me, the body still breathing in the coffin as the shovels pile on the dirt.

Back then I’d have many pages of notes in journals, and limited library time to edit the contents on a keyboard, most of my thoughts falling between the keys to mix with those of others in the dust of human skin. Now I have more time and only my own flesh, eight digits crawling over the typewriter, like a tick on a dog, or a mite on a communal mattress, competing with other tenants; a lobster trying to pick up the payphone.

Given the choice between heating and eating in social accommodation, most humans will perish in a kind of Buridan’s Ass paradox, where two choices share importance, and so separation becomes impossible. In an world swept beneath an invisible carpet, where visiting a food bank is beyond the means of public transport from a remote depository of vagrants, there are imaginative chefs. These people make shepherd’s pie with Pedigree Chum. Any cat food from a pouch is gourmet, and comes with gravy.

I can take a walk among my past self by just reading this blog, a diary of the last few years. I can write on the walls, like so many others left scars in my synapses and arteries. I can talk to myself.

I can still write. All this, without mentioning what’s weighing on my mind the most, the inner and hidden horrors in a wooden casket or an aluminium tin.

I’ve written indirectly about my dad‘s faltering health, and about losing my brother-in-law. I did that with poetry. I don’t know which formation of words can best convey an inner feeling I have, one in myself which is both mental and physical. It’s a lump in my throat which sometimes makes it hard to swallow.

There’s an itch in my mouth but I can’t tell anyone else, as everyone besides me has their own greater self-consuming issues. Those are the people immediately around me, and they don’t need me being needy when they have their own needs. It’s just a shame we don’t all have more time to talk.

Life changes when it ceases to be linear. Although we live in a connected, borderless world, we’re anything but. People don’t talk any more. Humans are unique in their ability to communicate with the spoken word, yet we don’t. Some can’t. We invented the internet, and my means of speaking to my diary, to myself, and to you, has divided and broken us. But I can still speak, at least about me.

It’s personal matters I’ve been keeping between me and myself. This blog is part of both, and I feel a bit better already, having just let my fingers dance. It’s talking through the hands; a sign language no-one’s obliged to listen to unless they look.

When I can’t speak, the incoherence of my words is not through drink, but a frustration with being disconnected; and that disconnection is a problem we all share. If I lose my voice, at least I can still write. Sometimes I ask myself if anyone will read what I write, when it’s impossible beyond telepathy to hear what I’m saying.

Every human life is a horror. Most of us have the same number of limbs, and we’re all connected by quantum entanglement. We’re all living the same life.

White Ace in Mountsfield Park

FLASH FICTION

I’m wandering my own mind for a while, as I often do. Right now it’s a particularly rough ride for my brain. Floating in cerebral seas of predators (dad’s apparently hastening decline; another Christmas separated by circumstance of family, when it might be the last when some remember who was there), as some sort of coping mechanism – for dealing with matters of the mind alone – I confronted the seed of all my problems.

My depression and other mental health labels may well have been dormant, undiganosed by a previous generation, but it was a knife-point robbery in 2011 which earned me my first PTSD tag. After that, drinking numbed things until it all fell apart. And now, I have a lump in my throat as a permanent scar from that bench, now removed from a park in Lewisham.

Just a couple of tricks of life can find a human with a park bench for shelter. It can happen to anyone, just like it did on that bench…

Catford Cat psychadelicThe Catford Cat on Twitter

EIGHT AND A HALF LIVES

If he wasn’t there every day, he could be anyone. You could walk past the same bench each day and not notice anyone sitting there, unless it was the same person every day.

Jim put it another way: If it wasn’t him there every day, it would be someone else. Or maybe no-one else would be on that bench. It was Jim who gave that seat stories to tell, if not by him then by those who listened to him.

These are the things Jim talked about, as he told his own stories on that bench in Mountsfield Park, talking about himself, and the Catford cat just beyond the trees, which he said watched over him at night.

She doesn’t have long here,” Jim explained, “there’s only so much time she can be here. Because she has so many people to watch over as they pass beneath her on the high street. As long as somone’s looking at her, the cat can’t move, because she has to watch them, you see? She only comes down after the last kebab shop has closed, and before the milk is delivered, and then only sometimes.

I wonder how many people have driven through Catford at three in the morning and thought to look up to check the cat is actually there? Most people who drive through Catford at that time just assume the cat’s there, watching over them as they pass through, when actually, she might be off feeding on life stories. A bit like me on this bench. They can’t see me either. And that’s just the way life passes, see?”

I lay here at night, and I see people walk past, oblivious to my presence. The darkness makes them blind, like the cat does. If you’re here in the park, you probably won’t see her stalking in the bushes. But she’s there, because you’re not in Catford High Street to check she’s above the shopping centre, where she can’t catch your gaze. Because if you catch her, she loses a life.

Perhaps people assume I’m asleep and they don’t want to disturb me. I suppose that’s a logical assumption to make at 3am. But what if I was a life lost?

See, I’m not. I’m watching them, through one closed eye. Watching out for myself, I guess. That’s why I’m always grateful when the cat’s here, because I can sleep for just a little while. No-one pays me attention when there’s a twenty-foot cat prowling around the edge of the park, see?”

It was Jim who scratched his name on that bench.

If you didn’t know it was there, if you didn’t know where to look among all the other hearts and initials, you’d never know Jim was among all those people.

But if you sit there at three in the morning, and if you listen to the wind in the trees, you might just hear the cat.

A gospel of biblical instruments

FICTION

In cat mythology, white mice were the second most intelligent species on Earth, after cats. Then it was dolphins, humans, dogs and everyone else. While infinite monkeys and apes developed tools, it was only humans who could be trained to use their opposable thumbs to write stories.

Of course, white lab mice are the diet many snakes like to staple.

Gorilla elephant Nature Fuck

SO LONG AND THANKS FOR ALL THE ANIMALS

The original carvings were found deep in a forest, but debate varied over which were the first. In the space of a week, new inscriptions were discovered several times daily, all in woodland, all identical, but unlike anything recorded previously. Meanwhile, two school friends had uncovered what could be a key.

How does it switch on, Jay?” Kerry stared at herself, next to Jason, as they both looked back from the black glass-like sheet.

I don’t know, Kay,” Jay replied, as he looked back at Kerry. “It’s nothing obvious that I’m missing, is it?” He handed the pane of glass to her. About A4 in size, the glass was no thicker than a sheet of paper. “What’s it made of, anyway?”

Well,” Kay said, moving it in and out from her face, “it’s got imperfections.”

What, your face?”

Fuck you, wanker. No, I mean, the glass, or whatever it is, it’s not completely smooth. It’s like something from a dark and twisted hall of mirrors. See what I mean?” She handed the mirror back, and Jay looked at himself as he moved it in front of him. “Everyone’s ugly in the back of a spoon.”

Jay turned the sheet over in his hands. “I look the same on both sides,” he said to their reflections, “bumpy. In fact, I’d say I’m quite corrugated.”

Well,” said Kay, “your forehead often is.”

Eh?”

You frown a lot.”

Jay frowned at the glass sheet. “Well,” he said, “no matter how much I wish it to switch on, it won’t. There are no buttons, so there must be some other way.”

You actually think it’ll switch on? Jay, it’s just a sheet of some old material.”

I know,” Jay replied, “but it’s this weird stuff, and where we found it. It’s got me wondering.”

We found it buried in the woods, Jay. Lots of things are buried in woodland, and time and the elements change things. This could just be a part of something plastic, and the material has been melted, or eroded.”

But it was wrapped up. And it was near those tree carvings, like the ones on the news.”

Tree and stone carvings had been cropping up spontaneously in the previous few days. At first, pranksters were suspected, but it had become too elaborate. Now, the same conspiracy community which once surrounded crop circles had been stirred, and the internet was an ocean of theories.

The carvings weren’t any recognisable text, nor were they pictographs which gave any clues to their origin or meaning. They incorporated geometric shapes and patterns, like crop formations, but appeared on tree bark and rocks. Jay and Kay found the glassy sheet when they’d been metal detecting, and at first, the haul was just a soda can and some tin foil, but the foil was wrapped around the slate.

Any theories on the news?” Kay wondered.

Only one,” Jay said, “a really out-there one.”

Try me.”

Imagine we’re in biblical times.”

You wha’?”

Two thousand years ago, give or take: Imagine we’re there, or then, if you like.”

Okay.”

Okay.” Jay adjusted himself in his chair. “You know I don’t believe in God, right? But no-one can deny that the bible might be based on fact, on actual events. Ancient scribes may have recorded actual historical events, but they’d have been limited in the terms they used and what was available to them, in the way they recorded things.”

Yeah,” Kay said, “you’ve said. Imagine if you could’ve given one of those old guys a smartphone. They could’ve recorded it all and we’d be able to see what they saw. It’d solve the whole religion problem.”

Well, yeah,” Jay agreed, “and if you gave them say, a mobile phone, or a tablet computer, they’d probably think it was some sort of sorcery, or it could be alien technology. And they’d probably write of it as some sort of magic mirror.”

And that’s what you think this is?”

It could be,” Jay tried to assert. “It just won’t switch on. If it’s what I think it could be, it’s either extinct through pure neglect or technology. Or it could be a technology so far advanced, that we just don’t understand it.” He held the slate to his face again. “Hmm, never noticed that before,” he frowned.

Show me?” Kay moved next to Jay, and looked at them both in the glassy surface, frowning. “What didn’t you notice?”

The way one of my eyes seems to take just a split fraction of a second to catch up. Only that one, the left one, watch.” Jay looked at Kay’s reflection.

“You’re right, it does,” she said. “You’ve got a lazy eye mate.”

I think it’s pretty cool actually,” Jay said, looking from himself, to Kay, and back again. “It’s like that one is taking things in more, while the other one concentrates ahead. Then the left one catches up and tells my brain all the other stuff it needs to know.”

That is pretty cool,” Kay said, “you freak.”

Then something slightly unexpected, but entirely plausible happened: The slate crackled and sparked, first an arc of blue lightning, and the sparkle of a glitter dome. Then a graphic appeared on what had become a screen.

That looks familiar,” Kay said.

Kind of what I expected,” Jay replied. “Let’s see what the latest news is…”

The latest developments were trending, in news and on social media: Analysis of the designs found on trees and rocks, had revealed them to be neither carved nor burned into any surface.

Your theory?” Kay wondered.

That,” Jay said, “the carvings weren’t made from the outside, at least not by any method we understand.”

Meaning how many things?”

Two, equally crazy ones.”

Humour me, agent Jay.”

Okay, Kay. One: It could be that the marks were made by technology we don’t understand, which would suggest alien, either extraterrestrial or of this earth, as in, government. But we can discount the latter. They wouldn’t put on any show, other than to whip up hysteria, perhaps as a smokescreen. I dunno. So, aliens: aliens among us? Or visiting ones, leaving us messages, meaning what? Or,” Jay looked at the design on the tablet. “Or it could be, that the ones which look like this on the trees and the rocks… That’s theory two.”

Which is?”

That the carvings, inscriptions, or whatever; the words, pictures, designs; they could be made from the inside.”

How?”

Nature. I don’t mean colonies of insects, parasites or fungi. These are carvings on the outside, with no signs of being carved. So the opposite of that, is that they were pulled in from the inside.”

What the actual?”

Nature made them.”

You already said that.”

The earth made them, Kay.”

The wha’? The actual planet. Planet earth, put the messages there?”

It’s a bit like self-harm, isn’t it? So what this could be, Kay, is messages in the earth, the trees, the rocks, from the earth, where they’re all a part of the nature of that planet.”

Saying what? Jay?”

I don’t know. Maybe telling us to fuck off.”

Us?”

Humans.”

Shit.”

We are. We’re so un-evolved, when you look at us, and all we could be, with all that’s around us. We’re ugly. Those ancient aliens who may or may not have made up the stories in the bible, they were probably a race so technologically advanced because they’d harnessed the natural, sustainable energy from their environment, rather than plundering it of all its resources for their own gain. I mean, we’re only just developing wind, solar and tidal energy technology. We’re having to, because we’re running out of coal and oil. But still, perpetual energy sources only serve a small proportion of our needs. And we use less than one per cent of the energy available for free on this planet.

Those technologically advanced races, who may or may not have visited biblical humans, they were ones who’d become efficient through sufficiency. There are races out there who might have harnessed the natural energy of their parent star, with something like a Dyson Sphere. Look it up.”

I know what a Dyson sphere is, and I can only begin to imagine what a race might be capable of, once they’ve effectively captured all the energy of their sun with solar arrays. Actually, I can’t begin to imagine the possibilities.”

Which is exactly,” Jay said, “what those biblical scribes would have found.”

Your number two theory definitely has legs,” Kay confirmed. “How would the ancient alien tablet fit in though?”

Only if it was that.” Jay pointed at the design on the screen. “That being alien technology, like a magic mirror described in the bible.”

But it’s just showing that same design?” Kay suggested.

But look,” Jay said. “I’ve got a theory on how we managed to switch it on.”

How?” Kay looked at the same design as Jay on the screen. “Oh, like that,” she said, as the pattern began to change. “But how?”

Two heads are better than one, perhaps?”

They didn’t have to speak. It was the act of knowing, and the same like-mindedness which had switched the tablet on before. Perhaps the technology was ancient, advanced, or both, but it wasn’t redundant. It was woken by thought, specifically, the alignment of the thoughts of more than one person.

As Jay and Kay continued to watch the screen, the pattern continued to morph, into more complex and fractal patterns, perpetually zooming in on recursion. Then the whole screen changed, from screen saver to what was apparently an operating system.

It’s a bit like Linux,” Jay suggested.

You wha’? That,” Kay pointed, “is way more, Jay.”

It’s the only way I can think to describe it, as being accessible. Look, it seems to know what you want to do.” They both peered into the screen. “It’s three dimensional, and if you look ahead, you can see bits going off to the side. It’s like travelling down a wormhole.”

And that was the best way the modern day scribes had to describe what they saw.

Let’s see where we’re going,” Kay said, as they both watched the screen. “Ooh, look. What’s that?”

The wormhole opened onto a scene, apparently from a remote camera, with an overlay of what could be coordinates and time, but in an indecipherable text. The main picture was a live video feed, of a field, with a row of large chimneys in the background.

I wonder how we look around,” Kay wondered. Then something strange but expected happened:

The view on the tablet screen changed, as Kay (and Jay) willed some remote camera, perhaps in the countryside near a power station. Panning the landscape, they saw electricity pylons stretching into the distance, standing like frozen, bow-legged old ladies.

The pylon nearest the camera started to move, not by tilting, by lifting, first on one side, then the other. Soon, the pylon began to move forwards. A second pylon did the same, then a third, and quickly, a line of electricity pylons were walking through the mud beneath them, casting off electrical wires as they went. A battalion of iron old ladies, had lifted their skirts, cast off their bindings, and began a bow-legged march away from the power station.

The camera pulled away from the generator, which shrunk into the distance as the viewers were once again plunged into a spectral plughole, depositing them, through the magic of the mirror, in the middle of an ocean. As they thought about what might be around them, the camera obliged.

There was an oil rig, a steaming, fire-breathing skeletal leviathan. Suddenly, it held its breath, as the rig unplugged its umbilicus from the sea bed, and the natural elements in its man-made structure took on sentience.

The camera switched, gradually more quickly, around different scenes: Electricity pylons marching over fields, and oil rigs, swimming to shore, retro-futuristic dinosaur machines, striding through the human landscape.

© Steve Laker, 2017.

An idiot species’ guide to how to save the world is my Douglas Adams companion piece, Cyrus Song.

Everyone’s ugly in the back of a spoon,” with kind permission of Léanie Kaleido (she has a YouTube channel).

This story is taken from my second anthology, The Unfinished Literary Agency.