For what we are about to receive in 2020, a short-sighted and blinkered vision…
A HUMAN ROAST
Humanity will eat itself.
For what we are about to receive in 2020, a short-sighted and blinkered vision…
A HUMAN ROAST
Humanity will eat itself.
The hardest stories to write are those with no ending. A good writer will leave much to the readers’ imagination, with minimal words carrying the weight of many possibilities. How many fingers do I have?
*Dancer in the Dark (by Lars von Trier, whose Dogme 95 was the influence for The New Puritans) is my favourite film of all time.
Like a year in review, words are a frustration for the author with much on his mind, both personal and fictional, and with only finite space to convey it. Like an alien with a universal mind perched precariously on human shoulders, he longs to talk. But he understands that the speaker has no control over how his words are interpreted. Despite the universality of communication, reception is subjective.
The writer with a planet in his head, processing knowledge and speculation of stories which he must write but which haven’t ended, needs to find the words. They have to be minimal, but they must convey a life in flux, with many possible outcomes.
He turns to The New Puritans, a movement resurrected from the turn of the millennium and now a retro-renaissance, using minimalism in an age of overload, trusting human instinct to read what artificial intelligence and societally-conditioned minds can’t. He strips their manifesto to its bone marrow, and there he finds the words…
“It’ll hurt more if we leave.”
How many souls are in one mind anyway? How many lives are lost through the terminal decline of a single entity? If we cover our eyes then spread our hands, do we see beyond those bars? He hopes his words will retain readers, his friends.
The Nouveaux Puritains manifesto:
Primarily storytellers, we are dedicated to the narrative form.
We are prose writers and recognise that prose is the dominant form of expression. For this reason we shun poetry and poetic licence in all its forms.
While acknowledging the value of genre fiction, whether classical or modern, we will always move towards new openings, rupturing existing genre expectations.
We believe in textual simplicity and vow to avoid all devices of voice: rhetoric, authorial asides.
In the name of clarity, we recognise the importance of temporal linearity and eschew flashbacks, dual temporal narratives and foreshadowing.
We believe in grammatical purity and avoid any elaborate punctuation.
We recognise that published works are also historical documents. As fragments of our time, all our texts are dated and set in the present day. All products, places, artists and objects named are real.
As faithful representation of the present, our texts will avoid all improbable or unknowable speculations on the past or the future.
We are moralists, so all texts feature a recognisable ethical reality.
Nevertheless, our aim is integrity of expression, above and beyond any commitment to form.
After such a long foreword, the writer who started this wonders if his chosen words can be held in the hand. He questions if it will ever end, or if this is just the beginning of another story. Counting the fingers he has left, he has to conclude that for now, these are just the gaps between chapters.
A product of spontaneous freestyle writing, prompted by a business card on the notice board next to my desk; This story (2500 words) wouldn’t fit on the back of the card, so I put five sheets of A4 paper into the typewriter.
THE TRAVELLING TAILOR
Rumple Suits is an outfit surrounded by mystery and unverified stories. A suit by Rumple Bros. is understated, its fine workmanship lost in a crowd, but on closer inspection, a quality of tailoring beyond any from Savile Row, but they don’t have premises. A Rumple suit tells a story as unique as that which it carries in its wearer.
So proclaimed a sponsored feature in this month’s Mobius Literate, an independent publication for purveyors of surreal horror, sci-fi and fantasy. I was reading it on the train home from London Victoria as we passed through Brixton, disappointed that a story I’d submitted hadn’t been included.
I don’t employ test readers, so my new stories are hot from the typewriter. I don’t tend to bother editors, any more than I can be bothered to follow guidelines, preferring to write freestyle and hope I’m asked for my stories. I’m too impatient to wait for publication after acceptance, so I self-publish most of my work and let the reader be judge. Mobius Literate work differently, preferring to scout, hunters of writers and trappers of readers.
There are no acceptance or rejection letters from Mobius, no next-issue previews either. Until a new edition is printed, writers don’t know if they’ve made it in, and readers are clueless on what to expect. The magazine has a captive audience, and a supply chain of fiction from the undead army of authors self-publishing all over the internet.
It’s a cheap publication, usually four sheets of A3 in black and white, folded and stitched to make a 16-page fanzine. The production values are pulp fiction, but the writing quality as unique as a Rumple Bros. suit. The editors are curators of the kind of fiction you wouldn’t find anywhere else. The kind you wouldn’t expect to find anywhere, because only Mobius knew where to look.
Walking home from Catford station, I cut through Mountsfield Park, but I didn’t make Tesco Metro despite the shortcut. I picked up Chinese from Jumbo Harbour instead, glad I did, simply because of my local take-away’s splendid name. On the final walk up my road, I thought of all those cargo starships, docked at the space dock, Jumbo Harbour itself a retail and entertainment complex the size of a small city on 14 levels, just hanging in space.
I threw Mobius Literate on my desk next to the typewriter, took a shower while my prawns and noodles steamed, then watched some New Tales of the Unexpected on Netflix, looking like a tiny Judo novice in my white bathrobe.
I was full after what most people would consider a snack, so I put my uneaten Chinese in the fridge for the next day. My timing was fortuitous, because that’s when my doorbell rang.
“Good evening,” said a man at the door, “I’m sorry to trouble you at this hour.” He was smartly-dressed in a three-piece suit – dark grey – and a pastel pink shirt with a shocking pink tie, perfectly knotted and drawing my eyes up to his, which were brown and framed by pink spectacles. He was holding a briefcase. I asked him to come in, in a moment which I felt would precede a polite enquiry of “May I come in?” My doormat had never been wiped with cherry red brogues before. “Should I take these of?” he asked. It seemed impolite to insist on wasting time.
“Please,” I said, “come in.”
“May I take a seat?”
“Of course. Can I get you anything?”
“A Gin and tonic, if you have one.” I had. “And a phone number.”
“A phone number?”
“Yes, I don’t use the internet. I need a number for Paul Jennings. He’s a writer. I gather you’re an agent.”
“I am,” I replied, “I’m Paul’s agent. In fact, Paul Jennings is one of my pen names.”
“Well, that makes things simpler. I suppose I don’t need the number any more. I must admit, I thought you’d be taller. Anyway, can I ask you about Paul?”
“May I ask,” I asked, “who’s asking?”
“My apologies,” said the man, “of course you may. Like you, I’m an agent. May I take some measurements?”
“Of you, sir.”
“Measurements of yourself sir, your dimensions and your vital statistics if you like. So we know what to put you in. You strike me as one suited to natural materials.”
“Materials? What are you building? Are you one of those undertaker prank characters I’ve read about?”
“This is not a prank sir. I represent a bespoke tailoring company, who can help you tell any story you’d like to be yours. I’m here to make you a suit, sir.”
“Because you look like you need one. And because you’re small. My agency needs smaller models for our new range.”
“What, boys? Okay, so how much will this suit cost? How long will it take to make? Do I get to choose the fabrics and colours?”
“You are already the fabric and the tones, Paul. But yes, the choice is yours. It costs nothing and I can make it for you tonight. Suit you sir?”
What else was I going to do at midnight, than get measured up for a bespoke tailored suit in my own home. Especially when I had an in-house tailor for just one night?
I chose an outfit of natural colours: a grey-green jacket over a matching open-necked checked shirt; dark grey pants with green socks and brown brogues; and green-rimmed spectacles. As promised, the tailor ran the whole thing up while I watched.
In his briefcase, he had a portable production facility, a factory in microcosm. The case opened out like a make-up case or a tool box, to reveal tools and materials on tiered shelves, like a theatre audience. Other sections folded out from the floor of the case, which concealed a tiny sewing machine and a loom.
Cotton reels unfolded like comets and silver blades cut through the air, as the tailor’s hands worked like humming birds under a lamp in his case. Then like a piano virtuoso, he cracked his knuckles. “Et, voici.” Here you go. He handed my new clothes to me in a neatly folded pile. They were soft, as though fresh from the laundry, but they were new.
“The material,” the tailor said, “is the same as my own suit. Here, feel.”
Velvet would have been the first approximation I made, but more delicate, more flimsy, like silk. It felt like new moleskin, barely covering a notebook.
“Please,” the tailor said, “try on your new clothes.”
I made myself scarce in the kitchen and got changed. As soon as I put the clothes on, I felt like I wasn’t wearing them, or I’d been wearing the outfit all my life, like a well-trodden pair of shoes which fit on the ends of your legs like feet. My new clothes were comfortable in a way I knew meant they’d only been made for me. I felt at home, yet I could go anywahere.
“Sleep in it,” the tailor said. “You’ll wear it in, it’ll adapt better to your shape, and you won’t even know you’re wearing clothes. Besides, this outfit is too rare and valuable to leave laying around.”
Actually I felt so comfortable, so held together within my outfit, that I’d have worn it to bed anyway. Any remaining doubts about sleeping in my day clothes were banished when I noticed my initials monogrammed on the breast of the shirt: P.J. Pyjamas.
The new wardrobe cost me nothing, except posing for a photograph and signing a form. The agent placed a business card in my breast pocket and my heart jumped. I was a little excited he was leaving, looking forward to getting to know myself.
After the tailor had gone, I looked at myself, a Bonsai tree on reflection: lots of growth at the head, stumped by restrictions in the roots planted in a pot, I’d make a good addition to any arty bookshelf.
I loved my suit. It fitted only me, it was made for me. As unique as the story within, it was the cover which bound my life. I’d have to buy another sometime, as this one would need laundering, but for now I really wanted to sleep in my new clothes. I took the shoes and socks of, but otherwise I was in P.J’s peejays.
Sleep often eludes me, as my mind is so full of thoughts and ideas for fiction. But sometimes I’ll take a dream to sleep with me, then in the morning feel like I’ve not slept at all. I remember being awake, then I’ll recall whatever surreal images my dreams paint.
Most people aren’t aware of the precise moment they fall asleep, only remembering their dreams some of the time. I transport to a world of lucidity, where dreams are real and I can interact with them, waking up as I step out of another world.
On the night I slept in my new suit, that place became bigger, as my new outfit gave me the confidence to explore further. I was completely relaxed, feeling protected by the clothes I hardly felt I was wearing, as they became part of me. My suit enclosed me, and I was an astronaut protected by a gravity field, a new life protected in the womb.
The next day, the clothes still smelled fresh, but I’d take a shower like usual. Before I got undressed, I took the tailor’s card from my pocket. Although he hadn’t verbally introduced himself, I knew his name was Fred Nurk. He worked for Rumple Bros. Tailors. Although I mentioned them in the preamble, this was the first time I’d seen the name. I Googled and found all that stuff about them not having any premises, being exclusive and the rest.
I started to take off the jacket but it was stuck. The collar was sticking to the shirt underneath. I tried taking my arms out first, but the jacket lapels were stuck too. I tugged at the sleeves, but they just pulled at my shirt.
I thought I’d try the top two layers at once, so I started unbuttoning the shirt, but the button wouldn’t pass through the hole. I pulled the shirt collar open at the neck, but it tugged at my skin. I tried lifting the shirt and jacket over my head like a pullover, but the shirt just stretched my skin underneath.
I tried the button on the trousers but it was stuck, tried pushing the trousers down but they snagged on my hips. Pushing harder just pulled at my skin. I tugged at the ankles, but felt a sharp pull on my leg hairs, where the tops of my socks would be. I seemed to have reached an impasse, wherein I’d been eaten by my clothes.
I called the number on Fred Nurk’s card and got a recorded message:
“Thank you for calling Rumple Brothers. If you would like to become an agent, please press one. For all other enquiries, please hold.”
While listening to regular reminders to continue holding, I flipped Nurk’s card over and saw it was printed on the back:
NOT SUITABLE FOR MACHINE WASHING. DO NOT DRY CLEAN.
In some moment of desperate logic, I had an idea and hung up the phone.
I needed to wash myself, and my clothes would need cleaning at some point. I took a tepid shower, still in my clothes, just like being in heavy rainfall. If I could loosen the glue, or whatever it was in the material which stuck the clothes to my body, then I’d put some old clothes on while I dried my new outfit.
I only close my eyes for the first 30 seconds or so in the shower, just time to rinse my face and hair. Clearing my eyes and looking down, I noticed the colour was starting to run in my jacket. I brushed myself down and the pigment from the cloth stained the water a dark green colour. The water was bleaching my suit.
My new clothes were now skin-coloured.
I felt around the neck of the shirt, down to a crease where it met my skin. My cuffs, waist and ankles were the same. I was one with my suit. I was wearing a skin suit, not like that made by a serial killer from the flesh of other people, my clothes were flaps of my own skin. I no longer had arms, but sleeves of flesh, lapels instead of nipples and trousers of skin covering anything which might have been a functioning anus.
I phoned Nurk again.
“This is Fred?”
“Ah, Mr Nurk?”
“Hey, Paul Jennings, how’s it going?”
“Er, okay. It’s about the suit.”
“What about it?”
“All the colour came out.”
“Did you get caught in the rain? Did you take a shower in it?”
“I can’t get it off. It’s like I’m sewn into it, but there’s no stitches to unpick.”
“Did the skin you were born in have stitches, or a zip?”
“But I look like a plucked chicken left on the shelf too long. I’ve got flaps of loose skin all over me. I’ve got fucking wings!”
“Well,” Nurk said, “wear baggy clothes for now if you want to go out. I did explain that our bespoke tailoring was unique, and now you can see why I can’t offer a replacement. There’s surgery of course, or a quicker solution might be a course of tattoos to give you a complete new body suit.
“Anyway, good news. You remember I said we needed models for our smaller sizes? Well, you’re in this month’s Mobius Literate. They’re running a feature on body modification, and another using models who don’t fit the usual stereotype, you know, fat people, thin people, amputees, that sort of thing. Well, we got the centrefold sponsored content ad and you’re in there. I’ll send you a copy.”
And there I was, in the hallowed pages of Mobius. In a sponsored feature, modelling my bespoke suit, as naked as the day I was born.
© Steve Laker, 2019
I’m not sure where I’d pitch some twisted surreal retelling of The Emperor’s New Clothes, but I feel better getting the analogies and parallels out there for people to think about. Like all my stories, I hope this one carries more than one meaning or comment, and I hope it stands up to repeated reading.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
Ever catch yourself going to bed and thinking, ‘I’m too tired for bed’?
Recently I put a chicken in my freezer because she claimed to be God, I didn’t believe her, and my oven is broken. Two problems stored. I phoned a friend today and asked her how long you can keep a chicken in the freezer. “Three months?” she said. Which was strange, because the chicken I’d put in the freezer only a day ago was dead, proving that God doesn’t exist.
CHICKEN DING AND SPAM
I took the chicken out of the freezer. By the neck. “Okay God, let’s talk about what’s on my mind. Let’s see what you can do about it.” She didn’t reply, so I told her anyway, an unwilling and static audience. It was late at night and worlds were colliding, the night with morning and reality with imaginary mind hackers. I tried to strike up a conversation with my chicken as my dreams become more surreal.
“While I’ve been on the human scrap heap, waiting for a court appeal to regain my human rights – the Personal Independence Payment denied me over a year ago – I’ve rather fallen further apart. I don’t wear pyjamas, but I feel like a pyjama case turned inside-out. I can’t ask for help, because I’d be intruding. Best to just spill my guts.
“Many of my appliances have committed suicide and joined me on the pile of broken things. I can no longer record TV, listen to CDs or play DVDs. Since the kettle broke, I’ve had to boil water in a mug in the microwave. While that still works and the oven’s out, I can at least have ready meals, not the cheapest or healthiest way to eat.
“Things cost more when the things around you break, just as they do when you’re broke. Electricity is on a pre-pay key, water is metered, while dishes, laundry and showers are charged by the load.
“There’s no light in the kitchen, and I’ve been wrapping parcel tape round my hands to pick up debris and dust from the floors even since the vacuum cleaner died. The toilet and shower are in a communal corridor. Welcome to social housing, specifically the kind which single men are placed in.
“So, God. What can I do? Living here is preferable to the streets, but the studio is falling apart like I am. If I ever get my independence payment back, I can remedy much of what’s lacking around me, but my current environment just feeds my deepening depression.
“Without the money I’ve had for the last four years, since it was denied by the fascist state’s social cleansing machinery, I can’t visit my kids, nor my ailing dad.
“My parents are in the process of finding out that dad’s care – he’s 77 with dementia – will cost more than their pensions, which they’re going to lose because one of them is in care and the pensions go towards dad’s care home ‘tenancy’. That still leaves the bigger part of £1200 a week to find, on a diet of Spam. I’m writing this longhand in my diary, Editor (‘God’) notes in red marker. Turn the page I’ve written, don’t click the link. Don’t be a victim. Don’t trust a chicken which threatens to poison you by hacking your handwritten notes.
“Meanwhile mum lives at home, alone and separated from her husband of 52 years, now also without her carer’s allowance, because she doesn’t care for dad any more, in the eyes of the government.
“Dad’s questioning his purpose, staring at the ground and asking why he’s where he is; not just in the nursing home, but on the planet. Mum can’t do enough to help, and I can’t do as much as I’d like. Dementia kills more than one person, very slowly. The social cleansing agenda extends into all realms of hardship and mental poverty.
“So how about that, God?”
Without an oven, chicken takes a very long time to cook. They say a watched pot never boils, but I have no pot to watch. Left at room temperature though, a chicken will start to move if you stare at it long enough. Mine was defrosted.
My chicken didn’t have a head, the voice came from within its cavity. “You will serve me,” it said. “With roast potatoes and trimmings.”
Perhaps one day, when I can get a new oven. This God would serve me and any friends who fancied popping round for dinner; it would aid humanity in the conversation it started and it would preserve my sanity, so that I didn’t have to talk to God so much.
The chicken mentioned trimmings, so I laid a few newspaper cuttings out on my desk. On the back of one page was an advert for The Unfinished Literary Agency, which I didn’t recall placing (I’m the proprietor of said fictional outfit). It was asking for donations, which I thought quite crass for such an exclusive organisation. But I did invent it, like so many worlds and people.
The blurb requested monthly donations, but offered nothing in return. Which irked me a little. It was a bit like the media appeals by charities, which ask for regular payments to ensure the survival of an animal or a child. Often they’ll promise monthly updates, or sometimes a cuddly toy, all of which somewhat dilutes the gift. I prefer to give one-off donations and just be momentarily pleased that I might have helped someone, anonymously. Like much else in life, even donating to charity is more costly for the already financially-challenged, often on pre-pay mobile phones, but those of us in the same boat tend to give more by simple virtue of human nature.
The chicken was moving slowly across the worktop now. “Why don’t you,” the voice from the hole said, “make a human connection with anyone who helps you?”
“I never go out.” Not entirely a fact: Only when I have to.
“No, I mean, like those sponsorship sites which offer something in return for regular donations, which then give you exactly the same as everyone else who donated the same amount, like a mention on their website.”
“Hardly anyone reads my stuff though.”
“All the better for exclusivity,” the chicken said, in a lower voice, deeper in the cavity. “You could make your gratitude far more valuable if it was a personal gesture. You’re a writer. You sometimes take on freelance work, but you’re an acquired taste. You could hire yourself out to donors.”
I started writing the copy for an ad. I thought perhaps a kettle (or part thereof, a fiver) might buy someone a bespoke poem; maybe someone would like a cameo in a short story in return for a DVD player (or part thereof, a tenner?); or a starring role in a fictional tale for an oven (or a part of it, maybe a score?), so I can give thanks to God the chicken by cooking and sharing her. Until then it’ll be ‘Chicken Ding’: a microwave meal for the price of a whole book I once wrote.
Then I binned it. I didn’t have the money to place the ad anyway. Fuck that chicken.
Ever look at something and wish you could take it back, undo what you’ve done?
Left at room temperature, long after it’s defrosted, a chicken will start to move as it begins to decay. Best to cover it with gravy before posting it on social media, as one would a flaccid cock.
I picked the screwed note out of the bin, my ad hacked and covered in Spam, along with the newspaper clippings and the pages from my diary for this post. I totted up the costs of paying over the odds for living in social poverty, while the bigger patches for my punctures are beyond the means of anyone surviving on the minimal benefits of human life, like a chicken on the supermarket shelf.
Many of my appliances have committed suicide and joined me on the pile of broken things. I can no longer record TV, listen to CDs or play DVDs. Since the kettle broke, I’ve had to boil water in a mug in the microwave. While that still works and the oven’s out, I can at least have ready meals, not the cheapest or healthiest way to eat.
Everything costs more when the things around you break, just as they do when you’re broke. Electricity is on a pre-pay key (a score a week), water is metered, while dishes, laundry and showers are charged by the load.
There’s no light in the kitchen, and I’ve been wrapping parcel tape round my hands to pick up debris and dust from the floors even since the vacuum cleaner died.
“Everyone can be part of something if they buy into it,” the paradoxical chicken clucked, as it climbed out of the bin, Spam dripping from its skin. “Like me. Best that you don’t go begging, like I do with a collection plate every Sunday when I intrude on my believers’ lives; it’s so demeaning.
“It’s no wonder people die when they can’t afford to live, and it seems as though life is against them as their surroundings break. You need a new bin by the way.
“Try not to lose this connection. Perhaps make it part of a story to cover the cost of this website of ours,” he cleared his throat, clucked, “monthly? The cost of keeping this website, your only means of communication with the outside world. It’s a shocking story, shocking”, the chicken croaked from its hollow cavity. “I never knew the price of living, when you’re forced to think about it so that you have to write fiction and fact, your own story and those of others at the same time to save costs. At the end of any day, it’s only you desperately trying to feel better about yourself.”
Which was a lie, because if the flaccid one was a true god he’d know the cost of social cleansing. You might also accuse false deities of invention for the sake of self-flagellation, like a remorseful flasher in front of the bushes, curiously white.
Whatever I write, it’s always with horror in my heart. I don’t think it can be killed, unless it’s starved of voyeurs.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
Dad’s in a home, mum’s alone, and so am I. The Hoover, kitchen light, washing machine and Freeview recorder don’t work; the TV and DVD player are on their way out; and the typewriter (this laptop) is developing a mind of its own. My world at Christmas, a microcosm of the one outside.
Things develop faults over time, and when you don’t have the means to fix them, they break. This time of year is always difficult, for me and others like me. Finance and personal liberty would mend these things, they’d help patch me up, and maybe my dad, if I could see him more often. I have neither, and my mental health has deteriorated as the government’s social cleansing experiment continues. It’s been over a year now that I’ve been denied my independence, and still six months in the current queue for an appeal hearing.
My darkest future visions are now painted in distant bright lights, as the rise of a fascist state in the UK has come to pass. I don’t see anyone to tell them I told you so, and it’s all on this blog anyway. I saw the recent Tory election victory coming, and as I predicted, it was based on lies, just like Brexit.
Now some of my dimmer predictions are nearer: a more divided nation, the far-right enabled and empowered, increasing civil unrest; soon there’ll be riots, water cannon, curfews and martial law; eventually, the break up of the union, and the UK will be no more (it only remains the United Kingdom in a name that’s become an oxymoron). This has been a dark year; one in which I lost my brother-in-law, my next-door neighbour and at least two old friends; and the next may be bleaker still. Christmas is more a reminder than an escape for me.
Sergeant Pepper 2019, the first to feature iconic wildlife (The West Aftrican Black Rhino)
(Previously (2016): https://bit.ly/2PQPZ8q)
As I topped up on a couple of last-minute items in Tesco today, an elderly lady in front of me exclaimed to the checkout girl, “I can’t believe you’re working on Christmas Eve,” totally without irony as the young girl packed her shopping. You’re the reason she’s working dear. Go home.
The country is in a panic, as if a nuclear winter approaches. And it does under a fascist dictatorship. Staples will be stocked and wasted, while shoppers complain the shops are closed for a day or two, with little regard for those who work there, nor that they have families too. I envy them all, trying too hard to make it the best day ever with their loved ones, as it could be the last for all of us.
I have to remember there’s another world, just outside, where I was once drunk and I slept on the streets, and that my world is what I made it: one of mental poverty.
There’s a different place, a better one where my children are, surrounded by family, gifts and food. I’d like to think there’s an empty chair there, where I might have sat, at least in someone’s memory; at mum’s dining table, where I once did; and beside my dad as he has breakfast in bed; instead of a TV dinner alone.
Christmas in Britain this year is everyone trying to convince themselves that everything isn’t just falling apart. It is, and for many, it does.
I share my studio with a fictional dog, chicken, and cat. Recently I got a new bed, and found there was barely enough room to share it with the camel who moved in at the same time as the futon. Beneath those packing crates there’s another cat, called Canute, or Cnut for short…
MY CAT IS A CNUT
Like sand in the vagina, the poetic literary voices continue to trouble Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings.
CAMDEN TOWN TO SOHO SQUARE
An old man in a three piece suit sits in the road, by Arlington House in Camden. The first cigarette is for contemplation, of the day before and the one to follow. He looks down at his shoes, flecked with the human remains of an October night.
He tossed his cigarette end through a drain cover, a portcullis to London’s intestines below. As he rose to his feet, a younger man walked almost alongside him, then boarded the same train at Camden Town, southbound on the Northern Line. At Euston, the young man wrote in a journal.
The old boy opposite doesn’t look so good. He’s wearing an LU uniform: Kinda hope he’s not gonna drive a train. Doesn’t matter to me, I’m off soon. He’s fallen asleep.
No-one knows I’m meeting her tonight. I don’t want to be a part of someone else’s Christmas, when at home I’m just a memorial, an empty chair at the dining table, with silver cutlery and a bone dry glass laid out for a ghost.
We’ve stopped just outside Warren Street. Above me, there life walks, and the city breathes, like a heavy smoker.
Old girl, new girl;
mother, daughter, Seven Sisters.
Roaming your many ways:
Saviour, black heart;
Angel, Bermondsey, Moorgate.
All that’s precious:
West End, Soho, Arnos Grove.
Where my heart is:
We’re on the move. I’ll get off at Tottenham Court Road and walk to Soho Square…
The old man was stirred by an on-train announcement:
“Ladies and gentlemen, due to an incident, this train will terminate here. All change please. All change.”
He spotted the notebook, open on the seat opposite.
…I’ll get off at Tottenham Court Road and I’ll walk to Soho Square, where I hope to see you. No empty bench, but my London, my life.
We met and we clicked,
like Bonnie and Clyde.
Jekyll and Hyde.
We went out,
like Mickey and Mallory.
Why don’t you come on over,
We done stuff,
like Courtney and Kurt.
Laughed then slept:
Ernie and Bert.
Holding throats, not hands.
Sid and Nancy.
See you soon,
A man on the underground.
Emerging from beneath Tottenham Court Road, a young man blinked in the lights and mizzle, on the way to Soho Square. He sniffed, and snow fell in the back of his throat. He waited on the bench.
An old man in a three piece suit sits in the road, outside Arlington House in Camden. The first cigarette is for contemplation, of the day before and the one to follow. He looks down at his shoes, flecked with the human remains of an October night.
© Steve Laker, 2014.
Kirsty MacColl, 10.10.1959 – 18.12.2000
As has become tradition, Advent is the time for my alternative nativity. Last year I said that with the state of the UK and the world beyond, that could be the last Christmas humanity saw. I was wrong, so I got to edit yet another nativity.
Last year I was the sanctimonious proclaimer of biblical prophesies about The Beast and the Antichrist being played out in the present. I wrote elsewhere on this blog of a future I imagined being now, just over a year ago. I’d put Boris in No10 and predicted trouble at the Palace, with a Trump influence. Now it seems we may be nearer to our days of judgement, with the Antichrist installed in the White House and the many heads of The Beast in offices of power around the world.
Still, there’s Project BlueBeam, which some say is a conspiracy theory. Others think it will be the second coming of a saviour, in the form of first contact with intelligent extraterrestrials. But the truth – so the theorists maintain – is that it will be a smokescreen. So a bit like religion.
Soon we might see a new star in the sky, or it could be just another Christmas in the UK, where a fascist dictatorship is intent on social cleansing, through economic starvation and murder. The imperial invaders were always on pilgrimages to other lands, to educate and to rape cultures, even if they weren’t ready to talk.
The original Another Nativity was written when I lost any religion while I was living on the streets, and it’s in my first anthology. It was re-written as a play for Schlock webzine, which proclaimed, “Steve Laker gets into the Yuletide spirit with a ruthless, uncompromising deconstruction of immaculate conception”. This year, we’re filming the stage play of the short story for a webcast and student art project.
It’s more anti-Christmas, crass commercialism and consumerism (and waste) than Antichrist (my atheism is grounded in science, as the prosecution in this story); and it’s a social comment, on how – like at weddings – everyone feels obliged to have the best one ever, while the host is slowly pressured by perceived expectations. It’s human shame, drawing attention by schlock pulp fiction, to other issues all too conveniently swept under family carpets at this time of year, possibly the last Christmas we’ll see, unless I get to write another one.
Who were you in your school nativity? I was a sheep.
“When the mind knows itself and loves itself, that is the holy trinity.”
Another year, another end of term, and another Christmas. A different group of children, at another school, and another nativity…
“Why is Marilyn involved in a nativity? She’s at university. It’s a primary school thing, surely.”
“It’s art, apparently.”
“Well, it says here, A modern artistic twist is given to the well-loved story of Mary and Joseph finding shelter at Christmas, so that they may have their boy child, born of the Lord.”
“Like I said then, a load of wank. Where is Maz anyway?”
“She’s at her old school. She’s filming it for her university art project, for a webcast or some shit. Think of it as a nativity you don’t have to film your daughter in, because your daughter is filming it. There’s food. And the writer is some wanky poet she knows. You like poetry, don’t you?”
“I like John Hegley, and Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings.”
“Well there’s a poem by the screenwriter on the back of the invite. It’s apparently about how the festive period was hijacked by commercialism. Here:”
THE CHRISTMAS RAPIST
Christmas was coming
and so was Rudolph
baubles glowing red
with the animals
in the nativity shed
“You dirty cunt,” Santa said
Get off that mother
and her baby
we don’t want
to give them
“Only if I bite them”
the goat said
I fucked them
they can’t get pregnant
with human babies
“Well, that was nice. What else can we expect?”
“Some of the other old parents will be there. We can compare notes on how hopeless our children’s lives are. We’ll see how some of the other parents have aged, especially the ones who got divorced or widowed.”
“Oh, that’s a clincher then…”
Parents, guardians, family and friends, welcome to our production of Another Nativity for the stage and screen.
The following is a true story, a Christmas message, adapted from the bible…
It was the old-school cheap props method of a cushion up her jumper which made Marilyn feel so secure on stage. She was pregnant. She couldn’t make out her father in the audience. This was a nativity, nothing else.
The stomach cramps were stage fright, only that. The audience out there really cared. She could get over this and speak her lines, after so many weeks of rehearsal. It was just a nativity. A man speaks:
“Marilyn, we’re here to tell a story and we need your help. You are welcome here. Tell us first, how you came to be here.”
“Joe and me have been walking for three days. We’re homeless because my dad chucked us out. As you can see, I’m pregnant. We came here for the health care and to register the birth.”
“How did you come to be with child?”
“I was raped.”
“By whom, Marilyn?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see him.”
“The child is not your partner’s?”
“No. Thank You Marilyn. To spare you further questions for now, I will refer to the statement which you made previously under oath.
“You suspected that you were pregnant because you’d missed a period, so you took a test. The test was positive. You thought little of it, hoping that the test was incorrect or that the problem would go away. Is that correct?”
“You met Joe around two weeks after this, and a month into the relationship, you had unprotected sexual intercourse for the first time. Your hymen was ruptured and you bled. Is this right? Is this what you said?”
“Confused, you thought that this might be your existing pregnancy miscarrying, so you took another pregnancy test immediately after that first sexual encounter: it too was positive. Correct?”
“It was too soon after you’d had intercourse with Joe for his sperm to have penetrated any eggs in your womb, yet he had clearly taken your virginity. Therefore, it would seem that you’d been pregnant and a virgin at the same time.
“I should like to call on Doctor Bateman. Doctor: you have examined the patient. Can you confirm the stage of her pregnancy?”
“Yes, your honour. Based on the current size and development of the foetus, the patient is 20 weeks pregnant. This would place the date of conception several weeks prior to her first sexual encounter with her current partner.
“Of course, the hymen can become ruptured in many ways besides intercourse. It is possible to be a virgin whilst not having an intact hymen but it is impossible to become pregnant with the hymen intact. I wish to hand you over to Inspector Aldred.”
“Thank you doctor. Your honour: the doctor is of course correct in her statement. Our priority was to identify the father of the child. The claimant’s partner had volunteered for a DNA swab. Clearly we also needed the DNA of the mother and baby. This was gained with consent. I can confirm that the claimant’s partner is not the father of the unborn child. Furthermore, the unborn child’s DNA is identical to that of the mother.”
“Which suggests a number of things Inspector.”
“Yes your honour. We can discount accidental insemination through heavy petting, simply by virtue of the DNA tests. This leaves two scientific explanations for a baby which carries only the DNA of its mother. I shall return the stage to Doctor Bateman.”
“Thank you Inspector. The first possibility is that the claimant produced a clone of herself. This has been observed in the natural world. However, any parthenogenetic progeny of a mammal would have two X chromosomes and would therefore be female: this child is male.
“The remaining possibility is that the claimant is carrying a chimera. It is extremely unlikely but nonetheless possible, in theory at least, that an egg could be cloned by the mother, develop through the embryonic stage and only then be fertilised by male sperm to make the embryo viable. There is much academic research on the subject but it is not a phenomenon which has been observed under scientific conditions.”
“It is therefore highly unlikely Doctor?”
“Yes your honour.”
“Thank you doctor. It would appear that there are two possibilities: the first is improbable and the second, more so. Either young Marilyn here has self-produced an embryo which her partner has then fertilised, or the alternative is quite fantastical.
“The only remaining explanation is an immaculate conception. This would be a miracle and therefore, grounded in something other than science. But it goes further than religion and faith as well, because the most important thing of all, is how Marilyn feels about all of this.”
“I feel sick.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, we’ll take an interval. Court is in recess.”
Unseen backstage, Marilyn is being tended by three wise souls and three shepherds. In this production, those roles are respectively opportunist capitalists, looking to package up a religion and sell it, and those who might otherwise guide her: legal counsel, social services, and rehabilitation advisers.
While the jury has retired, we should like the public gallery to consider the implications of this unique case.
It cannot be denied that young Marilyn is pregnant, so we have to consider two possibilities: That she is pregnant with her partner’s child but through naivety rather than intention, and it is highly unlikely in any case. Equally unlikely however, is that she may have had an immaculate conception and is carrying the child of God. Either way, she is the incubator, the transport and the means of delivery. The foetus is viable but still at a stage where it may be legally aborted.
There are other ethical matters to consider however, albeit some theoretical: if she is carrying the son of God, who has the authority to deny that child’s life? If the father were to be her partner, there is no way to prove this, nor indeed is there sufficient proof that that the two of them may have engaged in underage sex.
Given the evidence before us, I have reached a decision.
I invite you to join us in court, for Act II.
“Marilyn, firstly, I commend your courage in taking the stand today, and sharing your story with us. It’s a story which some might otherwise use for their own immoral gain, but your testament, and the expert evidence presented here today, allow us to prove something different, and to change the way people think, that while beliefs are to be respected, they should not deny liberty.
“Even though I’m an atheist who can also reconcile some religious theory with science, I have to rule on something which others might consider superior to me. But as a judge, I must transcend beliefs, and witness false deities worshipped by the gullible. Standing before me, metaphorically – or some would believe, all around – is God. A god who refuses to be questioned, for questioning denies faith. I put it to this god, that questioning faith is a human liberty, and should he wish to be judged, let him stand before this court.
“God had sex with you, Marilyn, without your consent. The conception may be immaculate, but the situation which I am faced with is unprecedented. With the eyes of the law, I see before me an 11-year-old girl who is pregnant. I will recommend that further counselling might be appropriate, so that you may retain the liberty of choice. I will ensure that choice is informed.
“God, I find you guilty of rape, and of sex with a minor. Sentence is simply that which you desire: for stories of your deeds to be told in public. Marilyn, is there anything you’d like to add, anything you’d like to say to God?”
“Yeah. I didn’t ask for this child, so why should I carry it for you? Maybe so he can spend thirty years tricking people about his old man, a filthy old kiddy-fiddler. But this kid can make amends for that, by killing himself, or as the other story goes, God gave his own son. Why? Because he thought he’d be found out? I can write stories too.
“The son of God, who feeds the starving, by breaking bread and making wine, proclaiming that all those who consume it will be taking his body and his blood. Cannibalism by self-flagellation.
“You are one sick and twisted old man, God. Behold, meat stolen from a fucking supermarket, for my family’s Christmas dinner, born to you this day from my vestal virgin vagina. Witness, the son of God, still-born on stage.”
The producers would like to thank the following for their help in making this art project:
E. Elias Merhige, for ‘Begotten‘ and The Conservatives for the the whole Chistmas message of the future.
From all at the school, and the many others who worked on this production, we thank you for coming. We hope to see you again for our Easter production, a different take on the resurrection, where God – a product of human invention, like so much Easter consumerism, and made in man’s image – is challenged by the real creator, Mother Nature herself.
Thank you for your Harvest Festival donations this year. All of the basics tinned goods which no-one else wanted are very welcome. Next year, please bring something worthwhile for the homeless, especially the girls. We desperately need sanitary products.
Have a very merry Christmas. And if you’re chewing your turkey wishbone, make a wish for the Children’s Wish Foundation: We hope it fucking chokes you.
© Steve Laker, 2017, 2018 and 2019
Outside the bible, my dad’s terminally ill. He’s being transferred to an NHS care home – while such a thing still exists – in Folkestone. I’m surviving on the money Ian Duncan Smith said he could easily live on, still waiting for my day in court to win back the human right of personal independence from the DWP. Until then – by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals’ estimate – my hearing is around six months away, possibly beyond the reach of my dad. He found me when I was lost. I don’t believe in God but my dad is £13 away by train. I like trains.
THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION
After many months of not being able to write much about my dad, today I can. Until now there have been many open narratives, no closure and much speculation. Last night a chapter ended when I found out dad won’t be returning home.
Over the last few weeks, things have progressed steadily, while dad has deteriorated on the same undefined scale. The final diagnosis is that he has a kind of double dementia, a bit like having Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s living in your head at the same time, chipping away at your memory and sense of self. Either on their own would be bad enough, but there are two of them in there, vandalising the place. He’s at a point where he requires round-the-clock care, which my mum and his home carers can’t fully provide. It’s every family’s worst waking dream when they have to put one of their own into a care home.
Dad will never get better, and this move could hasten his demise. I wish I could have done more. I wish I could do something besides hope that he makes friends in his new home, rather than give up. I wish I could talk him out of it, if that’s what he’s planning. I wish I could swap places, or at least be there so that he wasn’t so alone. I wish I could turn back time. There’s a cloud stuck in my head, which is why it keeps raining on my face.
TIME FOR BED
I’ve been to my own funeral. I was there as they lowered me into the pit. There were people there. That was when I woke up and made the first jump. I didn’t mean to, I was pushed. Onto my death bed. Before I left, I wondered, will people visit my grave?
Now I found myself back in the hospital bed where I’d died, with no visitors. But when you’re buried in the ground, you have no way of knowing what time it is.
I asked myself what the point was, and perhaps explaining to myself why I’d died. I’d switched myself off in boredom and frustration at the loneliness. If I just go back to sleep, maybe I can get back there, to my own funeral.
It didn’t work. I went the wrong way. When I woke up, I’d reversed to the first night I spent in that bed in the care home.
I don’t know who decided to put me there, like some kind of monster which had to be caged, out of the way where I couldn’t bother them. They visited, but with me incarcerated, they got to choose how much of me they’d put up with. A bit like visiting a grave, when the occupant can’t come to you.
After they’d left on that first night, I slept, trying to remember how I got there, how I’d come to be in this new place alone, when I’d spent much of my life sharing a warmer bed.
The next day I woke up in that other place, but it was cold. I lifted the sheets next to me but there was no indentation of a person. My partner had already left. I slept and I tried to dream.
We’re never aware of the moment we fall asleep. When we wake, we may remember some of our dreams, but we can never recall the point where we fell. I dreamed I was running through a woods, then I tripped, and I forgot my dream. I woke with a start. My jumps were taking me back in time.
I remembered my mum tucking me into bed and dad reading me a bedtime story, then checking under the bed for monsters. He said they only hid under there because they were scared. How ever many tales he told at the bedside, essentially they were all this one.
The scariest thing is this final jump into the past, the last chapter before the light goes out.
When you die at the end of your life, you may lose your own memories but you’ll be remembered by others. It’s but a comfort blanket to think we’re only truly gone when we’re forgotten.
Others will live on who’ve lived their lives with us, but I won’t be remembered when I’ve forgotten the people around me. When life ends the way mine will, I’ll regress to a time and place where I never existed. It’s not the loneliness I felt in hospital; it’s a bed without me in it. And no-one to read a story, no beginning before the book is even opened.
Memories become visions of the future when you’re living life in reverse, but I can’t see the future. I knew I was never going home. Like a baby given up at birth.
They think I didn’t feel anything, but this is how it feels.
I’m alone and I’m afraid.
And so an ending is written, a few words carved in stone. My story is here, hiding under the bed, in the ground beneath your feet, the wind in your ears, and the memory of when we’d only just met.
© Steve Laker, 2019
So many opportunities at the beginning of life, so few at the end. So much discovery in the closing chapters, when there were few clues at the start. We learn as we live, and even though my dad’s hardware is defective, I hope his memory will be stored on some device out there. Maybe he could plug himself in, so that me and him can keep talking.
“For all of the most important things, the timing always sucks. Waiting for a good time to quit your job? The stars will never align, and the traffic lights of life will never all be green at the same time. The universe doesn’t conspire against you, but it doesn’t go out of its way to line up the pins either. Conditions are never perfect. ‘Someday’ is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you.”
It was around six years ago now that I found myself on the streets, an alcoholic. But this story has only a part of me in it. It’s about the other people out there, the quiet ones. Those aren’t monsters under the bed. These are the ghosts…
“If I don’t write, I’ll drink. So I have to force myself. Because if I’m drunk, I can’t write.”
The story of how I became a ghost is surprisingly ordinary: I died. My actual passing was like that moment when you fall asleep every night: You don’t remember it. The next day, you’ll remember being awake before you slept; you know you’ve been sleeping and you may recall dreams. But you won’t remember the transit from wakefulness to slumber. So dying was just like that, for me at least.
It didn’t take long to realise I was dead because people just stopped talking to me. I could still walk around but no-one could see or hear me. A couple of times, people just walked straight through me, as though I wasn’t there. I wasn’t but I was.
When someone walks through you when you’re a ghost, you get to know a lot more about them on the inside. I don’t mean how their internal organs look (just like in a hospital documentary or horror film) but a feeling of their inner self. It’s surprising how many people you thought you knew turn out to be complete twunts.
Even though I was invisible and inaudible, I felt vulnerable in this brave new world. I’m used to being looked at. I like it. I dress provocatively. But here, no-one was looking at me, which made me anxious. I felt invisible. I was invisible. That’s how I ended up sleeping under George’s bed.
So kids: It’s not a monster under the bed, it’s a ghost.
It was while I was under there that I decided to write this story.
I’d suddenly found myself homeless. I had no personal belongings, nowhere to go and nothing to do. But like any child’s bed, George’s had cardboard boxes underneath it. I wouldn’t pry into something which might be private, but like most children’s beds, George’s sat above a wasteland of discarded ephemera: a little-used word but for the purposes of this story, it was the right one. It’s a collective noun, for things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time. Or collectable items that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity. Ephemera also has a certain supernatural aura about it (Ephemeral, an adjective meaning lasting for a very short time), so to a ghost and a writer, it suits the story very well.
As a ghostwriter, I could be anyone I wanted. I could do that in cardboard city but I had less to worry about under the bed.
It wasn’t me writing the story; I was employing someone else. When a man writes something, he is judged on his words. When a woman writes, it is she who is judged. Being a ghost was perfect. Because if a ghost writes the story, then they control it. If a ghost tells this story, it doesn’t hurt as much.
Among the discarded stationery, I found a note: ”If you don’t finish that story, I will personally punch you in the face. Cool?” I had no idea who’d written it, nor the circumstances surrounding it. I assumed it was a note given to George. Or it might have been one he’d planned to give to someone else and thought better of it. It could just as easily have been addressed to me. Whatever, and if nothing else, it was a kick start. Sometimes that’s what we need.
It wasn’t a physical kick (There was no room under the bed) but it was a mental jolt, like the friend who places an arm around your shoulder and tells you they believe in you. That’s a very brave thing for them to do, because the kind of person who says that kind of thing is going to end up stuck with you.
I needed something to sustain me while I wrote, but I was under George’s bed. I had no idea how the rest of the house was laid out, so I wouldn’t know where to find the food. It occurred to me that even if I found any food, I was ill-equipped to cook it. One revelation leads to another: Ghosts don’t eat. Do they?
Eventually, I’d gathered enough odd paper to make a useful pad. All I could find to write with was a crayon. A fucking green crayon. So then I began to write, in green crayon.
Should I really have been denied drugs, when it was that which drove me, once I learned to control it? Should those who thought they knew better have removed my lifeline? If I’d allowed them to do so, I’d surely have died from the withdrawal. At least that’s what I was afraid of. So I kept going. I kept shooting up. Then I ran away. I was 16.
Once you’re 18, the law says you can leave home without your parents’ or guardians’ permission. Strictly speaking, if you’re 16 or 17 and you want to leave home, you need your parents’ consent. But if you leave home without it, you’re unlikely to be made to go back unless you’re in danger. You are extremely unlikely to be obliged to return home if that’s where the danger lies.
It didn’t matter to me that I had nothing. Just as long as I could get a fix, I had all I needed. Even personal safety and well being become passengers when the heroin is driving.
There’s a dark magic within you. A frightful thing I cling to.
But as a ghost I couldn’t score, just as I couldn’t eat.
So I had nothing to do but write. It would be romantic to write that the flow of ink from my pen replaced the alchemy running through my veins, but I was writing with a green crayon.
The writing was a distraction, but it couldn’t mask the withdrawal symptoms. It turns out that even being dead can’t do that. So I was faced with the prospect of cold turkey, a cruel joke as I was hungry and couldn’t eat.
How could I write but not be able to eat? Actually I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure if it was delirium tremens brought on by my withdrawal, or the limitations of my new body, but I had no fine motor skills. I could rummage through things and pick them up, but I couldn’t do something like thread a needle if anyone had asked. I probably wouldn’t have been able to put a needle in a vein if I was alive, and I certainly couldn’t make my hands write. My fine motor skills were like those of a toddler. So I simply did what many authors do: They have an idea, some thoughts, a plot, and they’ll employ someone else to write their story for them: A ghostwriter. I was both a writer and a ghost. So I just thought my story; I willed it, in the hope that someone else might write it one day, now that I couldn’t.
I needed to haunt George.
I’ve read a lot and learned through self-teaching. I could have been so many things if it wasn’t for chasing the dragon. But that dragon must be chased, just as a puppy must be played with. So I’d read up on ghosts and the various types of haunting.
The “Crisis Apparition” is normally a one-time event for those experiencing it. It’s when a ghost is seen at the time of it’s predecessor’s passing, as a way of saying farewell to family and friends. It would be like going about your daily business, then suddenly seeing your mum outside of normal contexts. Minutes later, you receive a call to tell you that she’s passed away. With practice, the deceased may be able to visit you more than once, to reassure you. If they do that, you might have a guardian angel. In my case, a fallen one with broken wings.
“The reluctant dead” are ghosts who are unaware they’re deceased. They go about their lives as if they were still living, oblivious to their passing. This innocence (or denial), can be so severe that the ghost can’t see the living, but can nonetheless feel their presence: A kind of role reversal. This can be stressful, for both the haunter and the haunted. In films, it’s usually someone moving into the home of a recently deceased person. Perhaps they lived and died alone in their twilight years. To them, the living might be invaders. These are not ghosts which need to be exorcised: Simply talking to them about their death can help them to cross over and leave your home.
Then there are ghosts who are trapped or lost: They know they’re dead but for one reason or another, they can’t cross over yet. Cross over into what? Some may fear moving on because of the person they were in life, or they might fear leaving what’s familiar to them.
There are ghosts with “unfinished business” broadly split into two categories: A father might return to make sure his children are okay. Or a lover might hang around, making sure their partner finds happiness and moves on. But there’s also the “vengeful ghost”; perhaps a murder victim, back to haunt their killer.
“Residual ghosts” usually live out their final hours over and over again. They often show no intelligence or self-awareness, and will walk straight by (or through) you. Many think that these types of ghosts left an imprint or a recording of themselves in our space time.
Finally, the “intelligent ghost”: Where the entity interacts with the living and shows a form of intelligence. I certainly wanted to communicate with George. In fact, to lesser and greater extents, I fitted parts of the descriptions of all types of ghosts. I’d not long been dead and already I had a multiple personality disorder.
All I could see of George when he first came into the room was his feet: Black elasticated plimsolls and white socks, like I used to wear for PE. I couldn’t say what size his feet were but I imagined them having a boy of about ten years old attached to them. I guessed George was quite a hefty lad by the way the sky fell slightly as he climbed onto the bed above me.
I laid still, because even though I myself was inaudible, my developing motor skills would betray me if I dropped the crayon or kicked anything. I could hear pages being turned and I was aware of movement above me. It could be that George was writing; doing homework perhaps. I didn’t want to entertain an alternative. I hoped he was writing.
No matter what we do in this life, we may eventually be forgotten. It’s a comfort I gain from writing, knowing that whatever’s published is recorded, and will be out there long after I’ve gone. The democratisation of publishing and reporting has meant many good and bad things, but for as long as the conversation is global, we need to keep it going. There may be voices with whom we disagree, but through writing, we can posit an alternative opinion and seed a debate. Beyond all that is happening in our constantly evolving universe is a simple fact: What is right will win. What is right can emerge from the anarchic democracy which is the internet, but only if there are enough voices. There will always be sides and factions but with everyone involved, those who engage the most because they are passionate enough will prevail. We don’t need to shout louder than the other side; we simply need to educate the ignorant. Evolution will tell the story of whether we became a liberal race and prospered, or if we destroyed ourselves because we were unable to evolve. Either way, history will record it. If we destroy ourselves, eventually our history will be lost in the vastness of space and time, and it may be as though we never existed. From the quiet above, I gathered George was quite a deep thinker.
There’s only one race on this planet and that’s the one we all belong to: The human race. Where death may scare most people, it doesn’t trouble me. I’m seeing evidence that the human consciousness exists independently from the body and continues to live after our bodies give up or we destroy them. What does scare me is even more existential: Being forgotten, as though I never existed. The human race faces an existential threat: That of ignorance. Simply by talking, we can make a difference. Listen to the previous generations, for they are our history. Talk to the next generation and don’t patronise them: They’re intelligent beings. They are the human race and the future. Maybe George would be heard one day.
After a while, the sky fell further and the lights went out. George had retired for the night.
Ghosts can see in the dark. As soon as George had been quiet long enough for me to be sure he was asleep, I was getting restless. I moved around and stretched a bit. I’d managed to keep the shakes under control, but now George was asleep, the withdrawal was becoming quite uncomfortable. Despite my anxiety and a developing agoraphobia, I was tempted to just get out and run around; to do something to distract myself. I decided against it. I’d be like a child who’d just learned to walk. I would bump into things and knock things over. I didn’t want George to have a poltergeist: They’re bad. I’m not bad and I didn’t want to be the victim of an exorcism, made homeless all over again.
I thought I’d try my night vision out and have another go at writing. I managed to draw a crude stick man, a house with a smoking chimney and a space rocket with flames coming out of the bottom. He was a green man, who lived in a green house (so shouldn’t throw stones) and he had a green rocket which burned copper sulphate fuel (copper sulphate produces a green flame). I wasn’t evolved enough to write.
I fought an internal flame: One which was a danger I wanted to flee but at the same time, a beckoning warmth. I didn’t know what time of day it was, and I had no idea how long George slept for. He might be one of those kids who was in and out of the bathroom all night, or he might be near enough to adolescence that he hibernated. Either way, or anywhere in between, I couldn’t keep still for even a minute.
The shakes were more like tremors now: Delirium tremens: a psychotic condition typical of withdrawal in chronic alcoholics, involving tremors, hallucinations, anxiety, and disorientation. Heroin withdrawal on its own does not produce seizures, heart attacks, strokes, or delirium tremens. The DTs were the manifestation of my other addiction, which I’d used heroin to cover up. It was somehow less shameful to be an addict of an illegal substance and hence a victim, than it was a legal drug which most people can consume with no ill effects. As an alcoholic, I was less of a victim. I was a sadomasochist.
As soon as you tell people you’re an alcoholic, if they don’t recoil, they just assume you’re always drunk. Or they presume that you must never touch a drop. Both are true in some alcoholics but there’s the “functioning alcoholic”, who still drinks far more than anyone should but who doesn’t get drunk. They can get drunk, but most functioning alcoholics simply drink throughout the day (a kind of grazing), to keep the delirium tremens and other dangerous side effects of alcohol cessation at bay. It’s called Alcohol Dependence Syndrome but most people saw it as a cop out. I couldn’t educate the ignorant, or get them to listen long enough for me to explain. So I started taking drugs. I got so tired of trying to explain alcoholism to people, educating their ignorance, that I gave up. You get much more sympathy as a drug addict. Yeah, right!
So as in life, this once functioning alcoholic is now a ghost.
For the brief period that I was on the road in the last life, one saying; one sentiment, was always to be heard in the homeless community: “Be safe”. Those two words convey much more than their brevity would suggest. But when you’re homeless, relationships and lives are fragile. It’s quicker and less sentimental to say “Be safe” to someone you may never see again than “I love you”.
Even if I was restless, I felt safe under George’s bed. To keep busy, I broke a promise and looked in the cardboard boxes. I placed the green crayon in my mouth, like a green cigarette. I sucked on it like a joint and the taste of wax was actually quite pleasant. It helped just a little as a distraction from the shakes.
The first box was a complete mixture: Sheets of paper, smaller boxes and random other stuff; like a model car, some Lego and, well, just all sorts. I gathered the papers first.
Some of George’s notes were apparently to himself: They were in a handwriting different to the first note I saw, so I couldn’t be entirely sure, but one such note read, “You came close a few times but you backed off. You didn’t want to be one of those boys who made her cry. That’s the only reason you did it.” If they were intended for someone else, he’d not delivered them.
There were unopened presents, and gifts addressed to others, but George hadn’t delivered them. Some things were wrapped, while others weren’t, but they were clearly intended for someone else as they had notes attached. A packet of 20 Marlborough Lights: “Should really have got two tens, then I could have given mum and dad one each. Like that’s going to stop them.”
I’d not seen or heard the parents. Without knowing even what day of the week it was, there could be many scenarios. In one, George’s parents argued a lot but they were very much in love. Perhaps they were frustrated and united against a common foe. With my parents, that was me. Whatever it was, I imagined something bonding them and keeping them together. That could have been George I suppose.
I wondered at what point in human evolution it might have been, that we started analysing things and where we started to over-analyse. Marriage guidance, or relationship management; fucking counselling, from professionals and the plastic police alike: We all have someone. We all love someone. They care about us and vice versa. But over time, something’s not right, so we take the lid off and start poking around in that jar. We keep chipping away, feeling more free to say things in an environment, which we might not in another. And eventually we say something irreversible. Something that’s niggling us deep inside and which doesn’t affect us until it’s dug up. And from there, the relationship breaks down further and ever more of the undead join the feast.
Rather than encourage engagement, that kind of situation can invoke the fight or flight reflex in the previous life; the past. And whether fleed or not, the past is history.
So we arrive in the next life with so much unsaid. We want to say it but we have to learn all over again, how to speak. And I suppose that’s why we want to haunt people.
George woke up. A light was switched on and the sky above me moved. I waited for the feet from above but there were none. There was movement like before, and the sound of paper. George must have been writing. Or drawing. After what I guessed to be around 20 minutes, he stopped, the light went out and the sky moved again. I was trembling quite violently by then, so I bit down on the crayon between my teeth and returned my attention to the boxes.
I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.
Do the first one: Get to know yourself and be happy with what you are. Then do the second: Those who loved you first time around will be the ones who are still there. So you’re not lonely.
The human body is merely a temporary host.
Put like that, we simply inhabit a body for a period of time, like a possession; In “life” we are already ghosts possessing bodies which give us physical form. That organic structure will age and eventually die, but our consciousness is separate from what we look at as a living body and it goes on living, long after the host gives up. Life, as we know it, is merely one part of an ongoing existence, the greatness of which we don’t yet understand. Knowledge comes with death’s release. You may well have lived in another body in a previous life: Deja vu tells us that; that feeling that you’ve been somewhere before. George had deep dreams.
The trembling had reached my head. There was more than one person in there, and the dialogue was two-way. I wasn’t talking to myself; I was talking to another person.
I began to realise that perhaps George and I were somehow connected. I always subscribed to pre-determinism in principle. A part of me knew that the Big Bang carried an imprint equal to its original noise; that everything was mapped out in that pre-spacetime manifestation of knowledge and understanding. I was drawn to believe that our futures were mapped out long ago, but that they were as inaccessible as our pasts: We had no control over either. Great swathes of George were alien to me. But why wouldn’t I explore, if George was my destiny? Or it could be the withdrawal, and I may have been withdrawing to a comfort zone. I couldn’t do that to George. What had this kid done to deserve me, inside him?
Life had been very much a game of give and take: If George had taken something, then he was indebted to someone else. If he received something and it wasn’t in recognition of anything he’d done, he was in someone else’s debt. When he gave something, he expected nothing back. It was simply an accepted fact that life gave back far less than was put in. No-one understood him, least of all himself. Did I? Could I?
His life revolved around visits to toy fairs with his father. They couldn’t afford the mint-and-boxed or the ready-made, so dad would just look around and George would use pocket money to buy spacecraft parts.
Broken and incomplete model kits were fuel for George’s shipyard in a cardboard box under the bed. When weekends were over, the shipyard had to remain where it was. When George was at his dad’s to build his craft, he didn’t. Because time was too valuable. So we were at George’s father’s house and it was the weekend.
When he wasn’t constructing, he was thinking. And he made more notes. He made the normal in my life fantastical, by explaining how science fiction writers were just one small step ahead of the real world. George knew I was there, or at least that it was possible for me to physically be there.
There were clippings from newspapers and magazines in the next box, including an obituary: Jemma Redmond was a biotechnologist who died aged 38 in 2016, like so many others in that awful year. The passing of her life was overshadowed by many more well-known figures in the public eye. But like George, she worked quietly, tirelessly and passionately. And she achieved some incredible things. She developed a means of using human tissue cells as “ink” in a 3D printer. She also helped in the design of 3D printers which reduced the cost of their manufacture. Jemma Redmond made it possible to “print” human organs for transplant into patients, and she reduced the cost so that the technique could be applied in the developing world. This is not science fiction. This is science fact, just a few years from now. Most people wouldn’t have known, unless it was brought to their attention and they then had the attention span to listen. But if anyone were to Google her name, her work is recorded in modern history.
There was a printout of a scientific paper about NASA’s EMdrive. The Electro Magnetic drive is a fuel-free means of propulsion, which could replace rocket fuel and all its limitations of bulk and speed. The EMdrive could take a spacecraft to Mars in 70 days. At present, it’s a two year trip, with a lot of psychological and physiological risks to any humans making the journey. Many of those problems would be overcome with the EMdrive. It’s due for testing soon and with development and improvement, could make other stars in the galaxy viable destinations for exploration and research. This is not science fiction. He had articles about solar sail arrays, the size of Colorado, taking tiny scout ships out to explore the cosmos ahead of humans. All of this could be possible within George’s lifetime.
But very few people know about these things because all of the bad news in the world shouts louder. If more people knew about the technological and scientific thresholds we’re at, they might talk about them. Others would then learn and eventually there might be a chorus of voices so loud that mankind has to listen and consider another way forward for the species.
George thought what a wonderful world ours could be if we concentrated on this stuff, rather than religion, conflict and capitalism. Of course, George was young and naïve in the eyes of most. He’d never be taken seriously if he proposed an alternative plan for humankind. So he kept and curated records, and he wrote about them. Like so many other people, he was recording his thoughts in the hope that someone might discover them later, or when he was older and might be taken more seriously. He was aware that he was documenting the present and the contemporary, and that it could become either history or the future.
My trembling had almost taken control of my limbs by now. Where it was first shaky fingers, then hands, now my arms and legs ached as though they needed to spasm.
The light went on again and the sky moved. There was more rustling of papers and scribbling with a pen or pencil. I started singing a song in my head, as I wondered something: I knew I didn’t need to eat, but would I need to get my hair cut out here? It was a song by the Crash Test Dummies: God shuffled his feet. If crash test dummies were to have nervous systems, I knew how one might feel by now. The light went off and the little big man upstairs settled back down. I needed coffee: lots of cream, lots of sugar.
My coffee used to come from a jug on a hotplate. George was planning a replicator. He explained in his notes how a replicator was just one step further on from a 3D printer. Scientists could already print human body parts after all. To print a cup, then some coffee to fill it, was actually quite simple. George was keen to point out in his notes that one should always print the cup before the coffee.
Like the quiet voices of mankind, George could only imagine. He could only wonder at the sky, or lie in bed and dream of what was beyond the ceiling. Humans travelling to other stars was one lifetime away. It was only a matter of generations before the dream could be anyone’s reality. George wanted to be anyone.
George escaped in his sleep. And he explained in his notes how it was possible to travel all over the universe. Not only was it possible, but everyone does it, every night. Everyone has dreams and George wrote his down. The spacecraft and all of its missions were in the same cardboard box; a microcosm universe beneath George’s bed. He explained how time travel could be possible:
It’s a simple matter of thinking of space and time as the same thing: Spacetime. Once you do that, it’s easier to visualise the fourth dimension: I am lying beneath a bed and I’m occupying a space in three dimensions (X,Y and Z); my height (or length), width and depth. Trembling limbs aside, I will occupy the same space five minutes from now. So the first three dimensions have remained constant, but the fourth (time) has changed. But also, I did occupy that same space five minutes previously. That, and every moment in between is recorded in the fabric of space time: I am still there, five minutes ago. I know the past. I don’t know if I’ll still be here five minutes hence: I can’t predict the future, even though it may be pre-planned from the start of all time as we understand it.
Of course, there is what’s known as The Grandfather Paradox: This states that if I were to travel back in time and kill my granddad, I would cease to exist. But if we assume that in George’s new world order, various ethics committees exist in the future, then time travel to the past could be undertaken in a governed, regulated and ethical manor. It might be a little like the First Directive imagined in many science fiction works, where it’s forbidden to interfere in any way in a species’ development, even if that means remaining invisible whilst watching them destroy themselves. This in itself is a paradox because no-one is qualified to say that it hasn’t already happened, conspiracy theorists aside.
When you’re despairing late at night and you just wish someone was there, but you don’t really want anyone around. When you’re confused, perhaps by internal conflict. That’s when you need a guardian angel. If someone would just phone you at that time, that would be perfect, because you’re not bothering them. You’ve not caused them any trouble. Guardian angels need a sixth sense and the ability to travel back in time.
George estimated his brave new world to be around 200-250 years from now; perhaps ten generations. There was a long way to go and a lot to do, and George would most likely not see any of it. Or so he thought. He was young and he had much to learn, then he needed to learn how to deal with it. The things which George wanted to do were the things I regretted not doing.
All things considered, I thought it might be better to not let George know that one of his prophesies does come true. It was too soon. He wasn’t ready. I couldn’t let him know that it was possible to send letters from the future, or that people from the past could be visited. It was a one-way street, a bit like going to see grandma because she can’t get to you. The departed are still around, we just can’t normally see them. Often they’re just watching over us. Sometimes they might want to speak to us but we need to be receptive.
By now, my arms and legs were in full spasm and I could feel my torso waiting to convulse. I cleared everything from around me as quietly as I could, so as not to interrupt whatever dream was unfolding above me.
The human body has an internal mechanism which shuts it down when stimuli get too much. An inconsolable baby will cry itself to sleep, and if a pain becomes truly unbearable at any age, we will pass out. I hadn’t tried to sleep since I’d been dead, but it looked like I was about to be shown how to.
I don’t know how far I travelled in the fourth dimension but I was woken by a voice:
“Georgie?” It was a man’s voice. Dad was home.
“In here dad.” George calling to his dad was the first time I’d heard him speak.
“I got you your magazines.” Dad was now in the room, quieter but closer. He had big feet.
“Thanks dad.” George’s voice had changed. Now that he was speaking at a lower volume, his voice was deeper: Young George’s voice was breaking.
“Writing, the science one, and paper craft. Is that right?”
“That’s the ones. Thanks.”
“What’s all this?”
“Notes. I’m writing a story. Here.”
There was a long period of quiet. George was shifting about on the bed and his dad was pacing around the room. There was that same distinct sound of pages being turned that I’d grown used to.
“Jemma Redmond. I read about her. Amazing woman. Deserves a posthumous Nobel.
“The EMdrive, eh? That’s exciting. I think we’ll use that for the interstellar stuff, and the solar sail ships for the wider galactic vanguard missions.”
“There’s some pretty deep stuff in here Georgie. Did you do this all yourself?”
“Well, I kind of had some help.”
“From whom? I’d like to meet them.”
“You can’t dad.”
“Promise you won’t laugh?”
“Can I smile?”
“You may smile”. There was a pause. “So, I had a dream.”
“We all have those. What about?”
“Nothing specific. Just a load of dreams mixed into one I suppose.”
“So you wrote about it. It’s good to write down your dreams.”
“But not all of that writing is mine. See, there was this girl.”
“A girl? In your dream?”
“Yes. A small girl, with blonde fizzy hair. And green teeth.”
“Green teeth? Was she a witch? Is she under the bed?”
“No. Well, she was kind of a witch. A dark witch but a good one. She was just wandering around, like she was showing me things. She might have been lost. I want to see her again.”
“I imagine you do. At least your witch has somewhere to live now.”
George left at the end of that weekend but it wasn’t the end of the story. He visits every weekend and he continues to record things for historians of the future. Eventually, he may realise that he was part of the machinery which kept the conversation going. He didn’t know this yet but he was encouraged in his chosen vocations.
I was there, under the bed. If I’d been able to write, I’d have just added a note for George:
Do what you enjoy. If you enjoy it, you’ll be good at it and people might notice you. If not now, then in the future. Don’t put off till tomorrow that which you can do today. Because if you do it today and you like it, you can do it again tomorrow.
Your life is not empty and meaningless, regardless of who is in it or absent from it. Your life is what you make it, for yourself and for future generations. Don’t give up.
Hopefully George will continue this story, now history, but in the hope that it might be read in the future. Perhaps he’ll find the notes I left him.
Dust to Funky. Be safe George.
To this day, Dad has never gone through George’s things under the bed. I’d have noticed.
© Steve Laker, 2017.
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