A smoked salmon bagel of doubt

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I find it difficult to be open about my anxiety and depression, to speak and express myself freely (outside of fiction), because like many others, I find it confusing and contradictory. Mental illness is a cocktail as unique as the vessel which carries it, so I don’t expect people to understand me when I misunderstand and contradict myself.

During Mental Health Awareness Week, remember the friends who say “Always here…” Because who would welcome that kind of call?

When all you need is to talk to someone, you don’t wish to be a burden, especially at 3am. You want people to call you. But how are they to know you’d welcome the distraction?

Depression is like leprosy. It’s a paradox of our humanity.

Fine not fine

The saying goes that a problem shared is a problem halved, but I believe it’s the saddling of an unsolicited burden, like much of my fiction. The salmon of doubt, the smell of fish…

When a real-life friend recently posted a #MentalHealth message on Facebook, I was grateful but confused. Thankful that someone had posted something I wouldn’t, but unsure of how to respond. I’m not one to follow instructions, least of all when a copy-and-paste request is so generic in such a complex field. So I’ve copied and pasted it here:

Anxiety sucks. Being isolated and believing your friends don’t care sucks even more.

How many of you have had a night out planned, or arranged coffee or a beer with friends and suddenly the 4 walls you inhabit seem the only safe haven because it’s the only place you don’t have to pretend you are ok, so you cancel?

Or when you are invited out you tell them how terribly sorry you are but you’re already booked up that weekend, when you are actually just really busy holding it together in your safe box. And so the first problem starts, all by itself.

People stop asking you and the isolation that at first wasn’t true becomes your only truth.

Please don’t give up on your friends. Ring them, go round, even when they don’t want you to. Because they really do they just don’t know how to say it.

And in work every passing comment is a negative, you constantly do more to get over the feeling youโ€™re not good enough. The exhaustion from not sleeping because you panic all night over what you cannot influence means you make mistakes, you live in a fog and it is a vicious circle.

I’m going to make a bet, without being pessimistic, that out of my Facebook friends that less than 5 will take the time to put this on their wall to help raise awareness of and for those who have mental health difficulties. You just have to copy it from my wall and paste it to yours.

Who will be my 5 … I wonder?

Yeah, damn straight. But I wasn’t one of any arbitrary number, because although I’m everything in that post, I’m also more. And who am I to post on my own timeline when it’s parts of me which are buried in there? Why ask people to check their other friends are okay while overlooking me? No point sending them on a guilt trip they wouldn’t otherwise have known, and I know what those are like when I live every day with many. Little point in burdening them. But I did reply:

Asking us to copy and paste about mental health seems very well-meaning, but the trouble is, not many of us with anxiety will actually copy and paste, for fear of being ignored, but at the same time not wanting to attract attention we can’t escape. I know I won’t, and neither will I post it as a stand-alone, for the same reasons. That’s anxiety, and depression, and paranoia: socially crippling. Thanks for sharing what I can’t explain though…

My friend then posted his thread, and my reply, on my timeline. Again it was of the best intentions, a plea to my friends whom I’m loath to trouble, especially when some still don’t understand addiction, and can find no sympathy for someone who โ€“ as far as they’re concerned โ€“ put themselves where they are. It was sharing problems which I didn’t fully understand in myself. That more public post by proxy would have been more like a plea for help, which I know no-one can provide, because there’s no cure. It’s not one I would make on behalf of myself.

Hello Hi How are you

This quieter way of sharing is where I’m more comfortable, just telling a few friends, who for some reason come here to see what I’ve written. I prefer the semi-secret society of blogging, keeping it on a need-to-know basis, while still wearing the heart tattooed on my left hand. Anything more public would fill me with an inner anxiety that everyone might run away, or become obsessed about how many may respond. Based on previous best intentions, those who do are rarely ‘always there for you’ when you need them.

Friends have offered to come over in the past, even take me out somewhere quiet. I was grateful, then backed out as the date approached, but not kicking unwanted attention away any more than I’m happy in my own company. Both are uncomfortable, and I don’t want to subject anyone else. It doesn’t make sense, does it? Others let me down after promising to come over, and in a way it was a relief, because it’s one less person to try to explain to, what I don’t understand.

That shared post might have looked like I was asking for help, but afraid to do so directly, so I’d appointed a spokesperson to speak about what I couldn’t. And I didn’t want those who still judge to think I was asking for financial help, nor anyone for somewhere to go at Christmas, because if I couldn’t be with my family (kids or parents), I wanted to be alone, watch Jimmy Stewart and eat cheese. I deleted the post, just as Christmas was cancelled for me anyway. This too shall pass.

I’m making the same point here as I did by not sharing on Facebook: I want to talk about it; I can’t talk about it. I have a smaller, less judgemental audience here, who won’t patronise me, say they’ll come over sometime, or always be there. At least I know they’re more likely to listen with their eyes.

If I had a live audience, I could talk for hours about how depression, anxiety, paranoia and all the rest affect me, because it’s such a mix I’m always trying to make sense of by speaking to myself: Sorry you can’t get through, and neither can I. But I’ll get back to you, probably in fiction. There I can find my inner confidence and contradict myself about being too shy to talk about it, so I close down and resist the exposure everywhere else.

I can write, and maybe one day unpack what’s inside my head, this post, and that last sentence, about why I fear to be out while placing myself in full view. It’s partly because I have to edit the weight of the burden, leaving myself with all the untold narrative in my head. When memories are forgotten, they become stories. But some stories can’t be written, because they’re still practising to become memories.

So many molehills in my mind, and from the outside that’s all they are. But I walk like Hannibal on eggshells, around a tower of giraffes (because it’s a better collective noun than a herd of elephants) in a mountainous range with many volcanoes. One day, all of this will make sense.

Not doing it wrong cows

It’s all in the mind, of course. A very lonely place to be with only your own thoughts.

I was there once. I was on Brick Lane and I had a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, with a squeeze of lemon and a grind of black pepper.ย I got a coffee too, and I had brunch on a doorstep in E1.

Some people really are right here, and they don’t mind those calls. You can’t catch a disease over the phone.

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When my elbow was an airbag

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Burning the midnight oil at both ends of the candle, in this life and the one before it, desperate to ignite some of the methylated spirit which is the ink in my veins, I turned again to 642 Things to Write About (San Francisco Writers’ Grotto). On an otherwise blank page, there’s a line at the top: ‘What did you dream about last night?’ Mine is one of thousands of copies of this empty ideas book, and my entry only one of many versions of events. Recurring dreams are just history repeating, in a surreal retelling of witness statements.

Blood bottles

We don’t remember all of our dreams, although I probably recall more than most. I keep a notebook by the bed, so when I’m woken by a dream, I’ll write it down. I also have a rare and occasional ability to dream lucidly.

Lucid dreaming took me years of practice and I’m far from mastering the art, but when I manage to dream lucidly, it’s quite literally like exploring the cosmos. It’s a journey into the wider space of the unconscious mind. It’s essentially being aware that you’re dreaming within a dream.

Usually a dream will carry you along like a captive audience trapped in your own head. There are jumps and frights to guide the way to an exit, but otherwise you’re not in control. If you can be aware that you’re dreaming, you can interact within your dream and change it. It’s the difference between being in the audience and being the director on the set of your own scientific horror films.

To get yourself onstage, you need that initial awareness. You need to plant a seed. The way I did it was a bit like counting sheep to clear the mind, but by repeating to myself as I laid there, ‘Tonight I will be aware that I’m dreaming,’ or words to similar effect. I find it difficult to clear my mind, so sleep eludes me regularly, despite prescription tranquillisers. In a way, it helps with achieving lucidity, taking my waking thoughts with me as I slip into the other world.

It can take years of practice though, not least in suppressing your emotions so that you don’t wake yourself at the moment you realise you’re dreaming. That’s the opposite of being shocked awake by a nightmare. Conversely, sometimes you don’t realise you’ve achieved lucidity. Often the difference between awake and subconscious can be so subtle that you feel you’ve not slept at all.

You’re never aware of the moment you fall asleep, but you’re neither awake nor asleep in the dream. I learned to sleep like this when I was homeless.

It’s a different kind of consciousness. You’re exploring the subconscious mind, and that’s connected to the rest of the universe. How? Quantum entanglement: The simple idea that at the moment of the Big Bang, all matter was created from a point of almost infinite density. To do that, sub-atomic particles – many degrees of magnitude further from the smallest we can now detect โ€“ were ripped apart. 14.6 billion years later, each retains a link to its partner (they’re monogamous), and science has demonstrated that these connections operate over cosmic distances. We’re all in this together.

Essentially, each of us is connected to every single part of the universe at a sub-atomic level. And that’s how lucid dreaming works, as those wires which trail between galaxies get plugged into the universal power supply. The people you’re thinking of are far more likely to be looking up at the stars than those you’d rather forget. You’re more likely to bump into people you like when you dream. Better to sleep.

While you’re slumbering ethereally, you’re in a place of eternity and infinity; one where all knowledge is to be found. Count the sheep and follow the last one.

And that’s how I circle back to what I dreamed about last night.

Dreams are an exaggeration of reality, and the things you take with you become amplified.

While I drifted around in space the day before that which is now, I thought of how what could be my personal heaven might be someone else’s hell, if they fear a truth which might challenge their conditioning; and of how we’re all conditioned by modern terror.

Bic Red

Our rulers and governors would rather we didn’t dream. They made mind-expanding drugs illegal because they don’t want us to explore beyond this planet they’ve engineered; heaven and hell respectively, on either side of the great manufactured divide, pumped full of licensed drugs. The only psychedelic substances we’re allowed are the artificial ones made by big pharma companies, paying little tax in the havens governed by their shareholders. They fear what might happen if we were able to lay our hands freely on natural resources which might expand our minds beyond their blinkered vision, available for reading from the limited library of the right-wing press, or by borrowing someone from the human lending library of people most likely to give you unsolicited advice at a Wetherspoon’s fruit machine.

sun-tzu-statue

Like everyone’s dreams, mine are an exaggeration of reality. I have a feeling we really are in the midst of a third world war without realising we’ve been polarised, because it was engineered by a whole film crew of politicians, producing the living nightmare we see being played out around us.

Maybe I didn’t sleep after all, but I was there. All around the world, then and now. One person’s dreams are another’s nightmares. The only way to stop it is to switch it off.

Like so.

SyringePen-2

This post was brought to you by the letter E, the number 37, and the writing prompt, ‘What did you dream about last night?’

The omnipresent Kung Po chicken

THE WRITER’S LIFE

My real and online lives have always been blurred, and my fiction contains much which is real. The places and people of my imagination connect and fold in on each other and into parallel worlds besides. Where it all plugs in is The Unfinished Literary Agency, above Hotblack Desiato’s office in Islington: a place where stories are told by writers, of people unable to write their own.

mp_chicken_keyboardFollow me on Twitter

I have much written in longhand journals but little published lately, because I’m unable to finish anything with all that’s crowding my head personally. So it was ironic that I opened a page in ‘642 Things to Write About‘ today, to see ‘Five ideas for a novel that you’ll never write’.

Sensing an urge, I stuffed 642 Things into my satchel and made my way to the Unfinished Literary Agency’s office, a place I feel I belong. Home is where the heart is, which is probably why I still have fond memories of being homeless in a world without judgement. Ink pumps through my veins, which is why I feel at home in the agency I wrote, one of many homes I created for myself.

When I arrived at the office, I found I wasn’t alone (even though I’d travelled that way). Not only is the agency home to myriad unpublished manuscripts, filed where most people think indie creative writing belongs (there is no direct sunlight in the office), now it was a nest for a familiar chicken.

Helen (‘Len’ in the short form) was the chicken I’d created when she hatched from a Campbell’s Soup tin in my kitchen back home in Catford. She’d subsequently disappeared in a flight of logic, when she proclaimed herself as God and we’d disproved her over dinner. That was a few weeks ago. Now she was seated at my desk (standing on the chair), pecking at my typewriter by candlelight.

Naturally I was curious about what Len was writing, but every time I tried to look, she obscured the paper in the typewriter with her wings. I asked her what it was she was working on, and she pointed at a pile of papers on the desk. It was at least a ream of A4, typed on both sides. Sensing I wasn’t going to get any keyboard time, I picked up the manuscript.

It was a report from The Department for Work and Pensions, their response to my appeal to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to hear my case for having my human rights returned. Was Len turning it into a surrealist novel, or writing a damning critique of its inaccuracy? For now the chicken wouldn’t let me see, so I tried to catch some sleep in a place I might find it easier than usual, away from home.

The hardest thing about writing is starting. Once you’re into it, things flow. Sometimes you can’t stop. Most of the time, the writing can’t keep up with the thinking. And so I slept, while a chicken transcribed whatever it was in her head.

When I woke, the chicken had gone. She’d apparently also found the switch for the desk lamp I once wrote into existence, in case I should ever run out of candles.

Everything else was as I’d left it after I’d last visited, except the in-tray of The Unfinished Literary Agency, a place where stories are told by writers, of people unable to write their own. There were suggestions, some so sparse and vague that they could be ideas for novels, typed on a space as small as a compliment slip:

The waters on Earth contain the answers humanity needs to explore the oceans of the cosmos. Over time, new bacteria will grow on the human pollution which floats on the oceans, and human science and technology will advance as it learns more from nature. Eventually, human scientists will realise that a single strain of DNA can hold more information than any artificial storage medium, and it can survive almost any environmental condition practically indefinitely. And ultimately, humanity will see that the new bacteria on the plastic polluting the oceans contains DNA encoded with a message of extraterrestrial origin.

Clever poultry. It’s amazing what you can do when you have someone else to write it for you. Apparently I hadn’t disproved Len that last time, but her creator. She’d also left some sketches of road plans based on Mobius strips, so she wouldn’t get run over again.

I rushed home to start writing again. It was only when I got back that I realised I left my DWP paperwork back at the office.

Pink Chick

Every night as you drift off to sleep, you sail through purgatory. The only way to pause and remember is to float on the lucid waves.

Being here and now and there and then, is what it feels like to be a writer, unable to know what happens next, but knowing where to go. Writing from The Unfinished Literary Agency. Making music and singing out from where the sun rarely shines.

This post was brought to you by the writing prompt, ‘Five ideas for a novel that you’ll never write’.

The Unfinished Literary Agency (Volume One) is available now.

Fava beans and a nice Chianti

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The best friendships are those where time and distance become irrelevant. You can continue a conversation where you left off, even if you’re on opposite sides of a planet. I have few friends, but the ones I have are like this. I could invite them all to dinner and have ample seating for them in my studio. I can’t help thinking that most people have fewer true friends than they realise when they’re measured like that.

Fava bean and ChiantiLiver and fava bean risotto recipe (YouTube)

Recently I’ve had even less human contact than normal, partly because I’m financially disabled by the Department for Work and Pensions taking my Personal Independence Payment (and therefore my independence) away. I’ve lodged an appeal at tribunal and I’m waiting for a date, but the process is likely to drag on for a few months yet (by design).

My processing through the social cleansing machine has already gone on for six months, during which I’ve had to choose between eating and heating. It’s dehumanised me and robbed me of any sense of self. I’ve become more withdrawn than usual, and found it difficult to write amidst the darkness. There’s fuel for fiction there, but my attention span has become shortened so that stories are the briefest flashes.

I realise I’m not alone. Despite my medical diagnoses of depression and anxiety, there are thousands more undiagnosed, as we live through what could be the end of days. The UK and the wider world are depressing places to be, like in my head. My opinions on Brexit, Trump, the rise of the right, climate change, and myriad existential threats to humanity, have been scant on this blog. But I’m always activist on Facebook and Twitter, other voices spreading environmental and socialist propaganda in the name of pacifism.ย 

It doesn’t help if you detest what you represent. Being male, white and British, I’m a gender, colour and nationality which has inflicted much damage on others, just like I did in my former drunken life. I’m perpetually repentant of my personal deeds, but I’m a member of demographics whose ideologies pollute other minds in a repeat of human history. In a world which grows gradually more bipolar, World War 3 will most likely boil down to left vs. right, socialism against fascism. I’m on the opposing side to all that my appearance might suggest. Without a voice, I can’t adjust the balance. As a writer, I can write as anyone; a pan-gender African if I like.

I’ve got new short stories in the pipeline, addressing human redundancy by technology and the resulting increase in the social divide; plastic pollution and a possible solution; and a world event which ought to unite divided factions. For the here and now, I need to concentrate on myself. The best way help me be me and regain my sense of worth, is to write. I’ll get back to the politics of living, once I’m in control of the policies of being.

I need to keep telling myself to write, where once it wasn’t forced, when I had less on my mind. I need to turn the darkness around the world and in my head into words, fiction or fact, just so long as I write. The longer I write, the more I feel myself again. At the very least, I’m a writer with depression, writing about being a writer with depression.

I get lost in personal longhand journals, where much of my offline self lives. But I can always find myself in my own words when I write at the typewriter and self-publish online, not because I’m addressing an audience, but for a simple fact that I can speak and stand a chance to be heard. When I talk to myself, my thoughts don’t penetrate the walls which contain me. When I write, I’ve broadcast something which is out there for others to listen to if they choose. Less immediacy reduces anxiety.

If I’ve not written much, when I can write a page and unburden a few words, I feel better. Sitting chain-smoking at this typewriter, with coffee and spirits within reach, I feel like a writer. I don’t want to leave here.ย It’s comforting to know I have this place, where I have editorial control, and where I can share thoughts with friends where time and distance are irrelevant.

Neurotribes and shadow selves

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There are three distinct personae which we all have: The person others see, the person we ourselves see, and the third person, the inner one which no-one sees. Therein lies the shadow self, one which I’ve embraced to deal with issues of my mind, and that I’ve researched, for myself and for my fiction. I’m exploring ‘Neurotribes’.

CCHRCCHR

Those of us with cracks covered with labels tend to flock together (it’s empathy with one’s own kind). Many of us don’t understand ourselves, but we feel most at ease in the company of other misfits. Some of us like being different, strange even (I prefer โ€œQueerโ€). Personally, I like most people โ€“ human and animal โ€“ and it’s the quirks and oddities of a person I find most interesting. I fall in love with personalities, what’s inside, in an asexual way, which means I don’t have to be sexually attracted to a person to love them.

My own mental health scouting badges are depression and anxiety (diagnosed and medicated), paranoia (goes well with social anxiety), bi-polarity and psychopathy (on the spectra and self-managed). I’ve written before of how the latter doesn’t mean I kill people (only in my fiction and imagination), but that it’s a tunnel-vision thing, with the psychopath able to concentrate on one task to the exclusion of all others. The only evidence I can offer, is my writing, and that in the past I’ve managed to cook a deep fat fryer on the hob, because I was cooking while my mind was almost totally on something else.

I’ve had multiple diagnoses of PTSD to make my inner head more interesting. My first badge was awarded after I was robbed at knife point in Mountsfield Park in Lewisham, a setting for many scenes in my stories, and my feeling of personal futility and vulnerability was what began my later alcoholic breakdown. My Grade 2 PTSD badge was a multiple award, after all that happened out on the streets. The most recent and permanent one, is the perpetual memories I have of everything.

The easiest way to deal with all of that, has been to write, (The Perpetuity of Memory was almost exclusively written while I was out on the road) to confront it and embrace it. The unknown is one of the greatest instinctive human fears, so those who explore more are less scared (Cyrus Song explains why cats have nine lives: it’s to do with curiosity).

Iโ€™ve explored and interrogated my inner self, to find that third person. I had to conclude that you can never be โ€˜youโ€™, because too many people place expectations on that person, including the one we think we know best: ourselves. We donโ€™t exist, because we canโ€™t find ourselves in worlds where we have to be someone else, for ourselves. Far from bringing us closer together, social media has made our world bigger and more lonely.

What I have easier access to than most, is the shadow self, formed as it is around all that we know to be wrong. There’s much which happened on the streets that I’ve not written about directly, but those experiences are in my fiction, which is why my anthology was described as โ€œA dark mirror to the human soulโ€ in a review.

We all have baggage we wish to leave at the door, and we all have scars. Some are better at hiding them than others, while some are proud of their marks, outside and in, like a good book. And just as a book shouldn’t be judged on its cover alone, neither do people deserve to be. It’s about getting to know them (all we need to do, is keep talking).

They’re not broken. They have a different operating system (more like Linux, when everyone else runs Windows). They are the cracked and the wondering, wandering. They are kintsukuroi (more beautiful for having been damaged). They are the Neurotribes.

Captain Mamba and Zaphod

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

In the beginning there was Douglas Adams and The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There was Pink Floyd and The Division Bell, and there was Keep Talking (AKA ‘Cyrus Song’), the track which samples Stephen Hawking. Then there was a book inspired by all of that, also called Cyrus Song. There was some other stuff too.

The original Hitch Hiker’s Guide became a trilogy in five parts (Douglas’ words), and Douglas wrote Young Zaphod Plays it Safe, a short story prequel, now only available in a rare, out-of-print hard cover compendium (which I’m fortunate to have a copy of). So to continue the tributes to an inspiration, I wrote a Cyrus Song ‘Bonus story’. It’s the story of an anti-hero – Captain Mamba – waiting under any pair of spectacles to beย discovered.

Alchemist LaoratoryThe Alchemist Laboratory by Kashuse (DeviantArt)

A YOUNG CAPTAIN PLAYS IT SAFE

It was homework which started this story: an assignment marked ‘F’, my initial; because I’d misplaced a decimal point and completely fluffed up a calculation. But it was that very decimal point which had landed me in detention, so I’d taken it with me, in a Petri dish liberated from the biology lab where I now sat again after school. The detention was planned, so that I could further my studies. I looked down at the little thing in the dish, as I wondered what to do next. It was moving around, now more elongated, like a comma.

This being a school science classroom I was sitting in, I was surrounded by equipment and paraphernalia which might better allow me to understand what it was I’d caught, but for the occasional glance from Big John. Mr Fowle was our biology tutor and a fine man, both in profession and less regimented theatres. A man of science, but with a wider mind, he was admired by his pupils, and it was actually quite a privilege to be in detention with him, of all teachers.

For a moment, I thought about simply talking to John about this little thing I’d caught. He was a science teacher after all. But even though I viewed him as a friend, he remained a teacher and my thoughts on the scurrying comma were perhaps outside even his broad mind, as they grew whimsical. So I decided to write them down.

With my biology homework corrected with the removal the rogue decimal point, I thought I could use the duration of the detention to tackle some other homework: English Literature. I needed to turn in an open-form essay or fiction piece of 5-6000 words.

I had what could just possibly be a previously undiscovered organism secreted on my person: What on earth might I be carrying? Or might it not be of this earth? The possibilities began to multiply, and I realised I needed to have a focus for the rest of the story, if I was to remain within the word count. It turns out I fell asleep at around this point.

โ€œFord.โ€ That’s me. โ€œMr Ford?โ€

โ€œYes, that’s me.โ€

โ€œYes, well done lad. Off you go.โ€

โ€œThank you sir.โ€

โ€œWhat for? Keeping you in detention? I’d rather not be here. No, in future, Mr Ford, beware decimal points and other mathematical indicators. Exercise caution also, with grammar and punctuation. Because the difference, Mr Ford, can be that between life and death. Think, Mr Ford. Think, before you speak or act. Open your eyes, then you might be made a prefect. But you have to get to sixth form first.โ€

‘Captain, my captain’ sprang to mind. I knew I should do well to heed his words.

Lewisham High Street is a long road. From school in New Cross, the road takes me past the station, with its bus depot, overground and DLR trains, then through the market and its fragrance – which could only ever be labelled ‘Lewisham’ – and into Catford. Sometimes I’ll walk the street and say hi to the Catford cat. Other times I’ll cut through Mountsfield Park. This particular time, I took a different diversion.

With Big John’s words in my head, I’d walked from school and thought about who I could speak to about this comma I’d found. I’d eliminated all the possibilities I could, but I was limited by means. It definitely moved of its own free will, so it was organic. But it was small. I hadn’t even been able to discern if it had legs. When I moved my spectacles between my eyes and the Petri dish, the best magnification I’d managed seemed to show the little thing floating.

Having no pets, I’d rarely paid attention to the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals) hospital in New Cross. I’d passed it many times and it had always just been there, of no use or interest to me at all. But I had an idea.

This being late in the day, there was no-one in the waiting room. I had to fill in a form at reception, which asked for my pet’s type, breed, gender and name. I wasn’t really comfortable with any living being being called a ‘pet’, but I’d never had one, so I just scrubbed the word out in a rebellious 14-year-old schoolboy way, then wondered why I’d done it. For the other questions, I simply answered ‘NA’, on the grounds of, I didn’t know what it was, so I hadn’t named it when it might have its own name, and did it matter what sex it was (even if it knew)?

โ€œMr Ford?โ€ That’s me. โ€œMr Ford, and Nah?โ€ I could see what she’d done there.

There’s always a mate at school who has a really fit, young-looking mum. I had no such friends whom I was aware of, least of all their mums. In any case, a school satchel is just as useful as a towel for a teenage traveller to carry about their person, arranged upon the lap before standing up. The MILF vet was the same height as me, which is not very. She had strawberry blonde hair, tied back from black-rimmed glasses. She was very pretty. She looked at her clipboard as I rearranged things in my satchel and retrieved the Petri dish. โ€œI’m Eve. Come with me please.โ€ Rare will be the schoolboy a certain way inclined, who doesn’t react to such words: A blush, snort, a guffaw, would perhaps be permissible in the circumstances, but a firm punch to my satchel contained mine.

Whichever way I looked at it, she was Eve: Forwards or backwards, her name was a palindrome. I followed Eve along a corridor and into a room, which wasn’t surprising. If it had led into Narnia, it might have been. But inside was as surprising to me as it would probably be to anyone else who’d never set foot in a veterinary laboratory, consulting room, or whatever it was. Inside the room were the usual things I might have expected to find, if I’d been in one before: An examination table with an overhead lamp, a portable ultrasound machine and so on. But there was also what looked like a scanning electron microscope and a mainframe computer.

It seemed as normal to Eve to be looking at a little scurrying thing in a dish, as I assumed it would if I’d had or been a dog or cat. She put the container down on the examination table and positioned the lamp over it. The lamp doubled as a magnifier, with a circular fluorescent tube surrounding a lens, which Eve peered through. Then she said something quite unexpected:

โ€œI’ve never seen anything like it.โ€ It was unexpected, because I assumed that as a vet, she’d seen most things.

โ€œWhat is it?โ€ I wondered.

โ€œI don’t know. It’s certainly alive.โ€ She continued to peer. โ€œIt’s moving, anyway. But I can’t see that it’s got any legs. Shall we take a closer look?โ€ I assumed she meant the electron microscope. This was confirmed when she walked towards it.

โ€œYes please,โ€ I said, perhaps a little too keenly placing myself next to her.

The electron microscope was more like some futuristic arcade game when it was switched on: A tiny camera operated by a joystick hovered around the Petri dish, now magnified so that we could clearly make out the shape and features of the little creature.

It was a metallic silver / black colour, and tubular, with rounded ends: Like a baguette. But not like a baguette at all, except in shape. But smooth, metallic and with a sort of translucent sheen. It was completely unlike a baguette. But as Eve panned in closer with the camera, we could see it was filled with something.

Running along both sides of the not-baguette was a series of what looked like portholes, all blacked out and recessed into the side of the creature: Perhaps these were breathing holes. The creature had markings too: red stripes, running along the sides, just above the belly. All the time, it was moving, but not by any visible means. We’d discounted legs, but the thing didn’t contract and expand, nor undulate, but still it slowly floated around, just above the surface of the dish. And it didn’t seem to be moving blindly: It didn’t hit walls then adjust its course, it seemed to know where it was going. Whether it knew where it was was another unanswered question. But it seemed to be sentient, and its movement allowed us to deduce which end was the front.

Eve moved the camera to what we’d now identified as the front of the creature, where we’d expect to find a mouth and eyes. Seeing the creature several times magnified, I could hardly believe that this was the little speck which had landed on my homework. And when Eve stopped the camera at the front of the thing, it became even more startling.

Around the top of the front of the thing (its head, we were assuming), was an apparently illuminated crescent shape, like a visor. If this was the creature’s eye, I wondered what spectra it could see in. I had to assume that the blue/green light was probably down to a chemical reaction, like that used by fireflies.

โ€œThis is absolutely fascinating,โ€ Eve finally said. โ€œWhere did you say you found it?โ€ Well actually, I hadn’t said where.

โ€œIt just appeared in my homework, on the page, like a comma.โ€ I really wished I’d thought of something more dramatic.

โ€œWas it any help with your homework?โ€

โ€œNo, I failed. But it made me resolve to look at things differently and check them over.โ€ That was pretty much what Big John had said to me at school. โ€œTo always think, before speaking or acting.โ€

โ€œThat’s a lot to get from an out-of-place punctuation mark.โ€ Which is true, but such a thing can completely change the meaning of something if it’s in the wrong place. So it’s worth checking. And here we were, checking, trying to find out what this particular comma was all about. Where did it come from? Where did it belong? What was its context? It wasn’t long before there were yet more questions.

Eve zoomed in on the creature’s crescent eye, so that the microscope camera was almost peering into the thing’s head, when in reality it was two centimetres away from something the size of a speck of dirt. The eye was semi-opaque, as though it was double-glazed, with a thin white mist between the layers; very much like the eye scales of a snake just before it sheds its skin, loosening the top layer from that underneath with a milky excretion.

โ€œIt looks like,โ€ I began, โ€œa snake’s eye just before a slough.โ€ I resisted the urge to punch my satchel again.

โ€œI was just thinking the same,โ€ Eve said. Great minds think alike. โ€œIt’s like there’s a milky excretion here.โ€ When you’re 14 years old, hearing an attractive lady say things like ‘milky excretion’ can cause one a moment in one’s own thoughts. โ€œLet’s see if there’s anyone at home, shall we?โ€ Was she proposing psychiatry?

Eve panned the camera in even closer, so that it was practically knocking on the front of the creature. If I wasn’t already writing a fiction assignment for English Literature, I definitely was from this point hence, because no-one would believe it to be real…

As Eve adjusted the focus on the microscope’s camera, we could make out what was behind the eyes of the creature. It wasn’t a creature at all; it was some sort of microscopic spacecraft. The visor was a screen, and behind the white mist was what would look like a bridge in any sci-fi film. There were three very comfortable-looking seats, like reclining easy chairs, facing what we now knew to be the window / screen. Around the perimeter of the bridge were various computer screens, displaying text and graphics we couldn’t make out. The hi-tech was juxtaposed though, by metal pipes, levers and analogue dials. Every now and then, one or more of the pipes would expel what looked like steam, like a steam train whistle. I wondered if we’d been able to hear what was going on, whether the pipes might be playing some sort of tune. I tried to imagine some retro-futuristic pipe organ, parping out a steam punk tune, like the five-tone greeting in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which this wasn’t yet.

Whatever this thing was, it could still be a man-made nano machine. If it was, then I probably shouldn’t know about it. Seeing as I did, I shouldn’t let on. The English Literature route was perfect for this recording of events.

Encounters with Unidentified Flying (or Floating) Objects have been categorised into five groups as close encounters of the first, second, third, fourth and fifth kind. When a person sees a UFO within 150 metres, it’s an encounter of the first kind. Given that we were about 150 micrometers away, we could tick that one off. When an encounter with a UFO in the sky or on the ground leaves evidence behind, such as scorch marks on the ground or indents etc., it’s of the second kind. Given that ours hadn’t stopped hovering just above the base of the dish, we hadn’t had one of those yet. When an encounter is with visible occupants inside the UFO, it’s of the third kind. Unless the aliens were invisible to us, we couldn’t tick that one off. Which is a slight paradox, because if there were aliens but they weren’t visible to us (through choice or otherwise), would that count? Anyway, assuming any extraterrestrials wouldn’t look like recliner chairs (unless they were disguised; another paradox), then we hadn’t seen any that we were aware of. The fourth kind involves the person being taken and experimented on inside the alien craft. At that point, we wouldn’t fit, on account of scale. The fifth kind involves direct communication between aliens and humans. This, I assumed to be impossible, even if there were aliens present. Yet somehow we went straight from first base to third.

Somewhere among the mangles and parps of the pipes and levers, a door opened.

At this point, I should like to insert a note to Mrs Walker, my English tutor, and to Mr Harmer, my other English teacher: One is Language and the other is Literature, and together, they taught me a lot of what I know. So:

Dear Lois and John,

Among the many things you taught me, was to imagine a situation: A situation as complex and fun as I’d liked. Then you told me to mix it up more, to make it not incomprehensible but fantastical, whimsical, and perhaps odd. Finally, you taught me how to translate what I see into the simple medium of words alone, through prose; to make my writing not implausible but just about believable. I learned how to use plot devices and all sorts of other ways to manipulate words and the thoughts they convey, so that each carries a part of an image. You even inspired me to write my own literary statement in the form of a challenge:

Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit: How do you escape? Well, you could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination.

This is what happened next:

To use onomatopoeia, there was a ‘whoosh’ sound, as the door opened. Then a snake fell out and onto the bridge. As the doors opened, a snake was standing, with more than half its body lifted from the ground. Then it just fell in through the doors. It raised itself up again, then moved around on the bridge, bumping into a lever and clambering over a pipe. And then it sat in the central chair. Its head rested well below the headrest, its back extended down the back of the chair and along the seat, so that its tail end dangled over the edge. I remember my father’s barber placing a wooden plank across a similar chair to prop me up for a haircut. And then the snake seemed to fall asleep.

I’m familiar with snakes in the wild and even though this one was microscopic, I had to rely on the limits of my personal knowledge. This one was a grey brown colour. Assuming the seat to be seat-sized, I put the snake at about four feet in length. Not knowing where it came from, nor its size if it were in my dimension, it could be any one of a number of snakes I knew about. It was only when the snake’s mouth drooped open, as though it was snoring, that I was almost sure.

โ€œIt’s a fuc.. flipping black mamba Doctor!โ€ I should have left it there. โ€œYou are a doctor, aren’t you?โ€ What I meant was, ‘I really hope someone can tell me what’s going on here,’ and not, ‘Are you a fraud?’

โ€œYes, I am. My PhD was in human psychology, but I branched out into other kinds of people.โ€ I must have looked confused for a second. โ€œAnimal people. So much easier to understand.โ€ How did she know? โ€œAnd yes, that is a fucking black mamba.โ€

โ€œWhat’s it doing here though?โ€

โ€œI don’t know. You found it.โ€

โ€œWell, I did. But I didn’t mean to. It was accidental. It was what got me detention.โ€

โ€œBut isn’t it also what brought you here? Think differently, young man.โ€ I was trying my best. Maybe I should just submit this English Literature assignment as a poem. ‘Snake in a baguette / Don’t know what it’s up to / Cos we haven’t spoken yet.’ Because it was about to get stranger still.

Another black mamba, kind of walked onto the bridge of the ship. The second one didn’t fall out of the door like the first. Instead, there was another ‘whoosh’ sound, and the second snake moved onto the bridge, with about half of its body raised from the floor, so that at full size, it would be about two feet tall. It then sat, in the same way the first snake had, on the seat to the latter’s left. But this second snake didn’t fall asleep. Instead, it started moving its jaws as it looked at the other snake next to it. I’m familiar with snakes adjusting and stretching their jaws prior to eating prey, but black mambas have never been known to practice cannibalism. In fact, if I’d been able to hear, I might go so far as to say the second snake might have been talking.

โ€œDo you want to listen in?โ€ Eve asked me. Of course I did. Could we? Should we?

โ€œErm,โ€ I stammered, โ€œyes, please.โ€ The pleading was really unnecessary. โ€œHow though?โ€

โ€œCan you keep a secret?โ€ Well, I wasn’t going to say ‘no’, was I?

โ€œYes, what is it?โ€

โ€œWell, if I tell you, it’ll no longer be a secret.โ€ Was that a threat?

โ€œYou kind of have, Doctor,โ€ I reminded her. The Doctor smiled, which was reassuring, I think. It was one of those double-meaning smiles, like a newsreader at the end of a report they’re not sure how they should react to.

โ€œCall me Eve. Well, it would be our secret then, Mr Ford.โ€ I wondered if I should ask her to call me by my first name, but she hadn’t asked what it was.

โ€œSo, how can we listen to the snakes? But more importantly, how the fuc… flipping hell did a black mamba get that small, and in what looks like a space ship?โ€

โ€œIf we can speak to them, we might be able to find out.โ€

โ€œYes, but how doctor?โ€

โ€œThis,โ€ she said, then stood up. She walked to the computer in the corner and pressed some keys, then fished something from a drawer and returned, trailing an electric cable behind her. She sat back next to me and plugged the cable into the electron microscope. โ€œThis,โ€ she said again, โ€œis something I’ve been working on, on the side.โ€

โ€œWhat is it?โ€

โ€œWell, it’s at an early stage: Experimental. I don’t know if it’ll ever have a practical application, least of all one I might be willing to use.โ€

โ€œWhy so?โ€

โ€œBecause it’s a prototype for a universal translation device. I’ve called it the Babel fish.โ€

โ€œAnd it works?โ€

โ€œGenerally speaking. It needs a lot of tweaking for individual species, but as a concept, it somehow seems to work. If you look at the microscope’s camera,โ€ which I did, โ€œyou’ll see there’s a tiny microphone attached.โ€ She pointed, and there was. โ€œSo, theoretically, with this plugged into the computer and with the Babel fish program running, the microphone should pick up what the snake, or alien, is saying, and translate it for us.โ€

โ€œWhat about talking back?โ€ I wondered.

โ€œIt’s not something I’d ever planned to do, but it does work both ways. So if we speak, the microphone will pick us up. And then how it works becomes a bit confusing.

โ€œWhy?โ€

โ€œBecause with the few animals I’ve listened to, they’ve always had voices which reflected their personalities, of course. But also, which bely their physiology.โ€

โ€œHow do you mean?โ€

โ€œA mouse, for instance, sounds squeaky. I’ve never deliberately spoken back, but when I first heard that, I giggled at the stereotype being confirmed, and the mouse must have heard me. It looked startled. And I imagined that if I’d heard a smaller thing as higher pitched, perhaps the mouse heard bigger me as a really deep voice. But I don’t know how the Babel fish actually does that. It’s kind of a paradox, like never really knowing what your own voice sounds like.โ€

โ€œNor, by extension,โ€ I offered, โ€œdoes anyone truly know what they look like.โ€

โ€œEh?โ€

โ€œBecause we only ever see ourselves in mirror image, or in photographs. It is impossible for us to view ourselves directly. Ergo, as we really are, and are seen by other people.โ€

โ€œThat’s pretty deep, Mr Ford.โ€

โ€œYes, sorry.โ€

โ€œDon’t apologise. Like I said, think differently. So, back to the snakes?โ€ I’d momentarily forgotten, in the presence of an attractive woman old enough to be someone my age’s mum, about two potential extraterrestrial snakes in a microscopic spacecraft, under the microscope.

Eve flicked a switch, then a sound came from some speakers on the computer. It was a high-pitched rasping sound, almost a shrill whistle. As Eve adjusted some controls, the shrieks became a voice:

โ€œWake up.โ€ By the way the mouth was moving, this was the second snake speaking to the first, who was still asleep. โ€œWake up,โ€ it said again. โ€œWe’re here.โ€

โ€œWhat!?โ€ The first snake now woke with a start. โ€œWhat? Where?โ€

โ€œHere,โ€ said the second snake. โ€œHere, wherever you programmed the ship to come to. Well, we’re there.โ€

โ€œAre we?โ€ The first snake adjusted himself in his chair, peering forward at the screen, and our camera. โ€œWhat’s that?โ€ I assumed he was talking about the camera.

โ€œI don’t know. I thought you would.โ€

โ€œWhy would I?โ€

โ€œBecause these are the co-ordinates you programmed into the ship.โ€

โ€œBut that’s not supposed to be here.โ€

โ€œWell, what were you expecting?โ€

โ€œThis is supposed to be a quiet country spot. There should be humans around.โ€

โ€œBut you said yourself, it’s a quiet country spot. If it’s secluded, might there actually not be people there?โ€

โ€œWell, I suppose. But I was hoping for a little village or something. You know, where there’d just be one or two people around. Not that thing.โ€ He gestured with his snout at the screen.

โ€œDo you think we should speak now?โ€ I said.

โ€œWhat the fuck was that!?โ€ I heard a sharp, whistling rasp: The alien snake had heard me.

โ€œI think he heard you just fine,โ€ Eve confirmed.

โ€œWhat!? Who is that?โ€ hissed the snake. Eve switched off the Babel fish.

โ€œSo?โ€ she wondered. So did I.

โ€œI don’t know, Doctor. They can hear us. Are we not breaking all sorts of rules?โ€

โ€œProbably.โ€ That was very carefree. โ€œBut it looks like they’ve made a mistake. If they didn’t mean to be here, shouldn’t we help them out?โ€

โ€œWell,โ€ I thought, โ€œmaybe. But without knowing we’re here. I guess it’s too late for that.โ€

โ€œI’d say so. So the least we can do is help them. We’ll say no more and perhaps they don’t either. That part we’ll have to trust to faith. Whatever else we pick up in any conversation will just remain our secret.โ€

โ€œWell, I was going to write about it. But for an English Literature assignment. Fiction.โ€

โ€œPerfect. Just so long as no-one believes you. Shall we get back to the snakes?โ€ Eve switched the Babel fish on again. The snakes were still talking:

โ€œSo why did you only want to see one or two humans?โ€

โ€œBecause then we could’ve just buzzed them, you know?โ€

โ€œNo?โ€

โ€œYou know, float menacingly in front of them in the sky. Make the ship do some hoots and parps, flash a few lights. Then just fuck off.โ€

โ€œWhy?โ€

โ€œWell, who’s going to believe them? One or two people, in a secluded place. The only ones to witness a UFO. Everyone would think they were cranks. It’s the best way to study them, so they don’t take us too seriously.โ€

โ€œThey’re joyriding,โ€ I said.

โ€œWho is that?โ€ said one of the snakes.

โ€œWell it’s not God,โ€ said another. โ€œWe’ve pretty much discounted him if that’s a universal translation device we’re hearing. We’re disobeying the lessons from The Tower of Babel, where God allegedly knocked it down, because he didn’t want people understanding all languages. With language barriers in place as a defence mechanism, God was maintaining the rules of confusion and misunderstanding though…โ€

โ€œWell, that’s what our books say. But what’s that voice?โ€

โ€œWhat?โ€ Eve asked.

โ€œAnd that one?โ€ hissed the snake.

โ€œI’ve read about it,โ€ I said. โ€œAliens, they go around looking for secluded places on Earth, where they can put on a display for a few people.โ€

โ€œBut why?โ€

โ€œWell,โ€ I continued, โ€œas this snake here said, just to spook people. But not too many. A bit of fun, showing off. But I always thought it could be something more. I mean, if they were appearing to a lot of people, that could cause all sorts of problems. By keeping it within a select group, only a few people will take the story of the whole thing seriously. It’s a containment mechanism. Like the Babel fish, I suppose. I mean, if universal translation was suddenly freely available to everyone, that would cause all sorts of trouble. And that’s why I’ll keep this secret, so as not to spoil things. So my theory on so-called joyriders is that what we see is only a part of something greater, which we may not yet understand.โ€

โ€œThat is both very liberal and deep, Mr Ford.โ€ This wasn’t Eve’s voice. This was the rasping whistle from the Babel fish. I turned to look at the screen, directly at the first snake.

โ€œThank you,โ€ I said. I didn’t know what else to say.

โ€œYou are an interesting specimen, Mr Ford. You may benefit your species yet.โ€ Which was kind of what John Fowle had said. The truth behind this story may be something discussed with school prefect peers, in a secret society, such as that of The Dead Poets. To anyone outside, the forbidden knowledge was just a work of fiction.

โ€œCaptain,โ€ I said, that just seeming to be the most appropriate way to address him.

โ€œHuman,โ€ he replied. Which threw up many questions. He referred to me by my name when he first addressed me. Then when I addressed him as ‘captain’, he called me ‘human’. Did this impart an assumed rank? Scholars might ponder over this in years to come if it wasn’t written as a work of fiction. The captain continued: โ€œWe are here by accident, as I believe you have gathered. I think we made a mistake with a decimal point in our co-ordinates.โ€

โ€œAre you aware of your size though?โ€ I couldn’t think of any other way to point out that might be the error.

โ€œMy what?โ€ I may have touched a nerve.

โ€œWell, we’re looking at you through an electron microscope.โ€

โ€œIs that what it is? We thought that was a telescope.โ€

โ€œI think there’s been a miscalculation of scales.โ€

โ€œI think you may be right, Mr Ford. A decimal point would seem to have caused me all these problems. Thank you for pointing it out.โ€

โ€œI’m sure you’d have worked it out.โ€

โ€œNot without the benefit of your perspective. Can we agree that it might be wise to keep this between ourselves?โ€

โ€œWe’d kind of agreed that already between ourselves, captain.โ€ I looked at Eve, who was smiling at some inner news.

โ€œYou won’t tell my father?โ€

โ€œI wouldn’t know who your father is.โ€

โ€œGood. Mum’s the word then.โ€ Eh? Mum: Mother who? Mother Earth? More speculation for later English Literature assignments.

โ€œKeep learning, Mr Ford. For then you will truly learn.โ€ From a snake, it didn’t seem so strange, when the snake was some sort of alien life form I couldn’t previously imagine, but never now dismiss.

โ€œSo what now?โ€

โ€œNow, we go home.โ€ Which really summed things up nicely.

And we speak no more of it, except with those in a secret club who know the truth. The Captain Mamba Society? It was a great beginning to end a story with. But I had a few things to attend to first.

โ€œHow do we get you home?โ€

โ€œJust let us go, out of this thing you’ve got us in.โ€

โ€œYou’re free to fly away.โ€

โ€œWell, we need a bit of a push, see? When we launched, we had a thing which shot us off at speed.โ€

โ€œAnd that’s back where you came from?โ€

โ€œNo, it’s the engine of the ship. We need a bit of a launch assist, seeing as we miscalculated our size a bit.โ€

โ€œSo how?โ€

โ€œAt your size, just a good push should get us going.โ€

โ€œYes, but what do I push?โ€

โ€œDo you have windows here?โ€

โ€œYes, we do.โ€

โ€œWell, what’s outside?โ€

โ€œEr, outside?โ€

โ€œWell done. Well, that’s where we want to go. And how do we get there?โ€

โ€œThrough the window?โ€

โ€œWell done. Think one step beyond, Mr Ford.โ€

โ€œYou literally, want me to throw you out of the window?โ€

โ€œUnless you have a better idea?โ€ Thinking outside, inside, and all around, I didn’t. I had to let this moment go.

So it was Eve in fact, perhaps sensing my newfound attachment, who picked up that Petri dish, opened the window, and threw Captain Mamba, his crew mate and their ship, out into the world to make their own way home.

โ€œDo you think,โ€ I wondered to Eve, โ€œthey’ll make the return journey?โ€ That was a very loaded question, and one which begged for a greater word allowance on an English Literature assignment. โ€œThere are so many possibilities.โ€

โ€œYou’re the space cadet, Mr Ford. I’m sure you’ll make of it all what you will. Keep what you know between the friends you trust. Don’t abuse it for personal gain. You have a responsibility. I think you’ll make a fine prefect.โ€ So, a girl called Eve had advised me to guard the words which the serpent had given us. That would make quite a good story.

I had the remainder of Lewisham to traverse before I got home. By now, it was dark. I walked beneath the street lamps and the Catford cat, as the park was closed. I’d write up my notes before school the next day. If what I’d written was judged to be a good fiction piece, then perhaps the misplaced comma which had caused me failure before, might get me recognition in a field besides biology.

โ€œYou’re late, Dixon.โ€ It was my dad, tuned into my frequency.

โ€œYeah, sorry dad. I got talking after detention.โ€

โ€œWell, I won’t ask who to. That would shatter my illusion that you might have done something amazing.โ€ He’d told me I had it in me, and now I couldn’t tell him.โ€œOne day,โ€ dad continued, โ€œyou’ll be really late, Dixon.โ€

โ€œWhat?โ€

โ€œLate, as in the late Dixon Ford. Well, when you are, try to be remembered.โ€

โ€œCaptain, my captain.โ€

ยฉ Steve Laker, 2017.

star-wars-force-awakens-captain-phasma-face-hat-16.jpg

Cyrus Song (a story inspired by Douglas Adams), is available now.

And there’s a second prequel short story, Of Mice and Boys in 1984.

It’s worse than that, he’s dead Jim

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’m at an age when I’m losing friends of a similar vintage (conceived in the 60s, born in the 70s…), and it’s always a reminder of how brief and fragile our time here is. I believe we’re only truly gone when we’re forgotten, and today I saw a sign which said I’m right. Yesterday would have been my friend Jim’s birthday, and like many of that era, we drifted apart when we grew up. Today he told me he was still around.

StarTrekkin Spock

To rouse them from their sleep occasionally, I post on my dead friends’ Facebook timelines and wish them happy birthday. I did it yesterday, with an old punk brother, and told him I’d raise a glass of Merrydown to him (like many bored teenagers in a park, that and Mad Dog 20/20 were our liquid entertainment).

On some matters of life, I have my own answers to the big questions: What happens when we leave this Earth? It’s perhaps wishful and wistful thinking, but I have it in my mind that we don’t actually notice our moment of passing, a bit like how we fall asleep every night: Whenever we wake from sleep, we know we’ve slept, and we remember being awake before that. But we never recall the moment we pass from wakefulness to sleep. I think (hope) dying is a bit like that.

At a quantum science level, when we pass away we inhabit a new universe we created at a catalytic point in time. It happens every moment, where alternative universes are created with every decision and action we don’t take. Think of a path, with high walls on either side. You reach a point on that path where it splits in two. Let’s say you take the left-hand path. You can’t see the path on the right (the one you didn’t take), but does it still exist? It’s a paradox, but it explains quantum alternative universes. And it requires faith.

So when we die, another life is created. The one we left continues to exist, where our loved ones mourn (or celebrate) our death. As the departed, we live on in a different universe, where we take on altered form. It’s not the physical one we know in life, as we have no body. It’s a spiritual entity with a molecular structure which allows us to move around freely, including through solid objects (a super-solid). In fact in the afterlife, we’re free of the physical restrictions and limits we knew on Earth. Out there, we’re free to explore the universe for eternity.

This is where I believe Heaven and Hell are. I think they’re personal human constructs. For someone like me with a thirst for knowledge, the world after this is a personal heaven. It’s a theme I explored in my first novel, ‘The Paradoxicon,’ which I wrote when I lived on the streets. Others might fear knowledge just as humans fear the unknown, so the same place is their imagining of an overwhelming hell.

I often think my auntie Margaret is still here, exploring and learning in her personal utopia. Certainly when there’s anything royal on TV (she was a huge royalist), I get a chill. Margaret died at two years older than I am now. She passed before my kids were born (she’d have doted on them), and before the internet. Her royal research was conducted in libraries and national institutions. She’d have loved the modern world for what it afforded her in technology, and I think she does, because she’s convinced me she’s still around. I feel her. I’m happy to be her guide in this next world, just as she was a mentor to the teenage me in my punk and Merrydown days.

Cider wraps up the story in a funny twist of my world earlier, when I was in Tesco. I got a feeling my old punk mate Jim was there, when the guy in front of me was buying Merrydown cider. Cider drinkers usually go for Strongbow, so another brand was worthy of personal note. They’re only gone when they’re forgotten, but when we remember, sometimes they visit us. They still walk among us. You just have to keep your eyes open to notice.

It’s all personal faith of course, not the religious kind, but a hope that the way I’ve worked things out isn’t far off reality. I can’t entertain thoughts of nothingness (my own personal hell), so perhaps what’s in my head is a comforting coping mechanism. But Jim gave me reassurance today that there’s more to life out there where they are. I know Margaret and him will have read this as I wrote it, silently and invisibly guiding me as I edited. I just have a feeling. It’s not my place to share this on Jim’s Facebook wall, but I know he knows about it.

As this post passed through a couple of draft stages, it gave me time to think about something else. The punk and my auntie reminded me we should cherish the people we have in this world: they are our connections to the past, and we never know when that will be gone for good. We can always dance if you want to.

marian-poemCharles Hanson Towne, from Marian Solomon, My Aunt the WAC blog

In a continuation of the theme, ‘Are Friends Emojis?‘ is a short story about what happens to all those Facebook accounts when the authors depart, and it’s one of 20 stories in my second anthology, ‘The Unfinished Literary Agency,’ available now in paperback.