The mended heart of Catford

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Where you’re from is not necessarily where you were born or spent your childhood, but where your heart is, and where you feel at home. Despite a comfortable upbringing in the country, I feel I’m more from London, specifically the borough of Lewisham, and Catford, SE6. That’s where my heart misses a beat…

catford-cat-702x336The Catford Cat (from LoveCatford)

At my recent benefits assessment, I was asked when my depression was originally diagnosed. That would be in 2011, after I was robbed at knifepoint in Mountsfield Park in Lewisham, a place otherwise full of pleasant memories. And in a way, even the attack wasn’t all bad. It was the start of everything going wrong and me losing all I had, but it redistributed people to where they better belonged.

A lot has happened in the last seven years and much has changed, most of all me. The last few weeks have been hectic, as I’ve been assessed by life and dealt with more changes, while making peace with where I am.

The benefits assessor asked me many probing questions, including what fuels my depression now. Mainly it’s guilt. I feel guilty about being a drunken, abusive, narcissistic sociopathic monster, and all the upset I caused so many people, during and after; most of all my long-suffering ex-wife and my children, but also my parents, forced to kick me out on the streets when I became unmanageable at the last chance saloon. That was the greatest act of bravery on their part, but the world didn’t want me the way I was. On the streets I’d either die like that or get better. As it was, I was a Tory. But as some of my more liberal friends have observed, I was very sick.

Mum stopped watching Pointless when I was on the streets, because we used to watch it together. When I stayed at my parents’ last week, after helping them around London for dad’s latest assessment, we watched Pointless together again. Dad’s doing well, so much so that I can write about it now that we’re seeing an improvement.

Long story short, he had suspected hydrocephalus, requiring a surgical drain of fluid which had built up around his cerebellum. He ended up with a severe infection which hospitalised him for three weeks, then had intravenous antibiotics administered by a district nurse at home for three months. He was very sick indeed.

When I met mum and dad for lunch before our trip to London, the first thing which struck me was how dad’s face matched his jumper. It was light brown in colour, where before there was nothing but grey. The last time I saw him, he was confined – physically and mentally – to his armchair. Even though he’s still largely confined to a wheelchair, he’s getting his mind back and he’s starting to walk short distances. He says he wakes up now and looks forward to the day, where before he was waking up and not knowing where he was, only to realise he wasn’t dead and that another day threatened.

After a day of trundling then watching TV together, my dad said it was great to have me around, because he knew that I was now. It was great to be there, spending time with my parents now that so much has changed for all of us (and brought all but my obstinate sister closer). Before I went to bed that night, I apologised about all that had gone before, when I was a Tory. “That’s all in the past,” mum said. If only they were.

The last time I saw the kids, I made a heartfelt apology to my ex-wife. “What for?” She knows of course, but she’s speaking from an over-it position, where I can’t get over it. I don’t swan around in life, happy with where I’ve got to. I spend every day feeling guilty about everything I did when I was drunk, looking at the little I have but glad to be here (alive), and glad that everyone else is in a better place. Except me.

Which ought to be enough for my remaining detractors (friends who are very much no longer, or still Tories), but they won’t rest until I’m gone. Even then I’m familiar with the technique of haunting. While I’m still here, I’ve changed into something those people don’t recognise.

Now I’m a left-wing liberal socialist, embracing diversity and all the colour and variety of life, music, art, culture, history, and personal identity you find in the kind of place where I’m at home. I’m an ageing punk, but from the days when Carnaby Street was all independent clothes, records and accessories shops. Now I’m a bit queer.

Home was once a country to be proud of, when the London Olympics showed the world what the UK could be. Now we’re a nation divided by fascist politicians, but the resistance is coming soon, on the streets where my heart beats.

I’m squared with the people who matter in my life, my family and the friends who stuck around and forgave me, even if I can’t. As for the rest, I don’t care if they love or hate me: If they love me, I have a place in their heart. If they hate me, I trouble their mind.

I’m from Catford after all.

peace-rainbow
‘I love my hands!’ (Academy of Ancient Reflexology)

 

Courtney Manson by Warhol

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Just lately, while I’ve been writing and growing a pile of work in progress, I’ve been mucking around with The Gimp: Not of the Pulp Fiction kind, but an open-source alternative to Photoshop (and better).

Marylin Manson

I’ve also been playing a lot of poker with my coaching project and kid sister, Courtney (a natural, very much the journeyman player nowadays, and soon to be staked online). We get talking over our games, and it gives me the opportunity to open some sometimes-blinkered eyes to other things in the world.

Although I value the sciences, I believe the arts and humanities are equally important for a greater understanding of the variables in life. Sometimes then, I’ll explain a near-future possibility in simple science terms, and I’ll open an eye.

Other times, I’ll talk about my thoughts on-moment, sometimes poker-related and others just completely surreal, abstract ponderations: The kind of thing to get two poker players who like to share a reefer really into a game.

And by now, the gimp’s probably sleeping. Well, I guess I’d better go wake him.

At the poker table the other night, I mentioned that my sister has quite an iconic look in some of her online profile pictures. I thought she’d look good colourised, to go with her mind. Like mine, it’s fractured, and I could perhaps separate the screaming colours and turn it into something like Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe.

Courtney Cyan     Courtney Green

Courtney Orange     Courtney Pink

The Courtney I know is more Manson than Monroe. I share a birthday with Duncan Jones and she shares a name with Kurt Cobain. We met on the streets and that’s family just as good as any by related blood. She’s pretty cool, and the story which follows was an attempt at any life in 1000 words, a few years ago.

In the final period before the execution of an inmate on death row, he is offered a special last meal.”

MECHANICAL MANACLE

How soon is now, Morrissey wondered. The Smiths asked, The Clash happened, The Angelic Upstarts cried for last night (another soldier), then came The Stranglers and The Damned: The History of the World, Part 1.

Courtney was lost. Kurt was lost. No more smells like teen spirit. No Hole, or Babes in Toyland. Faith no More, no more. Everyone and everything was gone. All that remained was her and the ticking clock on her wrist, telling a time which had ceased to exist. Everything can change, suddenly and forever. For Courtney, it had, and it was.

All she wanted to know was, when is now? She yearned to know when she was. This was her third and final wish but she dare not speak it, for as soon as a wish is broadcast, it is granted, by a star. Or a binary system: then you get two wishes come true, for the price of two.

The first wish was for an end to all conflict and hunger in the world: that was easy. The second was that her mum and dad hadn’t got married. That was simple too, but now Courtney didn’t exist.

The story of a life which no longer happened started just a short while from now. In the very near future, a war to end all wars is going to happen. It starts when a young girl makes a wish.

Every night, as she drifts off to sleep, Courtney tries to imagine a world with no conflict. A place where people don’t fight. In a dream, the answer came to her: warring factions can be united against a common foe.

And so, “They” came to be. They are all that is unknown to Courtney, but she sought them in dreams and they came to her. They explained things in very simple terms, but in a language which Courtney didn’t yet understand. At the time, she didn’t realise this. So when a voice which was alien to her asked if her first wish be granted, she answered that it should.

It came to be known as The War of Words. It was a conflict waged in a global theatre. It wasn’t a physical war but one based in dreams: a psychological war of intelligence. They won.

Neither of the opposing sides on earth survived. Where once east and west were in conflict, now there were no battles. There was no-one to fight them. They didn’t discriminate: the foe against which the previously warring factions of earth fought, defeated all other sides. People simply didn’t wake up. They bore no physical injuries and passed quietly.

Courtney’s parents perished in the war. Her second wish didn’t need to be vocalised because it was granted as a product of the first. Now she wished that she could take back what she had done. She wished that she could be transported back to a time before her parents had started to drift apart; perhaps to the birthday when they’d given her a fine, gold antique watch.

The watch was a solid weight on Courtney’s young wrist. At times, it was an encumbrance. On occasion, it was a reassuring tie or tug. The importance of the timepiece was impressed upon her young mind as soon as it was placed around her arm.

It was a family heirloom, fashioned in the past, but futuristic in appearance. The detail was exquisite: clearly the product of dextrous old hands. The strap was formed of alternate links made from gold and platinum, to produce a two-tone bling curfew tag. The outer body of the casing was also cast in gold. The watch face was ebony and the hour, minute and second hands were fine slivers of ivory.

Within the main face were four other dials: two chronometers measuring seconds in tenths and hundredths respectively; a completely separate 24-hour clock face, with its own hour, minute and second hands; and a dial displaying the date of the month, with a smaller still dial within it, displaying the month. All of the dials were analogue and their numerals were embossed into the black wood face with platinum leaf. The workings – the actual clockwork mechanisms – were visible on top of the watch face, rather than being obscured by it, with just the protection of the watch’s flawless glass screen. The skills of the creator were visible through a transparent yet impenetrable sky, as the mechanisms danced like a miniature fairground.

The watch dated from a time when trade in ivory was legal. The remnants of one of many extinct species, it now ticked not towards something, but away from the existential death of humankind and all other life on their planet. The craftsmanship of the watch might mean that it was the last relic of humanity, long after Courtney’s body had disappeared in time.

The watch had no visible means of winding, despite the fact that it was clearly clockwork. There was no obvious source of power, yet the watch generated warmth as Courtney wore it. It were as though she was wearing a miniature steam-powered structure in perpetual motion: an automaton, which must house mechanical components of microscopic proportions.

Would you like this wish to be granted?” said a voice, from somewhere. Somewhere else, someone said, “Yes”.

Courtney blinks as though waking from sleep, as her surroundings become clearer. She’s at a child’s birthday party. Is it hers? She looks down at her arms: there is no steam-powered fairground. She can hear her parents in the background. Through the noise of the party, it’s hard to tell if they’re screaming with laughter, rage, or both. Courtney decides simply to join in her own party.

It was after the last guests had left when Courtney’s parents gave her the watch. They explained in words which Courtney thought she understood, the importance of the timepiece which she now wore.

If Courtney had only one wish in her life, it would be for things to stay exactly like this.

© Steve Laker, 2017

My second collection of surreal, horror and science fiction short stories is available in paperback.

The example of the death row inmate can be viewed as a metaphor for the life of an average person, condensing the very essence of existence into a customary prison ritual. For an average person who is not incarcerated, the last meal can be equated to the trivialities of daily affairs and the substance of life in general. Despite the apparent acknowledgement of mortality, which is effectively a death sentence as much as that of the inmate’s, albeit a prolonged one and preceded by a rather elaborate performance, the person yet remains firmly invested in the last meal that is life.”

That’s what me and the kid sis had worked out, so we carried on playing poker.

Star Trekkin’ away from Jeff

THE WRITER’S LIFE

When does life actually end? When we stop breathing and our heart stops beating, when our brain dies, or when we’re forgotten, or no longer loved? An hour spent randomly clicking around Wikipedia is never time wasted. It’s a well-known almost-fact that all articles on Wikipedia eventually lead back to philosophy. In fact the theory itself is further recursive with its own Wiki entry.

I’m finding that self-curated tours around the internet, armed with some common sense and a curious mind, can be quite fulfilling. It’s a world where you can go virtually anywhere, with little regard for safety, yourself, or others. It’s a universe of ideas, and full of parallels with the land of the living (undead). Bidding my imaginary room mate (Jeff) a pleasant evening, I headed out earlier onto the internet and into what’s on my parallel mind.

Canteen1Banthapedia

According to the theory of fictional realism, everything which has been written or imagined already exists. At the quantum level, every reality which was a possibility but which didn’t become reality (to the observer), became real and actual in a parallel universe. It’s an idea which makes quantum computers able to open portals to new dimensions and invite demons into our world, but for now, I was just concerned with the virtual universe and microcosm of human existence which is the World Wide Web.

(One of those little QI-type facts you pick up and never forget: The World Wide Web was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who gave it away for free (imagine how different the world would be if it had been capitalised from the start. No, don’t). The story (perhaps apocryphal) goes that the prefix before any URL would be an abbreviation of “The Internet Machine,” which is of course TIM. Berners-Lee – a modest man – resisted this and instead suggested WWW for World Wide Web, which we still use today. But it’s a contradiction: when spoken “WWW” has three times as many syllables as the words it seeks to abbreviate. I don’t know if it’s all true or not, but it does no-one any harm to assume it is.)

Among all the fake news and the hacking of democracy, the internet still serves as a crucible for all human knowledge. There are holes, dents and bits missing from the universal encyclopedia, but that’s further reflection of the collective hands of the one race who made it.

Unable to go out much in my physical world, I thought I’d broaden my virtual horizons. The first thing I happened upon could easily be my transport in that virtual universe, as it was never built and always remained a dream.

Dornier Do X future imagining

Based on the Dornier Do X sea plane, this was a larger future imagining. I’m no physicist but the wings would have to extend way off the sides of my monitor and have six or eight propeller engines each. Still, it’s a romantic idea. I assumed such a splendidly redundant thing was at least plausible, and it only takes imagination to jump on board a big yellow bird: Sesame Street meets Transformers.

Our leviathan landed on a lake, where I found another place which never fulfilled its intended purpose: Fort Montgomery on Lake Champlain was built after the American War of Independence, on the border with British Canada to protect against British invasion. It was discovered by the British when they found it had been built on their side of the border. It was subsequently abandoned and became known as “Fort Blunder,” which kind of sums up the whole British colonialism and latter American imperialism we witness today: Incompetence, written all over the rest of mankind’s history (a bit like war).

fort-montgomery-16-930x620

Landing close to water back on the real world, I saw a sea lion in a world created by humans. I’d normally dismiss anything which exploits an animal for human entertainment, but this guy seems to turn the whole thing on its head (he perhaps has with connections with Lake Champlain):

Assuming the keepers’ calls aren’t connected to any past aversion technique, this is a perfect demonstration of assembled intelligence levels. In Cyrus Song, some of the zoo animals are grateful they’re there, because they get food and shelter, and they can take the piss out of humans.

The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy noted that Earth was “Mostly harmless.” Perhaps an addendum: “A bit like America: Nice, but full of humans.”

Fuck you

Humans are capable of beautiful dreams and horrible nightmares. All we need to do is keep talking, and listening. Everything that’s happened, and much which didn’t, remains in parallel universes created when someone had the idea. Life ends when we stop thinking.

Random thought: Fairground ghost train + pinball table = roller coaster.

 

The real human lending library

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Everyone happens in a place, and if I were to put my finger on where I became a writer, it would be McDonald’s. When I first found myself homeless through drinking, I’d spend my days there, eventually becoming a bit of a fixture.

Seeing a solitary figure in the same place every day, scribbling in a note book, people were naturally curious, and it wasn’t long before I was relating my story to small groups. Mine is a cautionary tale of the dangers of addiction, but which led me into a life I’d never have known if I hadn’t been thrown into it. I’m part of the human library.

Human libraryDeccan Chronicle

I made a lot of friends and lived a lot of life on the streets, so when people started asking me what I’d do with all those notes I was making, I said I might one day turn them into short stories, and maybe publish a book.

This all leads to The Human Lending Library, an entity which I thought fictitious because I’d made it up, along with The Unfinished Literary Agency. I’m re-posting the story below because someone recently prodded me to say that there really is a human lending library, where people borrow people instead of books, and the borrowed tell their story. It originated (unsurprisingly) in Denmark in 2000.

The real human lending library serves exactly the same purpose as the one I imagined, back when I originally wrote Reflections of Yesterday. The story is set in a place close to my heart (Lewisham), where I saw much of the light and dark in the human condition. As an aside – with reference to the recent thinking on Stephen King (a horror writer I’ve been compared with) having an entire universe where he interconnects his stories – there’s an early appearance by a couple of characters from my own Cyrus Song in this unrelated story, as extras in a background scene.

The following fable was the result of long conversations and many notes, some made by the human whose story this is. For the most part, I transcribed those notes directly, which is why this is a bit of a long read.

This is the story of Huxley and Marlene: That’s “Mar-lay-nah” innit…

Reflections of yesterday Reflections of yesterday5 Reflections of yesterday4

REFLECTIONS OF YESTERDAY

The Unfinished Literary Agency is an underground publishing house, which I set up to tell the stories of others; Stories which would otherwise go untold. Like most of the characters in these stories, Marlene thought she was unimportant: She was a nobody. No-one would want to read a story about a random girl like her. So I made a suggestion on how we might make the story more interesting, while keeping it real.

It starts with a Beagle: a dog called Huxley, Marlene’s best friend and confidante. She insists on her name being written that way, without any character accents to denote that it’s pronounced “Mar-Lay-Nah”.

They were having a picnic in Mountsfield Park, surrounded by her life, in three Sports Direct bags. A man asked: “Why do so many homeless people have dogs?”

“Because most people aren’t like you, sir. Most people don’t stop to talk. In fact, most people just walk on by. If someone just says hello, it makes me feel better. While there are so few people like you, I have a dog. I have Huxley, and he’s company. He listens. I’m Marlene. What’s your name mate? Sit down if you like.”

“Jay, and thanks.” Jay swung his rucksack from his shoulder and sat next to where Marlene lay on her sleeping bag, under a tree. It was a quiet time: mid-afternoon. Parents would be returning from shopping in Lewisham and getting ready to pick the kids up from school, before coming to the park. Every now and then, people walked by on the pathways. There were only two other people on the grass: a young red-haired girl, seated cross-legged, looking at something in her hand; and an older man, lying on his side and propped up on one arm. The girl passed something to the man and he looked at his hand for a while, before blowing something from his palm.

“You’re Muslim, right?

“Yeah, the rucksack sort of gives me away, doesn’t it?”

Shared irony is always a comforting bond: A tie formed when two people who’ve never met before, realise in a moment that they’re of similar intellect; When one can crack a joke and the other doesn’t feel the need to demonstrate anything by finishing it off; When one doesn’t have to ride the coat tails of the other, because they both get what didn’t need to be said. They are equals. There’s usually some wag around in a social situation who’ll feel the need to fill things in: The kind of person who might give you unsolicited advice at a pub fruit machine or pool table. There were no spare parts in this conversation.

“How long have you been here?” Jay asked.

“Today, only about an hour. I try not to think about how long it’s been in all.”

“You know.” It was another shared moment.

“You’ve been here?”

“Yeah, I was out here for just over a year before I converted.”

“So what happened? I mean, if you want to tell me.”

“I think I might be as reluctant to share the tale of how I came to be here as you are. My conversion to Islam though, was an awakening. Some might call it an epiphany but I don’t believe in God. Or Allah.”

“What? Explain that one, please.”

“Well, one day when I was out here, someone gave me a copy of the Quran. To be honest, my first thought was, ‘Thanks. This looks delicious’, but I couldn’t throw it away. No matter the contempt I have for religion and all that it’s caused, I respect every other human and that includes their beliefs. I wondered perhaps if I might reject God because I don’t understand him. I find that sense of not knowing unnerving, a fear of the unknown. The best way to deal with fear is confront it. So I decided I’d educate myself. I felt I owed it to the man who’d given me his copy of The Recitation.

“It was a coping mechanism and a comfort. It was escapism to safe entertainment. At it’s core, the Quran is just a different telling of the same events; The same stories, told by someone else with a different perspective. An alternative to the Bible. Despite what many perceive, a lot of the ancient Islamic texts have their roots in the one thing which unites us all: Humanity. In many ways, Islam is actually much more tolerant than Christianity. The Quran was the Guardian, to the Bible’s Telegraph. And where Jesus was just a nice guy, I wouldn’t be surprised if Muhammad smoked a bit of weed. I don’t know, I just found the Quran much more accessible than the Bible. The Bible’s dictatorial, whereas the Quran is a guide. It was refreshing to see a different take on things. But either book in the wrong hands…

“So I took the faith and changed my name to Javeed. It means forever. But when I say I took the faith, I didn’t. Because I can’t have faith in something which is unproven; a paradox. I need to question what I don’t understand, and religion will not be interrogated. Instead, it tells us that we must believe and have faith. I’m not ready to relinquish my will. But I did have a new found faith in humanity and, just as I’d read that man’s Quran, I felt indebted to Islam. So I started attending the mosque. It was shelter, company, and food. Was I using Allah? If he exists, then he will judge. Until then, I consider myself free.”

“So why do you still dress that way? Do you go to prayers?”

“Because I get something from it. I see other people’s ways of looking at things. It taught me to see that failure, me losing my home and all, was just that to the weak man: A failure. But the strong man sees a challenge and he rises to it, to change, to make things better. And I felt I might be able to do some good. You see, there are a lot of young Muslims who feel alienated and persecuted. Well, I know how that feels. I suppose the best way to sum up a situation I don’t understand, is I’m not bound by Islam but by humanity. With my brothers, we are all members of the same human race. That’s what I found Islam to be. It’s not a religion to me, it’s a family.”

“What about the women?”

“Well, that sits very uncomfortably with me. But I could run away and ignore it, or I could try to do something about it. I see those women and girls as suffragettes. They’re way more persecuted than the men, and by the men. Over time, I’m trying to make the Imam and others more progressive.

“So you’re radicalising them? That could take a while.”

“My name is Javeed. It means forever.”

“What was your name before?”

“Jim. Which means Jim. Anyway, Marlene, I should go. I’m cramping your style. I think these people walking past are giving us an even wider berth than they’d normally give you alone. They are no-one. Because every one of them who walks past, you’d probably not recognise if you saw them again. Let them stay that way. Let them retain their anonymity, and be forgettable. Here, let me compensate you for your time.”

“Compensate me? Like, pay me for talking and listening? I’m a captive audience mate. Besides, it was nice. You actually remind me of someone, but I don’t remember who.”

“I wouldn’t know. In any case, it was a pleasure. You’re a valuable person Marlene. Don’t forget that. Here…”

“A tenner? You sure?”

“Of course. It seems quite appropriate. On the reverse of the ten pound note, is Charles Darwin: Evolution and the rest of it. And his ship, HMS Beagle. Well, I do believe Huxley here is a Beagle.”

“Can’t argue with that. Thank you. Thanks mate.”

“You’re welcome my friend. I don’t care what you spend it on. That’s your business. I’d like to think that you used it to do something, to make things different. Keep your head up kid. I know you can swim, you just gotta keep moving your legs.” Jay stood and shook Marlene’s hand. “Be safe.”

Something. Something to make a difference. To eat a hot meal would make a change. But she couldn’t dine out wearing five layers of clothes, or with Huxley and her house in tow. Instead, she bought some food, which she had no intention of eating. She bought five loaves of bread, some wafer thin ham, a block of Cheddar and some tomatoes; all of which were reduced as they approached their sell-by dates. She also got some plastic knives and cling film. The food probably would have been destined for the homeless, but she had a plan: She would make sandwiches and sell them. Any she didn’t sell, she would give to the homeless, most of whom lacked the resources to make a sandwich of their own. The way Marlene saw it, she was buying raw materials to make into something and add value. In percentage terms, the margins were very large, so she could cover her costs, make a little profit for herself and give something ready-made to those with no money. The business plan required her to place faith in the general public to buy her goods, but other than that, it was sound.

On the first day, most of the sandwiches went to the homeless. Pure prejudice seemed to keep people away. Her stall was a makeshift table made of plastic bread crates, her hand-written sign listing her sandwiches: Ham or cheese, with or without tomato. Sandwiches just like mum used to make. All were priced at 50p. But it seemed that the same anonymous people who passed her by, were equally unprepared to give her money for something she’d done. They needn’t have any concern for hygiene. She wore plastic gloves while making the sandwiches, and sanitary wipes to keep her hands clean. She’d lost £5, but she’d given homeless people something to eat.

The next day she spent less and broke even. At least people were coming to her now, parents with kids mainly, perhaps reassured by her presence on a second day. For the next few days, she reached a plateau and her venture stagnated. She was covering her costs, giving a few sandwiches to the homeless and making a few pence each day. She needed to upsize but for that, she needed more capital.

She wondered about what she was doing; interrogated her business model. Perhaps she appeared too needy. But she’d never begged, and people were buying from her of their own free will. She wasn’t asking for anything. There was no mention of helping the homeless on her sign, as she imagined people might make the wrong association with her food. Perhaps those people weren’t even eating her sandwiches but 50p was such a small sum, and at least they got something. Some of her customers became familiar faces. They talked to her and she learned about them.

It was at the end of the second week that Marlene decided to make a change. She wrote a new sign, with just the sandwiches on and no prices. She stood an empty baked bean tin next to her sandwiches on the stall, and stuck a label on the tin: Thank you.

Human psychology is a deep and complex field of study and her human lab mice proved a theory: If presented with something which requires questioning, most will walk on by. But some people will seek answers. The revamped sandwich stall invited people to enquire, at least about the price of a sandwich, or to find out what they were being thanked in advance for. Without too much prompting, some humans quickly exhibited completely altered behaviour. They found themselves in a new paradigm; one where they were being thanked for taking something, and invited to leave a donation. The important decisions about the transaction had been placed firmly back with the customers: Whether to take something and if so, how much to pay for it. She remained a few feet from the stall; still present but not so close as to distract from people’s own free will. At the end of that first new day, Marlene’s tin contained £6.35.

She had a viable business model, of the simplest kind: Source cheaply, add value and sell at a profit. The added value here was the sandwiches being made: It was Marlene’s time. Her modest success was down to her honesty, and her trust in that of others: She could make no secret of the fact that her stall was unconventional. On the few occasions when she was asked the price of her sandwiches, she simply asked people to pay whatever they felt the food was worth. And there were those who took food and left nothing, but she wasn’t going to question them. One could quite easily be someone just like her, who might be embarrassed. By maintaining a distance, Marlene relied almost entirely on human spirit and her faith in such was somewhat restored.

But she wasn’t getting anywhere. Her business was standing still. She wasn’t making anything of Jay’s gift. So Marlene and Huxley took a walk. They couldn’t walk as far or for as long as they used to.

The sky was peach melba with a crème brûlée topping, and a warm breeze drove the day’s dust out of Mountsfield Park. Midges were beginning to form vortices around nothing, and ants were retreating to warmth. Marlene instinctively raised her wrist to her eye as something approached, but one midge didn’t make it home that night. Greenwich was the limit now, and even that took from afternoon to night, with frequent breaks. But everything in between was their time. Evenings were Huxley’s.

Marlene didn’t know Huxley’s exact age but they’d said he was already getting on a bit when she took him as a rescue dog from Battersea. His snout and some of his coat were greying, but no matter his age, Huxley liked to walk. He liked being outside – perhaps something to do with his previous life, chasing hares – so he was the perfect dog for a homeless nomad. He wasn’t a weaponised dog. An owner makes a dog and a dog’s love is unconditional. Marlene was sure Huxley would kill or be killed for her, but she never sought to find out. She threw Huxley a stick. ”Sticks and stones. My old bones…”

Fetching sticks aside, the only time Huxley wasn’t with Marlene, was when she’d had to work to repay a favour, or buy him food. A slut, a dirty whore, a re-useable doll: Just words. But she’d had fingers broken, been raped and left for dead in the park when she’d first washed up there. It wouldn’t have happened if Huxley had been there, but she hadn’t wanted him there. She would kill or be killed for him.

The Royal Borough of SE10 was no better than SE13: Postcodes didn’t change the status of a homeless person. But with that status come certain rights: You are always safe with your own kind. Although not true of humanity as a whole, there was an unwritten code in the homeless community; a people without borders. They were people of limited means but with deep resources.

And so Marlene and Huxley would regularly join a group who congregated in Greenwich Park, at the top of the hill, by the Royal Observatory. There they were left alone at night, by all but the most curious and determined. They looked out at Docklands on the peninsular, with the City in the background. All of life was there, most of it indiscernible to the untrained eye.

At low tide, the banks of the Thames attracted beach combers. They’d look for coins beneath the bridges and barriers; They’d turn over stones and prod through the mud for other treasures; One day perhaps, a priceless artefact or discarded weapon. Further out, walkers would be among the undead, as street people pushed against the tide of robots to pick up after them. The invisible cleaned up after the anonymous.

Fiction writers have sometimes been accused of over-stretching the imagination; of inventing convenient coincidences to carry a narrative. While it is true that fiction is often stranger than fact, by its very design, it is also true that life imitates art. Although they can be tropes for a lazy writer, strange coincidences do occur in real life. However fantastical these situations can seem, when reported as fact, they become received wisdom. When written as fiction, the author is more likely to be questioned. This is exactly why Marlene said that the next chapter shouldn’t be written about, but for the same reasons, I insisted it should. She had entrusted this story to a writer and that writer was me. I couldn’t teach Marlene to write. At least, I couldn’t teach her how to write as I saw writing, because I would have to teach her how to write like me. When I myself don’t know why that is.

I was writing the story of Marlene, but I was also writing the story of a writer, who wanted to be a writer like Paul Auster: One who writes “in a certain way”, which sometimes frustrates him, because he can’t teach others how he does it; a writer who used himself in many plot devices and a named character in at least one story. On occasion, he’s used seemingly wild coincidences in his plots. But by way of a demonstration of how life can turn up these events, in October 1989, he asked listeners of National Public Radio’s Weekend All Things Considered programme to send in true stories, to be read on-air as part of the National Story Project. The response was unexpected, with over 4000 submissions. Everyone, it seemed, had a story to tell. True Tales of American Life gathered some of these personal accounts to demonstrate that life could really be stranger than fiction. One such story was “The Chicken”, from Linda Elegant of Portland, Oregon:

As I was walking down Stanton Street early one Sunday morning I saw a chicken a few yards ahead of me. I was walking faster than the chicken so I gradually caught up. By the time we approached Eighteenth Avenue I was close behind.

The chicken turned south on Eighteenth. At the fourth house along it turned in at the walk, hopped up the front steps and rapped sharply on the metal storm door with its beak. After a moment the door opened and the chicken went in.

Other Auster trademarks are tributes to people he admires, with cameos or as a clue to a name in one of his characters, subtle references at various depths of immersion; Stories set in and around areas he knows intimately, like a pre-teen knows his or her genitals; and links to his other stories, through places or people; sometimes fleeting, others more overt.

It was while on the hill in Greenwich that one unlikely thing happened, when an unexpected Ellery Moon came into the story:

It was unusual but not unprecedented for someone inclined by curiosity to climb the hill and share the view from the summit. There’d never been one with a guitar before, least of all a twelve string. Ellery had come there to look at the Maritime Museum from an elevated viewpoint.

Odd and quirky things do happen. Sometimes, something breaks through the monotony and invites us to think differently. It’s a meeting of magnetic poles: Attraction and repulsion.

Ellery was a scholar of European neoclassicism in the visual arts. It was a modernising movement when it emerged in the mid 18th century, but also a conservative one. It sought to fight back against received wisdom and accepted norms, by simplifying things. In architecture, it was an admiration of the function and simplicity of ancient Greek and Roman buildings, relatively unadorned with fussy decorative features. Ellery saw the maritime museum as an example of the architecture, with imperialism at its heart. Nationalism was something he found repellent but in order to understand that which he didn’t know, he needed to question it. “Architecture is frozen music”, he said. As far as Marlene was concerned, he simply spoke to buildings, as others do animals or plants.

Although Ellery’s interests were not ones she shared, Marlene found his interpretations of the world fascinating, and him an engaging orator. Everything was linked, he said. And where there were no obvious connections, they were still there to be discovered. He explained how certain things were triggers for him, which would most likely not affect many others: He was in touch with his senses to an extent where an oil painting, a piece of music, an architectural structure, or even a passage of words, would evoke in him a vision or a memory; one so powerful that it could make him visibly weep. Although it wasn’t recognised as a mental illness, it had a name: Stendhal Syndrome. It was another easy label to apply.

Ellery’s songs were not exercises in subtlety, his voice an embattled rasping call to action. His lyrics, an angry mix of threat and paranoia, chasing doomed dreams as he faced invisible oppressors. For him, music was an inferno, into which he’d toss caution and the inhibitions which he believed bind us in life. Anthems, protests and love songs, delivered in a rasping 60-a-day voice, with his guitar a machine gun triumphing against those unseen forces. He sought no-one’s approval for anything he did.

He taught Marlene to sing. She’d never been able to sing, but Ellery told her she always could, she simply lacked confidence. “You need to get out of your comfort zone and face a fear”, he said. “At school, I was just like all the other kids; mumbling words behind a hymn book in assembly. But then I started going to pubs and I was introduced to Karaoke. Some friends of mine were in a band, and it was hearing their voices over a microphone that made me wonder what I might sound like if I opened my lungs. And that was where I found it: All my anger and frustration was in my voice. It sounds narcissistic and clichéd, but when I heard my own voice over the speakers, it was an awakening. I didn’t even notice anyone in the room, even though the bar was packed. I was just into screaming and howling, but in some sort of tune. When I’d finished, I looked around and everyone was silently staring at me. I just thought, ‘Fuck you’ as I put the mic back in the stand, then they starting applauding. At first, I thought they were glad I’d finished. But they kept going. A few of them cheered and whistled, perhaps even more relieved that I was done. But then, one person stood up; then another; six in all. One shook my hand, then another, who slapped me on the shoulder and told me, “Nice one, mate”. They liked me. Wanna know what song it was that I ripped apart and threw around that room?”

“I’d imagine it was more an interpretation or tribute, rather than a straight cover or impression?”

“Fuck yeah. If you’re gonna sing a song, it’s more of a tribute to the original artists to give it your own style, rather than just ape them. The great thing is, it works if you’re shit at singing. It’s subjective, both to the performer and the listener. To the ears of some, a cover tribute takes on greater meaning than the original. Music history is littered with examples, depending on who you listen to. But the best example is probably Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails on Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt: “It’s his now.” For me, even though I’m a space boy, Bauhaus owned Ziggy Stardust’s eponymous track. That was even better than the Starman himself. There are examples in films and TV series too, where someone has taken a classic and re-imagined it, or turned literature into film; or vice versa. The arts are self-pollinating, but if we treat them as less than living entities, they will perish. I want to cede a new renaissance.

“So my first ever song performed in public, was George Michael’s Praying for Time, from the Listen Without Prejudice album.”

“But sung as…”

“But sung as me. That was the thing. For four minutes, I made that song my own. They said I sounded like an angry Michael Stipe. They said I held my forearms upwards, screaming at them all the time, whether I was standing or crouching; like I was displaying stigmata in my self-harm scars.

“These are the days of the open hand. These are the days of the beggars and the choosers. This is the year of the hungry man. Whose place is in the past. Hand in hand with ignorance. I sang twenty years and a day. But nothing changed. The human race found some other guy. And walked into the flame. And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate. Hanging on to hope. When there is no hope to speak of. And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late. Well maybe we should all be praying for time…

“But I was still using someone else’s words. To be honest, I don’t know if any of my own songs are any good. It’s impossible to be discovered, so no-one will hear them. But they’re all I want to say and if people get to hear them, they might tell others. The best chance to be heard, was to cover something someone else had already done. In so many cases, the words are there, and I wish I’d written them. But I didn’t, so I sung them. Even as I tell you this, I’m unsure as to what might be too much to say. I want you to get it, without having to question too much; but I don’t want to insult your intelligence by telling you too much, because then I take away from your personal interpretation. And right here, right now, I just don’t know when to shut up.”

Words can only be stopped when the mouth is otherwise occupied, and a first kiss is a catalyst for many more. Exchanges of bodily fluids quickly evolve, from the first drop of saliva, to ones which can be life-changing.

As one life ends, so another begins. It’s just changes. They have happened in the past, to create the now; and others are planned, to shape the future. The world turns on its axis, one man works while another relaxes.

Ellery sang at the birth, and Marlene gave them Ebony: An ornamental wood, dense enough to sink in water, with a smooth finish when polished, making it valuable.

A “Paupers funeral” is one paid for by the state. It’s normally at 9am, as that’s the cheapest slot, and you can only be incinerated. It’ll be attended by a suited figure, there to ensure that everything is done. There’ll be three pieces of music: One to welcome the mourners; another to accompany the lowering of the coffin; and the end.

The music didn’t even have words which Marlene could imagine Ellery singing, in his angry, impatient voice, struggling to escape, from something. She remembered him singing Amy Winehouse at The Dublin Castle, where Amy used to drink and play; and Madness. Suggs spoke about her, in the way Suggs speaks:

“We used to see her around in Camden, we started off in The Dublin Castle, a place where Amy very much liked. I wrote a song about Amy Winehouse which is on this record called ‘Blackbird’, without going on about it, it was a very tragic thing.”

When a panic attack strikes, it will do so without warning and for no apparent reason. A partner unable to free himself; their baby sealed in a burning box; and Marlene, on the wall.

“Even if I am in love with you. All this to say, what’s it to you? Observe the blood, the rose tattoo. Of the fingerprints on me from you. We’re still alone, around the danger zone. And we don’t talk about it. The passing of every soldier, but the only soldier now is me, fighting things I cannot see. I think it’s called my destiny. I am changing. Don’t give away the good too soon. I tried hard to resist, when you held me in your handsome fist. It reminded me of the night we kissed. Of why I should be leaving.”

And as one story ends, so another begins. Huxley went quietly at the PDSA in New Cross, where he met and said farewell to Doctor Jones. Hannah Jones then became a part of the story again, when she called Marlene a few months later: An injured beagle had been brought into the hospital by a stranger. He’d found the dog at the kerbside and guessed it had been hit by a car. It was barely more than a pup and it hadn’t been chipped. Before he went to Battersea, would Marlene be up to meeting him?

They were having a picnic in Mountsfield Park, when a man asked: “Why do so many homeless people have dogs?”

“Because most people aren’t like you, sir. Most people don’t stop to talk. In fact, most people just walk on by.”

“Ignorant people, perhaps. You’re homeless though, right?”

“What gave me away? The bags?” Shared irony is always a comforting bond: A tie formed when two people who’ve never met before, realise they’ve clicked. “Yeah, I’ve lost the lot mate: Home, money, people I cared about. I’m Marlene. Ironically, it’s derived from Mary Magdalene. But mine’s Mar-Lay-Nah, after the Suzanne Vega song.”

“I’m Jim. It means Jim.”

“Wanna hear a story, Jim? This guy came up to me once, right here. If you grew a beard, you’d probably look like him actually.

“So this other guy, he gave me a tenner. The Bank of England tenner has Darwin on it, and a picture of his ship: HMS Beagle. And Huxley here is a beagle. And the guy just said to make something with that tenner. It took me to a lot of places, that note and those words. I met a lot of people and heard their stories. And after that, I realised what it was I could do. I worked out that it was the best way to give the most back. Money is like the air: breathe it in, breathe it out. It’s just selfish to hold on to it.

“One day, I might learn to play this twelve string here. It was Ellerey’s. He taught me to sing. He allowed me to find my voice, even if it was in the words of others.

“But before I go out busking, I’ve set up The Human Lending Library. It’s a massive place, full of stories, but not housed in a building. It’s a library without borders. You don’t borrow books; you borrow a person. You don’t take them home with you, although some might appreciate that. No, you just ask one of them to tell you a story. And most of the time, they’ll have a story to tell, which they didn’t think anyone would want to hear. It might be their own or someone else’s: Someone who’s no longer around to tell their own story. But if someone asks, that changes things for the story teller. And it often changes the way the listener thinks of those story tellers.

“Libraries stand for freedom. Freedom to read, to think, and to pass on wisdom. They are about education, which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university. They’re safe entertainment. Some of the most under-appreciated people in society are librarians, yet without those gatekeepers of knowledge, we are ignorant.

“Our children lack the knowledge we have. We need to teach them. With knowledge, they can navigate the world, understand things, question others and solve problems. We must tell them the truth and not let them be lied to or misled.

“We should read aloud to others, or recite stories to them. Read them things they enjoy, even if those are stories we’ve already tired of. Or tell them a new story. And we can write. All of us – readers and writers – can dream. All of us can make a change, just by thinking more and doing things differently.

“Well, I’m one of the librarians and we’re everywhere. All anyone has to do, is rather than walk past, just ask. Both parties get something far greater than money from that free transaction.”

And Jim was lost for a moment.

Marlene didn’t expect a donation; She didn’t ask. It was pure coincidence that Jim gave her a ten pound note. A coincidence which gives meaning to the phrase, what comes around, goes around. Marlene’s situation too.

Marlene didn’t think this story worth telling. But by looking at things differently, she didn’t fail and end up back in the drain. She returned to where she felt she belonged, where there are far greater things than money. History repeating need not always be a death toll. Even in the darkest places, there is hope. Sometimes, we need to be stripped of everything to realise that there is more to life and to start seeing the world differently. The Human Lending Library is fictional, but with its base in the facts of Marlene and others’ lives.

She mock-fretted that if her story was told, people might read it and be moved to act upon it. Pretty soon, the librarians might receive sufficient donations to change their circumstances and living arrangements. There might one day be no Human Lending Library.

I told her not to worry. Such a dream was just that: firmly in the realms of fiction.

(C) Steve Laker and Marlene (that’s “Mar-lay-nah”), 2017

For Huxley

the-human-library-project

From The Unfinished Literary Agency, available now in paperback.

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Getting the hang of Wednesdays

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Days like these are the worst, when you wish for the emptiness of the vacuum which is a typical day with depression. These atypical days are filled with thoughts. My mind is always full, which is why I suffer insomnia, but these thoughts are the darkness escaping the vacuum. For Arthur Dent, it was Thursdays he couldn’t get the hang of, where most of my problems seem to haunt me on Wednesdays.

Arthur and MarvinHeroes of fantasy and sci-fi (Stark After Dark)

I’m looking at everything ahead and I can’t see any bright horizon, just the red glow of dusk. The optimist and the pessimist have no control over an outcome, but the optimist has the better time leading up to it. As low as I’m feeling today, the optimist is a far-away stranger in that crimson landscape.

As the Marmite filling of my family’s generational sandwich, my main thoughts are with either slice of bread. Thankfully my eldest seems to be over the worst of his recent derailment (when you’re 13, you’re just looking for somewhere to go off the tracks), which means my dad is an even greater focus.

His health isn’t improving. Long story short, he was getting a bit forgetful, culminating in him forgetting where he lived one night when he was out in his car (alone). After much debate with mum, I phoned the police. I knew someone was always going to be “The one who…” and seeing as I’m usually assumed to be, I didn’t break with stereotype. The police picked him up and got him home safely, but he subsequently had to surrender his driving license.

The whole family was disrupted as a result, and my dad’s lost a great deal of his freedom and liberty. The memory thing was found to be a build up of fluid around the base of dad’s brain. It wasn’t a degenerative condition and a simple drain should alleviate the problem.

He was admitted to hospital and the procedure was initially deemed a success. Trouble is, a succession of setbacks followed, as dad developed an infection which required intravenous antibiotics, prolonging his stay in hospital. Eventually when he returned home, he took a fall down the stairs. I can’t help thinking that I’m “The one who…”

You wouldn’t expect someone to get better after all that, but the old man’s still with us, albeit never fully recovered from the initial diagnosed condition because of these complications. Mum and dad have made adaptations to their house, but dad longs to get back to tending his garden. I’ve suggested it might be quite nice to let it meadow a bit, to attract some wildlife, which dad also loves. It’s about quality of life now, and he’s probably got some years in him yet if he’s kept engaged by people and things around him.

Which all serves to reduce the importance of my own issues, which are short-term, relatively speaking. At worst (ever the pessimist), I’ll have my PIP application declined as it was the last two times. I have no reason to think otherwise, as despite claims that mental disability is given equal consideration to physical restrictions, mental illness remains invisible. Yes, I can walk a short distance to a local shop. I have legs which work and I don’t require a physical aid to walk. Sometimes though, the anxiety and paranoia are such that I simply don’t attempt it. That can’t be seen when you’re asked to walk up and down in front of an assessor.

If my application is declined, then I’ll appeal at tribunal, as I did the last two times, and both times I won. It hardly seems worth putting me through it, but I suspect there’ll be another attempt at social cleansing by wearing me down in the hope I give up. I didn’t the last two times.

So the worst case scenario is I’ll have my benefits reduced throughout the appeal process, then reinstated and back-paid afterwards. I might just have to adjust to a lesser quality of life for a while. Then again, the ‘Medically-qualified’ PIP assessor might not be a midwife this time, they could be a psychiatrist or psychologist, who is more likely to confirm my various conditions, thereby sparing me the ordeal of the appeal process. If government out-sourcing fulfilled its function properly, a simple thing like appointing an appropriately qualified assessor would save the state considerable funds.

But it doesn’t work like that. The savings are made by getting claimants off of benefits, and subjecting them to an extended dehumanising process is one way of thinning out the numbers, when some people just don’t have it in them to fight. My last two appeal processes made me far more unwell than I’d been at the outset, but I didn’t succumb to the social cleansing machine.

Beyond the small sphere of me in my sandwich, there’s the world at large and plenty to worry about, not least of which is the rise of the right. Those of us on the left, and anyone who cares about the planet we all share, we need to find our voices. Fascists will not be reasoned with, so there’s little point trying to debate, negotiate and be democratic with the blinkered and socially-conditioned.

I’ve written of positive outcomes for humanity and our home, just as I’ve doomed them both in other stories, where the right’s solution is population reduction. Being an optimist or pessimist about such existential things might actually determine the outcome. At the end of it all, that thought strangely perks me up, as it’s more a duty than a choice.

I feel slightly more hopeful about the coming weeks and months now than I did when I started writing. Sometimes it’s nice to talk to myself as I type, just to relieve some pressure. It’s always been my only real therapy. Thanks for reading.

Going forward (can’t find reverse)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’m somewhat in limbo at the moment, part way through the dehumanisation process which is the biannual re-application for Personal Independence Payment (Daily Living Component only) on the grounds of having crippling depression and anxiety. I’ve been called for an assessment, a one-to-one consultation with an out-sourced medical professional (my last one was a midwife) to determine if I’m mental enough to be paid to stay out of society’s way.

oneflewovercuckoosnest-ratched-mcmurphy-700x330

I’ve not been writing much because my mind is focussed on the short-term. It’s difficult to concentrate on anything else when you’re fighting to keep the money you need to have any quality of life. I decided to take a trip to find ideas.

My favourite time to be alive was when I was 14, in 1984. Apart from being 14, it was an era which introduced me to the emergence of home computing, Steve Barron’s Electric Dreams, and aspirations of having a room like David Lightman’s in John Badham’s WarGames. He had a lock on his door and could connect to the early internet via dial-up and an acoustic coupler. Aged 48, I’ve managed to acquire more or less the same, but with more internet.

When you don’t go out much and you’re stuck for something to do, you can do far worse than take a wander around the entire universe which is online, beyond your bookmarks. Anything and everything is there to be discovered, away from the well-trodden paths.

Here’s a few I’ve happened upon today, starting with some personal exploration by way of translating my words into pictures with AI art: Type in some text and it will interpret it as art. It’s pretty shit, but it can be quite inspired (and disturbing). For starters I just typed in what I was, then what I was doing and what I wanted:

Writer sitting at desk   Writing science fiction   Dying to be heard
Left to right: “A writer sitting at a desk”, “Writing science fiction”, “Dying to be heard”

As I staggered from that virtual gallery, I found someone who’d stumbled upon a hidden computer museum. This little-known place hosts exhibits which were fundamental to the evolution of the computer, from 4000-year-old Mesopotamian tablets to computers of yesteryear, and the kind David Lightman and Miles Harding found so much life in:

Mesopetanian tablets         Computer Museum

I finished my little trip by taking in some more art. With OCD among my many labels, there are some sights which disturb me (Alphabetti running out of letters I need to make words on toast), and antidotes to erase memories of such things. There are video compilations of these little CGI perpetual motion machines on YouTube, and the dude who makes them is one Andreas Wannerstedt. He has an Instagram page, filled with dozens of examples of things like this:

After that brief stumble up the internet corridor, I’d have liked someone to hug when I got home. I once lived on the streets, where love and fear are never far apart. I was ready to laugh at this guy, because I’ve become (in some ways) reconditioned to life with a roof. How quickly we forget not to be too quick to judge, as Catfish Cooley tells us so eloquently:

If I’m judged unfit for work in the upcoming PIP assessment, I’ll be able to get on with life again. I just wonder who’s fit to judge. The process is designed to reduce one’s will to live, but I won’t be a statistic in a government’s social cleansing exercise. While I can’t go out, I still have a virtual universe to traverse.

 

Slugs, snails and all things nice

THE WRITER’S LIFE

One of the many functions of depression is to kill your emotions. I and many other depressives have written about how we don’t feel down all the time, in most people’s understanding of the word, but that we have no emotion at all. Depression is not feeling sad, it’s a feeling of complete emptiness.

Balloon pop

The unexpressed emotions build up, and sometimes they all bubble over at once. When they do, we might suddenly become overwhelmed by (in my case) a feeling of guilt over past actions, and become inconsolable in our grief. Other times, we might realise – just for a fleeting moment – that all things considered, everything is okay. We’ll suddenly feel happy, and grateful of the life surrounding us, expressing ourselves by letting people know we love them, and that we appreciate what they do. It’s ‘the manics’, but when you’re also an alcoholic, people can assume you’re on something. It seems I can’t win, I’m not allowed to be happy, so I stop being it.

Social anxiety and paranoia are best mates with depression, imprisoning the afflicted, so they have plenty of time to think about life, the universe and everything, and everything just gets worse. It’s a self-perpetuating and degenerative condition. Apart from visits to the local Tesco every other day, my outings are limited to well-rehearsed known quantities, the monthly trip to Milton Keynes for a day with my children being one. This month was different, as we had a day out in London.

I’m fine with London. Even though it’s a mega-city, I feel more comfortable in the capital than I might in some remote village. It’s because I know London, I lived and worked there, and it’s where I’m from. I sometimes think that if I had the means to move back to the capital, my mental health might improve. On Saturday, I was okay, and the emotions which London evokes for me carried me through the day. It’s quite surreal when you’re not used to having feelings, like being carried around in someone else’s body, a haunting of the living, a possession.

I met the kids at 11 and we went for an early lunch, our thinking being that few others would be lunching at that time, and we were right. Our further thinking was that when we got to our first attraction at about 1 pm, most normal people would be having lunch. And we were right, as the London Transport Museum was sparsely populated when we arrived.

There’s only so much you can do with stationary vintage vehicles, and with the youngest in tow, we were bound to end up in the gift shop, which is rudely expensive: £60 for a sofa cushion (albeit one in Victoria Line seating material), and £40 for a magazine rack (ditto, Northern Line) being two examples. The littlest filled a bag with stationery in London Transport livery (and paid for it), then we set off for our next destination – The National Portrait Gallery – on foot.

The Portrait Gallery is hosting the BP Portrait Award, but before we troubled that, I took the kids on a whistle stop tour of the main National Gallery. Although they’ve been to London before, and to some of the paid attractions and national institutions, it was when they were very young. Neither could recall seeing a Leonardo da Vinci or a Vincent van Gogh, so that’s where we headed.

Leonardo_da_Vinci_Virgin_of_the_Rocks_(National_Gallery_London) Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_127
National Gallery, London

Carried along by my emotions, I was a little overcome standing in the presence of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks. To be just inches from a painting, able to see the brush strokes made by da Vinci over 600 years ago, is a humbling position to find oneself in. There I was, standing only as far away from a priceless treasure as Leonardo did to paint it. Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers was a similarly belittling experience, and when we left I was grateful of some dust in the wind blowing through Trafalgar Square as I wiped my eyes.

I have a condition called Stendhal Syndrome, on top of all my others. It’s a psychosomatic disorder, manifesting in me as an emotional mental weakness or vulnerability. When I see or hear something beautiful, it evokes the same outpouring of various emotions as the manics or the guilt. I feel sad, but they’re tears of joy. It takes quite a lot to set me off, and it happened again pretty much as soon as we walked into the Portrait Award exhibition, when I saw this:

Bertha
Bertha (c) Jesus Maria Saez de Vicuña Ochoa

I did a double-take when I read the cue card next to it, which said it was oil on canvas. Up close and personal, it’s the kind of thing which stops you in your tracks and glues you to the floor.

My young companions were as into all of this as I was, if not quite so visibly moved by it all. Eventually it was time to feed their curious minds with Chinese food. They’d never been to Chinatown before, more used to eating oriental cuisine from take-away cartons, so dinner was a multi-sensory experience. Frankly, the food was mediocre at best, the service arrogant, and the prices bloated. Eating in Chinatown is more Russian roulette than I remember, but the kids enjoyed it, so I kept my mouth shut.

Of course, all good things must end, and so it was yesterday. As soon as the kids had headed off on their train, I got the most almighty emotional comedown. If I hadn’t been in London, with all that atmosphere keeping me going, I might have been tempted to play with the trains instead of riding one home.

In a few days I’ll be back to just feeling dead inside, but until then separation anxiety feels like I’ve had my chest ripped open and my heart pulled out. For a while last night, I perked up as I remembered all I’d done in the day. I texted someone and told them how happy and grateful I was to have had that day. They replied that I seemed to be acting oddly, and was I on something?

I wasn’t. I wasn’t under the influence of anything, just a brief feeling that life was okay, quickly popped like a balloon at the end of a party.