Father’s Day in a cardboard box

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

I doubt I’m unique in this, but I wonder how many other writers find themselves referring to their own stories in real-life situations. Maybe I’m just up myself but I do it anyway, because much of my humanist writing is fictional accounts of situations I’ve found myself in. When someone else finds themselves similarly displaced, it’s often easier to refer them to something fictional than remember the real life which took me there (I did that when I was writing the stories) and fantasy is far more entertaining than the real world anyway.

I’m an empath, and that empathy is as much with my fictional characters as my organic family and friends. Just as I can often put myself in their place, tell them what they’re thinking, then suggest something they might not have thought of, I inhabit my characters. Those are drawn from people I know – in life and in fame – then mixed up with parts of me to make someone completely different. It means I can tell people in real life where to find themselves in my characters and stories.

The story which follows is one I’ve told before but now is a timely reminder, on the weekend of Father’s Day. Just like George in this story, I have memories of visiting toy fairs with my dad, and like George and his dad, we couldn’t afford much, so I’d rummage around in the boxes of spare parts to see what I could build. I don’t have much money to spend on my children, but I hope they’ll have at least some fond recollections in future.

There are parts of me in all three of the characters in this story, but most of me is under the bed. The boy on the bed is my younger self, my much younger dad, and my own son. The dad in the story is my own, he’s me, and he’s my older son.

To all the kids who miss their dads, and for the dads too. For those who can only send a card…

Toy Story Box

CARDBOARD SKY

The story of how I became a ghost is surprisingly ordinary: I died. My actual passing was like that moment when you fall asleep every night: You don’t remember it. The next day, you’ll remember being awake before you slept; you know you’ve been sleeping and you may recall dreams. But you won’t remember the transit from wakefulness to slumber. So dying was just like that, for me at least.

It didn’t take long to realise I was dead because people just stopped talking to me. I could still walk around but no-one could see or hear me. A couple of times, people just walked straight through me, as though I wasn’t there. I wasn’t but I was.

As someone walks through you when you’re a ghost, you get to know a lot more about them on the inside. I don’t mean how their internal organs look (just like in a hospital documentary or horror film), but a feeling of their inner self. It’s surprising how many people you thought you knew, turn out to be complete cunts.

Even though I was invisible and inaudible, I felt vulnerable in this brave new world. I’m used to being looked at. I like it. I dress provocatively. But here, no-one was looking at me, which made me anxious. I felt invisible. I was invisible. That’s how I ended up sleeping under George’s bed.

So kids: It’s not a monster under the bed, it’s a ghost.

It was while I was under there that I decided to write this story.

I’d suddenly found myself homeless. I had no personal belongings, nowhere to go and nothing to do. But like any child’s bed, George’s had cardboard boxes underneath it. I wouldn’t pry into something which might be private, but like most children’s beds, George’s sat above a wasteland of discarded ephemera: a little-used word but for the purposes of this story, it was the right one. It’s a collective noun, for things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time. Or collectible items that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity. Ephemera also has a certain supernatural aura about it (Ephemeral, an adjective meaning lasting for a very short time), so to a ghost and a writer, it suits the story very well.

As a ghostwriter, I could be anyone I wanted. I could do that in cardboard city but I had less to worry about under the bed.

It wasn’t me writing the story; I was employing someone else. When a man writes something, he is judged on his words. When a woman writes, it is she who is judged. Being a ghost was perfect. Because if a ghost writes the story, then they control it. If a ghost tells this story, it doesn’t hurt as much.

Among the discarded stationery, I found a note: ”If you don’t finish that story, I will personally punch you in the face. Cool?” I had no idea who’d written it, nor the circumstances surrounding it. I assumed it was a note given to George. Or it might have been one he’d planned to give to someone else and thought better of it. It could just as easily have been addressed to me. Whatever, and if nothing else, it was a kick start. Sometimes that’s what we need.

It wasn’t a physical kick (There was no room under the bed) but it was a mental jolt, like the friend who places an arm around your shoulder and tells you they believe in you. That’s a very brave thing for them to do, because the kind of person who says that kind of thing is going to end up stuck with you.

I needed something to sustain me while I wrote, but I was under George’s bed. I had no idea how the rest of the house was laid out, so I wouldn’t know where to find the food. It occurred to me that even if I found any food, I was ill-equipped to cook it. One revelation leads to another: Ghosts don’t eat. Do they?

Eventually, I’d gathered enough odd paper to make a useful pad. All I could find to write with was a crayon. A fucking green crayon. So then I began to write, in green crayon.

Should I really have been denied drugs, when it was that which drove me, once I learned to control it? Should those who thought they knew better have removed my lifeline? If I’d allowed them to do so, I’d surely have died from the withdrawal. At least that’s what I was afraid of. So I kept going. I kept shooting up. Then I ran away. I was 16.

Once you’re 18, the law says you can leave home without your parents’ or guardians’ permission. Strictly speaking, if you’re 16 or 17 and you want to leave home, you need your parents’ consent. But if you leave home without it, you’re unlikely to be made to go back unless you’re in danger. You are extremely unlikely to be obliged to return home if that’s where the danger lies.

It didn’t matter to me that I had nothing. Just as long as I could get a fix, I had all I needed. Even personal safety and well being become passengers when the heroin is driving.

There’s a dark magic within you. A frightful thing I cling to.

But as a ghost I couldn’t score, just as I couldn’t eat.

So I had nothing to do but write. It would be romantic to write that the flow of ink from my pen replaced the alchemy running through my veins, but I was writing with a green crayon.

The writing was a distraction, but it couldn’t mask the withdrawal symptoms. It turns out that even being dead can’t do that. So I was faced with the prospect of cold turkey, a cruel joke as I was hungry and couldn’t eat.

How could I write but not be able to eat? Actually I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure if it was delirium tremens brought on by my withdrawal, or the limitations of my new body, but I had no fine motor skills. I could rummage through things and pick them up, but I couldn’t do something like thread a needle if anyone had asked. I probably wouldn’t have been able to put a needle in a vein if I was alive, and I certainly couldn’t make my hands write. My fine motor skills were like those of a toddler. So I simply did what many authors do: They have an idea, some thoughts, a plot, and they’ll employ someone else to write their story for them: A ghostwriter. I was both a writer and a ghost. So I just thought my story; I willed it, in the hope that someone else might write it one day, now that I couldn’t.

I needed to haunt George.

I’ve read a lot and learned through self-teaching. I could have been so many things if it wasn’t for chasing the dragon. But that dragon must be chased, just as a puppy must be played with. So I’d read up on ghosts and the various types of haunting.

The “Crisis Apparition” is normally a one-time event for those experiencing it. It’s when a ghost is seen at the time of it’s predecessor’s passing, as a way of saying farewell to family and friends. It would be like going about your daily business, then suddenly seeing your mum outside of normal contexts. Minutes later, you receive a call to tell you that she’s passed away. With practice, the deceased may be able to visit you more than once, to reassure you. If they do that, you might have a guardian angel. In my case, a fallen one with broken wings.

The reluctant dead” are ghosts who are unaware they’re deceased. They go about their lives as if they were still living, oblivious to their passing. This innocence (or denial), can be so severe that the ghost can’t see the living, but can nonetheless feel their presence: A kind of role reversal. This can be stressful, for both the haunter and the haunted. In films, it’s usually someone moving into the home of a recently deceased person. Perhaps they lived and died alone in their twilight years. To them, the living might be invaders. These are not ghosts which need to be exorcised: Simply talking to them about their death can help them to cross over and leave your home.

Then there are ghosts who are trapped or lost: They know they’re dead but for one reason or another, they can’t cross over yet. Cross over into what? Some may fear moving on because of the person they were in life, or they might fear leaving what’s familiar to them.

There are ghosts with “unfinished business” broadly split into two categories: A father might return to make sure his children are okay. Or a lover might hang around, making sure their partner finds happiness and moves on. But there’s also the “vengeful ghost”; perhaps a murder victim, back to haunt their killer.

Residual ghosts” usually live out their final hours over and over again. They often show no intelligence or self-awareness, and will walk straight by (or through) you. Many think that these types of ghosts left an imprint or a recording of themselves in our space time.

Finally, the “intelligent ghost”: Where the entity interacts with the living and shows a form of intelligence. I certainly wanted to communicate with George. In fact, to lesser and greater extents, I fitted parts of the descriptions of all types of ghosts. I’d not long been dead and already I had a multiple personality disorder.

All I could see of George when he first came into the room was his feet: Black elasticated plimsolls and white socks, like I used to wear for PE. I couldn’t say what size his feet were but I imagined them having a boy of about ten years old attached to them. I guessed George was quite a hefty lad by the way the sky fell slightly as he climbed onto the bed above me.

I laid still, because even though I myself was inaudible, my developing motor skills would betray me if I dropped the crayon or kicked anything. I could hear pages being turned and I was aware of movement above me. It could be that George was writing; doing homework perhaps. I didn’t want to entertain an alternative. I hoped he was writing.

No matter what we do in this life, we may eventually be forgotten. It’s a comfort I gain from writing, knowing that whatever’s published is recorded, and will be out there long after I’ve gone. The democratisation of publishing and reporting has meant many good and bad things, but for as long as the conversation is global, we need to keep it going. There may be voices with whom we disagree, but through writing, we can posit an alternative opinion and seed a debate. Beyond all that is happening in our constantly evolving universe is a simple fact: What is right will win. What is right can emerge from the anarchic democracy which is the internet, but only if there are enough voices. There will always be sides and factions but with everyone involved, those who engage the most because they are passionate enough will prevail. We don’t need to shout louder than the other side; we simply need to educate the ignorant. Evolution will tell the story of whether we became a liberal race and prospered, or if we destroyed ourselves because we were unable to evolve. Either way, history will record it. If we destroy ourselves, eventually our history will be lost in the vastness of space and time, and it may be as though we never existed. From the quiet above, I gathered George was quite a deep thinker.

There’s only one race on this planet and that’s the one we all belong to: The human race. Where death may scare most people, it doesn’t trouble me. I’m seeing evidence that the human consciousness exists independently from the body and continues to live after our bodies give up or we destroy them. What does scare me is even more existential: Being forgotten, as though I never existed. The human race faces an existential threat: That of ignorance. Simply by talking, we can make a difference. Listen to the previous generations, for they are our history. Talk to the next generation and don’t patronise them: They’re intelligent beings. They are the human race and the future. Maybe George would be heard one day.

After a while, the sky fell further and the lights went out. George had retired for the night.

Ghosts can see in the dark. As soon as George had been quiet long enough for me to be sure he was asleep, I was getting restless. I moved around and stretched a bit. I’d managed to keep the shakes under control, but now George was asleep, the withdrawal was becoming quite uncomfortable. Despite my anxiety and a developing agoraphobia, I was tempted to just get out and run around; to do something to distract myself. I decided against it. I’d be like a child who’d just learned to walk. I would bump into things and knock things over. I didn’t want George to have a poltergeist: They’re bad. I’m not bad and I didn’t want to be the victim of an exorcism, made homeless all over again.

I thought I’d try my night vision out and have another go at writing. I managed to draw a crude stick man, a house with a smoking chimney and a space rocket with flames coming out of the bottom. He was a green man, who lived in a green house (so shouldn’t throw stones) and he had a green rocket which burned copper sulphate fuel (copper sulphate produces a green flame). I wasn’t evolved enough to write.

I fought an internal flame: One which was a danger I wanted to flee but at the same time, a beckoning warmth. I didn’t know what time of day it was, and I had no idea how long George slept for. He might be one of those kids who was in and out of the bathroom all night, or he might be near enough to adolescence that he hibernated. Either way, or anywhere in between, I couldn’t keep still for even a minute.

The shakes were more like tremors now: Delirium tremens: a psychotic condition typical of withdrawal in chronic alcoholics, involving tremors, hallucinations, anxiety, and disorientation. Heroin withdrawal on its own does not produce seizures, heart attacks, strokes, or delirium tremens. The DTs were the manifestation of my other addiction, which I’d used heroin to cover up. It was somehow less shameful to be an addict of an illegal substance and hence a victim, than it was a legal drug which most people can consume with no ill effects. As an alcoholic, I was less of a victim. I was a sadomasochist.

As soon as you tell people you’re an alcoholic, if they don’t recoil, they just assume you’re always drunk. Or they presume that you must never touch a drop. Both are true in some alcoholics but there’s the “functioning alcoholic”, who still drinks far more than anyone should but who doesn’t get drunk. They can get drunk, but most functioning alcoholics simply drink throughout the day (a kind of grazing), to keep the delirium tremens and other dangerous side effects of alcohol cessation at bay. It’s called Alcohol Dependence Syndrome but most people saw it as a cop out. I couldn’t educate the ignorant, or get them to listen long enough for me to explain. So I started taking drugs. I got so tired of trying to explain alcoholism to people, educating their ignorance, that I gave up. You get much more sympathy as a drug addict. Yeah, right.

So as in life, this once functioning alcoholic is now a ghost.

For the brief period that I was on the road in the last life, one saying; one sentiment, was always to be heard in the homeless community: “Be safe”. Those two words convey much more than their brevity would suggest. But when you’re homeless, relationships and lives are fragile. It’s quicker and less sentimental to say “Be safe” to someone you may never see again than “I love you”.

Even if I was restless, I felt safe under George’s bed. To keep busy, I broke a promise and looked in the cardboard boxes. I placed the green crayon in my mouth, like a green cigarette. I sucked on it like a joint and the taste of wax was actually quite pleasant. It helped just a little as a distraction from the shakes.

The first box was a complete mixture: Sheets of paper, smaller boxes and random other stuff; like a model car, some Lego and, well, just all sorts. I gathered the papers first.

Some of George’s notes were apparently to himself: They were in a handwriting different to the first note I saw, so I couldn’t be entirely sure, but one such note read, “You came close a few times but you backed off. You didn’t want to be one of those boys who made her cry. That’s the only reason you did it.” If they were intended for someone else, he’d not delivered them.

There were unopened presents, and gifts addressed to others, but George hadn’t delivered them. Some things were wrapped, while others weren’t, but they were clearly intended for someone else as they had notes attached. A packet of 20 Marlborough Lights: “Should really have got two tens, then I could have given mum and dad one each. Like that’s going to stop them.”

I’d not seen or heard the parents. Without knowing even what day of the week it was, there could be many scenarios. In one, George’s parents argued a lot but they were very much in love. Perhaps they were frustrated and united against a common foe. With my parents, that was me. Whatever it was, I imagined something bonding them and keeping them together. That could have been George I suppose.

I wondered at what point in human evolution it might have been, that we started analysing things and where we started to over-analyse. Marriage guidance, or relationship management; fucking counselling, from professionals and the plastic police alike: We all have someone. We all love someone. They care about us and vice versa. But over time, something’s not right, so we take the lid off and start poking around in that jar. We keep chipping away, feeling more free to say things in an environment, which we might not in another. And eventually we say something irreversible. Something that’s niggling us deep inside and which doesn’t affect us until it’s dug up. And from there, the relationship breaks down further and ever more of the undead join the feast.

Rather than encourage engagement, that kind of situation can invoke the fight or flight reflex in the previous life; the past. And whether fled or not, the past is history.

So we arrive in the next life with so much unsaid. We want to say it but we have to learn all over again, how to speak. And I suppose that’s why we want to haunt people.

George woke up. A light was switched on and the sky above me moved. I waited for the feet from above but there were none. There was movement like before, and the sound of paper. George must have been writing. Or drawing. After what I guessed to be around 20 minutes, he stopped, the light went out and the sky moved again. I was trembling quite violently by then, so I bit down on the crayon between my teeth and returned my attention to the boxes.

I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.

Do the first one: Get to know yourself and be happy with what you are. Then do the second: Those who loved you first time around will be the ones who are still there. So you’re not lonely.

Life, packaged.

The human body is merely a temporary host.

Put like that, we simply inhabit a body for a period of time, like a possession; In “life” we are already ghosts possessing bodies which give us physical form. That organic structure will age and eventually die, but our consciousness is separate from what we look at as a living body and it goes on living, long after the host gives up. Life, as we know it, is merely one part of an ongoing existence, the greatness of which we don’t yet understand. Knowledge comes with death’s release. You may well have lived in another body in a previous life: Deja vu tells us that; that feeling that you’ve been somewhere before. George had deep dreams.

The trembling had reached my head. There was more than one person in there, and the dialogue was two-way. I wasn’t talking to myself; I was talking to another person.

I began to realise that perhaps George and I were somehow connected. I always subscribed to pre-determinism in principle. A part of me knew that the Big Bang carried an imprint equal to its original noise; that everything was mapped out in that pre-spacetime manifestation of knowledge and understanding. I was drawn to believe that our futures were mapped out long ago, but that they were as inaccessible as our pasts: We had no control over either. Great swathes of George were alien to me. But why wouldn’t I explore, if George was my destiny? Or it could be the withdrawal, and I may have been withdrawing to a comfort zone. I couldn’t do that to George. What had this kid done to deserve me, inside him?

Life had been very much a game of give and take: If George had taken something, then he was indebted to someone else. If he received something and it wasn’t in recognition of anything he’d done, he was in someone else’s debt. When he gave something, he expected nothing back. It was simply an accepted fact that life gave back far less than was put in. No-one understood him, least of all himself. Did I? Could I?

His life revolved around visits to toy fairs with his father. They couldn’t afford the mint-and-boxed or the ready-made, so dad would just look around and George would use pocket money to buy spacecraft parts.

Broken and incomplete model kits were fuel for George’s shipyard in a cardboard box under the bed. When weekends were over, the shipyard had to remain where it was. When George was at his dad’s to build his craft, he didn’t. Because time was too valuable. So we were at George’s father’s house and it was the weekend.

When he wasn’t constructing, he was thinking. And he made more notes. He made the normal in my life fantastical, by explaining how science fiction writers were just one small step ahead of the real world. George knew I was there, or at least that it was possible for me to physically be there.

There were clippings from newspapers and magazines in the next box, including an obituary: Jemma Redmond was a bio-technologist who died aged 38 in 2016, like so many others in that awful year. The passing of her life was overshadowed by many more well-known figures in the public eye. But like George, she worked quietly, tirelessly and passionately. And she achieved some incredible things. She developed a means of using human tissue cells as “ink” in a 3D printer. She also helped in the design of 3D printers which reduced the cost of their manufacture. Jemma Redmond made it possible to “print” human organs for transplant into patients, and she reduced the cost so that the technique could be applied in the developing world. This is not science fiction. This is science fact, just a few years from now. Most people wouldn’t have known, unless it was brought to their attention and they then had the attention span to listen. But if anyone were to Google her name, her work is recorded in modern history.

There was a printout of a scientific paper about NASA’s EMdrive. The Electro Magnetic drive is a fuel-free means of propulsion, which could replace rocket fuel and all its limitations of bulk and speed. The EMdrive could take a spacecraft to Mars in 70 days. At present, it’s a two year trip, with a lot of psychological and physiological risks to any humans making the journey. Many of those problems would be overcome with the EMdrive. It’s due for testing soon and with development and improvement, could make other stars in the galaxy viable destinations for exploration and research. This is not science fiction. He had articles about solar sail arrays, the size of Colorado, taking tiny scout ships out to explore the cosmos ahead of humans. All of this could be possible within George’s lifetime.

But very few people know about these things because all of the bad news in the world shouts louder. If more people knew about the technological and scientific thresholds we’re at, they might talk about them. Others would then learn and eventually there might be a chorus of voices so loud that mankind has to listen and consider another way forward for the species.

George thought what a wonderful world ours could be if we concentrated on this stuff, rather than religion, conflict and capitalism. Of course, George was young and naïve in the eyes of most. He’d never be taken seriously if he proposed an alternative plan for humankind. So he kept and curated records, and he wrote about them. Like so many other people, he was recording his thoughts in the hope that someone might discover them later, or when he was older and might be taken more seriously. He was aware that he was documenting the present and the contemporary, and that it could become either history or the future.

The trembling had almost taken control of my limbs by now. Where it was first shaky fingers, then hands, now my arms and legs ached as though they needed to spasm.

The light went on again and the sky moved. There was more rustling of papers and scribbling with a pen or pencil. I started singing a song in my head, as I wondered something: I knew I didn’t need to eat, but would I need to get my hair cut out here? It was a song by the Crash Test Dummies: God shuffled his feet. If crash test dummies were to have nervous systems, I knew how one might feel by now. The light went off and the little big man upstairs settled back down. I needed coffee: lots of cream, lots of sugar.

My coffee used to come from a jug on a hotplate. George was planning a replicator. He explained in his notes how a replicator was just one step further on from a 3D printer. Scientists could already print human body parts after all. To print a cup, then some coffee to fill it, was actually quite simple. George was keen to point out in his notes that one should always print the cup before the coffee.

Like the quiet voices of mankind, George could only imagine. He could only wonder at the sky, or lie in bed and dream of what was beyond the ceiling. Humans travelling to other stars was one lifetime away. It was only a matter of generations before the dream could be anyone’s reality. George wanted to be anyone.

George escaped in his sleep. And he explained in his notes how it was possible to travel all over the universe. Not only was it possible, but everyone does it, every night. Everyone has dreams and George wrote his down. The spacecraft and all of its missions were in the same cardboard box; a microcosm universe beneath George’s bed. He explained how time travel could be possible:

It’s a simple matter of thinking of space and time as the same thing: Spacetime. Once you do that, it’s easier to visualise the fourth dimension: I am lying beneath a bed and I’m occupying a space in three dimensions (X,Y and Z); my height (or length), width and depth. Trembling limbs aside, I will occupy the same space five minutes from now. So the first three dimensions have remained constant, but the fourth (time) has changed. But also, I did occupy that same space five minutes previously. That, and every moment in between is recorded in the fabric of space time: I am still there, five minutes ago. I know the past. I don’t know if I’ll still be here five minutes hence: I can’t predict the future, even though it may be pre-planned from the start of all time as we understand it.

Of course, there is what’s known as The Grandfather Paradox: This states that if I were to travel back in time and kill my granddad, I would cease to exist. But if we assume that in George’s new world order, various ethics committees exist in the future, then time travel to the past could be undertaken in a governed, regulated and ethical manor. It might be a little like the First Directive imagined in many science fiction works, where it’s forbidden to interfere in any way in a species’ development, even if that means remaining invisible whilst watching them destroy themselves. This in itself is a paradox because no-one is qualified to say that it hasn’t already happened, conspiracy theorists aside.

When you’re despairing late at night and you just wish someone was there, but you don’t really want anyone around. When you’re confused, perhaps by internal conflict. That’s when you need a guardian angel. If someone would just phone you at that time, that would be perfect, because you’re not bothering them. You’ve not caused them any trouble. Guardian angels need a sixth sense and the ability to travel back in time.

George estimated his brave new world to be around 200-250 years from now; perhaps ten generations. There was a long way to go and a lot to do, and George would most likely not see any of it. Or so he thought. He was young and he had much to learn, then he needed to learn how to deal with it. The things which George wanted to do were the things I regretted not doing.

All things considered, I thought it might be better to not let George know that one of his prophesies does come true. It was too soon. He wasn’t ready. I couldn’t let him know that it was possible to send letters from the future, or that people from the past could be visited. It was a one-way street, a bit like going to see grandma because she can’t get to you. The departed are still around, we just can’t normally see them. Often they’re just watching over us. Sometimes they might want to speak to us but we need to be receptive.

By now, my arms and legs were in full spasm and I could feel my torso waiting to convulse. I cleared everything from around me as quietly as I could, so as not to interrupt whatever dream was unfolding above me.

The human body has an internal mechanism which shuts it down when stimuli get too much. An inconsolable baby will cry itself to sleep, and if a pain becomes truly unbearable at any age, we will pass out. I hadn’t tried to sleep since I’d been dead, but it looked like I was about to be shown how to.

I don’t know how far I travelled in the fourth dimension but I was woken by a voice:

Georgie?” It was a man’s voice. Dad was home.

In here dad.” George calling to his dad was the first time I’d heard him speak.

I got you your magazines.” Dad was now in the room, quieter but closer. He had big feet.

Thanks dad.” George’s voice had changed. Now that he was speaking at a lower volume, his voice was deeper: Young George’s voice was breaking.

Writing, the science one, and paper craft. Is that right?”

That’s the ones. Thanks.”

What’s all this?”

Notes. I’m writing a story. Here.”

There was a long period of quiet. George was shifting about on the bed and his dad was pacing around the room. There was that same distinct sound of pages being turned that I’d grown used to.

Jemma Redmond. I read about her. Amazing woman. Deserves a posthumous Nobel if you ask me. No-one did.

The EMdrive, eh? That’s exciting. I think we’ll use that for the interstellar stuff, and the solar sail ships for the wider galactic vanguard missions.”

There’s some pretty deep stuff in here Georgie. Did you do this all yourself?”

Well, I kind of had some help.”

From whom? I’d like to meet them.”

You can’t dad.”

Why not?”

Promise you won’t laugh?”

Can I smile?”

You may smile”. There was a pause. “So, I had a dream.”

We all have those. What about?”

Nothing specific. Just a load of dreams mixed into one I suppose.”

So you wrote about it. It’s good to write down your dreams.”

But not all of that writing is mine. See, there was this girl.”

A girl? In your dream?”

Yes. A small girl, with blonde fizzy hair. And green teeth.

Green teeth? Was she a witch? Is she under the bed?

Shit!

No. Well, she was kind of a witch. A dark witch but a good one. She was just wandering around, like she was showing me things. She might have been lost. I want to see her again.”

I imagine you do. At least your witch has somewhere to live now.”

***

George left at the end of that weekend but it wasn’t the end of the story. He visits every weekend and he continues to record things for historians of the future. Eventually, he may realise that he was part of the machinery which kept the conversation going. He didn’t know this yet but he was encouraged in his chosen vocations.

I was there, under the bed. If I’d been able to write, I’d have just added a note for George:

Do what you enjoy. If you enjoy it, you’ll be good at it and people might notice you. If not now, then in the future. Don’t put off till tomorrow that which you can do today. Because if you do it today and you like it, you can do it again tomorrow.

Your life is not empty and meaningless, regardless of who is in it or absent from it. Your life is what you make it, for yourself and for future generations. Don’t give up.

Hopefully George will continue this story, now history, but in the hope that it might be read in the future. And maybe he’ll find the notes I left for him.

Dust to Funky. Be safe George.

To this day, Dad has never gone through George’s things under the bed. I’d have noticed.

© Steve Laker, 2018.

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now in paperback.

Life trek: The next generation

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The week just finished was one I’d been dreading for some time, but which I couldn’t have missed at any cost. Not one for early mornings, my body was required to haul itself up and stay there three times this week, but time spent with generations respectively either side of me made the extra hours worthwhile.

man-machine-evolution-TVH-gerd-leonhard-1024x608Press release for Gerd Leonhard’s 2016 book: Technology vs. Humanity – The coming clash between man and machine

Further to my dad’s trip to London and a subsequent, more local hospital appointment, he’s surrounded by some clear water: The fluid on his brain hasn’t returned in any great quantity, and his blood readings are returning to normal. His neurologist vindicated my thinking, noting that the series of setbacks my dad’s suffered (an infection, then an adverse reaction to the antibiotics) will have slowed his recovery. Now things are more normal, and with no appointments to worry about (he stresses over the travelling), his recovery should quicken.

The visit to mum and dad’s was much nicer than I expected it to be; not that I wasn’t expecting to enjoy time with my parents, but because dad is in better health than I’d led myself to believe. I’m an advocate of optimism over pessimism, because being of either persuasion makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it. But a mind which will sometimes remind itself of its host’s human mortality also needs to prepare for other eventual certainties. My life has covered a lot of experiential ground, but there’s some I’m yet to tread one day.

As a scientific atheist, I don’t fear death. Or rather, I believe there’s a different life after this one, but while I remain human, I lack proof. I’ll always fear the mode of transit to the other side, and my own mind’s capacity to deal with the passing of another. It’s a universal human fear of the unknown, which my brain dwells on more than it should. For now, I’m only human.

On the other side of the generational family sandwich, I spent yesterday with my children, and was able to deliver positive news of the older generation. It was an important date (for us) because it marked the last time we’d be together for some while, before we’re once again all prime numbers. We’re currently 47, 13 and 11, so the next window will be when I’m 53, and the kids 19 and 17 respectively.

Life in 2023 will be very different to today, and we only have to look at the speed of change around us to see how obvious that is. If the world’s still here, and humans not extinct, we’ll see many more human occupations made redundant by technology. Like many others, my children understand the importance of remaining in education for as long as possible, when soon there’ll be relatively few jobs which are the sole preserve of humans.

In the right governmental hands, there’s a possible utopia ahead, where the productivity of machines means that wealth generated by a nation can finance a universal basic income, so that humans are free to pursue their hearts and dreams more, with the essentials taken care of. I believe a basic home is a human right and not a privilege, and that autonomous freedom has huge public health benefits, but the UK has a Conservative government.

I’ve always told my children to be the best they can at that which they enjoy the most (provided it’s legal and ethical), because that will give them the most back in satisfaction, and allow them to give more back to the world in which they create. At the moment, the eldest is learning to play keyboards, to possibly concentrate on the piano further down the line. He’s also building his own home computer. Meanwhile the youngest is a budding artist and illustrator in her spare time, in between learning three European languages (French, German and Polish).

There’s a lot to be said for being the middle of three generations, because each is a reflection of me on the other, and I’m not the Marmite filling I once was. I’m glad the gene for questioning and discovery was passed down, and only regret not making better use of it in my time. My children don’t suppress their curiosity in a conditioned life like I did. Now we’re learning together, as the world around us changes; and as old as I am, I sometimes have to ask them what something is.

Now that my dad’s getting better, hopefully we’ll be able to restart those conversations too.

Star Trekkin’ across the universe, Only going forward ’cause we can’t find reverse…”

No jacket or factory reset required

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’ve just returned from a 24 hour break, which I needed to open my eyes again. I’ve been among nature and handled a snake, I’ve been to London to be reminded where my heart lives, I’ve helped the aged, and I’ve been touched by beacons of humanity. I’d become trapped in my own home and I needed to escape, so I took my notepad and made some notes in the field…

star_trek_data

My main purpose was to help transport my dad to London for a consultation with his neurologist. For the uninitiated, he’d developed signs of senility but had fluid on his brain. This was drained and he seemed to be making a good recovery before complications set in. First an infection, then a long course of powerful antibiotics meant that his improvement slowed, and he even looked like he might be declining for a while.

Long story short, his recovery is now picking up where it left off, and we’ll know if any further invasive procedures will be needed in a few months’ time. The most recent prognosis is that his condition isn’t degenerative, but he’s of a certain age and any full recovery will take time. For now, he’s a bit slow on his feet and in his mind, but he has my mum as full-time carer. Yesterday I got to drive the wheelchair around London, in a role-reversal of all the times dad wheeled me around in a buggy as a kid.

As someone who’s become gradually more withdrawn over recent months, I wondered how my social anxiety and paranoia would cope with a return to the capital. Although I was there in sensible mode, providing practical help to a wheelchair user, I couldn’t help feeling drawn to stay. Looked at another way, I was fulfilling a duty which I’d have to complete, but London didn’t take long to let me know I’d be welcome back any time.

There’s the well-known saying, that you can take the person out of London, but you can never take the city out of the person. It applies equally to others in places all around the world, but London is where my heart is. Although I wasn’t born there, I’ve spent more than half my life living and working in London, and I believe I’m from the place where I feel at home, rather than my birthplace.

An early start to the day had skewed my internal clock (I was up at 8am, when normally I wake around noon), so by the time we got to dad’s appointment at a part of Great Ormond Street Hospital in Holborn, it felt like evening (it was 2.30pm). Mum went in to the consultation with dad, and I was free to explore. I quickly spotted a pub.

Unlike five years ago, I can go to a pub now for a single or social drink, and it won’t be the first of however many are needed to prevent me functioning. A pint of cider came in at just under a fiver, and I sat at a table outside on Queen’s Square to contemplate the cold, frosty glass. Then I took out my notebook and wrote this blog entry: everything to here in fact, as my glass sits almost full beside me, and an occasional droplet of condensation runs down the side. That pint cost me a fiver, so I owe it the respect of savouring the anticipation before I actually drink it.

Before I got there though, I’d travelled from my home to my parents’ house, and then to London. I had nothing to fear of any extra stress involved in travelling with a wheelchair user, and even though we were travelling on a group discounted ticket, we were given a little public transport red carpet treatment.

Our train was held so that a wheelchair ramp could be provided, and a train guard asked some young people to move from the wheelchair priority area of the carriage. Once dad was installed, seatbelt on and handbrake applied, I enjoyed a personal journey to London I’d not made in a while.

When I visit my kids every month, I only pass through London, hardly pausing on the way to Milton Keynes. The journey from where I live in West Malling, takes the rail line through the Bowie lands of Bromley and Brixton, before docking at London Victoria. On this trip, I was returned to travelling from Tonbridge and into London Charing Cross, a route I’ve not taken for over two years.

I like many things, including trains. I like all transport and the infrastructure which surrounds it (I love airports), and I like architecture, building and construction. I was keen to see the new London Bridge station and the progress of various tall buildings in the Square Mile. We were just passing through, but I vowed to return and explore the new London Bridge further, perhaps on a future visit to ride on Crossrail, The Elizabeth Line and the Battersea underground extension.

We were provided with a further ramp for alighting at Charing Cross, and with time to spare, we decided to walk to the hospital. On the way, I gave a running commentary on places and buildings of note, including Savoy Place, the only road in the UK where motorists drive on the right (it dates from an age of carriages setting down outside The Savoy, and now modern cabs, where the driver opens the driver-side passenger door to disgorge patrons). It was shortly after that I decanted myself into the pub.

A further ramp was provided by an obliging cabbie for the return journey to Charing Cross, and again by South Eastern staff at both ends. Local mini cab drivers had provided a similar assistance service (without the ramps), so my dad spent the entire day on wheels.

I stayed over and we had fish and chips for dinner. I decamped to the garden every time I needed to smoke, and with dad’s condition preventing him from keeping things as he’d like, it’s become somewhat overgrown. While I was smoking in the evening, I saw many species of birds, insects and spiders. Later at night, I heard the familiar rustle of undergrowth as a hedgehog foraged. My dad loves nature and he dotes on his garden, but he may decide to retain a bit of the wilderness now that all these new visitors are popping in.

As I smoked my last at around midnight, I was surprised at how clear the skies were above mum and dad’s home. Theirs is a suburban setting with street lighting, but despite the pollution, I could clearly make out the main planets, the obvious stars and constellations, and some more distant bodies in the night sky. It was as I wondered at my place in the universe that the familiar sound of mating urban foxes curdled the air, so I wished them well and retired.

I was physically and mentally tired from the day, so I turned in a couple of hours earlier than usual. At my parents’ house, there’s no danger of footsteps outside the door with the comings and goings of social tenancies, so there’s no need for a fan to provide drowning ambient white noise. Instead, I fell asleep to the sound of chirping insects and the occasional hoot from a distant owl, before floating through the universe.

My parents are off to another appointment for dad today, this one more local and not requiring my help. I got up early to spend a couple of hours with mum and dad, and their snake: a seven-year-old four-foot royal python, adopted from me when I fell apart (and he was my son’s snake: a birthday present, staying with me (another story on this blog somewhere)), but never returned because they were too attached to the little guy. Now their priorities are more with each other, and with my life far more settled and as secure as it can be in social accommodation, I could do with a companion. I need to check the specifics of the “No pets” rule with the landlord. Snakes don’t make a noise like some dogs, but attitudes towards them can be somewhat different among those who don’t take the time to educate themselves.

FordMy arm, with bracelet

It all started with a Facebook post (and a picture of a snake), after I’d written the last blog entry: I tend to post less personal stuff on here nowadays, and save my sentiments for the blog…

Over the last 24 hours, I’ve had good friends phone me to see how things are. It’s like the Facebook post led them to the blog and they took the time to read. If so, then I’m grateful. Because that last blog post was a quiet cry for help, and the help found me when humanity functioned.

It was nice to have a whole day and night, to relax and not worry about people wanting my material possessions. It was pleasant to spend time with different people and to see humanity and nature, briefly in the same view.

This post has rambled all over the place, just like me with my notepad in the last day. I needed to write it all down before it faded, because the depths and messengers of depression will return, as they always do. For now though, I’m restored, and I plan to venture out of the darkness again. Better to restore functionality than have to resort to a factory reset.

Snakes and stepladders

THE WRITER’S LIFE

It was by strange coincidence that I walked into a lost property office when I myself was lost. As I leaned on the counter, I remembered having the thing I’d lost, but not what it was. I rested my head on my hand and my elbow slipped, banging my head on the counter, and then I realised what it was: I’d lost my memory. I’d been self-censoring for too long, with so much stuck inside me.

Royal PythonA royal python

While the fiction writer was away, things had been happening in the real world, and one such happened on Friday, when I got a text: “Could you order rats on the internet please?” It was my mum, and in my family, this is a normal event. It also allows me to tell a story of my life, as I step back into writing…

Long ago (in 2010), after my marriage had broken down through my drinking, I lived in Bexley. I was still running a print management business, and I had a nice flat in an old manor house, with a heated swimming pool in the garden. The kids would stay with me at weekends, and so it was on the eldest’s seventh birthday. He asked if we could have a party, but I wasn’t sure how many of his friends would make the journey, and feared a deflated son. So I offered to buy him something with the money I’d otherwise have spent on a party, specifically a snake.

At the time, I was volunteering with a reptile rescue centre, and although snakes thrive in captivity, are cheap and easy to keep (after the initial outlay on housing and an actual snake), people were still naïve. Most of our guests were snakes and there were three main reasons for them becoming homeless: Their size, their diet, and their longevity.

Among the collection was a 12-foot Burmese python, which could potentiallly grow twice as big. She’d been bought as a yearling at about three feet, and the owner didn’t know some constrictors could grow that big. Most snakes feed on rodents, which can be bought frozen in bulk (you need a zookeeper’s license to feed live prey, it’s inadvisable to feed a captive-bred snake live food, can be inhumane for the prey, and a risk to the snake if the prey turns). So if you’re squeamish about having dead rats next to your frozen pizza in the freezer, perhaps best not to have a snake. And they can live for 30-40 years or more.

We had half a dozen or so royal pythons in the collection, which are relatively small (5-6 feet maximum) and easy to keep, but they’re secretive and can be fussy feeders. So the talking point in the room isn’t so much the snake, more a nicely decorated vivarium.

I could write reams on snake husbandry, breeding and minor veterinary treatments (I filed a paper at The Zoological Society of London, on treating snakes with scale mites), but a personal blog is not the place to learn about keeping snakes. Anyone considering keeping snakes should thoroughly research the subject, certainly more than most of our donors had.

I’d work with the rescue centre some weekends, and the kids enjoyed coming with me, because they’d learned a lot about snakes through me and were fascinated. Mostly we’d go to local and school fêtes, where we’d show the snakes (and a couple of lizards), engage with the curious, and educate the willing. It was mainly dispelling myths: Snakes aren’t cold and slimy, most are not venomous (certainly no constrictors), and very few bite in any case. In general, they’re placid, inquisitive creatures, and it was always a joy to witness someone’s first ‘Snake moment’.

On at least one occasion, I’d had a lady moved to tears. It was her 40th birthday, and she’d asked if she could learn about snakes. I happened to be free, so I sat down with her and a royal python at a table, and I answered her questions. She confided that she’d been not so much frightened as nervous about snakes, because she knew so little. At the end of the meeting, she held a five foot royal python in her hands and started crying. “It’s so beautiful,” she said. I must admit, that caused me a bit of a moment too, having helped someone overcome a common, pre-conditioned repulsion of an unfairly maligned creature, so that they could better understand it.

There was amusement too, like when we were at an event on Blackheath during the London Olympics, and I was charged with Alexa, the aforementioned 12-foot Burmese python. The Burmese is a fairly stocky snake, and pythons are constrictors, so they’re heavy on muscles. A snake of her size weighs in at around 25kg, which you’re very aware of when you’ve got one draped around your shoulders. Like most snakes, she was inquisitive too. To her, I was a warm tree. For me, it got tiring, so I’d let her down on the grass to give myself a rest.

We’d displayed signs around our reptile enclosure, clearly stating ‘No small dogs’, and as Alexa was stretching herself on the ground, I spotted an old lady with a toy ‘dog’ (the kind which would fit very easily down a large python’s throat). “Excuse me, madam,” I said politely, and pointed to a sign.

Oh it’s okay,” she replied, looking down at the snake’s food, “he’ll only lick you.”

That’s very nice madam, but my snake’s tongue is flicking because it sees food…” I picked up the snake, the rat licked my foot, and I resisted the urge to kick it.

The point is, snakes are fascinating creatures and totally undeserving of all the myth, suspicion and ignorance surrounding them. Generally speaking, kids are for more into snakes than grown-ups, perhaps because our greater general understanding of them isn’t shrouded in so much superstition as a generation or two ago. For at least the last 30 years, all snakes bought by the home enthusiast have been captive-bred, and there’s a large conservation scene among those who study and keep them.

I’ve been fascinated by snakes ever since a reptile breeder visited my primary school in 1977 (when I was seven), and my children have inherited the passion from their part-reptilian parent. I suspect my parents have snake DNA too, and that circles me back to the beginning of the story and that text from my mum.

So I got my son a royal python for his seventh birthday. My ex-wife wasn’t so keen, so I had the snake at my place, but he was very much my son’s project. The snake moved with me to Sidcup, where I lived for two years after Bexley. Eventually of course, I drunk everything away and I ended up back at my parents’, with a snake.

When I had my breakdown and all sorts of people were supporting my parents, the reptile rescue centre asked if they’d like them to take the snake. But they declined. The snake belonged to their grandson, so they wanted to keep him in the family. They paid me what I’d paid for the snake and the whole set-up, to give me money to stay afloat, and the arrangement was that I’d buy him back when I got myself sorted out.

I’ve lived in my studio for almost two years now, I have a rolling tenancy, and therefore the nearest I’m ever going to get to a permanent home. But ever since we started talking again after I’d sobered up, my mum (who’s 73) and dad (76) will not sell the snake back, not through any concern for his well-being, but because they’re so attached to the little guy. For now I just order his food for mum and dad’s freezer.

People think I’m weird, and I am. But don’t blame the parents.

Breaking the mind cycle

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

I said I’d be more open when I could, and now I can write more honestly about a few things which have been keeping me quiet lately…

Break the cycle

Top of the vox pops has been my dad, who’s been unwell. He’s home now and all the evidence suggests he’s much better. Long story short, he was having problems with his memory and sense of direction. It had been a process so gradual that it was barely noticed by those closest to him, until one night when he went missing.

A keen and able driver with 60 years of incident-free motoring behind him, and a man who would invariably be early for any meeting, appointment or gathering, it was unusual for my dad to be late home. So when my mum phoned me to say dad was an hour late, alarm bells began to toll in the distance.

I spent at least ten minutes on the phone to mum, during which she kept popping outside the front door to see if he was coming up the road. It was getting dark and it was a Saturday. Dad was never keen on driving in the dark, and there’d be something on TV he’d scheduled to be home for (probably a transport, engineering or emergency services documentary), now finished.

Eventually I phoned the police, and in doing so, I knew I was robbing my dad of his main liberty: his car and the freedom to drive it. I was also taking away my mum’s ride, and their means of visiting me and others. I asked mum several times if I should grass the old man, when there might be a perfectly valid reason for him being late, but none seemed likely. I knew – and I told mum – that as soon as I reported dad missing, the police would put out an alert, dad would trigger an ANPR camera and probably get a TPAC by three fed cars (I watch a lot of police procedurals myself). After a couple more checks on his whereabouts outside, she agreed, better that than a starring role in 24 Hours in A&E.

As it turned out, it wasn’t that dramatic. Dad did indeed trigger a camera, and was soon lit up by blue lights from behind. He pulled over to let an emergency vehicle pass, then quickly realised it was him the police were after. “Your son reported you,” they’d said, so that was nice of me. One officer then drove dad home in his car, tailed by her colleague in the Battenberg. I found this all out when dad phoned me when he got home, to thank me for getting him there. But I knew there’d be fallout.

Dad’s 75, so his slight doddering might have been put down to simple ageing. But when it became life-affecting, thoughts turned to senility and degenerative neurological conditions. I’d been aware of his ongoing decline when I reported him, and dad’s health had been one of the police’s concerns. He was at the consultation stage at the time, but it was serious enough for him to have to surrender his driving license, for his own safety (and that of others). I felt like shit.

Further tests and scans revealed a build up of fluid around dad’s cerebellum, causing pressure on his brain. Dementia couldn’t be ruled out, but it was likely that relieving the pressure would restore his cognitive functions. This was at the end of last year, so any treatment would be in the new year. I’d displaced my whole family over Christmas, as my dad was the only one with a car. Everyone was going to have a shit Christmas, because of me.

Early this year, dad had the first of two operations, initially to drain the build up of fluid around his brain stem. Later he may need a stent, but the first procedure was a success. Very soon after, dad regained a lot of himself, and he was reading, watching TV, and even got some fine-detail colouring books. It was quite incredible to witness someone return so suddenly from something which had been so gradually debilitating. Then it all went tits up.

Just a few days after returning home, dad was hit with an infection, specifically at the site where the excess cerebral fluid had been drained (he’d had a spinal tap, after all). Infections are never welcome interlopers, but the ones who attack the brain and central nervous system can be particularly worrisome. Earlier dad had been picked up by a police car, now he was being carted away in an ambulance (to the best of my knowledge, my parents don’t play with matches).

Dad was in hospital for three weeks and I didn’t see him once. It would be a five-stage journey for me, by public transport or taxi. Social anxiety aside, I simply couldn’t afford it, and I had no-one to give me a lift. But in some respects, I’m glad I stayed away, if only to witness my parents becoming much closer. Mum gets free travel, so she was at the hospital every day and I spoke to her as regularly as I thought appropriate, caring, but at the same time, not wanting to be in the way. Now dad’s home, where he can recover quicker, and after 50 years of marriage, him and mum are still very much in love.

I’m told I shouldn’t feel guilty for taking my dad’s liberty, and that I’m not to blame for his ill health (his cognitive decline brought on by my breakdown and subsequent conduct), so I must just be paranoid.

Paranoia breeds and cross-pollinates my other neurological inflections, anxiety and depression, and together they form the unholy trinity in my mind, which many others suffer. I live alone and I’m left alone, so few have to suffer me.

I’m an alcoholic, who lives with a guilt complex. I could probably get utterly pissed and get away with it, and no-one would notice because few call or visit. But I made this situation, by not wanting anyone too close, so if I lapsed, I’d be the only one who noticed.

It wasn’t because I lapsed in anything other than myself, that this blog has been less dynamic than usual lately. Now that I have my greatest fear – that of losing my father – lessened, I can start to make plans again. Among those plans are to write more, so that I’m less alone now that my mind isn’t so tied up with myself.

Like my dad, it’s like I can hear myself again. I hope others can too.

Guardian angels, in the skin

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There’s much in my real life which I’d like to write about, but which for various reasons I can’t. There are stories developing which could end well or otherwise, and there are others with endings very much open. There are concerns for the health of at least one relative, and many other people’s situations I’m helping in. One story I can now tell, could have gone very badly, and it’s only just beginning.

Dark Angel

Like so many of the young people I’m still in touch with, I met Courtney when I was homeless. I met most of the others while I sat writing in McDonald’s, or later, when I’d established the squat (in an old commercial premises). An initial ‘No minors’ policy in my temporary hermit’s home quickly fell apart, when first one teenager found it and others inevitably followed. In time it became a peaceful anarchy of lost boys and young suffragettes.

My main fear was preconditioned perceptions. Although everyone at the squat was respectful of the neighbours, young girls visiting an older guy is bound to get the thought police thinking wrongly. So began on ongoing battle with the plastic police and defective detectives, who would jump to conclusions and assume that my conduct was inappropriate, despite never enquiring to find out. On any given day, I’d be camped out on a mattress somewhere, with sometimes half a dozen schoolgirls sitting with me. It would be wrong to envy me, for all I heard from those troubled young minds.

If those judges unfit for purpose had attended some sort of anti-kangaroo court, they might have learned the truth. They’d learn little though, as most of what was discussed was intensely private. Those young people (and they were mainly girls) mostly had complex backgrounds and many were without an older guardian, or frightened of the ones they had. To them, I might have been some radical, travelling, free-spirited writer, but most of all, I became an older wise friend they could talk to outside of their peer group.

For me, it was something to do. Those young people gave me purpose and helping them out with words of advice was rewarding. Some of them are doing some amazing things now (a forensic science student, a budding equestrian…) For the most part, they told some fascinating and tragic stories, and I was always touched that they’d chosen to confide in me. And there were never any drugs.

This was all known to the real police, as the squat was just up the road from the nick: I’d been on the wrong side of them (and stayed there) when I’d stolen some food, and they knew where I lived by then. Every so often, a couple of PCSOs (Laura and Mary) or local plain clothes officers (John and another) would pop in after school, just to see who was there, and if they were all okay (many of the youngsters were known to the law as well).

At six o’clock their mummies and daddies wouldn’t come to pick them up, but they’d disperse into the evening and whatever waited at home for them. I really feared for some.

Courtney was at the squat too, but I’d met her before, initially on my first night out with Mike Skinner (on the streets). Her and two friends got talking to me, as I sat on a bench with my life in three Sports Direct bags at my feet. I lied that I had somewhere to stay that night, but had a vague hope a friend at the other end of town might help me out. So I walked two miles to the other end of Tonbridge, with three 15-year-old girls carrying my bags. I asked them to wait while I called at my friend’s door. As I’d actually expected, he couldn’t help out. So I let the girls know I’d be safe for the night, and they returned to their respective homes. For some reason, I later got a slap from Courtney, when she found out I’d lied to her. Even though she was a third my age, she was a protector (she’d lived on the streets before).

Courtney was reassurance that it was possible to be more displaced in life than I was, as most days she’d appear beside me in McDonald’s, either bunking off college or avoiding home. Eventually, she moved into the squat for a while. At the time, she was 16. We let the local police know where she was (they knew her very well), and there was an almost audible sigh of relief from the police station. Now it would be much easier to find a serial absconder from home.

Aged 16, a person isn’t legally obliged to return to an address (certain conditions aside), especially if it’s the same address they’re running away from. The police themselves agreed, that with me in the squat, it was the safest place for Courtney.

In the four years since, we’ve remained close friends, I’ve met many of hers, and they’ve become friends too. We’re siblings, in all but blood (but there’s been blood). We’ve been through a lot ourselves, and together. Long after we left the squat, when Courtney returned first home, then to various shelters, she’d still abscond when life got the better of her, and I was always first port of call for the police (If she wasn’t with me, the network of youngsters from the squat would help us find her). I still would be, but she’s an adult now in the eyes of the law.

When a girl with a history of drug use, and a criminal record as long as her medical one (she has depression and PTSD, and she’s on the ADHD, Asperger’s and other mental health spectra) falls pregnant, interested parties and agencies are inevitable, and so it’s been for the past several months.

Come the day of the birth, I wasn’t there. I know the girl well, but there are parts of some people I never wish to see. I’m sure there were a few people who were surprised when the baby’s skin tone ruled me out of any paternal role, but I’d only remained close to my friend because the father hadn’t.

A Child Protection Order had already been placed on the unborn baby, which naturally stressed an already highly-strung mum-to-be. There was a chance the child would be taken away soon after the birth. Courtney, her mum and her grandmother were very aware of this, as three generations gathered to welcome a fourth, possibly for only a short while. Then, like a rhino quite literally charging through a hospital (bull in a china shop is too clichéd and polite), an uninvited interloper blundered in.

By all accounts (three that I’ve heard), this “friend” ate some food, asked the relatives to leave, and let the medical staff know she was the mum’s best friend and godmother to the baby. Then she went home and posted a self-congratulatory photo proclaiming her godmotherliness on Facebook, expecting I-don’t-know-what. Social awareness and responsibility are as far removed from reality as social media twists some lives.

Far from adulation, a general sense of shock pervaded, among those aware of the insensitivity of the selfish gesture. Everyone else seemed aware that Courtney only wanted to be with close family in a very tense (and possibly temporary) situation, and that anyone else could jeopardise the whole thing. She’d previously said she might need a friend, but quickly realised that none were more important than family, even if hers could only be gathered fleetingly. The gravity of the matter didn’t trump the importance of self in one person’s blind ignorance. Even in the absence of a specific instruction to respect privacy, everyone else got it. If ever the blindly bungling, misguided excuse were to read this, perhaps it might provide some spectacles with which to see the bigger prevailing picture, better late than never. 

This invader hadn’t been the only one competing for attention and accolades as the day of the birth arrived, and the roles of godparents had been brought up many times, mainly by those who wanted to occupy the titles. Courtney herself had more pressing matters to attend to (having the baby and keeping it), so she’d made vague indications to a few persistent friends that they’d discuss it at a later date, perhaps when she found out if she was allowed to actually keep her own child.

So the announcement on social media of the Mr Ben godmother was wholly inappropriate and insensitive, to many people, not least of all the girl who then lay in hospital wondering if she’d even see her own daughter grow up. Now she was looking at Cleo (the baby) in someone else’s arms, while that person looked very pleased with themselves grinning out of Facebook. When it was pointed out to the would-be anti-fairy godmother that her conduct was in fact quite crass (it was as close as you could get to mental kidnap), she responded in self-defence, with yet more disregard for anyone’s feelings outside her own malfunctioning ones. There was never an apology, just prolonged self-flagellation in public.

For my part, I’d explained to my little sis that a godparent isn’t just a badge to be worn by the highest bidder, any more than a Christening should be used for personal gain. Courtney’s about as religious as me, so she gets that a Christening would be a waste of the church’s time, and that of those attending, obliged to dress up for a public display of infant torture as it has water splashed over its head. She’ll have a baby shower instead. But more importantly, choose any godparents wisely.

The godparents would be the ones Courtney needed most, for possibly a very long time, and not just in fair weather or for photo opportunities. Single parenting is difficult in any circumstances, but a mum with so many mental health issues and past problems is going to need help and support. While all those clamouring for selfish attention and entitlement crawled over Facebook, myself and a young friend of Courtney’s (a student midwife) were talking to various agencies, eventually ensuring that she kept Cleo. I helped with the phone calls and emails which eventually got mum and baby a placement in a joint dependence centre. All of this was done quietly by myself and “Charlton” (she’s named after a west London football club, but I’m from Catford), with no premature self-congratulatory posts on Facebook. The key was a letter I wrote.

As someone who’s always been in conflict with authority, Courtney doesn’t trust officialdom. It was a tough job, getting her to see that the various agencies wanted to help her, but that they had both her and Cleo’s welfare at heart. Even though I know she’s a decent person, I also know she’s prone to the odd wobble. She’s slapped me in the face and kicked me in the shins, simply because she gets frustrated. She can’t do that to many people, so she normally runs away. I just wait for her to fall apart, then pick up the pieces.

She eventually realised why everyone seemed to be against her (the courts, social services etc.): all they had to go on was what they’d seen: probation reports, a criminal record, drug use… That was all they knew, because they didn’t know the person, just the pieces of paper. A court hearing was pending Cleo’s birth, and whether Courtney kept her baby would be down to what was presented in court. So I wrote a letter of defence, a personal reference to counterbalance the case against my sister.

There was a lot in the letter (six pages of personal testament) but my closing statement was that I believed (as a friend) that Courtney would change, as soon as she had a reason. She wasn’t one who felt things should be earned, but give a homeless alcoholic a home, and he will sort the rest out with support around him. I used myself as an example of how someone’s life can be balanced, if they’re given something to live for. For me, it was a permanent home. For Courtney, it would be a baby. It was also a massive risk of a friendship, but one I knew would prevail, whatever happened.

I’ve had confirmation since, that it was this letter which helped Courtney into the mother and baby unit where she is now, when it would have been far easier at the time (this was Christmas) to simply place the baby into care. She’s halfway through that placement now, she’s proved me right and she’s vindicated my letter’s content. With Charlton and myself still helping out, the next step is to get her back home from Essex (it was the only place available then) and re-integrated with her own area (Kent), where dangers from the past could upset the balance if there’s no support. A combination of what all three of us have done means she’ll have her liberty back sooner than anyone might have thought.

Charlton and me have both been interviewed by social services and we’ve been asked to become Courtney’s family unit, for all upcoming meetings and hearings with various agencies, then for her ongoing life (and support). We’re recognised by the county council as being appropriate to the roles, and we’ve been asked to write life plans with Courtney, thereby committing ourselves to a judge.

Courtney asked us to be godparents. Auntie Steve and Uncle Charlton will help to bring Cleo up, and we’ll help our friend, as we always have, quietly and with no sense of entitlement. We’re not religious. We didn’t want for it, we didn’t need it, ask for it, or assume it. We earned it, by being ourselves.

Now they’re together, Courtney decided to get a tattoo for Cleo (on herself, not on the baby). She had a few stock quotes and poems in mind, but she thought something original would be more appropriate. So she asked a writer she knows to come up with something that had much personal sentiment besides the context of the words themselves.

The greatest love
grows inside
The strongest bond
my eternal pride

Cleo-Rose 18.12.17

With thanks to Courtney, who allowed part of her story to be told. All agency and authority references available on request for appropriate parties.

Adventures in Nan’s dentures

FAMILY LIFE

With my next collection of short stories finished (and published in a couple of weeks), I’ve returned to the book which will follow. When I left it, my dad was a chimney sweep, so I’ve been back to childhood to pick up from there, trying to leave my dark fiction writer self in the future.

Desk and skull

Sundays at Nan’s followed roughly the same routine: Lunch and a long walk, then tea, and any remaining jobs Nan had listed for dad (after he’d swept the chimney). Sunday tea wasn’t so much quintessentially English as idiosyncratic, with Nan normally taking her afternoon drink with a slice of toast, browned under the grill on one side only. No-one can remember when Nan lost her lower set of dentures.

For reasons known only to those who took me there, we’d sometimes pop in to see Nan’s next door neighbour, in an adjoining war memorial bungalow. I remember very little of the discussion, but Nan’s friend Franie (Frances, I think), lived alone, and sat for the most part at her dining table by the window overlooking the front garden onto the road, and on the other side, the farm. She liked to “watch the folk go by…” quite a lot.

The farm opposite Nan’s was Simmons’ Farm in those days, run mainly by the brothers, who all had occupational nicknames. The most fragrant was ‘Spuddy’, whose brother (‘Digger’) had a son in my class at secondary school. There were fewer things to occupy teenage boys’ curiosities in the 1980s, so producing a severed turkey’s foot from one’s school bag was guaranteed to draw attention, especially when the foot had tendons attached, allowing it to be operated as a puppet claw. Acquiring such niceties was a simple matter of walking over the road from Nan’s to the farm around Christmas time.

We were very close to our food in those days, with most that fed the family taken from the land. At Oldbury Place in Ightham, dad would sometimes escort his boss, Mr Byam-Cook, on shoots, both on his own land and further afield. ‘Mr. B.C.’ had a black Labrador gun dog (Beta) and dad was his human beater, scaring game from the undergrowth with a stick.

Many were the days us children helped mum in the kitchen, plucking pheasants, skinning rabbits, and picking lead shot from various unfortunate Beatrix Potter characters. These would be served with vegetables, fresh from the kitchen garden. Having little money didn’t mean going hungry when the boss was a wealthy altruist with a gun.

The main landscaped gardens (by Dad & Co.) were host to a tennis court, and many visitors on weekends when the main house was open to members of the public with an interest in history, or where their neighbours lived. There was at least one occasion when I opened the door of our annexe stable cottage to a curious traveller, who no doubt grew gradually confused when she was shown around the wrong house by an over-eager kid.

The whole estate – the houses and the grounds – were an adventurer’s playground when we were young. The big house was ridiculously so, with rooms bearing names I never knew existed. It had separate rooms for general dining and taking breakfast, supplied by a cathedral-like kitchen, with its own walk-in larder and a maid’s room. There was a library, a games room and a drawing room, which I never saw anyone drawing in (there was also a scullery, but no skulls). There was a main living room and a vast bathroom, and a chequered corridor ran throughout from the main reception hall. That was the ground floor, then there were two storeys above and one below.

When the owners of the big house were away, mum would sometimes let us go with her to the mansion in school holidays, when she was cleaning or cooking. I dare say it caused her more stress than we ever knew, as she worked downstairs and we were two floors above, strangely silent among treasures but still very much in someone else’s house. Wealthy people too, who had real treasures.

These were people who were well-travelled, so there were various curiosities from around the world strategically placed. Where we had a family photo album, they had oil paintings of ancestors on their walls. But even though I was only young, I questioned these. Although they were fine paintings by talented artists, to me they were unreal, at least because they weren’t as honest as a photograph.

There was the subterranean level too, in the wine cellar. No doubt there were many great vineyard vintages ageing and increasing in value down there, but to a kid, it was yet more adventure.

And then of course, there were guns. But these were locked in a cupboard, within a locked room, which was out-of-bounds to all but Mr Byam-Cook. I recall at least one time, when he came to our door at night, and there’d been intruders in the big house. There may have been far more anecdotes to recall, if those guns hadn’t been so responsibly kept. Or maybe not, if we’d all died.

Seven days a week it seemed, mum and dad both worked. Even days out were usually wrapped around something which someone else needed doing, and my parents would take us kids along. But I recall no resigned shrugs or kicking of heels, because even the working days were adventures for enquiring minds whose lives didn’t depend on it. We depended on our parents and it was both of them who worked and made sacrifices to put food on various tables.

Despite my research spanning several centuries for parts of this book, and the many old houses that’s taking me to, the mystery of Nan’s missing dentures remains thus far unsolved.

Silent Gardens will be published in March.