The elephant in the bathroom

FLASH FICTION

A story popped into my head tonight, and I have no idea why. These things just happen, like a single sheet of paper through my typewriter in a matter of minutes…

Dolphin in the Toilet2

THE DOLPHIN IN THE TOILET

The dolphin downstairs got in last time the Thames flooded. In this road, the ground floor was under water for months while they repaired the barrier. Most people have moved out, but I can’t because I’ve got the dolphin. I live upstairs in my bedroom now.

He swam in at the start of the flood, and every day the water level didn’t go down, he just made himself at home. He’s got my sofa and armchairs down there in what was my living room; There’s a telly in there too. In the kitchen, he’s got my cooker and washing machine; and there’s the downstairs toilet. See seemed to like it in there, so that’s when I called him Donald, like the duck. Like the toilet duck, except Donald is my dolphin.

Well, seeing as he’d decided to take up residence, when the river went down outside, I kept all the water which had come in on the ground floor. That was Donald’s home. All the doors are damned-up with plastic bags full of soil. I use the upstairs window to jump down to the garden. I mean, hardly anyone lives round here any more, so no-one’s going to come and rescue Donald, are they?

Do you want to meet him? Do you want to say hello to Donald?

If you come out of my bedroom, there’s the bathroom on the left and here’s the stairs. You can see we can’t go down, because the water’s up to the ninth step. There’s fourteen in all, so we can see five. The water’s a bit brown, but he’s light grey, so he looks like a ghost.

When Donald comes up to the surface to breathe, he sometimes moves his blowhole like a mouth, like he’s trying to say something. I’ve got most of the language worked out, and I can buy him fish. He’s a captive animal which I’m protecting though, so he relies on me for everything. He has other needs. He needs to breed. And so do I. You should leave now.

© Steve Laker, 2019

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Songs from a singular lung

MICRO FICTION

I blew into the breathalyser, like a blade of grass between my thumbs. I didn’t know what animal sound I was making, but whatever beast I’d summoned was now approaching…

Kermit Typing

An irreversible misadventure

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

EDIT: World War 3 was always going to be a technological conflict, and one without national borders. Eventually the war was between humankind’s bi-polar ideologies. Essentially it came down to what it means to be human.

In a test of how my new fabric conditioner works, I’m hanging out some old laundry. Fashions change, but I wrote this three years ago: After the pre-amble, a hacked story of how warring factions in a video game don’t see the common foe which might unite them.

Back in the 1980s, I was a teenager. These things are subjective, but for me, that was the best decade to be one. Back then, I’d sit in my darkened room, tapping away at an Atari ST, a Commodore Amiga, and latterly, my first IBM PC. We had four terrestrial analogue TV channels back then in the UK, so I collected films on VHS tapes. Most nights I’d watch a US teen movie, with WarGames being a personal favourite. I’d envy the kids in those films, with their cool rooms, their computers hooked up to dial-up via an acoustic coupler, and watching US cable TV.

The-Only-Winning-Move-is-NOT-to-Play
The only winning move is not to play

Then my first life took over. I got married, we moved to London and had kids. I worked in print, up to group director level, before I set up a business with my ex-wife and we were successful for a while. Then the drink took over and it all peeled away, so that eventually – after ten years – I found myself back in Tonbridge and on the streets.

I’d lost everything and I had nothing: No home, let alone anything to put in one. The only thing to do, to occupy my mind, was to write. That was almost four years ago now. In those early days, I wrote about anything and everything. In one of my old notebooks (which I still have), I wrote of where I wanted to be, ‘when this is all over’. It took a lot of work, but I recovered, and now I have what I wished for then: A stable base, where I can write, surrounded by the things I loved; a place I’d wanted to be when I watched all those old films on VHS. That was a small place (I was never going to be able to work again), which I gradually filled with all the things I’d wanted as that teenager: A huge film collection, loads of books, a big music library, a good computer, and a decent number of TV channels. I’m not in a financial or physical place where I can have satellite or cable, as the latter isn’t laid around here, and my building is Grade I listed, so I can’t have a dish. My village internet is too slow for any streaming service, so I’m stuck with Freeview. But I’ve found UK Freeview to be just like the old US cable channels I used to see in those geeky 1980s films: Car crash TV, half-arsed documentaries, good and bad films, cult American TV, geeky and conspiracy late-night stuff. I’ve kind of recreated my teenage wish, and now I can enjoy catching up on all I missed, because I was drunk. I’m retro.

I wrote most of the stories which make up The Perpetuity of Memory while I was homeless. Not long after I’d written about reliving my teens, I wrote the story below. I won’t be posting all of those stories on this blog, as I’d rather people buy the book and read them in the order they’re curated, which makes the sum of the parts a complete book in itself. This one is timely though, coming at a time when my personal life is somewhat mirrored now in some of the elements of the story, and it has nods to WarGames, something I’ve become wearily involved in in my personal time lately. There are other references for the sharper-eyed film geek to spot too.

It’s apropos of nothing though, that I can feel a depressive episode coming on, such is the nature of those things. Others who deal with depression will know this feeling: That something is in the post. It’s an analogy, and there’s nothing expected in the mail, but the mind of the chronic depressive can sometimes do this. There is no trigger and no individual event or situational catalyst, it just happens. I deal with situations and events as they come. The latest one which threatened my karma was someone making personal remarks in ignorance. Having told the individual to cease and desist, they clearly didn’t recognise it as a term usually used at a pre-legal stage as a final warning. It seems that some people might only see vindictive lies as the slander they actually are, when they’re served with a legal notice, have to repeat their baseless argument in court and lose a load of money for defamation of character. I’ve given pre-legal warning with the cease and desist request, so I’ll only have to pop this particular boil if it continues to irritate. One of the many great things about being a writer, is the knowledge and contacts you pick up. All writers have to be conversant with copyright and common law, so most have a lawyer friend. And like all depressive episodes, the one which seems to be brewing may not even happen. Like some people, they’re just an annoyance, but you can’t legally warn a depressive episode not to happen.

The best distraction for me is to write. On that front, I’ve been put in touch with a professional book reviewer, who’s going to review Cyrus Song. One of my short stories is currently with a creepy pasta site, so there may be a short film coming soon. And I’m writing the sixth of 17 new short stories for my second collection. The story should be finished and published in the next month. Then there’s the personal history book I’m working on, which ought to take on more form at the weekend, when I’m hosting my parents and a shoe box full of old photos.

For now, a short fable, about what can happen when someone wanders blindly out of their depth…

L177L3 M155 &Y

If you give an infinite number of monkeys an infinite supply of typewriters, they will eventually transcribe the Complete Works of Shakespeare. The way things had progressed so far, it felt to Andy like every time her monkeys got to the last letter, one of the little fuckers would hit a wrong key. And so the process would begin again. She looked as the green-on-black text on her monitor scrolled through brute force attempts to crack her current holy grail of a password. She read the scrolling text on her screen in duplicate as it reflected back from her spectacles.

“This isn’t working, Vic.” Andy addressed the keyboard in front of her: an old Commodore Vic 20. Launched in 1981, the Vic 20 home computer pre-dated Andy by twenty years. It had five kilobytes of memory, a processor speed of 1.1Mhz and a graphics display of 176 x 184 pixels. Andy liked the keyboard and the retro look. Although the computer inside was fully functional, it was just the keyboard for her set up: a high end gaming PC under the desk, which she’d built herself and which would make a PS4 look like the Commodore. It was like reading her geek magazines, hidden inside a copy of Just Seventeen on the subway.

“Andrea?” Andy’s dad called from downstairs. “Sam’s here.”

“Thanks dad. Could you send him up please?”

“Yep. Up in her loft Sam.”

“Thank you sir.” Andy heard the steps creak as Sam ascended. “Hey bitch.”

“Dude. How’s things?”

“Oh, you know: different day, same shit. Jesus fuck, Andy! Do you ever clean up here?” Sam looked around at piles of newspapers and magazines; notebooks and pens; pizza boxes and dirty clothes.

“Only when I have to. I mean, when I absolutely must go out and I’m passing the garbage cans anyway? Besides, I prefer Salt n’ Shake to Shake and Vac.”

“Doesn’t your old man get mad? I mean, he’s a clean freak.”

“That’s why he keeps me locked in the attic.” Andy smiled. “Nah, dad’s cool. He keeps the house just as he likes it, and as far as he’s concerned, the loft is my apartment. I’ve got all I need up here: bathroom, refrigerator, cooker; couch, TV, DVD player…”

“Do you spend any time with your dad?”

“Every Sunday. We have brunch at his, and his eggs are to die for.”

“At his; downstairs.”

“Yeah, I know it’s a bit weird, but dad’s just as private as me. We’re totally different, but we get on well if we keep the doses small.”

“Your dad’s cool.”

“Yeah, he’s pretty special. And anyway, he’s too busy competing with next door for the best manicured lawn.”

“Yeah, what’s with that guy next door?”

“He’s just a creep. When I do go out? He’s always at his window. I swear he’s jerking off.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

“Nah. He’s a lonely old man. He’ll die pretty soon.”

“You freak. Anyway, why’d you call me over? What you up to?”

“Well, I figured I’d see if I could give the computer hardware something that might actually challenge it. There’s a rumour among the geeks that the next generation of consoles will sort of skip a generation: a kind of quantum shift. So the PS5, or whatever they call it, will not be to the PS4 as the PS4 is to the PS3. The PS5 will be more like a PS6 or 7. So they say.”

“Well, they say a lot, don’t they?”

“Yeah but they’re well connected. Anyway, no-one knows what this great technological leap is going to look like, so no-one’s writing code for the new consoles. There have to be games out there with developers though, right?”

“I guess.”

“So, I’ve been using the dark web and I’ve picked up a few tools. Right now, I’ve got my system looking for other computers with lax security and having a poke around. Nothing too malicious: we’re just looking for specific file types which would suggest that a particular computer is being used to develop games.”

“Andy. Do you really think that kind of thing would be sitting on a vulnerable system?”

“All systems are vulnerable to the kind of tools I have. Anyways, when I find a computer which would be vulnerable to a less well-armed hacker, I leave a calling card with instructions on how to shore up the holes.”

“How very noble of you.”

“Oh, come on. Just because Joe public is a bit dumb, doesn’t mean they deserve to be hacked by malicious amateurs. I’m a white hat hacker, Sam.”

“And you’re pretty good at it. Judging by the screen though, it looks like you found nothing yet?”

“I’ve found plenty of cracks into systems and I’ve got them all saved. This latest one is proving a tough nut to crack. Let’s see what I got from some others.” Andy switched screens and a list appeared. “Welcome to the backstreet, where all these good folks left their back doors open.”

Hey, you got a bank.” Sam pointed at an entry on the list.

“Well, someone would have to be pretty foolish to give their account details, PIN or password to anyone on the phone, but they might as well hand over their house keys if banks leave doors open like this. Gotta make a note of that one: might come in handy some day. This one looks interesting.” Andy hovered the mouse over an entry on the list. “Doesn’t identify itself.” She clicked on the unidentified vulnerable computer.

Welcome to Drone Doom.

Please wait…

“We found something Sam.”

Game loaded.

Drone Doom is a collaborative project, designed for the next generation of games consoles. Combining real time data with augmented reality, the game is played in the real world, using drones.

Take control of a Doom Drone and the game will augment itself with Google Earth to give players a real life, ‘live’ video feed in which to play the game.

Played online, Drone Doom enables players to collaborate or act as lone units. Fight as part of an army, or act alone: the choice is yours. As a combatant, players are safe: you take control of a remotely operated drone in a field of conflict. The only limit is your imagination and morals.

You will see the real world through the video feed from your Doom Drone. Defeat enemies and witness the destruction first hand but from a safe distance. STRAP A WARHEAD TO YOUR FOREHEAD!

Points are accumulated by killing enemies and recorded in the game database, so that players may compare scores. THIS IS OLD FASHIONED, HIGH SCORE GAMING!

Upgrades can be earned as a player progresses in the game, or as in-game purchases. Please note that Drone Doom is beta-testing and not all features may be available during development.

Please choose your theatre of conflict:

A cursor blinked on the screen. “No list of options? What do you think?” Andy turned to Sam.

“Help?” Sam shrugged.

“Give it a go.”

Help.

Help not available at this stage.

“Hmm…” List games.

Game list not available. Drone Doom is open-ended and scenarios are generated by players. Once released and online, Drone Doom will offer a choice of real world live scenarios and those created by users. Please note that because of the nature of the game, decisions are one-time only and irreversible. Once committed to a scenario and in control of a Doom Drone, a player may only exit by means which may become apparent once inside the theatre. In the real-life scenario, a soldier would not dessert his or her comrades and this extends to drones operated by combatants remotely. Physical separation from battle provides a degree of personal safety for a Doom Drone operator but as soldiers, we must fight alongside one another and obey the same moral rules that we would if we were there in person.

Laws and ethics of war.

The international laws of war (such as the Geneva Conventions) govern the conduct of participants in war (and also define combatants). These laws place a burden upon participants to limit civilian deaths and injuries through proper identification of targets and distinction between combatants and non-combatants. The use of completely autonomous weapon systems is problematic, however, because of the difficulty in assigning accountability to a person. Therefore, current designs still incorporate an element of human control (a ‘man in the loop’), meaning that a ground controller must authorize weapons release.

Concerns also include the human controller’s role, because if he is a civilian and not a member of the military (which is quite possible with developmental and highly sophisticated weapons systems) he would be considered a combatant under international law which carries a distinct set of responsibilities and consequences. It is for this reason that the ‘man in the loop’ should ideally be a member of the military that understands and accepts his role as combatant.

Controllers can also experience psychological stress from the combat they are involved in. A few may even experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Professor Shannon E. French, the director of the Centre for Ethics and Excellence at Case Western Reserve University and a former professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, wonders if the PTSD may be rooted in a suspicion that something else was at stake. According to Professor French, the author of the 2003 book The Code of the Warrior:

“If [I’m] in the field risking and taking a life, there’s a sense that I’m putting skin in the game … I’m taking a risk so it feels more honourable. Someone who kills at a distance—it can make them doubt. Am I truly honourable?”

“Blimey.” Andy ran her finger through the text. “This is pretty deep. I need to find out more about these quantum consoles. Meanwhile, let’s see if all my hardware is brutish enough to handle this thing. If all my work and cash spent on building this gaming colossus can’t handle this, I need to give up and just go back to buying the latest console, queueing with the masses for days. One thing…”

Drone Doom rules.

“Rules” are a construct of whomever writes them. The rules of Drone Doom will be dictated by the collective conduct of players. Two rules are however hard-wired, etched in stone and transmitted for future recipients to interpret: once a Doom Drone is disabled, a player may leave the arena. A player’s comrades will note the downing of a drone. The game may be paused at any time. This feature is necessary, but use of it should be with the greatest caution. If every player in a party of 200 were to pause for refreshment, this would become impossible. A battle would be lost. Breaks will normally be arranged within parties but it is important to underline the weight of the rule:

THE GAME CAN BE PAUSED AT ANY POINT AND FOR ANY LENGTH OF TIME BUT ALL PLAYERS WILL BE PAUSED. THE GAME WILL IMMEDIATELY RECOMMENCE FROM WHENCE IT WAS PAUSED.

The PAUSE GAME function is not to be considered a light undertaking.

You are free to choose but you are not free from the consequence of your choice.

“I want this game!” Andy turned to Sam. “Sammy. Do you see what this is?”

“Yes, I do. Well, I see what it could become. Fucking hell.

Play game.

Join an existing theatre of conflict or create one of your own?

“Fucking hell, Andy.” Sam pointed at the screen. “We can pretty much do what we want. And until the game goes on public release, we have total freedom from judgement. No-one else is here.”

“Pretty cool. Where shall we go?”

“Syria? Take out some of so-called Islamic State?”

Syria.

Loading database.
Selecting random mission.
Loading Google Earth data.
Loading military intelligence.
Please wait…

Mission loaded.

Mission details: Take control of an MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, armed with 1x AGM-114 Hellfire missile. Enemy agents are known to be installing Improvised Explosive Devices in the field of conflict. Identify and eliminate targets. Location classified.

“Wow.” Andy stared at the computer monitor.

Play.

The screen turned black for a second, then a slightly grainy and distorted image appeared: a small runway, stretching ahead.

“I can’t say the graphics are up to all that.” Sam squinted at the screen.

“This is a remote image from thousands of miles away. How much more realistic do you want?” Andy took hold of her joystick. “I assume I fly this just like I would any other simulator.”

The drone accelerated along the runway, then Andy pulled back on the joystick and they were airborne. A heads-up display was overlaid on the remote footage, giving altitude, speed, distance and direction to target, as well as in-screen miniature feeds from cameras mounted on the rear, sides, top and bottom of the Predator. Distance to target read 1KM and Andy could already make out tiny figures in the fields ahead. She zoomed in on the front camera and could see six men digging holes, placing something inside and covering them up.

“Andy?” Sam pointed at the men. “How do we know that those are insurgents burying IEDs and not farmers sewing crops? I mean, it’s a bit grainy and distorted.”

“They’ve been identified as targets. That will be based on military intelligence. Our job is to fly the drone and complete the mission.”

“I need to pee. May I use your bathroom?”

“That’s a little more information than I needed Sam but go right ahead. Mi casa su casa.”

The figures on the ground grew larger, before a cross hair appeared on screen with a message:

Target selected. Fire at will.

Pause game.

“Sam! Sam? Obviously taking a shit.” Andy stood up and looked out of the window in front of the desk. Her neighbour stood with his back to her, leaning against his garden fence and just staring straight ahead. “I wonder what’s going through his mind. Something sick, no doubt. Sam! Sam! Oh, fuck you then Sam.”

Resume game.

Fire.

The Hellfire missile accelerated in front of the Predator, then bore down on the targets. Within a second, a flash of explosive light blew them apart. Andy heard the lavatory flush.

“You missed it Sam! Come see what we did.”

“Sorry, I think I blacked out for a second in there.”

“You okay?”

“I’m fine. Jesus Andy!” Sam looked at the screen as Andy switched to the camera beneath the drone and zoomed in on the scene below. Not a single human limb remained attached to a host, nor intact. Small parts of disintegrated humans littered an area a hundred metres in diameter. “Now, that’s realistic!”

Mission complete.

Civilian casualties: 6.

“Fucking, what!?”

“I’ve always said that ‘military intelligence’ is an oxymoron Andy.”

“Fuck, man!? Okay, Drone Doom: you mentioned in-game purchases. Let’s upgrade.”

“What are you gonna to do Andy?”

“What am I gonna do? Nuke the fucking American base. Watch…”

“I know it’s only a game but if all that shit at the start is true, who knows where this could end up. The FBI? It’s a bit harsh, Andy.”

“You’re right, Sam. It’s a game. What better way to make myself feel better without anyone really getting hurt?”

“You’re mad.”

So Andy bought an MQ-9 Reaper drone, strapped a tactical nuclear weapon onto it and flattened a US military base.

Mission complete.

Combatant casualties: 425.

Andy stared at the screen. It was less than two minutes before the flash from outside was reflected on the monitor from her spectacles and she felt a sudden heat. She looked up and saw the mushroom cloud in the distance. “Oh, fucking hell. No. No, no, no!

Pause game.

GAME PAUSED…

“Fuck, no. Sam?” Andy turned to Sam but Sam stared, unblinking at the monitor. “Sam!” Andy shook Sam but he didn’t respond. She let go and he slumped back in his chair, his head tipped back and he continued to stare straight ahead, now at the ceiling. “Oh, god Sam.” She shook him again but he was like a stiffening rag doll. Andy checked for a pulse: faint. It was as though Sam was frozen and fading in time. Andy looked at the computer monitor:

GAME PAUSED…

She looked out of the window: The mushroom cloud had frozen.

Andy rushed downstairs. Her dad was asleep on the couch. “Dad?” He didn’t respond. She shook him: nothing. Andy sat next to her dad, and lay her head on his chest. In the three minutes she spent there, her dad’s breathing slowed.

She burst outside and the mushroom cloud in the distance was still exactly the same. She noticed her neighbour, still leaning against his fence. She ran to face him. He was staring straight ahead. Andy waved her hand in front of his face. She slapped his mouth. Then again, harder. A third time, even harder, drawing blood from her neighbour’s mouth and her skin. She lifted him up and let him drop to the grass. “He’ll be dead soon.”

Andy turned to face the cloud. “I guess that makes me the last of the monkeys.”

GAME PAUSED…

© Steve Laker, 2016

The fourth world war will be one of words.

My books are available on Amazon.

On platform two with heels

FLASH FICTION

Ghost train

FOUR COACHES OF THE APOLOGISTS

Yesterday I felt like I’d turned on my favourite group of animals. My guts told me I’d swallowed a snake, and now it was writhing around, trying to eat me from inside.

I was on my way for a health assessment, not for my knotted stomach but the root of that anxiety in my head. My presence was demanded by the fascist regime’s social cleansing machine, and if my head didn’t win the battle, the contents of my guts threatened to make me late.

They’d never get what was going on with my head. It’s all in the mind, they say. Which of course, it is. But that’s where it stops with the machine. An incentive to make the appointment was to get that far with the contents of my stomach intact, ready to unload on any assessor who asked me how I was feeling.

You’re damned if you do or don’t with the machine. Clause 22 states that if you’re well enough to attend an assessment you’re fit for work. But if you fail to turn up (because you were struck by a panic attack, for example), you’re not engaging with the system, which is all the machine needs to cut you off financially, effectively ending your life.

I had a few minutes before my train was due, so I smoked a cigarette. A young girl asked me for a light and we struck up a brief conversation. She was going to London to visit her mum in hospital.

Back on the platform, the train was delayed by twenty minutes. I thought about phoning ahead to let the machine know I might be late. The smoking girl sat beside me, gazing at her phone. As the screen reflected her face, she could be sorry for being alive. I went out for another cigarette but we didn’t continue our conversation from earlier.

On the platform again, a mechanical centipede snaked around a corner in the distance, one minute away, according to the indicator. The train was formed of four coaches, so it might be a bit busy. Certainly I wouldn’t get a seat without neighbouring passengers.

The train pulled in at the other end of the platform (it only had four coaches), so I had to walk as others climbed into the mechanical animal. The driver smiled as I passed his cab. He was probably a man with a family, like all those in the body of the beast behind him. I watched the smoking girl board and decided to wait for the next train. I wouldn’t want to hold her up from seeing her mum, kept alive by machines.

I wondered if there was anyone else I should call. The next train was already going to make me late for sure. According to my phone history, there were only four numbers who’d called me lately anyway, and one of those was the machine.

The machine announces arrivals and departures, on the indicator board above the platform.

How to get to Schrödinger Street

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Flicking through my San Francisco Writers’ Grotto Bible, it suggested I describe a meeting using only dialogue. The book provides just one page to write longhand (300-400 words), so I adopted the brief literally and tried to fit a self-contained story on a single sheet.

Just dialogue then. In the puritanical sense, that allows me no introduction, background or filler; no description of surroundings, character features or mannerisms; no context of dates or places; and no room for narrative or description beyond the speakers. I have to be a playwright, sans director. No explanation or qualification, leaving the reader to do the heavy lifting. The return of the cracked actor for a three-minute audition on a naked stage. Self-contained fiction and the story of the process, a writer writing about writing.

Monkey Black heart Sit With Me

THE ACT OF TALKING

On Schrödinger Street, behind very door.”

There may or may not be a home.”

Nor indeed, a person.”

Or at least someone who’ll come to the door. Please, come in.”

Thanks. Because if you hadn’t answered, I’d never have known.”

If anyone was in, or if this was even where someone lived.”

Then I’d have just gone on to the next.”

Seeing as you’re here though, take a seat.”

Thanks. Can I move this chair?”

You can, but I’m not allowed to talk about it.”

Why not?”

Because these surroundings are all of our own imagination. We’re on Schrödinger Street, after all. If I wasn’t here, you’d only be able to imagine what here is like.”

Then I wouldn’t need you.”

But you needed me to let you in.”

I’m grateful you did. It’s nice to talk to another human.”

Ditto. I don’t get much human contact. A lot of people walked out on me when I got lost a few years ago. That’s how I ended up on Schrödinger Street. I found my way back but it can be a bit lonely at times.”

But if I may posit, by inviting me in, there’s now a place where no-one lives here, and which doesn’t exist any more.”

Indeed. Not where we are now, but another place was created the moment I let you in. As soon as we met, that other place became where we never did or will. Somewhere I can’t know you.”

That’s a place only you know, where no-one else can see, including you. A mirror only truly reflects one way.

By the way, do you have a cat?”

I did. I think she went out when I opened the door.”

If she’s anything like my moggy, she’ll be visiting the neighbours, seeing who’s in and who’ll feed her. This chair’s comfy by the way. Mind if I borrow it a little longer?”

It’s actually the cat’s chair.”

I was out of space in my longhand journal, with no room to explain what kind of chair I couldn’t describe. A throne, a deckchair, someone else’s back just to rest against? Did my guest choose to stay seated? What might the cat bring back, if indeed she exists? Will her seat still be there?

I hung my coat on the hook I created, pondering my notes. When I’m transcribing on the typewriter, I can load more paper.

“This place is heroically awful”

HORROR FICTION

Blood dripping

When the kebab shops close, I go out for dinner in my mind. Sometimes I visit an old haunt and talk about something else. I read ancient graffiti in a different place. This is a story from my second anthology, of a writer moving from one field to another. It’s a tale of dark mirrors and cult followings, of a human consumed. Dining in the belly of cults…

Ash TrumpDonald Trump In Famous Horror Movie Scenes (BuzzFeed)

AUGUST UNDERGROUND’S DINER

If the proprietors of this new place in Islington were looking to make it almost impossible to find, then make diners regret the effort when they did arrive and found a shuttered steel door, they have succeeded magnificently. But this was just a prelude to the rest of a pleasingly disturbing night at London’s first horror-themed diner, in a converted old warehouse on the edge of Holloway.

The weirdness begins as soon as my partner and I walk in on a gloomy Friday evening, not to anything resembling a restaurant, but an old lighting shop, frozen somewhere in the 1980s, and a large sign: ‘No children’. The business had clearly been one of selling lights, lamps and an array of artists’ materials. The shop – or showroom – occupies a large studio on the ground floor, where the previous tenants had apparently manufactured their own designs as well.

A plastic pink elephant, big enough for a child to sit on, holds a human skull in its trunk, and the skull’s eyes glow green. There’s a naked androgynous shop window mannequin, decapitated, and the head replaced with a shoulder-width light unit, with red, amber and green bulbs. It’s like a humanoid hammerhead cyborg traffic light. On the far side of the studio, a metal sign bears the previous occupant’s name: SHADES. But the first letter is obscured by a neon pink, flashing arrow, pointing down some stairs to what is now HADES.

Downstairs, the basement restaurant is starkly and sparingly lit with bare red bulbs, like those still in front of singed lace curtains in some of old Soho’s upstairs windows. And again, ‘No children’.

The place is like a horror and cult film museum, with rare old posters framed on the walls. I note Night and Fog, Man Bites Dog, Gummo, August Underground’s Mordum, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible. I somehow think the night will be.

There are display cabinets, some free-standing on the floors, and others on the wall. In the larger displays are costumes, including Pinhead’s leathers and Freddie Kruger’s jersey, hat and glove. There’s a stuffed alien in a cabinet, and a face-hugger pickled in a jar on the wall. There’s a stuffed St Bernard (presumably Cujo), and (my favourite) an E.D.209 enforcement droid outside the toilets. I could go on (about the Bates Motel guest book, Damian Thorp’s tricycle and lots of other paraphernalia), but I’m here to review the food. For a moment, I think I see Grace Dent at a distant table.

A few other diners are dotted around: a young couple, having a horrifically romantic evening, and a group of business types, clearly working on someone’s bonus or expenses. There’s a dog under the young couple’s table, a beagle I think. Dogs are okay here, but children aren’t.

We’re seated in a booth, and I discuss my next project with my guest. After this restaurant article, I’m embarking on a slightly new path, that of horror fiction. How a food critic came to write horror may be the subject of future stories, by me or by others. But with this opportunity providing the perfect link, it’s perhaps relevant to fill in some details.

I’m here with my agent, which is entirely in parallel with the journey I’m about to make. It was he, after all, who advised me to stick with factual writing, and specifically food, when I foolishly tried to convince him I could be a horror writer. With the benefit of hindsight, he was right to keep me away, and indeed my restaurant reviews have picked up what I like to think of as a cult following (and I do have spellcheck on).

The problem with a cult (it’s still on), is that once it gets too big, it ceases to be. So it seemed logical to maintain that status by going underground, where only the determined and curious follow. Therefore, it is completely logical for me to now be sitting in an underground horror-themed restaurant with the agent who has held me back, as I move from one life to the next.

One of the businessmen clicks his fingers and shouts “Garçon!”, which I’m not sure is the correct etiquette here.

The menu is like a coffee table book. There’s the menu itself, with ‘Jemma’s’ at the top. Then before the dishes, an obituary for Jemma Redmond, an Irish biotechnology pioneer and innovator, who first used human stem cells in 3D printer ‘ink’, then developed the technology to make it affordable and portable. The upshot: Replacement human organs, on-demand where needed. Jemma Redmond died 16.08.16, aged 38.

After the menu is a history of the kitchen, presented as a retro-futuristic brochure for ‘Kitchens by Jigsaw’, with photographs of industrial food processing and preparation machinery, like room-size interlocking clockwork engines made from brushed steel. There are mechanical drawings of the industrial cutters, grinders, mincers and cooking appliances, like Cenobite puzzle cubes splayed open into diagrams by Maurits Cornelis Escher.

The book finishes off with a few short stories by writers who already enjoy cult status in horror. They’re like Lovecraft, Kafka, King and Poe, but sick and twisted Teletubbies, writing tributes to the YouTube trollbot films of old, made from spliced children’s shows. Seeing Lady Penelope gang-raped by Thunderbirds, Zebedee nailed to the ground, and Dylan decapitated, will turn anyone from food critic to twisted fiction writer, trying to excuse what they’ve seen. And at the bottom of every page, the message is repeated: ‘No children’. This seems almost a mission statement.

The menu itself is horrified, with things like ‘Steak by Leatherface*’, ‘Suicide Club Fugu*’, ‘Triffid salad*’, and the simply-named ‘Naked Lunch*’. There’s a nod to the trollbots, with ‘Peppa Pig, hand-prepared by Kruger’s’, and there’s ‘Specials’, more akin to challenges, in the size and heat of dishes.

A ‘Crispy aromatic hind quarter of suckling’ at 64 ounces, can be had for free, if it’s eaten in under an hour. I’m more intrigued by what kind of animal could still be suckling when a part of it is that size. It comes with ‘optional extra ghost sauce’, implying that a dollop of burning ectoplasm has already begun to eat into the flesh (you get fries with that).

Another is ‘Dante’s wings’, described as ‘Nine wings of increasing fire, before you wish that more heat might rescue you from the hell pain of death.’ (That comes with fries, too). If I’m to remain outside Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and ‘survive’, the book of the dead says I will go free.

*Vegetarian options can all be printed.

As this is on me, I pay. I settle up when we order, so as to be done with the formalities. There’ll be no quarrels over splitting the bill, and the tip from my anticipated earnings is sufficient to cover any kind of evening we decide to enjoy.

I’ve seen a few staff walking around, like cosplay characters at Jack Rabbit Slims. But where Tarantino’s joint was staffed by 1950s and 60s film stars, August’s has horror icons.

Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees serve tables, while Pennywise and Leatherface work behind the bar. Freddie Kruger taps his fingers on the counter, speaking to Pinhead (presumably both have more than one set of clothes). And they really get into character here too. If it wasn’t for the (understandable) adults-only entry, I could imagine those two gleefully popping birthday balloons at children’s tables.

Samara Morgan approaches the business types and reminds one that “Garçon means boy.” The server is a young Japanese girl, so perhaps she’s Sadako Yamamura. After she leaves, one of the men says something and the others laugh, attracting Pinhead’s gaze. I wonder what a headbutt must feel like.

We’re served by Candyman (or one of them), and I wonder what it might be like to come here on one’s birthday, would these characters sing ‘Happy birthday’? Perhaps, but only before killing the patron who’d asked for such a thing, so that they may not speak of it again.

The Candyman character isn’t all bad (really, if you read the story): The Candyman of legend emerges from a mirror. He has a hooked hand, he’s covered with bees, and he has revenge on his mind.

The Candyman was once a slave, called Daniel Robitaille, who was an accomplished painter. The plantation owner asked Daniel to paint a portrait of his daughter, and she and Daniel fell in love. Her father, the racist, had Daniel hunted down by a mob and run out of town. They chased him until he collapsed, exhausted, then cut off his hand with a rusty saw, smothered him in honey and threw him into a beehive, chanting “Candyman, Candyman…” Before he died, Daniel vowed to return and exact his revenge upon them.

Conversely, many classic fairy tales, enjoyed by children for centuries, have their origins in ancient folk tales, myths and legends. Little Red Riding Hood is a particularly gruesome one, based on a 16th century French fable. Back then, rape wasn’t a crime. In fact, there wasn’t even a word for it. The story is a warning to young girls, of all that stalks the night. The wolf is a representative predator and the woods a metaphor for the world beyond childhood. The girl collects flowers before going to her granny’s house, where the wolf entices her into bed, dressed as her granny. The wolf eating the girl is a metaphor for rape (and the granny before, the man this wolf represents being a particularly perverted individual). The huntsman cutting them free can be seen as a metaphor for childbirth or abortion. It’s no wonder the stories are dressed up, but those ancient horrors served to protect. Like ‘No children’ here.

One of the men from the other table nearly bumps into the E.D.209 as he walks in an arc to the toilet, and the remainder carry on talking quietly. The young couple seem oblivious to the horrors around them, as they’re lost in their own story of dark love. If I were to guess, I’d say they’re art school graduates, or possibly musicians. The dog seems content, with a steady supply of food handed down to it.

I order a steak from Leatherface’s list of prime cuts, a rare rump (you get fries with that). My companion orders from the printed menu, and I wonder if he’s a vegetarian. Our working relationship has been distant, so we’ve never dined before. Truth be known, I’d never have taken him out for a meal unless it was to celebrate us parting company.

The tension only became tangible recently, when in fact it’s been simmering away for some months now, as I’ve been finding myself, and trying to redefine myself, but I’ve felt restricted, bound and gagged by an employer who dictates and dismisses rather than listen. Perhaps I shouldn’t be using a restaurant review to slag the guy off, but he’s paid me for this and I want to use it as a crossover, an artistic gift to demonstrate to someone who’s set in their ways, that people can change. He says writers should stick with one discipline, where I grow restless when compartmentalised. I want to express myself more, and write more useful things.

He says a food critic is useful, as are all factual writers, because they inform people. My point has become one of having many points to make, and fiction will better allow me to do that, like all those classic fairy stories. For starters, I can tell of the wonders in this place, while making it very clear why they have a ‘No children’ policy. I believe more than he does that more people can be spoken to through fiction, because while one demographic might see a wonderful story, another may see the unwritten parallels and warnings. The man’s a total arse, but in a way, I’m doing him a favour. Let’s face it, I’d never get paid for another review after this one. But a shocking venue deserves a similar review.

I’m bored of writing for the same people, the kind of people who can afford to come to a place like this, but it was from within those that some of my cult following (still on) emerged, and it was their encouragement which gave me the push I needed. So readers, you know who you are, I salute you and I will see you in other places soon. As for the rest, try this place (but don’t bring the kids).

The businessmen are still one short, as they continue their muted banter. The young couple are still young and in love, and the dog asleep.

There’s nothing shocking about my steak when it arrives, perfectly cooked and seeping blood (you get fries with it, to mop up). But it’s curious and surprising in its taste and texture.

Although I just called my agent an arse, there is one word I will never use, in a review or elsewhere. It’s that word beginning with ‘M’, so beloved of some foodies, but if I even see the word on a menu, I’ll leave a place immediately and vow to never return. I’ve seen some savage cinema but that word is a monstrosity on its own and in any context.

This steak is juicy, sweet, marbled with fat and perfectly seasoned. A quick glance at the menu again and I learn that the meat is produced on the premises daily. The burgeoning horror writer in me imagines the kitchen by Jigsaw extending into an on-site abattoir, with this old warehouse site easily able to accommodate one. I’m slightly disappointed when the businessman returns from the toilet. The young couple are still very much into the atmosphere, and one another.

We choose desserts from the ‘Peter Davidson trolley’, all of which are from ‘The Universe at the end of Upper Street’. My ‘Ectoplasmic jelly’ is a green snot-like goo, which I can’t help think kids would love for its sheer grossness. But although it looks like a freshly caught Slimer ghost, it tastes of toasted marshmallow. My companion has something resembling a splayed vagina, which he says smells of fresh body odour (it does) but tastes like scented cream (lavender). It tastes to me like something I couldn’t mention, even in horror fiction. It’s that fucking M-word.

We finish with cocktails from a list of horrors, which aren’t the drinks themselves but the theatre which surrounds their delivery. Our bloody Marys summon the Candyman with our drinks, then Pinhead offers olives, from his head.

The businessmen are getting raucous and the young couple amorous, so we decide to leave, bidding the place farewell.

Back outside, it’s long since dark and a few of the other buildings around the old warehouse are lit up, a couple of accident repair and MOT units, and a children’s adventure play centre.

Now we go our separate ways. He’s off to pander more to the privileged, while I remain a cult and still poor, writing more fiction. Some will be horrible tales, but with a moral message.

As for August Underground’s Diner, for the kind of people who can afford to come here, I’d say bring the kids and leave them in the play centre. For those who can’t afford it, try one of the food challenges and eat for free.

© Steve Laker, 2018

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.

Amnesia, a cure for insomnia

FLASH FICTION

Time ShadowStill from Cold Dark Mirror, Original Sine Productions / Moonlit Road Entertainment

THE DEEP WELL

It’s a story familiar to parents and carers around the world, and it’s only 142 words…

Mum, I can’t sleep.”

Well, you’re not trying then, are you?”

The more I try, the more I can’t.”

Well, you need to sleep.”

But I thought of something. Something someone said.”

Well, whatever it is, it can wait. Now go to bed.”

So Sam went back to bed.

Dad?”

What is it, Sam?”

I can’t sleep.”

You could if you stopped thinking so much.”

I’ve been thinking about something someone said.”

Well, remember to tell me in the morning, when you’ve dreamed about it.”

And Sam returned to bed, where many others tried to sleep.

Sam slept, possibly to forget what he and she dreamed, and mum and dad would never know. In that deep well we all make.

© Steve Laker, 2018.

It’s a story familiar to parents and carers around the world, of children (and other relatives, and friends), trying to buy time, and others unable or unwilling to invest (not unlike writers and readers). In five minutes we could learn something new, and save a another person from thoughts which might otherwise trouble them, or become taboo in their minds.

A conversation we don’t want, could be the one someone else needs. Maybe that’s why they can’t sleep. A well needs to draw water, for the enquiring mind, to which we replied,“Well…” Amnesia is not a cure for insomnia.

All we need to do, is keep talking.