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.

A sneezing (noun) of witches

FICTION | THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’ve often wondered why I curse a sneeze. A sneeze isn’t an unpleasant sensation, akin perhaps to a mild orgasm of the face, but I curse each one nonetheless: “Ooh, ya fucker,” “Get outa me ting,” and so on (and usually in a regional accent). Then someone told me an old wives’ tale, about each expelled sneeze being a witch’s curse, or specifically the curse of a witch.

FenellaFenella the kettle witch, in an episode of Chorlton and the Wheelies

There’s a difference: A witch’s curse would be a spell cast upon another person; the curse of a witch is the actual words spoken as she escapes. They were all invisible to me, but so are most things which lack proof, and so create intrigue. But for as long as there are questions, fear will remain, because the most fundamental human fear is that of the unknown.

A sneezing of witches is a collective noun I invented, to complement my favourites in the real world: the tower and the crossing, both of which come later. For now, with all these witches now exorcised from my head – and with others sure to join their sisters – I had room in there to ponder an overriding question: Where do the witches go?

Most socially anxious types don’t venture out much (it scares them), but the night holds a comfort for me. If I can’t see so much of my world, there’s less for my inner agoraphobic to fear. It’s counter-intuitive and a paradox, given that humans are meant to fear the unknown (and the unseen). I can only think it’s the horror writer in me, finding a comfort zone.

Aside from our fear of the unknown as a species, the greatest individual terror is to be witness to the degradation and dehumanisation of our loved ones, and horror has as many tropes as witches have curses, limited only by my imagination.

For the protection of my family and close friends, I didn’t go on the witch hunt; I sent one of them instead. My reasoning was that whoever went wouldn’t be killed horrifically before everyone else’s eyes. I still had the issue of me only having a one in several chance of being the one dispatched in true horror story denouement style.

The identity of the person dispatched on the witch hunt is irrelevant for the current narrative, and anonymity increases the jeopardy. The longer whomever is out there, the more time I have to make sure no-one I love gets killed. None of them can write like me though, so I’ll continue in the first person for continuity while I think of plot devices.

You might expect my witch hunt to take place in a dark woods or an old house, but that would be a cliché, so I brought the scary places here, into the studio. I put the kettle on, and was about to conclude that witches were merely the invention of horror writers and skewed local legend, then something got up my nose.

I felt the tell-tale sensation of an invader on my nasal lining and tried to sniff the alien back, but that just agitated the thing. It felt like a tiny dot with legs, scuttling around the back of my nose where my brain comes out. I think it shot some sort of beam, because – like I’d been tasered – I suddenly tensed up and threw my head back in spasm. I managed to fish out a dead ghost (a handkerchief) from my pocket, so that I didn’t offend the rest of the room with what was coming: “Getchoo fuckin’ Bastet”.

Bastet is a name I picked up from a cat once. It was a refugee, escaped from Erwin Schrödinger’s mind experiments, who popped in and spoke to me on the Babel fish over a glass of milk and some sardines on toast. She told me that Bastet was a cat-headed woman and a goddess worshipped by the ancient Egyptians. She also mentioned something about mankind needing cats 3000 years ago, and that we’ll need them again soon. In the interim, she said, thanks for all the fish.

I sipped my coffee as I sifted through the creepy places now filling the room, but still there was no witch. Then another twitch of the nose. “Me bitchin’ innit,” apparently straight out of Jamaica. And I guess I did make her: A curse is a wish by another name, so as I cursed my sneeze, she appeared.

Me bitchin’ innit?” My words echoed, as a bird began to materialise in the chair opposite my spot on the sofa (marked by a stripey cushion, it has the best line of view to the TV and everything is within easy reach (apart from the kitchen)).

She had wings at first, as I heard my words repeated in a slightly croaky voice, like that of a mynah bird. Or a witch: a slender, dark-robed woman with dreadlocks and a crook nose, and skinny black legs protruding beneath her plumage.

They (witches) don’t look like they do in the usual imagined way, and how they’re portrayed in film and literature, at least mine didn’t as she altered form. Mine now looked exactly like someone I know very well and whom I care about very much. If I use that shape-shifting doppelgänger, it’s only a small leap for the reader to place themselves in my position, to imagine themselves and their own nearest and dearest. There are only a finite number of plots, but an infinite way to write them.

Age and gender are interchangeable and the relationship itself as specific as the viewer. It’s as unique and individual as it is personal, so it’s all the more unsettling and surreal when you hear something from someone you didn’t expect (a bit like your nan calling you a cunt, or you calling your nan one).

We thought this might make things easier for you,” she said.

Who’s we,” I wondered, “and what things?”

Your curse, and all of us who’ll watch over you to make sure you keep up your end of the bargain.”

I don’t know what it is yet.”

All in good time,” she said, “such a platitude Steve. You really need to stop writing things like that.”

I can go back and change it.”

Too late, already done.” She adjusted her angle in the chair, now aiming her knees at me. I tried to file Basic Instinct in the back of my mind. “You thought it, Steve. You created another world when you had that thought, so you had to write it down. That world exists now and can’t be undone.”

The theory of fictional realism posits that everything which is possible has already happened. Because of the (to all intents) infinite nature of the universe (or multiverse) it stands to reason, by law of averages, that everything has happened somewhere in that vastness before now. Somewhere out there are worlds where Depeche Mode had more than enough, and another where you can hang with MC Hammer and he lets you touch things. Now there was a world where I’d flogged an already dead horse, and in doing so just wrote another cliché.

You see,” she said, “a shark with lots of pilot fish hanging around underneath it.”

I can imagine, yes.”

And,” she continued, “you see a dog with fleas.” Again, I imagined. “And,” she went on, “you see vultures and hyenas, eating a rotting carcass?” The upward inflection suggested she’d finished by posing a question.

I can see all of those things,” I replied, “in my mind.”

That be some of your friends, and that be your Christmas past, present and future.”

I didn’t have time to collect that thought before she went on:

You see,” she started again, “you see a herd of elephants. They don’t forget and they mourn their dead.” She sniffed. “And you see a tower of giraffes, and a crossing of zebras.” I knew them as collective nouns. “Some of dem, they not be your family.”

I assumed that was the curse, to be forever burdened with those thoughts, the ultimate upshot of which would be me topping myself (I tried that before and it doesn’t work the way I tried). But that wasn’t all anyway.

Your curse,” she rattled some bracelets dramatically, “is as it always has been, living with the guilt of a sober mind, which you’ve not extinguished by swapping the blood in your arteries for alcohol. Instead, that fire and venom transplanted to your pen when your mouth was silenced and you found yourself with no live audience. Now you live alone, on the bank of the river of White Ace flowing by, and every day like a struggling escapologist, when your keys are in your mouth.

You made a wish, perhaps upon a binary star, so you are cursed. Your mind won’t stop creating and imagining, so you don’t sleep. There’s a spell on you which compels you to write those thoughts, for fear that if you stop, you will surely die, because that will be your spirit escaping. Your curse, should you decide to accept it…” Then as I pondered, “Too late, it’s already written innit.” 

So here I am, the sole survivor of that encounter on my planet, having just saved the lives of those who sometimes don’t notice me, by being the one in the story, and I’m forever under a witches’ spell. Cursed to confront my thoughts daily, and my only escape to write and share. Because if I stop, everyone dies. Deus ex machina.

Everyone else sleeps at night, untroubled by dark places of the mind. None of them can write like me anyway.

Fenella 2

A cannabis production, brought to you by the writing prompt ‘Sneeze’.

Under-floor heating in the kitchen

HORROR FICTION

On the odd occasion that recipes crop up on this site, I’m usually posting for someone else’s convenience: It saves them from me having to cook for them. A writer has to eat more than their words, so I do cook for myself, but I’d rather be known as the writer who can cook, than the chef who can write. While readers follow my recipes, I like to think they read my stories too. So tonight I have an open kitchen, so that prospective diners can look around before trying the food…

cannibal2014-10-14-20h59m25s71-660x349Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust

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.

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

This story is taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency, available now.

A planet cured of carcinogens

FICTION

I was listening to a friend’s music when this one happened. I didn’t go round the friend’s house (I don’t go out much), where she writes the music. I didn’t go to any of her gigs (social anxiety is ten times worse in a public place, especially when panic attacks), where she sings and plays her tunes. I listened to ‘Karamelien’, an album by Léanie Kaleido , at home (mine), and it was the back of a spoon which gave me the inspiration.

missile_oil_rig_by_talros-d3d2t2lTalros (Deviantart)

SO LONG AND THANKS FOR ALL THE ANIMALS

The original carvings were found deep in a forest, but debate varied over which were the first. In the space of a week, new inscriptions were discovered several times daily, all in woodland, all identical, but unlike anything recorded previously. Meanwhile, two school friends had uncovered what could be a key.

How does it switch on, Jay?” Kerry stared at herself, next to Jason, as they both looked back from the black glass-like sheet.

I don’t know, Kay,” Jay replied, as he looked back at Kerry. “It’s nothing obvious that I’m missing, is it?” He handed the pane of glass to her. About A4 in size, the glass was no thicker than a sheet of paper. “What’s it made of, anyway?”

Well,” Kay said, moving it in and out from her face, “it’s got imperfections.”

What, your face?”

Fuck you, wanker. No, I mean, the glass, or whatever it is, it’s not completely smooth. It’s like something from a dark and twisted hall of mirrors. See what I mean?” She handed the mirror back, and Jay looked at himself as he moved it in front of him. “Everyone’s ugly in the back of a spoon.”

Jay turned the sheet over in his hands. “I look the same on both sides,” he said to their reflections, “bumpy. In fact, I’d say I’m quite corrugated.”

Well,” said Kay, “your forehead often is.”

Eh?”

You frown a lot.”

Jay frowned at the glass sheet. “Well,” he said, “no matter how much I wish it to switch on, it won’t. There are no buttons, so there must be some other way.”

You actually think it’ll switch on? Jay, it’s just a sheet of some old material.”

I know,” Jay replied, “but it’s this weird stuff, and where we found it. It’s got me wondering.”

We found it buried in the woods, Jay. Lots of things are buried in woodland, and time and the elements change things. This could just be a part of something plastic, and the material has been melted, or eroded.”

But it was wrapped up. And it was near those tree carvings, like the ones on the news.”

Tree and stone carvings had been cropping up spontaneously in the previous few days. At first, pranksters were suspected, but it had become too elaborate. Now, the same conspiracy community which once surrounded crop circles had been stirred, and the internet was an ocean of theories.

The carvings weren’t any recognisable text, nor were they pictographs which gave any clues to their origin or meaning. They incorporated geometric shapes and patterns, like crop formations, but appeared on tree bark and rocks. Jay and Kay found the glassy sheet when they’d been metal detecting, and at first, the haul was just a soda can and some tin foil, but the foil was wrapped around the slate.

Any theories on the news?” Kay wondered.

Only one,” Jay said, “a really out-there one.”

Try me.”

Imagine we’re in biblical times.”

You wha’?”

Two thousand years ago, give or take: Imagine we’re there, or then, if you like.”

Okay.”

Okay.” Jay adjusted himself in his chair. “You know I don’t believe in God, right? But no-one can deny that the bible might be based on fact, on actual events. Ancient scribes may have recorded actual historical events, but they’d have been limited in the terms they used and what was available to them, in the way they recorded things.”

Yeah,” Kay said, “you’ve said. Imagine if you could’ve given one of those old guys a smartphone. They could’ve recorded it all and we’d be able to see what they saw. It’d solve the whole religion problem.”

Well, yeah,” Jay agreed, “and if you gave them say, a mobile phone, or a tablet computer, they’d probably think it was some sort of sorcery, or it could be alien technology. And they’d probably write of it as some sort of magic mirror.”

And that’s what you think this is?”

It could be,” Jay tried to assert. “It just won’t switch on. If it’s what I think it could be, it’s either extinct through pure neglect or technology. Or it could be a technology so far advanced, that we just don’t understand it.” He held the slate to his face again. “Hmm, never noticed that before,” he frowned.

Show me?” Kay moved next to Jay, and looked at them both in the glassy surface, frowning. “What didn’t you notice?”

The way one of my eyes seems to take just a split fraction of a second to catch up. Only that one, the left one, watch.” Jay looked at Kay’s reflection.

“You’re right, it does,” she said. “You’ve got a lazy eye mate.”

I think it’s pretty cool actually,” Jay said, looking from himself, to Kay, and back again. “It’s like that one is taking things in more, while the other one concentrates ahead. Then the left one catches up and tells my brain all the other stuff it needs to know.”

That is pretty cool,” Kay said, “you freak.”

Then something slightly unexpected, but entirely plausible happened: The slate crackled and sparked, first an arc of blue lightning, and the sparkle of a glitter dome. Then a graphic appeared on what had become a screen.

That looks familiar,” Kay said.

Kind of what I expected,” Jay replied. “Let’s see what the latest news is…”

The latest developments were trending, in news and on social media: Analysis of the designs found on trees and rocks, had revealed them to be neither carved nor burned into any surface.

Your theory?” Kay wondered.

That,” Jay said, “the carvings weren’t made from the outside, at least not by any method we understand.”

Meaning how many things?”

Two, equally crazy ones.”

Humour me, agent Jay.”

Okay, Kay. One: It could be that the marks were made by technology we don’t understand, which would suggest alien, either extraterrestrial or of this earth, as in, government. But we can discount the latter. They wouldn’t put on any show, other than to whip up hysteria, perhaps as a smokescreen. I dunno. So, aliens: aliens among us? Or visiting ones, leaving us messages, meaning what? Or,” Jay looked at the design on the tablet. “Or it could be, that the ones which look like this on the trees and the rocks… That’s theory two.”

Which is?”

That the carvings, inscriptions, or whatever; the words, pictures, designs; they could be made from the inside.”

How?”

Nature. I don’t mean colonies of insects, parasites or fungi. These are carvings on the outside, with no signs of being carved. So the opposite of that, is that they were pulled in from the inside.”

What the actual?”

Nature made them.”

You already said that.”

The earth made them, Kay.”

The wha’? The actual planet. Planet earth, put the messages there?”

It’s a bit like self-harm, isn’t it? So what this could be, Kay, is messages in the earth, the trees, the rocks, from the earth, where they’re all a part of the nature of that planet.”

Saying what? Jay?”

I don’t know. Maybe telling us to fuck off.”

Us?”

Humans.”

Shit.”

We are. We’re so un-evolved, when you look at us, and all we could be, with all that’s around us. We’re ugly. Those ancient aliens who may or may not have made up the stories in the bible, they were probably a race so technologically advanced because they’d harnessed the natural, sustainable energy from their environment, rather than plundering it of all its resources for their own gain. I mean, we’re only just developing wind, solar and tidal energy technology. We’re having to, because we’re running out of coal and oil. But still, perpetual energy sources only serve a small proportion of our needs. And we use less than one per cent of the energy available for free on this planet.

Those technologically advanced races, who may or may not have visited biblical humans, they were ones who’d become efficient through sufficiency. There are races out there who might have harnessed the natural energy of their parent star, with something like a Dyson Sphere. Look it up.”

I know what a Dyson sphere is, and I can only begin to imagine what a race might be capable of, once they’ve effectively captured all the energy of their sun with solar arrays. Actually, I can’t begin to imagine the possibilities.”

Which is exactly,” Jay said, “what those biblical scribes would have found.”

Your number two theory definitely has legs,” Kay confirmed. “How would the ancient alien tablet fit in though?”

Only if it was that.” Jay pointed at the design on the screen. “That being alien technology, like a magic mirror described in the bible.”

But it’s just showing that same design?” Kay suggested.

But look,” Jay said. “I’ve got a theory on how we managed to switch it on.”

How?” Kay looked at the same design as Jay on the screen. “Oh, like that,” she said, as the pattern began to change. “But how?”

Two heads are better than one, perhaps?”

They didn’t have to speak. It was the act of knowing, and the same like-mindedness which had switched the tablet on before. Perhaps the technology was ancient, advanced, or both, but it wasn’t redundant. It was woken by thought, specifically, the alignment of the thoughts of more than one person.

As Jay and Kay continued to watch the screen, the pattern continued to morph, into more complex and fractal patterns, perpetually zooming in on recursion. Then the whole screen changed, from screen saver to what was apparently an operating system.

It’s a bit like Linux,” Jay suggested.

You wha’? That,” Kay pointed, “is way more, Jay.”

It’s the only way I can think to describe it, as being accessible. Look, it seems to know what you want to do.” They both peered into the screen. “It’s three dimensional, and if you look ahead, you can see bits going off to the side. It’s like travelling down a wormhole.”

And that was the best way the modern day scribes had to describe what they saw.

Let’s see where we’re going,” Kay said, as they both watched the screen. “Ooh, look. What’s that?”

The wormhole opened onto a scene, apparently from a remote camera, with an overlay of what could be coordinates and time, but in an indecipherable text. The main picture was a live video feed, of a field, with a row of large chimneys in the background.

I wonder how we look around,” Kay wondered. Then something strange but expected happened:

The view on the tablet screen changed, as Kay (and Jay) willed some remote camera, perhaps in the countryside near a power station. Panning the landscape, they saw electricity pylons stretching into the distance, standing like frozen, bow-legged old ladies.

The pylon nearest the camera started to move, not by tilting, by lifting, first on one side, then the other. Soon, the pylon began to move forwards. A second pylon did the same, then a third, and quickly, a line of electricity pylons were walking through the mud beneath them, casting off electrical wires as they went. A battalion of iron old ladies, had lifted their skirts, cast off their bindings, and began a bow-legged march away from the power station.

The camera pulled away from the generator, which shrunk into the distance as the viewers were once again plunged into a spectral plughole, depositing them, through the magic of the mirror, in the middle of an ocean. As they thought about what might be around them, the camera obliged.

There was an oil rig, a steaming, fire-breathing skeletal leviathan. Suddenly, it held its breath, as the rig unplugged its umbilicus from the sea bed, and the natural elements in its man-made structure took on sentience.

The camera switched, gradually more quickly, around different scenes: Electricity pylons marching over fields, and oil rigs, swimming to shore, retro-futuristic dinosaur machines, striding through the landscape.

© Steve Laker, 2017.

Everyone’s ugly in the back of a spoon,” with kind permission of Léanie Kaleido (she has a YouTube channel).

This story is taken from my second anthology, The Unfinished Literary Agency.

Where the sun never bothers

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FLASH FICTION

One recurring theme in my writing is The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s a fictional place, which exists to tell the stories of others who are unable to tell their own. Now there’s a book of the same name, which starts and ends with tales from the agency.

The agency is also an analogy of the writing world, where writers crave an audience, in a place where people don’t have time to read. It has parallels, to how inner frustration made my own mind up to write down everything in it (stories only happen to those who are able to tell them). So this is kind of how it all started, many times…

the-writers-desk-debra-and-dave-vanderlaanThe Writers Desk by Debra and Dave Vanderlaan

THE OFFICE OF LOST THINGS

They are afraid of the sun, shrinking away as it climbs in the sky, and they are liveliest at night. They follow us, and we can’t outrun them. They are The Shadows.

I first became aware that I’d picked one up, when my own shadow started carrying a guitar. No matter where I walked, indoors or outside, my shadow followed me. And regardless of what I myself was carrying (a bag, my jacket, thrown over my shoulder…), my shadow still travelled with its guitar.

This being Bethnal Green, I found an Italian greasy spoon, where the proprietor, a doctor, explained my condition. His Cockney dialogue was easy for the Babel fish in my ear to translate, and when he told me I was Hank Marvin, he offered me a cure, pointing to an item on the menu: “GSEG”, which was scrambled eggs, and my hunger was gone.

I was on my way to Islington, delivering a manuscript, to a place I’d heard about from other writers.

Above Hotblack Desiato’s office near Islington Green, is The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s where all the storytellers send their stories, and sometimes meet to share them, like a secret society, but open to all.

I climbed the stairs to the agency office, a windowless room in the loft. The lights were out and no-one was in. I tried the light switch but it didn’t work. Fumbling around, I found a desk, which I discovered had drawers, and the fourth one yielded a box of candles. I lit a cigarette, then a candle, and looked around the small office, which a broom might call luxurious.

On the desk was a typewriter, and next to it, a stack of papers: hand-written manuscripts. Besides the desk and a chair, there was just a large book cabinet occupying one wall. It held possibly hundreds of unwritten books, all from writers seeking attention, and all in a place where the sun never shines.

I sat at the desk and looked at my flickering shadow, cast by the candle. There was no guitar, just my cigarette dangling from my mouth, like a smoking tulip.

With no-one else around, I decided to stay for a while and started typing.

© Steve Laker

The Unfinished Literary Agency (my second anthology) is available now. 

The Human Lending Library

FICTION

Reflections of yesterdayReflections of yesterday5Reflections of yesterday4

REFLECTIONS OF YESTERDAY

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re Muslim, right?

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

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

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

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

“You know.” It was another shared moment.

“You’ve been here?”

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

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

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

“What? Explain that one, please.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What about the women?”

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

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

“My name is Javeed. It means forever.”

“What was your name before?”

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

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

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

“A tenner? You sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But sung as…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Jim. It means Jim.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jim was lost for a moment.

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

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

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

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

(C) Steve Laker, 2017

From The Unfinished Literary Agency, available now in paperback.

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Talking Pi with Simon Fry

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

I was meant to have dinner with a friend last night, but I failed. We didn’t actually get around to eating. It’s a bit like me in real life, buying food and aspiring to fine meals, but only looking at produce as it gradually grows less fresh. We enjoyed a fictional meal nonetheless.

PiPi: The endless constant (FiveThirtyEight)

Simon Fry was just as he’d been the last time I imagined him, and I probably hadn’t changed much in his eyes. His flat looked very much as I’d left mine, so I felt at home, even before he’d asked me to sit down. With me seated comfortably and uninvited, Simon went to a fridge very much like my own.

What food’s in there?” I wondered.

Enough to make some fine meals,” Simon replied, “and just enough for two.”

There has to be, given my appetite.”

Eh?”

I can’t buy portions small enough.”

But there’s some nice food in here.”

Less waste. I pay more for less of the premium stuff. Sometimes I even cook it.”

And otherwise?”

I plan meals, imagine cooking and eating them, then don’t get around to it.”

Why?”

No-one to cook for, other than myself.”

And me?”

Are you offering?”

No.”

Good. Fewer fictional dishes.”

So with dinner out of the way, Simon and I talked.

Yours is a life,” Simon said, “of possibilities. Except you dwell on them, imagining what might be, but never living it.”

I never go out.”

Where are you now?”

At yours.”

Exactly. So you need to keep imagining, but you need to share what you see with others. Then maybe they can see what I can.”

Something I’ll never see,” I replied. “I sometimes compare life to love, when often they’re interchangeable; there must be very few people who’ve never been to that place. The best part of life is falling in love. It doesn’t matter that I never will again, just so long as others keep doing it. Being in love is a wonderful feeling, like your world is full of happiness. But falling there, and the anticipation, the feelings you’d forgotten since you last lived.”

Like eating food?”

Like planning a meal, perhaps with someone. As an objectivist, and having not fallen for some time, I can transcend it and write about it in a fictional sense. They say there’s a part of the writer in every story, but I left my heart in enough already. Sometimes it’s best just to let things go. You’d rather have seen how things went, but you can still imagine what might have been. No-one will ever know and you can keep that for yourself.”

Like not finishing a story. And not eating.”

When you’re in love with someone, you’re in love with the world. You’re loving living. When your greatest love ends, so does your life. I’m not in love with anyone; a lot of people a little bit, but only maybe one in another life. It’s always been difficult to separate fact from fiction in the lone writer’s story.”

The one you’re writing. The non-fiction one needs to eat.”

Maybe I’m too into it. Perhaps I actually am falling in love. But only with someone I’ve created as a character, or the person that actor came from? I’d never make a fictional character conform, as most of fiction is about conflict.”

That would be life then. You’re falling back in love with being a writer, and you need to keep writing about it.”

Eating it, instead of looking at it.”

Exactly. But you do have an eating disorder to add to your list of ailments.”

There are very few people who could have pointed that out to me, in a way which made others see. Perhaps I’ll have a midnight snack.

It’s tomorrow now. I sit at my writing desk, gazing out of the window and wondering what the world is eating.