How to get to Schrödinger Street

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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

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

Monkey Black heart Sit With Me

THE ACT OF TALKING

On Schrödinger Street, behind very door.”

There may or may not be a home.”

Nor indeed, a person.”

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks. Can I move this chair?”

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

Why not?”

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

Then I wouldn’t need you.”

But you needed me to let you in.”

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

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

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

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

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

By the way, do you have a cat?”

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

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

It’s actually the cat’s chair.”

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

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

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“This place is heroically awful”

HORROR FICTION

Blood dripping

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

Ash TrumpDonald Trump In Famous Horror Movie Scenes (BuzzFeed)

AUGUST UNDERGROUND’S DINER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Vegetarian options can all be printed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Steve Laker, 2018

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.

Amnesia, a cure for insomnia

FLASH FICTION

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

THE DEEP WELL

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

Mum, I can’t sleep.”

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

The more I try, the more I can’t.”

Well, you need to sleep.”

But I thought of something. Something someone said.”

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

So Sam went back to bed.

Dad?”

What is it, Sam?”

I can’t sleep.”

You could if you stopped thinking so much.”

I’ve been thinking about something someone said.”

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

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

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

© Steve Laker, 2018.

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

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

All we need to do, is keep talking.

Call TOLL-FREE: 1-800-0-000-000

FLASH FICTION

A short story (222 words) about passwords and personal data. Precious commodities entrusted to digital custody…

Cat-working-at-laptop

EIGHT BILLION QUESTIONS

Please enter user name

Human, A

How may I help you today?

How do I prevent the impending destruction of planet Earth?

Hmmm. Tricky. I may have to think about that for a while. Please enjoy this sponsored message while you wait…

Thank you for using Deep Thought 3.0, the knowledge database built on human answers, personal data from our parent companies (Google, Facebook et al). Whatever humankind’s questions, about life, the universe and everything, Deep Thought 3.0 can answer them. We would be grateful if you could complete a customer satisfaction survey at the end of this enquiry

Hello, My name is Dave. How may I help you today?

How can I stop the world from ending?

Do you have an account with us?

I’m logged on to my Google. I’m already in my account, Dave

Please enter your password

**************

Please enter a valid password

Eh? Dave?

Password not recognised. Please try again

**************

You last changed your password three months ago

** *** **** ****

Passwords may not contain spaces. Would you like us to send you a password reminder?

Yes please. Where’s Dave gone?

Please enter your password

** **** ** *** ****

Password not recognised. Please enter your email address

Shakespeare.monkeys@infinite.com

Thank you. Instructions on resetting your password will be sent to the email address you provided

© Steve Laker, 2019

Human arses2Not a monkey, but a great ape who wasn’t asked if he’d like to pose for this photo

In an age of evolving technology, we have the Babel Fish within our grasp (and universal translation in our ears). Douglas Adams broke borders with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I used the fish as a quantum computer program translating animal language in my tribute to Douglas, Cyrus Song. Both speak in tongues of the Rosetta Stone and the Tower of Babel, the freedom of language and the forbidding of knowledge.

In my book, I pose the question of interpretive translation: No matter the means or technology, there’s a blurred line in neurobiology, where the messenger has no control of the recipient’s interpretation of a communication. Like the internet, which is free, because we signed over our personal lives long ago. We rarely use the counterpoint, which is the gift of writing for a world audience.

Whomever A. Human is, they might ask what can we do to save the world?

The evolution of the typesetter

FICTION

This is a story which revisited my quarter century in the world of print, from hot metal typesetting to on-demand digital publication; and a writer, as the internet democratised publishing. Like most of my stories it can be applied to many situations, where the protagonist or antagonist is replaced. But like all my fiction, it’s a conversation with the writer. The evolution of the typewriter, and the mangling of the freelancer…

Helvetica-the-typeface

HELVETICA HAUS

I’m writing about a writer. The writer is writing about a writer. That is to say, the writer whom I’m writing about, is doing as I am.

The paper I’m writing this original manuscript on is from Smythson of Bond Street. My pen was a gift: hand-made by Waldmann Adámas from Titanium and Gun Metal. The ink flows smoothly through the barrel and it is comfortable to hold. The ink is stored in the barrel like so many thoughts yet to take form. Then it passes through the barrel, held in my fingers as it ejects my thoughts through my hand and onto the paper, like black blood. My pen is an ergonomic tool of an art which produces aesthetics in the written word.

It’s not just the writing I produce which is art: my means of bringing it into being is also art.

When I’m at my most prolific, I turn to my faithful Royal Epoch typewriter: I can type much faster than I can write freehand. I like holding the metallic rod of the pen in my hand as it spills my words but I gain equal satisfaction from typing. Each depression of a key on a manual typewriter needs to be of a certain force: too gentle and the words are faint; whispered. Too hard and the ink will impress too deeply into the virginal paper. Just the right amount of pressure in the finger delivers an optimum amount of black ink. I had the hammer heads of the characters individually carved by a Monotype compositor of my acquaintance.

Once upon a time, stories weren’t written on computers and word processors, where they leave an indelible imprint, even if deleted. The Monotype operator uses a machine very much like a typewriter, which produces individual letters from molten metal ingots called “pigs”. These individual columns with characters on the end are called “slugs”. The slugs are positioned into a frame, called a “galley” by the Monotype machine. Each slug is one character and metal spacers are inserted into the galley to separate words. These characterless pieces of metal are also produced by the machine operator on his keyboard, simply by hitting a space bar like on a typewriter. I find it amazing to consider, that operator is not only typing the words which will tell a story but he is creating the very letters themselves. Instead of putting ink on paper, he is “typing” the mechanisms which will later do so: he’s writing a machine; he’s writing the means to print. The final galley is a page of type which will be coated in ink and impressed upon sheets of paper: it’s a platen process; it’s traditional letterpress printing, pre-dating litho print.

Rather than be cast in a galley though, my individual letter and character slugs were soldered to the ends of the arms of the hammers in my typewriter, so that every character I type is in the Helvetica typeface.

Often I’ll type up my hand-written notes. This can be because of various motivators: often something which I’ve hand-written whilst on the move or in haste will take on sufficient merit to be typed up as a manuscript for publication. Sometimes speed itself will dictate that the incessant presses of keys is a more efficient way to hasten my thoughts into reality. Typing is rough, violent and more invasive than handwriting. Occasionally, I just like to type and see my words in Helvetica. I can make anything appear in physical form in semi-permanence. That piece of completed writing then exists in only two places: my mind and printed onto the paper. I can destroy the paper at will. Sometimes I burn blank sheets of paper so that the words I planned for them may not be seen.

Apart from the obvious fact that everything written electronically is indelible, even when erased, I eschew computers for many reasons. Screen fonts have naturally had to be digitised: this is introducing an impurity, as well as leaving messy marks. I view it as typographical rape or incest. It’s similar to the comparison between vinyl LPs and MP3s: the latter is digitised and loses a lot of nuance in the process. To the casual, uneducated listener, there is no difference but to the trained ear, listening on quality equipment, the two recordings are identical, yet worlds apart. There is simply no substitute for the platen impression of type pressed forcefully into a sheet of paper and there is no place in my writing for digital typefaces or computer printers. I refuse to refer to digital printing vehicles as presses, simply because they aren’t; they don’t: they don’t physically press the type into the paper.

My manual typewriter is an instrument of beautiful torture. It is a metal skeleton; a mechanical device made productive automata through my fingers. It produces the flesh and blood which are my stories, in the purest font: Helvetica. The letterpress printing machine is the mechanical animal which spews out many copies.

The typeface itself is a thing of naked beauty. When each individual perfect character’s form can be joined with others to make words, the collective beauty is greater than the sum of the parts. My faithful typewriter – its unique qualities created by a writer – creates stories. It’s like a story written to reproduce.

When written to my satisfaction, my original, typed manuscripts are delivered to the printer: a firm called Smith & Young in Bermondsey.

Smith & Young are die-stampers by trade: a beautiful art in itself. The die-stamping process is also a platen one, like letterpress. The process embosses ink into the paper, so that the print stands in relief. Each colour of ink in a coat of arms for example has to be die-stamped separately. Therefore an engraver needs to carve a copper embossing die for each colour and ensure that all colours are printed in register. Furthermore, because the image is stamped directly onto the paper, the dies have to be engraved in mirror image. It’s incredible to watch a worker such as my compositor produce such things of beauty and value. They practice print as an art, not a technology. Once furnished with a few simple concepts, even the layman can distinguish the difference between digital and traditional lithographic print. Die-stamping is a rare thing but the embossed nature of the print is easy to appreciate. To really understand the nuances and beauty of letterpress printing though, requires a connoisseur.

I have to ensure that my manuscript is perfect. I do not use correction fluid: to do so would mar the otherwise monotone typed page with another colour and evidence of a mistake. Mistakes happen and when they do, I simply begin the page again and destroy the original. Given an infinite number of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys will eventually produce a faultless, complete works of Shakespeare. What comes from my typewriter is the first and final hand-typed copy of a work.

When this story is finished, it will leave me as the one and only copy which exists. I don’t use carbon paper, nor take photographs. Once the copy leaves me, I have no record of it. I can’t revise it: the manuscript I despatch is the final draft. For a while, the story doesn’t really exist: it’s sheets of paper in an envelope in a courier’s bag. That courier cares no more for what he or she is delivering than they do my motivation. Should they be involved in an incident and my parcel is displaced, then that is a story which will never be told.

My compositor is not a monkey operating a machine: He is a writer, like me. His is a highly skilled trade and he is one of only a very few remaining.

The courier will wait with the printer, whilst the Monotype operator typesets my story. My story is written again, by a different writer. Whereas my key strokes produced ink on paper, his produce slugs of metal to be locked into a galley for a printing press. Again, the means of printing a story in infinite quantities by impressing those metal slugs into paper, is being literally written in cold, hard metal.

When the galley is complete, the courier will return the original typed manuscript to the writer. For a brief period, two copies of my work exist in physical form: I have an ink-on-paper typed copy, which I can destroy at any time. The other copy exists as potential energy: the tool, written in metal, can print an undefined number of copies of my story. As an entity, the work’s power has increased because it now exists in both a physical and potential form which is much harder – if not impossible – to destroy. The work could well exist in two minds, if the Monotype operator absorbed the story as he wrote it.

Once the potential to print countless physical copies of my work in the form of metal slugs in a galley exists, a problem troubles my purist mind. I trust the man at Smith and Young: he is a good friend and respected in print. He can type almost as speedily on a Monotype setting machine as I can on a manual typewriter (A small piece of trivia for the buff: the Monotype keyboard doesn’t use the QWERTY layout). I trust my colleague to use my specified paper stock when printing the orders I send him but it’s those copies which cause me discomfort. I have no control over the format, media or device which a subsequent reader may see my work presented upon. If it were on anything other than my specified stock and printed letterpress in Helvetica, then the reader would be seeing something which I’ve not given them the authority to view and which is not in the pure form it was intended.

This story isn’t finished. It needs an intermission and to that end, I shall excuse myself for an evening out.

The walk from London Bridge station into Bermondsey always evokes memories: through the tunnels under the station, where much of The Specials’ Ghost Town video was filmed, then a quick stop at The Woolpack on Bermondsey Street for a late morning gin and tonic.

Ink, paper and alcohol have always been uneasy bedfellows. Just as the meat porters of the old Smithfield market used to drink in The Hope pub at dawn, so did the writing communities around Fleet Street and Soho late at night and into the next day: that’s where they worked and some lived but many also lived in Bermondsey. Printing is in the blood there.

I used to drink in The Hope some early mornings with a meat porter, appropriately called Red. His white overalls would be smeared in the blood of more than 100 pigs. The shades of red were like splattered timestamps, the darkest dating back to midnight. “I can chop a pig down and cut it up in five minutes,” he said, clutching a fresh copy the Guardian against his belly. “Legs, shoulders, loins. All done proper like. It’s an art. Chopping a pig down’s an art.”

As Smithfield Market wound down after a night of dismemberment and meat trade, men in white coats breathed in the still, chilly air as the sun rose above Farringdon. Wholesalers – the ones with clean coats – emerged too, wheeling the last of their purchases towards refrigerated Transit vans. They’d dodge a few early risers in suits who are on the sober march towards the City.

The blood would elicit gasps in any other part of town and some coats were grislier than others. “You get bloodier when you’re cutting up lambs,” explained Red, who had the bearing of a retired boxer. “Lambs you put on a block, and cut towards you. When you do pigs, they’re hanging up so you cut away from yourself.”

I saw a few familiar faces from the past at the Woolpack but couldn’t quite place them.

A few doors down, I popped in to see George: the barber whose shop bears his name in Bermondsey Street. For some reason, in all the years I recall going to George’s, George has been the same age: early seventies. He’s probably over 100 by now.

George still does a military short back and sides. The haircut, a shave with a badger hair brush and a cut-throat razor, burning wax tapers flicked into my ears and a hot towel compress are all complete within twenty minutes and George has me looking as I like to for important meetings. George doesn’t talk as he works, negating the need for the kind of small talk which he and I detest. Time spent in his skilful hands is time to relax and contemplate, while he goes about his craft perfectly and to the exclusion of all external distractions. He’s a perfectionist, like me. He invests in fine tools, maintains them with love and employs them with precision. Over a drink at the Woolpack one night, George showed me exactly how sharp one of his cut-throat razors was, by requesting a whole tomato from the kitchen. George opened the razor and rested the blade on the tomato on the bar. Merely steadying the blade with one hand, he raised the handle with his other hand and the blade began to cut through the skin of the tomato under its own weight alone. George noted my fascination with the implement and allowed me to keep it that night.

As is custom, I declined something for the weekend, tipped George and bade him farewell. From there, I decamped briefly to M. Manze, just down the road. Manze’s is the oldest – and best, in my opinion – pie and mash shop in London.

Pie and mash is nineteenth century fast food: the somehow grumpy but friendly staff plate up one’s food in the manner of a borstal inmate high enough in the pecking order to be placed on kitchen duty, then one joins others and quickly eats, head down in a booth where the seats are made of wood and the tabletops are white marble.

Ordering food at Manze’s has to be done with precision. A simple request for pie and mash will be greeted with a blank expression, even though it’s a pie and mash shop. It’s like a test to see if one is a connoisseur of the London delicacy. My specific request was delivered quickly and with no room for misunderstanding. Therefore, my order of one pie, one mash and “liquor” – sort of a parsley sauce – was dolloped with meaning and there was a knowing smile from the server. At a table shared with three complete strangers, I garnished my food with the chilli infused sarsaparilla vinegar, which is for some reason traditional, and ate in around ten minutes. The floor is tiled in black and white, so I played a quick mental game of chess against myself as I chewed.

Thereafter, a quick dash over Tower Bridge Road and down an alley through some housing blocks, to The Victoria in Page’s Walk. The Victoria was the Evening Standard pub of the year in 1972 and the green and white plaque still adorns the wall, alongside black and white photographs of the building. The rest of the pub is at it was then as well: a great little south east London drinking den, where many go only because they need to and others because they happened upon it.

Smith and Young in Crimscott Street was just around the corner from the pub, so my compositor joined me after he’d locked up for the weekend. We had an agreeable few hours, him unwinding with a few pints and me on Tanqueray gin and Indian tonic water, with a squeeze each of fresh lime, orange and lemon, then a tiny dash of cranberry juice: the four fruits must be added in a specific order to maintain the traffic light sequence: green lime, amber from the lemon and orange, then the cranberry for red; then another tiny dash of cranberry at the same time as a squeeze each of lemon and orange, and a final squeeze of lime for the red and amber, green part of the symphony. We had a few drinks and discussed my story.

Presently, we agreed that it might be time to eat, so we made our way back toward London Bridge Station by foot and then to Charing Cross by rail, across Hungerford Bridge, and from where we would eventually part company. It was no concern of mine where my companion had to travel to but the terminus afforded me a ten minute ride home, so it was convenient.

We walked down the cobbles of Villiers Street and crossed embankment, clogged with weekend traffic; mainly coaches and black cabs taking workers home and bringing more people into the West End.

Charing Cross is symbolic because Charing Cross itself, which the station takes its name from, is the official centre of London. The original centre point is the Square Mile of The City, once a Roman fortress trading post, enclosed and gated: Moorgate, Aldgate, Bishopsgate etc. Charing Cross is also notable in my mind for being roughly half way between the old writing districts of Fleet Street, along Strand and through Aldwych, into The City; and Soho, the bohemian heart of the great metropolis, where Jeffrey Bernard once held court in The Coach and Horses, whilst famously being unwell.

The two of us boarded The Tattershall Castle, an old steam ferry moored permanently at Embankment. We chose to sit on deck and enjoy the view: dominated by the graceful London Eye and Art Deco wonder of Shell Centre on the south bank, and the brutal but beautiful form of the Hungerford rail and foot bridges spanning old lady Thames; it was a conflicting postcard.

The steamer was built by William Gray & Co. in 1934 as a passenger ferry on the River Humber for the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). She plied a route between Corporation Pier in Kingston upon Hull and New Holland Pier Station, New Holland. During the Second World War she found service as a tether for barrage balloons and for troop transfer on the Humber estuary. After the war, with the nationalisation of the railways in 1948, she became part of British Rail’s Sealink service. In 1973, after long service as a passenger and goods ferry, she was retired from service and laid up. In 1976 the ship was towed to London. Repairs on the ship were deemed too costly and she was retired from service. The opening of the Humber Bridge made the ferry service, known to have existed since at least Roman times, redundant. PS Tattershall Castle was first opened on the Thames as a floating art gallery until her eventual disposal to a brewing company. Now it’s a floating bar and restaurant, where we sat.

Our like minds permitted us to arrive at different meal choices for dinner. My companion chose traditional fish and chips, his reasoning being that we were in close proximity to marine life. My own reasoning was that we were surrounded by all kinds of life: land-based humans and other mammals, mainly unseen; insects, largely invisible; airborne species, mainly birds which were visible; and indeed, marine life. The most visible, abundant and accessible food group was avian and this is what prompted me to order chicken escalope. I realise that there were unlikely to be any chickens within view at the time of my placing the order but neither were there gulls or pigeons on the menu. There were no cod that I could see either but my dining companion’s battered fish looked a fine meal, served with good chips, mushy peas – in a separate ramekin – and a slice of lemon. There was a separate pot of tartare sauce but my partner is a Philistine and smothered his food in ketchup. My chicken was served as requested: not a breast fillet from the menu but a butterflied piece of thigh meat. This must be cooked with the Cheddar cheese and bacon rolled into it but without a securing rasher of bacon around it, so that the skin may be allowed to brown and crisp. The escalope must then be allowed to rest in a warm place, so that the flesh of the chicken can relax and absorb its own juices and take on those of the bacon inside as it penetrates the soft, white and accommodating young chicken meat with it’s aged, salty juices. The rested chicken parcel must then be wrapped in another slice of fatty bacon and the whole thing fried in butter until the bacon starts to resist and becomes crisp. My chicken was accompanied by the aforementioned good chips: these are King Edward potatoes, cooked thrice: once boiled, then twice fried to produce an “armadillo” chip: crispy on the outside; fluffy on the inside. A fine barbecue sauce and a corn cob completed the plate.

The meal functioned as such, with no need for long-standing friends to engage in casual banter at the expense of the enjoyment of good food. At one point, somewhat annoyed but at the same time amused at the incessant presence of gulls, I tossed a piece of chicken on deck which was quickly swooped upon by three winged balaclava-wearing hooligans. I speculated aloud as to whether this might be cannibalism by proxy and my partner responded by smiling and throwing a piece of his fish overboard, commenting that we’ll never know. I hope my smile conveyed my admiration.

We enjoyed a post-dinner hand-rolled cigarette in pleasant silence, leaning over the handrail of the deck. For my part, I reminisced about a fine and productive evening and looked forward to something as yet incomplete but which held excitement. Great minds: I don’t know what his thoughts were but I respect privacy, so I concentrated on my own.

The flowing Thames below us was a blue-black, like ink flowing through a pen around the boat. I was aboard the boat and therefore the delivery mechanism. This story is now under my control; the boat beneath my feet like the pen in my hand.

I sliced my compositor’s neck from behind, cutting away from me as he leaned over the deck of the boat. Just as it had cut through the tomato skin and flesh, so my cut-throat razor slid between my ghost writer’s head and torso like a hot knife through butter, separating the two in an instant.

As the decapitated head fell to the water below, the eyes remained open and the cigarette which I’d rolled was still in his mouth. The head plopped into the river like a full stop from a hammer in an old typewriter impressing ink into a sheet of paper, or a platen press impressing the final page galley.

The ink flowing around me took on a new colour as the dark, dusty river of life and waste below was splashed with red strike marks, blood spurting from the neck of the headless body next to me, still gripping the handrail. Before I tipped him overboard, I took his wallet.

I engaged the staff in conversation about the distribution of tips paid to the establishment. Once I’d established that tips were distributed fairly among staff, I was able to pay for the meal using my friend’s credit card with a clear conscience.

Of course, I shall burn this copy of the story but I am aware that the galley still exists: that is by design. It is important to my art that a physical record be kept.

My writing is art. I bring things to life with my words and by putting myself in the stories and acting them out so that I may tell them more accurately.

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Andy Warhol looks a scream

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FLASH FICTION

With my fight for independence still very much ongoing with DWP, and mindful of a personal promise to keep writing and not let them take this from me, I remembered I’m a part-time surrealist, and I’ve not written much which is real or unreal lately.

Initially I thought I’d write a short story about poverty, food banks, and the UK government’s economic genocide. I decided that could wait, after I spotted a writing prompt which might permit me wider thought: ‘A can of soup’.

So I mixed up some paints to tell the real and fictional lives of a writer…

Chicken soup

CAMPBELL’S CHICKEN SOUP

I was hungry and lately I’d had a cold. I fancied chicken soup and CBeebies, or repeats of Doctor Who with Tom Baker and Matt Smith. But my cupboards were bear and my pre-pay meter low, so I decided to use the last of my electricity to heat a tin of Campbell’s soup given to me by Andy Warhol.

This being a piece of art history, the can displayed no use-by date. Given who it was from, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found an egg inside. Instructions too. I was to place the egg in an oven at the lowest possible setting, checking on it every two hours until it hatched.

My cooker is electric, so the lowest setting is 70 degrees. Fearing this might be a little warm, I left the oven door open. An egg was unlikely to attempt escape, but it would eventually hatch. My anxiety dictates I don’t go out much, but I had someone else to feed now, so I ordered some seeds on the internet.

After a couple of days, a yellow chick hatched and began frantically chirping at me. Too small to peck at the seeds I’d bought, I fed it liquidised food from a syringe I happened to have lying around.

It was impossible to tell if my chick was a boy or girl. In any other setting, if it’d been a girl, she’d have been reared for egg-laying, or fattened up for human consumption. A boy would be discarded, often destined to be reptile food. I called it Lenny, or Len, after Leonard Hofstadter, or Helen of Troy.

For the first few nights, I slept in the kitchen next to the warmth from the oven, waking every couple of hours to feed Lenny. In return, she (I’d decided) gave substance to my lonely life, where lately I’d have put my head in her home if I cooked with gas. After about a week, Helen was pecking at the seeds I’d bought.

I let Len live in the oven and left the door open. If she wished, she could have the run of the flat. She grew quickly and after a month, she was of a size which wouldn’t look out of place in a supermarket freezer.

Some birds are born with very large head-to-body ratios (the corvids, penguins, parakeets and parrots), and many are as intelligent as dolphins or the great apes. All birds are born with instincts. The first is imprinting the face they see on hatching as that of their mother.

I was Leonard Hofstadter’s mum, noted psychologist Dr Beverley Hofstadter. As though prompted by that, Len developed some strange behaviour, and I wondered if it might also be instinctive.

Lenny kept getting out of the cooker and pressing the buttons on the front. She started plucking at her feathers, as though preparing herself for roasting, like an old Doctor Who on a carving trolley at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I had a depressed chicken. Was it because mine was the first face she saw when she’d hatched? Or was Helen actually Leonard, burdened with a childhood lived in shadows? I switched the oven off at the mains.

Just lately I’ve been so broke that I’ve had to choose between eating and heating. Now I’ve got Len, I took a doorstep loan and put money on the electric key, so she wouldn’t need the oven to keep warm. It means she can watch TV as well, and she loves CBeebies.

Tomorrow we’ll visit the local charity shops to buy my chicken some toys. We’re out of food, so we’ll have to go to the food bank as well.

© Steve Laker, 2019

It all started when Andy Warhol painted a Campbell’s soup can. I just wondered what happened to what he painted. Can’t tell them apart at all.

Dining on darkened stools

FLASH FICTION

Pulp Pollution

PULP POLLUTION

As a one-time music writer, I’m crapping it, which is what every horror writer wants their readers to do, as they feed them to obesity in a crowded field. When I write fiction, there are parts of me in every story or character I create, but I’ve rarely lived the actual events in the stories. Now I’m seated alone in Green Inferno, a joint which prides itself on being carnivorous. My first observation is that if you’re in the story yourself, it’s not so easy to make it up as you go along.

The place is cavernous and filled with greenery, so that the experience is one of dining in a plastic south American forest, alone. As I look around, it’s hard to make out many other diners for the dense foliage, which eases my anxiety. Anyone walking through the bushes around me could be a customer, a lost tribe member, or one of the dishes. I hear running water but I can’t see a toilet. I turn my attention to the menu, which is the other point of this place.

It’s a meat restaurant, but with its focus on food provenance. All their dishes are locally sourced, and every cut of meat is traceable to an individual. Reared by organic local farmers, each animal was once a friend, and so every dish comes with a story, like Peter Davidson at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, describing his lifestyle and how that’s improved his finer cuts.

Mine is a shallow hunger, so I browse the appetisers. Among them, I’m intrigued by the pygmy cutlets. The beast once burdened by these isn’t described by species (I assume pork, from a pig), but as a character:

He (we’re told that much) was unwell for much of his short life (not terribly appetising so far). Bullied by his siblings and shunned by his elders, he’d been adopted by other animals. They stop short of actually naming the individuals here, but I gather this little chap had a bit of an identity crisis (I know how he felt).

Another of these pygmy things sounded a bit of an arse: His partner and children had fled his abusive patriarchy, then he’d been ejected by his drift (the collective noun for swine) and become a nomad (and no mates). For years he wandered with lonely guilt, until he died of a broken heart (impaled). In some respects, I could relate to him too.

The stories of the menu certainly make me question whether I should be eating what was once a sentient, self-determining being like me. As a horror writer, I’ve sometimes reflected on the act of consuming dead flesh, questioning if it might be both the most and least respectful way of disposing of a body. On the one hand, it’s everything which was in that living body being taken on by another (so a bit like holy communion). Conversely, it’s power over the body of the lost soul as it’s consumed (not unlike holy communion then).

I decided on a cut from each, whoever they were. While they remained nameless, they’d be just like any other meat on my plate. As food, once the organism has ceased to function, it becomes organic. It’s consumed, drained of its nutrients for the nourishment of the host, then what’s left is excreted as waste: Life as pulp fiction, picked up on airport news stands, consumed in the air, and cast into the bin on different shores, like so much human waste. Perhaps there are beach combers there, and some stories live again, but I was growing distracted in the plastic green inferno.

My stomach was growing cramped, like my surroundings; vegetation everywhere, but not a leaf to eat. And yet, the dishes I’d ordered were once living beings with stories. I owed them enough respect to eat them while they were still warm.

I’m not sure if it was a server or a customer who ran through the foliage behind me. I couldn’t tell if the sound of flowing water was from a distant stream or the glass now being poured beside me, as my food arrived. I couldn’t wait.

I dined alone as always, with only myself for company, pondering publication of this review. The writer who shit himself.

“Door open or closed?” It made no difference, as I passed an effigy of me. It appeared to smile as I flushed it away to some distant beach.

© Steve Laker, 2018