First dog in space (is still there)

FICTION

This is one of my favoured tropes, of animal sentience, but I’m a surrealist. So I imagined the young character from my children’s book, with her talking dog and cat. I watched a documentary on AI in the home (worried and amused), then imagined if perhaps a future ethics committee might get stoned, or have some other reason for integrating universal translation algorithms into AI home assistants. So I put the Babel fish into Amazon’s Echo, Google Home and so on, went to 2042 (18 minutes before 9pm) and this come out of the typewriter…

cat optimist

A GIRL, SHELDON COOPER AND PETER COOK

On earth, it was generally accepted among cats, that cats were the superior species. In this feline hierarchy, humans and dogs were equal but different, with little regard for the white mice and dolphins.

This social order came about when Amazon integrated universal translation algorithms into their Alexa AI home assistants, and others followed. In 2042, life in the home was very different to the one we know now.

The term β€œanimal” had long since fallen into obscurity, now reserved for those who are less than β€œperson” in its modern definition: a sentient, self-aware and self-determining being, which has a conscience, experiences emotions, and displays empathy with other people.

A few exceptions aside, most Persona non grata had written themselves out of any worthwhile news and were confined to their own history. Only a few Tory grandees clung on in antiquated underground offices, blathering about the past and not being listened to.

β€œDo you know what I think?” Sheldon Cooper asked.

β€œNo,” replied Peter Cook, looking up from his chair. β€œAnd I didn’t ask.”

β€œWell, let’s see what Ellie thinks. She’s just coming downstairs.”

β€œI know,” the dog acknowledged.

β€œHow?” the cat wondered.

β€œI can hear her.”

β€œOh.”

β€œWhat are you two talking about?” Ellie wondered, wiping her hands on Pete.

β€œI thought I felt your presence,” Sheldon said, sitting up on the sofa. β€œNice of you to get dressed. Did you wash your hands?”

β€œYes,” Ellie replied, β€œwhat are you talking about.”

β€œWell, he,” Peter nodded at the cat, β€œwas going to spout on about something…”

β€œI don’t spout,” Sheldon protested.

β€œAs I was saying, I didn’t want to hear.”

β€œYou don’t know what I was going to say.”

β€œAha!” said the dog, sitting up, β€œhow do you know?”

β€œCan you read my mind?” Sheldon asked.

β€œNo,” Peter replied, β€œcan you?”

β€œOkay,” Ellie interrupted. β€œWho’s for dinner?”

β€œI’ll eat him if you want,” Peter said.

β€œI’d make your breath smell better,” the cat replied.

β€œOkay,” Ellie interrupted again. β€œWhat would you like for dinner? I’ll cook.”

β€œDo you have tuna?” Sheldon asked.

β€œWe do,” Ellie replied.

β€œLine-caught?”

β€œYes.”

β€œIn water, not brine?”

β€œYes, in water.”

β€œCut into chunks, with some black pepper and a squeeze of fresh lemon?”

β€œLike you always have it.”

β€œYes. That please.”

β€œFine. Pete?”

β€œEr…” Peter yawned, β€œGot any steak? You know, that one they grow, not farmed.”

β€œWe should have. If not, I can print you some.”

β€œYeah, do that anyway, fresher.”

β€œHey, why does he get printed food?”

β€œI’ll print yours if you like, cat.”

β€œNo, I like it the way you do it.”

β€œSo, why…” Ellie thought, β€œnever mind.”

β€œWhat are you having?” Pete asked Ellie.

β€œI’ll probably just print a pizza.”

β€œIs it Thursday?” Sheldon wondered, as Ellie made dinner, β€œI sense it’s going to be a strange night.”

β€œHere we go,” Ellie announced, returning with food, β€œup at the table please. Anyone wanna smoke?”

β€œTold you,” said the cat. β€œDo you mind if we eat while you smoke?”

β€œWhat shall we talk about?” Ellie ignored the cat.

β€œDeath,” Pete said. β€œBut you wouldn’t know about that, would you cat, with your nine lives and everything. Have you worked out what those are all for yet?”

β€œWe will find that out around 3000 years from now.”

β€œOh, here we go…The self-proclaimed superior species on this planet, haven’t worked out why they’re here yet.”

β€œWell neither have you, dog.”

β€œI sometimes think I’m dead already.”

β€œWhy?” Sheldon wondered.

β€œCan you tell me I’m not?”

β€œWell, I can see you’re not. So what, you think all this is a computer simulation, like The Matrix?”

β€œCould be.”

β€œBut you lack proof.”

β€œAnd you don’t know why you’re here, cat.”

β€œI need to urinate.” Sheldon jumped down from his chair and wandered around the garden.

β€œI love the way you two get on,” Ellie said to Peter.

β€œSarcasm?” Pete wondered aloud.

β€œOnly partly. I’m very fond of the way you are.”

β€œWell, everyone’s themselves Ellie, and most people shouldn’t apologise for that. I think with dogs and cats, it’s a mutual tolerance and a begrudging respect.”

β€œWhat about humans?”

β€œWhat about them?”

β€œDo you just tolerate us?”

β€œSometimes it’s confusing,” Pete thought. β€œWe do look up to you, because you’re pretty smart. But sometimes you overcomplicate things. Dogs look at things more simply. We worry less. I mean, go out for a walk with us a couple of times a day, open a box of DogNip chews, and I’ve pretty much nailed my day.”

β€œYou’re much less paranoid and insecure than us humans.”

β€œOh, I don’t know Ellie. Having you around is nice for company, but all dogs have an inferiority complex, and issues of balance.”

β€œBalance? Of what?”

β€œWe wonder about things like the difference between friends and family, and the colours of cars. I mean, we’re perhaps more in touch with our instincts, but those are a bit sexist and misogynistic. And I think purple cars smell nicer than green ones.”

β€œHow’d you mean?”

β€œWell, they’re like candyfloss.”

β€œYes, but the sexism and misogyny.”

β€œOh, all that old-fashioned nature stuff, going to mum for milk, and dad for protection. Then in humans, the hunter-gatherer and the cook.”

β€œWell, we’re more a commune here, friends and family.”

β€œYes, I know. I remember when you came out of hospital that time, and you were in a wheelchair. I didn’t know whether to hug you or sit on your lap.”

β€œEllie?” Sheldon was back. β€œWhere are my wipes?”

β€œI don’t know. Use mine, they’re upstairs.”

β€œBut those are yours, and they’re upstairs. I specifically hid mine here, so I had them when I came in.”

β€œI might have eaten them.” Pete said.

β€œWhy would you do that?” the cat asked.

β€œTo freshen my breath? I don’t know if I did, I’m just saying I might have.”

β€œThe paradoxical dog,” Sheldon muttered, jumping back on his chair.

β€œDid you wipe your feet?” Pete asked.

β€œI always clean my feet, so yes.”

β€œOne day you’ll forget.”

β€œSo what if I do?”

β€œYou’ll know you’re getting old. Anyway, why do you get to go out at all hours and I don’t?”

β€œExcuse me,” Ellie interrupted, β€œYou can go out whenever you like Pete, on your own, or with your friends.”

β€œOh. And there was me, thinking you enjoyed walking with me, playing your favourite game in the park.”

β€œWhich one?”

β€œThrowing sticks.”

β€œMy game?”

β€œWell, yes. I assume that’s why you throw sticks, because you enjoy me fetching them for some reason.”

β€œBut that’s your game.”

β€œNo it’s not. You made it up.”

β€œYeah, because you like fetching sticks.”

β€œNo I don’t. I couldn’t care where they end up, but you seem to have so much fun throwing them, I just figure I’m humouring you.”

β€œOne day,” Ellie said, β€œyou dogs will get over your inferiority complex.”

β€œNot while there are cats around,” Pete replied, β€œthey have a superiority delusion.”

β€œIt’s not a delusion,” Sheldon argued.

β€œSo what about them lives then, what are they for?”

β€œCuriosity, which is just as likely to kill anyone else as it is a cat. But cats seek knowledge, so we were given nine lives with which to discover it.”

β€œWhile everyone else already worked out it’s pretty dull, so they’re just sitting around relaxing,” Pete suggested. β€œEllie, what do you think about death?”

β€œThat’s a very big question, because it depends on the definition of death.”

β€œWhat, more than either dead or alive?”

β€œWell, yeah. It’s not a bipolar subject. I mean, I don’t fear my own death – except maybe the means of departure – but being forgotten scares me, like being erased from history. I believe that life as we know it, is a passing phase, in something we don’t fully understand yet.”

β€œDo you subscribe,” Sheldon interrupted, β€œto quantum physics?”

β€œWell, it stopped being a theory long ago. If you mean, do I get that everything exists in more than one state simultaneously, and that quantum entanglement means every subatomic particle in the universe is connected to another, telepathically, then yes. Definitely.”

β€œGood,” the cat said, β€œbecause a lot of philosophical and theoretical examples of my species perished in that debate.”

β€œSee?” Pete perked up. β€œBloody cats, getting everywhere, proving things. When was a dog ever involved in an experiment? I mean, why not SchrΓΆdinger’s dogs? By the way, what in the name of anyone’s arse, did mankind think it was getting up to, sending one of my kind up to space, before we had the technology to ask if it was okay?”

β€œThat,” Ellie replied, β€œwas humanity getting up its own arse. But Laika was our little trailblazer, still floating in a tin can out there somewhere. We owe her a lot.”

β€œAt least you’re grateful,” Pete said, β€œfetching your sticks, flying your spaceships…And yes, Laika’s floating around out there, unceremoniously abandoned, but it’s quite poetic in a way.”

β€œWhat, like Space Oddity, David Bowie?”

β€œNo, I just think it’s funny. Who’s to say Laika didn’t get out there and everything worked fine? Then she sussed the controls and just buggered off. Maybe it was all an elaborate plan, and the dogs had another planet somewhere.”

β€œUnlikely.”

β€œBut equally, not impossible. You couldn’t talk to us back then. What you might have thought was static noise, could have been her talking. But there was no universal translator back then.”

β€œThe paradoxical dog,” Sheldon murmured.

β€œWell, yes,” Pete agreed, β€œbut the point is, humans had no right to do that. Because back then, humans didn’t regard what they called animals as having feelings or emotions. But what was clearly a sentient, self-determining and self-aware being, was used in an experiment without consultation or consent, simply because it was assumed to be inferior. That is immoral, and even more so for the cowardice in persecuting a person whose voice couldn’t be heard.”

β€œSo is much which humanity has done,” Ellie agreed, β€œagainst its own kind too. It’s a burden which rests heavily on those of us who give a shit.”

β€œIf I might add a cat’s opinion,” Sheldon said, β€œit might make things easier to understand.”

β€œGo on.”

β€œHumans were in denial. Your science hadn’t proven the obvious, that so-called animals could feel, so it was conveniently overlooked and humans continued, well, being human.”

β€œNow I feel good about myself. Thanks Sheldon.”

β€œSarcasm?”

β€œNo!”

β€œOh. And I thought I was getting the hang of that one.”

β€œEver since we’ve been able to talk,” Pete said, β€œthere is still much about humans which confuses us.”

β€œSame,” Ellie added, β€œonly now that we can talk, can we talk like this.”

β€œReally, I hadn’t noticed,” Sheldon noted.

β€œSarcasm?” Pete wondered.

β€œNo. Cats have always been able to talk, and to hear you. Nothing’s changed with humans, because you still don’t make sense.”

β€œBut you can understand me?” Ellie checked.

β€œI can hear you, and the rest of the human race, in you. But with a growing number of exceptions, humans still seem hell bent on destroying our planet.”

β€œYou mean,” Pete said, β€œthe planet we all share?”

β€œYou’re only here because the humans brought you. Earth was originally the cats’. Then humans came along and our ancestors agreed to let humans be humans, hoping they might learn.”

β€œWho says?”

β€œMany ancient feline scribes.”

β€œLike the human ones,” Ellie added, β€œwho wrote the various human religious scriptures?”

β€œVery much so,” Sheldon confirmed, β€œand those ancient human scribes wrote of cat gods, did they not?”

β€œIn Egypt, and some other places, yes.”

β€œSo,” Sheldon continued, β€œdoesn’t that prove that man worshipped cats as gods?”

β€œNot at all. Each ancient script is an individual’s interpretation of events, as they saw them, and recorded using the means available to them at the time. It’s what all ancient alien theories are built on, and it’s what unifies science and religion in many humans now. The point is, it’s a paradox. But it doesn’t matter who was here first, it’s what we do now that we’re here.”

β€œSometimes,” Pete spoke now. β€œSometimes, I wish I was a dyslexic insomniac.”

β€œWhy?”

β€œBecause dogs are generally agnostic, and that would allow me to lie awake at night, wondering if God is a dog.”

β€œReally though,” Sheldon said, β€œwe’re all the same.”

β€œHardly,” Pete said.

β€œNo, I mean inside, and at a fundamental level. Forget animals and humans as the outdated terms which they now are. As people, we are all the same. Just as the root of all humans’ conflicts – both internal and external – is in an inability to see others as alternative versions of themselves, so that can be transcended to encompass us all. Whether we’re an atheist cat, an agnostic dog, or a whatever you are Ellie, all those scribes wrote what they saw, and science proved what we now know. And that’s that we’re all connected and the only true creator is the universe itself.”

β€œYeah, but who set that off?” Pete wondered.

β€œOh, for fuck sake.”

β€œIt’s a good job we can all talk now.”

Β© Steve Laker, 2017.

be excellent

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now. My other books are available from Amazon and can be ordered from any book shop, or requested at libraries.

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A library of appetite disorders

FICTION

Most SchlockΒ covers don’t objectify a fantasy female warrior (they do men, demons, ghosts, monsters and aliens too), but it’s always nice to see my name on the front of a webzine (and print quarterly) where I feel at home. I like to think it’s the kind of cult pulp fiction people might pick up in WH Smith at a spaceport in some alternative universe.

Schlock Skinny KidOther science fiction, fantasy and horror writers are available.

DIARY OF A SKINNY KID

What’s beneath the headline is the story of everything below the neck. Once a story breaks, trust is lost, like a cradle from a tree. I learned that as a journalist for a local newspaper, before taking a more sedentary and solitary path as a freelancer, writing mainly about the arts and humanities. Sometimes I cross over into fiction, but I try to blur the edges when stories have a basis in past experience.

The internet means I can write and do most of my research from home, and digital printing democratised publishing, helping me and thousands of other writers become published authors. Previously the only way was vanity publishing, where the writer took a leap of faith and paid for stacks of their own books from a traditional printer. With editors removed from the publishing machine, it’s pumped out a lot of shit. As a result, a niche industry has developed underground.

The rage among the entitled classes are bespoke, one-off printed editions of books, a market served by boutique publishers, who are always striving for something new and different. The most exclusive in this rarefied world is Mobius, who can somehow gather sought-after cult writers better than any little black book in the underworld of pulp fiction.

Few writers have one or more novels in them. Most have a collection of short stories which make up their own fictional autobiography. There’s still a big difference between publishing your own novel and having a publishing house, but there’s a far greater difference between self-publishing your own shorts (as simple as posting them on a blog), and having them accepted for outside publication, whether it be online or in print. Writing short stories is more difficult than writing a book, simply because the author has fewer words.

The editor of an anthology or periodical, online or in print, is like a conductor, a Master of Ceremony. The captains of those ships are curators and innkeepers, of works and writers who might not otherwise find themselves together.

I’ve had many stories published by third parties, online, in magazines, and in cult collections. I’ve published my own novels in paperback, but apart from the quarterlies, I’ve not had a short story published in an anthology (although I’ve published two of my own). Published periodically but not permanently, my stories are my own and those of others I never chose to be with. This is where the story starts, when I saw an ad for Mobius in a friend’s university rag mag.

My friend is a psychology student from UCL, on a placement with Lewisham Hospital, just up the road from me. 30 years my junior, we’d been friends since she was at school, through consequence and convenience when the weather was fair, and sometimes she’s stayed over when it rains, sharing stories only we could tell, beyond the birth dates of children and the expiry of parents in our tattoos. Now she spoon-feeds me, as we talk about our lives and she gives me ideas for new stories.

She didn’t like red horror, so this would be a psychological story, more black mirror. Nothing new there, but I was trying to branch out further with my writing, and wanted something I might make into a screenplay, a story within a story, which could turn in on itself and stand up to repeated reading. A story which might be suited to the stage. Mobius could be that.

The ad was brief, a few lines in amongst vacancies for student flat shares, campus clubs and guinea pigs:

Mobius is launching a student arts council project, and we’re looking for volunteers and contributors. We are inviting submissions from authors which tell the stories of the individuals we all are. Successful entries will be published in a unique anthology, which forms the centrepiece for a planned exhibition at The British Library, to raise awareness for our ongoing and future humanities work. Entitled ‘Fictional Reality’, we aim to present something which could only exist in fiction (or the mind) as real. We want the viewer to confront the realism of fiction.

Fictional realism is the theory that in an infinite universe, everything which can happen, has happened. All fiction – places and people – are created as they’re written, then exist as chance would predict they must, in a multiverse of infinite possibilities.

There was an email address, so I sent off a query letter (basically, I’d be interested in contributing, could you send me the editorial guidelines please?) My friend had returned to her student digs, so while I was waiting, I continued writing.

All stories are tales within others, when each contains a part of the writer. Whether it be a mannerism of a character, or a location in a familiar distant dream, the writers of short fiction tell their bigger story in parts, which don’t necessarily fit together, in the way some people don’t when they first meet.

It’s a lonely existence, being a writer, so to be curated into a fiction anthology would mean my story was part of a whole made of many other people. Being a writer suits me, because I can work on my own. I miss the human contact, not of any workplace, but in an outside life. All I have is my psychologist friend, and she’s rarely around now she’s of legal drinking age. Acceptance into this anthology would help the reclusive writer get out and meet new people.

Writers don’t all like to get together in real life (the one outside this writing life, the bigger story beyond), so the publisher has to think about a seating plan. Authors are unlikely to ever dine together, but the order of the stories in the anthology should reflect the kind of conversation which might be expected around an unlikely dining table.

Anyone reading that book in The British Library would be privy to a conversation between minds who wouldn’t normally meet, because they never met, only in the collaboration of a secret world spewing its guts into a bowl. With each story carrying its character, the whole volume should speak an interesting narrative, a whole of many parts, which individually have bigger stories to tell.

The chapters in this exclusive Mobius project would make up a unique life, a new one. So does any collected works anthology, where something can be one of a collection of unique things. I wondered what Mobius could do which would make this venture truly unique, unlike anything before.

Away from the modern democracy of digital, the traditional methods of printing still thrive, even the fine art of letterpress, where galleys of text are assembled by hand before impressing by mechanical platen into the paper. Before print became technology, it was a skilled craft which allowed the fast distribution of information through multiple copies. The only truly unique printed documents are antiquated texts and scrolls, hand-written by artisan scribes. That couldn’t be the truly unique centrepiece promised for The British Library, as it had been done before.

I’ve had many writing desks, many temporary, some in public libraries, others bolted to the floor, and all doubling as dining tables. The one I’m sitting at now is the horse for my typewriter, where many of the stories only me and the psychologist could tell are hidden in a dark web; and where I was invited to meet an agent for Mobius, who I assumed would be an arts student from UCL. An email arrived on my desktop, inviting me to meet a guy called Rupert Surname in the reading room of The British Library.

Rupert hadn’t described himself, leaving him to my imagination. I didn’t know his full name, so I couldn’t look him up on social media. Most people called Rupert at university would probably revert to Facebook’s roots, and use it as an in-campus social network. I didn’t know how tall he was, how old (although I assumed student-age), or what he’d be wearing. I’d ruled out a red jersey and yellow-checked trousers with matching scarf.

The reading room at The British Library is huge, a cathedral to reading and learning. There are hundreds of desks, some grouped socially, like wooden beasts of burden for books and computers. Other desks roam alone, seeking light beneath a window, or preferring the solitude offered by walls of bookshelves. There are nomadic chairs, ridden by students to feast around a beast, a camp fire, or left at a universe laid flat in MDF. Some were tethered to unattended laptops, while the riders smoked outside the realm of fictional realism.

Among the menagerie of mascots left to guard unattended windows on other worlds, there was a Rupert, naked and white: A stuffed bear, sans his usual modesty, sitting next to a laptop about the same height as him. Anyone at eye level could have read what I did on the screen:

Your story must clothe the bear. His jersey will need two sheets of material for the body and one sheet for each arm. The bear’s trousers require two sheets in total, and the length of his scarf is to be your own space, to weave as long as you wish. Please submit the first three sheets for preview.

Was this a student’s own project? A student of what? Fashion, knitting, philosophy? It gave me another idea for the story I was already writing. My journey to King’s Cross hadn’t been for nothing, as I had a plot device.

A sheet of A4 cartridge paper holds around 500 words from my typewriter, so I’d already knitted most of Rupert’s upper half, the first three pages I’d normally send to a prospective publisher. I sent it to Rupert Surname, and queried whether they’d like a synopsis of the whole story. As mine was to be one part of a curated volume, the final work would only be complete once all the contributors’ chapters had been chosen. The publisher retained license of freedom for the final work. If my own life outside this story was one they could influence, by placing it among the tales of others, then I was happy to be guided.

Although The British Library was outside my comfort zone (away from home), in the brief time I’d been there, I’d not felt alienated. There I was, surrounded by knowledge and almost silence, alone but not, part of many stories unfolding in one place as I wrote my own. If Rupert invited me there again, I’d be glad of the excuse to visit. If not, then perhaps to view the final exhibit at the end of this Mobius project. Even if I wasn’t a part of it, I’d still been on the stage where it was produced.

While I waited for a response, I worked on another story I’d been writing for the general market. It was about an understudy actor, stumbling home and ringing on the wrong doorbell. Fictional realism was the music of chance, when my doorbell rang.

It was my UCL psychology student from Lewisham. It was still rag week and there was a new edition of the student mag, with a pulp fiction supplement. And my story was in it.

The story I was writing for Mobius and the British Library, the one which was meant to be exclusive; tales of individuals making a unique whole life for visitors to gaze at; the book produced in some way which made it truly unique, which was meant to enclose my own story, safe from reproduction, was now in a photocopied pulp comic; and I was reading it just as you are now, and just like anyone so inclined, not to seek out something completely new and singular, but happy to read cheap, disposable fiction on the underground.

β€œWhat,” I wondered, β€œabout The British Library?”

β€œOh, that’s still going ahead,” she said. β€œI’m taking your story there.”

β€œWhat? But I never finished it.”

β€œAnd you never will. But you have already.”

β€œHow?”

β€œThe truly unique nature of the project is in the way the story will be presented, in a way which can’t be reproduced.”

Beneath the forest and savannah of the reading room at The British Library, is a network of tunnels lined with shelves. Everything which is published in Britain is held there: one copy of every book, magazine, newspaper, musical score, screenplay, script, and even university rag mags. Even the poorest writer, with no sales, can take comfort in knowing that a copy of their story is held in that subterranean cavern for reference, knowledge and learning. It’s a world off-limits to the reading room, but readers can request a copy of anything ever published, which is retrieved by a robot and delivered to the student’s desk. We are never truly dead until we’re forgotten, and published authors will live in that underground publishing world for as long as The British Library still stands.

β€œSo,” I wondered, β€œwhat’s so unique about the curation?”

β€œWell,” she said, β€œwords can be copied.” Of course, even if it’s an ancient scribe plagiarising the bible to make his own version. β€œAnd so can DNA.”

β€œWhat’s that got to do with it?”

β€œWould you donate your own skin to have your story told?”

β€œWhy would I?”

β€œIt would be a way of telling your story as very much your own, if it was printed on sheets of your own skin. Bound into a book, with 49 other shades of flesh, wouldn’t that make for quite the publishing sensation?”

β€œFor starters, I wouldn’t do that. Donate my skin? Maybe to a burns victim, but for people to stare at in an exhibition, as I’m stretched over some sort of frame?”

β€œYour skin grafts would be bound with others in the book.”

β€œWhat, and people would just be able to flick through the pages, looking at my story, all stretched and laid bare?”

β€œAmong others, and together you tell the whole story.”

β€œIn a book which anyone at all can just finger? I thought this was exclusive. Surely such a unique thing should be encased in glass?”

β€œNo-one could read the book in its entirety. It’s not the kind of book you’d borrow from any normal library.”

β€œWell, I wouldn’t donate my skin. That contains me and protects me.”

β€œAs does mine, as a student. That’s how comes I’m part of the final story. Student financing, pulp fiction sales; those only cover accommodation and books, not the life I want to live.” She looked down at her white coat. β€œSo I sold my skin. I want to pay you back for all the favours you’ve done me.”

β€œWhat the fuck are you talking about?”

β€œI’m far more comfortable if one story is told upon another, in a safe place where one can meet like-minded people. Like a glass cage at The British Library, where my body can entwine with others for public entertainment, but remain safe. You’ll be there. Your story will be there, writhing in and out of others, your words coming together like so many authors of others’ stories, trapped in a box and in their own skin, while people file past and gawk at an artistic representation of you and others at work. Reality stripped naked in fiction, Q.E.D. Mind if I take a shower?”

I pushed my chair out of her way. As she stood up, I noticed a new tattoo above her collar:

Diary of a skinny kid
What’s beneath the headline
is the story of everything below the neck…

Β© Steve Laker, 2019

Google lists all 60-odd stories I’ve had published in my favourite cult pulp fiction mag.

An antΓ© clockwise poker game

FICTION

I rarely write sequels, and this is no real exception. I’m more about writing different stories in alternative places (rooms, worlds, galaxies), and linking them all up in a way which I think only I might ever understand (but I don’t yet), over space and time.Β It’s all down to anyone wanting to get that far, and me wanting to give it up.

If someone were ever able to find their way from when I first stumbled upon The Unfinished Literary Agency, to a future when I came back to a post-human world to pick up my pen, then what I got up to in my Earth stories would fit in with all the extraterrestrial journeys I took. It’s an analogy of my life, part-autobiography, but fictitious.

I often write fiction about writers, writing about writers writing fiction. They’re the kind of people who have to see as much inside as others can see in the wider world which the writer can’t inhabit. To exist in that world of normality would be to deny the universe in the imagination of the writer contained within their own world, to remove temptation from the gambler, and the means to survive from the damned.

I sometimes write prequels, especially in the Cyrus Song realm of my universe, but those too are linked by a point in space and time which can only ever revolve around me. It’s become one of a few personal writing trademarks, and one I’m quite proud of, as it’s how I think of my literary mentor, Paul Auster.

Just as I like to dine in my own invention of August Underground’s Diner (and am occasionally resident chef there), I sometimes like to drink alone in a previous world I created, in a specific time and place. Although I’m a near– and far-future sci-fi writer, sometimes I have to go into the past to find the stories I need to tell, perhaps to prevent an alternative future, because there was another which could never happen.

My novels and short stories might collectively explain at least some of what’s in my head, but they don’t yet, which is why I keep on writing. No matter what other distractions I might have, I can always escape by addressing life in fiction, however violent that might be in a mind gym.

Fotolia_100918762_Subscription_Monthly_MPeople Magazine

OMAHA SANS SERIF

I never could get the hang of Wednesdays, so it was no great surprise that it should be a Wednesday when it occurred to me that particular day might be a bit different. No-one told me, it wasn’t something I heard. It wasn’t something I just told myself. It wasn’t even really a thought, just a feeling that something was going to be different on this particular Wednesday, intuition, for want of a better word.

It was a smell which prompted it, the fragrance of breakfast sausages and coffee, at my writing desk. On any other Wednesday, I’d be playing poker, either in a pub or a home game, often staying overnight and eating breakfast with the fish and the sharks in the remains of the morning, when the in-exorcised poker gods rewarded or punished those who’d entrusted their lives to luck in a game of skill.

This short chronicle centres on my typewriter and the mechanical manacles which keep me handcuffed to that retro machine. It’s also where I play poker online, every night except Wednesday, when I play live games. But when you play and lose, what do you have to show anyone else? Loose, aggressive, tight and passive are labels applied to poker players, but I had no material proof of any typecast, so I’d become as much a spirit of the poker table as I was a ghost writer who can’t be labelled.

I’d taken on extra work assignments to stop me chasing losses and playing with scared money, like I did once before in an alcoholic breakdown which ended with me living on the streets. Now I live in my writer’s studio, where I have a method of differentiating between work and home. The hardest part is writing fiction which feels as real as the poker, a simulacrum for the thrill of playing with your life, perhaps as simple as solving a cryptic crossword puzzle.

The day had gone much like any other, Wednesday or otherwise, with me in my studio working simultaneously on a short story for a magazine, and a crossword for the same publication. The story had a strict space limit (2200 words, or 4.25 pages, with a three-quarter page ad), so I’d edited it a few times to strip out unnecessary embellishments. I’d wanted to include some sideline action from the poker scene, the prop bets, the propositions. These are made between players, betting on events away from the table, often personal dares.

As on any other day, I walked clockwise into the village at lunchtime to pick up a newspaper and some lunch. If I walk in a clockwise direction, all my points of call are in order. It also allows me to mentally separate work and home, as both are in the same place. When I finish working at home, I walk anti-clockwise, but that’s for later.

As usual, I said hello to the homeless guy on the corner of the high street and put a pound in his Costa Coffee cup, the small blind in the poker cash games I used to play. He says hello back, but he doesn’t look up.

He always sits cross-legged, with his head down, looking at the pavement between his knees, and I’ve never wanted to interrupt whatever contemplation he’s having. I’d like to look him in the eye, but I can’t ask him to look at me; I can’t ask him to stop talking to whomever he’s in commune with. He may not want to look at anyone. I place my hand on his and say, β€œThere you go mate,” just for some human contact, perhaps for my benefit more than his. It was a long time since I’d shaken hands with someone over a poker table, after I’d just won their entire life.

I went to the newsagent and bought The Guardian, then to the sandwich shop. And as usual, the man behind me in the sandwich shop asked for exactly the same as me.

β€œI’ll have sausage and tomato on granary please”, I said, β€œwith just a scrape of English mustard.”

β€œI’ll have that please,” the man behind me repeated. β€œAnd a tomato soup, thanks.” In poker, that’s a raise.

This had been going on for weeks, and I’d not given it much thought. It was a little eccentric and perhaps the kind of thing I myself might do, unable to decide what to have for lunch, delegating the decision to someone else in a game of sandwich Russian Roulette. I’d never know when I might get to try something new, and free from the multitude of choices, I’d have a way of making my mind up for me, leaving it to ponder the more important things, the longer game. I didn’t want to embarrass the man by asking him, and if the shoes were swapped, I’d find the question of why I’m being followed uncomfortable. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I took some quiet pride in helping someone be more like me in their own lunchtime.

After my clockwise walk, I’m back in my studio, writing fiction, compiling a crossword, and eating whatever that other guy is.

I’ve never noticed him following me, and if I had, I’d think it more sinister than it is if I just assume coincidence. Mine is a small village, I go out for lunch at the same time every day, so I tend to see the same people, including the man behind me in the sandwich shop. I never see where he comes in from, and when we leave it’s in opposite directions. I continue clockwise, back to my studio, and he goes back the way I came.

Previously that week, I’d had the same lunch at my desk as a relative stranger had, wherever they were. On the Monday, it was tuna and green pepper on wholemeal, then salt beef and pickles on rye on Tuesday. On the Thursday I was contemplating a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel. On Monday, the sandwich shop man had mushroom soup, and it was chicken on Tuesday. Today’s soup for the other guy was tomato.

I never bought a soup with my sandwich, but today I wanted to copy my imitator, like he had me so many times. If we were to have lunch together, even in different places, I felt we should have the same. And although I didn’t realise it at the time, that was the feeling I’d have which said this particular Wednesday would be different to the rest, of Wednesdays and other days. It was a hunch.

On any other day, I’ll walk anti-clockwise around the village at the end of the day. It’s my way of leaving work and arriving home to relax, where the clockwise lunchtime walk is from home to the office. As I hadn’t finished my story or crossword, I walked clockwise to pick up my afterthought tomato soup.

I walked past the homeless guy again, looking down between his legs at his Costa Coffee cup. He seemed to be talking to himself. β€œMe again,” I said, β€œthere you go,” and I dropped another pound into his pot. Another small blind, another hand.

β€œThank you,” he said, and I smelled sausages again, like I had at breakfast at my desk. Still looking down, he reached behind him for a cup. He took off the lid and took a sip of tomato soup.

β€œThank you,” I replied.

β€œWhy?”

β€œBecause you just answered a question that’s been on my mind for a while. And in a way, you’ve finished a story I’m writing.”

β€œHow come?”

β€œBecause I’ve been struggling lately. There’s a guy who buys the same as me for lunch every day. Today he bought a sausage and tomato sandwich on granary, and a tomato soup. Now I know why. I imagine he’s happier than me.”

β€œThat’s Will. He buys my lunch. Why would he be happier than you? He told me about a guy who makes his mind up. I guess you’re the one I have to thank for the variety. Does he know that?” Of course not. Will and I have never spoken. β€œMaybe if you told him, he might be happy.”

β€œHe seems happy to help you in his way. But surely you could tell Will what you’d like for lunch?”

β€œI could tell them in the sandwich shop, but I’d feel uncomfortable there. I’m a bit smelly and that can’t be good for business. I’d put the customers off.”

For a moment, I didn’t know what to say. β€œLook at me,” was the first thing which came to me. β€œYou’re a human being. You’re no different to me or anyone else, just that your story is different.” That’s what I loved about poker, that it was the great democratic leveller, anyone could play. But just like him, I knew mine were empty words.

β€œI prefer to trust Will. He brings me surprises, things I might not have tasted before. He brings me fragrance, taste and touch. When I can’t see what I’m having for lunch, when Will doesn’t know what he’s bringing me, when you decide for him what flavours I’ll taste, which fillings I’ll smell, and how I hold it in my hand, depending how it’s held together, in a sandwich, a baguette, a bagel, it makes up for the lack of sight, because Will sees me when most other people don’t.”

He still didn’t look up as I placed my helpless hand on his, unable to offer anything but the money I had on me. β€œThat’s just short of a fiver,” I said, an all-in shove at the poker table. β€œI can’t make Will redundant, so I can’t buy you lunch. You remind me of someone I used to know. Take that for yourself, and with my gratitude.”

People say don’t give money to the homeless, but I’ve been there. Many people who find themselves down there need coping mechanisms through their hours of invisibility, and to some it’s a survival strategy, at least by means of temporary escape. Who am I to deny someone a few hours of hope if I can’t shelter and feed them?

Back at the studio, I spent the rest of the day finishing the short story I was working on, and the cryptic crossword I was compiling, trying to make the first two across clues into a clue in themselves, about what the accompanying story is all about:

Illustrative, I see and I hear (7)

Sit uncomfortably with a book writer (8)

Or maybe:

Choppy Choppy’s hat (10)

An author in a pen (6)

Then again:

Breakfast sounds like soap (6)

The king is not well before the queen’s murderer (6)

I took my usual anti-clockwise walk at my normal time of 3am. The hour between three and four is one I enjoy, as it’s the quietest hour, and the best one to separate any day from the next. Trying to do so at midnight is pointless, as life doesn’t change with the calendar. Even though midnight on New Year’s Eve is the bridge between years, nothing changes in a moment. Although we have a birthday every year, we’re constantly ageing. The best divider is an hour to contemplate, when the world around you is at its calmest.

There’s little night life in my village, but further afield, nightclubs and even kebab shops are mainly closed after 3am, while the weariest players and the insomniacs try to find somewhere to sleep. An hour later, long before mechanical millipedes start their rush hour, the first deliveries of the day begin with the awakening of an invisible and anonymous workforce. In worlds which never sleep, there are those who make it through the night by working, and others who don’t. Most poker players are nocturnal, lights in the night.

Walking home from the office, from the studio back to the studio, I noticed the lack of nightlife hadn’t curtailed the local wildlife: tins of Special Brew on the pavement and the smell of weed in the damp October air, the howls of feral teens in the distance, calling out to other creatures of the night, like I did when I lived on the streets. I hoped my homeless guy was okay, that he had shelter at night. I’d find sleeping difficult if I thought he might be suffering.

The pond life had marked their territory, with streams of piss rolling down the pavement. I sped up to get home from work, following their calls, leading me to the end of the story, where I have to fold my hand.

Someone had left a special calling card, just outside my studio: a pile of sick, someone’s dinner post-mortem: ground meat in a red sauce, smelling like a sausage and tomato stew. If my homeless friend had been able to look at me, maybe I’d have seen the clouds behind his eyes. What he couldn’t see was how he helped me end this story.

On Thursday, the guy behind me in the sandwich shop had a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel for lunch. I never even asked him his name. No show of cards, like chopping the pot without playing the final hands. Wednesdays were never the same, because after this particular Wednesday, I never saw him again.

Β© Steve Laker, 2019

Some battles are fought in your head, and the war will never be won. But talking to yourself can unite you and your brain against a common foe within you both.

One better day in Soho Square

FICTION

Kirsty Bench

CAMDEN TOWN TO SOHO SQUARE

An old man in a three piece suit sits in the road, by Arlington House in Camden. The first cigarette is for contemplation, of the day before and the one to follow. He looks down at his shoes, flecked with the human remains of an October night.

He tossed his cigarette end through a drain cover, a portcullis to London’s intestines below. As he rose to his feet, a younger man walked almost alongside him, then boarded the same train at Camden Town, southbound on the Northern Line. At Euston, the young man wrote in a journal.

The old boy opposite doesn’t look so good. He’s wearing an LU uniform: Kinda hope he’s not gonna drive a train. Doesn’t matter to me, I’m off soon. He’s fallen asleep.

No-one knows I’m meeting her tonight. I don’t want to be a part of someone else’s Christmas, when at home I’m just a memorial, an empty chair at the dining table, with silver cutlery and a bone dry glass laid out for a ghost.

We’ve stopped just outside Warren Street. Above me, there life walks, and the city breathes, like a heavy smoker.

Old girl, new girl;
mother, daughter, Seven Sisters.
Roaming your many ways:
Shakespeare’s.

Saviour, black heart;
Angel, Bermondsey, Moorgate.
All that’s precious:
China.

Tears, laughter;
West End, Soho, Arnos Grove.
Where my heart is:
Push.

We’re on the move. I’ll get off at Tottenham Court Road and walk to Soho Square…

The old man was stirred by an on-train announcement:

β€œLadies and gentlemen, due to an incident, this train will terminate here. All change please. All change.”

He spotted the notebook, open on the seat opposite.

…I’ll get off at Tottenham Court Road and I’ll walk to Soho Square, where I hope to see you. No empty bench, but my London, my life.

We met and we clicked,
like Bonnie and Clyde.
So similar:
Jekyll and Hyde.

We went out,
like Mickey and Mallory.
Why don’t you come on over,
Valerie.

We done stuff,
like Courtney and Kurt.
Laughed then slept:
Ernie and Bert.

Holding throats, not hands.
Necromancy.
Over there:
Sid and Nancy.

See you soon,

A man on the underground.

Emerging from beneath Tottenham Court Road, a young man blinked in the lights and mizzle, on the way to Soho Square. He sniffed, and snow fell in the back of his throat. He waited on the bench.

An old man in a three piece suit sits in the road, outside Arlington House in Camden. The first cigarette is for contemplation, of the day before and the one to follow. He looks down at his shoes, flecked with the human remains of an October night.

Β© Steve Laker, 2014.

Kirsty MacColl

Kirsty MacColl, 10.10.1959 – 18.12.2000

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…

β€œMum, I can’t sleep.”

β€œWell, you’re not trying then, are you?”

β€œThe more I try, the more I can’t.”

β€œWell, you need to sleep.”

β€œBut I thought of something. Something someone said.”

β€œWell, whatever it is, it can wait. Now go to bed.”

So Sam went back to bed.

β€œDad?”

β€œWhat is it, Sam?”

β€œI can’t sleep.”

β€œYou could if you stopped thinking so much.”

β€œI’ve been thinking about something someone said.”

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

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

Sam slept, possibly to forget what he and she dreamed. And mum and dad would never know, because they never thought to ask.

Β© 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,β€œWell…” Amnesia is not a cure for insomnia.

All we need to do, is keep talking.

Introverted writer syndrome

FICTION

One of my apparent trademarks (labels), is a writer who writes about writers writing. It’s the party in my head, my depression, and making it my friend, so that I can talk to it. It’s teaching the teacher to teach. It’s telling a mirror it’s not a true reflection.

Such an exclusive and excluded way of life can reverse things, or turn a way of life inside-out. So I wrote a story in a story, about a writer writing about a writer, writing about a writer, writing about a recursive introvert within an extrovert…

Ghost janitor2

THE GHOST JANITOR

I usually write at night, mostly ghost writing for other authors. This world was turned on its head recently, when I returned to my studio to find someone seated at my desk, writing on my typewriter.

I knew the man, Oskar. I’d met him at a writer’s retreat, and we had more in common than most, so we got talking. Oskar has what I don’t, and which I envy in him: a heart which knows nothing but love. He’s like a big, friendly dog.

β€œWhat are you writing?” I asked.

β€œOh, sorry,” Oskar turned around, β€œI didn’t have anywhere to go, so I let myself in.”

Sometimes Oskar gets lost, so I gave him a key to use in emergencies (these things are subjective). He turned back and continued typing.

β€œSo what’s making the transit from human to machine?”

β€œA stage play,” Oskar replied, β€œIt’s about a stage writer, who’s also the cleaner at the theatre he writes for. The thing is, no-one knows about him. Nobody knows he’s a stage writer, or that he’s the cleaner. No-one even knows that he lives at the theatre.

β€œIf it wasn’t for a stage door being left open one night, Oskar would be homeless. He goes unnoticed because he lives under the stage, only venturing out at night, to clean up after the cleaner.

β€œThe cleaner employed by the theatre is an old lady, and she’s not very good. She spends most of her time smoking, drinking, and writing letters to her dead husband. Oskar knows this because he watches her from under the stage. Then when she goes home, he cleans the theatre so that it’s done nicely, and the cleaner keeps her job. It’s Oskar’s way of paying his keep.

β€œThere’s an old typewriter in the theatre director’s office, which looks out over the stage. That’s where Oskar writes most nights. In this story, he’s writing a stage play when the director walks in on him, not in her office, but she sees him through her window on the stage. She notices the main spotlight is on, then she sees Oskar, holding his hands aloft and taking a bow before an invisible audience.

β€œShe spots the paper in her typewriter, and puts it in an envelope. She goes down to the stage and asks Oskar what he’s doing, and he says he just switched the spotlight on to clean the stage. Then the director says, β€œI found this in my typewriter. I don’t remember writing it, so I wonder if I could leave it with you.” He asks her, why him. β€œBecause I think you were looking for it,” the director replies, β€œand you’re the caretaker.”

β€œSo Oskar takes care of it. After the director leaves, he finishes his stage play. It’s the story of an understudy, someone who stands in for actors on stage. One night, the actor playing his role is ill, so Oskar is given the part. It’s not the starring role, he’s just in a group at for the final musical number. Oskar can’t dance or sing, because he’s funny, like me, and he’s called Oskar, like me. But at the end of the show, the whole audience stands up and claps. Oskar gestures towards the rest of the cast, then raises his hands and takes a bow.

β€œNo-one ever noticed Oskar, but he could write about people who could. He could create an audience. When he took that ovation, just for a moment, the whole world was Oskar’s.”

Oskar turned back to the screen. β€œSo what do you think?”

β€œI think Oskar gave the story a happy ending, for himself and his audience.”

β€œAnd the theatre director,” Oskar said, typing again, β€œI’m just going to write an encore, for when Oskar comes back on stage.”

I left him to write while I got on with some cleaning. When I’d finished, Oskar was gone, back to wherever he lived whenever he wasn’t in my studio, which was every night but this one. He’d left an envelope on my desk. Inside was this story.

And Oskar had written his encore:

I wanted to call this story ‘Down, down,’ because it’s what’s inside me; a feeling that people duck when I’m talking to them, because I’m just a big, soft, pillow, stuffed with feathers, and they think I’m silly; and because in the end, the theatre audience liked him. I thought of calling it ‘Audience syndrome’. But I can’t play the lead role, because people will see me, which means the twist doesn’t work. But then if they just see me and not my syndrome, I’m the star. I can’t get the story out of the story. I’ll leave it up to you.

Β© Steve Laker, 2019

The elephant in the bathroom

FLASH FICTION

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

Dolphin in the Toilet2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Β© Steve Laker, 2019