Of Mice and Boys in 1984

FICTION

This is a second character prequel from the Cyrus Song universe (the first is here), but a stand-alone short nonetheless, and a story from a teenage boy’s English literature assignments. It’s a bridging of eras and the debut of Captain Mamba.

Some of the names in the school register in this story are those of friends I went to school with. In the story they’re bit parts who carry the narrative along. In reality, the few words dedicated to each are my idiosyncratic tributes to some of the many friends who’ve supported me as a writer. There was only room for a few, but I have plenty more stories in me with which to make further nods. For now, we’re going back 33 years…

Of mice and boys in 1984Admirável Mundo Novo X 1984

OF MICE AND BOYS IN 1984

“Adams.” (Tall kid, quiet).

“Yes sir.”

“Bachelor.” (I’ve never seen his face, he sits two rows in front, and never turns round).

“Yes sir.”

“Berry.” (Sort of disappears and reappears sometimes, most odd).

“Sir.” (Here today then).

“Ford.” (Small kid, long hair, glasses, sitting next to me).

“Sir.”

“Fry.” (Small, short hair, no glasses: That’s me). “Fry?”

“Sorry, yes sir.”

“Sorry you’re here lad?” But I didn’t have time to answer. “Hayman.” (Blonde flick, goes ape shit if you break his glasses, even if you truly didn’t mean to (hope his parents are richer than mine)).

“Sir.”

And so it went on, till Mr Harmer got to Yehudi in the register. As usual, there was no answer. Because Gordon Yehudi had never been in an English class, nor any other for that matter. He didn’t exist, apart from that name in the class 4284 register, and in the stories I wrote for English literature homework.

The class number (4284) is the way our school’s inner thinking came up with making them, when it had nothing better to do. We’re in the fourth year (14 and 15 years old), and there are four fourth forms in our year: we’re the second, hence the number 2. The last two digits are the year, so Nena’s 99 Red Balloons is at number one in the singles chart, and David Bowie’s latest album is Scary Monsters.

I’m writing this in English class, because it’s my English homework. One of Mr Harmer’s many philosophies is that writing should not be dictated by the clock (or Hitler: Harmer remembers the war), and that words should be allowed to flow as they happen to us, wherever we may be. So while we were doing that, he’d be alternately reading aloud from a coursework book (this year, those are Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, and appropriately enough, George Orwell’s 1984), or popping out for a smoke. And almost every time, he’d leave the room, then come back a moment later, to ask if any of us had a light.

This story is fictional, but it’s based on a small adventure which Ford and myself had earlier. Ford is sitting next to me, but I know he won’t copy from me. Ergo, if his story is similar to mine, it is not plagiarism. It’s a story of a strange weekend, from start to finish:

It starts on Saturday, when we liberated two white mice from Supreme Pet Foods in Lewisham. That’s not to say we stole them, we did pay, and we got them a cage, bedding, food and toys. But Supreme Pet Foods’ main trade is in pets, with the food and supplies just an afterthought. So we told ourselves and one another, that we were saving the mice from becoming snake food. But the main reason for the mice’s liberation, was to be the subjects of an experiment, not for cosmetics (a worse fate than becoming snake food), but because Ford wanted to try something on his computer. “I want to hear them talk,” he said.

Now, I’ve got an Atari 800, but Ford’s got some Tangerine thing, similar to Apple but a different flavour. And he’s a bit of a thug when it comes to computers, taking them apart, ordering bits by mail order and replacing them. So he’s got a hybrid, cannibalised, custom machine. He’s even got an acoustic coupler and a phone in his room, so he can get on the internet and do whatever people do on there. Personally, I can see how the internet could be humanity’s evolution or destruction, but I’m just an English student for now, so I can’t do a lot about it yet.

That’s the most frustrating thing about being 14 in 1984: We have very little voice. We have Bowie telling us it’s okay to be ourselves, but we can only express that in clothes. If I were sufficiently fashionable, I’d probably be mocked for my choice of attire. I thought of being a punk, but most of the punks I know are just into The Sex Pistols and smashing things up. They don’t seem to get that one of the foundations of punk as a movement, is anarchy for peace and freedom, which is a worthy pursuit. But the punks I know just shout angrily about anything they don’t like, with no agenda. If they were to read more, they might have informed voices worth hearing. And still for now, they are quiet. I can see how the internet could change all that, but for now it’s the preserve of those with the means and the know-how to get connected. Fortunately, Ford is one of those.

He called his machine Tangerine Dream, which is also the name of a German electronic music collective, who provided much of the soundtrack to Risky Business, Tom Cruise’s 1983 debut film with Rebecca De Mornay (In that film, she made me less afraid of travelling by underground).

Anyway, we were at Ford’s house the next day (Sunday), and very nice it was too. Ford’s father is a herpetologist, which is someone who studies reptiles and amphibians. Mr Ford’s speciality was snakes, and he had some in his study. We were only allowed in there if Ford’s father was there, or if he delegated responsibility to Sandra, Ford’s mum. Sandra had many interests, which she shared with the garden fence, so a wave of the hand was usually enough to get rid of us.

“Ford,” I said, “we’re not going to feed the mice to the snakes are we?” I figured not, as that’s what we’d liberated them from, but I wanted to check.

“Wouldn’t that kind of defeat the object, Fry?” Well, yes, that’s what I thought.

“Well, yes, that’s what I thought,” I said.

“Well, speak up then Fry.” Which is what David Bowie was encouraging us all to do, but we lacked the voice.

“Ford,” I said, “are we going to be using the internet?”

“Quite probably old chap, why?”

“I just want to see if it’s all I think it could be.”

“Not yet. I’ll show you later. But first, dad got a new snake, look.” Ford pointed to a vivarium I’d not noticed before, but I’d not been in Mr Ford’s study many times. He still had the two snakes I remembered, both royal pythons, a male of about three feet, and a female around four. The male was a bumble bee, and the female, inferno, those being the names of the colour morphs in the snakes. The bumble bee morph is deep brown, almost black, with vivid yellow markings. The inferno is a similar contrast, but with different patterns and in black and deep orange.

Ever since live reptile imports were banned, a market has grown for selective breeding in captivity. It’s all regulated, with monitors placed on the size of the gene pools, and it’s no different to dogs, except snakes have fewer legs. Royal pythons are particularly good for selective breeding, and many years of fine-tuning has produced some truly stunning morphs, which fetch very large sums of money. Although I’m a bit of a mail order animal rights activist, I can’t level any sort of objection against snakes in captivity. Most snakes are reclusive and territorial by nature, so they actually thrive in captivity, away from predators and fed by man. They feed rarely, make little mess, and are fascinating creatures. Having a captive population aids our learning about them. I wouldn’t mind betting that if a straw poll were conducted among snakes in captivity, most would say they’re either satisfied or very satisfied. If only we could talk to them. “Fry?” It was Ford.

“Yes,” I said. “Sorry, I just drifted away there.”

“Where to?”

“Oh, nowhere. I was just wondering what it would be like to talk to the animals.”

“I’ve often wondered that myself,” Ford said. “Especially since dad got this guy.”

In the tank I’d not noticed before, was something I never thought I’d see in real life: a light-grey coloured chap, draped over a branch. The colour betrayed the snake’s true identity to the uninitiated, who may only know what it was when they saw the pitch black inner mouth as it killed them. Mr Ford had a black mamba. I said something I wouldn’t normally at Ford’s house, but Mr Ford was out, and Sandra said it a lot:

“Fucking hell Ford!”

“He is awesome, isn’t he Fry? Shall we get him out?” ‘You fucking what?’ I thought.

“Pardon?”

“Only joking. No way. The vivarium’s locked anyway, it’s the law. Dad’s got a license.”

“Ford, why has your dad got a black mamba? Aren’t there nearly 3000 other kinds of perfectly good snake?”

“It’s for precisely that reason that dad has one of these.”

“By these, I presume you mean that, Ford?”

“Well, yes. But one of that wouldn’t wouldn’t be grammatically correct, would it Fry?”

“Fuck off, you pedantic cu arse.” I figured Mr Harmer was okay with the odd ‘foof’ word to enhance the drama, but perhaps female genitalia was a step too far. Human biology was more of a topic for our weekly secret meetings of The Biblical Dead: sort of a Dead Poets’ Society, with computers. “So,” I continued, “why has your dad got a black mamba?”

“Because of their famed aggression. He’s studying their DNA.”

“What’s he going to do?” I wondered. “Engineer a genetically modified race of human-snake hybrids who know no fear?”

“Er, no Fry. He’s written a thesis on how he thinks mambas are actually timid and retiring, and that their reputation is a bit undeserved. See, the majority of mamba bites to humans occur where man has invaded their land. The snakes feel threatened and they lash out. 100% of black mamba bites are fatal, partly because medical help is usually too far away.”

“So your dad’s thinking of building hospitals?”

“No, no, no.” That would be a no then. “No, he’s thinking longer term. Yes, having sufficient antivenom is useful, but dad’s looking more at prevention. Mambas aren’t endangered, so this is more for human benefit, but what he’s looking at, is ways to reduce the incidence of bites.”

“But how? I mean, he’s looking at their DNA. He can’t be thinking of altering them?”

“Definitely not.”

“So what? Change their attitudes? Talk to them, so that they have a better understanding of us?”

“Exactly. I mean, I don’t know. It does make you wonder, but dad’s a bit vague, and being the precise man that he is in his work, when dad’s being vague, I know that’s my cue to shut the fuck up.”

“Fascinating,” I said, none the wiser, but with the idea for a book, should I ever become a writer later in life. “So, what’s the experiment with the white mice?”

“Well,” said Ford, “I got the idea from dad, and what me and you were just talking about.”

“Talking?”

“Exactly. See, I don’t know what he’s working on with the mambas, but I’ve got an imagination. And it sort of fitted well with our English lit homework.” Which is exactly what I’d been thinking: Great minds, and all that. “I wondered if I could rig something up on my computer. Some sort of voice translator.”

“To talk to the animals?” Hadn’t I heard this somewhere before?

“I doubt it would be a two-way thing,” Ford said, as I deflated. “But I reckon we could listen to them.”

“Does it work?”

“I don’t know yet. I’m kind of hoping it does, or my English homework’s a bit done for.”

“But it’s English literature, Ford. Use your imagination. How could it work?”

We walked to Ford’s room: Bed, sofa, desk, chair, computer, and even an en-suite toilet. And of course, his own phone and the internet.

“Well, I figured it must break down into two things. If I can break things down into stages, it’s easier for my brain to handle, like long journeys. So put simply, those two things are listening, then understanding. And to do that, I need a microphone and a translator.”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed Ford,” but I thought I should point it out, “microphones have already been invented.”

“Exactly. So all I have to do, is make the translator.”

“Which is exactly all you had to do in the first place, Ford.”

“I know. I just needed to eliminate everything else. And translators kind of exist.”

“Well, people who can translate, yes.”

“Yes, but I’ve found some programs on the internet: Things the geeks are working on. They reckon that one day, you’ll just be able to type or speak a phrase into a computer, in any language, and at the press of a button, it’ll translate into any other.” So that’s what the internet would be for.

“That would be awesome. When?”

“The nerds think early in the next century.”

“2000AD? That’s miles away.”

“More than our lifetimes, Fry.”

“So what of now? The translator, I mean.”

“Well, I found some voice recognition software. I figured if I somehow merged the code with translation algorithms, that should do the trick.”

“Well,” I said, “in theory, that’s all you’d need to do. But don’t you just type in game programs from computer magazines, Ford?”

“Well, I do. But seeing as I’ve got the internet as well, there’s a lot of other people out there doing the same, and more. It was actually a game code that I swapped for the software I ended up with.”

“How?”

“It was a multi-level text and graphic adventure game: fucking huge. The code was in one of the mags, and it was about forty pages. Forty pages of machine code, which I typed up over a few days. Then I ran the program and the fucking thing kept crashing. So I checked the code and I found the error. Only it wasn’t my typo, it was a misprint in the mag. So I figured I could commodify what I’d done, and trade it in a non-monetary way.”

“Oh, I see. And that’s how you got the code for the translation program. It’s a nice ethos, trading personal time and skills.” I could see how the internet could be huge for that in the next century.

It’s at this point that I can reveal where the two white mice were, all this time. I can only reveal it now, as I didn’t know they were under Ford’s bed before. All I knew was that after we bought them the day before, I didn’t have them. That’s about as dramatic as it’s been so far.

“So,” Ford began, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve named them.” I suppose I didn’t mind, depending on the names he’d chosen.

“What did you call them?” I wondered.

“Pete and Dud.”

“Why?”

“Because they’re male.”

“Are they?” It’s a completely redundant question, and I don’t know why I asked it.

“Yes,” Ford replied, “and they remind me a bit of Derek and Clive, the way they sit there together, looking around and chewing things over, turning occasionally to the other one, and chewing it over some more.” And I suppose they did look a bit like that.

“So, which is which?” I asked.

“That’s Pete, and that’s Dud,” Ford said, pointing at the mice in turn, which for the reader is as redundant as my question about their gender. For now, Pete was on the left, and Dud on the right.

“So what now?” I wondered.

“Now,” Ford said, quite confidently, “we find out if my reputation is intact.”

“Have you got one?”

“Not yet.”

“So how can it be intact, if you don’t have it yet?”

“I’m building a reputation, Fry.”

“What as, Ford?”

“I don’t know. Something on the internet though: It’s the future.”

“No shit.” I was beginning to realise that perhaps you could be anyone or anything on the internet.

“Yeah, real shit,” Ford continued, as Tangerine Dream went through what seemed like an unnecessarily long boot-up. “I’ve got everything plugged in, so you should start to see lights coming on soon.” Lights coming on are normally a good thing, especially if they’re green.

“Where?” I wondered.

“On the computer, the disk drive, the monitor, and the printer.”

“But those lights always come on, Ford.”

“Well, it’s always good when they do. But there’s the microphone as well.” I looked at the microphone: a small, black thing with a foam top, very much like a microphone.

“The microphone doesn’t have a light on it, Ford.”

“No, I know.”

“So how can it come on?”

“It won’t, because it doesn’t have one.”

“So why did you mention it?”

“Because it’s there, and it needs to be switched on.”

“So,” I began, as I needed to check I’d got this right, “if I’ve got this right, we’re waiting for the computer to boot up, like we normally do. The only difference is a microphone which doesn’t have a light. Other than that, we’re looking at exactly what we always do when we switch on your computer.”

“Well, yes. And then we need to test the microphone. But it’s the extra processor and memory board I’ve put in. This is the first time I’ve started them from cold, so that I can run the translation software.”

“I see,” I said. I didn’t see anything, but there were some new parts in Tangerine Dream, and there was translation software. Ford’s constant thuggery inside computers could be about to do something far ahead of our time. Or it might simply not work. Ford’s idiosyncratic IT skills were roughly 50:50 hit and miss, so he was right about his reputation hanging in a balance.

While the computer continued to whir and crank into life, Ford placed the microphone next to the mice, who looked at it indifferently, before chewing some more of whatever they had in their mouths. Then Sandra’s banshee voice shouted up the stairs:

“Simon, Dixon? Lunch.”

With Mr Ford away, I wondered what we’d get for Sunday lunch. It was Ford’s dad who maintained a form of tradition in the house, with family meals eaten together at the table, and a full spread for Sunday roast. Sandra, on the other hand, didn’t give a shit, so we usually got proper teenage boy’s mate’s mum’s food, and so it was today, with fish finger sandwiches and home-made chips. Sandra pinched one of mine and dipped it in mayonnaise, which might have been a bit seductive. There’s always one kid at school who’s got a fit mum, and in my class, that was Ford.

After lunch, Tangerine Dream had woken up. First, Ford tested the microphone:

“Is this thing on?” Well, I heard him.

“Maybe a bit louder?” I suggested.

“IS THIS THING ON?” he shouted.

“I meant, turn the speakers up. Turn the speakers up, but speak quietly. Without you leaving the room, that’s the best way to test the microphone, Ford.” Which it was, because the microphone lead was only about three feet long.

“Oh yes. I suppose that is the best way.” Sometimes, he caught on quick. He turned the speakers up. “Is this thing on?” It was. “Ooh,” Ford said, in an effeminate way, “I didn’t realise what my voice sounds like to everyone else.” This could bode well or badly for the future internet. “I sound quite nice, don’t I?” Ford was destined to tread the boards, or grace the silver screen one day, when the future internet democratises it.

“Yes, Ford. You sound lovely dear boy. Could we just talk about why we’re doing this first?”

“Why?” he said, into the microphone.

“Yes, why are we trying to hear what the mice might be saying? I mean, it’s all based on theory, with a little science, which is perhaps a bit anarchic. We’re assuming mice actually speak, but that we can’t hear them. If they do, maybe we should leave it at that, for all the trouble it could cause.”

“It’s based on supposition and blind faith, Fry. And mine is a simplistic device, made with some bits I found lying around. I’m sure there are many more scientific studies into animal language and communication, but for me, I just want to know if there might be.”

“Why?”

“For the future. All I want to find out, is if animals do talk. It may be that they can, but that my set up isn’t sophisticated enough. It’s just something I want to look into, while I consider my own future.”

“That’s deep.”

“Not really. More open minded really. I might be a vet, a human doctor, I don’t know. But I’m interested in communication and translation, getting more people talking and breaking down barriers. Because conflict comes from ignorance, and I don’t like conflict.”

“This is getting even deeper. Have you spoken to the mice already?”

“No, why?”

“Because Douglas Adams said in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the white mice are protrusions of pan-dimensional beings into our world.”

“And I think he’s right.” Ford seemed somehow convinced. He had his hand on his hip, and he was still speaking into the mic.

“But wouldn’t it go against a lot of things it shouldn’t, Ford?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, moral and ethical considerations we’re yet to know about. And all that stuff in R.E. about the tower of Babel.”

“And you believe all that?”

“Well, of course not.” I could accept that the bible might be a transcript or dramatic retelling of actual events, but I didn’t subscribe to the creator of any church on Earth. “And,” I continued, “seeing as our device is an attempt to replicate the Babel fish, which disproved God in Douglas’ book, aren’t we somehow testing Douglas in the same way?”

“Well no, because we know that Douglas Adams does exist. He’s alive and he’s only 32. Actually, I wonder if something weird might happen in 1994, when he’s 42.”

“I’ve wondered that myself,” I said. “I don’t think too much matters to him. He seems to have this whole life, the universe, and everything thing squared in his mind. He did say, that in order to understand why the answer is 42, we first need to understand what it’s the answer to. And that’s what we’re all here on Earth to do, to work that out.” I like to think I’m somehow working in collaboration with Douglas. That’d be a nice job to have. “I haven’t decided what to do with myself yet. I’m thinking I’ll most likely be a scientist or an influential writer. Then if I’m not much good at either, I figure I’ll make an okay sci-fi writer.”

“It’s good to have a plan B. Splendid behaviour,” Ford noted. I suspected he didn’t have a plan B. “Shall we see if this works then?” Everything looked like it was loaded and ready to go on Tangerine Dream. All that was required, was for Ford to relinquish the microphone.

“Yes,” I agreed, “but you’ll have to give the mic to the mice, Ford.”

“Ooh,” he said, “I’d forgotten I was holding that.” The stage was definitely wanting.

Finally, Ford placed the microphone next to the mice, and nothing happened. We waited, and still nothing happened. Ford looked at me, then we both looked at the mice. The mice looked at one another, then at the mic. So Ford picked it up again.

“Is this still on? Ooh, I can still hear me.” I think Ford could hear himself, and I could hear him. I had to assume Pete and Dud did too. Unless they couldn’t hear him, perhaps because his voice was on a different frequency. Or the mice could in fact be deaf.

“Ford,” I said.

“Mr Fry,” he said, into the microphone. Actually, I quite liked the sound of it.

“Ford, do you think we’ve perhaps been a tad unlucky?”

“Well, that would make a change.” Ford referred, unknowingly, to many chapters from meetings of The Biblical Dead boys’ club, in my mind. In that context, any intended sarcasm had found a good home. “How do you mean?”

“I mean, all these mice. Not all of these two, but all white mice. They’re bred mainly for research and food. I wonder if the checks on their genetic pool extend so far as to find out how many of them might have defects, such as deafness.”

“That’s an interesting paradox, Mr Fry. But I have a back-up plan.” I take it back.

“Which is?”

“Text-to-speech. Or rather, speech-to-text.”

“Speak and Spell, reverse engineered, then.”

“Pretty much. Lots of stuff aside, which I don’t know about, there’s less processing power required to convert text to text. Well, the power of the system I think I’ve built, isn’t in the communication, it’s in the translation algorithms. Basically, Tangerine Dream knows what it wants to say, but it can’t say it. It doesn’t have the processing power. In a few years, perhaps. But for now, it’s done the hard work.” I was growing somewhat confused.

“Eh?”

“Simple way to think of it,” Ford asserted. “Tangerine Dream here, is the translator, but it can only communicate in text. The upshot of that, is we type in a question, and it gives us an answer on the screen.”

“From the mice?”

“Tangerine Dream’s translation, yes.”

“Blimey!” We really were about to find out if white mice were as Douglas had said: Protrusions of pan-dimensional beings of superior intelligence, into our universe. If so, we might be able to question them on the true nature of the life, the universe, and everything. We could make Douglas immortal, even though he seemed to have sussed out he was anyway, based on the pure science behind his writing. If Douglas didn’t want the attention, it was just an English literature assignment anyway. One about two boys, who were meant to be reading Of Mice and Men, and of George Orwell’s other vision of the year this was written. “What should we ask?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’m thinking,” I thought, “that we don’t have an international committee to hand. My limited knowledge of first contact protocol, would be a welcome. We have to rely on your computer’s untested ability to get the translation right though. We don’t want them to think we’ve told them to fuck off, when all we’ve said is hello. So, the universal language is maths.”

“That is a fact,” Ford confirmed, “at least for all who understand mathematics as we do. We could start with prime numbers, perhaps. Maybe we could type a sequence, then see if they carry it on.”

“Let’s try that,” I suggested. So Ford typed, in bold, contrasting letters on the computer screen:

1 2 3 5 7…

Then the cursor flashed on the screen. “Can they see what we’re doing?” I asked Ford of the mice.

“It doesn’t matter,” he replied. “Whatever this new hardware and software is, it’s essential function is to translate. Lacking the means to understand how it does that, I’m placing my faith in it reproducing something on the screen. This is day one for me too, Fry.”

The cursor continued to wink, suggestively. Then an ellipsis appeared, like this:

The ellipsis sat, with a cursor blinking at the end of it, like a tiny snake doing push-ups on screen. Then it moved again:

…Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of chess?

“Ford?” I wondered what he was thinking.

“No, I wouldn’t.” He’d rather not play chess.

“Ford,” I said again, “have you left a chess program running?”

“No, Fry. I use Fritz. Fritz never says that in the chat window.” He pointed at the chess invitation on screen. “Have you used Fritz 7.0 yet, Fry?” Fritz is a chess engine, and more geeky than most commercial chess programs, it’s used by the professionals and they’re all linked up on ChessBase, which is on the internet. I can see the internet being a big thing for chess in the future. I told Ford I hadn’t, because my computer was an Atari 800 with a tape drive, no printer and I didn’t have a phone, or a doorbell on my house. “Oh,” Ford continued, “well Fritz’s standard is, ‘Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of Global Thermonuclear War?’ A reference to WarGames, see?”

“Yes, Ford, I saw it. Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, it was out last year. In which, David Lightman has a room very much like yours, in a fine house like this.” Then some more text appeared on the screen:

Fine…

Then the ellipsis snake blinked again.

“Do you think we’re waiting for something, ” I asked, “or should we say something?”

“I know,” Ford said. Then he typed:

We mean you no harm.

I suppose that wasn’t bad for first contact. Then we got a reply:

1 2 3 5 7…

The snake again. “Prime numbers again,” I observed. Then again:

1 2 3 5 7 We mean you no harm: Is that a Carpenters song?

“What the?”

“I don’t know…”

How do you mean?

A short pause, then:

Oh, never mind. You had a question?

Yes. The question of why the answer is 42?

You are. It’s what you make of it. If you know why it’s that number and not some other arbitrary one, it’s because it’s the one everyone’s now agreed on. Because it was in the good book. Most people who know that, only know it because they looked it up. They are the inquisitive ones, who don’t just accept things but who ask ‘why?’ They’re the ones who see things, hear things, and are in contact with the universe, even if they don’t realise. You are part of the organic super computer, designed to work out the questions which need to be asked to understand the answer. The best measure of your species and your planet’s collective intelligence at the moment, is Google. And if you ask Google, ‘What is the answer to life the universe and everything?’, Google will tell you it’s 42. You have a long way to go, and young people are the future.

I must admit, it wasn’t the ending I’d expected for an English literature assignment. But I suppose it was the most direct answer to the most direct question we were able to ask. Perhaps in the future, you might be able to just ask Google a simple question and it might give you a succinct answer. Perhaps in the future, Google might know who I am. Perhaps I just end up being a science fiction writer, which I think might be nice. As for this early effort, it might be marked down for being too whimsical. But it was fiction, and Mr Harmer taught us that fiction should be allowed to flow.

So what do we do now?

You go. This is just a first step. You only found us through ingenuity and faith, but it might be best to keep this between us for now.

We won’t tell.

And apart from this story, I didn’t. Even if Ford’s story was similar, it would be from a different perspective, certainly with him in the narrative third-person lead character. The stories would exist only in the minds of those who wrote and read them, most likely Mr Harmer and The Biblical Dead society, where literature is not suppressed and forbidden by dictators, or like history and love in all its forms, in Orwell’s dystopian imagining of this year. Ours is a society where all information is shared and there is freedom of speech. For now, we are the quiet younger generation, with Bowie as one of our voices, and people like Ford, who’s on the internet, being a gender bender in his bedroom. I predict that the internet could give more of us collective, choral voices.

Whether or not we’d proven Douglas right about the white mice, the whole episode made me see what might be possible, if we just talk more, even if we can’t talk about some of it yet. It made me more aware, I suppose, of things around me, not just those we see and take for granted. In future, I think I could be an internet activist of some sort. In the future, the internet could be the thing which gives a voice to all those who don’t have one now. Perhaps that will be the evolution of mankind.

THE END…

© Simon Fry, 1984.

***

“Ford.”

“Sir.”

“Fry… Fry?”

“Yes sir, sorry.”

“Sorry to be here lad?”

“Actually, no sir.”

“Hayman.” (Blonde flick, new glasses).

“Sir.”

“King-Smith”. (‘Smasher’, wears Farrahs. Nice bloke really).

“Yes sir.”

“Laker.” (Fuck knows).

“Sir.”

“Mountney.” (‘Mole’: farts a lot: It’s funny on the chairs).

“Sir.”

“Rogers.” (Could be a brilliant mind, or a psycho).

“Sir.”

“Sharp.” (Christian bloke, likes his custard).

“Yes sir.”

“Simmons.” (Thoroughly good bloke, likes his Bowie, finishes my woodwork projects).

“Yes sir.”

“Tomkinson.” (Another geek, likes typing in programs from computer mags and putting them on tape).

“Sir.”

“White.” (Every girl’s dream, if he ever gets on the internet).

“Yes sir.”

“Yehudi.” Nothing. “Yehudi.” As expected. “Yehudi?”

“Sir?”

© Steve Laker, 2017.

Cyrus Song (a ‘Sci-fi rom com’ tribute to Douglas Adams, and the later adventures of Simon Fry), is available now from Amazon.

If I had a hammer and a fuzzbox…

FICTION

A conversation between narrators, protagonists and characters; an interview with a writer, from a couple of years ago. I look at the sun and I look in the mirror…

PinkSunshine

PINK SUNSHINE

Like so many things, and with so much in life, he didn’t realise at first that he was in the room. It was only when he had an itch in his left eye that he first thought he noticed. But he couldn’t be sure, because his eye instinctively and reflexively closed when he rubbed it. Nonetheless, his right eye picked up on something and his brain took over. It was a subtle oddness, noticing something he hadn’t before; a thing which was very strange indeed. It was like catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror through a lazy eye, a few extra microseconds to focus. His reflection seemed to be moving more slowly than he was, or rather, struggling to keep up.

This newly discovered physical inflection hadn’t affected him before, because it’s subtlety was such that he’d not noticed it. Even though that might seem a slightly strange thing to think, he decided to leave it in, as it may be relevant. Perhaps it was newly acquired. Wherever it had come from, he was curious. If it had always been there, he was more intrigued by it for that very reason. He had a tick. He decided he quite liked it. He was going to keep it. In that room, where he’d ended up, without realising that was where he wanted to be. But the mirror must always be returned to its own room.

The mirror was not something he was keen to look in, which is why he kept it hidden away. It was in the cupboard beneath the sink in the bathroom. It was behind two closed doors and the light was usually off, so that what it saw was mainly darkness. He was mainly nocturnal himself, the curtains perpetually closed and his work lit artificially. He didn’t like the sun. He saw its orange glow separated into different wavelengths of light: Red, black and white. The latter were binary; darkness and light, with no deviations to greys. First light brought another fear: letters. The daily mail was full of hate, from creditors chasing him for money he didn’t have; and fear, of ever-approaching legal actions.

Next to his bathroom was the locked room. The door to that room was always locked, except when he unlocked it to enter or leave the room. He worked under lock and key, but with an element of danger deliberately built into the situation. He would write more of that later. And when he wasn’t working, what he did was kept secure.

He was in the room when there was a knock at the front door. This wasn’t unprecedented at 3am, so he had few reservations about seeing who it was. As he opened the door, the outside security light did two things to the man on the threshold: It illuminated him, but the angle of the light obscured him, so that he was partly silhouetted.

“Steve Laker.”

“Yes,” he said.

“Good. You know me. Do you mind if I come in?”

“No I don’t. Who are you?”

“Steve Laker. May I come in?”

This was strange, yet not so strange that he could deny it was happening. “Do you have ID?” he asked.

“Of course.” The man took a wallet from his jacket pocket and handed him a driving licence and a business card. The licence appeared genuine and the business card gave his profession as private investigator. “Everything okay?” the man asked.

“Yes.” He thought for a moment. “I’m sorry, but this all seems somewhat familiar.”

“That’s because it’s a plot device. Paul Auster used it very well in his book, The New York Trilogy. In one of the stories, the narrator meets a detective called Paul Auster.”

He invited him in. He found the prospects of many conversations frankly fascinating.

They sat in the living room, him on the sofa and the man on a futon, and they drank coffee, which they both liked the same way.

“What are you working on?” he asked. He wondered what it was in the room which might have given him any idea he might be working on something, anything in fact. “You have a locked room, right?”

“Yes.”

“What colour is yours?”

“It depends.”

“Hmm, I know. What colour was it the last time you were in there?”

“Duck egg blue.”

“Small blue thing. From Vega.”

“Small Blue Thing, by Suzanne Vega. That’s how I imagine it. Do you smoke?”

“You have to ask?”

So they drank coffee, listened to music, and smoked a fine blend of Indica and Sativa marijuana.

“So, why is your locked room duck egg blue? What are you doing in there? Obviously, nothing at the moment, but when you’re in there?”

“Who’s to say I’m not?”

“And who’s to say it’s not duck egg blue?”

“Who’s to say whether I’m sick or not? Who’s qualified? Which judge? The main thing in that room is me. I’ve just finished a book and I’m wondering if it’ll be my last. So I’m writing things down in there. I’m getting things off my mind and as I’m doing that, more stories are occurring to me. So I’ve decided it’s best just to carry on in that respect, but for some of the things I want to say.

“When I wrote that last book, I had people around me. People who took an interest in a writer. Now that I have somewhere permanent to write; a writer in residence; those people are no longer around. Everything has changed. And yet, I look around me and I ask if it’s possible that everything in the entire world just suddenly changed, or was it just me? Whichever the case, I don’t know how it happened. So I’m trying to make sense of it in that room. I’m writing it all down and I’m writing letters to people. That’s the difficult part.”

“Writer’s block?”

“Writer’s block, only insofar as it’s a barrier erected by me.”

“Like a defence mechanism?”

“To protect me from my own internal truth? Perhaps. But not normally. In fact, writing is my means of exorcising it all. It’s just that some of it I may not share.”

“Such as?”

“There are other things in the room. I write about those too. I’m exorcising things which are in that room by writing about them, then leaving the writing in the locked room as well. It’s a bit counter-productive really, because I’m adding to it all the time. I find it recursive, inward reflection. Then I read it all back to myself, and it’s self-magnifying. When what I think are well-chosen words are read aloud, they prove themselves and take on other meanings. Then I think more. Because I’m challenged and afraid of the unknown. So I question it, gain answers and write. Then there are more questions which occur to me. Will I ever publish my findings? I think the space will eventually become too small.

“If you paint a room of finite size in a different colour, then do it again, and again, and again… How long before the layers of colours have built up, to make the room gradually smaller with each coat, until there’s barely room to swing a cat which I don’t have?”

“A rhetorical question?”

“Like so many I ask that room.

“My will and testament are in there, somewhere. I’ve written my funeral pinks: Not the blues of Auden’s poem, but pinks: Pink slips, ownership papers. I’d like to be shot into space, or scattered in an ocean, but I’m resigned to being burned. Some of me will at least escape. But whatever happens, all of me will continue the prediction imprinted in the big bang.”

“Doesn’t pre-determinism make you question the nature of your own free will?”

“Pre-determinism is the idea that all events are determined in advance. It is the philosophy that all events of history, past, present and future, have already been decided or are already known, by God, fate, or some other force, including human actions. Of course, this makes me question my own free will and that of others. But my own free will has allowed me to predetermine my end. If what I wish for doesn’t happen, then I have to console myself that it wasn’t meant to be.

“I’ve written a humanist service, and even though I’ll be cremated, I should like the minister to say, “Ashes to ashes”, then I’d like the congregation to say, “Funk to funky”. If they then wish to sing, “We know Major Tom’s a Junky”, then I shall smile behind my casket lid and they will know that I did.

“I don’t deny that there might be one or more greater intelligences out there. I reject God in the only image I know: That of man. I long to refute the Church of England and others. I hold them in the same contempt as they do the LGBT community. And I renounce all religion for all of the blood that’s been spilled in their gods’ names.

“So for the music, I’d like The Duel, by Giorgio Moroder from the Electric Dreams soundtrack, because it’s one of many to my life. Then, Everyone says hi, by David Bowie, from his Heathen album, for I am a heathen and one day I’ll see the original again. Finally, Grey Will Fade, the title track from Charlotte Hatherley’s debut album, because the grey will fade; This too shall pass.

“If people can take care of that by co-operating, it would give me comfort in knowing that they’ve done that, and that they’re capable of much more. And that it was pre-determined; meant to happen. But I haven’t published those wishes and I dare not, for fear they might be ignored or forgotten. At least if I can think that it might happen, that would be comfort enough. It’s a subject I’ve written about in one of my new stories.

“I have few personal belongings, other than what’s in that room. My most valuable possession, one would assume to be my typewriter. It is indeed important and I bequeath it to my children, so that they might carry on what I started, if they so choose. They might be able to make sense of, even finish, some of my stories. I’ve written about how my most valued personal possession is my pen, because it represents freedom and escape. The typewriter isn’t portable, but the pen could go with me anywhere, if I went anywhere. Then I’d be afraid of losing it while I was out, and that compounds the whole fear I already have of being beyond the door. It’s the only pen I’ve ever owned, given to me by a nameless character who narrates a story I wrote in my last book. It’s a bespoke Waldmann Adámas, made from titanium and gun metal. It’s effortless to write with, and to simply hold in one’s hand; It’s a thing of aesthetic and ergonomic, functional beauty.

“There’s a collection of blue marbles in the room: Small blue things, made of glass. It’s comforting to run my fingers through a bowl full of them. Then I imagine I’m handling what were once the building blocks of an ancient city of glass, eroded over millennia, so that they are perfect spheres, like sapphire pebbles on a beach. Small, blue ghosts. When knocked together, they sound an echo from the past.

“I’ve not been so busy lately, that I haven’t had the time, to open up my mind, and watch the world, spinning out of time; to paraphrase Blur. Because I wonder if I might be out of time to do all the things I want to. But the battle to step out is an ongoing one. It’s agoraphobia which really holds the key to that room, with anxiety and paranoia as deputy screws. But that’s where everything is; All my expressionism, for expression is freedom.

“I experiment, play, throw away, like a child trying on clothes and make-up at her mother’s dressing table. Except I can’t, so every one of those unfinished tales is in the room, along with finished ones which might never see the light of day. They are all of me. The unfinished ones annoy me sometimes. Not hugely so; a bit like having a hair in your mouth.

“With all that I’ve written behind that door, it’s quite a crowded room. Metaphorically, figuratively, and literally, it is full of people and places, with lots going on. There may come a time when I have to radically rethink the locked room, for things might become so many that they have to spill out, as I can no longer keep the door closed. People and situations could fall into the hall and start to inhabit other rooms. I still have a lockable front door to the flat.

“One who could get out, is a recurring character in some earlier stories. He’s a writer with no name and he wants to go out and kill people. Well, his protagonist does, so that he can write about it. He longs to cause pain, humiliation, fear and shame. He wants to go out, but he dare not, for fear he kills someone and he’s identified. But he longs to make his new stories real, just as he lived his old ones. If he completes his next book, some of it would be chronicles of his killings; confessions told as fiction but with clues scattered around. He wants to go out but he fears the consequences if he does. Yet those very scenarios would provide the fuel for new work.

“There’d be a roadie, crashed out on the floor in a pile of paper. He spent some time out on the road, touring with various groups: The Anti Nowhere League, Angelic Upstarts… He could tell many stories. There were two people in one particular band who he struck a pact with. It was a long and philosophical conversation which led to the pact, but it’s as simple or complicated as an opinion on the punk movement. It negates the need for many things, other than trust in fellow humans. The pact was signed on a Crass anarchy flag re-purposed as a table cloth.

“If ever I want to die, I simply have to make a phone call and say a codeword. If I can’t speak, or I don’t want to say the word, I can text instead. About thirty minutes after that, I’ll be dead.

“It was a gentleman’s handshake; a pinky promise, made when we were young boys. Despite our innocence, with hindsight, I can’t find anything; no moral argument, which I believe could invalidate that verbal contract. It’s more than one story.

“Three teenage boys are lost. For all anyone knows, they could be Kiefer, Jason, and either of the Coreys. They could be Kiefer and Feldman again, River Phoenix, or Wesley Crusher.

“The other two stood by him, and he still stands by them. No-one knows who they are. Most people could take an educated guess but they may just never know. We are all so flung apart now, by families and circumstance, that very few people would be able to join all the dots between what’s gone on since the big bang of us all becoming adults. It would be a map in the stars, destined to be there, right from the very start.

“No-one knows who he is to the other two. If it’s not his turn first, he could be called upon to deliver his end of the bargain. Then there’s only one left for him to call before he might be found out and caught. And then he has a decision to make. It could happen in any order and they did it to mix life up a bit. Teenagers think like that, and sometimes, when he thinks about it, it’s a suicide pact. That’s why the importance of that word, whatever it is, wherever it’s hidden, has been discussed among them, without mentioning it, at great length. It’s a word which the three of them will take to the grave.

“If it’s his turn first, he doesn’t know how the others will do it. That’s the beauty of it. He could be sleeping in bed one night, or out doing some shopping, when they come. All he knows is that as soon as he’s said that word, he will be killed. And there’s no reversal, no returns. But if it’s not his turn first, he could be called on to kill his friends.

“Another story concerns conversational furniture.”

“That which we put into a dialogue to remind the audience of the setting.”

“Perhaps if just to separate it from a monologue. It’s a challenging story to write, and one of many drafts.

“I write a lot about what makes people different, or how some people see things differently: Many viewpoints; multiple personalities.

“There is much I wish to write, to express, to set free. Some of it is in that room and more is in my mind, in that room. There are people I wish to exorcise, to deny their very existence. Those are more stories.

“There are more, in Neurotribes. That unfolding story considers the various spectra of the human mind; because everything can be looked at as having a place within a spectrum, when compared to others. In there, we have personality disorders, inner voices and dramatic emotional swings. The Neurotribes are groups of people who simply think differently. Together, they cover the whole visual spectrum of colours: A rainbow of thoughts and voices. They are nomadic peoples, often fleeing religious persecution. They are not of any religion but it is religion which persecutes them, with its warped view of sexuality being confined to two types: heterosexual male and female.

“The neurotribes believe in five genders, like native Americans did before the pilgrim fathers invaded. Within the tribes there are Female, male, Two Spirit female, Two Spirit male, and transgender people. These five genders and their ways of thinking gave rise to their philosophy of “Human operating systems”: Just because a computer doesn’t run a specific operating system, doesn’t mean it’s dysfunctional.

“There’ll be some kind of epilogue or revelations in Acquiescence, a story of self-flagellation, where God inflicts upon himself, all of the scars inflicted upon his own children by him. As an immortal, his atonement will be infinite, as he hangs for all to see on the cross.

“I do have company in there, in the locked room. It’s the subject of yet another unfinished work behind the locked door. It’s a story which transcends barriers by telling itself in a universal language: There is no God left to narrate chapters but there is still a planet to tell a chronicle. It’s the story of a lone man and companions of his own making, through his understanding of science and philosophy. There are three water nymphs in his locked room, each in a different form: Solid, liquid, and gas; Ice, water and steam. Theirs are troubled minds and where others might see them as odd, he sees them as three beings in the same spectrum, this being the one of their varying degrees of transparency. He helps them and treats them as his own, but there is a barely visible tension in the tale. He harbours a secret, which if told to one of them, would change the whole story. But he dare not speak it.

“He adopts a philosophy, in which that which is unknown will always be the greatest thing. For to find out the truth would be to end a dream. And people say I should get out more.

“Every story is a metaphor. There’s a part of the writer in all of them. Sometimes it’s subtle and others, it can be as obvious as a monologue turned into dialogue to convey inward reflection through fictional narrative; An interview with a ghost.

“It’s difficult to know how to end a story like that. We want the reader to think, so we leave loose ends but we need to find a way of influencing their thoughts, both narrowing them for the narrative and expanding them for the greater good.

“There is usually at least one extra person in my stories, even though that might not be apparent. There will often be at least one, somewhere unseen in the background but vaguely apparent in the prose. An even harder trick to pull off, is one fewer. Repeat readings will often reveal more, or indeed less but only where less is more. It’s all down to how many layers of opacity I apply; how many coats of paint. Sometimes it’s down to an individual reader’s interpretation of the number of narrators they can see or hear.”

“There is another way.” The man stood and walked to the locked room. He was moving the literal furniture around. “May I?”

He returned with a pen. “My pen?”, said the seated man.

The man placed the pen in his pocket. “The only one. Shall I show myself out?”

He remained in his seat for a while. Everything falls at the same speed in a vacuum. Objects don’t fall to earth. It’s the ground rushing up to meet them; the movement of the earth through space creates what we feel as gravity. A seated person doesn’t feel their own weight beneath and behind them: It’s the force of the earth pushing up. It’s the feeling of travelling through space at 67,000mph.

The door closed and the man stood. He was alone, outside the locked room. The visitor had taken the key. He tried the handle and the door was unlocked. He entered the unlocked room and closed the door. The key was on the inside. It was always on the outside. It was there, because he wanted control on the other side of the door. He could unlock the door to allow himself in, but he couldn’t lock himself in. If someone else were to enter the flat, they perhaps might. They could then leave with the key. It was a delegation of some element of control to pre-determinism.

With the key now on the inside, whether or not he was locked in, was entirely under his control. If he so wished, he could throw the key far from the window.

The man retrieved the mirror and stood it in front of him at the desk. Propped against the closed curtains, it provided a window to look out from the locked room. The slight delay, or the lazy eye, wasn’t there. When he looked up from applying shocking pink eye shadow, his eye connected with the eye looking in immediately. The application of rouge was now just a cosmetic blusher, hiding nothing.

He stood up and moved back from the mirror. The hat, the shirt and the trousers were androgynous; The heels only lifting his own by two inches, but they no longer had to be tip-toed around in.

He opened the curtains and looked outside. The sun was still below the horizon; a dark red morning sky. He saw himself reflected as the sun rose, turning the sky a peachy pink. He was outside the realms of his reality, yet in his comfort zone. Seeing another person and feeling comfortable in their presence, more confident and less confused. Two roads, with one less travelled. Switch on your TV, you might catch him on channel two.

He’d left himself a note:

It was the last thing he had. I know that he will do anything to get it back.

(C) Steve Laker

“A life made of plastic, was what made mine so fucking fantastic.”

Where the sun never bothers

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FLASH FICTION

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

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

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

THE OFFICE OF LOST THINGS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Steve Laker

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

Sugar, spice and puppy dog tails

THE WRITER’S LIFE

As it’s the school holidays, this month’s day out with my kids is different to the usual trip to Milton Keynes, as it’s not in Milton Keynes. This month we have a longer day, I don’t have to travel so far, and we’re spending the day in my spiritual home. I’ve got a day out in London with my two favourite young people, culminating in a trip to little China.

hungs_chinese_restaurant_chinatown_london

The itinerary was agreed after a surprisingly short trilateral democratic process, which took me aback somewhat. Given the multitude of things to do in London (paid and free), I thought there’d be more debate and possibly an argument. But no. With no prompting from me, eldest son (13) has chosen The London Transport Museum. This is fine by me as it ticks so many of my boxes: Transport, construction, engineering, history, graphic design, and London. The youngest daughter (11) is fine with this. She herself would like to go to The National Gallery, specifically the BP Portrait Award exhibition. This ticks more of my boxes: Art, history, religion, and architecture. Great minds think alike, and so do mine and my kids’.

This day out stretches into the evening, and given that London offers cuisine from pretty much every country, I asked the kids what they’d like to get for dinner. They chose Chinese, which was handy because we’ll be near Chinatown and I fancy Chinese too. I’ve even bought the kids a pair of chopsticks each, a souvenir of the day for future takeaways at home (I’m giving them spending money too, and paying for the food, and it costs £50 to get into the Transport Museum. My arse isn’t always tight).

The icing on the cake is a new T-shirt I bought, given that we’ll be walking around a gallery and a museum. In tribute to one of my favourite films, and to celebrate a favourite day out with my two favourite enquiring minds, I’ve got myself a ‘SAVE FERRIS’ shirt.

The story which follows is one I co-wrote with my son, or rather he started it and I finished it off. It could loosely be a sequel to The Invention of the Pencil Case, as we travel to a future Earth and find out a bit about how The Unfinished Literary Agency came to be, via The Office of Lost Things

IanVisitsIanVisits

THE BEST LAID PLANS

The reason no other animals evolved like humans, is they watched what we did. Then instead of copying us, they concentrated on the important things, like their basic needs and expanding their minds, to eventually speak telepathically, all the while unbeknown to us. It was quite brilliant in its subtlety.

Animal people live alongside a different race: sentient, non-organic, technological beings. And the robots are correct, that they came from the stars, as did we all, and that theirs was a slow evolution with a sudden growth spurt.

There’s a human there, finding her way around on a planet where her ancestors once lived. She’s trying to find something for her son, back on their own home world. It’s a plot device, which allows people to speak in fiction about that which they can’t in real life. It’s what The Unfinished Literary Agency was set up for, way back in her family’s history, and she thinks it will help her son. He’s lost, as she once was, unsure of how worlds revolve outside of physics. But it’s quantum physics which connects us all.

Her son once wrote a plan, presumably one of many, as this was ‘Plan 96’, and all in longhand, using an old silver and black pen. At the time, he’d said it was a story he was working on, but he wasn’t sure where it was going or how it would end. So he left it behind when the humans left Earth. Now the boy is grown up and lost on the home world, wondering what happened to it.

On Earth 3.0 for the most part, industry is confined to the cloud cities, while the planet itself has been left to nature. In 2142, The Shard is a glacial Christmas tree, abandoned by humans a century before and now a towering forest, as nature quickly moved in.

As Eve walked over London Bridge, the locals – known for their tameness – were keen to greet her arrival. Beavers looked from their dams on the Thames, and a group of crows congregated on the handrail. As a collective noun, they were more a horde than a murder.

Hello, human,” one of them said.

Hello,” Eve replied.

What’s your name?” The crow asked.

Eve.”

Oh no, not again,” the crow said. Then the horde departed, without any enquiry of her business there.

In Threadneedle Street, the old lady slept under a blanket of ivy, as the Bank of England sat on vaults of human gold. The Old Bailey was tightly wrapped in green vines, where various birds conducted industry, and squirrels and monkeys picked fruit. The British Museum somehow looked as it always should, the building itself now preserved as a record of humanity and maintained by wildlife. The British Library too, where all of mankind’s writing is archived, everything with an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Goswell Road is still long, but now a wide, wooded path to Islington, and Hotblack Desiato’s old office.

A winding wooden staircase took Eve up to The Unfinished Literary Agency, a small, dark room on the top floor, with a crudely-cut window, about the size of a letterbox, at waist height on the far wall.

Inside was surprisingly clean for an office vacated a century before. Eve wondered who’d maintained it, or perhaps who’d remained after the human exodus. She sat at the desk and tried the lamp. It worked.

The walls were full of shelves, with manuscripts stacked a foot high. More were piled on the floor, and in the tray on the desk. There were hundreds of unwritten books, all untold human stories.

Eve looked in the drawers of the desk: Pens, notepads and other stationery, some candles and a tobacco tin. Then she found a name plate, the Toblerone sort that sits on a desk. In Helvetica black upper case, the name proudly proclaimed itself:

PROF. J.C. HESTER

Eve picked up a bound manuscript from the tray and began to flick through it. Someone had gone to the trouble of drawing a flick book animation in the bottom corner, a simple space rocket taking off in a cloud of smoke, with a person’s face looking from the only porthole. After this five second stick cartoon, the manuscript was entitled ‘So long, and thanks for all the humans, by MC Katze’. It was the story of a man and his cat, in which the cat takes her human to another planet, so that he can see the utopia awaiting mankind in the land promised to them. The twist in the tale is, the cat was an agent of Erwin Schrödinger, who told the human she was operating the spacecraft from inside a box on the flight deck, when she was actually flying it by remote control, and not in the box at all.

Eve heard a noise she wasn’t expecting, which worried her more than it would if it was expected. Her ostiumtractophobia (specifically, a fear of door knobs) was rooted in childhood, when someone (or something) outside had tried the handle of her locked bedroom door. The sound of keys in the door – perhaps ones she’d lost earlier – would be more paralysing still, if it were her door the keys were in.

The already-unlocked door of the office slowly swung open, and a character from one of the Earth 3.0 documentaries she’d watched on the home world walked in.

Looking very much professorial, in a tweed three-piece, topped with a flat cap and a monocle, a chimpanzee walked upright into the room.

Greetings,” he said, not seeming at all surprised to find Eve in his office. She must have looked puzzled. “It’s the Babel fish,” the chimp said. “Well, it’s not a fish,” he continued, “but that’s what started it. I assume that’s what you’re wondering, how you can hear me?”

Erm, yes,” Eve replied, “I’ve heard of the Babel fish…”

Well,” said the chimp, then paused. “Sorry,” he said, “I’m Jules.” He offered a hand.

Jules.” Eve shook his hand. “I’m Eve.”

Yes,” Jules said, “short for Julio, see, Jules I mean? Except it’s not, it’s still got five letters. It’s just quicker to say, with only the one syllable. Here’s a funny thing…” Jules lowered himself onto a pile of manuscripts.

Would you like your chair?”

Oh no, that’s not my chair. That was here when I arrived, so I’m sort of squatting here now. Besides, sometimes it feels more natural like this. Instinct I suppose.”

So,” Eve sat back, “this funny thing?”

Oh yes. Just one of many anecdotes left over by the humans. You’ll be aware of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, I assume?”

Yes, he invented the world wide web.”

Clever chap, yes. But here’s the funny thing. The words, world wide and web, are all one syllable. But abbreviated, it’s double-you, double-you, double-you. That’s nine syllables, which is a lot. But I read somewhere that someone suggested he called his invention ‘The Internet Machine’. Well, abbreviated, that would be TIM. And apparently, he was such a modest man, that not only did he give it away for free, he didn’t seek fame or fortune, he just did it for the greater good. It may be apocryphal, but we like it. It’s a rare example of man’s humility, and the web was altruism which could have saved many species. But it all went a bit King Kong didn’t it?”

It did,” Eve paused. “But you were saying about the Babel fish?”

Oh yes, I was, wasn’t I? Well, the name just stuck, in a tributary way. You know, not like the geographical river ones, but an historical – and it is an an, with a silent aitch – tribute. But now it’s the universal translation system for the world population.”

But how can I hear you?”

Oh, I see, yes. Well, it’s not an implant or anything now, no. No, without getting too technical (not my area), it’s carried in the wind, in radio waves, which are only audible to the subconscious. The upshot is, everyone speaks the same language. And really, that was mankind’s biggest mistake.”

One of them.”

Yes, there were a few. But there’d been researchers and ethics committees, scientific essays and peer-reviewed papers, and they all agreed that giving universal translation to the public would generally be a bad idea. Then Google just did it anyway.”

And others followed.”

Many. Then everyone.”

So,” Eve wondered, “the professorship?”

Oh that. The prof is in English, language, yes. Before that, my doctorate was in human psychology. I think the way the world changed was what guided me more into the languages, you know, in case they died out, with everyone using the Babel fish and all, and technology always hurrying them along. And the thing about being a professor is, I teach teachers how to teach teachers to teach, which I rather like. Took a jolly lot of work though.

But next, I want to do something different. I’m studying history, so I can teach the teachers about how it all went wrong. Because although the humans are gone, their past can teach us a lot.

I’m not a religious man, but whenever someone said everyone shouldn’t speak the same language, they might have been right. It’s a good thing if you’re a species evolved enough to debate, but take away certain barriers and an immature race will abuse it, with some using it for their own gain and not for the greater good. Someone was always going to package it up and sell it as a religion, or make it some kind of privilege, when it was around all the time. Us animals – as you used to call us – us people, had been communicating for many thousands of years before humans came along. Then the humans found out and wanted it for themselves.

It’s a tragic story but it’s a lesson from history which I’d like to tell others about, and of how that led to the evolution of the planet we see around us now. So it was all for the good really. I only hope humanity took that lesson away with them.”

It might be too early to tell,” Eve said.

How are things over there?” the professor wondered.

Lonely.”

That’s the thing with humans. When we look at your monuments, buildings, and many follies, you are capable of such beautiful dreams. But within those are some terrible nightmares.”

I know, Carl Sagan said something similar.”

Who’s she?”

He. He was a scientist, a thinker, and an inspiration.”

A dreamer then? And that’s the sad thing. Humans who dream are ridiculed if they speak of their visions. They become suppressed. But allowed to explore and discover, those people can transcend accepted human wisdom, in things like politics, which was a human invention anyway.

Anarchy is not chaos, when people are trusted to be individually empowered. An evolved race will sort it all out. But the ones who rise above it all are feared by those who govern and rule, and that leads to conflict. Conflict gets no-one anywhere, but debate can increase mutual understanding to find peaceful solutions. Too many humans were greedy, not just financially but morally.

I studied human politics for a while, and I had to conclude, it was quite a waste of time, for the humans. All it did was hold them back. It was a system which kept radical thinkers beyond its borders of conditioning. And the radical thinkers were only just getting a voice when everyone else did, so it got deafening.

If you ask me, I’d say most humans are essentially left-wing by nature, only becoming conditioned otherwise. Wherever you lie (or tell the truth) on the political spectrum, beyond that, you’re all human. Yet the one thing you all have in common is the very thing which drives you apart. Individuality is to be encouraged, but you can’t think as one. You’re generally a socially aware species. It’s just a shame there were so many who didn’t qualify by that credential.”

You have a deep understanding of the human condition,” Eve said, looking around the room.

Sometimes it helps not to be one to know one.”

Do you have a theory, on why the Babel fish was the catalyst?”

I think there’s one thing it will never be able to do, because it shouldn’t, and it ought to remain impossible. That thing, would be the interpretation of messages, of how they’re perceived by the receiver, which of course is completely subjective on the part of the individual, regardless of the intention of the messenger. Words only have meaning for some people if a specific person says them. The Babel fish is a translation device, not an interpreter. Too many humans, in their cut-off personal worlds, their microcosm universes, their ignorance and laziness, quite literally took too many things far too literally. And a breakdown in communication is conflict by any other name.

But even more fundamental, was humans’ sense of entitlement. A progressive race, but for their own gains. I know there are millions of exceptions, and it’s equally tragic that their voices were silenced. But back in human politics, that would be a victory for the right. More of you need to find your left wings, outside of your politics. You need to metaphorically fly free, or be allowed to, without those wings being clipped.

There’s a passage I’ve memorised, from one of your films. ‘I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone’. It was a film one of the crows showed me. Her ten-times-great grandfather had a cameo in that film. He’s uncredited though.”

That was The Shawshank Redemption, a prison film.”

Yes, very good too. Now there was a human who used an unfair situation which had been forced upon him, to do good for others, to blow a whistle and bring down a dictatorship. He quietly went about a longer plan, rarely drawing attention, then escaped the tyranny. I suppose we miss those kinds of people, the free in spirit. We are all spirits when we sleep, after all, with the means for the enquiring mind to explore the universe.”

Some more than others,” Eve added, looking out of the window. “When all we needed to do was keep talking.”

Quite ironic really, isn’t it?”

Looked at like this, yes.”

But you’re looking at something no-one’s seen for some time. For you it’s nostalgia.”

It’s a feeling of being home. And you speak of humans quite sentimentally.”

Well, I felt I got to know a few, through my grandfather’s stories from the zoo.”

He was in London Zoo?”

Chester actually. We moved down to London when the zoos closed. All my family as far as I can trace, were captive bred, as they used to be called. But my great, great grandfather was an immigrant from New York, and he’s the first I can find with the family name Hester.”

Er, how?” Eve turned to Julio.

The professor stood up and stretched. “Well, Boris – that’s my great, great grandfather – was rescued by a writer called Hester Mundis. She found him in a pet shop when he was young. She bought him, not as a pet, but to liberate him, and he lived with her and her eight-year-old son, in their apartment in Manhattan. I know Hester was expecting another child, so she found Boris a home with other chimps in Chester, and I gather he was on TV a few times. She wrote about him too, so he was immortalised in books, which must be a nice thing to have happen to yourself.

So we took her name, because she became mum to my orphaned or kidnapped great, great grandfather. If it wasn’t for her, I might not be here. I may never have been.”

And you didn’t mind being in captivity?”

I worked a lot of other things out there. You do, when you have the time and your basic needs are taken care of.”

You didn’t feel imprisoned?”

I’d never known anything else. I was never in the wild. Perhaps one day I’ll visit my own home country, but I learned a lot when humans were in charge. There are lots of arguments for and against on both sides. Those are less relevant now, but future historians will have plenty to write about. For now, I have plenty to write of here.”

Why’s that?”

Let’s rewind a little. A long time ago, a human said that given an infinite supply of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys would reproduce the Complete Works of Shakespeare. And it stands to reason that, given those resources, they would. But we wondered, why? What would be the point?”

It was a human thing?”

It was. But there was a flaw in that original plan.”

Which was?”

The monkeys. No offence to those with tails, but what it really needed was apes. You don’t even need an infinite number of them.

So after we’d finished reproducing Shakespeare’s works, we got started on the next plan. Then we quickly realised we might need more writers. Not an infinite supply, but far more than we have. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible.”

What’s not?”

Plan 96 is to discover and write the answer to the ultimate question, that of life, the universe and everything. But infinite apes aside, I don’t think humans are looking in the right place.”

So where do we look?”

Look into your heart, and don’t be afraid of yourself, because people might like that person.

This was only your temporary home. You were squatters here before your nomadic race continued their journey, to find themselves. For now, you are gone from here, and you need to return to yourself. But there’s a record of how it all started, and how things panned out, right here, where it began.

It all started with a simple device: an old pen, and it’s a story close to my heart. But now it’s yours.”

Jules reached into his breast pocket and handed Eve a silver and black pen.

© Louis Laker and Steve Laker.

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.

 

Twisted naked blonde ambitions

THE WORLD THROUGH A LENS

As we witness Boris Johnson – no longer the UK’s Foreign Secretary but our most visible liability abroad – caricaturing himself, it’s clear to me what he’s trying to do. 

Johnson-Trump

In this age of cartoon leaders and surreal news, the plots are transparent but the shameless actors win the adulation of crowds wherever they go (in their own minds at least). Johnson is trying to breed fear and normalise racism, grooming the country for BoJo as PM. You only have to look across the Atlantic to see how easily-led the paranoid and ignorant are. He’s playing to the far-right, just like his comic book orange hero.

Science fiction writers look to the world around us for stories, and for the most part we make them at least plausible. Although time travel is theoretically possible, in the current accepted model, space time is not a pre-determined block. The past is written and recorded, the present is what we observe, and the future is yet to be written (there are other articles on quantum mechanics and particle entanglement elsewhere on this blog). Sci-fi writers can imagine near- and far-future bright and bleak scenarios, hoping to help readers determine a future they’d like to live in, and spot the early signs of darkness approaching.

It’s August 2019 and Boris Johnson is Prime Minister of the UK. The Tory party split in the aftermath of Johnson’s comments in The Daily Telegraph about Muslim women’s niqabs making them look like “bank robbers” or “letterboxes”. Those on the centre-right couldn’t align behind an overt racist, and Johnson knew this. He’d whipped up enough racial paranoia among right-wing voters that joining with UKIP was inevitable, and expected by those of us who saw right through him.

The UK crashed out of the EU with a ‘No-deal’ Brexit. It was “The will of the public,” but the nation had been lied to. The no-deal scenario was part of the capitalist plan, as the UK became a country of little regulation, and a low-wage production centre for cheap exported goods. Like local and national services before, the NHS was privatised and became a machine to make money, saving lives only selectively: those who could afford to be saved. A biblical prophesy of Revelations, made real through social cleansing more visible even than the mass murder of Grenfell.

Brexit Bus Ambulance

No deal meant that Britain was, for a time, unique in the world (besides recently being voted ‘Most stupid’), having no trade deals with any other country. With so many global threats (nuclear war and climate change), the UK simply cut loose and set itself adrift.

The value of Sterling plunged and, coupled with strict border controls, the UK quickly dropped down the list of international tourism destinations. With their currency worth little overseas, few Britons could afford to travel and holiday abroad. Air travel became a luxury, and the preserve of the rich and entitled. It was a return to the heyday of British aviation in the 1950s and 60s.

As Johnson did his best to lose allies and alienate nations, swingeing import taxes were placed on British goods exported abroad. The Foreign Office once again created an intentionally ‘hostile environment’ for non-Brtish nationals, and the social cleansing was aided by increased hostility towards outsiders, normalised by Johnson’s party and overlooked by an underfunded police force. The UK had become a paranoid and insular society, groomed by Johnson on his path to power.

The Prime Minister resided over a prison state, terrorised by his false rhetoric of outside threats. It was a self-sustaining economy, feeding ownership and driving nails into the coffins of workers who could no longer afford even to bury themselves. It was social cleansing in full flow. President Trump had seen all this coming. It was part of a greater plan.

Trump offered an olive branch to the UK economy, with trade deals which no other country was prepared to sanction. With no other rescuer in sight, the US became saviour and the UK was indebted, becoming a de facto 51st state, where those who remain meat-eaters feast on chlorinated chicken and steroid beef, while living in dangerous public housing, hastily built in a deregulated market to solve the housing crisis. In reality, death traps to continue the social cleansing.

Among those who write and speculate on such things, there are some who think Trump could hold the UK to ransom. In return for propping our economy up (and with a lot of nuclear weapons), he could demand sovereignty, make the UK a republic and sell the royal estate. The royals are the acceptable face of entitlement, and the good causes they support are not in keeping with the global social cleansing plan.

Brexit Mag2

Apart from that last bit, it’s all perfectly plausible.

The psychopathy of typeface

FICTION

This is a re-write of a story I first wrote four years ago (which in itself is an irony, given the narrative). Like then, it’s about getting into character, clearing the mind, and of severance pay in the name of art. It’s a new puritan tale with no dialogue…

Helvetica Neue

HELVETICA NEUE HAUS

I’m a writer with mental health labels, writing about a writer with mental health labels: Kind of Hellraiser with Post-It Notes. I write stories too. In this one, 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 is sticky and thick, like the tarred blood of a heavy smoker, stored in the barrel as many thoughts yet to take form. It flows through the pen, a symbiosis of ergonomics and aesthetics, as my words spill onto the page like so many injuries. The true art of the storyteller is breathing life into the words.

When I’m at my most prolific, I turn to my Royal Epoch typewriter: I can type much faster than I can write freehand. I like holding my syringe-like pen 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. Long ago, there was the letterpress printing machine, or platen press. Individual characters of type were arranged in a frame, then ink applied and the words pressed into sheets of paper. It was the pre-press art which I found most fascinating: A compositor (like my acquaintance) produces the individual printed letters from hot metal on a Monotype machine. The operator uses a keyboard to enter the characters and the machine creates each as a metal block. My friend is not just typing the words which will tell a story, but creating the very letters themselves. Instead of putting ink on paper, he’s typing the mechanisms which will later do so: he’s writing a machine which will print.

To make the words which come from my typewriter, the individual metal blocks were soldered to the ends of the hammers, so that every character I type is in the Helvetica typeface.

Often I’ll type up my hand-written notes, and there are several motivators: 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 haste 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.

Besides the indelible nature of electronic words, 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, like some typographical incestuous rape. It’s the same as comparing LPs and MP3s: the latter are digitised and lose much depth and nuance in the process. To the casual, uneducated listener, there’s no difference. But to the trained ear, listening on quality equipment, the two recordings are identical, yet worlds apart. There’s 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 printing machines. 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. 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 aesthetic is greater than the sum of the parts. My typewriter, as unique as the writer who uses it, creates stories more real than any written using anything else.

When I’m happy with what I’ve written, my original, typed manuscripts are delivered to the printer: Smith & Young in Bermondsey. Like me, they view print as an art, not technology. Like vinyl records, the connoisseur can feel and appreciate the depth and richness of letterpress printing.

I do my best to make first draft and final copy the same. I don’t use correction fluid: it spoils the otherwise pristine, two-tone typed page with a smudge of grey, and an error on my part. 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. My compositor is not a monkey operating a machine: He’s a writer, like me. His is a highly skilled trade and he is one of only a very few remaining.

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.

The courier will wait with the printer, while the Monotype operator typesets my manuscript. It’s written again, by a different writer. My key strokes on paper become the voice of the mechanical animal which will spew out potentially infinite copies of this story. Once the typesetting is complete, the courier returns with my original manuscript.

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, written in metal, and 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.

With all that potential, a problem troubles the puritan mind. I trust the man at Smith & Young: he’s 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 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, Soho and Bermondsey, the print bloodlines of London.

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 of 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, dodging a few early risers in suits 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 in his eponymous barber’s shop. 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. Like me, George doesn’t talk as he works, which suits us both. Time in his skilful hands is relaxing and contemplative, 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. I eat pie, mash and liquor, with chili-infused sarsaparilla vinegar, staring down at the chequered floor and playing mind chess.

After that, 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 & 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.

Suitably lubricated, we agreed it might be time to eat (great minds think alike), so we made our way back by foot toward London Bridge Station, and 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 the cobbles of Villiers Street and crossed embankment, clogged with weekend traffic; mainly coaches and black cabs taking workers home and bringing a different life into the West End. This part of London is roughly half way between the old writing districts of Fleet Street and Soho, the bohemian heart where Jeffrey Bernard once held court in The Coach and Horses, whilst being famously 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 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 ate.

The meal functioned as such, with no need for friends to engage in casual banter at the expense of the enjoyment of good food. 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 seeing my story in finished form. He said it looked good to him when he typeset it.

Great minds: I don’t know what went through his, but the eyes remained open as his head fell away from me. The lights of the South Bank danced on the river as the head splashed down like a full stop on my typewriter hitting the page, then floated away. The barber’s cut throat razor sliced through the neck as easily as Red’s meat cleaver dismembered pigs at Smithfield.

My writing is art. I bring things to life with my words by putting myself in the stories. I’ll burn this copy of the story but it still exists by design, ready to be printed by the mechanical animal, in Helvetica and on paper from Smythson of Bond Street. Just as I intended it to be read.

© Steve Laker, 2018

A nope rope around the neck

FAIRY TALE

“In these perilous times,” a recent Guardian article urged, “progressives must create narratives that shine a light on crises such as climate change and the plight of refugee.” And megalomaniac world leaders, and climate change, and pollution, and weapons of mass destruction…

Contemporary fiction tends to be situation-specific or narrow in frame, but a fairy tale’s whimsy or fantastical narrative creates vaguery, allowing different analogies to be applied according to circumstance. The headline of the Guardian article was, “We need new fairy stories and folk tales to guide us out of today’s dark woods.”

21610301

THE GIRL WITH THE SNAKE SCARF

Once upon a place, in a faraway time, there lived a warlock in a tower, afraid for his wife to leave. Across many ploughed fields stood a castle, where a necromancer surveyed the crops, and his queen cared for him. The warlock could make new things happen. The necromancer made old things happen again.

The fields were like vast woven tapestries, and a girl stitched them together as she jumped and played, the bobbin in the silk.

One day, a serpent approached. “Why do you tend the fields?” he asked.

For many reasons,” replied the bobbin.

Tell me three,” said the snake.

The first,” the girl said, “is to feed everyone.”

And the second?” the snake wondered.

The second, is to keep this land for feeding people.”

You have one more,” the serpent reminded her.

But most of all,” the girl said, “it’s because it’s fun.”

Very well,” said the snake, “carry on.” Then he promptly disappeared into the night.

The bells of the warlock’s tower rang, while the necromancer’s banshees sang, on opposite sides of the land, while horses and soldiers guarded the castle and the tower. The bobbin made her way home, through the woods, until the path in the green inferno split in two, where the snake waited.

Which path?” he asked. “You have three choices.”

Three?” asked the bobbin, “but there are only two paths.”

And you have used one option. You have two remaining.”

Why have I only two left?”

Because that is the number of paths you see. You have spoken twice now.”

Then,” the bobbin said, “I choose right, because I always do. Or left, because I’ve never gone that way.”

And now,” said the serpent, “I am gone.” And with that, the snake disappeared into the undergrowth.

With all her choices gone, the bobbin walked home on the right path, then she ate porridge, made from the fields, before resting ahead of another day.

The next day, the fields were covered with petrified horses and soldiers, frozen where they’d perished. The snake appeared again.

The warlock’s army want the necromancer to return their dead. And the necromancer’s army want the warlock to pay his army more gold. Can you see a problem? You have three tries at this game.”

The bobbin thought.

There are two problems which are one,” she said. “The necromancer and the warlock. They want what the other has, and they don’t ask their armies what they want. So everyone dies.”

That is very clever,” said the snake, “and you used your three tries in one. You win. But no-one has won. So you need to go now, before the fighting starts again. Let me ask you a question, to ponder as you sleep: If you were to plant one grain of rice in the corner field of this vast pasture, then two in the next, four in the third and so on, doubling with each square. How many rice plants would you have in the 64th field?”

The bobbin walked home thinking, down the left path, and the snake hung coiled from a branch. “You chose the left path,” he said. “Let me ask you another question: Does the right path still exist, because you can’t see it?”

On the third day, the bobbin had to jump over many lifeless souls to reach the middle of the land. There, only nine fields remained, and a battle had already started. In some pastures, the warlock’s troops stood in circles, chanting. And in others, the necromancer’s army burned crosses.

The serpent greeted her again. “May I speak closely, in your ear?” The bobbin nodded, so the snake rested around her shoulders, then whispered, “You may speak three times today. Did you work out the rice problem?”

Yes,” she said, “there would be enough to feed everyone.”

And the problem now?”

They were only fighting over land, and there was enough for everyone. Now both are dead. Now there are only nine fields. The long game has become a short one, which no-one can win.”

So now,” the snake said, “you know there’s another way, and you have to tell them.”

But why would they believe me?”

They won’t now, because you just spoke for the third time.” The bobbin had used her three chances. “You didn’t think enough before you spoke, you spoke too soon, and now you can’t.” The serpent coiled around her neck. “If you were able to, you could have gone to the centre field, the middle earth. You could have formed a shield. They wouldn’t kill an innocent bobbin. So they would have approached you, and you’d have told them they are playing a game which can’t be won now. And they would have listened, because yours would be a new voice to them, one they’ve not heard before. And now, they won’t hear that voice today. Tomorrow, it could all be over. You lose.” The snake tightened his grip.

The girl felt light-headed, so she stumbled down into the middle earth, and the serpent loosened his grip. She stood in the centre of the stand-off, and the snake tightened its grip. The troops gathered around the central square and the snake coiled tighter around the girl’s neck, lifting its body above her head. Soldiers from either side approached as the girl’s feet left the ground.

One of the warlock’s troops held the girl’s legs while a necromancer’s guard pulled at the snake, until the girl fell to the ground. Both free, the girl ran straight ahead to the warlock’s tower, protected by the necromancer’s army, and the snake chased the warlock’s troops towards the necromancer’s castle.

Walking home, the girl looked at the left and right paths, where she’d met the snake before. She parted the bushes and there was a third path, hidden behind the leaves. One she’d not seen before, because she didn’t think it was there.

Once upon a time in the future, in a place not far away, this will happen more than once.

© Steve Laker, 2018