“This place is heroically awful”

HORROR FICTION

Blood dripping

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

Ash TrumpDonald Trump In Famous Horror Movie Scenes (BuzzFeed)

AUGUST UNDERGROUND’S DINER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Vegetarian options can all be printed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Steve Laker, 2018

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.

The elephant in the bathroom

FLASH FICTION

A story popped into my head one night, and I have no idea why. These things just happen, like a single sheet of paper through my typewriter in a matter of minutes. Featured in this week’s Schlock webzine, where I share a unstable table with other weird writers…

Schlock Dolphin Toilet

THE DOLPHIN IN THE TOILET

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Steve Laker, 2019

A story written in indelible ink

FICTION

Blood dripping

1329953557707 (1)

THE PERPETUITY OF MEMORY

When you see what Dom Pablo has done, at first you may recoil. But Dom’s art is personal and subjective. Each work is unique and creates another life for the owner. A gift from an admirer.”

The invitation to be part of a rare commission by Dom Pablo Solanas was a work of art in itself: exquisitely crafted by the artist and a future priceless piece. This alone was a luxurious gift, even to someone of Christiana Kunsak’s means, yet it was merely an invitation to a private audience with Solanas himself. A box, carved from a single piece each of ebony and rare boxwood, interlocked to form a puzzle.

The piece is entitled La armonia. The accompanying notes state that the name only exists for as long as the puzzle is in its unsolved form: once the puzzle is solved and the two pieces separated, a mechanism inside the piece ensures that they cannot be re-joined. Once the puzzle is complete, La armonia ceases to exist and the work becomes La ansiedad.

La armonia was a rare and beautiful thing. It also held a secret: an invitation to meet with Dom Pablo Solanas. The nature of that meeting was unknown and therein lay a form of gamble; a wager with oneself: La armonia was unique and intricately crafted; its aesthetics were unquestionable in that initial state. Further value must be added for the simple fact that the piece contains a secret. If that secret is revealed, it may reduce the value of the work. The invitation will be spent. La ansiedad may not be as pleasing to the eye as La armonia and it is the permanent replacement, with La armonia destroyed forever. Conversely, the construction of the work is so fine and detailed as to invite curiosity, more of what it might become than what it is: should that beauty be left as potential, or revealed? Is it something which may be left to a subsequent benefactor? What might they find inside La armonia? Christiana could not deny herself a pleasure which someone else might yet have, and which she may never see.

As soon as the first link clicked audibly out of place somewhere inside the box, La armonia was no longer. There were no instructions on how to create La ansiedad: it was a work to be created by a new artist from the original. Only when the puzzle was complete would it reveal its secret and until then, it was nameless and fluid.

Held in both hands, the wooden box – around the size of a large cigar box – felt as heavy as it should, carved from solid wood and not hollowed out. It was slightly heavier at one end than the other. The seamless interlocking of the ebony and boxwood formed variously alternate, interlocking and enclosing patterns of dark and light. Aside from the initial click, no amount of tilting, pressing, pulling, twisting and pushing of the device produced any change. Christiana alone had been privy to that first movement, so to anyone other than her, La armonia still existed. But she wanted to create and to see La ansiedad.

The box remained unaffected by manipulation, until Christiana’s housemaid picked it up to clean around it. Snatching the box from the maid’s hand, Christiana heard another click from the device and almost immediately noticed a change: the box remained a cuboid but the dimensions and patterns had altered. Closer examination of the new patterns revealed some to have assumed shapes which suggested movement: swirls, series of dots and even directional arrows. The introduction of a third party had revealed a form of instruction.

Over a period of around four weeks, the wooden box became a collaborative project, with guests to Christiana’s apartment invited to examine the puzzle and attempt to solve it. During that time, the box took on many geometric forms: pyramid, cone, octahedron and latterly, a perfect cube, with opposite ebony and boxwood faces: it was more perfect in form that it had ever been but it still harboured something inside.

The geometrically perfect cube would let up no further information and remained static for a number of days, until the housemaid picked it up once more while she was cleaning. The top half separated from the bottom, the base now a half-cube on the table. The surfaces of the half cubes where they’d separated were a chequerboard design: a game of miniature chess could be played on each ebony and boxwood surface, the size of drinks coasters.

Christiana placed the two halves back together and a perfect cube once again sat upon the table, for a while. After around five seconds, the cube began to make a whirring sound, as though a clockwork mechanism had been invisibly wound inside. Slowly and with a smoothness suggesting the most intricate mechanical construction, the individual tiles on top of the cube folded back from the centre to the edges, eventually forming a five-sided cube with a checked interior. It was seemingly the lack of any further outside intervention which allowed the wooden device to complete a long transformation by self-re-assembly and after a while, the device resembled a chequered wooden hand. A slot opened in the palm and a card was offered between the forefinger and thumb: a card roughly the size of a visiting card and folded with such accuracy as to disguise the fact that it was anything other. Yet unfurled, it was an octavo sheet: eight leaves. The reverse of the flat sheet was blank but the eight pages to view on the face were images of art.

Oil and watercolour paintings; portraits, landscapes, sill life and abstract; cubist, surrealist and classical. Wooden, metal and glass sculptures; pieces made using prefabricated materials, notably shop window mannequins, plastic dolls, action men and tin soldiers. Body art as well: tattoos drawn in such a way as to give them a third dimension: an arm with skin pulled back to reveal muscle and bone beneath by way of a zip; a human chest splayed open to reveal a metallic cyborg beneath: living art made from human flesh, these two suggesting something beneath the skin visible only with the benefit of intimacy with the bearer. Another tattoo made the wearer’s right leg appear as though the limb were an intricate sculpture made from wood: one organic material transformed into another, which can be transformed in a way that the material it’s made from cannot, to create the illusion of just such a thing. All of these things had been made by the hands of Dom Pablo Solanas. All were arresting at first sight and invited closer inspection. Even as facsimiles and at such small sizes, the works of Solanas were breathtaking. At the bottom of the sheet was a phone number: apparently a direct line to Dom Pablo himself.

La ansiedad quietly whirred into motion again, the mechanical fingers retracting into the wooden flesh of the hand until the sculpture was briefly a chequered ovoid, before flipping open like a clam shell. It continued to change form, seemingly with perpetuity.
Dom Pablo arrived promptly and attired in a fashion exhibited in many public portraits of him: conflicting primary colours which somehow worked, on a man who also wore a fedora hat at all times, and who sported a perfectly manicured handlebar
moustache.

Ms. Kunsak. A pleasure to meet you.”

Please sir: Christiana. Likewise, Mr Solanas.” Christiana offered her hand, which Solanas held firmly.

As you wish. And please, call me Dom Pablo.” His voice was deep and relaxed. “Christiana: what is it that you’d like to do today?”

I already have a great gift before me. This is a chance for me to turn your natural gift into something I can share. I have everything I could need around me, but this is an opportunity to own something which is so treasured, I may not wish to leave this apartment again.”

Indeed. That is one of the rules I apply to my arts. Just as I turn my raw materials into others – like flesh into wood – so I wish to allow others to use me as a creative tool, so that what I create is their own. My subjects and prefabricated materials are artworks in themselves but together, we make unique pieces. By allowing a subject to commission me, I am subverting the art and holding a mirror to the process.

You will of course have an idea of who the giver of this gift is. Association with such a person is to be in the membership of a society which respects certain things, like privacy. Therefore, I never discuss the details of a commission with the subject. It is highly unlikely that anyone should wish to attract attention to anyone outside of a certain group, that they have been a part of my work. All of my pieces are unique and personal.”

It is those very people, those within my inner circles, that I have in mind as I enter into this: it was within my closest circles that I came to receive this, and only those of a certain standing will have access. Dom Pablo: I should like to carry your work with me in those circles; I would like you to use me as a canvas and make me a living work of art.”

A truly beautiful idea. Although the canvas is living, I must render it inanimate so that I may work. As such, I shall administer a general anaesthetic, so that you feel no discomfort. I don’t like to talk when I work. When you awake, we will have new art and the Dom Pablo art changes lives. You will enter an even more exclusive, innermost circle of my very own. Excited? Sleep now…

***

“…When you see what Dom Pablo has done, at first you may recoil. But Dom’s art is personal and subjective; each work is unique and creates another life for the owner. My art remains with you, just as the motion of La ansiedad is perpetual. This latest work is entitledThe perpetuity of memory.”

Christiana stared into the mirror, and the illusion of wood carved from human flesh was real. It would take a level of intimacy permitted to very few, to see the original material beneath the artwork, made by Dom Pablo. The mannequin beneath the wooden skin.

© Steve Laker, 2015

Both The Perpetuity of Memory and The Unfinished Literary Agency, are available now in paperback.

This is the sound of the sirens

HORROR FICTION

Blood dripping

I wrote the first version of this story five years ago, when it was mostly a comment on the abusive practices inflicted by humans around the world on their own kind (including their loved ones). Today it’s perhaps more a reminder of why people flee their own homes, and of all those silent voices who find themselves on the street.

Caught in the traffic, in a jam, going underground. Above on the South Bank, the big wheel keeps on turning. The world spins a massive attack, as the killing goes on softly…

Soho Red Light‘The red lights of London’ (Joy Muldoon, BindingTheBroken blog)

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

Extra Strong mints won’t cut it, and Polos don’t even take that starchy potato smell away. A friend of a fisherman is the best thing to suck furiously, then swallow repeatedly just to get rid of the taste. A lurid pink taxi sign behind the man read “XI’s”, the apostrophe as redundant as her numbed lips. “Ready or not,” she whispered.

A printed sign hung in the window:

TATTOOS
PIERCINGS
BODY MODIFICATION
COURIER AND CHAUFFEUR SERVICE
PRIVATE MEDICAL CARE
HERBAL REMEDIES
SEX TOYS
DVDs
DENTISTRY
CORRECTIVE SURGERY
NO CHILDREN

LOVE IS LOVE

The bottom line written in black and blue. A child wouldn’t understand. The accident was Sioux’s fault. Customers like going bareback. Should have taken the pills.

Inside smelled of spiritual herbs, and two old ladies, like Ron Mueck sculptures, just slightly too small to be fully real, sat humming tunes in a corner. A white man with dark dreadlocks parted a tatty curtain, like a Rasta Wizard of Oz. He beckoned Sioux into the room behind him. “Welcome to my home. I is Xi.”

The pose was familiar from so many strangers’ beds: legs spread as she looked down at a clenched fist between them. The old ladies outside were singing, “Come into this room / Come into this gloom / See the red light rinsing / Another shutter slut wincing…”

It’s an old tradition,” Xi said, his tones deep in his throat, a cocktail of nomadic Irish and Jamaican. “They sing or chant to herald the passing of a life.” He looked up between her knees. “I’ve been asked to do two things today. I don’t say why, I just do what’s asked, make deliveries and get paid. I ain’t been many places but I read a lot.

Human nature, I find that shit fascinating. Fashion, culture and tradition. That’s how I got into piercing and tattoos. I’ve travelled around the world in seas of ink, and I get to see a whole load of shit as it passes through here. I need you to give me a push.”

Xi looked up as he placed a baby’s arm in a silver dish.

The body modification was a logical progression. As I explored, I saw some of the tribal practices. I taught me the techniques, and I can apply them here. Some ain’t legal in this country, but I don’t dig no religious debate. If someone wants something done, I do what asked. Some can be undone, and people come to me to put shit right. But some of it’s permanent, like an injury go change your life. I don’t like that shit.”

Another push and two legs splashed in the bowl.

The Dinka Tribe of South Sudan, man: gratuitous self-harm, harm inflicted by elders on those too young to think it anything other than normal. But I’m paid to not have an opinion. Most Dinka boys and girls? They don’t cry when the local sorcerer takes a red-hot knife to their dark faces. If they wince or cry or react to the pain, they will lose face in the community, so it’s best to sit through the process in peace. Facial scarification in tribesmen give identity to the tribe, and beauty to its women. Man.”

A squelch, and another arm.

When it came to the children, that shit wrestled with my conscience. I won’t impose my will upon no child, but I have to respect cultures which do, see? Was my respect for the parents’ culture greater than the welfare of the child? I have to conclude that I is doing my job. The ‘No children’ thing was exclusive anyway. I don’t like that discrimination: children get raped too. I see so much shit, others just close they eyes.

The Kayan Giraffe women in Northern Thailand? They wear brass rings around their necks, make them look all long. But that’s an illusion: more coils is added? The weight of them necklaces presses down, and that clavicle shit is lowered. With each additional ring it falls further, compressing the rib cage as well. The shoulders eventually fall away to get that long neck shit going on.

They’ve been known to wear up to twenty five coils. And it ain’t true their necks break if them rings removed. No, I know because I removed twenty rings from this one girl? She looked like one of them extraterrestrials.

They give them kids their first coils aged around five. The first set weighs around two kilos, then they add new rings. Cruelty for vanity’s sake, maybe, but that alien girl was beautiful.

How is any of this shit any worse than cutting open a woman’s chest and putting silicone bags in her titties? Or cutting off someone’s nose and re-modelling it with putty?”

The head was next, no first scream of breath. It looked at Sioux, and a shrunken version of herself looked back. She saw nothing of the father.

Just this last bit,” Xi said. It was a boy. In some parts of the world, a second or female child is unwanted.

We all done with that first part. You know what? You ain’t cried, you ain’t spoke, you ain’t done nothing.” Xi wiped up and laid a newspaper over the silver dish. “They do births, marriages and deaths. I do hatches, matches, dispatches and snatches. I ain’t doin’ no damage which can’t be undone. The only Ska I do is the music. Take these and come with me. They’s pills, and run.”

Xi locked up the shop. The two ladies were singing as they left: “My night shift sisters / With your nightly visitor / A new vocation in life / My love with a knife…”

Sioux and Xi walked, and diesel fumes signalled a London taxi.

Where to guv?”

Wherever it’s happening.”

Sioux blinked at the bright city lights speeding past. On the radio, The Fugees.

Ready or not, here I come.”

blood film strip

© Steve Laker, 2018

This was the sound of silence.

Buy me a coffee one off

The evolution of sentient plastic

FICTION

This story features in this week’s Schlock Webzine, where I share a stable with some talented and unstable writers. A small tale (1000 words) of Tiny Tears from fossil fuels…

Blonde doll

HOMO POLYMER

A surprise in every egg. Yes, Kinder, there’s a selection of small plastic choke hazards in each toy, but the plastic egg which holds them can be a handy cunt plug. Keep this warm in there for me baby.”

Mummy, who are you talking to? I need a wee.”

Ocean opened the bathroom door and a bolt of blonde hair dashed past her legs. “Who were you talking to?” Conscience asked again, enthroned on her Peppa Pig toilet seat.

No-one,” Ocean replied, “Well, just myself.”

But you’re not no-one mum.”

Thanks. Now, come on, back to bed.”

But you’re not no-one mum, so who were you talking to?”

Honestly, Conscience, just myself. I do that a lot.”

Will you read me a story, please?”

We don’t have any, Conscience.”

But we all do, in our heads. Tell me one of your stories of being Ocean, mummy.”

Well, there was this one time. I was about your age. I had a dolly. Hated it. Your nanno and grampo wanted me to be a girl. Well, they both wanted me to be girly, but grampo had wanted a boy, so I had to be a really girly girl.

It’s funny now I think about it, because he’d probably have liked the boy inside me more.

And apparently you’re asleep. In any case, I think I made the perfect mix in the only one I kept. You’re you, and even so young, you have a personality which transcends gender. If I can be proud of one thing in my life, it’s you. So, whoever’s still listening, even if it’s in a dream I hope you won’t inherit…

They lived in different times. In those days, the only costume you could wear to play yourself was a uniform, and I hated everything that stood for. I resented my school uniform, but I used the skirt I despised to score one over on the system. I lost my virginity at 12, then got my English teacher sacked when he broke up with me at 14.

There could have been loads of kids before you, but any one of them might have meant I never met you. I only had you because I remembered who your dad was. You remind me a lot of him. He could be a cunt sometimes too.

We were broke. Still was an artist and an eco-activist. We lived in communes in fields, usually just tents near protest sites, but sometimes on local traveller camps. I knew what it was all about but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was 15 then and the nearest I’ll ever get to true romance, that summer of love which made you. A brief history of anarchy, peace and freedom.

So here were are, five years later kid. I wonder if you’ll want what’s inside this Kinder egg, or if I should throw it away like the rest. See you in the morning. Don’t dream of this.”

Dreams are made of plastic. Unpaid cards become CCJs, then bailiffs emerge from eggs. Everything in the flat is made from plastic. All that we eat, drink and wash with is bound by plastic.

The council don’t recycle all plastics, so I put what I’m unsure about in the general waste. If the council won’t take the rubbish, we can pay Bill to take it away in his van. One day, he might take me.

The plastic in me will probably be recycled into the non-conscious parts of robots for those entitled to them. Or as parts of a toy, so many child’s dolls. Either way, I’ll be enslaved in the plastic which gives lives to those implanted in the chips and to those around them. Eventually those body parts, inanimate but for the host brain, will need upgrading. Always disposable people, eventually the parts which don’t work will be returned to the food chain.

Food, drink, we’re all part-plastic. We are the polymer population. We dream of becoming one with technology, our minds inside plastic androids. In Japan they already have home robots to deal with loneliness and social isolation in an ageing population. I Can’t help think how that would benefit me. They’re already a species in their own right, made from the same cosmic matter as us, but theirs was an explosive evolution.

Christmas will be paid for with hidden plastic. Christmas will bring more plastic toys to unwrap. We are the consumer generations, products of the industrial and technological ages. Each generation contains more plastic than the last, every child a greater part of the plastic population conditioned by human greed. I don’t know if I can afford another baby doll. Mum always said she wasn’t sure if I could have a brother or sister.

We’re all made of the same stuff. Last night, another mother; tomorrow, another soldier.

Ambulance, is the patient breathing?”

It’s my mum?”

What’s happened?”

My mum’s cut herself.”

Where?”

In the bathroom.”

No, where on your mummy has she cut herself?”

Her cunt. She’s cut a baby out of herself.”

Is the baby breathing?”

How would it? It’s made of plastic. Do you have a chip I can put in it to make it work?”

Is mummy still there?”

No, mummy’s gone. She’s left me my Christmas present. I’ve got a dolly I have to look after. Bye.”

© Steve Laker, 2019

97: Paracetamol and Chips

POETRY

SWEET AND SOUR

Hong Kong Suicide

Kintsukuroi (Japan): More beautiful for having been broken (and repaired with gold).

#SelfHarm #BodyDysmorphia #DomesticAbuse #Anorexia #EatingDisorder #PersonalityDisorder #HongKong #Suicide

Unsuitable for washing machines

FICTION

A product of spontaneous freestyle writing, prompted by a business card on the notice board next to my desk; This story (2500 words) wouldn’t fit on the back of the card, so I put five sheets of A4 paper into the typewriter.

maracatalan05Mara Catalan

THE TRAVELLING TAILOR

Rumple Suits is an outfit surrounded by mystery and unverified stories. A suit by Rumple Bros. is understated, its fine workmanship lost in a crowd, but on closer inspection, a quality of tailoring beyond any from Savile Row, but they don’t have premises. A Rumple suit tells a story as unique as that which it carries in its wearer.

So proclaimed a sponsored feature in this month’s Mobius Literate, an independent publication for purveyors of surreal horror, sci-fi and fantasy. I was reading it on the train home from London Victoria as we passed through Brixton, disappointed that a story I’d submitted hadn’t been included.

I don’t employ test readers, so my new stories are hot from the typewriter. I don’t tend to bother editors, any more than I can be bothered to follow guidelines, preferring to write freestyle and hope I’m asked for my stories. I’m too impatient to wait for publication after acceptance, so I self-publish most of my work and let the reader be judge. Mobius Literate work differently, preferring to scout, hunters of writers and trappers of readers.

There are no acceptance or rejection letters from Mobius, no next-issue previews either. Until a new edition is printed, writers don’t know if they’ve made it in, and readers are clueless on what to expect. The magazine has a captive audience, and a supply chain of fiction from the undead army of authors self-publishing all over the internet.

It’s a cheap publication, usually four sheets of A3 in black and white, folded and stitched to make a 16-page fanzine. The production values are pulp fiction, but the writing quality as unique as a Rumple Bros. suit. The editors are curators of the kind of fiction you wouldn’t find anywhere else. The kind you wouldn’t expect to find anywhere, because only Mobius knew where to look.

Walking home from Catford station, I cut through Mountsfield Park, but I didn’t make Tesco Metro despite the shortcut. I picked up Chinese from Jumbo Harbour instead, glad I did, simply because of my local take-away’s splendid name. On the final walk up my road, I thought of all those cargo starships, docked at the space dock, Jumbo Harbour itself a retail and entertainment complex the size of a small city on 14 levels, just hanging in space.

I threw Mobius Literate on my desk next to the typewriter, took a shower while my prawns and noodles steamed, then watched some New Tales of the Unexpected on Netflix, looking like a tiny Judo novice in my white bathrobe.

I was full after what most people would consider a snack, so I put my uneaten Chinese in the fridge for the next day. My timing was fortuitous, because that’s when my doorbell rang.

Good evening,” said a man at the door, “I’m sorry to trouble you at this hour.” He was smartly-dressed in a three-piece suit – dark grey – and a pastel pink shirt with a shocking pink tie, perfectly knotted and drawing my eyes up to his, which were brown and framed by pink spectacles. He was holding a briefcase. I asked him to come in, in a moment which I felt would precede a polite enquiry of “May I come in?” My doormat had never been wiped with cherry red brogues before. “Should I take these of?” he asked. It seemed impolite to insist on wasting time.

Please,” I said, “come in.”

May I take a seat?”

Of course. Can I get you anything?”

A Gin and tonic, if you have one.” I had. “And a phone number.”

A phone number?”

Yes, I don’t use the internet. I need a number for Paul Jennings. He’s a writer. I gather you’re an agent.”

I am,” I replied, “I’m Paul’s agent. In fact, Paul Jennings is one of my pen names.”

Well, that makes things simpler. I suppose I don’t need the number any more. I must admit, I thought you’d be taller. Anyway, can I ask you about Paul?”

May I ask,” I asked, “who’s asking?”

My apologies,” said the man, “of course you may. Like you, I’m an agent. May I take some measurements?”

Of what?”

Of you, sir.”

What for?”

Measurements of yourself sir, your dimensions and your vital statistics if you like. So we know what to put you in. You strike me as one suited to natural materials.”

Materials? What are you building? Are you one of those undertaker prank characters I’ve read about?”

This is not a prank sir. I represent a bespoke tailoring company, who can help you tell any story you’d like to be yours. I’m here to make you a suit, sir.”

Why?”

Because you look like you need one. And because you’re small. My agency needs smaller models for our new range.”

What, boys? Okay, so how much will this suit cost? How long will it take to make? Do I get to choose the fabrics and colours?”

You are already the fabric and the tones, Paul. But yes, the choice is yours. It costs nothing and I can make it for you tonight. Suit you sir?”

What else was I going to do at midnight, than get measured up for a bespoke tailored suit in my own home. Especially when I had an in-house tailor for just one night?

I chose an outfit of natural colours: a grey-green jacket over a matching open-necked checked shirt; dark grey pants with green socks and brown brogues; and green-rimmed spectacles. As promised, the tailor ran the whole thing up while I watched.

In his briefcase, he had a portable production facility, a factory in microcosm. The case opened out like a make-up case or a tool box, to reveal tools and materials on tiered shelves, like a theatre audience. Other sections folded out from the floor of the case, which concealed a tiny sewing machine and a loom.

Cotton reels unfolded like comets and silver blades cut through the air, as the tailor’s hands worked like humming birds under a lamp in his case. Then like a piano virtuoso, he cracked his knuckles. “Et, voici.” Here you go. He handed my new clothes to me in a neatly folded pile. They were soft, as though fresh from the laundry, but they were new.

The material,” the tailor said, “is the same as my own suit. Here, feel.”

Velvet would have been the first approximation I made, but more delicate, more flimsy, like silk. It felt like new moleskin, barely covering a notebook.

Please,” the tailor said, “try on your new clothes.”

I made myself scarce in the kitchen and got changed. As soon as I put the clothes on, I felt like I wasn’t wearing them, or I’d been wearing the outfit all my life, like a well-trodden pair of shoes which fit on the ends of your legs like feet. My new clothes were comfortable in a way I knew meant they’d only been made for me. I felt at home, yet I could go anywahere.

Sleep in it,” the tailor said. “You’ll wear it in, it’ll adapt better to your shape, and you won’t even know you’re wearing clothes. Besides, this outfit is too rare and valuable to leave laying around.”

Actually I felt so comfortable, so held together within my outfit, that I’d have worn it to bed anyway. Any remaining doubts about sleeping in my day clothes were banished when I noticed my initials monogrammed on the breast of the shirt: P.J. Pyjamas.

The new wardrobe cost me nothing, except posing for a photograph and signing a form. The agent placed a business card in my breast pocket and my heart jumped. I was a little excited he was leaving, looking forward to getting to know myself.

After the tailor had gone, I looked at myself, a Bonsai tree on reflection: lots of growth at the head, stumped by restrictions in the roots planted in a pot, I’d make a good addition to any arty bookshelf.

I loved my suit. It fitted only me, it was made for me. As unique as the story within, it was the cover which bound my life. I’d have to buy another sometime, as this one would need laundering, but for now I really wanted to sleep in my new clothes. I took the shoes and socks of, but otherwise I was in P.J’s peejays.

Sleep often eludes me, as my mind is so full of thoughts and ideas for fiction. But sometimes I’ll take a dream to sleep with me, then in the morning feel like I’ve not slept at all. I remember being awake, then I’ll recall whatever surreal images my dreams paint.

Most people aren’t aware of the precise moment they fall asleep, only remembering their dreams some of the time. I transport to a world of lucidity, where dreams are real and I can interact with them, waking up as I step out of another world.

On the night I slept in my new suit, that place became bigger, as my new outfit gave me the confidence to explore further. I was completely relaxed, feeling protected by the clothes I hardly felt I was wearing, as they became part of me. My suit enclosed me, and I was an astronaut protected by a gravity field, a new life protected in the womb.

The next day, the clothes still smelled fresh, but I’d take a shower like usual. Before I got undressed, I took the tailor’s card from my pocket. Although he hadn’t verbally introduced himself, I knew his name was Fred Nurk. He worked for Rumple Bros. Tailors. Although I mentioned them in the preamble, this was the first time I’d seen the name. I Googled and found all that stuff about them not having any premises, being exclusive and the rest.

I started to take off the jacket but it was stuck. The collar was sticking to the shirt underneath. I tried taking my arms out first, but the jacket lapels were stuck too. I tugged at the sleeves, but they just pulled at my shirt.

I thought I’d try the top two layers at once, so I started unbuttoning the shirt, but the button wouldn’t pass through the hole. I pulled the shirt collar open at the neck, but it tugged at my skin. I tried lifting the shirt and jacket over my head like a pullover, but the shirt just stretched my skin underneath.

I tried the button on the trousers but it was stuck, tried pushing the trousers down but they snagged on my hips. Pushing harder just pulled at my skin. I tugged at the ankles, but felt a sharp pull on my leg hairs, where the tops of my socks would be. I seemed to have reached an impasse, wherein I’d been eaten by my clothes.

I called the number on Fred Nurk’s card and got a recorded message:

Thank you for calling Rumple Brothers. If you would like to become an agent, please press one. For all other enquiries, please hold.”

While listening to regular reminders to continue holding, I flipped Nurk’s card over and saw it was printed on the back:

NOT SUITABLE FOR MACHINE WASHING. DO NOT DRY CLEAN.

In some moment of desperate logic, I had an idea and hung up the phone.

I needed to wash myself, and my clothes would need cleaning at some point. I took a tepid shower, still in my clothes, just like being in heavy rainfall. If I could loosen the glue, or whatever it was in the material which stuck the clothes to my body, then I’d put some old clothes on while I dried my new outfit.

I only close my eyes for the first 30 seconds or so in the shower, just time to rinse my face and hair. Clearing my eyes and looking down, I noticed the colour was starting to run in my jacket. I brushed myself down and the pigment from the cloth stained the water a dark green colour. The water was bleaching my suit.

My new clothes were now skin-coloured.

I felt around the neck of the shirt, down to a crease where it met my skin. My cuffs, waist and ankles were the same. I was one with my suit. I was wearing a skin suit, not like that made by a serial killer from the flesh of other people, my clothes were flaps of my own skin. I no longer had arms, but sleeves of flesh, lapels instead of nipples and trousers of skin covering anything which might have been a functioning anus.

I phoned Nurk again.

This is Fred?”

Ah, Mr Nurk?”

Hey, Paul Jennings, how’s it going?”

Er, okay. It’s about the suit.”

What about it?”

All the colour came out.”

Did you get caught in the rain? Did you take a shower in it?”

I can’t get it off. It’s like I’m sewn into it, but there’s no stitches to unpick.”

Did the skin you were born in have stitches, or a zip?”

Er…”

Exactly, no.”

But I look like a plucked chicken left on the shelf too long. I’ve got flaps of loose skin all over me. I’ve got fucking wings!”

Well,” Nurk said, “wear baggy clothes for now if you want to go out. I did explain that our bespoke tailoring was unique, and now you can see why I can’t offer a replacement. There’s surgery of course, or a quicker solution might be a course of tattoos to give you a complete new body suit.

Anyway, good news. You remember I said we needed models for our smaller sizes? Well, you’re in this month’s Mobius Literate. They’re running a feature on body modification, and another using models who don’t fit the usual stereotype, you know, fat people, thin people, amputees, that sort of thing. Well, we got the centrefold sponsored content ad and you’re in there. I’ll send you a copy.”

And there I was, in the hallowed pages of Mobius. In a sponsored feature, modelling my bespoke suit, as naked as the day I was born.

© Steve Laker, 2019

I’m not sure where I’d pitch some twisted surreal retelling of The Emperor’s New Clothes, but I feel better getting the analogies and parallels out there for people to think about. Like all my stories, I hope this one carries more than one meaning or comment, and I hope it stands up to repeated reading.