Blowing smoke from a seashell

FICTION

With so much to engage me – both real and fictional – I find myself in a place I once wrote. The socially anxious writer doesn’t get out much, so has little to write about other than what’s in the mind. In recovery from the most recent attacks of a bi-polar life which is a reminder of its own frailty, I’m very much exploring the expanses of experience further.

Of all the places I’ve created, both for myself and for others to go, Echo Beach will be the one I return to most frequently. Because on the shore of the secret cove, are the beginnings of infinite other lives.

I’ve been compared to authors I idolise in each genre I write, but among many influences in the multiple areas which make up writing, the one I aspire to as an author is Paul Auster. The greatest compliment paid to me was by a reader who compared me to him in person.

The story which follows was partly influenced by Smoke, a film by Paul Auster. The reference is subtle, and will only be obvious to those who’ve seen the film. I’m not one to hide such things, so (spoiler alert): It’s in the flicking of the ash, and the smoking of words. My story is a tribute to my mentor.

While I’m working on some new short stories (from flash fiction to long reads) for a third anthology, I’m finishing replenishing the shelves in my brain’s library of social affairs and politics.

For a day or so, I sit in my deckchair, surveying the horizon to the sound of my own voice, from a seashell…

Alien snailPinterest

ECHO BEACH

It was the only sea shell which didn’t contain the ocean. When held to the ear, it was silent.

Every shell, on a beach or miles inland, carries a recording: The last sound, to be played back innumerable times if anyone listened. But one shell contained nothing when he held it to his ear. A vacuum. It fitted perfectly into his hand. The size of an adult thumb, his fingers clasped the shell tightly as he walked along the beach.

He shooed some gulls from a discarded bag of chips and sat down to eat with his invisible partner. The birds strutted around, like impatient waiters keen to get home. The chips tasted of the sea: salt. If the ocean had contained none, he would gladly have drained it.

The water played tricks, as though enticing him to drink it: Small and gentle waves merely caressed the beach, like spilled pints of beer in a desert. The water was brown and the moonlight sparkled on frosty suds on the surface: A cola float. A plastic bottle was pushed temptingly towards him, but it was empty; not even a note inside.

The boy looked out over the sea. There were no lighthouses; no ships in the night. Just the spectral light of the sun reflected from the moon. It was silent. It was still. It was beautiful.

Clouds moved slowly across the sky, like the last sheep returning home after a storm. They cast shadows on the shore as they passed in front of the moon and were lit up like candyfloss. Then a figure walked from the shadows: A man, wearing a tall hat and a long coat, silhouetted against the moon, his shadow stretching up the beach to cover the boy’s feet.

The man scooped the plastic bottle up and turned to the boy: “Hello son.” The boy said nothing. He didn’t even look at the man. He just stared at the beach. The man spoke again: “Hello.”

Hi. I’m not your son.” The boy still looked straight ahead.

Of course you’re not. I’m so sorry”, said the man. “I’m not your father.” The man sat down and placed the bottle beside him. “What would you prefer?” The boy just stared at the man’s boots: Black pixie boots, with probably two inch heels. “Perhaps you don’t understand. Maybe you only know certain words.” The man stood. “I’ll write some down for you, here in the sand:

Friend.

Brother.

Human?”

I like that one.” The boy pointed. “Human”.

Do you have a name?”

Yes.”

What’s your name?”

I don’t know.”

You don’t know your own name?”

I lost it.”

Do you have parents?”, said the man, sitting back down.

I think so.” For the first time, the boy looked up. “They were out there.” He pointed to the sea.

There are many things out there,” said the man. “That’s where I used to live.”

On a boat?”

No, beneath the waves. So much quieter.”

But how?”

In a kind of submarine.”

Where do you live now?”

I don’t.”

You’re homeless?”

Not really. I’ve made a place. Wanna see? Get a drink, have a smoke?”

Is it far?”

About five minutes away.” The man stood again. “If you don’t trust me, then you should thank your parents. I’m a stranger. Your parents aren’t here. If you like, I can just go and I’ll bring you back fresh water. You can wait here. But I have a story to tell you. If you don’t hear it, then you’ve lost nothing.

You never know what’s gonna happen next. And the moment you think you do, that’s the moment you don’t know anything. This is what we call a paradox. Are you with me?”

Who are you?”

My name is Talus: Theodore Anthony Nikolai Talus. You can call me Theo.” The man looked at the sand. “I’ll call you Hugh.”

Why?”

It’s short for human.”

Hugh stood up. Theo offered his hand and the boy held onto his thumb: it was bony and gnarled; twisted and covered in callouses. As they walked, it became clear in the moonlight that the beach was a cove: Sand bordered by ocean and overhanging cliffs. Hugh felt safe, as though physical contact confirmed Theo to be real. He looked up at this man from the sea, the man who’d emerged from the shadows. As though sensing his gaze, Theo looked down. “How old are you, Hugh?”

Nine.”

Haha!” Theo stopped and grinned. Everything was quiet and a wave broke on the shore. “Hahaha! Sorry. I just had a thought.” Two more waves broke.

What?”

I just said to you, back there, do you want to come back for a smoke? And you’re nine!? I’ve just got this phrase in my head: ‘Act your age and not your shoe size.’” Theo looked down at his feet.

I just need a drink.”

Of course. Sorry. Not far now. About twenty Mississippis or elephants, I’d say.”

What?”

Seconds. A Mississippi is a second and so is an elephant. In fact, as one Elephant drank from the Mississippi, another one saw it. It walked over to join its friend and then there were two elephants. Others saw them and soon there were twenty elephants, drinking from the Mississippi. And here we are.”

Theo lead Hugh into a cave at the foot of the rock face. A wave broke on the beach; a Mississippi and an elephant; then they were at a small wooden door, marked ‘No. 7 ⅞’.

No-one ever comes here. This cove is permanently cut off by the tide.” Theo opened the door and gestured Hugh inside.

What does the sign on the door mean?”

Nothing really. That’s just what was printed on one of the pallets I made the door from. Quite a few wooden pallets wash up on the beach. I just tell myself that this is life number seven and that I’m seven eighths of the way through it. Anyway, come in young Hugh man.”

Inside was like the interior of a wooden cabin, complete with an open fire in one wall. The walls and ceiling were lined with lengths of wood from pallets, and sections of wooden boxes. More boxes and pallets had been made into shelves which lined the walls and every shelf was full of items apparently washed up and collected from the beach: Bottles, tins and cans; sea shells, mermaid’s purses and petrified starfish; driftwood, fragments of metal and plastic.

Could I get a drink now?” Hugh asked.

Of course. Sorry. Wait here. I’ll just be a moment.”

Theo walked through a second wooden door at the back of the cabin and Hugh heard water being poured.

Dried seaweed hung over the shelves and there were two oil drums on either side: Both were filled with carrier bags and plastic drinks collars. The oil drums were marked, “IN” and “OUT” in white paint. Theo returned and handed Hugh the plastic bottle.

That’s what I do some of the time,” Theo said, pointing at the drums. “Break the ties of the plastic things, imagining they’re the necks of the bastards who threw them away.” Hugh just nodded his head as he gulped from the bottle. “Sorry if that’s a bit warm. Nowhere to plug a fridge in, even if I wanted one.”

It’s okay. It’s water; no salt.”

Take a seat.” Theo motioned towards the wall opposite the shelves. A couch had been fashioned from packing crates and fishing net. To one side was an up-turned fruit box with a set of scales and sea shells on top, and on the arm of the sofa was a book. Assuming this to be Theo’s spot, Hugh sat at the opposite end.

Theo stoked the fire with his boot and pulled some dried seaweed from the shelves. He screwed the seaweed up in his hand and sat next to Hugh.

Smoke?”

No thanks.”

Mind if I do?”

No. It’s your home.”

Mi Casa, su casa.” Theo tore a page from the book on the table and used it to roll a cigarette with the dried seaweed. “Let me show you something.”

What are you gonna show me?”

I’ll show you how much smoke weighs. Watch.” Theo pulled the table towards him and pointed to the scales. “These are liberty scales. On the one side here, we have a crucible; a bowl. I’ll put this cigarette on there, like so.

Here on the other side, we have a flat plate. It’s empty, so it’s up in the air. Now I need to balance the weight to the cigarette.

See these shells here? Lots of shells; Lots of shapes, sizes and densities: Many different weights. The bigger ones, they look like shells, but the others? You’d be forgiven for thinking that some of them were just large grains of sand. But if you look really closely, they’re tiny shells. Think how many of those might be out there on the beach and no-one would know. And all of them were once somebody’s home.

So, by adding shells of different sizes…

With trial and error…

The scales should…

Should

Take some off, and the scales should

Balance. There you go.” Theo sat back and pointed at the scales. “So, there you have my cigarette, perfectly balanced. Do you have a light?”

Er, no. You have a fire though?”

Of course. Excuse me.” Theo picked up the cigarette. The plate of shells dropped but none fell off. Theo lit the cigarette from the open fire and cupped his hand under it as he returned to the sofa. As he sat down, he tipped a few flecks of ash into the bowl of the scales. The scales moved just a fraction, as though caught in a gentle breeze. Were it not for that brief movement, the plate of shells may as well have stayed at their lowest point. The scales had tipped, barely discernibly.

The smoke from Theo’s cigarette transported Hugh: The burning seaweed conjured images of a roadside Chinese food market; Of flames doused with salt water. A burning street washed away by a tsunami.

With every draw on the cigarette, Theo carefully tipped the ash into the crucible and the shells rose, fractions of a millimetre at a time. When Theo had finished the cigarette, he supported the crucible from underneath and stubbed out the butt in the bowl. He slowly moved his hands away and the shells rose to balance the scales.

You see? Almost nothing. That’s how much the smoke weighs. The same as the words on that page: Almost weightless as they just sat there in the book, but now free. Out there.”

That’s quite philosophical.”

A lot of the words in the book were. But I’ve been trapped here in this cove for long enough now that it’s time to let them go.

That book was a journal when it was washed up on the shore. It can’t have been in the sea for long because it was still holding together, but the pages were just one pulpy lump. I could tell it’d been written in because the edges of the pages were streaked with blue ink. I hoped I might be able to read those words; someone’s diary or manuscript; someone lost at sea.

So I hung it out to dry. Every couple of hours, I’d go out there and gently manipulate the pages, hoping they’d all become separated and that there were some words left; something to read, something to do. But when it had all dried out, it was nothing but blank pages.

It was quite beautiful actually. Where the ink had run and dried out in different ways, some pages looked like sheets of marble; Others were like blueberry ripple ice cream. Pencils wash up on the beach all the time.”

Theo stood and walked to the shelves. He pointed to a box. “Lots of pencils. My favourites are the Staedtler Noris range: the black and yellow ones.” He picked some more seaweed from above the fire. “My preferred pencil is the Staedtler Noris 120: That’s an HB, or grade 2 in America.” Theo walked back to the sofa. “Even better than that though is the 122: The HB pencil with an eraser on the end. All wooden pencils float, of course; but it’s like the 122 has a little life preserver to help it to shore.” He sat down next to Hugh. “That pencil needs to be written with. And there are so many stories in a single pencil.” Theo tore another page from the journal and rolled a cigarette. “Can I get you anything, Hugh man? Another drink? I could probably rustle up something to eat if you like.”

No, I’m okay. Can I use the bathroom?”

Mi casa, su casa. It’s right out there.” Theo put the cigarette in his mouth and nodded to the front door. Hugh didn’t move. “What, you expect me to be all en suite?”, Theo continued. “All that’s out back is a store room: Go check for yourself. I’m here on my own, the cove is a cove and the cave is cut off. So, just do what you need to do out there.”

On the beach?”

Would you go to the toilet on your own front lawn?”

I don’t have one.”

Neither do I. So, do what you have to do out there, near the water. I normally go right where the waves break but I don’t want you getting washed away or anything dramatic like that. Nature will clear up behind you. There’s plenty of seaweed out there if you need to wipe but bring it in here and throw it on the fire when you’re done. I don’t want to smoke it.”

I only need a pee.”

Oh.”

As Hugh stood in the moonlight, he could appreciate why so much from the ocean was washed up in front of Theo’s cave. With the tide only about twenty feet from the front door, it swept debris along the curved edges of the cliffs stretching out to sea in an arc on either side. He could already see some of the next day’s haul: Plastic bags to go in the oil drums; Wood and paper to be dried and burned; Empty bottles and drinks cans to be used as storage or perhaps to make a sculpture; Dead fish to cook and eat; seashells and other things for the cabinet of curiosities.

Inside, Theo sat on the sofa with the cigarette still in his mouth, unlit. “I don’t suppose you found a light?”

No. Even if I had, we’d need to dry it out anyway. May I?” Hugh took the cigarette from Theo’s mouth. He lit it from the open fire and took a drag before handing it back.

Thanks.” Theo took a draw on the cigarette as Hugh sat back down. “You sure you won’t have one? I won’t tell.”

There’s no-one to tell.” Hugh slid down on the sofa and gripped a wooden box between his feet. He manoeuvred it closer, then rested his legs on it. “Su casa, mi casa.”

Mi vida.

So, I started to write things down. First with a 122, then later I switched to a 120.

Of course, the writer always has freedom with a pencil. The eraser gave me more freedom. I was writer and editor. Maybe I wrote that 122 down to a stub: I don’t recall individual pencils.

In any case, I decided that the 120 would permit me yet more freedom. Even though it lacks the eraser and although I could still rub out the words if I really needed to, the fact that I couldn’t allowed me to write more freely. The editing was out of my hands.

I filled that book with memories: mine and those of others.

And when I say I filled the book, I mean, it was full. Towards the end, my writing was so small that you’d need a very good pair of eyes, a magnifying glass or strong glasses to read it. The odd pair of glasses wash up on the beach every now and then but it’s usually just the frames. So I could look sophisticated perhaps but someone would only have to poke at my eyes to see that I was a fraud.

Once the last page was filled, I started again; in the margins and at the top and bottom of each page.

Every day, I’d hope for a new delivery of writing paper. Lots of paper gets washed up but it’s all newspapers and magazines.

Newspapers just disintegrate: They’re the lowest grade of pulp paper and revert quickly. Magazines are so heavily polished and covered in pictures that they don’t wash. I needed a certain kind of paper. I needed another notebook.

But nothing got delivered. And that’s when I started smoking.”

So the book with all your notes in…”

Stories. Many stories. And there were many more left in the pencils but I had nowhere to write. So I smoked it.”

Can you remember any of the stories?”

All of them. I lived them.”

There are as many pictures in words as there are words in pictures. A good story is only one tenth in the words. If the writer chooses the words well enough, the other nine tenths doesn’t need to be written because it’s already there, in the words: It’s the images which the writer conjures; the dreams; the dark matter which makes up most of the universe. Every story ever written has a part of the writer within it, whether it be the author inhabiting a character or a story on the fringe of experience.

Will you tell me one of the stories?”

A bedtime story, at your age?”

Something to connect me to the sea.”

How about a story with no ending, until you fall asleep?

It is a story with no ending, because the ending may never and will never be told nor heard. It concerns a man who has outlived his children, his grandchildren, and who will outlive every generation which will come after him.

Ever since he was a boy, he was curious. So much so that his curiosity got him into trouble when he started to find answers. But his curiosity was eventually rewarded. He was given the means to find out anything he liked. But it was a poisoned chalice; a curse. There was a condition: He may not speak of his discoveries.

This is just the beginning of that story. In fact, this is merely a summary of the first chapter; A synopsis.

A synopsis tells the whole story on one page: Just a few well-chosen words which contain many more words and images within themselves; The stars visible in the sky: Cosmic pinpricks in the dark matter.

The boy lived in the ocean, in a city deep beneath the waves. His parents told him everything they knew about the world around them. The more stories they told him, the more inquisitive he got.

He was fascinated by the surface. Everyone said that there was nothing above the surface. In fact, even talking about it was forbidden. Travelling there was impossible. But the boy was convinced that beyond the surface, there was something else. And beyond that, something further still. He wanted to build a tower to the surface, to break through and be witness to what was above.

The surface wasn’t the only taboo. Speculation about anything outside of generally held beliefs was frowned upon. Imagination was effectively illegal. But there were rebels: Those who would meet in secret to defy the thought police.

The boy joined a fringe society: They called themselves The Biblical Dead. They broke the rules, discussed and even wrote about things which only existed in imagination.

The Biblical Dead would meet in a den outside the city. They’d smuggle in words they’d written and read their stories to each other. The Biblical Dead had a members’ code: What is said to the dead, what is heard by the dead and who is seen with the dead, remains with the dead.”

Hugh was asleep, so Theo rolled a cigarette and stood outside on the beach, surrounded by the cove.

And you must not hear the end of the story, young Hugh. The curious boy was unable to contain his ambitions and he betrayed The Biblical Dead, simply by referring to them in a story he wrote and which he lost. The society found out about this and he was banished.

If he wished to tell stories, then he must do so only to himself. But he must have stories to tell. And so the legend has it that the curious boy was sentenced: To live every life which has ever been lived and all which will come. He must learn for eternity, as every human and every animal which ever roamed the earth and every creature that still will.

But he must never speak of it.

You never know what’s gonna happen next. And the moment you think you do, that’s the moment you don’t know anything.”

***

Hugh lived alone in his new home for many years. Every day, he would continue Theo’s work, collecting things from the beach. The fire was kept burning by a regular supply of wood and he collected many curiosities for the shelves: Shells, mermaid’s purses, tins, boxes and bottles. None of the bottles contained messages.

He quickly learned how Theo had made fresh water with a simple desalination plant: a saucepan of salt water, boiled and the steam collected in a funnel overhead. As the steam condensed, it rolled down the inside of the funnel and collected in a tray underneath the saucepan.

Most nights, Hugh would cook dead fish washed up in the cove. Occasionally, an expired crab would make a gourmet treat. There was a plentiful supply of seaweed, to boil, fry or smoke.

The supply of pencils was maintained by the tide but the paper was newsprint and magazines; only good for the fire. There was never another notebook: Just the remaining pages of Theo’s, with writing so small that Hugh couldn’t read it and so he smoked the pages just as Theo had.

If Hugh had had the means to write, there were two things which he’d like to have made special note of: an unbroken jam jar and a shell which scuttled across the cove one day as he was beach combing.

The intact jar, placed to his eye, would make an ideal magnifier. He picked up the walking shell and studied the homeowner inside: A hermit crab, perhaps looking for a new home.

Hugh took the jar into his shack. He placed shells inside which were larger than the crab’s then arranged them in a line on the beach. He went back inside and read the last pages of Theo’s book through his new magnifier.

The next morning, he checked the shells he’d laid outside. As he suspected, one had disappeared and a smaller one lay in its place.

Hugh picked up the discarded shell: It fitted in his palm like a gnarled thumb. He placed it to his ear and it made no sound.

© Steve Laker, 2017

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

Like a wave from a subway train

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There won’t be anyone to stop you if you’ve truly made up your mind, but no matter how bad it is, and how little people might seem to care, every lost life affects others. You’ll only be aware of the splash you make, not the ripples you create.”

Vincent SchiavelliVincent Schiavelli (‘Subway ghost’ in ‘Ghost’) at WarpedFactor.com

I was thinking about that last paragraph from my previous post, and recently watched an excellent documentary on BBC4, called The Secret Life of Waves. It dealt not only with sound and light waves, but poetically and philosophically with the waves on the ocean as metaphors for individual lives.

The programme posited the thought: Is the world around us static or dynamic? We as humans – as sentient, self-determining, conscious beings – are fluid within the world we occupy, but even that which we consider permanent is also in transit. It made my own life make sense, when it’s been so transient and turbulent.

Buildings are static, but they come and go, with fashion, with gentrification; abandoned, squatted, reclaimed, demolished; they are eroded by the waves of life. The building materials came from the Earth, inflicting upon it another scar of humanity, like every person passing through each place they lived, all leaving a mark.

Now I sit and write, very much aware of my place. I feel my own weight bearing down on my buttocks in the chair, and it’s gravity. It’s the world, pushing up beneath me as it travels through space at 50,000 miles an hour with me attached.

The planet is moving not just in space, but within. Mountains and landscapes form and grow, like mineral waves, titanic and slow. Ice caps melt, glaciers carve new canyons and continents shift, geologically. Up above, the geopolitical world is a surreal kaleidoscope of shifting sands and oil. All of these things are waves which have a beginning and an end, and we’re watching various speeds of transit.

We can blow the surface of still water and it will ripple. We can jump from a bridge, land with a splash and make bigger waves. We speak and we create sound waves, and simply by being, wavelengths of visible light allow us to be seen.

It’s a fundamental law of the universe that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, so all of those actions – conscious and not – are transfers of energy, from one form to another; potential energy within us creates kinetic energy in the waves we make. Eventually those waves break, like the ocean on the shore, moving and eroding the surface of the Earth as the energy is converted again and returned from whence it came.

And so it is with life. When a life ends, all the energy it contained is dispersed, like the breaking of a wave. Some of that force lives on, in ways we don’t yet understand when we leave our physical, organic bodies. And part of an individual’s energy will become the grief (or celebration) of others. We live on, beyond here, but there’s no place where life is a singularity. That was at the beginning, before the Big Bang, where all the energy in the universe came from. It’s still here and it always will be, because the force can’t be destroyed.

Back on Earth, it’s easier to ride the waves of life than creating the kind which might drown others. We all have a powerful weapon within us, an energy which could destroy our loved ones. It’s a big burden sometimes, but it would be selfish to unleash that on those less able to deal with it.

best-gary-zukav-quote-by-gary-zukav-1856173Gary Zukav

Don’t get carried along by the waves made by others, when you could otherwise channel their energy differently. Be careful who you surf with, and always wear sunscreen.

A short circuit of Deep Thought

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Like a shit sandwich in the post, and like death, a computer crash is one of my life’s expectations. The postman delivered, my computer had a fit, but the world didn’t end and I didn’t die. I had to do some finding of the self though, in the worlds I’ve created.

Kasparov Deep ThoughtKasparov – Deep Thought. Game in one gate, Geek Magazine

I lost a few work-in-progress short stories but I still have the ideas, so I can start them again. I’d also written a fairly definitive post on how the world might end or not, as well as theorising some more on life, the universe and everything. It’s not lost as it’s still in my head, much as it was in Arthur Dent’s at the end of the original Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The world’s current predicament is complex, with many actors and possibilities. In an age where the daily news is sometimes like watching a surreal cartoon, where disinformation and misinformation have devalued (or destroyed) democracy, it’s easiest to just cut through everything that’s unpredictable and variable leading up to to an outcome and just think of the latter: the ultimate goals, or how the film ends (spoiler alert).

I’ve written before of how humankind needs a common focus. In the absence of a previously-undetected alien invasion to unite warring factions against a common foe, the world and its population needs a unifying cause. The planet we all share with those who were here before (the animals) might be a good starting point. Given our stunted evolution, this is the only planet we have.

We’re essentially witnessing the beginning of World War 3, and it’s a technological war between left and right. If we’re ever to evolve as a species beyond our technological age and into an exploratory era, we need to sort ourselves out. The main problem on Earth is that as it stands, there isn’t enough room for everyone.

The right-wing solution is population reduction. We see it in the domestic and foreign policies of the US and UK, where social cleansing is sold as protectionist security. We’re lied to about threats, but a gullible population will believe what it’s told if it’s repeated enough.

The geopolitical stage is set for any number of conflicts which could escalate into global war, with 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons controlled by Trump and Putin, the former a neo-Hitler personified, looking to purify the planet’s population through extermination. Such short-term, blinkered vision, typical of fascists. At the moment, some kind of war seems as inevitable as my computer crash. Even if no-one presses a button, the unrest is palpable and in the UK at least, I foresee an uprising. Like much else, that’s another story for another time, now that I have the typewriter back.

There’s another way, but the time and co-operation it would need is probably beyond humanity as it stands, on the brink of war. The other way is for us to return much of the planet to the animals, to convert to vegetarianism, or eat lab-grown meat.

We use more land for our livestock and to grow food for them than we occupy ourselves. If we accept that we’re not entitled to eat someone who has to die to feed us, we’re out of arguments to eat meat (not that that one’s a good one). Meat grown in the lab is grown from stem cells, just like in a real animal. The only difference is it doesn’t come from an actual sentient, self-determining being. If that remains anyone’s reason to eat, they themselves ought to be eaten. It’s another story I can write now I’ve reclaimed the computer.

In yet another story, we free up all that land which imprisons populations destined for slaughter, nature reclaims it and there’s plenty of room for us all to live together.

There’s a third way, which involves the far right getting its own way by the introduction of a species test. Being sub-human, they all fail and are used as food for those who insist on eating meat.

We need to accept that we’re tenants on this planet and not owners, to lose our sense of entitlement. Then there’s the damage we’ve done and our moral responsibility to clean up after ourselves and repair our damage, whether or not we evolve to colonise other planets. If we do, I hope we treat them with more respect than we gave Earth.

Humankind (as it stands) is an infection, gradually doing its best to eradicate itself. The planet which supported us for so long will reclaim itself for all those who were here before. We can only hope the next ones to find Earth treat it with more respect, or that nature makes it a world which is toxic to humans. Universal karma.

I’d written all of that and more in one coherent article, then I lost it in the computer crash. I’ve written it all before and the various articles are all over this blog, but my unifying entry went missing. It’s all still in my head somewhere and I’ll try to remember it all, or find some white mice willing to remove my brain and replace it with something more simple.

While the computer was down, the post arrived and I put myself through the bi-annual dehumanising process of applying for PIP (a disability benefit). It’s now in the hands of the department of social cleansing, who will no doubt require me to attend a fitness-for-work (real work) assessment. Among other things, I’ll be asked if I can walk 200 yards. I can, but there’s no accounting for the silent assassin which is the panic attack always in tow. My invisible disability will then see me referred to tribunal, like twice before. My benefit claim will most likely be approved at that stage (like twice before), but not before the social machine has done its best to reduce the size of the population by one. I, Steve Laker…

I’m still here, even if I’m one who matters little in the greater plan. I’m socially anxious and excluded, but life’s about finding your own place in the one place you feel at home, even if you’re paranoid. For me, that’s in the world I created, even if the physical borders don’t extend beyond my studio. That’s where I create other universes.

Only by moving forward will you find true redemption, if not from your persecutors then in yourself. I understand the human condition, and that only really came about because I had an alcoholic breakdown. In the greater scheme of things, everything still worked out for the better, if I consider where else I might have been now.

This planet we all share is the supercomputer of Douglas Adams’ imagining: Deep thought, which replaced the original Earth, destroyed by the Vogons to make way for a hyperspace bypass in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’m just one part of that Earth 2.0 and my own Earth 3.0, with all the answers inside me, like all of us as parts of the grander scheme (the computer program). A computer works best if all the component parts work together.

All we need to do is keep talking, and we need to involve the animals in the conversation, as they’re part of the program too. We’re not far off realising a real-life Babel fish, once AI and quantum computing are let loose on the task.

Many animals with larger, more complex brains than ours, we dismiss, simply because they can’t talk. We don’t give them sufficient credit for having, for example, a sense of humour. I wrote a book about it. And I’ll write more books, in the hope that people read and see that there really are perfectly plausible answers to the questions of life, the universe and everything.

wopr_joshua_by_dragontamer75-d4qnf6v

There won’t be anyone to stop you if you’ve truly made up your mind, but no matter how bad it is, and how little people might seem to care, every lost life affects others. You’ll only be aware of the splash you make, not the ripples you create.”

I wrote that, while I was rolling like a stone.

Stockings with go-faster stripes

TRUE EVIDENCE OF LIFE

I’m still suffering writer’s block somewhat, not because I’m stuck for ideas but my head is full of them. On a personal front, in my real life, there are ongoing issues of my dad’s health, my son being a teenager, and family drama where I’m always the black scapegoat.

In my fictional worlds, I’m writing more short stories and a couple of books. None of which I can write about here because they’re works in progress. It’s like writerly constipation.

I hope other people read my stories and often I happen upon other people’s. There are only so many storytellers, but there are close to eight billion of us on this planet. None of us will ever hear every story, but while there are readers and sharers, stories live on. Like Paul Auster collecting true tales of American life, which can sometimes be indistinguishable from fiction.

Auster American Life

This one started with a question in my Quora list:

If you are visibly disfigured or disabled and a random three-year-old loudly asks their parent(s) about you, what would you prefer the response of the parent(s) to be?

It had already been answered by Cecelia Smith, from Dallas in Texas:

It happened today … a very lively and curious 3 year-old was running through Starbucks, making her sparkly neon shoes blink, and nearly landed in my lap because she overshot the spot where she planned to turn. As she backed away, she noticed that I don’t have feet … her eyes got wide and she spun around “Mommy!! This lady doesn’t have feet!”

Mommy was looking mortified but was balancing a baby in a carrier while trying to say “I’m so sorry” and get the child to come back to her … but the bright little spot of energy had already spun around to me again and was studying the bright knit socks I wore over the stumps.

Where did your feets go?” I told her I’d been in an accident.

Will you grow new ones?” Nope. They don’t grow back. But that’s ok, because I have the chair to let me get around.

How fast can your chair go?” … Which turned into a discussion of who was faster, me in my chair or her with her pretty, neon shoes that lit up when she moved!

We ended up having a “race” across the store .. and she WON! She was so excited, and showed me how her shoes sparkle when she dances too!

Then she suddenly stopped and got a seriously sad look on her face.

“You can’t dance can you?” I had to admit, no I can’t dance like she does. BUT if she holds my hand while she is dancing, then it is like we are dancing together.

So she grabbed my hand with a big smile and danced with me!

Everyone was just delighted watching her – because she was just delightful.

Mom still looked uncomfortable – she wasn’t sure how she, as the parent, should respond. When the dance ended, Mom came over to apologize – and I told her there is no offense in the honest innocence of a child. I had enjoyed our talk and our dance.

I was really glad Mom had another child to tend to, so that I had the opportunity to have such a positive interaction with the little girl. When a child notices me and my “invisible feet” … all too often the parents pull them away, and tell them they are being rude and teach them to avoid interacting with people like me. I understand the parents think they are being polite and teaching their children manners – but what they really are doing is teaching their kids to ignore the existence of disabled people. I’d much rather have them see me as just someone who is a little different.

I didn’t bother to answer the question myself. I’m not sure why it appeared on my answers (requests for) page. Despite social anxiety disfiguring me in the eyes of the blinkered, I’m not one who necessarily draws glances.

I could make it into a sci-fi tale: I could strap rockets on those feet, make it a meeting of races from different worlds experiencing music for the first time… I could do so much, but it stands alone as a story which touched me, in that small part of the heart which still hopes for humanity. Despite what has happened to our countries, the UK and USA will always have a special relationship among those of us who see it for what it is.

Some stories require no embellishment. But there are billions of fables, anecdotes and thoughts of whimsy in all of us, which would go untold if there weren’t writers. I once had nothing, but I found the written word. We can all tell stories.

Maybe this one accidentally ended up in my list of questions for a reason.

Pass the kutchie to the liberal left

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The Musical Youth song actually asked us to ‘Pass the kutchie on the left hand side.’ It was a cover of a song originally by The Mighty Diamonds, and quite why ‘Dutchie’ was substituted is anyone’s guess, as it means nothing, whereas ‘kutchie’ is a doobie, a spliff, a reefer.

Kutchie

Last night I was transported back to my own musical youth when I shared a Trans-Atlantic joint with a Canadian friend and we reminisced in ASCII. It’s all very well two people putting the world to rights, but others might be interested in what they said.

My friend is also a writer, whom I’ve never met in organic form but who’s a closer friend than others I know in real life. We’re comrades of a similar age and we got talking about matters of equality, and of how music can be a leveller in some hands and divisive in others. I put on some music and got into character, so we could talk about possible futures.

It started with a video I posted on Facebook about Skinheads. Specifically it focuses on the infiltration of the far right into the skinhead movement, and their adoption of a previously inclusive personal style as a racist one. There was resistance from the old school skins, and the true skinhead ethos remains today, but the look is still copied by fascists. Fascism is only skin deep, but music has roots, with mine in Jamaica where Reggae gave birth to Ska and all its offshoots. The skinhead connection is better covered in Don Lett’s film, The Story of Skinhead, but captured in social media attention-span by this short film:

In the early 80s I discovered Ska music through Two Tone records, and I joined a movement which was so much more than the music. Rude boys, rastas, skins and punks all wanted to change the world but were frustrated by the narrow media spectrum of the time.

Back then was an age of a confused nation thrown together by Thatcherism in ways no-one expected (history does repeat). Those were the days before mobile phones and the internet, and when a fourth TV channel was cause for national celebration (as it should be still in Channel 4, our alternative national broadcaster and anarchist of the airwaves). I look back on the 1980s with the fondness of a teenager who was there, but with the hindsight of one who was there just the same. I hope we’ll still hear music in the future.

Our 21st century connectivity should mean our voices are louder and greater in number, but – perhaps by media manipulation – I only see an overall rise of the right. Those of us on the left need to do more, say more and write more, if we’re to reclaim our planet for our one race. We can still be anarchists and activists, even if we don’t get out so much now, shoulder-mounted sound systems replaced by laptops as our main weapons. The true skins reclaimed their voice, and humans who believe in humanity as one united race can take back the conversation. History repeats again.

In my mid-teens I got into Bowie alongside Ska. I didn’t realise it at the time, but he was telling me that it’s okay to be yourself. Ska fashion was a uniform, just like mod, metal, skinhead, punk, reggae (the list goes on) but Bowie was about individualism. That was slightly unnerving as a hormonal boy in a same-sex school, but I realised it was perfectly okay to have a crush on some of your mates.

I wish I’d listened, rather than living my life in the way so many our age were conditioned: aspiring to a life in either an office or a factory (further education was a luxury beyond the means of my family, when I needed to get a job straight out of school), conforming.

Bowie’s connection with Brixton is as famous as either, and later in life I lived near Bromley, where he was born. They say you don’t have to be born in a place to be from there: it’s where you feel at home. After working for five years in Bermondsey, I lived in Catford (in the borough of Lewisham) for more than a decade, and that cultural mix of London lives in my heart. It’s all those old social movements together, making human music which carries my soul back there, to my life of conformity but in a microcosm of what life as one race is like, where colour and status are irrelevant and anyone can find home.

At the end of my working life (aged 42, appropriately enough), I was running companies and swimming in a private pool, when I had my alcoholic breakdown and woke up to real life. I’d never go through it again by choice, but that time on the streets was what changed me for the better. Then I had time to think about things outside the life box I’d made by conditioning, so I decided to climb out and write about it.

Now I’m a pot-smoking lesbian transvestite, a bisexual, asexual anarchist, atheist, alcoholic, bi-polar, manic depressive writer, scraping a living but loving the life which freedom of the spirit gives you. I was born a Man of Kent, but I was made in Catford. It sounds so much better than ‘Managing Director’ of anything other than one’s own life as a conscious, self-determining being, connected to the universal web through quantum entanglement.

I once fell to earth and asked, “Spare a pound?” and members of the public would mainly walk on by. Now as a sci-fi writer, the first question I’d ask a passing extraterrestrial would be, “Do you have music?”

The soundtrack of a cracked actor, it’s all about roots and Two Tone. Within those, stoned science fiction writers can see human salvation.

A tale of future biblical scribes

FICTIONAL REALISM

I maintain that the bible could be a record of actual events, recorded by the scholars of the time using the language and tools available to them. I’ve suggested that if ancient scribes had access to mobile phones, we’d have far more convincing evidence. I don’t know yet what of.

orangutan_cameraDear Stephen Hawking…”

As one who also believes that “God” could have been an extraterrestrial visitor with advanced technology which we might not even recognise now, I see references to magic mirrors and fire-breathing dragons in the bible, and wonder if they might have been tablet computers and spacecraft.

This came in to The Unfinished Literary Agency earlier (a fictional place of my creation, which exists to tell the stories of others who can’t), as a text file with an attachment I couldn’t open at first. Some books, chapters and verses of the bible are very short (‘Jesus wept’), perhaps because the author didn’t have much time to write…

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO TUAN

[1] Then there came a dragon, orange like the sun. [2] The Sun God was angry [3] and the beast he sent was angry. [4] The dragon had the neck of a giraffe, wearing a giant knight’s armour [5] the body of a rhinoceros [6] and the head of a hammerhead shark. [7] The sun dragon snapped trees in half and fed on them. [8] The tree people feared for their homes. [9] Food for the sun dragon was home to the tree people.

[10] Tuan was brave. [11] And the bold one faced the dragon. [12] There were apes with the dragon. [13] They were pale, thin apes. [14] They covered themselves with elaborate loins. [15] There was writing on them. [16] It was in code and glyphs. [17] Tuan could understand them when they spake. [18] Some of the pale apes said they came to help. [19] One pale ape was sitting in the body of the sun dragon. [20] Tuan spoke.

[21] Tuan said, the dragon eats trees. [22] Tuan said, my family live in the trees. [23] Tuan said, the sun dragon took my family. [24] The pale apes didn’t understand.

[25] Tuan fought the dragon. [26] The dragon and the pale apes tricked him. [27] Tuan jumped to join his family [28] away from the jaws of the beast [29] into the disappearing green inferno below.

[30] The tree people wrote stories [31] on the trees. [32] Stories of their gods [33] eaten by another god.

If only there’d been someone there to record it.

I can’t begin to imagine the fear, but I’m humbled by his bravery. This is one of our closest relatives, made homeless by us. And this was filmed five years ago. Since then, forests the size of countries have been cleared, just to feed the selfish human gene.

Greed is murder, and while there are humans doing this, we all have blood on our hands as a species. Perhaps this is what happened to ancient humans once, way back in ancient history, when something they didn’t understand happened. It could happen again, and I have to say, if there are any superior species reading, humans deserve it.

For now, say no to palm oil. One inconvenience in the human food chain could lead to a greater awareness of what all that oil is for: cheap, processed human food, or food for livestock, reared exclusively for human consumption. The more I reduce my meat intake, the greater my awareness that each mouthful of flesh might as well be from an animal on the brink of extinction. It’s only one step removed.

It’s one of the many reasons I wrote Cyrus Song, a mainly vegetarian novel.

Indah“…You called?”

…Who knows, if you are looking for the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, you might just find it here, or in the ‘Cyrus Song’ of our planet. In the meantime, taking Steve Laker’s and Stephen Hawking’s advice, we all need ‘to keep talking’, and as long as there are books like these, keep reading.”

The full review is here.

Tuan is a name borrowed from a Bornean orang-utan at Chester Zoo, who operate orang-utan and other conservation projects in south east Asia. 

Physics makes the world go round

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Love makes the world go round,” someone said to me once. Which was funny, because I always thought it was physics which did that. But it’s true that love and laughter are the two most potent ingredients in the cocktail of the human spirit. For a minority, the world spins on money, which is unfortunate for the rest of humanity…

PicardEarthSpinHymn of the Big Wheel, Massive Attack

This post started on Saturday, when a young friend posted a quote meme on Facebook (a static image, posted as a video: why is that?): “Can a boy and a girl be best friends?” Aside from most of my closest friends being female (and many of them LGBTQ), I posted a comment:

If only humanity were evolved enough that we no longer needed to use gender-specific terms. Why can’t two people just be best friends? Because humans are fundamentally flawed, and the only problem with the human mind is that it’s conditioned by humanity. We need to start thinking differently.

Later that prompted me to comment on this video, posted by another acquaintance:

Frankly I found it disturbing (even without the ‘Get close to lovely women’ banner ad). It deals with a very real issue but one which is human-made, and which we ought to be able to transcend, like so many others we made. Instead, someone scared us and invented a weapon to sell to us.

We have the ability to leave or destroy the planet we share with those who were here first. Yet instead of realising the futility of conflict in a confined space, we continue to fight. Against whom? Opposing sexual identities, religious beliefs, skin colour… Differences.

We’re at war with ourselves, yet all members of one race: The Human Race.

And so commerce continues to profit from the barriers it erected, way back at the beginning of religion, driving apart the two main factors likely to oppose in a shared environment: Not faith vs. atheism, but male vs. female. But only if they’re stirred up. It’s terrorism by any other name.

Can you see why our world is broken?

Our sense of entitlement means there are always capitalists to mould our needs. The only thing we truly own is ourselves, and we can think bigger…

Matt Haig
From Reasons to Stay Alive, by Matt Haig

While I prefer Twitter to Facebook, the latter is always a dark window into the human condition and onto the state of the contemporary world around us.

The worlds I imagine – free of conflict and full of love and laughter – are idealised, but within reach. Physics makes the world go round and in an ideal world, that’s the physical, self-determining beings who live there together. We can all afford to be more human.