When your best friend is fictional

THE WRITER’S LIFE

While I remain in the government’s social cleansing machine, now in my sixth month of battling to win back my personal independence (a ‘benefit’ which some might call a human right), I’m not normally expecting anyone to visit me unexpectedly, so I was surprised when my doorbell rang earlier. Then I remembered I’d replaced the batteries.

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Whoever was there (it could have been anyone, given I was expecting no-one), I was always going to be surprised when I opened the door, but I hadn’t imagined I’d be as surprised as I was to see who it was, which was surprising in itself, seeing as I’m a writer who’s meant to be able to see these things. But I write best when everyone else is asleep.

It was Doctor Hannah Jones, a character I created originally for Cyrus Song, and who’s appeared in various short stories, where she’s met Simon Fry many times. He’s been over before (first when he suggested we meet, when we had Pi, then when we made flans), but I’d never met her, until now. She was just as I’d imagined (I wrote her): attractive, smart, and disarming.

Hi,” she said. “What happened to your face?”

Hello Hannah,” I replied, “nice to see you too. What about it?”

Well, I’m used to seeing you in character. Now I can see what’s beneath the words.” Which was odd, as I was at pains to explain.

That’s odd,” I replied, “because I knew what you looked like before you ever started talking, but when you did, the way you looked changed.”

Well, you wrote me.” Which was true, but Hannah had actually written herself, which I could never really explain. She sat at my desk. “Why did you ask me round?”

She’d brought her own drink, which was handy. And Hannah swigs from the bottle, because she’s a thug. So we drank, with her at the desk and me on the couch, like it was her office and I was her psychiatric patient (she’s a vet).

Tell me about your childhood,” Hannah said. “Could no-one else be bothered to come over?”

People visit,” I replied, “but I can’t really engage with them at any depth.”

And you find me deep?”

I thought I might see if I could do what you do, and write myself.”

But you’re you; why would you need me to do that?”

Because I don’t feel like I know myself lately, and I need a way to do that.”

And that’s me?”

I suppose it is.”

But who am I? Aren’t I a part of you?”

Only a small part. Each of us is partly everyone else we know. Not just because we’re all connected to the universe anyway, but none of us is truly ourselves. We’re all a montage of other people and their stories.”

But we each have our own lives and history, which surely makes us what we are?”

Yes, but what if there was no-one else around to know that? See? We’re all made of the people we know, including ourselves. Most of us are afraid of that if we’re honest.”

That’s deep, Simon.”

Steve.”

Oh yeah.”

I don’t get many visitors, and little conversation. I can talk to myself and to my blog, but I find it easier if I’m talking to a person, even if I don’t have anyone to do that with. And I can be more open like this, writing fiction which isn’t really that, but real life told as such.”

Is that you ducking the issues?”

Far from it. I spend too much time wrapped up in myself and getting confused. This is my way of clearing my mind, getting things off my chest, confronting myself.”

So you don’t really need me.”

I need someone to talk to.”

You need someone to write for. This is an outlet for you, a means to write.”

It’s my coping mechanism. Even when I do see real people, I can’t open up. They’d have to have immense patience, I wouldn’t get everything out, I’d feel I’d burdened them, and I’d be in their debt.”

So you invited me round to be a captive audience.”

I wasn’t even sure you’d turn up.”

Is that why you’ve not cooked tonight?”

Yeah, I normally do that when I’m on my own.”

But you’re not.”

Other than you, I am.”

But when you’re here talking with me, you feel like a writer?”

Yes, because I’m writing this.”

This is quite surreal.”

I’m a surrealist.”

Do I have free will?”

Of course you do. Even though I wrote you. In fact, I wrote you with more freedom than I’ve ever known.”

I need to eat, so you’d better get some food in. But never forget, I don’t really exist.”

Doctor Jones decided to hang around for a while to help me, but she’d sleep on the couch.

Maybe I can keep writing, despite outer influences intent on stopping me. Only if I let them. To be continued (again).

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Doctor Hannah Jones first appeared in Two Little Things, the short story which spawned Cyrus Song. She’s also cropped up in various related prequel (A Story Tied by Strawberry String), sequel (Quantum Entanglement in Hamsters) and sideline stories (The Invention of the Pencil Case).

The saddling doubt of salmon

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I find it difficult to be open about my anxiety and depression, to speak and express myself freely (outside of fiction), because like many others, I find it confusing and contradictory. Mental illness is a cocktail as unique as the vessel which carries it, so I don’t expect people to understand me when I misunderstand and contradict myself.

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The saying goes that a problem shared is a problem halved, but I believe it’s the saddling of an unsolicited burden, like much of my fiction. The salmon of doubt, the smell of fish…

When a real-life friend recently posted a festive mental health message on Facebook, I was grateful but confused. Thankful that someone had posted something I wouldn’t, but unsure of how to respond. I’m not one to follow instructions, least of all when a copy-and-paste request is so generic in such a complex field. So I’ve copied and pasted it here:

Anxiety sucks. Being isolated and believing your friends don’t care sucks even more.

How many of you have had a night out planned, or arranged coffee or a beer with friends and suddenly the 4 walls you inhabit seem the only safe haven because it’s the only place you don’t have to pretend you are ok, so you cancel?

Or when you are invited out you tell them how terribly sorry you are but you’re already booked up that weekend, when you are actually just really busy holding it together in your safe box. And so the first problem starts, all by itself.

People stop asking you and the isolation that at first wasn’t true becomes your only truth.

Please don’t give up on your friends. Ring them, go round, even when they don’t want you to. Because they really do they just don’t know how to say it.

And in work every passing comment is a negative, you constantly do more to get over the feeling you’re not good enough. The exhaustion from not sleeping because you panic all night over what you cannot influence means you make mistakes, you live in a fog and it is a vicious circle.

I’m going to make a bet, without being pessimistic, that out of my Facebook friends that less than 5 will take the time to put this on their wall to help raise awareness of and for those who have mental health difficulties. You just have to copy it from my wall and paste it to yours.

Who will be my 5 … I wonder?

Yeah, damn straight. But I wasn’t one of any arbitrary number, because although I’m everything in that post, I’m also more. And who am I to post on my own timeline when it’s parts of me which are buried in there? Why ask people to check their other friends are okay while overlooking me? No point sending them on a guilt trip they wouldn’t otherwise have known, and I know what those are like when I live every day with many. Little point in burdening them. But I did reply:

Asking us to copy and paste about mental health seems very well-meaning, but the trouble is, not many of us with anxiety will actually copy and paste, for fear of being ignored, but at the same time not wanting to attract attention we can’t escape. I know I won’t, and neither will I post it as a stand-alone, for the same reasons. That’s anxiety, and depression, and paranoia: socially crippling. Thanks for sharing what I can’t explain though…

My friend then posted his thread, and my reply, on my timeline. Again it was of the best intentions, a plea to my friends whom I’m loath to trouble, especially when some still don’t understand addiction, and can find no sympathy for someone who – as far as they’re concerned – put themselves where they are. It was sharing problems which I didn’t fully understand in myself. That more public post by proxy would have been more like a plea for help, which I know no-one can provide, because there’s no cure. It’s not one I would make on behalf of myself.

Hello Hi How are you

This quieter way of sharing is where I’m more comfortable, just telling a few friends, who for some reason come here to see what I’ve written. I prefer the semi-secret society of blogging, keeping it on a need-to-know basis, while still wearing the heart tattooed on my left hand. Anything more public would fill me with an inner anxiety that everyone might run away, or become obsessed about how many may respond. Based on previous best intentions, those who do are rarely ‘always there for you’ when you need them.

Friends have offered to come over in the past, even take me out somewhere quiet. I was grateful, then backed out as the date approached, but not kicking unwanted attention away any more than I’m happy in my own company. Both are uncomfortable, and I don’t want to subject anyone else. It doesn’t make sense, does it? Others let me down after promising to come over, and in a way it was a relief, because it’s one less person to try to explain to, what I don’t understand.

That shared post might have looked like I was asking for help, but afraid to do so directly, so I’d appointed a spokesperson to speak about what I couldn’t. And I didn’t want those who still judge to think I was asking for financial help, nor anyone for somewhere to go at Christmas, because if I couldn’t be with my family (kids or parents), I wanted to be alone, watch Jimmy Stewart and eat cheese. I deleted the post, just as Christmas was cancelled for me anyway. This too shall pass.

I’m making the same point here as I did by not sharing on Facebook: I want to talk about it; I can’t talk about it. I have a smaller, less judgemental audience here, who won’t patronise me, say they’ll come over sometime, or always be there. At least I know they’re more likely to listen with their eyes.

If I had a live audience, I could talk for hours about how depression, anxiety, paranoia and all the rest affect me, because it’s such a mix I’m always trying to make sense of by speaking to myself: Sorry you can’t get through, and neither can I. But I’ll get back to you, probably in fiction. There I can find my inner confidence and contradict myself about being too shy to talk about it, so I close down and resist the exposure everywhere else.

I can write, and maybe one day unpack what’s inside my head, this post, and that last sentence, about why I fear to be out while placing myself in full view. It’s partly because I have to edit the weight of the burden, leaving myself with all the untold narrative in my head. When memories are forgotten, they become stories. But some stories can’t be written, because they’re still practising to become memories.

So many molehills in my mind, and from the outside that’s all they are. But I walk like Hannibal on eggshells, around a tower of giraffes (because it’s a better collective noun than a herd of elephants) in a mountainous range with many volcanoes. One day, all of this will make sense.

Not doing it wrong cows

A Golgafrinchan ark for fascists

THE WRITER’S LIFE

At time of writing my O2 phone is out, like millions of others (and Tesco Mobile, GiffGaff, Sky, London Transport bus indicators…). It’s a global issue, originating with Ericsson. I can’t help wondering if this might be the beginning of the mass denial of service I predicted, where the UK or other nations’ IT and communications infrastructure is held to ransom by anonymous agents. If I’m right, expect to see a demand to government soon. I can live in hope. We live in times where the poor get poorer and the rich grow richer. And we’re a species on the brink of extinction. It’s part of the fascist plan.

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I’ve just finished leafing through the assessor’s report from my PIP claim, highlighting points which I disagree with. This is the next stage which DWP insist applicants go through, their agenda to increase the time and inconvenience, thereby hoping that some give up (or kill themselves). This is so that they can give me a ‘mandatory reconsideration,’ which will undoubtedly end with another refusal. That’s when I can appeal at tribunal.

My amended and addended report is multi-coloured, both in highlighter pen and language. There’s little of the assessment I agree with, and for much of it the assessor seems to have been assessing someone other than me. Apparently I was well-presented and clean-shaven: No I wasn’t. I hadn’t shaved for four days. I allegedly maintained eye contact at all times: No I didn’t. I spent most of the time looking out of the window behind me. I’ve even noted the size of the murder outside: seven crows.

These assessors, employed by a private company which the government outsources to, like so many other public services, are ‘medically qualified’. The thing with medicine is that it has many fields, so I questioned whether a physiotherapist was the best qualified to assess my mental illness, when a psychologist or other appropriate professional might do a better job. Someone able to see inside my head might have better recognised my needs and not put me through this unnecessary process, which is heightening my depression and anxiety, and making me really quite ill. But that’s the job of the social cleansing apparatus.

PIP and others are called ‘benefits,’ which suggests the claimant should be grateful for receiving the bare minimum of money needed to survive. I see shelter and food as human rights, and I remember ‘social security’ which was the old name for benefits, where money was given to the poor, needy and sick, paid out of taxes collected by government from those in work and better off. It’s the foundation of social democracy, but that’s not something a fascist capitalist ruling political party would recognise.

I need my ‘benefit’ back, to be given the benefit of cynicism, so that I can regain the independence and freedom I’ve been robbed of: The financial ability to visit my parents and my children, and the viability to live.

I’m being made more unwell by the process, ironically making me more likely to be awarded PIP again if I was reassessed now (by someone better qualified than a physiotherapist). When I think of the cold, lonely, miserable Christmas I’ll have, I at least know my kids will be okay. This isn’t the case for many others, and it’s a fact that suicides rise over the festive period. This, of course, is all part of the fascists’ plan.

Back to that other denial of service, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some revolution soon, over Christmas and the new year. It’s impossible not to be involved in politics with the Tories attempting to tear up a country. I like to hope that people are more in touch socially, and aware of Christmas excess, that we can agree to differ on certain things, take our country back, then all sit down for a nice cup of tea (or coffee). Then there’s the rest of the planet and the threat of human extinction to deal with. Perhaps even this phone network outage could make people appreciate how they take something for granted until it’s taken away.

I’m an atheist, but I believe the bible may contain historic records of real events, told using the tools and language of the scribes of the time (if only biblical scholars had smartphones). If we’re to believe what the bible says, the beast will have many heads, like the rise of far-right leaders around the world. The Antichrist will come as a false prophet (it doesn’t say what colour in the bible, but orange seems likely), then Armageddon and exodus. Something, someone, could rescue us from this nightmare before Christmas, before it kills me and many others.

Perhaps a new star might appear in the night sky. Maybe an extraterrestrial craft, a common focus for all of humanity. Or friends of the Illuminati who’ve already booked their seats out of here, leaving the rest of us to it (the Golgafrinchan Ark Fleet Ship B springs to mind).

As for those of us left behind, all we need to do is keep talking.

While we still have time on Earth, there’s a perfectly plausible answer to our predicament in Cyrus Song (402pp paperback or eBook: same story, just different covers), perhaps as a Christmas gift and to help me live.

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A Christmas stuffed by fascists

THE WRITER’S LIFE

These last couple of weeks, I’ve been trapped in the worst depressive episode I care to remember. The human memory is selective about these things, so I can’t be sure if it’s the worst ever, but it’s a contender. This Christmas will certainly be one of the worst.

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I’ve never been a big fan of Christmas, ever since it stopped being fun when I was a kid and I had to start buying presents. Like a wedding, it’s a day when the pressure is on everyone to have a good time, and where most of that responsibility falls to the host. In reality, everyone’s glad when it’s over.

Christmas was fun again for a while as I watched my own kids open presents, then gaze in awe at some new piece of plastic. Then I had my alcoholic breakdown and Christmas 2013 was spent on the streets. The following year I remained estranged from my family, so I went to a church do for the homeless.

I rejoined my parents for Christmas 2015, when the black cat was cautiously welcomed back into the family home, and when I’d been homeless for two years before finding the rooms above the pub. It was like any other Christmas, where everyone was obliged to have a nice time, and with the responsibility for that falling to my mum, while everyone walked on eggshells around the elephant in the room (me).

My sister stayed away that year and I’ve not seen her since mum’s act of courage when she threw me out of the last chance saloon. My sister blames me for the upset it caused our parents, and rightly, except it brought them much closer together. As far as I’m aware, my sister blames me for my dad’s Parkinson’s. He says it’s nice to have me around, that it’s good for him to have some different company to engage his mind. Mum drew a line in the sand a long time ago now, placing the past where it belongs. But my sister can’t find it in herself.

So for the last couple of years I’ve spent Christmas home alone. I get together with my parents at various times in the year, when the pressures of the festive season aren’t upon us. I was hoping to return for a family Christmas this year though. Now that mum has her hands full with looking after dad, I thought it might be nice for my parents to have Christmas dinner cooked for them. Where I’d go without many Christmases past, this might have been the last when dad remembered who I was.

But that Christmas was cancelled, by DWP stripping me of my independence payment. I simply can’t afford one, even with just myself to cater for, and I’m borrowing money just to buy my kids’ presents. With no Christmas dinner, no cheese board, no chocolates or mince pies, and probably no heating, knowing my kids are okay will be a small consolation on the day. The silver lining is I won’t be contributing to the annual excess of human waste, further suffocating our planet.

Christmas will be lonely torture, but the faceless bureaucrats who inflict this suffering in the name of a social cleansing agenda won’t be losing any sleep. They don’t understand what it is to be human, because they’ve had humanity conditioned out of them, so that they can do the will of fascist dictators. They have no feelings or emotions. It’s like dealing with Vogons.

I’ve asked DWP for a mandatory reconsideration and they’ve sent me a 32 page report telling me why I’m not eligible for my money. I have to go through this, highlight and add comments to indicate what I don’t agree with (most of it: It’s as though they’ve sent someone else’s report. Actually, they may have done that deliberately, to further the suffering). Then it goes back to be reassessed, undoubtedly refused again, then I’ll have to go to tribunal. Again. And hopefully win, again.

I’m sick, sick of this pointless process. I’m mentally ill anyway (chronic depression and anxiety, which is why I got PIP for the last four years), sick of this country and its abuse of human rights, and made more unwell by a system designed to kill people.

I know how they’ve made me feel, and what it makes me think. But I won’t give them the satisfaction. Like Christmas, I’ll just be glad when this is all over. If the electric meter permits, perhaps I’ll escape with Jimmy Stewart and a reminder of a Wonderful Life which went before. I need someone, something, to get me out of here. I need an escape.

In any case, I need to write to live. I need to sell stories or hope for donations from readers grateful of my free fiction. £2.99 buys an eBook of Cyrus Song (the price of a coffee, which I’m always grateful for via the ‘Buy me a coffee’ donate button). I wouldn’t want the Department for Work and Pensions to think I got help from socialist propaganda, as it would defeat their self-purpose.

Christmas Donations

I’ll have plenty of time to write over Christmas (probably by candle light, while wearing fingerless gloves), and as a sci-fi writer, I can see a world unfolding around us which was prophesied. The Bible says that The Beast will have many heads (look at the rise of the right and the installation of fascist leaders around the world); The Antichrist will appear as a false prophet (see Trump); then there’ll be war (just look around).

Perhaps a new star will rise in the east, an extraterrestrial craft to unite our attention to a greater intelligence. Or maybe the aliens will kill the fascists.

Scroll down for free fiction…

Crosswords and headwinds

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Among my sideline interests, I compile cryptic crosswords. Some of my favourite past clues for flavour:

1. Powered flight? (9)
2. GESG (9, 4)
3. DIM (5, 8)
4. (4,3,3,1,4)

The answers are in this meandering post…

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Today is nine weeks since I had my PIP assessment, and still I’ve had nothing in writing. I eventually got to speak to someone at DWP last week, only to be told that my application was still being processed. At least I haven’t been forgotten. Still I’m on a statutory benefit, sans a payment which permitted me some independence with my special needs. One of the freedoms taken from me is the ability to visit my parents, where PIP used to cover the train fares.

Dad says it’s good to have me around, and I know that contact with others can help with dementia and other degenerative conditions (he has Parkinson’s). So if I’m denied my independence, the system has already made me much more unwell, and quite possibly my dad too. If I’m declined, I’ll be unable to spend Christmas with family (and it could always be the last for my parents or me), no gifts for my kids, and unable to see my dad while he still remembers who I am.

I borrowed money to make the monthly visit to see the kids yesterday, but without my PIP payment, those trips may have to be reduced in frequency. A life is not a singular thing and there are people denied (or spared) my company. Despite winter approaching, I’m eating less and heating less.

The day with the children was very much as usual: lunch and interesting conversation, then shopping and further debate on matters of the world, of nature, medicine and science. We question things, and yesterday I wondered how the Romans did maths, if they only had Roman numerals. An interesting aside too, as we noted that as well as having alliterative names, my eldest is taller than me (not difficult) and therefore the longest Laker; the youngest is just a little shorter than my mum, and the littlest Laker for now.

It was a day punctuated by escalators. The first was one I’d ridden hundreds of times before, and its brothers and sisters around the London Underground estate, possibly millions. And yet, after more than 30 years of working, living and just being in London, something occurred to me for the very first time: ‘Dogs must be carried’. I don’t have a dog. It’s a terrible sentence, implying that carrying a dog is compulsory for riding the moving stairs, and it will haunt this pedant for the rest of my days and every time I see it.

Back at Euston later, ‘Stand on the right’ is the first on the list of London Underground’s levitation instructions, and invariably some people don’t. I tend to walk down and float up, but I was anxious of time and chose to walk up the left of the escalator, to be greeted by a backside, talking to her friend on the right. “Excuse me,” I said, perhaps impatiently with someone too ignorant and arrogant to read signs. “How rude,” I was told.

I apologised for having excused myself so that I could travel freely and not hinder the transit of those behind me, but apparently that was rude and I should be more patient. I passed this down the line behind me, asked if she’d rather have my blood, and told her to get over herself, which elicited a tut. Finally I pointed to the signs at regular intervals on the way up: “Stand on the right,” I read aloud, and added “like fascists”. I was tired of walking by now, so I stood on the right of the escalator, in front of my verbal assailant. As I rose to ground level, I let one go silently and shared the scrambled eggs I’d had for breakfast.

I can only hope that more than nine weeks of stressing and growing more anxious by the day is enough for the dehumanising machine, that nine weeks is considered sufficient suffering, and now I can be returned to an independent life with sufficient funds to live it. If not, if I’m found undeserving for some reason (even though I’ve been on PIP for the last four years), that’s a pretty sick trick to play on someone. Those days out with my kids are about all I have now, and that may be denied by the Tory government’s social cleansing machine.

Life has changed over the last few months, ever since this benefit reapplication process started. Even if I am forced through the tribunal process again, knowing where I stand would be better than where I am at the moment. Right now I have not got a clue what the answers are.

Did you find them all?