The psychopathy of typeface

FICTION

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

Helvetica Neue

HELVETICA NEUE HAUS

I’m a writer with mental health labels, writing about a writer with mental health labels: Kind of Hellraiser with Post-It Notes. I write stories too. In this one, I’m writing about a writer. The writer is writing about a writer. That is to say, the writer whom I’m writing about, is doing as I am.

The paper I’m writing this original manuscript on is from Smythson of Bond Street. My pen was a gift: hand-made by Waldmann Adámas from Titanium and Gun Metal. The ink is sticky and thick, like the tarred blood of a heavy smoker, stored in the barrel as many thoughts yet to take form. It flows through the pen, a symbiosis of ergonomics and aesthetics, as my words spill onto the page like so many injuries. The true art of the storyteller is breathing life into the words.

When I’m at my most prolific, I turn to my Royal Epoch typewriter: I can type much faster than I can write freehand. I like holding my syringe-like pen but I gain equal satisfaction from typing. Each depression of a key on a manual typewriter needs to be of a certain force: too gentle and the words are faint; whispered. Too hard and the ink will impress too deeply into the virginal paper. Just the right amount of pressure in the finger delivers an optimum amount of black ink. I had the hammer heads of the characters individually carved by a Monotype compositor of my acquaintance.

Once upon a time, stories weren’t written on computers and word processors, where they leave an indelible imprint, even if deleted. Long ago, there was the letterpress printing machine, or platen press. Individual characters of type were arranged in a frame, then ink applied and the words pressed into sheets of paper. It was the pre-press art which I found most fascinating: A compositor (like my acquaintance) produces the individual printed letters from hot metal on a Monotype machine. The operator uses a keyboard to enter the characters and the machine creates each as a metal block. My friend is not just typing the words which will tell a story, but creating the very letters themselves. Instead of putting ink on paper, he’s typing the mechanisms which will later do so: he’s writing a machine which will print.

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

Often I’ll type up my hand-written notes, and there are several motivators: something which I’ve hand-written whilst on the move or in haste will take on sufficient merit to be typed up as a manuscript for publication. Sometimes haste itself will dictate that the incessant presses of keys is a more efficient way to hasten my thoughts into reality. Typing is rough, violent and more invasive than handwriting. Occasionally, I just like to type and see my words in Helvetica. I can make anything appear in physical form in semi-permanence. That piece of completed writing then exists in only two places: my mind and printed onto the paper. I can destroy the paper at will. Sometimes I burn blank sheets of paper so that the words I planned for them may not be seen.

Besides the indelible nature of electronic words, I eschew computers for many reasons. Screen fonts have naturally had to be digitised: this is introducing an impurity, as well as leaving messy marks, like some typographical incestuous rape. It’s the same as comparing LPs and MP3s: the latter are digitised and lose much depth and nuance in the process. To the casual, uneducated listener, there’s no difference. But to the trained ear, listening on quality equipment, the two recordings are identical, yet worlds apart. There’s simply no substitute for the platen impression of type pressed forcefully into a sheet of paper and there is no place in my writing for digital typefaces or printing machines. I refuse to refer to digital printing vehicles as presses, simply because they aren’t; they don’t: they don’t physically press the type into the paper.

My manual typewriter is an instrument of beautiful torture. A metal skeleton, a mechanical device made productive automata through my fingers. It produces the flesh and blood which are my stories, in the purest font: Helvetica. The letterpress printing machine is the mechanical animal which spews out many copies.

The typeface itself is a thing of naked beauty. When each individual perfect character’s form can be joined with others to make words, the collective aesthetic is greater than the sum of the parts. My typewriter, as unique as the writer who uses it, creates stories more real than any written using anything else.

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

I do my best to make first draft and final copy the same. I don’t use correction fluid: it spoils the otherwise pristine, two-tone typed page with a smudge of grey, and an error on my part. Mistakes happen and when they do, I simply begin the page again and destroy the original. Given an infinite number of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys will eventually produce a faultless, complete works of Shakespeare. My compositor is not a monkey operating a machine: He’s a writer, like me. His is a highly skilled trade and he is one of only a very few remaining.

When this story is finished, it will leave me as the one and only copy which exists. I don’t use carbon paper, nor take photographs. Once the copy leaves me, I have no record of it. I can’t revise it: the manuscript I despatch is the final draft. For a while, the story doesn’t really exist: it’s sheets of paper in an envelope in a courier’s bag. That courier cares no more for what he or she is delivering than they do my motivation. Should they be involved in an incident and my parcel is displaced, then that is a story which will never be told.

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

For a brief period, two copies of my work exist in physical form: I have an ink-on-paper typed copy, which I can destroy at any time. The other copy exists as potential energy, written in metal, and can print an undefined number of copies of my story. As an entity, the work’s power has increased, because it now exists in both a physical and potential form which is much harder – if not impossible – to destroy. The work could well exist in two minds, if the Monotype operator absorbed the story as he wrote it.

With all that potential, a problem troubles the puritan mind. I trust the man at Smith & Young: he’s a good friend and respected in print. He can type almost as speedily on a Monotype setting machine as I can on a manual typewriter (A small piece of trivia for the buff: the Monotype keyboard doesn’t use the QWERTY layout). I trust my colleague to use my specified paper stock when printing the orders I send him but it’s those copies which cause me discomfort. I have no control over the format, media or device which a subsequent reader may see my work presented upon. If it were anything other than my specified stock and printed letterpress in Helvetica, then the reader would be seeing something which I’ve not given them the authority to view and which is not in the pure form it was intended.

This story isn’t finished. It needs an intermission and to that end, I shall excuse myself for an evening out.

The walk from London Bridge station into Bermondsey always evokes memories: through the tunnels under the station, where much of The Specials’ Ghost Town video was filmed, then a quick stop at The Woolpack on Bermondsey Street for a late morning gin and tonic.

Ink, paper and alcohol have always been uneasy bedfellows. Just as the meat porters of the old Smithfield market used to drink in The Hope pub at dawn, so did the writing communities around Fleet Street, Soho and Bermondsey, the print bloodlines of London.

I used to drink in The Hope some early mornings with a meat porter, appropriately called Red. His white overalls would be smeared in the blood of more than 100 pigs. The shades of red were like splattered timestamps, the darkest dating back to midnight. “I can chop a pig down and cut it up in five minutes,” he said, clutching a fresh copy of the Guardian against his belly. “Legs, shoulders, loins. All done proper like. It’s an art. Chopping a pig down’s an art.”

As Smithfield Market wound down after a night of dismemberment and meat trade, men in white coats breathed in the still, chilly air as the sun rose above Farringdon. Wholesalers – the ones with clean coats – emerged too, wheeling the last of their purchases towards refrigerated Transit vans, dodging a few early risers in suits on the sober march towards the City.

The blood would elicit gasps in any other part of town and some coats were grislier than others. “You get bloodier when you’re cutting up lambs,” explained Red, who had the bearing of a retired boxer. “Lambs you put on a block, and cut towards you. When you do pigs, they’re hanging up so you cut away from yourself.”

I saw a few familiar faces from the past at the Woolpack but couldn’t quite place them.

A few doors down, I popped in to see George in his eponymous barber’s shop. For some reason, in all the years I recall going to George’s, George has been the same age: early seventies. He’s probably over 100 by now.

George still does a military short back and sides. The haircut, a shave with a badger hair brush and a cut-throat razor, burning wax tapers flicked into my ears and a hot towel compress, are all complete within twenty minutes and George has me looking as I like to for important meetings. Like me, George doesn’t talk as he works, which suits us both. Time in his skilful hands is relaxing and contemplative, while he goes about his craft perfectly and to the exclusion of all external distractions. He’s a perfectionist, like me. He invests in fine tools, maintains them with love and employs them with precision. Over a drink at the Woolpack one night, George showed me exactly how sharp one of his cut-throat razors was, by requesting a whole tomato from the kitchen. George opened the razor and rested the blade on the tomato on the bar. Merely steadying the blade with one hand, he raised the handle with his other hand and the blade began to cut through the skin of the tomato under its own weight alone. George noted my fascination with the implement and allowed me to keep it that night.

As is custom, I declined something for the weekend, tipped George and bade him farewell. From there, I decamped briefly to M. Manze, just down the road. Manze’s is the oldest – and best, in my opinion – pie and mash shop in London.

Pie and mash is nineteenth century fast food: the somehow grumpy but friendly staff plate up one’s food in the manner of a borstal inmate high enough in the pecking order to be placed on kitchen duty, then one joins others and quickly eats, head down in a booth where the seats are made of wood and the tabletops are white marble. I eat pie, mash and liquor, with chili-infused sarsaparilla vinegar, staring down at the chequered floor and playing mind chess.

After that, a quick dash over Tower Bridge Road and down an alley through some housing blocks, to The Victoria in Page’s Walk. The Victoria was the Evening Standard pub of the year in 1972 and the green and white plaque still adorns the wall, alongside black and white photographs of the building. The rest of the pub is at it was then as well: a great little south east London drinking den, where many go only because they need to and others because they happened upon it.

Smith & Young in Crimscott Street was just around the corner from the pub, so my compositor joined me after he’d locked up for the weekend. We had an agreeable few hours, him unwinding with a few pints and me on Tanqueray gin and Indian tonic water.

Suitably lubricated, we agreed it might be time to eat (great minds think alike), so we made our way back by foot toward London Bridge Station, and to Charing Cross by rail, across Hungerford Bridge and from where we would eventually part company. It was no concern of mine where my companion had to travel to but the terminus afforded me a ten minute ride home, so it was convenient.

We walked the cobbles of Villiers Street and crossed embankment, clogged with weekend traffic; mainly coaches and black cabs taking workers home and bringing a different life into the West End. This part of London is roughly half way between the old writing districts of Fleet Street and Soho, the bohemian heart where Jeffrey Bernard once held court in The Coach and Horses, whilst being famously unwell.

The two of us boarded The Tattershall Castle, an old steam ferry moored permanently at Embankment. We chose to sit on deck and enjoy the view: dominated by the graceful London Eye and Art Deco wonder of Shell Centre on the south bank, and the brutal but beautiful Hungerford rail and foot bridges spanning old lady Thames; it was a conflicting postcard.

The steamer was built by William Gray & Co. in 1934 as a passenger ferry on the River Humber for the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). She plied a route between Corporation Pier in Kingston upon Hull and New Holland Pier Station, New Holland. During the Second World War she found service as a tether for barrage balloons and for troop transfer on the Humber estuary. After the war, with the nationalisation of the railways in 1948, she became part of British Rail’s Sealink service. In 1973, after long service as a passenger and goods ferry, she was retired from service and laid up. In 1976 the ship was towed to London. Repairs on the ship were deemed too costly and she was retired from service. The opening of the Humber Bridge made the ferry service, known to have existed since at least Roman times, redundant. PS Tattershall Castle was first opened on the Thames as a floating art gallery until her eventual disposal to a brewing company. Now it’s a floating bar and restaurant, where we ate.

The meal functioned as such, with no need for friends to engage in casual banter at the expense of the enjoyment of good food. We enjoyed a post-dinner hand-rolled cigarette in pleasant silence, leaning over the handrail of the deck. For my part, I reminisced about a fine and productive evening and looked forward to seeing my story in finished form. He said it looked good to him when he typeset it.

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

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

© Steve Laker, 2018

A nope rope around the neck

FAIRY TALE

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

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

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THE GIRL WITH THE SNAKE SCARF

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

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

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

For many reasons,” replied the bobbin.

Tell me three,” said the snake.

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

And the second?” the snake wondered.

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

You have one more,” the serpent reminded her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why have I only two left?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bobbin thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the problem now?”

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

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

But why would they believe me?”

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

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

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

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

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

© Steve Laker, 2018

This is the noise of the traffic

HORROR FICTION

Blood dripping

I wrote the first version of this story four 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)

CAUGHT IN A TRAFFIC JAM

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.”

phone-booth-london-night-1440x960UntoldMorsels

© Steve Laker, 2018

The mermaid in the bathroom

HORROR FICTION

Fiji Mermaid
A shrunken and dried-out mermaid (from “Fiji Mermaid” Photo © Russell Richards, from AmusingTheZillion blog)

MERMAID IN THE BATHROOM

Never tell a kid they’re being silly. My daughter told me this, adding that if I told her she was being silly, then it might be me who looked that way in the end. She was four at the time, and in a land which didn’t know tiredness.

My mum used to tell me I was “overtired” most weekends, when I was allowed to stay up later than on schooldays. I’d milk those extra couple of hours, hiding my yawns behind the hood of my dressing gown until I caught my second wind. When you’re gliding on that bonus bogus gust, you really don’t want to come down. But your wings aren’t your own; you’re someone else’s responsibility, and the strings aren’t those you use to puppeteer your parents, they’re kite strings. If only life were still so simple.

Back when the youngest was four, her older brother was seven, and they’d choose which story they’d like read to them before bed, usually the longest they could find on the contents page of an anthology. Eventually we ran out, so I started writing bedtime tales of my own, which gave me editorial control over the duration of any night’s literary theatre. Matinees were a different matter, because a story in the afternoon for one so young and adventurous would only be told when the explorer had been laid low by an injury, a cold or a pox.

The youngest used to call matinees ‘manatees’: sea cows, supposedly mistaken for mermaids by ancient mariners (probably high on rum). The little one was keen to point out the manatees’ accolade among the animal kingdom as the most spherical animal on earth (which they are).

Always hoping to be the harbinger of dreams, not nightmares, I’d write stories appropriate to the audience, but there’s no accounting for imagination, especially in a child with a wild mind.

After bedtime, my youngest one announced that she’d seen a manatee down the toilet and she couldn’t pee. Like any dismissive parent, I replied that she was just imagining it, if she needed a pee that badly, she’d go, I’d sort it out, and to go back to bed. She protested that the manatee needed rescuing.

When they get up and tell you there’s something troubling them, don’t dismiss them. That might be the only chance they’ve had that day to think about certain things, and if you’re the nearest person, they’re going to want to talk to you. However much it might sound like nonsense, there could be something in there (it’s like dream-interpretation without so much bullshit). Send them straight back to bed and whatever is on their mind will fester and mutate. Tell them they’re just being silly, and they’ll never confide in you again. There was a manatee in the toilet.

I remember teasing girls at primary school, telling them their reflection was a devil in the toilet water (I made one wet herself). I used to throw my sister’s things on the fire. I was fascinated by the flames and what they did, especially the way a doll’s face melted. I didn’t have an open fire like my parents, so I wondered if my eldest might have taken to flushing his sister’s toys down the lav.

I lifted the lid and only my own face looked back. I flushed myself away in any case, and we watched from an angle as nothing but bubbles came round the U-bend. “Someone’s breathing,” she said. I told her not to be silly. “You’re silly. You’ll see.” Then off to bed she packed.

Next to wake her was a monster in the cupboard. Again I guided her back to bed, but only after we’d inspected the wardrobe. Like most, it had clothes hanging in a line, like so many days of the week. I was asked to leave the stage door open, in case someone should wish to swish through my old suits, the curtains leading from Narnia.

There was only a ghost under the bed to deal with, then all was quiet for a couple of hours, so I decided to have some supper: not a pretentious name for dinner but the last meal of the day, this being a grilled haddock with some extra bits which look good on Instagram (I always take before and after shots, as the latter reminds the kids of cartoons: a fish skeleton with just the tail intact).

The night passed without incident, and fortunately my bladder roused me to flush the toilet again before anyone else got up and had nightmares. The fish tail went first time, a skeleton swimming in the sewer.

I was surprised at how calmly the kids told me there was a fish in the toilet the next day, as though this was an everyday event. In no particular hurry to get to the bathroom, I explained that I’d been silly the night before and flushed the remains of my supper. “But it’s moving,” the youngest said. The eldest lifted the lid, and all three of us peered over the rim into avocado cave.

There was indeed a tail, once belonging to a fish. And it was moving, as they’d said. I assumed it was the movement of the water in the bowl. I flushed the toilet, the water level rose almost to the brim, then quickly dropped, signing off with the kind of sucking noise you’d hear in an airliner toilet. The tail was still there as the water rose again around it, and it was still flapping. “Well, as long as it’s breathing,” I joked, and closed the lid. “I’ll chuck some bleach down.”

You can’t do that.”

Why not?”

You’ll kill it.”

But it is a cartoon fish skeleton.”

But it could be a mermaid.”

Don’t be…”

Nope. Let’s have me being the silly one for once. Let’s have me pulling this fish skeleton out, and posing with it like either Tom or Top Cat for them on their mobiles and social media.

I flushed once more before lifting the lid, only to have my hopes dashed when I did. The bowl was full and the tail was still poking out of the U-bend. It was still moving, but only slightly. “What’s obviously happened,” I said, “is it’s got stuck behind something else that’s blocking the toilet. Did either of you have a Sinead in the nigh?” (A ‘Sinead’ is our code for ‘before you go on stage, do you need a big poo?’). Neither had.

It’s a mermaid,” the little one said, “and it’s drowning.”

Don’t,” I paused, “rule it out.”

Like Ewan McGregor in a twisted version of The Little Mermaid, I thrust my hand down the toilet and tugged.

There was squelching and noxious bubbles, movement in my hand, then a sudden emptying of the Hoover dam as I lifted the fish tail out.

I used to write my kids bedtime stories and trust their imaginations not to have nightmares. I wouldn’t want to be in a child’s nightmare. That’s the kind of place where things can fester, like a fish tail in the toilet, actively refusing the liberation of the sewers.

In that world, the tail is indeed that of a mermaid. On first sight, it’s the tail of a fish swum into the body of a child’s doll: small, pink and wrinkled from sewage erosion, the arms contorted from entrapment in the drainage pipes. You’re about to pull the fish from the doll when the arms start to move. You imagine the crack of the skull on the porcelain toilet pan if you’re to put it out of its miserable life. Then it cries.

It can’t breathe,” the little one says.

I’m not sure if what’s in kids’ imaginations is real, or if us dismissing it makes it real. “Can we keep it?”

So now I’ve got this puss-ridden thing, bloating about in an aquarium. It’s hardly a talking point, so it’s a feature in the airing cupboard, only coming out when the kids come to stay. Their mum wouldn’t let them have pets.

I sleep with the lights on, only in case that fucking thing gets out. Who looks stupid now?

© Steve Laker, 2018.

Teaching the world in harmony

FICTION

I originally wrote this as a short story, straight after the original Cyrus Song, and it later became chapter two of the novel. After Simon Fry meets the microscopic pan-galactic humanoid missionaries, and the more scientific Captain Mamba and his animal passengers. In this second story, Simon discovers more of what the Babel fish (a quantum computer program, inspired – like so much more in the book – by Douglas Adams) can do. He also gets the first big clue about what the Cyrus song actually is.

I paid tribute to many people in the book, with the patients and their humans flowing through a veterinary practice being a perfect vehicle. There are a couple of nods to famous people in this chapter.

I finished Cyrus Song almost a year ago now, and it was critically-acclaimed as, “…an extraordinary juggling act…” and praised for its timely message to humanity and the plausibility of the near-future science. Much of that science is becoming reality, and humankind is waking up to the damage we’ve inflicted on the home we share with the animals.

We have a moral obligation to clean up our mess and reverse the mass extinction event which threatens Earth. We can do that if we work with the others on this planet, then one day we might all hear the Cyrus song…

pelican-1720474_960_720A baritone voice in the Cyrus Song dawn chorus

A PRELUDE TO THE CYRUS CHOIR

Some of the most amazing things can happen right in front of your eyes, but only if you realise they’re happening. If you’re not paying attention, they can just happen and be gone, without you realising that they were practically up your nose.

It was over a cup of coffee in Mountsfield Park in Lewisham that something quite remarkable had happened to me: I realised I might be able talk to the animals. I hadn’t yet spoken to any animals, but I’d heard them speak. It was Doctor Hannah Jones from the PDSA who’d made it possible.

There was much to like about the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals: They are a charity, financed by donations. They prefer the term, ‘Companion’ to ‘Pet’. It’s a hospital, not a vets’. And Hannah Jones is a doctor there. It was Doctor Jones who’d started the whole amazing story, when she’d introduced me to a quantum computer program she’d helped to write: The Babel fish. The problem was, I wasn’t allowed anywhere near it.

The Babel fish could translate any language, to and from any other. Doctor Jones had invented it, and yet it sat idle in her veterinary practice. As Hannah herself had said, “As if leaving work for the night wasn’t hard enough, can you imagine what might happen if the patients could talk to me?” It was emotional detachment for her.

The Babel fish was of as much potential importance to the sciences as the doctor was to me: I’m a writer. And yet, we were at an impasse. I had a conflict of interests: Keep the whole thing to myself, or share it. I surmised that if I wrote about it, just a few people might be interested, and I might be able to keep the doctor away from other interested parties. But that would be to deny Hannah her moment. And yet, she wouldn’t go public herself, because she couldn’t bring herself to open this Pandora’s box that she’d designed. Although I was the writer, she was my protagonist; the one who took the story forward, because she had the Babel fish. The animals we could listen to in the lab had stories to tell. Muting them denied me stories to tell in turn, as a translator.

I could see why the doctor would want to remain detached: If I wasn’t a writer, I would too. In all of my writing career, the Babel fish had been the biggest metaphorical switch I’d ever had to consider. I’d debated internally for what seemed like a very long time before I’d flicked that switch. But now it was done; I could hear the animals.

Every good story has conflict. The conflict here was that the Babel fish was in doctor Jones’ lab. I needed the fish, because it had opened up so many possibilities. Therefore, I needed the doctor. It wasn’t such a big conflict.

The story I was supposed to write was a paid piece for a magazine: a slight departure for me as a fiction writer and a welcome one, as I do like all of the non-human animals who let us live on their planet with them. So much diversity, co-operation and conflict is what makes Earth such a wonderful, albeit slightly teetering thing; A bit like Lewisham. The park where we’d shared coffee seemed an ideal place to interview Doctor Jones for my magazine piece.

I’d never seen Doctor Jones on television but out in the park, she looked smaller in the real world. The only setting I’d seen her in was her lab. Perhaps she looked bigger there because her lab was smaller than the park. She wasn’t sitting any further away from me than she had in the lab, so it couldn’t be that. Perhaps it was because she was of greater importance at her place of work, whereas outside in Mountsfield Park, she could just be anyone. I liked that.

“Doctor Jones.” I said that first, as it was the first thing I thought people would like to see in the magazine article: That way, they knew who I was talking to.

“You can call me Hannah, Mr Fry.” That’s me – Mr Fry – because I was writing this.

“Of course. I mean, naturally. But for the purposes of the article, I need to refer to you as Doctor Jones.”

“I would imagine you might, but there’s only me and you here.” I looked around and this was indeed true. “So you can call me Hannah when you’re actually talking to me, then refer to me as Doctor Jones in the article.” She was right, I could.

“I could,” I repeated aloud. Being a fiction writer, I sometimes find it difficult to separate the facts from what I do with them in my imagination.

“I don’t mean to tell you how to do your job, Mr Fry. Whatever works for you.” Doctor Jones paused for a moment, as if to give me time to decide. “So, the Babel fish program: I assume that’s central to your article or story?” It was at that point that I realised I might be able to write both.

“So, Hannah,” I said. Because that was me talking to her before I started my magazine piece, sort of off the record. “Off the record, The Babel fish could be the greatest invention of all time: One which could change our thinking; our understanding of the world. It could potentially earn you a Nobel prize in science. I understand that you have reservations but dare I say, that’s perhaps a little selfish?” Had I just said that aloud?

“My reasons are personal, Mr Fry. I agree that others need to know about the Babel fish.” There was a pause. “Why do you think I chose to speak to a fiction writer?” That was very clever.

“I’m just too close to the patients,” she continued. “I know it might make me more efficient as their carer if I could understand them, but I’d never stop working. It’s a very selfish thing to drive a wedge between work and home, but I need that separation. I trained in human psychology before I decided to work with non-human animals, and I understand them just as well as anyone else in my job, without the Babel fish program.”

I’m pretty sure she’d just referred to her patients as non-human animals, and that I hadn’t made that up. Hannah could be the greatest non-human animal doctor to ever have lived. But still, I understood her reluctance.

We arranged to meet the next day, when I would visit Doctor Jones at the hospital. I was to observe her working with the patients and there’d be a microphone next to her table, connected to the quantum computer which ran the Babel fish program. I was to watch and to listen in on a pair of headphones. I’d be able to hear the animals speak but Doctor Jones wouldn’t. It seemed like a perfect solution.

I pondered said situation as I walked home. I was living in Catford at the time, so it was a short walk. Although I could understand Hannah’s professional reservations, I would have welcomed any kind of company in my personal life and given my aversion to humans, a non-human companion would be just the thing. One which I could talk to would be perfect. I imagined debating current affairs, or watching science documentaries on BBC4 with a learned cat. We could share my book shelves and swap literature. If a dog needed a home, I would be just as welcoming. Perhaps the dog and me might watch soaps or sport together; Go for long walks and discuss the many colours which cars are made of; Then run home together, simply because it’s fun and because one day we might not be able to.

It’s a myth that dogs are colour blind: They see more than just black, white, and grey. However, the colour range they perceive is limited compared to the spectrum we see. To put it in very basic terms, the canine colour field consists mostly of yellows, blues, and violets. And they’re probably really amazing.

My landlady didn’t allow pets. I wanted a companion. If I were allowed one, I would actually have two: both cats. One tortoiseshell and one pure white, they would be called Ziggy and Slim respectively. Being a science person and a writer, I was familiar with Erwin Schrödinger. Not long after moving into my studio, I purchased two boxes and labelled them: ‘Ziggy’ and ‘Slim’.

So now I have have two cats. Or maybe I don’t. No-one will ever know because the boxes may not be opened. What happens with them when no-one is looking is supposition and a paradox: Like the tree falling in the woods; If there’s no-one around to hear it fall, does it make a sound? Ergo, it cannot be denied that I have two cats. And as another universe is created at a sub-atomic level, where the catalyst of my thought brings a parallel universe into existence, no-one can prove that I don’t have two pet cats. But I couldn’t have a conversation with Schrödinger’s Cats.

It was the famous Catford cat which caused me to pause. Catford may be a little rough, but my heart beat in that place. And it had a twenty foot fibreglass cat. Once upon a time, a bored clerk in a municipal office had a sense of humour.

It was early evening and the weather was clement, so I took a slight detour to a shop I knew called Supreme Animal Foods. They do indeed sell pet food: a vast range. They also sell the animals which eat the food: Rodents, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates.

Looking into the various cages and tanks, I imagined what I could do with the Babel fish in there. As I peered, I seemed to catch the eye of a mouse. There were two white mice in this particular cage: One was chewing on a piece of wood and the other was drinking from a water bottle attached to the side of the cage. She looked at me with pink albino eyes as she drank, then she stopped drinking but she didn’t stop looking at me.

I realised how Hannah might feel and had second thoughts about the Babel fish. I couldn’t separate the two mice, so I bought them both and carried them home in their cage. My landlady aside, my two new companions would be good cover when I went to the animal hospital the following day.

When we all arrived home, I checked around the studio, as is my custom. There were no signs of intruders and if anyone had decided to test the Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox, I couldn’t tell: That’s the whole point of having Ziggy and Slim. There is a scenario where someone had gone into my studio, opened the boxes and brought two cats into existence. Based on the evidence, if that were the case, the boxes had been closed afterwards and there were two cats out and about somewhere. And nothing had been taken. And there were no signs of forced entry. The mice were in a cage, but I placed the cage next to the bed, just to be sure. The last thing I remembered before I drifted off to sleep, was thinking of names for my new companions’ trip the following day.

I arrived at the PDSA with an hour of the day left: I couldn’t and shouldn’t be doing what I was about to do for too long.

I had to complete a form, including the names of the patients: Pretty obvious, considering how I’d first seen them in the pet shop. There was no-one else in the waiting room and fairly soon, we were called:

“Mister Fry”: That’s me. Doctor Jones said my name slowly, as though unfamiliar with something. “Mister Fry.” She said it slowly again. I looked up and Hannah was doing the most peculiar thing: She was wearing black-rimmed spectacles and they were crooked; Her head was tilted in such a way that she was looking down at her clipboard through her glasses with one eye, and directly at me with the other. Had she had a stroke? “Mister Fry,” she said for a third time, then continued: “Mr Fry, Miss Victoria Wood and Miss Julie Walters.”

“Aha,” I said, “That’s us”.

“Come with me please, Mr Fry.” We were barely on the other side of the door for a second when she said something odd: “What the fuck?”

”Pardon, doctor?”

“I knew you were coming; You didn’t need to employ subterfuge. Reception were expecting you too.” Hannah straightened her glasses. She’d not had a stroke.

“Were they?” Hannah walked ahead, along the corridor.

“Yes, because I told them you were coming. But not with two mice called Victoria Wood and Julie Walters.”

“Well, I saw them in the shop and one was chewing on some wood and the other was drinking water, you see? So, the receptionists might think me a little odd I suppose.”

“I’d go with slightly eccentric, Mr Fry.”

“Yes, quite doctor Jones. I suppose I just like to make the everyday more interesting. That’s probably why I decided to be a writer.”

“It suits you. Anyway, here we are.” We’d arrived at Hannah’s consulting room / lab.

“Indeed we are,” I said, agreeing that we were indeed there.

In the centre of the room was the table with the lamp above it. There was a microphone attached to the lamp. A work bench occupied one wall and on that sat an optical microscope and a scanning electron one with a computer terminal. In the overhead cupboards and on shelves were things like beakers, syringes, gloves, bandages and so on. I was to sit in a corner while Doctor Jones attended to her patients for the rest of the day. In that corner was the computer which ran the Babel fish program.

“Now, Mr Fry,” Hannah said. “Do your mice need my attention?”

“Well, I’m sure they’d appreciate it but I didn’t bring them here thinking there might be anything wrong with them. I was rather hoping I might be able to talk to them with the Babel fish.”

“Now, about that,” Hannah said, pointing at the computer in front of me. “Your purpose here today is to listen in on my patients: I’m okay with that. You have a job to do and so do I. I am an animal doctor and you are a writer. I trust you to write as you see fit in the circumstances: I am not a writer. Please remember that you are not a vet.” Under the circumstances, that seemed perfectly reasonable and logical.

Doctor Jones gave me a quick induction on the Babel fish program: The interface was essentially a digital radio dial on screen. The operator could slide a bar from left to right with the computer mouse to scan through various frequencies. On the left hand side of the screen were various drop down menus: ‘Age’, ‘Weight’; and a whole series of others which dropped down from one another: ‘Life’, ‘Domain’, ‘Kingdom’, ‘Phylum’, ‘Class’, ‘Order’, ‘Family’, ‘Genus’ and ‘Species’; Then a blank search field. “You only really need to worry about the search function,” said Hannah. “Just say what you see: Dog, cat or whatever. Put the headphones on, then use the slider to fine tune.” It was beautiful in its simplicity.

The first patient was a cat called Clive, and his companion, Derek. There’s the old saying about dogs and their owners looking alike, but I was more persuaded by the less obvious: That dogs and cats, and their human companions, have similar personalities. I’d surmised this long before I’d encountered the Babel Fish, and Derek and Clive were my thinking personified on first sight: Derek was an elderly gentleman, clearly comfortable in his dotage. He was thin-set and slightly stooped, with piercing blue eyes and thick, grey hair. Clive was a feline Derek.

I typed ‘Cat’ into the Babel fish and put the headphones on. I could still hear Hannah and Derek, but it was Clive’s voice I was tuning into. He wasn’t purring, growling, hissing or mewing; He was simply being a cat, just out of his carry basket and standing on Hannah’s table. I moved the slider bar slowly across the screen and stopped as quickly as the static hiss became a voice:

“…nice.” That was all I caught. There was something before it as I tuned in, but I only got that one word at first. It was definitely Clive, because the voice was right in my ears. I could still hear Derek and Doctor Jones:

“…So he’s just been a bit under the weather?” said the doctor.

“Yes,” said Derek.

“Just a couple of days,” added Clive. He sounded almost regal: Incredibly posh. But of course, only I could hear Clive.

“He doesn’t look dehydrated,” the doctor said, looking at Clive’s gums.

“Gnnnnnn….”

“Is he eating?”

“Not at this precise moment in time,” said Clive.

“He can be a bit fussy,” replied Derek.

“I am a cat. I caught a rat. I ate half of it and it tasted funny. So I brought the other half in to show you, on the kitchen floor.”

“Has he been going out as normal, doing his business?”

“I have many businesses,” said Clive. “Good Bastet, woman, you’re rough.” Doctor Jones was feeling Clive’s gut. “She’s very pretty though, isn’t she?” Had Clive just said that to me, or himself?

The ancient Egyptians worshipped cat gods. One such was Bastet: Goddess of cats, protection, joy, dance, music, family and love. Humans once worshipped cats as gods: Cats have never forgotten this. Hannah put Clive back down on the table and stroked his back.

“That’s nice. Base of the tail. I’ve got a bastard itch.” Clive looked up at Hannah, then stood up and moved forward, arching his back a little: Even without the Babel fish, I recognised Clive’s facial expression as the universal code which cats use when they approve of a human: The smile. Clive continued: “Now, tell her about the rat, Derek.” Clive sat back down and looked at Derek. “The rat, my dear old man. It was on Tuesday. Today is Friday, Derek: FRIDAY!” Just as Clive said “FRIDAY!”, I also heard him meow, outside the headphones. So that’s what it sounds like when a cat shouts. Clive continued: “Derek, my dear; please. It was only three days ago. Have things got that bad? Have you taken your medication? I knocked your pills off the top of the bathroom cabinet and into the sink. What more do I have to do to remind you?” Of course, I could say nothing but I was trying to will Derek on. If only I could talk; If only I could translate Clive for Derek.

“Has he brought you any presents lately?” Hannah asked. “He looks like a very generous and caring person.” Derek looked down at Clive. ‘Come on, Derek!’, I thought. The poor man shook his head. ‘Someone help Derek!’ Then Hannah said “I think young Clive here has ingested some rat poison.”

“She’s very clever,” said Clive. Great minds think alike. Clive looked at Hannah: “I assume you know what that man over there is doing?” Had Clive rumbled me, or was it a rhetorical question? I wished I could talk to him. Then he said a very strange thing: “I can feel the force in this room.”

Clive got back into his transport. Derek was given some pills for Clive. Hannah looked at me as she showed them out; And I could only hope that everything would be okay.

“How did that go?” Hannah asked when she returned.

“More questions than answers at the moment,” I said. For a moment, I didn’t know what to say next. Then, “Who’s next?” Doctor Jones looked at her notes.

“A young lady called Amy and her Scottish Terrier, Frank.” Hannah gave one of those false smiles which TV news presenters do when they’re really not sure how they’re supposed to react to a story. “I fear this might be the last time we see Frank. He’s not been well for quite a while.” I wondered if now might be the time to disconnect from the Babel fish. Soon enough though, Amy and Frank were in the room.

Frank was a splendid looking old man: A distinguished little Scots gent with a long, thick beard, he was small and stout. I could imagine having a wee dram with Frank in a tavern somewhere. He stood on Doctor Jones’ table, looking alternately at Amy, Hannah and the table.

Amy was a storybook personified: A slim volume, with much dark material and turmoil between the covers. She was young but she had clearly lived her life: Stories were printed on her skin and carved into her arms. She was a work of modern art; She was sculpted from life; She was unconventional; She was beautiful. And she was troubled: If only the Babel fish could tune into her thoughts.

“How are you?” Hannah asked Amy, in a tone which suggested a tired but resigned familiarity; As though Hannah wanted to ask more but knew that she’d never be able to probe into that deep soul of a girl.

Amy was small – almost frail – but her soul leaked from her eyes. I paraphrased The Beautiful South in my mind, as I estimated Amy’s age: ‘Take a look at these crow’s feet (just look), sitting on the prettiest eyes; Thirty twenty fifth of Decembers, twenty nine fourth of Julys…’.

“Yeah, okay,” said Amy. “Better than him.” She nodded down at Frank.

I thought about stopping the whole thing: Just leaving the Babel fish and walking away. This was precisely why Hannah couldn’t use it. The only thing that made me put on the headphones, was the thought that Frank might say something which would give Amy hope.

I typed ‘Canine’ into the Babel fish and was presented with a list of options: ‘Lupine’, ‘Vulpine’ and so on. If I so desired, I could listen to wolves, dingos and all sorts of other dogs, if they were ever to find themselves in Hannah’s consulting room. If I’d entered ‘Feline’ instead of ‘Cat’ for Clive, presumably I’d have seen all of the cat family too. In its current location, the Babel fish program was clearly aimed more at domesticated animals, but the algorithms seemed to be in there for pretty much everything. I typed in the search box again: Simply ‘Dog’, and immediately got static feedback in my ears as the slider appeared on screen once more.

“…Och, dear.” Frank’s voice was like that of hard drinking Glaswegian smoking a Woodbine. He had a Scottish, Cockney accent. “Och, dear.” I wished I could give the little old boy a hot toddy. “Och, dear.” Frank looked up at Amy: “Och, dear.” He looked over at Hannah: “Och, dear.” He looked down at the table and around the room: “Och, deary, deary me…”

I placed the headphones around my neck for a moment and listened to Doctor Jones and Hannah:

“It’s for the best,” said Hannah. It was a cliché, but that’s what she said. I had to resist artistic license, and record things as they were for the magazine article: Factual. Assuming the article would be read of course: It was a huge scientific story which could change the world. Only two people knew about the Babel fish though. I wasn’t some qualified expert and no-one read my writing anyway. If anyone read this in a factual publication, they’d probably think it the work of a crank and dismiss it. It would read more like one of my stock in trade whimsical stories. The truth is often stranger than fiction. “I’m sorry.”

Amy looked at Hannah and gave one of those newsreader smiles: neither happy nor sad. Then she looked at Frank. I put the headphones back on.

“…Och, dear.”

How was I to write, in scientific terms, about what happened next, when the words I wanted to use, which best conveyed the moment, were merely sentimental?

I had a wet face.

Hannah held Frank’s hand and Amy hugged her little old, rugged, bearded Cockney Scotsman. If he’d been wearing a tartan cap, that’s when it would have slipped.

“Och, dear.”

That little dog, with such a limited vocabulary; Once heard through the Babel fish, he had a voice. Just those two words were emphasised by feeling and inflection as they took on different meanings: Pity for himself and love for all around him. Of all the times to reflect on that day, the most poignant was when Frank closed his eyes: “Och, dear. That’s better. A wee sleep…”

Hannah left the room for a while and I looked at Frank on the table, through salty eyes. I thought of what I’d said to Hannah earlier about all of this: Questions, ideas, thoughts. Now I could really understand and would even defend Hannah’s resistance to the Babel fish. But to the fiction writer; to me in my job, it was a game changer. I was lost and confused in a long silence.

I remembered Victoria Wood and Julie Walters, the two white mice under the table where I’d been sitting. In the hands of a better writer, the mice would be protrusions of multi-dimensional beings into our universe, conducting experiments on humans. Of course, humans always thought it was the other way around: Such brilliant subtlety.

Hannah was out of the room, so I placed the mouse cage nearer to the microphone and returned to the Babel fish program. I typed into the search field: “White mice” and moved the scanning bar across the screen with the computer mouse. I peered over the monitor and my two mice were facing one another, cleaning their faces with their paws and twitching their noses; Being mice.

“…The best laid plans of mice.” It sounded like a child who’d inhaled helium. ‘And men,’ I thought. But that story had already been written. I didn’t speak, just as I couldn’t speak to Hannah about all that I’d heard. Nor Derek, nor Amy.

“It’s working”: Another high-pitched voice. “There’s only one human left, over there.”

“Do you know what they’re doing, humans? While they rush around, scavenge and make a mess?” There was a pause. “No, neither do they.”

“Aren’t they supposed to be aphrodisiacs?”

“I wouldn’t put it past them.”

“Do you think that one knows what’s going on?” For once, I was the subject of a discussion, between two higher beings.

“It probably can’t even hear us.”

“Imagine if it could. Not just us but all the others as well. If only they could hear the dawn chorus. All those voices: The sopranos in harmony with the baritone of the sun: Earth’s choir. Then they’d hear the whispers from the trees, the humming of the clouds and the ghosts in the wind. But they don’t listen.”

“Maybe one day they’ll understand. Perhaps they’re not ready yet. They just need to slow down and think more.”

Maybe one day we will.

Until then, this story is both a beginning and an end. Myself and Doctor Jones were still at an impasse regarding the Babel fish and I was siding with her. Perhaps some things are better left as they are, like so many things which might have been.

We left the room together. I could say nothing. But I wondered: Why would she insist on me calling her by her first name, when she wouldn’t call me by mine? She knew my name: It was on her paperwork.

Then I got it: I’d never asked her to.

Some of the most amazing things can happen right in front of your eyes, but only if you realise they’re happening. If you’re not paying attention, they can just happen and be gone, without you realising that they were practically up your nose.

© Steve Laker, 2016.

“…If this all sounds a bit weird, that is, because it is. But it all somehow works and knits together in the manner of surrealist writers like Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas, with a substantial nod, of course, to Douglas Adams, who can make the impossibly strange seem mundane and ordinary. Steve Laker pulls this extraordinary juggling act off admirably well, producing a very good, thought-provoking, page-turning, and also at times darkly comic read.

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.

Cyrus Song is available now (eBook and paperback).

Corvids with opposable thumbs

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

The UK’s weather has jumped suddenly from winter to summer, and nature seems to have overlooked spring. But I’ve noticed fewer of the invertebrate visitors than I expected through my open window, as they emerge from their long sleep, and I wonder how many have perished because of humankind’s interference with the thermostat on nature’s climate control.

Fewer insects mean less food for birds, so I’ve taken to scattering seeds on the flat roof directly outside my window, where avian friends gather. I’ve had the usual suspects (thrushes, starlings, sparrows…) and there’s a regular wagtail who visits, but nevertheless their numbers are few, which is troubling.

I also get members of the corvid mafia, mainly crows and magpies, so I’ve been witness to the odd murder, gulp and charm of collective nouns. Knowing these birds to be incredibly intelligent, I’m thinking of making some food puzzles for them, so that I can witness their ingenuity first-hand. If I put some nuts in my Rubik’s cube, they might be able to work out something which has stumped me for many years.

A friend of mine once wondered at these bird brains, and I myself pondered what a world might be like if crows had opposable thumbs…

Crow Star WarsTheStarWarsCulture

A TALE WITH MANY STRINGS

I overheard someone talking about how intelligent crows are, and this got me to wondering what might happen if they evolved opposable thumbs. Being a writer, I set off to find out. It was sheer luck which put me in the right place at the right time, with the right people.

I was suffering one of the worst episodes of writers’ block that I care to remember, so I’d gone for a walk to Manor House Gardens, a National Trust property just outside the village where I lived. Ideas for stories occur to writers all the time and in the most unexpected ways. It wasn’t that I lacked ideas so much as I couldn’t extrapolate some really good stories. A story is relatively easy to write but a really good story is something completely different and I was in the business of writing really good fiction.

Royalties had dried up from my last book and although I was never a writer for the money, I was a bit destitute. In a way, I enjoyed the financial freedom which writing enabled me to enjoy. Although that was a beautifully philosophical way for an impoverished writer to think, it wasn’t putting electricity on my key, nor much food in my stomach. I had great visions of where my next novel would take me but it was a long way from being finished. And so it was that I was writing short pieces of both fiction and non-fiction for various magazines. The cheques were small but they kept me alive. My book was on hold and I was struggling for original material for the short story market: such a first world problem.

I sat on a bench and rolled a cigarette. To my surprise, I was joined by two old ladies. When I’d sat down, I was the only person around and I’d seated myself in the middle of the bench, so the ladies sat either side of me. “Excuse me,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I went to stand up.

Don’t you excuse yerself young man,” said the lady to my left. “You were ‘ere first, so you sit yerself down and do whatever it was you was gunner do.” I couldn’t be sure if this was something she said absent mindedly, or whether she had a sense of humour which was dry to the extreme. In any case, the irony was palpable. She continued: “You might ‘ear sumink interestin’.” She gave my arm a gentle pinch, with finger and thumb.

So, what was you sayin’ baat the crows?” The old dear to my right was speaking now.

Well, I feed ’em in me garden, don’t I?

Do ya?”

Yeah, I told ya, ya daft caar. Anyway, they’ve started bringin’ me presents ain’t they?”

“‘Ave they?”

Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

Are they?”

Well yeah, cos then I give ’em more grub don’t I?”

Do ya?”

Of course, all corvine birds are noted for their intelligence: Crows, rooks, ravens, Jays and the like, show some quite remarkable powers of reasoning and it was this that the two old girls were talking about, perhaps without at least one of them realising it. I excused myself and made my way back to my studio, smiling at anyone who caught my gaze.

The most wonderful thing is when people smile back at you. Those are the stories, right there.

Back at my desk, I skimmed quickly through the news feeds on my computer: Britain had voted to leave the EU, Cameron had resigned as Prime Minister and Boris Johnson was his heir apparent. Across the Atlantic, Trump had installed himself in the Whitehouse, banned anyone he didn’t quite understand from entering the USA and was erecting a wall across the Mexican border. What better time to leave?

Using some string I’d borrowed from a theory and a little imagination, I constructed a means of transport to a far future. My ship was powered by cats: and why not? Schrödinger’s cats to be precise, as a fuel source, wherein two possible physical states existed in parallel inside each of an infinite number of sealed boxes. Effectively, it was powered by will. The upshot of this was that I could go absolutely anywhere I wished. A working knowledge of quantum mechanics would enable you to understand exactly how the engine worked. If you lack that knowledge, suffice to say that the engine worked. The only limitation was that I couldn’t go back in time. I could go forward and then back, to my starting point but I couldn’t go back from there. Nevertheless, it was a dream machine.

A couple of years prior to this, I’d had a bit of a life episode and wondered: If I’d had my time machine then, would I have travelled forward to now and would I believe what I saw? I paused for a few minutes to contemplate the paradox of myself appearing from the past: I didn’t turn up. Then I did something really inadvisable. It was a self-fulfilling exercise to see if I was vilified in a decision I’d made two years ago: I travelled forward to a time when I either should or could be alive; five years hence. If I was still around, I had to be very careful not to bump into myself. It was a cheat’s way of gaining benefit from hindsight. I set the destination and it was as much as I could do to not say, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need, roads.”

Travelling through time is a curious sensation: I’m not sure quite how I expected it to feel, but it wasn’t at all like I could have expected. I suppose, scientifically, I expected all of the atoms in my body to be torn apart as I accelerated at many times the speed of light. Eventually, my physical self would reassemble itself. I suppose I thought that I’d effectively be unconscious and as such if anything went wrong, I would be oblivious to it. Not so, as it turns out.

It was like when I first tried magic mushrooms: At first, there was nothing. So I took some more. Then the first lot started to take effect. Time did indeed slow down, so that I could relish the sensation of reduced gravity. I can assure you that what you may have heard about the senses being enhanced, is true. The hardest thing to control is the almost undeniable urge to burst into laughter. It is said that just before one dies from drowning, one experiences a euphoria: it was like that I suppose and I felt a little lost. I’d almost forgotten that I’d taken a second dose. I wish I’d had some way of recording where I went but I don’t recall.

So then I found myself five years ahead, of time; of myself. I kept a low profile but not so covert as to miss what was going on around me: the evidence of change over the intervening five years.

The most striking thing, initially, was the absence of pavements and roads in my village. There was a single thoroughfare which carried both traffic and pedestrians. All of the cars were computer-driven, their passengers simply passengers. As I took this scenery in, a much more fundamental thing occurred to me: what I was witnessing was a harmony. There were no impatient drivers (or passengers) and no self-righteous pedestrians impeding the cars’ progress: the two existed together, in the same space. Who’d have thought it? The “little” supermarket was still there: a necessary evil, but it was smaller than I remembered, with complimentary independent shops now sharing its old footprint. There was a butcher and a baker; a fishmonger and greengrocer. On the face of things, much progress had been made over five years.

No-one had seemed to notice me, so I decided to take a stroll around my future village, taking care not to interact with anyone. I resisted the urge to go to my flat, for obvious reasons. Whether I was still around of not, things had moved on nicely: I’m glad I saw it. Of course, it was like visiting an old home but this was a nostalgia made in the future. Then I decided to do the most ill-advised thing of all.

I had no signal on my mobile and it was a futuristic irony that an old red phone box replaced my smart phone. That iconic red box on the village high street no longer contained a pay phone but a touch screen open internet portal. Free. And the little communication hub was pristine inside: no stench of piss and not a scratch anywhere. Either a zero tolerance police regime was to thank, or more hopefully, a society which had calmed down, like the traffic. I noticed that the library was gone, converted into housing and imaginatively called “The Library”. Kudos I supposed to whatever or whomever had made that red kiosk available, to all and for free. I wondered what else might have changed and wanted to use that little box for as long as no-one else needed it but I really shouldn’t have been there.

I gave myself one go on the Google fruit machine: I typed my name into the search field and allowed myself just enough time to scan over the first page of results. I reasoned that I should not dwell and that I certainly mustn’t click on any of the links. Five years from now, I was still alive and I’d published the book I was writing in the present time. I could not, should not look any further, even though I longed to see how it was selling, how it had been received and reviewed, and how it ended. I must not, I couldn’t; I didn’t. So I came back. I steered myself away from looking up my parents too.

I’d caught a bug out there. The kind that bites and infects those with an inquisitive nature and who are risk-averse, carefree; couldn’t give a fuck.

I shouldn’t be at all surprised if I wasn’t still around fifty years hence, so why was I going there next? Because I could. Just because one can do something though, doesn’t mean they should. I’d rarely heeded advice in the past, so why heed my own advice about the future? I’d only have myself to blame and I was sure I’d already lived with far worse. There are limits to what one can imagine.

Hindsight is a fine thing, with the benefit of hindsight. Each of us are limited in our ability to change things but if we co-operate, I’d seen just five years from now, how things might be. But I’d had to return to what is now as I write this. Now could be quite an incredible time to be around, if things turn out the way I saw them.

At some point in that future I travel to, there is no me: I will cease to exist in my physical form and that will be, well, “That”.

So when I arrived fifty years from now, I had no idea what to expect, given what I’d witnessed had taken place over a previous five year period. The only thing I could be sure of as I went through that very disconcerting wormhole thing, was what I was determinednot to do: I would not look myself up.

The only way I would suggest of distancing yourself from the future, is to not go there in the first place. Should you find that impossible, try to remain inconspicuous. Naturally, there will be many things which a traveller from the past will find alien about the future. Like the way people stared at me. And then walked straight past me. I smiled at some of them and they all smiled back. The supermarket had completely vanished from the village by now, replaced by more independent shops. There were fewer driver-less cars but that was irrelevant because the cars cruised at about thirty feet from the ground. The walkers had reclaimed the thoroughfare.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy taught me that if people look at you for longer than a second or two, it might be because they find you attractive. It could equally be a look of recognition. So I panicked and went back in time.

Just to be sure that I was back in the world I’d left, I took another walk to Manor House Gardens: all was as it had been. The old girls had departed, probably in opposite directions. Not so far from here. Nothing is really, is it?

As I sat and smoked, whimsy took over: what if those people in fifty years time recognised me as a well-known author? Perhaps one of my books had gone on to be an international best seller. Maybe it had been made into a film. What was worrying if that were the case, was that they recognised me as I look now, fifty years ago. Could it be that I just finish the book I’m working on, then I die suddenly and never get to see what happened? I had to be more optimistic. After all, it was my own will driving the cat machine.

Continuing the theme which was developing, my next foray into the future was 500 years from now and that’s where it gets a bit weird. Obviously, the things I saw were familiar to the people who lived in that time and although nothing seemed alien as such, the apparent technical progress was quite remarkable. The most striking juxtaposition was the one between old and new. It looked as though wherever possible, my village had been preserved. Some of the buildings had been more than 500 years old when I lived there. My old local pub, now over a millennium in age, was still there and it was still a pub. Peering in, I could see that the decor had hardly changed: It was still an eclectic mix of old, non-matching tables and chairs and there was still an open fire. I was tempted to go in. No-one would recognise me. Then I considered how much a beer might cost. Even if I had enough money, I wondered if it would even be recognised as such.

Either side of the pub were houses, built in some kind of plastic / metal composite. It was quite soft to the touch and it was as I touched the wall that I got the biggest surprise of all. A window opened before me in the wall. It wasn’t a window that was there and which had been opened; it just appeared in the wall and a woman looked out. She smiled, as though seeing someone looking back through her window was a common occurrence.

These windows that just appeared were a feature in most of the modern houses in the village. Eventually I noticed that doors were too, as one materialised on the front of a house and a man stepped out. He walked off and the door disappeared, leaving just a minimalist, aesthetically pleasing piece of both architecture and art.

Without the benefit of the previous 500 years, I could only assume that this was nano technology: microscopic machines which can alter their physical form, so that in this instance, a material changed from a wall made of the building material, into a glass window or a wooden door. I imagined that each of the small houses had perhaps three or four rooms, the functions of which could be changed by altering what is in them. Touch a leather sofa and it might morph into a dining table and chairs; Change or move something on a whim. How liberating that must be.

I’m sure there must have been many more wonders, 500 years from now. It struck me that rather than become slaves to technology, humanity seemed to have used it to make more time for themselves in their lives of relative leisure. All of the residential buildings were of roughly equal size. I hoped this might be the result of some sort of leveller, which rendered everyone equal. I’d theorised about a universal state payment system for all in one of my old sci-fi shorts. In that story, everyone was paid a regular sum: enough to not just survive but to be comfortable. The thinking was that people would then put their personal skills to good use for the benefit of all. I created a humanitarian utopia in that story.

5000 years from now, I couldn’t be sure of what might have happened in the intervening four and a half millennia to make things so different. In short, mankind had gone. There were very few things remaining that suggested we’d been there at all. Had we left of our own accord, or were we destroyed? Did will kill ourselves? Two thoughts came to mind: either, we were extinct as a race, or we could have populated the cosmos by now. Both ideas were quite staggering, after all the progress we’d seemed to be making.

I was forgetting about the crows: I wanted to see if I could shake hands with one. Science held that after humans, it would most likely be the invertebrates who evolved to inherit the earth. If that was the case, what of those who would feed on them?

Sure enough, there were some alarmingly large things with many legs, 50 million years from now. Some species which were once arboreal now walked upright on land. Others which had once grazed on the land grew so massive that they evolved gills and became amphibious, and still others had become exclusively marine-dwelling to support their huge bulks. One of the greatest spectacles on earth in 50 million years will be the annual migration of Frisian sea cows across the Pacific Ocean.

I sat on a grass bank in this distant future and looked across a lake. A chorus of wildlife which I didn’t recognise, buzzed and chirped in the trees. I laid down on the grass and watched a pair of large birds circling above: vultures? I sat back up, so that they didn’t mistake me for dead and they landed either side of me: two crows, about four feet tall, stood and looked over the lake.

So, what was you sayin’ baat the oomans?”

Well, I feed ’em in me garden, don’t I?

Do ya?”

Yeah, I told ya, ya daft caar. Anyway, they’ve started bringin’ me presents ain’t they?”

“‘Ave they?”

Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

Are they?”

Well yeah, cos then I give ’em more grub don’t I?”

Do ya?”

Yeah, I enjoy it, don’t I?”

Do ya?”

Yeah. I’m gettin’ on a bit naah, ain’t I?”

You are.”

Life’s what ya make it every day though, innit?. Live for the next one.”

Next one, yeah.”

And that gave me an idea.

© Steve Laker, 2016

This story is taken from The Perpetuity of Memory, my first anthology. My second collection of shorts – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is available now.

Of teenagers and time travel

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Things to make a dad who’s a sci-fi author very proud, especially as my sci-fi novel is all about language, translation, religion, science and computers…

My eldest (the son) has just chosen his GCSE options, which include computer studies and religion. Like me, he’s an atheist, and it’s that which makes him fascinated by the various world faiths and their origins. In his spare time, he’s planning to build his own high-end gaming PC.

The youngest (daughter) has been accepted at her chosen secondary school. She’s shown an aptitude for modern languages, and will be placed into the school’s grammar streaming for French and German.

I was their ages once, and the book which was informed by many conversations with animals (using universal translation) has prequel stories, including that of the main protagonist:

Some of the names in the school register in this story, are those of friends I went to school with. In the story, they are bit parts who carry the narrative along. In reality, the few words dedicated to each are my idiosyncratic tributes to some of the many friends who’ve supported me as a writer. There was only room for a few, but I have plenty more stories in me with which to make further nods. For now, we’re going back 34 years. This is a story from a teenage boy’s English literature assignments…

cat-white-mice2Quote by Slartibartfast, from The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

OF MICE AND BOYS IN 1984

Adams.” (Tall kid, quiet).

Yes sir.”

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

Yes sir.”

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

Sir.” (Here today then).

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

Sir.”

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

Sorry, yes sir.”

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

Sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quite probably old chap, why?”

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

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

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

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

Where to?”

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

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

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

Fucking hell Ford!”

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

Pardon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So your dad’s thinking of building hospitals?”

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

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

Definitely not.”

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

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

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

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

Talking?”

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

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

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

Does it work?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, people who can translate, yes.”

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

That would be awesome. When?”

The nerds think early in the next century.”

2000AD? That’s miles away.”

More than our lifetimes, Fry.”

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

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

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

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

How?”

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

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

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

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

What did you call them?” I wondered.

Pete and Dud.”

Why?”

Because they’re male.”

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

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

So, which is which?” I asked.

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

So what now?” I wondered.

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

Have you got one?”

Not yet.”

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

I’m building a reputation, Fry.”

What as, Ford?”

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

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

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

Where?” I wondered.

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

But those lights always come on, Ford.”

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

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

No, I know.”

So how can it come on?”

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

So why did you mention it?”

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

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

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

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

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

Simon, Dixon? Lunch.”

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

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

Is this thing on?” Well, I heard him.

Maybe a bit louder?” I suggested.

IS THIS THING ON?” he shouted.

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

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

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

Why?” he said, into the microphone.

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

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

Why?”

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

That’s deep.”

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

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

No, why?”

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

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

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

What do you mean?”

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

And you believe all that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ford,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

Which is?”

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

Speak and Spell, reverse engineered, then.”

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

Eh?”

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

From the mice?”

Tangerine Dream’s translation, yes.”

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

I don’t know.”

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

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

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

1 2 3 5 7…

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

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

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

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

Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of chess?

Ford?” I wondered what he was thinking.

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

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

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

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

Fine…

Then the ellipsis snake blinked again.

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

I know,” Ford said. Then he typed:

We mean you no harm.

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

1 2 3 5 7…

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

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

What the?”

I don’t know…”

How do you mean?

A short pause, then:

Oh, never mind. You had a question?

Yes. The question of why the answer is 42?

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

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

So what do we do now?

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

We won’t tell.

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

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

THE END…

© Simon Fry, 1984.

***

Ford.”

Sir.”

Fry… Fry?”

Yes sir, sorry.”

Sorry to be here lad?”

Actually, no sir.”

Hayman.” (Blonde flick, new glasses).

Sir.”

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

Yes sir.”

Laker.” (Fuck knows).

Sir.”

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

Sir.”

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

Sir.”

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

Yes sir.”

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

Yes sir.”

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

Sir.”

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

Yes sir.”

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

Sir?”

© Steve Laker, 2017.

This story is taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency, available in paperback. Cyrus Song is available in both paperback and as an eBook.