A girl, Sheldon (and Peter Cook)

FICTION

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

That’s not from the story which follows, but it’s a good introduction and from another one I’m writing. Like that, this is about animal sentience. But I’m a surrealist. So I imagined the young character from my children’s book, with her talking dog and cat. I watched a documentary on AI in the home (worried and amused), then imagined if perhaps a future ethics committee might get stoned, or have some other reason for integrating universal translation algorithms into AI home assistants. So I put the Babel fish into Amazon’s Echo, Google Home and so on, went to 2042 (18 minutes before 9pm) and this come out of the typewriter…

cat optimist

A GIRL, SHELDON COOPER AND PETER COOK

On earth, it was generally accepted among cats, that cats were the superior species. In this feline hierarchy, humans and dogs were equal but different, with little regard for the white mice and dolphins.

This social order came about when Amazon integrated universal translation algorithms into their Alexa AI home assistants, and others followed. In 2042, life in the home was very different to the one we know now.

The term β€œanimal” had long since fallen into obscurity, now reserved for those who are less than β€œperson” in its modern definition: a sentient, self-aware and self-determining being, which has a conscience, experiences emotions, and displays empathy with other people.

A few exceptions aside, most Persona non grata had written themselves out of any worthwhile news and were confined to their own history. Only a few Tory grandees clung on in antiquated underground offices, blathering about the past and not being listened to.

β€œDo you know what I think?” Sheldon Cooper asked.

β€œNo,” replied Peter Cook, looking up from his chair. β€œAnd I didn’t ask.”

β€œWell, let’s see what Ellie thinks. She’s just coming downstairs.”

β€œI know,” the dog acknowledged.

β€œHow?” the cat wondered.

β€œI can hear her.”

β€œOh.”

β€œWhat are you two talking about?” Ellie wondered, wiping her hands on Pete.

β€œI thought I felt your presence,” Sheldon said, sitting up on the sofa. β€œNice of you to get dressed. Did you wash your hands?”

β€œYes,” Ellie replied, β€œwhat are you talking about.”

β€œWell, he,” Peter nodded at the cat, β€œwas going to spout on about something…”

β€œI don’t spout,” Sheldon protested.

β€œAs I was saying, I didn’t want to hear.”

β€œYou don’t know what I was going to say.”

β€œAha!” said the dog, sitting up, β€œhow do you know?”

β€œCan you read my mind?” Sheldon asked.

β€œNo,” Peter replied, β€œcan you?”

β€œOkay,” Ellie interrupted. β€œWho’s for dinner?”

β€œI’ll eat him if you want,” Peter said.

β€œI’d make your breath smell better,” the cat replied.

β€œOkay,” Ellie interrupted again. β€œWhat would you like for dinner? I’ll cook.”

β€œDo you have tuna?” Sheldon asked.

β€œWe do,” Ellie replied.

β€œLine-caught?”

β€œYes.”

β€œIn water, not brine?”

β€œYes, in water.”

β€œCut into chunks, with some black pepper and a squeeze of fresh lemon?”

β€œLike you always have it.”

β€œYes. That please.”

β€œFine. Pete?”

β€œEr…” Peter yawned, β€œGot any steak? You know, that one they grow, not farmed.”

β€œWe should have. If not, I can print you some.”

β€œYeah, do that anyway, fresher.”

β€œHey, why does he get printed food?”

β€œI’ll print yours if you like, cat.”

β€œNo, I like it the way you do it.”

β€œSo, why…” Ellie thought, β€œnever mind.”

β€œWhat are you having?” Pete asked Ellie.

β€œI’ll probably just print a pizza.”

β€œIs it Thursday?” Sheldon wondered, as Ellie made dinner, β€œI sense it’s going to be a strange night.”

β€œHere we go,” Ellie announced, returning with food, β€œup at the table please. Anyone wanna smoke?”

β€œTold you,” said the cat. β€œDo you mind if we eat while you smoke?”

β€œWhat shall we talk about?” Ellie ignored the cat.

β€œDeath,” Pete said. β€œBut you wouldn’t know about that, would you cat, with your nine lives and everything. Have you worked out what those are all for yet?”

β€œWe will find that out around 3000 years from now.”

β€œOh, here we go…The self-proclaimed superior species on this planet, haven’t worked out why they’re here yet.”

β€œWell neither have you, dog.”

β€œI sometimes think I’m dead already.”

β€œWhy?” Sheldon wondered.

β€œCan you tell me I’m not?”

β€œWell, I can see you’re not. So what, you think all this is a computer simulation, like The Matrix?”

β€œCould be.”

β€œBut you lack proof.”

β€œAnd you don’t know why you’re here, cat.”

β€œI need to urinate.” Sheldon jumped down from his chair and wandered around the garden.

β€œI love the way you two get on,” Ellie said to Peter.

β€œSarcasm?” Pete wondered aloud.

β€œOnly partly. I’m very fond of the way you are.”

β€œWell, everyone’s themselves Ellie, and most people shouldn’t apologise for that. I think with dogs and cats, it’s a mutual tolerance and a begrudging respect.”

β€œWhat about humans?”

β€œWhat about them?”

β€œDo you just tolerate us?”

β€œSometimes it’s confusing,” Pete thought. β€œWe do look up to you, because you’re pretty smart. But sometimes you overcomplicate things. Dogs look at things more simply. We worry less. I mean, go out for a walk with us a couple of times a day, open a box of DogNip chews, and I’ve pretty much nailed my day.”

β€œYou’re much less paranoid and insecure than us humans.”

β€œOh, I don’t know Ellie. Having you around is nice for company, but all dogs have an inferiority complex, and issues of balance.”

β€œBalance? Of what?”

β€œWe wonder about things like the difference between friends and family, and the colours of cars. I mean, we’re perhaps more in touch with our instincts, but those are a bit sexist and misogynistic. And I think purple cars smell nicer than green ones.”

β€œHow’d you mean?”

β€œWell, they’re like candyfloss.”

β€œYes, but the sexism and misogyny.”

β€œOh, all that old-fashioned nature stuff, going to mum for milk, and dad for protection. Then in humans, the hunter-gatherer and the cook.”

β€œWell, we’re more a commune here, friends and family.”

β€œYes, I know. I remember when you came out of hospital that time, and you were in a wheelchair. I didn’t know whether to hug you or sit on your lap.”

β€œEllie?” Sheldon was back. β€œWhere are my wipes?”

β€œI don’t know. Use mine, they’re upstairs.”

β€œBut those are yours, and they’re upstairs. I specifically hid mine here, so I had them when I came in.”

β€œI might have eaten them.” Pete said.

β€œWhy would you do that?” the cat asked.

β€œTo freshen my breath? I don’t know if I did, I’m just saying I might have.”

β€œThe paradoxical dog,” Sheldon muttered, jumping back on his chair.

β€œDid you wipe your feet?” Pete asked.

β€œI always clean my feet, so yes.”

β€œOne day you’ll forget.”

β€œSo what if I do?”

β€œYou’ll know you’re getting old. Anyway, why do you get to go out at all hours and I don’t?”

β€œExcuse me,” Ellie interrupted, β€œYou can go out whenever you like Pete, on your own, or with your friends.”

β€œOh. And there was me, thinking you enjoyed walking with me, playing your favourite game in the park.”

β€œWhich one?”

β€œThrowing sticks.”

β€œMy game?”

β€œWell, yes. I assume that’s why you throw sticks, because you enjoy me fetching them for some reason.”

β€œBut that’s your game.”

β€œNo it’s not. You made it up.”

β€œYeah, because you like fetching sticks.”

β€œNo I don’t. I couldn’t care where they end up, but you seem to have so much fun throwing them, I just figure I’m humouring you.”

β€œOne day,” Ellie said, β€œyou dogs will get over your inferiority complex.”

β€œNot while there are cats around,” Pete replied, β€œthey have a superiority delusion.”

β€œIt’s not a delusion,” Sheldon argued.

β€œSo what about them lives then, what are they for?”

β€œCuriosity, which is just as likely to kill anyone else as it is a cat. But cats seek knowledge, so we were given nine lives with which to discover it.”

β€œWhile everyone else already worked out it’s pretty dull, so they’re just sitting around relaxing,” Pete suggested. β€œEllie, what do you think about death?”

β€œThat’s a very big question, because it depends on the definition of death.”

β€œWhat, more than either dead or alive?”

β€œWell, yeah. It’s not a bipolar subject. I mean, I don’t fear my own death – except maybe the means of departure – but being forgotten scares me, like being erased from history. I believe that life as we know it, is a passing phase, in something we don’t fully understand yet.”

β€œDo you subscribe,” Sheldon interrupted, β€œto quantum physics?”

β€œWell, it stopped being a theory long ago. If you mean, do I get that everything exists in more than one state simultaneously, and that quantum entanglement means every subatomic particle in the universe is connected to another, telepathically, then yes. Definitely.”

β€œGood,” the cat said, β€œbecause a lot of philosophical and theoretical examples of my species perished in that debate.”

β€œSee?” Pete perked up. β€œBloody cats, getting everywhere, proving things. When was a dog ever involved in an experiment? I mean, why not SchrΓΆdinger’s dogs? By the way, what in the name of anyone’s arse, did mankind think it was getting up to, sending one of my kind up to space, before we had the technology to ask if it was okay?”

β€œThat,” Ellie replied, β€œwas humanity getting up its own arse. But Laika was our little trailblazer, still floating in a tin can out there somewhere. We owe her a lot.”

β€œAt least you’re grateful,” Pete said, β€œfetching your sticks, flying your spaceships…And yes, Laika’s floating around out there, unceremoniously abandoned, but it’s quite poetic in a way.”

β€œWhat, like Space Oddity, David Bowie?”

β€œNo, I just think it’s funny. Who’s to say Laika didn’t get out there and everything worked fine? Then she sussed the controls and just buggered off. Maybe it was all an elaborate plan, and the dogs had another planet somewhere.”

β€œUnlikely.”

β€œBut equally, not impossible. You couldn’t talk to us back then. What you might have thought was static noise, could have been her talking. But there was no universal translator back then.”

β€œThe paradoxical dog,” Sheldon murmured.

β€œWell, yes,” Pete agreed, β€œbut the point is, humans had no right to do that. Because back then, humans didn’t regard what they called animals as having feelings or emotions. But what was clearly a sentient, self-determining and self-aware being, was used in an experiment without consultation or consent, simply because it was assumed to be inferior. That is immoral, and even more so for the cowardice in persecuting a person whose voice couldn’t be heard.”

β€œSo is much which humanity has done,” Ellie agreed, β€œagainst its own kind too. It’s a burden which rests heavily on those of us who give a shit.”

β€œIf I might add a cat’s opinion,” Sheldon said, β€œit might make things easier to understand.”

β€œGo on.”

β€œHumans were in denial. Your science hadn’t proven the obvious, that so-called animals could feel, so it was conveniently overlooked and humans continued, well, being human.”

β€œNow I feel good about myself. Thanks Sheldon.”

β€œSarcasm?”

β€œNo!”

β€œOh. And I thought I was getting the hang of that one.”

β€œEver since we’ve been able to talk,” Pete said, β€œthere is still much about humans which confuses us.”

β€œSame,” Ellie added, β€œonly now that we can talk, can we talk like this.”

β€œReally, I hadn’t noticed,” Sheldon noted.

β€œSarcasm?” Pete wondered.

β€œNo. Cats have always been able to talk, and to hear you. Nothing’s changed with humans, because you still don’t make sense.”

β€œBut you can understand me?” Ellie checked.

β€œI can hear you, and the rest of the human race, in you. But with a growing number of exceptions, humans still seem hell bent on destroying our planet.”

β€œYou mean,” Pete said, β€œthe planet we all share?”

β€œYou’re only here because the humans brought you. Earth was originally the cats’. Then humans came along and our ancestors agreed to let humans be humans, hoping they might learn.”

β€œWho says?”

β€œMany ancient feline scribes.”

β€œLike the human ones,” Ellie added, β€œwho wrote the various human religious scriptures?”

β€œVery much so,” Sheldon confirmed, β€œand those ancient human scribes wrote of cat gods, did they not?”

β€œIn Egypt, and some other places, yes.”

β€œSo,” Sheldon continued, β€œdoesn’t that prove that man worshipped cats as gods?”

β€œNot at all. Each ancient script is an individual’s interpretation of events, as they saw them, and recorded using the means available to them at the time. It’s what all ancient alien theories are built on, and it’s what unifies science and religion in many humans now. The point is, it’s a paradox. But it doesn’t matter who was here first, it’s what we do now that we’re here.”

β€œSometimes,” Pete spoke now. β€œSometimes, I wish I was a dyslexic insomniac.”

β€œWhy?”

β€œBecause dogs are generally agnostic, and that would allow me to lie awake at night, wondering if God is a dog.”

β€œReally though,” Sheldon said, β€œwe’re all the same.”

β€œHardly,” Pete said.

β€œNo, I mean inside, and at a fundamental level. Forget animals and humans as the outdated terms which they now are. As people, we are all the same. Just as the root of all humans’ conflicts – both internal and external – is in an inability to see others as alternative versions of themselves, so that can be transcended to encompass us all. Whether we’re an atheist cat, an agnostic dog, or a whatever you are Ellie, all those scribes wrote what they saw, and science proved what we now know. And that’s that we’re all connected and the only true creator is the universe itself.”

β€œYeah, but who set that off?” Pete wondered.

β€œOh, for fuck sake.”

β€œIt’s a good job we can all talk now.”

Β© Steve Laker, 2017.

The Unfinished Literary Agency will be published early next year. My other books are available from Amazon and can be ordered from any book shop, or requested at libraries.

The origin of unfinished literature

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FLASH FICTION

A recurring theme in my writing is The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s a fictional place (and there’s a book), which exists to tell the stories of others who are unable to tell their own.

The agency is also an analogy of the writing world, where writers crave an audience, in a place where people don’t have time to read. It has parallels, to how inner frustration made my own mind up to write down everything in it.

Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them, and sometimes I wonder if we may have a greater purpose, but haven’t worked out what it is yet…

laptop-cat-bb0919-3014947-600-1440509828000

THE OFFICE OF LOST THINGS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Β© Steve Laker

Wherever our lives may lead, we are all but a plot device.

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

A story written into a person

HORROR FICTION

Blood dripping

1329953557707 (1)

THE PERPETUITY OF MEMORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

β€œMs. Kunsak. A pleasure to meet you.”

β€œPlease sir: Christiana. Likewise, Mr Solanas.” Christiana offered her hand, which Solanas held firmly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Β© Steve Laker, 2015

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

The empty armchair in the corner

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Today would have been my auntie Margaret’s birthday, her 76th in fact. In life, we weren’t all that close, but I see now how we had so much in common. I think what a waste it was, to take her so early (she was 51), and selfishly, about how much she’d have enriched my life now. But then sometimes, just every now and then, I swear I can feel her around me.

Empty chair

I believe in ghosts, insofar as I feel a connection to a spirit world I believe exists, which fits in with my understanding of quantum science. Essentially, for every chosen action in life – from the personal down to the molecular level – there are countless alternatives which weren’t brought into reality (the universe we inhabit) by a catalyst, but which still exist in parallel. So when we die, we continue to exist in one universe, where we’re dead and people mourn (or celebrate), while passing into another, where we’re no longer able to do much of what we could before (like interact with people), but where we nonetheless continue to live in a different physical form. Sometimes I’m aware of my auntie’s presence, because odd coincidences occur, like little signs.

She was the more the radical of two sisters (the other being my mum), a spinster who lived with my nan. My parents would visit them every Sunday, and knowing that 14-year-old me would be bored, my auntie would rent out horror films on VHS for me to watch in an armchair in the corner.

Margaret was a keen royalist and passed long before the internet. She’d conduct her study and research by borrowing books from libraries and visiting historic houses. I was always indifferent to royalty, until I started watching documentaries on TV a couple of years ago, as though a guest had asked me to switch channels, then researching further history online (and doing nothing with it besides learning).

Still now, when I’m watching anything regal, I feel I’m not alone, sometimes when I’m watching horror films too. I can’t explain it, but I can assure you you’ll know when you’re in the presence of a ghost, sitting in the empty seat right next to you.

These last few months I’ve been wasted, not on drink or drugs, but unable to concentrate because of my ongoing battle with the Department for Work and Pensions. With what seemed like deliberate insensitivity, they were kind enough to write to me on Christmas Eve, telling me that after reconsidering my application to regain my independence, I still can’t have it. This despite me pointing out the many errors and untruths in the assessor’s report. So I now face the remainder of the dehumanising process at tribunal. In the interim, I’m poor and unable to leave the studio.

It’s affected my writing, I’ve written very few new stories, indefinitely postponed one planned book and not started any others.

Then someone pointed out to me that I might be somewhat cutting off my nose to spite my face, that if I wallow in my own misery, I’m just being a bit of a fascist to myself. They reminded me I’m a writer. As if to confirm this, my kids bought me the most beautiful pocket notebook for Christmas. Margaret would have doted on the kids, and they’d have worshipped her.

DWP don’t care if they’ve disabled me as a writer, in fact they’d probably be cock-a-hoop at their achievement. With that in mind, I started writing in the gift from my children.

Why sit and listen to no music, when there are so many albums on my shelves I could play? Why flick restlessly through TV channels, when I have stacks upon rows of films? Why stare blankly at a screen behind a writer’s block?

I have no money and little food, but I’m a writer. And even though that’s been suppressed by depression, when it’s all I have, I should cherish it. So I care less if I’m skint, so long as I’m impoverished as a writer, and not nothing. If I write something, anything, I feel a little better about myself.

Who was it that reminded me? No-one as such, but a thought lit up in my mind, which had no business being there as I was feeling so depressed. It was like it was someone else’s voice. And the only person around here besides myself is my auntie Margaret.

Me Nan and Margaret

Happy birthday auntie x

I’d rather be writing hard-fi sci-fi

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’m into week seven since my PIP assessment, and none the wiser still. But having spoken to a friend (after being given a glimmer of hope by the mothership), I’m managing to reverse a paradigm. Rather than fear the unknown, I’m making the most of it. I’m still anxious, but I can multi-task while worrying.

Octopus MotherfuckerPatricia Correl’s Writing Blog

My friend (we’ll call him Jacques, because my friend is neither a man nor French) has just been through the initial dehumanising stage of the DWP and Tory government social cleansing machinery. Jacques only got his Personal Independence Payment decision after eight weeks of waiting for the self-appointed powers to decide if he was worthy of a continued oxygen supply. They found in his favour, so now Jacques is a character in a story I’m writing.

What’s the point of waiting on the phone for 20 minutes to speak to someone, only to be hung up on when you ask the wrong question, or to be told my case is still being reviewed? Better to make use of time I can do nothing other with, to write.

After committing myself to finish this story in my last post, it’s developed. It now has a tentative working title of ‘The Plastic Population’, which actually doesn’t give too much away, and I don’t think anyone will see the ending coming anyway. As far as I’m aware, it’s a completely original idea, or at least a different plot device.

The story has a plausibility in science, and it pulls together a few recent phenomena: Plastic pollutants in the oceans have been found to be breeding grounds for new kinds of bacteria; Micro-plastics in every living organism on Earth could have carcinogenic properties we don’t know of yet; and humans have been attempting to find evidence of extraterrestrial life in cosmic radio waves. But maybe we’ve been looking in the wrong place. The story begins roughly (first draft) like this:

What if all of life, with its meandering trails, high rises and deep slopes, was the path leading us to something, somewhere we’d once wished for? We might have forgotten what that was, or it might be buried deep within our species’ subconscious, but still, dreams can come true.

Like a homeless drunk on the streets, there because it’s where the path he’d chosen led, what humanity needed was a new player in the game of life, one which would fundamentally change the way we look at ourselves and our understanding of the universe.

It wasn’t a common foe to unite previously warring factions, although in a way it was. It wasn’t an alien invasion, but in some ways it was that too. It was a cure for cancer, which ironically arrived like a message in a plastic water bottle…

Those are the bricks, and the cure for cancer is more analogy than literal spoiler. It’s a large tower to build, but it’s one to a kind of Babel. I’d much rather be writing and finding answers over the next couple of weeks in limbo, than staring at the walls not knowing, and counting the days in notches.

Barring a shit sandwich in the mail from DWP withdrawing my oxygen supply, The Plastic Population should be out in the length of a piece of string.

The lights of the mothership

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Today is six weeks since my assessment for PIP, and still not a word from The Department for Work and Pensions. It seemed my benefits had been withdrawn when less money than usual went into my bank. Strange (or just plain rude) then that no-one had the decency to tell me. It’s been playing on a primal human fear within me: that of the unknown. I was grateful for the wisdom of the mothership, telling me to slow down.

mothership_by_jambi20-d6nq2yvMothership by ShahabAlizadeh

My mum pointed something out which gives me a glint of hope: It could (just about) be, that my last period of benefits (two years) ended, while DWP are still considering my re-application. It’s a faint glimmer, but it’s a small light at least.

It could just be that someone has found some inner humanity, and decided not to put me through the social cleansing machinery. It’s more likely to be weeks of making calls, waiting 20 minutes to be connected, then hung up on as soon as someone can’t answer a question.

I’m usually the optimist – despite having chronic depression – my reasoning that neither the optimist nor the pessimist can affect or predict the outcome of something unknown and beyond their control, but the optimist has a better time while not knowing. I must admit – because a government department is involved, and a Tory one at that – the pessimist is more to the fore of my mind at the moment.

But even if I have been declined, I know what I have to do now. I can’t fully relax like I would if I wasn’t facing the tribunal appeals process, but now I have the knowledge, it helps. So much so that I’ve started writing some new stories.

There’s one I’m particularly excited about, but too much reveal would be spoilers. It’s a science fiction yarn, about plastic pollution on Earth, a way in which aliens might communicate with us which hasn’t occurred to us to look for before, and a message in a plastic bottle. The central idea is not one I’ve seen used in fiction before, and it needs a bit of explaining, but I can do that in fiction with show-don’t-tell and with dialogue. It’s a rare departure for me into long-form short stories (I’ve written a few before), of anywhere between 6,000 and 12,0000 words. The kind of length which could be made into a feature film.

I don’t even have a working title for the story yet, but I feel compelled to record my intention to finish it, lest any DWP shit sandwich arrive in the post and throw a spanner in my brain’s workings. There’s a lot in there, troubling me, including (but not limited to) the end of the world and of human extinction.

Now that I’m getting back to writing, perhaps I’ll deal with the rise of the right, their invention of fear with a rhetoric of unseen outside threats, placing a protectionist dome over their captive audience as they repeat lies with such frequency they become the truth. I’ll use the coping mechanism of the keyboard to write of the hacking of democracy, and the various ways humanity may commit mass suicide or save itself. One story will see humankind in a new paradigm, one in which extraterrestrials arrive in our solar system, a common new actor uniting previously hostile human factions. The arrival of a mothership might force all humans to slow down and take a look at themselves, just like my mum, who gave me this computer, because she β€œ…thought it might help with your writing.” When I first started, it was for therapy.

I’m busy on the typewriter: The laptop computer which actually sits on a desktop, where a desktop was always really a ‘Floortop’. There’s an analogy, perhaps for more fiction, of computers placed as though by a superior intelligence on ever-higher shelves as it brings up kids. A technological Tower of Babel. A protectionist mechanism, telling us not to grow up too fast.

Computer says no, you must die

THE WRITER’S LIFE

After keeping me waiting for five weeks, throwing petrol on my depression and anxiety, The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have refused my re-application for PIP (Personal Independence Payment). They didn’t even have the decency to send a letter, and I found out when much less money than normal went into my account. No doubt the shit sandwich will arrive in the mail soon, after it’s gone through further bureaucracy.

VogonA relative and employee of Theresa May at DWP, yesterday

I’ve been in receipt of the independence benefit for the last four years, and at my last assessment I must have seemed in worse health (because I am), but some appointed worthy who’s never met me, sitting self-importantly at a computer, has made a life-changing decision, to deny me what I’ve been entitled to for the last four years, and which I used to live an independent life. I can’t do that any more.

I may not be able to visit my kids or parents so often or at all. But what does DWP care? They know I’ve failed to kill myself before, as it’s on my hospital records. It couldn’t be that they wish me more success next time, surely? I hope they sleep well at night (and one day, don’t wake up).

Now I face the appeals process through to tribunal. I’ve done it twice before and won. This was a re-application, for a benefit I’ve been paid for the last four years. It all begs the question, why do this? Why incur all the extra expense and waste their time (and mine)? Because they want to wear people down so that they give up, roll over and die (it’s the Vogon way). But like a bad smell, I won’t go away.

With about Β£5 a day to spend now, I’ll have to be very creative with meals. And as the appeal process takes around three months, that’s Christmas nicely fucked up, possibly the last one I spend with my parents, thanks to the DWP and the Tory government’s social cleansing project. The last five weeks have made me ill but it didn’t kill me, and I won’t be swept from society by fascists. Apart from the roof over my head, the next few months will be like it was on the streets, and I survived that.

The singular, only, sole, lone, individual good thing I might be able to salvage in all of this, is that with nothing to do (eat, drink, or smoke), I might as well spend some time at the keyboard. If I can’t afford heating, I’ll get some fingerless gloves.

I have a tribunal process to document in fiction. I need to write, of the psychological horror this has been, of poverty, of the perverse torture by sick and twisted Nazis, and of exacting, violent and bloody revenge. The story of an impoverished writer, an irritant irritating, and literally (in literature) fisting some arseholes and scratching around inside.