INK IN THE SKIN
If you can’t write your dreams, remember to live them. Then maybe someone can write them for you.
INK IN THE SKIN
If you can’t write your dreams, remember to live them. Then maybe someone can write them for you.
Whenever I don’t consider my life mundane enough to share it in a meandering blog post, nor so profane that it warrants anyone with time on their hands reading a short story, I search for fewer words to say more. Then a part of me reminds me I’m supposed to be a poet. How I became one is a matter of speculation. Perhaps because I find it hard to talk.
Whether a match to a joint, or a candle to my own arse, the art of poetry is a way of swallowing a whole moment in life.
A HORRORIST PARADOX
I killed you a long time ago, but I had to be sure. I had to go back and check.
I looked at you again.
The sweet stench of a rotting soul, a taste of why I killed you long ago.
A reminder, never truly gone unless forgotten.
I held you once more, an incurable addiction, back in my hands.
© Steve Laker, 2020
A parable perhaps of many things; toxic relationships, if you like. Minimalism is the art of the lazy writer leaving the heavy lifting to the reader.
The paradox of being a horror writer. If you can’t stop thinking, you can’t cease to be one. You can never escape the nightmares, so long as the cursed red ink flows through you.
I’m wandering my own mind for a while, as I often do. Right now it’s a particularly rough ride for my brain. Floating in cerebral seas of predators (dad’s apparently hastening decline; another Christmas separated by circumstance of family, when it might be the last when some remember who was there), as some sort of coping mechanism – for dealing with matters of the mind alone – I confronted the seed of all my problems.
My depression and other mental health labels may well have been dormant, undiganosed by a previous generation, but it was a knife-point robbery in 2011 which earned me my first PTSD tag. After that, drinking numbed things until it all fell apart. And now, I have a lump in my throat as a permanent scar from that bench, now removed from a park in Lewisham.
Just a couple of tricks of life can find a human with a park bench for shelter. It can happen to anyone, just like it did on that bench…
The Catford Cat on Twitter
EIGHT AND A HALF LIVES
If he wasn’t there every day, he could be anyone. You could walk past the same bench each day and not notice anyone sitting there, unless it was the same person every day.
Jim put it another way: If it wasn’t him there every day, it would be someone else. Or maybe no-one else would be on that bench. It was Jim who gave that seat stories to tell, if not by him then by those who listened to him.
These are the things Jim talked about, as he told his own stories on that bench in Mountsfield Park, talking about himself, and the Catford cat just beyond the trees, which he said watched over him at night.
“She doesn’t have long here,” Jim explained, “there’s only so much time she can be here. Because she has so many people to watch over as they pass beneath her on the high street. As long as somone’s looking at her, the cat can’t move, because she has to watch them, you see? She only comes down after the last kebab shop has closed, and before the milk is delivered, and then only sometimes.
“I wonder how many people have driven through Catford at three in the morning and thought to look up to check the cat is actually there? Most people who drive through Catford at that time just assume the cat’s there, watching over them as they pass through, when actually, she might be off feeding on life stories. A bit like me on this bench. They can’t see me either. And that’s just the way life passes, see?”
“I lay here at night, and I see people walk past, oblivious to my presence. The darkness makes them blind, like the cat does. If you’re here in the park, you probably won’t see her stalking in the bushes. But she’s there, because you’re not in Catford High Street to check she’s above the shopping centre, where she can’t catch your gaze. Because if you catch her, she loses a life.
“Perhaps people assume I’m asleep and they don’t want to disturb me. I suppose that’s a logical assumption to make at 3am. But what if I was a life lost?
“See, I’m not. I’m watching them, through one closed eye. Watching out for myself, I guess. That’s why I’m always grateful when the cat’s here, because I can sleep for just a little while. No-one pays me attention when there’s a twenty-foot cat prowling around the edge of the park, see?”
It was Jim who scratched his name on that bench.
If you didn’t know it was there, if you didn’t know where to look among all the other hearts and initials, you’d never know Jim was among all those people.
But if you sit there at three in the morning, and if you listen to the wind in the trees, you might just hear the cat.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
My micro-galactic voyage around the man-made universe which is the internet takes me to many places, inside the microcosm of my shared humanity. My typewriter is like a tiny spacecraft providing a window on the outside world. I can change my viewpoint and look into an infana kolonia (Esperanto for ‘Infant colony’) and sometimes I can see out.
I’ll often launch a quest for knowledge somewhere completely random on Wikipedia. From there, I’ll either dig down into a planet, or take off again to find another. Sometimes I simply land and can’t be bothered to leave.
Eventually, all of Wikipedia links back to philosophy. I’m addicted to the quest for knowledge, so it’s a good place to start, forever finding yourself back where you set off from.
As one diagnosed with Alcohol Dependence Syndrome, I’m simply labelled an alcoholic. To the casual observer, it’s easier to ignore a Band Aid than a surgical tent. As an alcoholic in any interpretation of the word, I’m an addict. As an addict, I have an addictive personality.
Without dissecting each of those (as I have on this blog over the last six years, ever since my addiction made me homeless), I happened upon something today which permits me a vague stab at explaining what that’s like to the casual observer.
Perhaps more importantly, what caused me pause for thought was how addiction might have been an invention, one which would benefit a government intent on social cleansing and selling itself as an infant colony to any other fascist dictatorship happy to acquire an enslaved nation.
And still I could go on. But I found someone who might explain the experiment in my head much better than I could. This is from a TED talk by Johann Hari, ‘Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong’.
I’m not excusing myself, but neither have I been able to make anyone who’s not an addict understand how addiction comes about:
Get a rat and put it in a cage and give it two water bottles. One is just water, and one is water laced with either heroin or cocaine. If you do that, the rat will almost always prefer the drugged water and almost always kill itself very quickly, right, within a couple of weeks. So there you go. It’s our theory of addiction.
Bruce comes along in the ’70s and said, “Well, hang on a minute. We’re putting the rat in an empty cage. It’s got nothing to do. Let’s try this a little bit differently.” So Bruce built Rat Park, and Rat Park is like heaven for rats. Everything your rat about town could want, it’s got in Rat Park. It’s got lovely food. It’s got sex. It’s got loads of other rats to be friends with. It’s got loads of colored balls. Everything your rat could want. And they’ve got both the water bottles. They’ve got the drugged water and the normal water. But here’s the fascinating thing. In Rat Park, they don’t like the drugged water. They hardly use any of it. None of them ever overdose. None of them ever use in a way that looks like compulsion or addiction. There’s a really interesting human example I’ll tell you about in a minute, but what Bruce says shows that both the right-wing and left-wing theories of addiction are wrong. So the right-wing theory is it’s a moral failing, you’re a hedonist, you party too hard. The left-wing theory is it takes you over, your brain is hijacked. Bruce says it’s not your morality, it’s not your brain; it’s your cage. Addiction is largely an adaptation to your environment.
We’ve created a society where significant numbers of our fellow citizens cannot bear to be present in their lives without being drugged, right? We’ve created a hyperconsumerist, hyperindividualist, isolated world that is, for a lot of people, much more like that first cage than it is like the bonded, connected cages that we need.
The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection. And our whole society, the engine of our society, is geared towards making us connect with things not people. If you are not a good consumer capitalist citizen, if you’re spending your time bonding with the people around you and not buying stuff—in fact, we are trained from a very young age to focus our hopes and our dreams and our ambitions on things we can buy and consume. And drug addiction is really a subset of that.
Perhaps it struck me because I’m an addict, and I can only see it as something I can’t say (because other voices can explain it better).
When you’re an addict, you look into yourself constantly and to your own detriment. If someone speaks to that inner person, it might move them to use the words they heard. Sometimes you have to speak to yourself.
Maybe that might help others get it later, if they hear something the addict said to someone else. If they hear it from someone they don’t know, they can disconnect (and allow themselves to judge from a self-elevated position). I’m talking to myself, of course.
I’m a caged consumer experiment, beneath the dome of Infana Kolonia. What do you do, when you sold your soul to the devil, but you made a commitment to life?
You just keep on living I’m afraid. Sorry about that.
I rarely write sequels, and this is no real exception. I’m more about writing different stories in alternative places (rooms, worlds, galaxies), and linking them all up in a way which I think only I might ever understand (but I don’t yet), over space and time. It’s all down to anyone wanting to get that far, and me wanting to give it up.
If someone were ever able to find their way from when I first stumbled upon The Unfinished Literary Agency, to a future when I came back to a post-human world to pick up my pen, then what I got up to in my Earth stories would fit in with all the extraterrestrial journeys I took. It’s an analogy of my life, part-autobiography, but fictitious.
I often write fiction about writers, writing about writers writing fiction. They’re the kind of people who have to see as much inside as others can see in the wider world which the writer can’t inhabit. To exist in that world of normality would be to deny the universe in the imagination of the writer contained within their own world, to remove temptation from the gambler, and the means to survive from the damned.
I sometimes write prequels, especially in the Cyrus Song realm of my universe, but those too are linked by a point in space and time which can only ever revolve around me. It’s become one of a few personal writing trademarks, and one I’m quite proud of, as it’s how I think of my literary mentor, Paul Auster.
Just as I like to dine in my own invention of August Underground’s Diner (and am occasionally resident chef there), I sometimes like to drink alone in a previous world I created, in a specific time and place. Although I’m a near– and far-future sci-fi writer, sometimes I have to go into the past to find the stories I need to tell, perhaps to prevent an alternative future, because there was another which could never happen.
My novels and short stories might collectively explain at least some of what’s in my head, but they don’t yet, which is why I keep on writing. No matter what other distractions I might have, I can always escape by addressing life in fiction, however violent that might be in a mind gym.
OMAHA SANS SERIF
I never could get the hang of Wednesdays, so it was no great surprise that it should be a Wednesday when it occurred to me that particular day might be a bit different. No-one told me, it wasn’t something I heard. It wasn’t something I just told myself. It wasn’t even really a thought, just a feeling that something was going to be different on this particular Wednesday, intuition, for want of a better word.
It was a smell which prompted it, the fragrance of breakfast sausages and coffee, at my writing desk. On any other Wednesday, I’d be playing poker, either in a pub or a home game, often staying overnight and eating breakfast with the fish and the sharks in the remains of the morning, when the in-exorcised poker gods rewarded or punished those who’d entrusted their lives to luck in a game of skill.
This short chronicle centres on my typewriter and the mechanical manacles which keep me handcuffed to that retro machine. It’s also where I play poker online, every night except Wednesday, when I play live games. But when you play and lose, what do you have to show anyone else? Loose, aggressive, tight and passive are labels applied to poker players, but I had no material proof of any typecast, so I’d become as much a spirit of the poker table as I was a ghost writer who can’t be labelled.
I’d taken on extra work assignments to stop me chasing losses and playing with scared money, like I did once before in an alcoholic breakdown which ended with me living on the streets. Now I live in my writer’s studio, where I have a method of differentiating between work and home. The hardest part is writing fiction which feels as real as the poker, a simulacrum for the thrill of playing with your life, perhaps as simple as solving a cryptic crossword puzzle.
The day had gone much like any other, Wednesday or otherwise, with me in my studio working simultaneously on a short story for a magazine, and a crossword for the same publication. The story had a strict space limit (2200 words, or 4.25 pages, with a three-quarter page ad), so I’d edited it a few times to strip out unnecessary embellishments. I’d wanted to include some sideline action from the poker scene, the prop bets, the propositions. These are made between players, betting on events away from the table, often personal dares.
As on any other day, I walked clockwise into the village at lunchtime to pick up a newspaper and some lunch. If I walk in a clockwise direction, all my points of call are in order. It also allows me to mentally separate work and home, as both are in the same place. When I finish working at home, I walk anti-clockwise, but that’s for later.
As usual, I said hello to the homeless guy on the corner of the high street and put a pound in his Costa Coffee cup, the small blind in the poker cash games I used to play. He says hello back, but he doesn’t look up.
He always sits cross-legged, with his head down, looking at the pavement between his knees, and I’ve never wanted to interrupt whatever contemplation he’s having. I’d like to look him in the eye, but I can’t ask him to look at me; I can’t ask him to stop talking to whomever he’s in commune with. He may not want to look at anyone. I place my hand on his and say, “There you go mate,” just for some human contact, perhaps for my benefit more than his. It was a long time since I’d shaken hands with someone over a poker table, after I’d just won their entire life.
I went to the newsagent and bought The Guardian, then to the sandwich shop. And as usual, the man behind me in the sandwich shop asked for exactly the same as me.
“I’ll have sausage and tomato on granary please”, I said, “with just a scrape of English mustard.”
“I’ll have that please,” the man behind me repeated. “And a tomato soup, thanks.” In poker, that’s a raise.
This had been going on for weeks, and I’d not given it much thought. It was a little eccentric and perhaps the kind of thing I myself might do, unable to decide what to have for lunch, delegating the decision to someone else in a game of sandwich Russian Roulette. I’d never know when I might get to try something new, and free from the multitude of choices, I’d have a way of making my mind up for me, leaving it to ponder the more important things, the longer game. I didn’t want to embarrass the man by asking him, and if the shoes were swapped, I’d find the question of why I’m being followed uncomfortable. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I took some quiet pride in helping someone be more like me in their own lunchtime.
After my clockwise walk, I’m back in my studio, writing fiction, compiling a crossword, and eating whatever that other guy is.
I’ve never noticed him following me, and if I had, I’d think it more sinister than it is if I just assume coincidence. Mine is a small village, I go out for lunch at the same time every day, so I tend to see the same people, including the man behind me in the sandwich shop. I never see where he comes in from, and when we leave it’s in opposite directions. I continue clockwise, back to my studio, and he goes back the way I came.
Previously that week, I’d had the same lunch at my desk as a relative stranger had, wherever they were. On the Monday, it was tuna and green pepper on wholemeal, then salt beef and pickles on rye on Tuesday. On the Thursday I was contemplating a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel. On Monday, the sandwich shop man had mushroom soup, and it was chicken on Tuesday. Today’s soup for the other guy was tomato.
I never bought a soup with my sandwich, but today I wanted to copy my imitator, like he had me so many times. If we were to have lunch together, even in different places, I felt we should have the same. And although I didn’t realise it at the time, that was the feeling I’d have which said this particular Wednesday would be different to the rest, of Wednesdays and other days. It was a hunch.
On any other day, I’ll walk anti-clockwise around the village at the end of the day. It’s my way of leaving work and arriving home to relax, where the clockwise lunchtime walk is from home to the office. As I hadn’t finished my story or crossword, I walked clockwise to pick up my afterthought tomato soup.
I walked past the homeless guy again, looking down between his legs at his Costa Coffee cup. He seemed to be talking to himself. “Me again,” I said, “there you go,” and I dropped another pound into his pot. Another small blind, another hand.
“Thank you,” he said, and I smelled sausages again, like I had at breakfast at my desk. Still looking down, he reached behind him for a cup. He took off the lid and took a sip of tomato soup.
“Thank you,” I replied.
“Because you just answered a question that’s been on my mind for a while. And in a way, you’ve finished a story I’m writing.”
“Because I’ve been struggling lately. There’s a guy who buys the same as me for lunch every day. Today he bought a sausage and tomato sandwich on granary, and a tomato soup. Now I know why. I imagine he’s happier than me.”
“That’s Will. He buys my lunch. Why would he be happier than you? He told me about a guy who makes his mind up. I guess you’re the one I have to thank for the variety. Does he know that?” Of course not. Will and I have never spoken. “Maybe if you told him, he might be happy.”
“He seems happy to help you in his way. But surely you could tell Will what you’d like for lunch?”
“I could tell them in the sandwich shop, but I’d feel uncomfortable there. I’m a bit smelly and that can’t be good for business. I’d put the customers off.”
For a moment, I didn’t know what to say. “Look at me,” was the first thing which came to me. “You’re a human being. You’re no different to me or anyone else, just that your story is different.” That’s what I loved about poker, that it was the great democratic leveller, anyone could play. But just like him, I knew mine were empty words.
“I prefer to trust Will. He brings me surprises, things I might not have tasted before. He brings me fragrance, taste and touch. When I can’t see what I’m having for lunch, when Will doesn’t know what he’s bringing me, when you decide for him what flavours I’ll taste, which fillings I’ll smell, and how I hold it in my hand, depending how it’s held together, in a sandwich, a baguette, a bagel, it makes up for the lack of sight, because Will sees me when most other people don’t.”
He still didn’t look up as I placed my helpless hand on his, unable to offer anything but the money I had on me. “That’s just short of a fiver,” I said, an all-in shove at the poker table. “I can’t make Will redundant, so I can’t buy you lunch. You remind me of someone I used to know. Take that for yourself, and with my gratitude.”
People say don’t give money to the homeless, but I’ve been there. Many people who find themselves down there need coping mechanisms through their hours of invisibility, and to some it’s a survival strategy, at least by means of temporary escape. Who am I to deny someone a few hours of hope if I can’t shelter and feed them?
Back at the studio, I spent the rest of the day finishing the short story I was working on, and the cryptic crossword I was compiling, trying to make the first two across clues into a clue in themselves, about what the accompanying story is all about:
Illustrative, I see and I hear (7)
Sit uncomfortably with a book writer (8)
Choppy Choppy’s hat (10)
An author in a pen (6)
Breakfast sounds like soap (6)
The king is not well before the queen’s murderer (6)
I took my usual anti-clockwise walk at my normal time of 3am. The hour between three and four is one I enjoy, as it’s the quietest hour, and the best one to separate any day from the next. Trying to do so at midnight is pointless, as life doesn’t change with the calendar. Even though midnight on New Year’s Eve is the bridge between years, nothing changes in a moment. Although we have a birthday every year, we’re constantly ageing. The best divider is an hour to contemplate, when the world around you is at its calmest.
There’s little night life in my village, but further afield, nightclubs and even kebab shops are mainly closed after 3am, while the weariest players and the insomniacs try to find somewhere to sleep. An hour later, long before mechanical millipedes start their rush hour, the first deliveries of the day begin with the awakening of an invisible and anonymous workforce. In worlds which never sleep, there are those who make it through the night by working, and others who don’t. Most poker players are nocturnal, lights in the night.
Walking home from the office, from the studio back to the studio, I noticed the lack of nightlife hadn’t curtailed the local wildlife: tins of Special Brew on the pavement and the smell of weed in the damp October air, the howls of feral teens in the distance, calling out to other creatures of the night, like I did when I lived on the streets. I hoped my homeless guy was okay, that he had shelter at night. I’d find sleeping difficult if I thought he might be suffering.
The pond life had marked their territory, with streams of piss rolling down the pavement. I sped up to get home from work, following their calls, leading me to the end of the story, where I have to fold my hand.
Someone had left a special calling card, just outside my studio: a pile of sick, someone’s dinner post-mortem: ground meat in a red sauce, smelling like a sausage and tomato stew. If my homeless friend had been able to look at me, maybe I’d have seen the clouds behind his eyes. What he couldn’t see was how he helped me end this story.
On Thursday, the guy behind me in the sandwich shop had a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel for lunch. I never even asked him his name. No show of cards, like chopping the pot without playing the final hands. Wednesdays were never the same, because after this particular Wednesday, I never saw him again.
© Steve Laker, 2019
Some battles are fought in your head, and the war will never be won. But talking to yourself can unite you and your brain against a common foe within you both.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
Burning the midnight oil at both ends of the candle, in this life and the one before it, desperate to ignite some of the methylated spirit which is the ink in my veins, I turned again to 642 Things to Write About (San Francisco Writers’ Grotto). On an otherwise blank page, there’s a line at the top: ‘What did you dream about last night?’ Mine is one of thousands of copies of this empty ideas book, and my entry only one of many versions of events. Recurring dreams are just history repeating, in a surreal retelling of witness statements.
We don’t remember all of our dreams, although I probably recall more than most. I keep a notebook by the bed, so when I’m woken by a dream, I’ll write it down. I also have a rare and occasional ability to dream lucidly.
Lucid dreaming took me years of practice and I’m far from mastering the art, but when I manage to dream lucidly, it’s quite literally like exploring the cosmos. It’s a journey into the wider space of the unconscious mind. It’s essentially being aware that you’re dreaming within a dream.
Usually a dream will carry you along like a captive audience trapped in your own head. There are jumps and frights to guide the way to an exit, but otherwise you’re not in control. If you can be aware that you’re dreaming, you can interact within your dream and change it. It’s the difference between being in the audience and being the director on the set of your own scientific horror films.
To get yourself onstage, you need that initial awareness. You need to plant a seed. The way I did it was a bit like counting sheep to clear the mind, but by repeating to myself as I laid there, ‘Tonight I will be aware that I’m dreaming,’ or words to similar effect. I find it difficult to clear my mind, so sleep eludes me regularly, despite prescription tranquillisers. In a way, it helps with achieving lucidity, taking my waking thoughts with me as I slip into the other world.
It can take years of practice though, not least in suppressing your emotions so that you don’t wake yourself at the moment you realise you’re dreaming. That’s the opposite of being shocked awake by a nightmare. Conversely, sometimes you don’t realise you’ve achieved lucidity. Often the difference between awake and subconscious can be so subtle that you feel you’ve not slept at all.
You’re never aware of the moment you fall asleep, but you’re neither awake nor asleep in the dream. I learned to sleep like this when I was homeless.
It’s a different kind of consciousness. You’re exploring the subconscious mind, and that’s connected to the rest of the universe. How? Quantum entanglement: The simple idea that at the moment of the Big Bang, all matter was created from a point of almost infinite density. To do that, sub-atomic particles – many degrees of magnitude further from the smallest we can now detect – were ripped apart. 14.6 billion years later, each retains a link to its partner (they’re monogamous), and science has demonstrated that these connections operate over cosmic distances. We’re all in this together.
Essentially, each of us is connected to every single part of the universe at a sub-atomic level. And that’s how lucid dreaming works, as those wires which trail between galaxies get plugged into the universal power supply. The people you’re thinking of are far more likely to be looking up at the stars than those you’d rather forget. You’re more likely to bump into people you like when you dream. Better to sleep.
While you’re slumbering ethereally, you’re in a place of eternity and infinity; one where all knowledge is to be found. Count the sheep and follow the last one.
And that’s how I circle back to what I dreamed about last night.
Dreams are an exaggeration of reality, and the things you take with you become amplified.
While I drifted around in space the day before that which is now, I thought of how what could be my personal heaven might be someone else’s hell, if they fear a truth which might challenge their conditioning; and of how we’re all conditioned by modern terror.
Our rulers and governors would rather we didn’t dream. They made mind-expanding drugs illegal because they don’t want us to explore beyond this planet they’ve engineered; heaven and hell respectively, on either side of the great manufactured divide, pumped full of licensed drugs. The only psychedelic substances we’re allowed are the artificial ones made by big pharma companies, paying little tax in the havens governed by their shareholders. They fear what might happen if we were able to lay our hands freely on natural resources which might expand our minds beyond their blinkered vision, available for reading from the limited library of the right-wing press, or by borrowing someone from the human lending library of people most likely to give you unsolicited advice at a Wetherspoon’s fruit machine.
Like everyone’s dreams, mine are an exaggeration of reality. I have a feeling we really are in the midst of a third world war without realising we’ve been polarised, because it was engineered by a whole film crew of politicians, producing the living nightmare we see being played out around us.
Maybe I didn’t sleep after all, but I was there. All around the world, then and now. One person’s dreams are another’s nightmares. The only way to stop it is to switch it off.
This post was brought to you by the letter E, the number 37, and the writing prompt, ‘What did you dream about last night?’
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