A cardboard city winterscape

FICTION

It was around six years ago now that I found myself on the streets, an alcoholic. But this story has only a part of me in it. It’s about the other people out there, the quiet ones. Those aren’t monsters under the bed. These are the ghosts…

“If I don’t write, I’ll drink. So I have to force myself. Because if I’m drunk, I can’t write.”

Christmas Cardbord Sky

CARDBOARD SKY

The story of how I became a ghost is surprisingly ordinary: I died. My actual passing was like that moment when you fall asleep every night: You don’t remember it. The next day, you’ll remember being awake before you slept; you know you’ve been sleeping and you may recall dreams. But you won’t remember the transit from wakefulness to slumber. So dying was just like that, for me at least.

It didn’t take long to realise I was dead because people just stopped talking to me. I could still walk around but no-one could see or hear me. A couple of times, people just walked straight through me, as though I wasn’t there. I wasn’t but I was.

When someone walks through you when you’re a ghost, you get to know a lot more about them on the inside. I don’t mean how their internal organs look (just like in a hospital documentary or horror film) but a feeling of their inner self. It’s surprising how many people you thought you knew turn out to be complete twunts.

Even though I was invisible and inaudible, I felt vulnerable in this brave new world. I’m used to being looked at. I like it. I dress provocatively. But here, no-one was looking at me, which made me anxious. I felt invisible. I was invisible. That’s how I ended up sleeping under George’s bed.

So kids: It’s not a monster under the bed, it’s a ghost.

It was while I was under there that I decided to write this story.

I’d suddenly found myself homeless. I had no personal belongings, nowhere to go and nothing to do. But like any child’s bed, George’s had cardboard boxes underneath it. I wouldn’t pry into something which might be private, but like most children’s beds, George’s sat above a wasteland of discarded ephemera: a little-used word but for the purposes of this story, it was the right one. It’s a collective noun, for things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time. Or collectable items that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity. Ephemera also has a certain supernatural aura about it (Ephemeral, an adjective meaning lasting for a very short time), so to a ghost and a writer, it suits the story very well.

As a ghostwriter, I could be anyone I wanted. I could do that in cardboard city but I had less to worry about under the bed.

It wasn’t me writing the story; I was employing someone else. When a man writes something, he is judged on his words. When a woman writes, it is she who is judged. Being a ghost was perfect. Because if a ghost writes the story, then they control it. If a ghost tells this story, it doesn’t hurt as much.

Among the discarded stationery, I found a note: ”If you don’t finish that story, I will personally punch you in the face. Cool?” I had no idea who’d written it, nor the circumstances surrounding it. I assumed it was a note given to George. Or it might have been one he’d planned to give to someone else and thought better of it. It could just as easily have been addressed to me. Whatever, and if nothing else, it was a kick start. Sometimes that’s what we need.

It wasn’t a physical kick (There was no room under the bed) but it was a mental jolt, like the friend who places an arm around your shoulder and tells you they believe in you. That’s a very brave thing for them to do, because the kind of person who says that kind of thing is going to end up stuck with you.

I needed something to sustain me while I wrote, but I was under George’s bed. I had no idea how the rest of the house was laid out, so I wouldn’t know where to find the food. It occurred to me that even if I found any food, I was ill-equipped to cook it. One revelation leads to another: Ghosts don’t eat. Do they?

Eventually, I’d gathered enough odd paper to make a useful pad. All I could find to write with was a crayon. A fucking green crayon. So then I began to write, in green crayon.

Should I really have been denied drugs, when it was that which drove me, once I learned to control it? Should those who thought they knew better have removed my lifeline? If I’d allowed them to do so, I’d surely have died from the withdrawal. At least that’s what I was afraid of. So I kept going. I kept shooting up. Then I ran away. I was 16.

Once you’re 18, the law says you can leave home without your parents’ or guardians’ permission. Strictly speaking, if you’re 16 or 17 and you want to leave home, you need your parents’ consent. But if you leave home without it, you’re unlikely to be made to go back unless you’re in danger. You are extremely unlikely to be obliged to return home if that’s where the danger lies.

It didn’t matter to me that I had nothing. Just as long as I could get a fix, I had all I needed. Even personal safety and well being become passengers when the heroin is driving.

There’s a dark magic within you. A frightful thing I cling to.

But as a ghost I couldn’t score, just as I couldn’t eat.

So I had nothing to do but write. It would be romantic to write that the flow of ink from my pen replaced the alchemy running through my veins, but I was writing with a green crayon.

The writing was a distraction, but it couldn’t mask the withdrawal symptoms. It turns out that even being dead can’t do that. So I was faced with the prospect of cold turkey, a cruel joke as I was hungry and couldn’t eat.

How could I write but not be able to eat? Actually I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure if it was delirium tremens brought on by my withdrawal, or the limitations of my new body, but I had no fine motor skills. I could rummage through things and pick them up, but I couldn’t do something like thread a needle if anyone had asked. I probably wouldn’t have been able to put a needle in a vein if I was alive, and I certainly couldn’t make my hands write. My fine motor skills were like those of a toddler. So I simply did what many authors do: They have an idea, some thoughts, a plot, and they’ll employ someone else to write their story for them: A ghostwriter. I was both a writer and a ghost. So I just thought my story; I willed it, in the hope that someone else might write it one day, now that I couldn’t.

I needed to haunt George.

I’ve read a lot and learned through self-teaching. I could have been so many things if it wasn’t for chasing the dragon. But that dragon must be chased, just as a puppy must be played with. So I’d read up on ghosts and the various types of haunting.

The “Crisis Apparition” is normally a one-time event for those experiencing it. It’s when a ghost is seen at the time of it’s predecessor’s passing, as a way of saying farewell to family and friends. It would be like going about your daily business, then suddenly seeing your mum outside of normal contexts. Minutes later, you receive a call to tell you that she’s passed away. With practice, the deceased may be able to visit you more than once, to reassure you. If they do that, you might have a guardian angel. In my case, a fallen one with broken wings.

“The reluctant dead” are ghosts who are unaware they’re deceased. They go about their lives as if they were still living, oblivious to their passing. This innocence (or denial), can be so severe that the ghost can’t see the living, but can nonetheless feel their presence: A kind of role reversal. This can be stressful, for both the haunter and the haunted. In films, it’s usually someone moving into the home of a recently deceased person. Perhaps they lived and died alone in their twilight years. To them, the living might be invaders. These are not ghosts which need to be exorcised: Simply talking to them about their death can help them to cross over and leave your home.

Then there are ghosts who are trapped or lost: They know they’re dead but for one reason or another, they can’t cross over yet. Cross over into what? Some may fear moving on because of the person they were in life, or they might fear leaving what’s familiar to them.

There are ghosts with “unfinished business” broadly split into two categories: A father might return to make sure his children are okay. Or a lover might hang around, making sure their partner finds happiness and moves on. But there’s also the “vengeful ghost”; perhaps a murder victim, back to haunt their killer.

“Residual ghosts” usually live out their final hours over and over again. They often show no intelligence or self-awareness, and will walk straight by (or through) you. Many think that these types of ghosts left an imprint or a recording of themselves in our space time.

Finally, the “intelligent ghost”: Where the entity interacts with the living and shows a form of intelligence. I certainly wanted to communicate with George. In fact, to lesser and greater extents, I fitted parts of the descriptions of all types of ghosts. I’d not long been dead and already I had a multiple personality disorder.

All I could see of George when he first came into the room was his feet: Black elasticated plimsolls and white socks, like I used to wear for PE. I couldn’t say what size his feet were but I imagined them having a boy of about ten years old attached to them. I guessed George was quite a hefty lad by the way the sky fell slightly as he climbed onto the bed above me.

I laid still, because even though I myself was inaudible, my developing motor skills would betray me if I dropped the crayon or kicked anything. I could hear pages being turned and I was aware of movement above me. It could be that George was writing; doing homework perhaps. I didn’t want to entertain an alternative. I hoped he was writing.

No matter what we do in this life, we may eventually be forgotten. It’s a comfort I gain from writing, knowing that whatever’s published is recorded, and will be out there long after I’ve gone. The democratisation of publishing and reporting has meant many good and bad things, but for as long as the conversation is global, we need to keep it going. There may be voices with whom we disagree, but through writing, we can posit an alternative opinion and seed a debate. Beyond all that is happening in our constantly evolving universe is a simple fact: What is right will win. What is right can emerge from the anarchic democracy which is the internet, but only if there are enough voices. There will always be sides and factions but with everyone involved, those who engage the most because they are passionate enough will prevail. We don’t need to shout louder than the other side; we simply need to educate the ignorant. Evolution will tell the story of whether we became a liberal race and prospered, or if we destroyed ourselves because we were unable to evolve. Either way, history will record it. If we destroy ourselves, eventually our history will be lost in the vastness of space and time, and it may be as though we never existed. From the quiet above, I gathered George was quite a deep thinker.

There’s only one race on this planet and that’s the one we all belong to: The human race. Where death may scare most people, it doesn’t trouble me. I’m seeing evidence that the human consciousness exists independently from the body and continues to live after our bodies give up or we destroy them. What does scare me is even more existential: Being forgotten, as though I never existed. The human race faces an existential threat: That of ignorance. Simply by talking, we can make a difference. Listen to the previous generations, for they are our history. Talk to the next generation and don’t patronise them: They’re intelligent beings. They are the human race and the future. Maybe George would be heard one day.

After a while, the sky fell further and the lights went out. George had retired for the night.

Ghosts can see in the dark. As soon as George had been quiet long enough for me to be sure he was asleep, I was getting restless. I moved around and stretched a bit. I’d managed to keep the shakes under control, but now George was asleep, the withdrawal was becoming quite uncomfortable. Despite my anxiety and a developing agoraphobia, I was tempted to just get out and run around; to do something to distract myself. I decided against it. I’d be like a child who’d just learned to walk. I would bump into things and knock things over. I didn’t want George to have a poltergeist: They’re bad. I’m not bad and I didn’t want to be the victim of an exorcism, made homeless all over again.

I thought I’d try my night vision out and have another go at writing. I managed to draw a crude stick man, a house with a smoking chimney and a space rocket with flames coming out of the bottom. He was a green man, who lived in a green house (so shouldn’t throw stones) and he had a green rocket which burned copper sulphate fuel (copper sulphate produces a green flame). I wasn’t evolved enough to write.

I fought an internal flame: One which was a danger I wanted to flee but at the same time, a beckoning warmth. I didn’t know what time of day it was, and I had no idea how long George slept for. He might be one of those kids who was in and out of the bathroom all night, or he might be near enough to adolescence that he hibernated. Either way, or anywhere in between, I couldn’t keep still for even a minute.

The shakes were more like tremors now: Delirium tremens: a psychotic condition typical of withdrawal in chronic alcoholics, involving tremors, hallucinations, anxiety, and disorientation. Heroin withdrawal on its own does not produce seizures, heart attacks, strokes, or delirium tremens. The DTs were the manifestation of my other addiction, which I’d used heroin to cover up. It was somehow less shameful to be an addict of an illegal substance and hence a victim, than it was a legal drug which most people can consume with no ill effects. As an alcoholic, I was less of a victim. I was a sadomasochist.

As soon as you tell people you’re an alcoholic, if they don’t recoil, they just assume you’re always drunk. Or they presume that you must never touch a drop. Both are true in some alcoholics but there’s the “functioning alcoholic”, who still drinks far more than anyone should but who doesn’t get drunk. They can get drunk, but most functioning alcoholics simply drink throughout the day (a kind of grazing), to keep the delirium tremens and other dangerous side effects of alcohol cessation at bay. It’s called Alcohol Dependence Syndrome but most people saw it as a cop out. I couldn’t educate the ignorant, or get them to listen long enough for me to explain. So I started taking drugs. I got so tired of trying to explain alcoholism to people, educating their ignorance, that I gave up. You get much more sympathy as a drug addict. Yeah, right!

So as in life, this once functioning alcoholic is now a ghost.

For the brief period that I was on the road in the last life, one saying; one sentiment, was always to be heard in the homeless community: “Be safe”. Those two words convey much more than their brevity would suggest. But when you’re homeless, relationships and lives are fragile. It’s quicker and less sentimental to say “Be safe” to someone you may never see again than “I love you”.

Even if I was restless, I felt safe under George’s bed. To keep busy, I broke a promise and looked in the cardboard boxes. I placed the green crayon in my mouth, like a green cigarette. I sucked on it like a joint and the taste of wax was actually quite pleasant. It helped just a little as a distraction from the shakes.

The first box was a complete mixture: Sheets of paper, smaller boxes and random other stuff; like a model car, some Lego and, well, just all sorts. I gathered the papers first.

Some of George’s notes were apparently to himself: They were in a handwriting different to the first note I saw, so I couldn’t be entirely sure, but one such note read, “You came close a few times but you backed off. You didn’t want to be one of those boys who made her cry. That’s the only reason you did it.” If they were intended for someone else, he’d not delivered them.

There were unopened presents, and gifts addressed to others, but George hadn’t delivered them. Some things were wrapped, while others weren’t, but they were clearly intended for someone else as they had notes attached. A packet of 20 Marlborough Lights: “Should really have got two tens, then I could have given mum and dad one each. Like that’s going to stop them.”

I’d not seen or heard the parents. Without knowing even what day of the week it was, there could be many scenarios. In one, George’s parents argued a lot but they were very much in love. Perhaps they were frustrated and united against a common foe. With my parents, that was me. Whatever it was, I imagined something bonding them and keeping them together. That could have been George I suppose.

I wondered at what point in human evolution it might have been, that we started analysing things and where we started to over-analyse. Marriage guidance, or relationship management; fucking counselling, from professionals and the plastic police alike: We all have someone. We all love someone. They care about us and vice versa. But over time, something’s not right, so we take the lid off and start poking around in that jar. We keep chipping away, feeling more free to say things in an environment, which we might not in another. And eventually we say something irreversible. Something that’s niggling us deep inside and which doesn’t affect us until it’s dug up. And from there, the relationship breaks down further and ever more of the undead join the feast.

Rather than encourage engagement, that kind of situation can invoke the fight or flight reflex in the previous life; the past. And whether fleed or not, the past is history.

So we arrive in the next life with so much unsaid. We want to say it but we have to learn all over again, how to speak. And I suppose that’s why we want to haunt people.

George woke up. A light was switched on and the sky above me moved. I waited for the feet from above but there were none. There was movement like before, and the sound of paper. George must have been writing. Or drawing. After what I guessed to be around 20 minutes, he stopped, the light went out and the sky moved again. I was trembling quite violently by then, so I bit down on the crayon between my teeth and returned my attention to the boxes.

I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.

Do the first one: Get to know yourself and be happy with what you are. Then do the second: Those who loved you first time around will be the ones who are still there. So you’re not lonely.

Life, packaged.

The human body is merely a temporary host.

Put like that, we simply inhabit a body for a period of time, like a possession; In “life” we are already ghosts possessing bodies which give us physical form. That organic structure will age and eventually die, but our consciousness is separate from what we look at as a living body and it goes on living, long after the host gives up. Life, as we know it, is merely one part of an ongoing existence, the greatness of which we don’t yet understand. Knowledge comes with death’s release. You may well have lived in another body in a previous life: Deja vu tells us that; that feeling that you’ve been somewhere before. George had deep dreams.

The trembling had reached my head. There was more than one person in there, and the dialogue was two-way. I wasn’t talking to myself; I was talking to another person.

I began to realise that perhaps George and I were somehow connected. I always subscribed to pre-determinism in principle. A part of me knew that the Big Bang carried an imprint equal to its original noise; that everything was mapped out in that pre-spacetime manifestation of knowledge and understanding. I was drawn to believe that our futures were mapped out long ago, but that they were as inaccessible as our pasts: We had no control over either. Great swathes of George were alien to me. But why wouldn’t I explore, if George was my destiny? Or it could be the withdrawal, and I may have been withdrawing to a comfort zone. I couldn’t do that to George. What had this kid done to deserve me, inside him?

Life had been very much a game of give and take: If George had taken something, then he was indebted to someone else. If he received something and it wasn’t in recognition of anything he’d done, he was in someone else’s debt. When he gave something, he expected nothing back. It was simply an accepted fact that life gave back far less than was put in. No-one understood him, least of all himself. Did ICould I?

His life revolved around visits to toy fairs with his father. They couldn’t afford the mint-and-boxed or the ready-made, so dad would just look around and George would use pocket money to buy spacecraft parts.

Broken and incomplete model kits were fuel for George’s shipyard in a cardboard box under the bed. When weekends were over, the shipyard had to remain where it was. When George was at his dad’s to build his craft, he didn’t. Because time was too valuable. So we were at George’s father’s house and it was the weekend.

When he wasn’t constructing, he was thinking. And he made more notes. He made the normal in my life fantastical, by explaining how science fiction writers were just one small step ahead of the real world. George knew I was there, or at least that it was possible for me to physically be there.

There were clippings from newspapers and magazines in the next box, including an obituary: Jemma Redmond was a biotechnologist who died aged 38 in 2016, like so many others in that awful year. The passing of her life was overshadowed by many more well-known figures in the public eye. But like George, she worked quietly, tirelessly and passionately. And she achieved some incredible things. She developed a means of using human tissue cells as “ink” in a 3D printer. She also helped in the design of 3D printers which reduced the cost of their manufacture. Jemma Redmond made it possible to “print” human organs for transplant into patients, and she reduced the cost so that the technique could be applied in the developing world. This is not science fiction. This is science fact, just a few years from now. Most people wouldn’t have known, unless it was brought to their attention and they then had the attention span to listen. But if anyone were to Google her name, her work is recorded in modern history.

There was a printout of a scientific paper about NASA’s EMdrive. The Electro Magnetic drive is a fuel-free means of propulsion, which could replace rocket fuel and all its limitations of bulk and speed. The EMdrive could take a spacecraft to Mars in 70 days. At present, it’s a two year trip, with a lot of psychological and physiological risks to any humans making the journey. Many of those problems would be overcome with the EMdrive. It’s due for testing soon and with development and improvement, could make other stars in the galaxy viable destinations for exploration and research. This is not science fiction. He had articles about solar sail arrays, the size of Colorado, taking tiny scout ships out to explore the cosmos ahead of humans. All of this could be possible within George’s lifetime.

But very few people know about these things because all of the bad news in the world shouts louder. If more people knew about the technological and scientific thresholds we’re at, they might talk about them. Others would then learn and eventually there might be a chorus of voices so loud that mankind has to listen and consider another way forward for the species.

George thought what a wonderful world ours could be if we concentrated on this stuff, rather than religion, conflict and capitalism. Of course, George was young and naïve in the eyes of most. He’d never be taken seriously if he proposed an alternative plan for humankind. So he kept and curated records, and he wrote about them. Like so many other people, he was recording his thoughts in the hope that someone might discover them later, or when he was older and might be taken more seriously. He was aware that he was documenting the present and the contemporary, and that it could become either history or the future.

My trembling had almost taken control of my limbs by now. Where it was first shaky fingers, then hands, now my arms and legs ached as though they needed to spasm.

The light went on again and the sky moved. There was more rustling of papers and scribbling with a pen or pencil. I started singing a song in my head, as I wondered something: I knew I didn’t need to eat, but would I need to get my hair cut out here? It was a song by the Crash Test Dummies: God shuffled his feet. If crash test dummies were to have nervous systems, I knew how one might feel by now. The light went off and the little big man upstairs settled back down. I needed coffee: lots of cream, lots of sugar.

My coffee used to come from a jug on a hotplate. George was planning a replicator. He explained in his notes how a replicator was just one step further on from a 3D printer. Scientists could already print human body parts after all. To print a cup, then some coffee to fill it, was actually quite simple. George was keen to point out in his notes that one should always print the cup before the coffee.

Like the quiet voices of mankind, George could only imagine. He could only wonder at the sky, or lie in bed and dream of what was beyond the ceiling. Humans travelling to other stars was one lifetime away. It was only a matter of generations before the dream could be anyone’s reality. George wanted to be anyone.

George escaped in his sleep. And he explained in his notes how it was possible to travel all over the universe. Not only was it possible, but everyone does it, every night. Everyone has dreams and George wrote his down. The spacecraft and all of its missions were in the same cardboard box; a microcosm universe beneath George’s bed. He explained how time travel could be possible:

It’s a simple matter of thinking of space and time as the same thing: Spacetime. Once you do that, it’s easier to visualise the fourth dimension: I am lying beneath a bed and I’m occupying a space in three dimensions (X,Y and Z); my height (or length), width and depth. Trembling limbs aside, I will occupy the same space five minutes from now. So the first three dimensions have remained constant, but the fourth (time) has changed. But also, I did occupy that same space five minutes previously. That, and every moment in between is recorded in the fabric of space time: I am still there, five minutes ago. I know the past. I don’t know if I’ll still be here five minutes hence: I can’t predict the future, even though it may be pre-planned from the start of all time as we understand it.

Of course, there is what’s known as The Grandfather Paradox: This states that if I were to travel back in time and kill my granddad, I would cease to exist. But if we assume that in George’s new world order, various ethics committees exist in the future, then time travel to the past could be undertaken in a governed, regulated and ethical manor. It might be a little like the First Directive imagined in many science fiction works, where it’s forbidden to interfere in any way in a species’ development, even if that means remaining invisible whilst watching them destroy themselves. This in itself is a paradox because no-one is qualified to say that it hasn’t already happened, conspiracy theorists aside.

When you’re despairing late at night and you just wish someone was there, but you don’t really want anyone around. When you’re confused, perhaps by internal conflict. That’s when you need a guardian angel. If someone would just phone you at that time, that would be perfect, because you’re not bothering them. You’ve not caused them any trouble. Guardian angels need a sixth sense and the ability to travel back in time.

George estimated his brave new world to be around 200-250 years from now; perhaps ten generations. There was a long way to go and a lot to do, and George would most likely not see any of it. Or so he thought. He was young and he had much to learn, then he needed to learn how to deal with it. The things which George wanted to do were the things I regretted not doing.

All things considered, I thought it might be better to not let George know that one of his prophesies does come true. It was too soon. He wasn’t ready. I couldn’t let him know that it was possible to send letters from the future, or that people from the past could be visited. It was a one-way street, a bit like going to see grandma because she can’t get to you. The departed are still around, we just can’t normally see them. Often they’re just watching over us. Sometimes they might want to speak to us but we need to be receptive.

By now, my arms and legs were in full spasm and I could feel my torso waiting to convulse. I cleared everything from around me as quietly as I could, so as not to interrupt whatever dream was unfolding above me.

The human body has an internal mechanism which shuts it down when stimuli get too much. An inconsolable baby will cry itself to sleep, and if a pain becomes truly unbearable at any age, we will pass out. I hadn’t tried to sleep since I’d been dead, but it looked like I was about to be shown how to.

I don’t know how far I travelled in the fourth dimension but I was woken by a voice:

“Georgie?” It was a man’s voice. Dad was home.

“In here dad.” George calling to his dad was the first time I’d heard him speak.

“I got you your magazines.” Dad was now in the room, quieter but closer. He had big feet.

“Thanks dad.” George’s voice had changed. Now that he was speaking at a lower volume, his voice was deeper: Young George’s voice was breaking.

“Writing, the science one, and paper craft. Is that right?”

“That’s the ones. Thanks.”

“What’s all this?”

“Notes. I’m writing a story. Here.”

There was a long period of quiet. George was shifting about on the bed and his dad was pacing around the room. There was that same distinct sound of pages being turned that I’d grown used to.

“Jemma Redmond. I read about her. Amazing woman. Deserves a posthumous Nobel.

“The EMdrive, eh? That’s exciting. I think we’ll use that for the interstellar stuff, and the solar sail ships for the wider galactic vanguard missions.”

“There’s some pretty deep stuff in here Georgie. Did you do this all yourself?”

“Well, I kind of had some help.”

“From whom? I’d like to meet them.”

“You can’t dad.”

“Why not?”

“Promise you won’t laugh?”

“Can I smile?”

“You may smile”. There was a pause. “So, I had a dream.”

“We all have those. What about?”

“Nothing specific. Just a load of dreams mixed into one I suppose.”

“So you wrote about it. It’s good to write down your dreams.”

“But not all of that writing is mine. See, there was this girl.”

“A girl? In your dream?”

“Yes. A small girl, with blonde fizzy hair. And green teeth.”

“Green teeth? Was she a witch? Is she under the bed?”

Shit!

“No. Well, she was kind of a witch. A dark witch but a good one. She was just wandering around, like she was showing me things. She might have been lost. I want to see her again.”

“I imagine you do. At least your witch has somewhere to live now.”

***

George left at the end of that weekend but it wasn’t the end of the story. He visits every weekend and he continues to record things for historians of the future. Eventually, he may realise that he was part of the machinery which kept the conversation going. He didn’t know this yet but he was encouraged in his chosen vocations.

I was there, under the bed. If I’d been able to write, I’d have just added a note for George:

Do what you enjoy. If you enjoy it, you’ll be good at it and people might notice you. If not now, then in the future. Don’t put off till tomorrow that which you can do today. Because if you do it today and you like it, you can do it again tomorrow.

Your life is not empty and meaningless, regardless of who is in it or absent from it. Your life is what you make it, for yourself and for future generations. Don’t give up.

Hopefully George will continue this story, now history, but in the hope that it might be read in the future. Perhaps he’ll find the notes I left him.

Dust to Funky. Be safe George.

To this day, Dad has never gone through George’s things under the bed. I’d have noticed.

© Steve Laker, 2017.

Munchausen’s jury syndrome

HAIKU

Monkey Black heart Haiku Sapien3

A decade in a haiku trilogy

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Since the good ship Simon set sail, I’ve been going through some old family photos on Facebook. Never one to shamepost pictures of my young adults when they were kids, the memories are nevertheless contained in the ten years I was married, when Mountsfield Park and Manor House Gardens were my 100 Aker Woods. The young ones are pure Catfordian, from Kentish and Irish blood, and that decade in the London Borough of Lewisham is where I learned Japanese and wrote 51 syllables…

WHEN WE WERE VERY YOUNG

Lollipop

THEN WE WERE FOUR

Dinner lady orange

I’LL ALWAYS MISS YOU,” SAID EEYORE…

Ambulance police

…to Piglet and Pooh, Kanga and Roo.

You can take the poet out of Catford, but that Two-tone cat will never stop scratching me.

catford se6 cat poem

The Apoplectic Apologist

THE WRITER’S LIFE

We can only apologise to the past, and the most difficult person to say sorry to, is you…”

CharlieBrownSnoopyOnDock

Yesterday was one of the occasional ones out with two young friends (they’re 14 and 12 now, so they’re not my kids, they’re young people), and we were back to the familiar stomping ground of Milton Keynes. As ever, it was a very pleasant day, spent in good company, with intelligent conversation. But something played on my mind throughout, and now I feel deflated because it’s too late to go back and change it. Like much of my life then, full of regrets over things I’ve done and live with the guilt.

This was something I hadn’t done, but which I’d said I would. No promises were made and no undue pressure was applied, but there was something I should have done and didn’t, and although no-one’s told me so, I feel I let people down. Paranoia has always lived comfortably with its depression and anxiety siblings in my head.

Apologies don’t always come from the natural apologetic. There’s regret and there’s sorrow, and there’s two types of that: saying sorry; and bearing true remorse, meaning it when you say it. When paranoia has a habit of knocking you around, it’s difficult to accept having an apology accepted, because the guilt lives on, feeding on your guts. I can’t accept forgiveness when I can’t forgive myself. It’s just the way my mind works.

This latest episode revolves around my brother in-law, Si(mon); actually my ex, because he’s divorced from my sister, with whom I’ve been estranged for several years since my alcoholic breakdown, and we only recently made up (thanks to intervention from the mothership, who pointed out that you’ll never see someone’s a different person if you avoid them). I hadn’t made a promise to my sister, but I’d said via our mutual mum that as I was in London yesterday, I’d try to pop in and see Si.

Si’s not well, in a high dependency unit at St. Thomas’s Hospital with malfunctioning kidneys. He’s unconscious but can hear people talking to him. When I was asked to leave the family home six years ago, Si was there to give me a hand. When I sobered up and called my sister after two years of not talking, I was glad Si answered. Lovely bloke, likes his custard, doesn’t judge. I was going to visit him, to talk to him, to thank him. The worth of my words is subjective, but I’m good at talking to people in tough spots. My dad (who has Parkinson’s) says likes talking to me, probably because I speak to people as I always have, paying little regard to any ailment inflicting my audience.

The plan was to spend the day with my young co-conspirators, then visit by brother by another mother when I got back to London. On the way up to town, my mum phoned me and said my sister would very much appreciate the gesture on my part, to visit with Si. As we’ve only recently patched things up between us, I was quite moved that my sister placed a value in me, hopefully now able to see the good in her brother which I lost through drinking and verbal abuse towards others. I couldn’t not visit Si.

I had a pleasant lunch with my young friends, while we made future plans. The eldest is interested in poker (the analytical mathematical odds aspect which makes up 70% of the game, not the 30% which is luck), so I’ve promised him a trip to the poker room I used to frequent when I was a semi-pro, at The Empire Casino in Leicester Square, for his 18th birthday. The younger one wants to go to a West End show, and there’s no-one I’d rather make my next trip to the theatre with. They’re promises I intend to keep, unlike the one which slipped away as I travelled home.

I slept on the train back to London from Milton Keynes, as usual. I don’t tend to sleep the night before I meet the young ones, a conspiracy between my anxiety and circadian clock. I woke at Euston and went straight to the Victoria Line, as is my usual underground habit. I’d forgotten I was meant to go to Waterloo (to the hospital), not to Victoria (for a train home). I needed to get back on the tube, onto the Northern Line, which was part-suspended. The Bakerloo Line then. Then I realised at the ticket barrier that I didn’t have a Travelcard, just a return from home to Milton Keynes, which allowed me one cross-London journey. Then I got stressed. I wasn’t panicked, but I was anxious (it’s like being followed, but before your mugger attacks). I couldn’t leave with a guilty conscience but I couldn’t cure it by staying there. So I gave up on myself, and that’s when I let everyone down, when I decided to just get on a train and go home.

I was tired (no excuse), I was broke (ditto, could have walked), and I was starting to have panicky thoughts (not unusual). Funny thing is, I’d have walked miles for shelter when I was homeless and skint, but the streets are where most of my PTSD originates. Nevertheless, I broke a promise I’d made to my sister after so many years of estrangement, and I’d left a very sick man alone, when a simple act of human contact might have helped him. I got on the train feeling selfish and alone, full of guilt, revolving around myself instead of a hospital bed. I was a coward. I was afraid to see my friend looking frail, and I should remember that when I’m on my own death bed with no visitors.

I haven’t phoned my sister or our mum, and they might even be surprised I’m beating myself up so much, when I hadn’t promised anything. But I’d made a promise by proxy, to a fellow man and kindred spirit, and I feel as let down myself as anyone has any right to be disappointed. My biggest fear is being seen to revert to type, when once all I’d wanted to do was get home and drink. I wanted to get home, to escape the situation and to sleep.

I fretted for the rest of the night, over telling my mum and sister about this. I chose to write it down, in the hope anyone reading might understand. I went to bed at my usual 5am, ending a 39-hour shift unbroken by sleep apart from that nap on the train.

Today I feel just as bad, truly selfish, like self-absorbed. That guilt joins all the others which trouble the mind of an alcoholic, all day and every day after they’ve sobered up. It’s a life sentence I live with like the alcoholic label, while I refuse to get drunk to numb and lighten my mood. I think I’m meant to find some strength and reassurance in that, and I suppose it’s better than not waking up like I used to and not knowing what happened the day before. I feel like I did yesterday, but not the day before that. But I feel like I did when I didn’t visit my dad in hospital. I couldn’t afford the travel and I remembered my dad the last time I’d seen him, when he said my words were helpful. I feel the same very time I have to leave my two young friends. I feel cruel.

It feels like I’m losing parts of my past, much of which I wouldn’t mourn, but that which I treasure is being taken. After I patched up so many differences, I’m pushing away further chances to get better. I don’t blame anyone for not phoning me, when I find talking to myself so difficult and confusing. My mental illness means I’m always sharing space with a kind of anti-me (I’m very anti me at times).

I’ve paused writing on my family history book, Silent Gardens. The original purpose of the book was to help dad remember things, but I feared not finishing it before he forgot, even though reminders of the past would engage his mind. I felt I might be tempting fate, my anti-Midas touch turning everything to shit, when so much of my past has eroded.

I have few people to talk to (and I make it that way), so I’m glad I can write. I’m miserable alone, perhaps karma for the way I’ve left other people. Even if it doesn’t all make sense, it makes sense for me to get it out. It’s like someone else hitting me, to save me time beating myself up.

All I had to do is say sorry, but that still doesn’t solve the paradox, when saying it doesn’t take the feeling away. I’m not looking for anything, least of all sympathy and understanding, when only I know how I feel. “How you doing?” Read my blog.

How can I lift the guilt? How can I stop feeling sorry for myself? By apologising to myself? We can only apologise to the past, and the most difficult person to say sorry to is you, when you are unwilling to forgive yourself.

I wish we could go back to the old days, when we had so much time to talk but we rarely did because we didn’t need to. The cruelty of life, inflicted on those trying to live it; the human condition.

You’ll get over your apologetic apoplexy,” is something I’m only likely to say to myself. Although I’ll have an unexpected upswing in mood at some arbitrary point, when something random and beyond my control happens, I don’t know when that will be. It’s the paradox of living alone in your head with depression and daily confusion. If you apologise for what’s to still to come, you’re probably a sociopath if you’re talking to someone else. I can only apologise to myself for whatever the future may hold.

All I need to do is keep talking to myself. Despite being a sci-fi writer, I find looking forward difficult. Or maybe I’m just paranoid. Sorry about that.

Snoopy3

EDIT: Simon passed away today (Sunday, 25th August). He’s survived by his mum and four children. Safe journey brother x

Typewriters as carry-on luggage

THE WRITER’S LIFE | POETRY

My typewriter uses magnets to get the hammers to hit the paper, because I need help to press the keys. Don’t ask me why I eat my cornflakes from a coffee mug with a small spoon: I’m quite content and I know what I’m doing, putting my writing into the overhead locker. 

It’s been like that since my right wing broke and I crash-landed on the streets. Unlikely to ever regain the heady financial heights of running a company into the ground and milking it for all it was worth, the left wing poet started crowing.

The lead is still in my chest, the flapping in the gutter never allowing me an escape through the portcullis of a wrought iron drain cover. Sober now but always an alcoholic (a medical fact), and forever toxic to some of those whose lives I touched, writing is my therapy and an escape from social isolation. Sometimes that’s just a few words to the gathered audience of myself.

We wrote a poem about what’s in and out of the Cerberus head, for one a micro fiction tale of several thousand pounds used as a bankroll to play poker, before I had to pay a supplier to keep my knees, when he called round at my converted manor house flat. I needed to be shot down.

TWO-WAY X-RAY

Broken right wingIf I had a hammer and a fuzzbox

With my mind full of ghosts, it helps to spew into the typewriter. If I were to exorcise everything, I’d need an eternity in which to remain awake. That’s when I talk to myself, often all night. There’ll usually come a point where I realise everything I’ve said can be edited and condensed, which is why my longhand notes fill a wall (I keep a notepad next to my bed).

How you’re feeling in your own room is like the 19-word synopsis for this post in the verse above, about the fuel at both ends of the candle, all day and every day: depression.

But the strange thing is, that thing which envelops me is also a comfort blanket. When you’re alone, your own brain can become your enemy, so you make friends with one of its quirks.

Let’s go.”

Why?”

Because one day we won’t be able to.”

That’s why, if someone gave me a big red button to switch it all off, reset my brain and be ‘Normal’, I’d refuse. I’ve seen what’s considered normal, and I don’t like it. Because when you find a place where you can be yourself, where you can have a ball playing you on stage, that’s a place you want to be yourself, even if you’re only dancing in front of the mirror. Typewriters carrying on as luggage.

Orange typewriter poem

In here, I can meet you, me, and everyone we see. I can explore the universe and tell tales of what happens to us in the future. You are the spaceport security scanning my typewriter, and you don’t mind sitting next to me on a spaceship. Thanks for travelling with me, even when we have to land the ship at Jumbo Harbour to refuel.

Every night has a day, and every day has a night, depending on when you sleep. That’s meant to dictate when you eat. Thanks for not questioning why I use pencils as chopsticks.

Songs from a singular lung

MICRO FICTION

I blew into the breathalyser, like a blade of grass between my thumbs. I didn’t know what animal sound I was making, but whatever beast I’d summoned was now approaching…

Kermit Typing

Paula Nancy’s rattling bones

POETRY

This week I reach the age which Douglas did before he left the planet, like so many others as I’ve grown old and they didn’t. This is for my friends who left school before me. On growing old (and lonelier) as a pot-smoking private poet…

Alcoholic PoetPoemSearcher.com (background image)

I believe we’re not truly gone until we’re forgotten, and that old friends and family still walk among us, roused from their sleep when we think of them.

I got a haircut tonight, at Stand By My Hair, a butchery joint run by a chef-barber friend of mine from my kitchen. My Barnet unfair goes well with my new glasses and a cravat I fashioned from a bandanna to make me feel like a writer again.

And a poet. I haven’t forgotten myself. Who’s afraid of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings?