Making flans for Simon

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’d originally planned to spend the weekend making plans for Nigel, but when I realised I had no close friends called Nigel, my plans had to change. Instead I called on Simon Fry, my character, persona, and alter ego from Cyrus Song. We were having dinner and he’d asked me to bring dessert, so I’d made flans.

HHGG Deep ThoughtA poster on Simon Fry’s wall: a design sketch from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie.

I’d decided to speak to Simon because he’s the person most likely to understand me. Even though I created him, he’s a completely separate person, and any decent writer will tell you that’s a perfectly plausible statement to make.

Before Cyrus Song, I already had Simon Fry’s life story written down. It fills a notebook, which I still have, along with the one containing Hannah Jones. A very small percentage of what’s in those journals is in the novel, but the characters’ speech and mannerisms write more than the words on the page. It’s knowing my characters so well which allows me to bring them to life (convincingly, I’m told). Every writer puts a piece of themselves into their stories and characters, I’m perhaps slightly above and beyond with some of mine.

I have a deep understanding of the human condition (the critics and reviewers say), and I have many personalities in my head, so each of my characters is a mix of those, and of other people I know. I know how Simon talks, because I know how he thinks, but only as far as a poker player would another. Even though I created him, I can’t read his mind. He has so much of his own story in that other notebook, that he’s a strong enough character to not need me (it applies to Hannah too).

It’s handy to be able to do things like this as a writer, and as a socially anxious one, I really do make (as in, create) friends. It sounds tragic perhaps, but it’s actually very useful.

Doctor Hannah Jones is based less on me, but with elements of others I know well in the real world, within her (I’ve tested it out on some of those other people). With all of those people in there, my understanding of human thinking and inter-personal psychology, I can hold a perfectly convincing conversation with Hannah, just as I can Simon. I don’t know if this is proof of my writing skills or confirmation of multiple personality disorder.

It’s the best way I have of getting to know myself. Some would say it’s talking to myself, but it’s more like questioning different parts of myself, so that the whole can get along. We may disagree, but I favour debate over conflict, especially when it’s in my head. This is my coping mechanism, but it’s more my mental health management strategy.

I said after I’d written the book, how much I missed those people, because they’d become so real when they were around me all the time as I wrote them…

I put the flans in Simon’s fridge, and I noticed he had a can of squirty cream in the door. Then we both sat on the sofa, wondering who should speak first.

“I’m not going to be your counsellor am I?” It was Simon. “Because I’ve counselled myself on many things before and wondered why I didn’t get a second opinion.”

“To be honest,” I replied, “I’m not entirely sure how this is all going to go.”

“What did you expect?” Simon wondered. “Because things rarely live up to expectation.” I’d caught him on a pessimistic day (he has those).

“I don’t have any expectations,” I said, “just an interest.”

“Very wise,” Simon nodded. I thought he’d say that.

“What about you?” I asked.

“The same,” he replied, “but if we both sit here just looking interesting, it’s not going to get us very far. So can I ask you a question?”

“It’s not like I can stop you.”

“True, in part. But anyway, why me?”

“I needed someone to talk to, to make it easier for me to talk.”

“So that I can ask you the questions you want to be asked, so that you have an excuse to answer.” Simon is very perceptive.

“You’re right,” I replied (he knew he was), “because you’re the one I spent longest in, and where I found myself.”

“So you’re haunting me?”

“No more than I hope I’m on anyone else’s minds. But in you, I found ways for you to deal with things, which helped myself and others to understand things around themselves.”

“In Cyrus Song?”

“In that book, where a lot of other people might find themselves in those characters.”

“And you have the advantage that you can come round here and talk to one of them.”

“I consider it a privilege.” And I did. Because these words are not entirely my own.

“Well, I can tell you,” Simon said, “that you created a whole world for me to move around in freely, as you can see for yourself. Beyond this world, you’ve created others which you’re equally free to occupy, but you’re always welcome here.” I’m not sure he could really say anything else (I’d be a bit fucked, like humanity at the start of the book).

“Perhaps we could invite Hannah along?” I wondered.

“Yes, I wondered how long it’d take you to get round to that. Let’s see how we go,” which is how I myself usually tell people to chill out. “And let’s do that soon,” which is something I rarely say, for fear of intrusion into someone else’s life.

This was turning into a story in itself. A man who was after my own heart, had overcome a lot in his life, and especially in the two week period covered in our book. Although it’s a surreal and twisting science fiction yarn, and with a nod to Douglas Adams, it’s very much a book from my own heart, and with a dark inner soul of its own. It’s a story of two people, who with a lot of help, find out much they didn’t know about themselves and the universe around them. I’ll be talking to Simon again soon.

As a writer I have multiple universes I can visit, but as a socially anxious person, I felt more at home in Simon’s flat. Even the flans seemed like some sort of unconscious collaboration, an ever-present threat of potential comedy while we spoke, should either of us be inclined. But we’re far too grown up and introverted for that sort of thing.

Cyrus Song is available now. The prequel stories of Simon and Hannah (and Captain Mamba) are told in The Unfinished Literary Agency.

Twisted Shakespeare’s Sisters

THE WRITER’S LIFE

We all have things we wish to say, but which we keep to ourselves, fearing others’ reactions. But avoiding a clash can be more harmful than the conflict itself, certainly for the side bearing a burden. I’m a left-wing liberal social democrat, preferring dialogue for mutual understanding, over confrontations of anger which quickly degenerate. A third option is sometimes to walk away, perhaps to fester and make matters worse. If others choose to ignore me, I can at least write.

Mouth sewn shut

I’ve previously described my life as chapters. It’s been partly a coping mechanism, when I dried out and tried moving on from my accrued guilt. But the alcoholic label is permanent, just as the repentant alcoholic’s guilt complex is a life sentence. My latest depressive episode is ongoing, as much in my personal life has reminded me of the fragility of being. Many of my previous coping mechanisms are redundant, so this is a new chapter.

I read inspirational quotes, some by great philosophers, telling me that the past was a lesson, that I should learn from it and move on. But that’s easy for them to say, when they probably don’t have chronic depression of my particular brand, and all the add-ons which come with it (and when most of them are dead).

My depression is compounded by living alone, interred by social anxiety, and where paranoia and guilt breed like bacteria in a Petri dish. There are plenty of opportunities to review the events of the last five years, and the many episodes which led to diagnoses of PTSD.

I can understand how others lapse (and I’ve come close), to escape a life of guilty sobriety as they previously sought to escape daily life. Some people I knew took their own lives, unable to deal with the constant voices; their own paranoia, and other people, who can’t forgive. My drunken years left marks on many, but most are reconciled. They’ve moved on, perhaps unaware that I can’t, but those who apply the permanent label continue to carve into my permanent scars.

I wish I could forget, but the only way to do that would be a gift to those who wish me ill. I’ve moved on otherwise, but I live the life sentence of regret. I won’t jump, as those who may otherwise push me might like. I’ll deny them their own selfish pleasure, just as taking my own life would be selfish on my part. These people are the enemy, not just my own, but of all whom I love and who care about me.

Chapter one was my life to 42, lived but not knowing why. Then my alcoholic mental breakdown left me with just a pen and paper, so I started to write chapter two. The third chapter started when I got a permanent home with a social landlord, where I’ve now lived for two years. I’ve been stuck in my mind, but I needn’t be in life. My humble needs of shelter and security are addressed, so even if it’s dark, I can write. Even if only a few read my words, at least I was heard. I live, even if some wish I didn’t.

I know there are others with these same toxins in their life, who can hold a mirror to these people, so they can see how deeply evil they are. Their lives are also lessons, when we who they look down on can rise above them. Because if you’re alive, they’ve lost. Then you can spend some of your living days silently taunting them, but not actually having to say anything: A real-life haunting. You’re just there, and it’s what they’ve been doing to you all along.

The blisters on my feet from walking around the issues others won’t address, I can turn into heat as I write the words.

Smoke from a seashell

FICTION

With so much to engage me – both real and fictional – I find myself in a place I once wrote. The socially anxious writer doesn’t get out much, so has little to write about other than what’s in the mind. In recovery from the most recent attacks of a bi-polar life which is a reminder of its own frailty, I’m very much exploring the expanses of experience further.

Of all the places I’ve created, both for myself and for others to go, Echo Beach will be the one I return to most frequently. Because on the shore of the secret cove, are the beginnings of infinite other lives.

I’ve been compared to authors I idolise in each genre I write, but among many influences in the multiple areas which make up writing, the one I aspire to as an author is Paul Auster. The greatest compliment paid to me was by a reader who compared me to him in person.

The story which follows was partly influenced by Smoke, a film by Paul Auster. The reference is subtle, and will only be obvious to those who’ve seen the film. I’m not one to hide such things, so (spoiler alert): It’s in the flicking of the ash, and the smoking of words. My story is a tribute to my mentor.

While I’m working on some new short stories (from flash fiction to long reads) for a third anthology, I’m finishing replenishing the shelves in my brain’s library of social affairs and politics.

For a day or so, I sit in my deckchair, surveying the horizon to the sound of my own voice, from a seashell…

Alien snailPinterest

ECHO BEACH

It was the only sea shell which didn’t contain the ocean. When held to the ear, it was silent.

Every shell, on a beach or miles inland, carries a recording: The last sound, to be played back innumerable times if anyone listened. But one shell contained nothing when he held it to his ear. A vacuum. It fitted perfectly into his hand. The size of an adult thumb, his fingers clasped the shell tightly as he walked along the beach.

He shooed some gulls from a discarded bag of chips and sat down to eat with his invisible partner. The birds strutted around, like impatient waiters keen to get home. The chips tasted of the sea: salt. If the ocean had contained none, he would gladly have drained it.

The water played tricks, as though enticing him to drink it: Small and gentle waves merely caressed the beach, like spilled pints of beer in a desert. The water was brown and the moonlight sparkled on frosty suds on the surface: A cola float. A plastic bottle was pushed temptingly towards him, but it was empty; not even a note inside.

The boy looked out over the sea. There were no lighthouses; no ships in the night. Just the spectral light of the sun reflected from the moon. It was silent. It was still. It was beautiful.

Clouds moved slowly across the sky, like the last sheep returning home after a storm. They cast shadows on the shore as they passed in front of the moon and were lit up like candyfloss. Then a figure walked from the shadows: A man, wearing a tall hat and a long coat, silhouetted against the moon, his shadow stretching up the beach to cover the boy’s feet.

The man scooped the plastic bottle up and turned to the boy: “Hello son.” The boy said nothing. He didn’t even look at the man. He just stared at the beach. The man spoke again: “Hello.”

Hi. I’m not your son.” The boy still looked straight ahead.

Of course you’re not. I’m so sorry”, said the man. “I’m not your father.” The man sat down and placed the bottle beside him. “What would you prefer?” The boy just stared at the man’s boots: Black pixie boots, with probably two inch heels. “Perhaps you don’t understand. Maybe you only know certain words.” The man stood. “I’ll write some down for you, here in the sand:

Friend.

Brother.

Human?”

I like that one.” The boy pointed. “Human”.

Do you have a name?”

Yes.”

What’s your name?”

I don’t know.”

You don’t know your own name?”

I lost it.”

Do you have parents?”, said the man, sitting back down.

I think so.” For the first time, the boy looked up. “They were out there.” He pointed to the sea.

There are many things out there,” said the man. “That’s where I used to live.”

On a boat?”

No, beneath the waves. So much quieter.”

But how?”

In a kind of submarine.”

Where do you live now?”

I don’t.”

You’re homeless?”

Not really. I’ve made a place. Wanna see? Get a drink, have a smoke?”

Is it far?”

About five minutes away.” The man stood again. “If you don’t trust me, then you should thank your parents. I’m a stranger. Your parents aren’t here. If you like, I can just go and I’ll bring you back fresh water. You can wait here. But I have a story to tell you. If you don’t hear it, then you’ve lost nothing.

You never know what’s gonna happen next. And the moment you think you do, that’s the moment you don’t know anything. This is what we call a paradox. Are you with me?”

Who are you?”

My name is Talus: Theodore Anthony Nikolai Talus. You can call me Theo.” The man looked at the sand. “I’ll call you Hugh.”

Why?”

It’s short for human.”

Hugh stood up. Theo offered his hand and the boy held onto his thumb: it was bony and gnarled; twisted and covered in callouses. As they walked, it became clear in the moonlight that the beach was a cove: Sand bordered by ocean and overhanging cliffs. Hugh felt safe, as though physical contact confirmed Theo to be real. He looked up at this man from the sea, the man who’d emerged from the shadows. As though sensing his gaze, Theo looked down. “How old are you, Hugh?”

Nine.”

Haha!” Theo stopped and grinned. Everything was quiet and a wave broke on the shore. “Hahaha! Sorry. I just had a thought.” Two more waves broke.

What?”

I just said to you, back there, do you want to come back for a smoke? And you’re nine!? I’ve just got this phrase in my head: ‘Act your age and not your shoe size.’” Theo looked down at his feet.

I just need a drink.”

Of course. Sorry. Not far now. About twenty Mississippis or elephants, I’d say.”

What?”

Seconds. A Mississippi is a second and so is an elephant. In fact, as one Elephant drank from the Mississippi, another one saw it. It walked over to join its friend and then there were two elephants. Others saw them and soon there were twenty elephants, drinking from the Mississippi. And here we are.”

Theo lead Hugh into a cave at the foot of the rock face. A wave broke on the beach; a Mississippi and an elephant; then they were at a small wooden door, marked ‘No. 7 ⅞’.

No-one ever comes here. This cove is permanently cut off by the tide.” Theo opened the door and gestured Hugh inside.

What does the sign on the door mean?”

Nothing really. That’s just what was printed on one of the pallets I made the door from. Quite a few wooden pallets wash up on the beach. I just tell myself that this is life number seven and that I’m seven eighths of the way through it. Anyway, come in young Hugh man.”

Inside was like the interior of a wooden cabin, complete with an open fire in one wall. The walls and ceiling were lined with lengths of wood from pallets, and sections of wooden boxes. More boxes and pallets had been made into shelves which lined the walls and every shelf was full of items apparently washed up and collected from the beach: Bottles, tins and cans; sea shells, mermaid’s purses and petrified starfish; driftwood, fragments of metal and plastic.

Could I get a drink now?” Hugh asked.

Of course. Sorry. Wait here. I’ll just be a moment.”

Theo walked through a second wooden door at the back of the cabin and Hugh heard water being poured.

Dried seaweed hung over the shelves and there were two oil drums on either side: Both were filled with carrier bags and plastic drinks collars. The oil drums were marked, “IN” and “OUT” in white paint. Theo returned and handed Hugh the plastic bottle.

That’s what I do some of the time,” Theo said, pointing at the drums. “Break the ties of the plastic things, imagining they’re the necks of the bastards who threw them away.” Hugh just nodded his head as he gulped from the bottle. “Sorry if that’s a bit warm. Nowhere to plug a fridge in, even if I wanted one.”

It’s okay. It’s water; no salt.”

Take a seat.” Theo motioned towards the wall opposite the shelves. A couch had been fashioned from packing crates and fishing net. To one side was an up-turned fruit box with a set of scales and sea shells on top, and on the arm of the sofa was a book. Assuming this to be Theo’s spot, Hugh sat at the opposite end.

Theo stoked the fire with his boot and pulled some dried seaweed from the shelves. He screwed the seaweed up in his hand and sat next to Hugh.

Smoke?”

No thanks.”

Mind if I do?”

No. It’s your home.”

Mi Casa, su casa.” Theo tore a page from the book on the table and used it to roll a cigarette with the dried seaweed. “Let me show you something.”

What are you gonna show me?”

I’ll show you how much smoke weighs. Watch.” Theo pulled the table towards him and pointed to the scales. “These are liberty scales. On the one side here, we have a crucible; a bowl. I’ll put this cigarette on there, like so.

Here on the other side, we have a flat plate. It’s empty, so it’s up in the air. Now I need to balance the weight to the cigarette.

See these shells here? Lots of shells; Lots of shapes, sizes and densities: Many different weights. The bigger ones, they look like shells, but the others? You’d be forgiven for thinking that some of them were just large grains of sand. But if you look really closely, they’re tiny shells. Think how many of those might be out there on the beach and no-one would know. And all of them were once somebody’s home.

So, by adding shells of different sizes…

With trial and error…

The scales should…

Should

Take some off, and the scales should

Balance. There you go.” Theo sat back and pointed at the scales. “So, there you have my cigarette, perfectly balanced. Do you have a light?”

Er, no. You have a fire though?”

Of course. Excuse me.” Theo picked up the cigarette. The plate of shells dropped but none fell off. Theo lit the cigarette from the open fire and cupped his hand under it as he returned to the sofa. As he sat down, he tipped a few flecks of ash into the bowl of the scales. The scales moved just a fraction, as though caught in a gentle breeze. Were it not for that brief movement, the plate of shells may as well have stayed at their lowest point. The scales had tipped, barely discernibly.

The smoke from Theo’s cigarette transported Hugh: The burning seaweed conjured images of a roadside Chinese food market; Of flames doused with salt water. A burning street washed away by a tsunami.

With every draw on the cigarette, Theo carefully tipped the ash into the crucible and the shells rose, fractions of a millimetre at a time. When Theo had finished the cigarette, he supported the crucible from underneath and stubbed out the butt in the bowl. He slowly moved his hands away and the shells rose to balance the scales.

You see? Almost nothing. That’s how much the smoke weighs. The same as the words on that page: Almost weightless as they just sat there in the book, but now free. Out there.”

That’s quite philosophical.”

A lot of the words in the book were. But I’ve been trapped here in this cove for long enough now that it’s time to let them go.

That book was a journal when it was washed up on the shore. It can’t have been in the sea for long because it was still holding together, but the pages were just one pulpy lump. I could tell it’d been written in because the edges of the pages were streaked with blue ink. I hoped I might be able to read those words; someone’s diary or manuscript; someone lost at sea.

So I hung it out to dry. Every couple of hours, I’d go out there and gently manipulate the pages, hoping they’d all become separated and that there were some words left; something to read, something to do. But when it had all dried out, it was nothing but blank pages.

It was quite beautiful actually. Where the ink had run and dried out in different ways, some pages looked like sheets of marble; Others were like blueberry ripple ice cream. Pencils wash up on the beach all the time.”

Theo stood and walked to the shelves. He pointed to a box. “Lots of pencils. My favourites are the Staedtler Noris range: the black and yellow ones.” He picked some more seaweed from above the fire. “My preferred pencil is the Staedtler Noris 120: That’s an HB, or grade 2 in America.” Theo walked back to the sofa. “Even better than that though is the 122: The HB pencil with an eraser on the end. All wooden pencils float, of course; but it’s like the 122 has a little life preserver to help it to shore.” He sat down next to Hugh. “That pencil needs to be written with. And there are so many stories in a single pencil.” Theo tore another page from the journal and rolled a cigarette. “Can I get you anything, Hugh man? Another drink? I could probably rustle up something to eat if you like.”

No, I’m okay. Can I use the bathroom?”

Mi casa, su casa. It’s right out there.” Theo put the cigarette in his mouth and nodded to the front door. Hugh didn’t move. “What, you expect me to be all en suite?”, Theo continued. “All that’s out back is a store room: Go check for yourself. I’m here on my own, the cove is a cove and the cave is cut off. So, just do what you need to do out there.”

On the beach?”

Would you go to the toilet on your own front lawn?”

I don’t have one.”

Neither do I. So, do what you have to do out there, near the water. I normally go right where the waves break but I don’t want you getting washed away or anything dramatic like that. Nature will clear up behind you. There’s plenty of seaweed out there if you need to wipe but bring it in here and throw it on the fire when you’re done. I don’t want to smoke it.”

I only need a pee.”

Oh.”

As Hugh stood in the moonlight, he could appreciate why so much from the ocean was washed up in front of Theo’s cave. With the tide only about twenty feet from the front door, it swept debris along the curved edges of the cliffs stretching out to sea in an arc on either side. He could already see some of the next day’s haul: Plastic bags to go in the oil drums; Wood and paper to be dried and burned; Empty bottles and drinks cans to be used as storage or perhaps to make a sculpture; Dead fish to cook and eat; seashells and other things for the cabinet of curiosities.

Inside, Theo sat on the sofa with the cigarette still in his mouth, unlit. “I don’t suppose you found a light?”

No. Even if I had, we’d need to dry it out anyway. May I?” Hugh took the cigarette from Theo’s mouth. He lit it from the open fire and took a drag before handing it back.

Thanks.” Theo took a draw on the cigarette as Hugh sat back down. “You sure you won’t have one? I won’t tell.”

There’s no-one to tell.” Hugh slid down on the sofa and gripped a wooden box between his feet. He manoeuvred it closer, then rested his legs on it. “Su casa, mi casa.”

Mi vida.

So, I started to write things down. First with a 122, then later I switched to a 120.

Of course, the writer always has freedom with a pencil. The eraser gave me more freedom. I was writer and editor. Maybe I wrote that 122 down to a stub: I don’t recall individual pencils.

In any case, I decided that the 120 would permit me yet more freedom. Even though it lacks the eraser and although I could still rub out the words if I really needed to, the fact that I couldn’t allowed me to write more freely. The editing was out of my hands.

I filled that book with memories: mine and those of others.

And when I say I filled the book, I mean, it was full. Towards the end, my writing was so small that you’d need a very good pair of eyes, a magnifying glass or strong glasses to read it. The odd pair of glasses wash up on the beach every now and then but it’s usually just the frames. So I could look sophisticated perhaps but someone would only have to poke at my eyes to see that I was a fraud.

Once the last page was filled, I started again; in the margins and at the top and bottom of each page.

Every day, I’d hope for a new delivery of writing paper. Lots of paper gets washed up but it’s all newspapers and magazines.

Newspapers just disintegrate: They’re the lowest grade of pulp paper and revert quickly. Magazines are so heavily polished and covered in pictures that they don’t wash. I needed a certain kind of paper. I needed another notebook.

But nothing got delivered. And that’s when I started smoking.”

So the book with all your notes in…”

Stories. Many stories. And there were many more left in the pencils but I had nowhere to write. So I smoked it.”

Can you remember any of the stories?”

All of them. I lived them.”

There are as many pictures in words as there are words in pictures. A good story is only one tenth in the words. If the writer chooses the words well enough, the other nine tenths doesn’t need to be written because it’s already there, in the words: It’s the images which the writer conjures; the dreams; the dark matter which makes up most of the universe. Every story ever written has a part of the writer within it, whether it be the author inhabiting a character or a story on the fringe of experience.

Will you tell me one of the stories?”

A bedtime story, at your age?”

Something to connect me to the sea.”

How about a story with no ending, until you fall asleep?

It is a story with no ending, because the ending may never and will never be told nor heard. It concerns a man who has outlived his children, his grandchildren, and who will outlive every generation which will come after him.

Ever since he was a boy, he was curious. So much so that his curiosity got him into trouble when he started to find answers. But his curiosity was eventually rewarded. He was given the means to find out anything he liked. But it was a poisoned chalice; a curse. There was a condition: He may not speak of his discoveries.

This is just the beginning of that story. In fact, this is merely a summary of the first chapter; A synopsis.

A synopsis tells the whole story on one page: Just a few well-chosen words which contain many more words and images within themselves; The stars visible in the sky: Cosmic pinpricks in the dark matter.

The boy lived in the ocean, in a city deep beneath the waves. His parents told him everything they knew about the world around them. The more stories they told him, the more inquisitive he got.

He was fascinated by the surface. Everyone said that there was nothing above the surface. In fact, even talking about it was forbidden. Travelling there was impossible. But the boy was convinced that beyond the surface, there was something else. And beyond that, something further still. He wanted to build a tower to the surface, to break through and be witness to what was above.

The surface wasn’t the only taboo. Speculation about anything outside of generally held beliefs was frowned upon. Imagination was effectively illegal. But there were rebels: Those who would meet in secret to defy the thought police.

The boy joined a fringe society: They called themselves The Biblical Dead. They broke the rules, discussed and even wrote about things which only existed in imagination.

The Biblical Dead would meet in a den outside the city. They’d smuggle in words they’d written and read their stories to each other. The Biblical Dead had a members’ code: What is said to the dead, what is heard by the dead and who is seen with the dead, remains with the dead.”

Hugh was asleep, so Theo rolled a cigarette and stood outside on the beach, surrounded by the cove.

And you must not hear the end of the story, young Hugh. The curious boy was unable to contain his ambitions and he betrayed The Biblical Dead, simply by referring to them in a story he wrote and which he lost. The society found out about this and he was banished.

If he wished to tell stories, then he must do so only to himself. But he must have stories to tell. And so the legend has it that the curious boy was sentenced: To live every life which has ever been lived and all which will come. He must learn for eternity, as every human and every animal which ever roamed the earth and every creature that still will.

But he must never speak of it.

You never know what’s gonna happen next. And the moment you think you do, that’s the moment you don’t know anything.”

***

Hugh lived alone in his new home for many years. Every day, he would continue Theo’s work, collecting things from the beach. The fire was kept burning by a regular supply of wood and he collected many curiosities for the shelves: Shells, mermaid’s purses, tins, boxes and bottles. None of the bottles contained messages.

He quickly learned how Theo had made fresh water with a simple desalination plant: a saucepan of salt water, boiled and the steam collected in a funnel overhead. As the steam condensed, it rolled down the inside of the funnel and collected in a tray underneath the saucepan.

Most nights, Hugh would cook dead fish washed up in the cove. Occasionally, an expired crab would make a gourmet treat. There was a plentiful supply of seaweed, to boil, fry or smoke.

The supply of pencils was maintained by the tide but the paper was newsprint and magazines; only good for the fire. There was never another notebook: Just the remaining pages of Theo’s, with writing so small that Hugh couldn’t read it and so he smoked the pages just as Theo had.

If Hugh had had the means to write, there were two things which he’d like to have made special note of: an unbroken jam jar and a shell which scuttled across the cove one day as he was beach combing.

The intact jar, placed to his eye, would make an ideal magnifier. He picked up the walking shell and studied the homeowner inside: A hermit crab, perhaps looking for a new home.

Hugh took the jar into his shack. He placed shells inside which were larger than the crab’s then arranged them in a line on the beach. He went back inside and read the last pages of Theo’s book through his new magnifier.

The next morning, he checked the shells he’d laid outside. As he suspected, one had disappeared and a smaller one lay in its place.

Hugh picked up the discarded shell: It fitted in his palm like a gnarled thumb. He placed it to his ear and it made no sound.

© Steve Laker, 2017

This story is taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency, out now.

Home of silent propaganda

COMMENT | SATIRE

propaganda-e1498947894270The Department for Work and Pensions’ definition of each benefits claim

A 47-year-old, able-bodied, straight white British man, has begun a campaign against himself, because what he stands for is different to what his appearance represents. With diagnoses of PTSD, depression, anxiety and personality disorders, the man’s protest aims to highlight invisible disabilities to those who make fitness-for-work assessments in benefit claims.

Lee Verstak (not his real name), a little-read left-wing writer, explained: “Everyone thought I was jumping on bandwagons, supporting everything I’m not: BAME, LGBT, and everyone else who’s discriminated against. I tried inventing minorities, transcending them even. But when I made a case for pan-sexuality being someone who understands, even if they don’t take part, people got confused. How are you supposed to participate in a debate if you try to think for everyone?

“So to prove everyone wrong, I’ve started this protest against me doing that sort of thing. I’ve always been capable of actually walking a short distance, but I never enjoyed doing it anyway, because of my paranoia and anxiety.

I handed out some leaflets locally, with me on them, telling people what I was doing. Before long, people stopped taking them, and eventually ignored me altogether, saying I should be in a home or something. So I sent myself home.

I found out that technically, you can arrest yourself, in a logical extension of the powers of citizens arrest available to us all, to prevent a further breach of myself. I’d encourage others to do this, to help the system so that we may be more easily dealt with and ignored.

I’ve told the authorities where I’m holding myself, but even the departments for indifference and ignorance can’t help, so I’m just sweating it out. I’m on strike from being me, sort of like a hunger strike, but without anyone to force feed me. I might have wasted away in a few months: Problem solved.

Meanwhile, it’s an opportunity to reflect on how others see you. For me, it’s going well: I fucking hate myself. Hopefully I’ll get through it, like I did the last two tribunals, and I’ll feel even more dehumanised and with an even lower opinion of myself.

“Yeah, it’s quite life-affirming really. Then I might write a book or something, about finding a way out when life traps you: Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit: how do you get out? Well, you could stop imagining, or you could use your imagination.”

My critically-acclaimed, Douglas Adams tribute sci-fi novel is also now an eBook. My latest anthology is available in paperback.

 

Any day begins with mourning

THE WRITER’S LIFE

“Grief is the price we pay for love, it’s what happens when the love has nowhere to go”. When I first read that quote, I was surprised to learn that the author was Queen Elizabeth II. She had a point, and she’d know. I’d add that each day lived alone, is a day of mourning. Not just a personal sentiment, it’s how many others might try to explain depression on a daily basis.

deceased-in-the-afterlife-2

The roots of my daily guilt are the fallout I caused from my drunken breakdown. I hate the person I was, so much that I compare him to the current UK government: a selfish, self-serving fascist, wilfully inflicting self-harm on all around me. Long since forgiven by most, those blackouts of the mind in the past frequently return to haunt the conscience of the present self.

Depression is as individual to the carrier as the vessel which tries to contain it. Having an above-average IQ can be a poison chalice, but it means I can write. These are just the things which manifest mine, but how they make me feel is much the same as anyone else trapped in the nothingness, alone.

When you care about so many people, every non-reciprocation or forgotten acknowledgement of a good deed feels like an insult and further punishment. When you long for someone to call you, just to say hello, but they probably hate you because you never call them, not wishing to impose. But I fear instigating something, or establishing a precedent, a friendship I can’t maintain.

Life is a daily trial, missing people who used to play a bigger part in mine. Thanks to my drinking, I never got to see my kids grow up. For a whole year, I didn’t see them at all, and now I see them once a month, as geography and finances dictate. I’m sad most days, as each is another when I didn’t see them, because I got drunk.

I caused my parents more grief than most. Bridges were rebuilt long ago, and they’ve even gone so far as to say they’re proud of me. But since I robbed dad of his liberty by reporting him missing (lost) in his car, I’ve not seen him. That event came in the midst of his treatment for fluid on the brain – now better – but he’ll have to re-apply for his driving license (which I doubt he will). As a result, I’ve robbed him of his freedom, mum of transport, and my auntie and myself of visitors. No-one will ever know if I saved his life that night I reported him, because he got picked up by the police and taken home safely.

As I find getting out difficult, I’ve not done a lot to help myself see other people. Rather than one who thinks they’re the life and soul of the party, I’m the one who comes with a mental health warning. I travel with my own atmosphere, and I feel like the elephant in the room, so I don’t impose, which makes me seem uncaring.

We don’t feel sad, we feel empty. We find it difficult to talk, because we don’t understand it. We act irrationally too: We’ll psyche ourselves up to walk two minutes to the supermarket for food, then admire the food we’ve bought, or think about what we can do with it, before it’s out of date and we throw it away, unused. That makes me feel guilty.

It’s because I think about things so much, perhaps with a tendency to overdo it and complicate matters unnecessarily. All of which stirs up my paranoia, and convinces me that I’ve done the world a disservice, but no-one will tell me what I did. It may be irrational, but it’s how I and many others feel, every single day. Welcome to our lonely planet.

It’s that poison chalice again, the double-edged sword. It’s the mind which effectively allows me to commune with the dead through scientific faith, but which prevents me from talking to live people. Writing is my only outlet, and readers among my few friends.

No-one owes me anything, and there will never be enough time to pay back what I owe. Every day starts with mourning, and tomorrow is just another one.

We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them.”

-Somerset Maugham

A small phantom bereavement

THE WRITER’S LIFE

It’s very difficult to move on when you’re a fish in treacle. Once, I drank myself into the gutter, but I got back up. All depressives have episodic attacks, and my most recent was the longest I’ve known. Now I’m trying to get beyond a few things, but they’re matters guaranteed by their nature to trouble my mind, so it’s more a case of working out how to deal with them while they’ve moved in. When I have few to talk to in physical life, writing is a coping mechanism.

Butzi StageEmily Mann: “When a theater goes dark for the night, a stagehand leaves a lighted lamp on stage… Some old timers say it is to keep the ghosts away. Others say it lights the stage for the ghosts to play. Whichever theory one adheres to, most people agree: A great theater is haunted.” —PHOTO BY PAUL BUTZI

Depression is subjective, and as individual to the person as the character it inhabits. For me, it’s more a feeling I’m about to lose something, than grieving something which is gone. It’s an amplification of the usual anxiety which tells you there’s a shit sandwich in the mail. You don’t know what it is, and often it doesn’t show up, but you know it’s coming. Frustration sets in, and the unknown can become a fear, like all which we don’t understand. I try to look in from the outside to find answers.

There was a time (while I was drunk) when I was more aware than is normal, that my life will inevitably end somewhere. It’s a certainty, it became an obsession, and once there was a voice to constantly remind me. I tried to take my life at least twice, just to shut it up, if living meant having to listen to it every day. I still get the odd anxiety attack from nowhere in particular, but like the cracked actor in my head, those became dark friends for a writer.

If I spent time in my outside surroundings, I have a whole village, with much that might improve life (a park, library, charity shops, coffee shop, pubs, restaurants), but irrational fear keeps me away. It’s a separation anxiety from home, when that’s such a precious commodity, not quite agoraphobia. It’s a constant insecurity.

Buzzfeed recently ran a poll, which asked people which fictional location they’d most like to live in. I’ve used existing fictional homes to shape my own, both in fiction and real life, and my studio is a small version of Matthew Broderick’s room in WarGames, with a bit of Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter’s apartment from The Big Bang Theory. It’s the partial basis for Simon Fry’s flat in Cyrus Song, and bits of it are in other stories with parts of me. It’s filled with music and my Savage Cinema film collection, and it’s where my desk is, so it’s life in a box. It’s a box which is both physical and virtual, like one which might house a Schrödinger’s cat.

I thought I had life, the universe and everything tied up, and I do in theory (it’s all to do with quantum entanglement), but sometimes this life reminds you what an arse it can be, before you can move on to the more interesting stuff, once you’re free of your physical body.

My dad’s recent illness reminded me of the frailty of life. Friendships too, as I’ve lost some, yet gained others.

The youngest of the young people I used to counsel at the squat is just turning 18. The last time we spoke, she was on the threshold of a new relationship. Like all before, I advised caution, as I do with anyone, including myself (the reason I’m resolutely single). There’s someone for everyone, one person can make the difference, and everyone should be allowed to leave their baggage at the door, as I preached at the squat.

They’re all adults now, and hopefully they learned enough from me to not make the same mistakes I did. I’m still friends with one of the others, and it’s been rewarding, to see her settle into life as she’s got older and grown wiser, with help when it was needed. A ghost from the past, who still revisits. 

I continue to write sci-fi, where I imagine future humans (if there can be such a thing; if we can change) as organic-technological hybrids, who’ve transcended current humanity, so that they can resolve issues by understanding and without conflict. All we have to do is step outside ourselves to see a bigger picture, and from there we can be more objective.

I read and learn more about science as it progresses every day, fuelling the fiction author. I write of AI, wondering what it’s like to be human, and humans wishing for all the answers, when those might be in a merging of the two. For as long as I still occupy a physical form, I’ll also haunt computers.

I have many physical ailments pending medical diagnosis, but I fear going to hospital. I need to, as I’m approaching a time when I may have to fight again to prove that my mental health is a disability anyway, as I reapply for Personal Independence Payment (PIP).

I’ve been through the dehumanising process twice, was refused twice and appealed, and both times I took my case to tribunal and won. This time I have physical conditions to add to the list, which might even get me the mobility element of PIP as well as the daily living. It’ll only be based – as it always has been – on what the doctors say, even if government out-sourced assessors think they’re better qualified than a GP and other specialists, and I have to waste more of taxpayers’ money with another tribunal.

I fear the whole process, and the last two made me more unwell than I am. It’s a process designed to wear the applicant down, it’s about six months away, and will last at least six months more. It’s nice to think I might hold it together over the coming year, with the help of those still around, real and virtual.

My blog is a reflection of me on the other side of the screen. It’s nice to have people looking in and along for the ride, as I come back every now and then to address the grief, a phantom in my head. The writing desk is a dressing table, where I get ready for the next part: Tomorrow.

A many-mirrored mind

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I did a lot of thinking while I was waiting for news of my dad and not writing much, and I let myself go a bit, mentally. I got fed up with being the only person around here who cooks, does the shopping, pays the bills and cleans the place. I live alone, but still…

Kusama-Yayoi_Infinity-Mirrored-Room-Hymn-of-Life_2015_1500x1000-980x653Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room – Hymn of Life, 2015

The sole occupant of a life can have a tendency to over-think things, especially when so many other people inhabit their mind. When that person has mental health issues, those can become self-pollinating. And when the person’s a writer, some might think that makes things easier. It does and it doesn’t, because writers think more than average, they have a reputation to maintain in reporting those thoughts, and the more they think about the right prose, the more they’re obliged to think. It’s the proverbial vicious circle and yet another paradox in the life of the writer with depression. Sometimes I feel I should just go out and meet people. Then I remember, I don’t like many people and I don’t enjoy going out. My life, in a box, which I decided to take a look around.

Writing is a very lonely game anyway, more so when you’re someone with many different people in your mind. Some might think a writer with depression is a sadomasochist, but when you have anxiety too, it’s the only way to live. If I’m to keep living, I have to keep writing. It’s a self-propagating paradox.

I thought I’d found some kindred spirits in a few Facebook writing groups, then the one I favoured closed down because of an admin’s family bereavement, and paranoia tells me everyone I touch turns to shit. It’s a reflection of my real life, where I erect barriers to prevent anyone getting too close. Sometimes I let the barriers down but end up kicking people away, when they subsequently invade my personal space, inadvertently because they’re on my mind.

Some of the writing groups were challenge-based, and I’m stuck for words as often as I have too many to put into decent prose (very much the manic depressive, bipolar writer). Sometimes I set my own targets, and have nowhere to put them, so they go here. When I’m working freelance, I’m in charge, and with so many people in my head, it’s easy to find one to boss. Other times, I’m lost for words, let myself down, and simply lost in life.

I wouldn’t return to drink, as I never found myself there, only when I dried out. As well as losing all that I did before (and more, and on a more permanent basis), I’d lose this whole new brain function I’ve found, but which sometimes drives me to distraction or to switch off. I do have a drink to hand (I’m a functioning alcoholic), but I prefer a nice cup of French coffee and a croissant, sometimes with a cannabis joint, and I think some more. Sometimes, good fiction will arise, and others a full-blown existential crisis. My life in the mirror.

I’m 48 this year, which means I’ll have caught up with Douglas next year. I was born in May 1970, and it occurred to my reflection that in 2020 I’ll be entering my seventh decade: Conceived in the 60s, born in the 70s, grew up in the 80s, lived the 90s, married the noughties, and finally found myself in the teens. It was 2013 when I found myself on the streets, before becoming counsellor and friend to all those young strays who found the squat.

Last time I checked, there were only two or three people who truly understand real me: My kid sister, Courtney, and a couple of the young girls who adopted me in lieu of a father figure in their lives when I was on the streets. These are the ones the plastic police and defective detectives used to wind themselves up about, as they imagined what went on in the squat (if they’d bothered to come in themselves, like the real police used to, they’d be wiser). Those were mutual adoptions, which have proven symbiotic since. We remained friends, because I let my barriers down and didn’t feel a need to raise them again. These are friends I trust, because they placed so much trust in me, and who can read me as I can them. Courtney can listen to a list of perceived issues I have – A, B, and C – then suggest option D: That I’m being paranoid, and invariably she’s right. Those girls can somehow get me to look inside myself in a different way to my everyday.

There are barriers, of course, even if what we were once suspected of is legal now the girls are older. They’re still young girls, so it’s a one way street: I give a shit about them, but I don’t intrude on their private lives unless they bring them to me. It’s a life of ‘Do not disturb’ (I’m disturbed enough already), but I welcome the odd disturbance.

In writing, my peer groups are reflective of real life too: Never a core member of many things, but on the fringes of many more. Cyrus Song was me reaching out, when every day of guilt laden sobriety might cause a less occupied person to lapse. It’s a good job I have writing, but I need people to read, so that more might understand me and help me understand myself. All writers hope that what they do is worthwhile.

Barring another wobble, I have a lot lined up, if I can keep my mind on the job. I’ve got some short stories planned, and some already drafted or in process; I have a list of research projects for later blog posts; and now that dad’s on the mend, I can get back to the family history book, albeit now with a revised publication schedule.

I’m still a bit lost, in life and in writing, but both are the same, just as my real and virtual lives blur and merge. So I carry on in my writer’s life because what other is there? I seem to thrive in captivity, like a snake.

I was interrogating Captain Mamba, as I’m plotting Cyrus Song II as well. We discussed the snakes’ future plans for humanity, and as today is Valentine’s, we discussed snake and human birth control. We agreed that we both already employ an effective method: Being who we are as people.

The mind is a many-mirrored room when you look around it, then just write it down as you see it and read it back.