Harlequin lemonade party

FLASH FICTION

A CHILDISH HORROR STORY

Elefant-imperfetto-lab-1-1ImperfettoLab

When I was a kid, our dad would let us choose a story from a collection, and we’d naturally go for the longest. Then we’d switch off the main light and put the elephant lamp on, like we were reading conspiratorially by torchlight. Dad didn’t mind. He worked all day and he’d take us off mum’s hands after supper. That was our time, and children’s stories helped with dad’s reading. I don’t think his dad ever read him bedtime stories.

Granddad was very strict: “Children should be seen and not heard,” that sort of thing. Whenever we were too much like children around him, he’d threaten us with the cupboard under the stairs: “I’ll shut you in there, and you’ll see what happened to the last child.” We always suspected he had a secret, perhaps a trapdoor in the cupboard, leading down to a basement.

Being kids, we were curious. We wanted to go in that cupboard and make a camp, our own little room away from granddad. We wanted to be unseen and only audible to each other. But it was forbidden. His attitude seemed illogical and paradoxical to kids, his strict nature only encouraging us away to explore. And that’s how we found the skeleton in granddad’s cupboard, hidden inside a clown costume.

We didn’t tell granddad, because he couldn’t hear us. Dad would never tell us, because we only let him tell the long stories. So I wrote it down, under the light of the elephant lamp in our bedroom.

© Steve Laker, 2019

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Three wishes: for not-things, and one for luck

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Just over two years ago, a dog theme cropped up in my short stories. First, there was A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie, the story which won Writing Magazine’s ‘Life-changing’ story competition last year, and which became a children’s book, now being used in some family learning classes. It’s the story of a young girl, dealing with loss and life’s changes, helped by her talking dog, and by wishing for ‘not-things’ to happen. That story was written when I was sofa-surfing, then lodging with a family, whose dog died. They’d lost a friend and family member, and that’s what the book is about.

After that, I moved into the flat above the pub, where the landlady acquired a very small dog. It was while I sat in the bar one night, watching the little thing, that I decided to write an antithesis to my children’s book. I was only in the bar for a while, so this is flash fiction, coming in at just over 500 words:

Gothic dinner

TWO WISHES

There’s an old lady who’s very upset: she’s lost her dog. She’s here at the pub where I live with mum and dad: the lady; not the dog. Because the lady lost her dog. The lady and the dog are regulars but it’s just the lady today because she’s lost her dog. She’s telling mum and dad about her dog: it’s lost. The lady doesn’t know what happened to the dog. It just disappeared when she was at the pub last Sunday. Today is Sunday, so the dog has been missing for a week and the lady is upset.

While all this is going on in the pub, I’m creating a wish in the kitchen. I may only be eleven years old and a bit slow, but I can make wishes come true. Simple is a label: like a label on food. I pay no attention to the label placed on me, any more than a chicken would to its packaging. The chicken is dead and unable to read the label on its wrapping. I’m not dead but I have this label of being simple. Unlike a chicken though, I can grant wishes. And besides, simple is how I look at life and solve problems.

I know that I’m best off in the kitchen, because it’s where people can’t hear me and I can’t hear them. I know they talk about me, and I try to do what I think they want me to, but that sometimes gets me into trouble. I do as I’m told and more: if someone asks me to do something, I’ll usually do it. If someone wishes for something, I’ll do my best to make that wish come true.

I asked the sad lady in the pub what she wished for and she said she wished she could have the nicest roast chicken dinner she’s ever tasted. So I’m making a wish come true by cooking lunch. They say I’m a good cook, but I know they’re humouring me and just want me out of the way. I’m a savant, rather than a servant, and I’m both in the kitchen. I’m in charge of the kitchen: I choose the ingredients and I cook them to make nice meals. On this occasion, I’m not only cooking a meal but I’m granting a wish as well.

The chicken is nearly finished roasting; the potatoes are in the roasting tin as well. I put the vegetables on to boil, before going into the pub to lay the place settings for lunch. The old lady is still upset. She’s saying she wishes someone could bring her little dog back. As I lay out the cutlery, she’s saying how she misses the little wagging tail and the cute yapping noise her little baby made.

All I can do is grant the old lady her wish, so I serve up what I hope will be the nicest roast chicken dinner she’s ever tasted: she gets a leg and so does mum. Dad’s greedy, so he gets two legs. I wait while my diners taste their meal, and they all comment on how it’s the nicest chicken they’ve ever tasted. They’re just humouring me of course.

I return to the kitchen, happy that I’ve granted two wishes: I remember my dad saying a week ago, “I wish someone would shut that old woman’s yappy fucking dog up and shove it down her throat.”

© Steve Laker, 2015.

My anthology, The Perpetuity of Memory, is available now.

The Unfinished Literary Agency in fiction, and in fact…

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Unfinished

The Unfinished Literary Agency is a fictional entity which I’ve used in a few of my own stories. It’s based above Hotblack Desiato’s property agency in Islington, which actually exists, by virtue of the owner being a Douglas Adams fan. I can almost forgive the guy being a property agent because of that alone. I like to imagine he gets the irony of being one of the professions loaded onto the B Ark when the Golgafrinchans rid themselves of an entire useless third of their population in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

My fictional agency exists to tell the stories of those who are unable to tell them. As Paul Auster once said, “Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them.” So the Unfinished Literary Agency employs writers to tell the stories of others, which is pretty much what writers do anyway.

So I wondered if such a place might exist online. Surely, there would be lots of people who have stories, and many writers grateful of ideas? Well, that’s why there are ghostwriters, of which I am one. But my motivation for writing is more than money, of which there is very little. For me, it’s the reward of having someone tell me how much they enjoyed something I wrote.

An example in the public domain, is my award-winning children’s story, A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie. It was written when I was lodging with a family while I was homeless, and the family dog died. As someone who sees animals as people, I saw Jake’s passing as that of a family member, not a pet. I remembered losing many animal people of my own and not being able to find a coping mechanism. Eventually, that came in the form of Goodbye, Dear Friend: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Pet, by Virginia Ironside. Like me, she saw the loss of an animal person, rather than a replaceable pet. But those most affected by the loss of a family member are invariably children, who might be unable to express or understand their grief. I remembered again, not being able to find anything when I was a kid. So that’s how the children’s book came about, and it’s been variously praised for how it deals with life’s losses and changes, through the eyes of a girl and her talking dog. Anyway, if your animal friend dies, there’s a book for that.

One of the stories in The Perpetuity of Memory is called String Theory: It was written for (and therefore, by) a young lady I met via her mum, again, when I was homeless. The young girl was at a transitory stage in life, where she was about to move to secondary school, with all of the internal changes which someone of that age will also have to deal with. She was a little bit lost, so I (she) wrote String Theory, which is about a puppet girl on strings, who learns to fly.

I had to conclude that there is no real or virtual online place which does what The Unfinished Literary Agency does, to tell the stories of others. If such a place were to exist, there must be so many untold stories to feed it: Children and adults alike, facing challenging situations, which fiction might help them to see and understand in a different way; the terminally ill could be given immortality, people could become known and remembered. But such an agency would need a staff of purely altruistic writers like me. And there are many who ghostwrite like me. The unfortunate truth is, something like The Unfinished Literary Agency couldn’t be monetised, so it would have to operate on charity alone.

People have asked me how things might have been different if I’d started writing earlier. If I’d gained a degree in literature, then gone straight into writing as a professional. The simple answer is, well it didn’t fucking happen like that, did it? In fact, the main catalyst for me becoming a writer, was when I was homeless, without possessions and with nothing else to do. It turned out I’m pretty good at it by all accounts. And by living a life before I came out as a writer, I gained experience. I lived the stories which I can now tell, and I met the characters which I can now inhabit, while developing my own. I’ve been complimented on the depth of some of my characters. That’s because, like most writers, my stories have a part of me in them. And I’ve put other people I know into stories too, with The Unfinished Literary Agency, and The Human Lending Library, from Reflections of yesterday.

In yet more stories of mine, there are protagonists and narrators who are writers themselves. In some of these, the fictional writer’s actions make the story more real: Writing is art, after all, and the beauty of an individual piece is often to be found in the unique marks left by the human artist. One such story is the title track from The Perpetuity of Memory. Another, The difference engine, will be published in early July.

I’m already a ghostwriter, for stories I write for other people and which are published without bearing my name. With stories like A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie, and String Theory, the arrangement was symbiotic: I told someone else’s story, by writing a story of my own. As a writer, I was given an idea and turned it into a publishable story, which the person I was writing for was then able to see in print. In a couple of cases, that person bought a copy of the book containing their story, then arranged privately with me to send it to me, to sign and return. Others have asked for this, even though they’re not in any of the stories. While I’m still on the literary fringes, this is something I have time to do and it’s something I enjoy. Because it’s another thing which is more than money: It’s a personal touch, which people appreciate.

So far, I’ve avoided politics. But in making another prediction (and I’ve been pretty much spot on previously), I’m predicting a Universal Basic Income to be part of Labour’s manifesto for a second parliamentary term. If so, something like The Unfinished Literary Agency could become real, with writers more able to work for a greater good with a reliable minimum income in place. Until then, it will remain a purely fictional place.

So for now, The Unfinished Literary Agency has but one writer in residence. But as I’m not driven by money, I will accept commissions. I’ll write the stories of others, free of charge, and both parties gain a little warm feeling, through helping someone else.

And for as long as I’m writing, I’ll always be happy to sign copies of my books.

The Perpetuity of Memory; A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie; and The Paradoxicon (my original, semi-autobiographical novel) are available now. My next sci-fi book, Cyrus Song, is due for publication around October.

About a girl, a dog, and a cat

THE WRITER’S LIFE

girl-and-dog-on-swing
As with the book, the cat is out of sight

It’s early days but I seem to have a rather first world problem: At the moment, this science fiction and horror writer’s best seller is a children’s book. I shouldn’t be surprised, as A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie was already an award-winning story.

The book has had two reviews on Amazon so far, and both reviewers gave it 5/5 stars. It moved a competition judge to email me personally when it had moved her to tears, and it still gets me every time. It’s not a sad story; rather, it’s one of hope, about being gone and not forgotten. It’s best taken in the context of the reviews:

A touching, philosophical musing on life & loss through a child’s eyes

A poignant little tale that conveys the heartfelt philosophies of life, faith and loss through the eyes of a child. Large, easy-to-read text makes it suitable for either reading by adult to child or for beginner readers to read alone. Its combination of realism, imagination and a style of writing that doesn’t patronise, makes this a perfect choice for children needing reassurance following the loss of a loved one.

A meaningful children’s story

A lovely little story with nice illustrations which can be enjoyed by adults and children. A good way of introducing the concept of ‘loss’ to children, and I think it will encourage them to ask questions when reading the book together as a family learning activity.

The latter is from a primary school teacher, who plans to use the book in family learning classes.

I never set out to make any real money from writing. My long-term sick and disabled benefits (mental health) take care of food and shelter. My book royalties are miniscule at the moment, well within permitted earnings and my writing is recognised by the Department for Work and Pensions as being therapeutic. The little money I do make, I donate to charity. Perhaps one day I’ll earn decent royalties and I’ll have another first world problem on my hands. For now though, the rewards are in getting reviews like the ones above, and knowing that my book could help young people.

Despite my daughter (the illustrator) being a bit starry eyed about her minority fame, she had already said that she’d like any money we make to be donated to charity. So what’s a dad to do? It’s her birthday next week and I’ve taken care of presents but I don’t do cards, as my daughter knows. It’s a waste of resources on a throw-away object and if I wish to pass a sentimental message to someone, I don’t need to be confined to specific dates. I won’t buy charity greetings cards because even if the money goes directly to the charity, they have costs to cover. I prefer to give and not receive anything in return, so that I know my donation has been used to the full. Instead of greetings cards, I make further small donations to charity and send the text receipt to the person it replaced a card to. So for my daughter’s upcoming 10th birthday, she won’t get a card, but she’ll get a confirmation text, thanking her for her £3 (around the cost of a card and postage) donation to buy a warm blanket for a child in Syria. She and most of my family agree that this is a far more effective thing to do than simply send disposable cards. It’s my personal choice.

The recent local newspaper feature about me going from tramp to successful writer has naturally caused my intellectual stock to increase. My parents have been congratulated by friends of theirs who witnessed the effects of my breakdown on them. A recent visitor to a friend’s flat, saw a copy of The Paradoxicon on a shelf and recognised it, as she’d read it. I’ve received encouraging emails from people whom I can only call “fans”.

It’s all good. I still wait in hope that one day I might be approached by a mainstream publisher or agent, just to throw a really big first world spanner into the works. But for now, I do it because I can, because I want to, and because more people are liking what I do. And that’s mainly sci-fi and horror, giving me a chance to plug my third book, The Perpetuity of Memory.

The main reason I write: So as not to be forgettable.