A twisted restaurant review

HORROR FICTION

I don’t get out much (whether this is a good thing is debatable), but when I do, I’ll go somewhere I could only make up. So when a retiring restaurant critic dined out with a colleague, he wrote a review of the evening (which includes unpalatable content)…

August Underground CoversAugust Underground’s films are deeply disturbed

AUGUST UNDERGROUND’S DINER

If the proprietors of this new place in Islington were looking to make it almost impossible to find, then make diners regret the effort when they did arrive and found a shuttered steel door, they have succeeded magnificently. But this was just a prelude to the rest of a pleasingly disturbing night at London’s first horror-themed diner, in a converted old warehouse on the edge of Holloway.

The weirdness begins as soon as my partner and I walk in on a gloomy Saturday evening, not to anything resembling a restaurant, but an old lighting shop, frozen somewhere in the 1980s, and a large sign: ‘No children’. The business had clearly been one of selling lights, lamps and an array of artists’ materials. The shop – or showroom – occupies a large studio on the ground floor, where the previous tenants had apparently manufactured their own designs as well.

A plastic pink elephant, big enough for a child to sit on, holds a human skull in its trunk, and the skull’s eyes glow green. There’s a naked androgynous shop window mannequin, decapitated and the head replaced with a shoulder-width light unit, with red, amber and green bulbs. It’s like a humanoid hammerhead cyborg traffic light. On the far side of the studio, a metal sign bears the previous occupant’s name: SHADES. But the first letter is obscured by a neon pink, flashing arrow, pointing down some stairs to what is now HADES.

Downstairs, the basement restaurant is starkly and sparingly lit with bare red bulbs, like those still in front of singed lace curtains in some of old Soho’s upstairs windows. And again, ‘No children’.

The place is like a horror and cult film museum, with rare old posters framed on the walls. I note Night and Fog, Man Bites Dog, Gummo, August Underground’s Mordum, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible. I somehow think the night will be.

There are display cabinets, some free-standing on the floors, and others on the wall. In the larger displays are costumes, including Pinhead’s leathers and Freddie Kruger’s jersey, hat and glove. There’s a stuffed alien in a cabinet, and a face-hugger pickled in a jar on the wall. There’s a stuffed St Bernard (presumably Cujo), and (my favourite) an E.D.209 enforcement droid outside the toilets. I could go on (about the Bates Motel guest book, Damian Thorp’s tricycle and lots of other paraphernalia), but I’m here to review the food.

A few other diners are dotted around: a young couple, having a horrifically romantic evening, and a group of business types, clearly working on someone’s bonus or expenses.

We’re seated in a booth, and I discuss my next project with my guest. After this restaurant article, I’m embarking on a slightly new path, that of horror fiction. How a food critic came to write horror may be the subject of future stories, by me or by others. But with this opportunity providing the perfect link, it’s perhaps relevant to fill in some details.

I’m here with my agent, which is entirely in parallel with the journey I’m about to make. It was he, after all, who advised me to stick with factual writing, and specifically food, when I foolishly tried to convince him I could be a horror writer. With the benefit of hindsight, he was right to keep me away, and indeed my restaurant reviews have picked up what I like to think of as a cult following (and I do have spellcheck on).

The problem with a cult (it’s still on), is that once it gets too big, it ceases to be. So it seemed logical to maintain that status by going underground, where only the determined and curious follow. Ergo, it is completely logical for me to now be sitting in an underground horror-themed restaurant with the agent who has held me back, as I move from one life to the next.

One of the businessmen clicks his fingers and shouts “Garçon!”, which I’m not sure is the correct etiquette here.

The menu is like a coffee table book. There’s the menu itself, with ‘Jemma’s’ at the top. Then before the dishes, an obituary for Jemma Redmond, an Irish biotechnology pioneer and innovator, who first used human stem cells in 3D printer ‘ink’, then developed the technology to make it affordable and portable. The upshot: Replacement human organs, on-demand where needed. Jemma Redmond died 16.08.16, aged 38.

After the menu is a history of the kitchen, presented as a retro-futuristic brochure for ‘Kitchens by Jigsaw’, with photographs of industrial food processing and preparation machinery, like room-size interlocking clockwork engines made from brushed steel. There are mechanical drawings of the industrial cutters, grinders, mincers and cooking appliances, like Cenobite puzzle cubes splayed open into diagrams by Maurits Cornelis Escher.

The book finishes off with a few short stories by writers who already enjoy cult status in horror. They’re like Lovecraft, Kafka, King and Poe, but sick and twisted Teletubbies, writing tributes to the YouTube trollbot films of old, made from spliced children’s shows. Seeing Lady Penelope gang-raped by Thunderbirds, Zebedee nailed to the ground, and Dylan decapitated, will turn anyone from food critic to twisted fiction writer, trying to excuse what they’ve seen. And at the bottom of every page, the message is repeated: ‘No children’. This seems almost a mission statement.

The menu itself is horrified, with things like ‘Steak by Leatherface*’, ‘Suicide Club Fugu*’, ‘Triffid salad*’, and the simply-named ‘Naked Lunch*’. There’s a nod to the trollbots, with ‘Peppa Pig, hand-prepared by Kruger’s’, and there’s ‘Specials’, more akin to challenges, in the size and heat of dishes.

A ‘Crispy aromatic hind quarter of suckling’ at 64 ounces, can be had for free, if it’s eaten in under an hour. I’m more intrigued by what kind of animal could still be suckling when a part of it is that size. It comes with ‘optional extra ghost sauce’, implying that a dollop of burning ectoplasm has already begun to eat into the flesh (you get fries with that).

Another is ‘Dante’s wings’, described as ‘Nine wings of increasing fire, before you wish that more heat might rescue you from the hell pain of death.’ (That comes with fries, too). If I’m to remain outside Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and ‘survive’, the book of the dead says I will go free.

*Vegetarian options can all be printed.

As this is on me, I pay. I settle up when we order, so as to be done with the formalities. There’ll be no quarrels over splitting the bill, and the tip from my anticipated earnings is sufficient to cover any kind of evening we decide to enjoy.

I’ve seen a few staff walking around, like cosplay characters at Jack Rabbit Slims. But where Tarantino’s joint was staffed by 1950s and 60s film stars, August’s has horror icons.

Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees serve tables, while Pennywise and Leatherface work behind the bar. Freddie Kruger taps his fingers on the counter, speaking to Pinhead (presumably both have more than one set of clothes). And they really get into character here too. If it wasn’t for the (understandable) adults-only entry, I could imagine those two gleefully popping birthday balloons at children’s tables.

Samara Morgan approaches the business types and reminds one that “Garçon means boy.” The server is a young Japanese girl, so perhaps she’s Sadako Yamamura. After she leaves, one of the men says something and the others laugh, attracting Pinhead’s gaze. I wonder what a headbutt must feel like.

We’re served by Candyman (or one of them), and I wonder what it might be like to come here on one’s birthday, would these characters sing ‘Happy birthday’? Perhaps, but only before killing the patron who’d asked for such a thing, so that they may not speak of it again.

The Candyman character isn’t all bad (really, if you read the story): The Candyman of legend emerges from a mirror. He has a hooked hand, he’s covered with bees, and he has revenge on his mind.

The Candyman was once a slave, called Daniel Robitaille, who was an accomplished painter. The plantation owner asked Daniel to paint a portrait of his daughter, and she and Daniel fell in love. Her father, the racist, had Daniel hunted down by a mob and run out of town. They chased him until he collapsed, exhausted, then cut off his hand with a rusty saw, smothered him in honey and threw him into a beehive, chanting “Candyman, Candyman…” Before he died, Daniel vowed to return and exact his revenge upon them.

Conversely, many classic fairy tales, enjoyed by children for centuries, have their origins in ancient folk tales, myths and legends. Little Red Riding Hood is a particularly gruesome one, based on a 16th century French fable. Back then, rape wasn’t a crime. In fact, there wasn’t even a word for it. The story is a warning to young girls, of all that stalks the night. The wolf is a representative predator and the woods a metaphor for the world beyond childhood. The girl collects flowers before going to her granny’s house, where the wolf entices her into bed, dressed as her granny. The wolf eating the girl is a metaphor for rape (and the granny before, the man this wolf represents being a particularly perverted individual). The huntsman cutting them free can be seen as a metaphor for childbirth or abortion. It’s no wonder the stories are dressed up, but those ancient horrors served to protect. Like ‘No children’ here.

One of the men from the other table nearly bumps into the E.D.209 as he walks in an arc to the toilet, and the remainder carry on talking quietly. The young couple seem oblivious to the horrors around them, as they’re lost in their own story of dark love. If I were to guess, I’d say they’re art school graduates, or possibly musicians.

I order a steak from Leatherface’s list of prime cuts, a rare rump (you get fries with that). My companion orders from the printed menu, and I wonder if he’s a vegetarian. Our working relationship has been distant, so we’ve never dined before. Truth be known, I’d never have taken him out for a meal unless it was to celebrate us parting company.

The tension only became tangible recently, when in fact it’s been simmering away for some months now, as I’ve been finding myself, and trying to redefine myself, but I’ve felt restricted, bound and gagged by an employer who dictates and dismisses rather than listen. Perhaps I shouldn’t be using a restaurant review to slag the guy off, but he’s paid me for this and I want to use it as a crossover, an artistic gift to demonstrate to someone who’s set in their ways, that people can change. He says writers should stick with one discipline, where I grow restless when compartmentalised. I want to express myself more, and write more useful things.

He says a food critic is useful, as are all factual writers, because they inform people. My point has become one of having many points to make, and fiction will better allow me to do that, like all those classic fairy stories. For starters, I can tell of the wonders in this place, while making it very clear why they have a ‘No children’ policy. I believe more than he does that more people can be spoken to through fiction, because while one demographic might see a wonderful story, another may see the unwritten parallels and warnings. The man’s a total cunt, but in a way, I’m doing him a favour. Let’s face it, I’d never get paid for another review after this one. But a shocking venue deserves a similar review.

I’m bored of writing for the same people, the kind of people who can afford to come to a place like this, but it was from within those that some of my cult following (still on) emerged, and it was their encouragement which gave me the push I needed. So readers, you know who you are, I salute you and I will see you in other places soon. As for the rest, try this place (but don’t bring the kids).

The businessmen are still one short, as they continue their muted banter. The young couple are still young and in love.

There’s nothing shocking about my steak when it arrives, perfectly cooked and seeping blood (you get fries with it, to mop up). But it’s curious and surprising in its taste and texture. Although I just called my agent a cunt, there is one word I will never use, in a review or elsewhere. It’s that word beginning with ‘M’, so beloved of some foodies, but if I even see the word on a menu, I’ll leave a place immediately and vow to never return. I’ve seen some savage cinema but that word is a monstrosity on its own and in any context.

This steak is juicy, sweet, marbled with fat and perfectly seasoned. A quick glance at the menu again and I learn that the meat is produced on the premises daily. The burgeoning horror writer in me imagines the kitchen by Jigsaw extending into an on-site abattoir, with this old warehouse site easily able to accommodate one. I’m slightly disappointed when the businessman returns from the toilet. The young couple are still very much into the atmosphere, and one another.

We choose desserts from the ‘Peter Davidson trolley’, all of which are from ‘The Universe at the end of Upper Street’. My ‘Ectoplasmic jelly’ is a green snot-like goo, which I can’t help think kids would love for its sheer grossness. But although it looks like a freshly caught Slimer ghost, it tastes of toasted marshmallow. My companion has something resembling a splayed vagina, which he says smells of fresh body odour (it does) but tastes like scented cream (lavender). It tastes to me like something I couldn’t mention, even in horror fiction. It’s that fucking M-word.

We finish with cocktails from a list of horrors, which aren’t the drinks themselves but the theatre which surrounds their delivery. Our bloody Marys summon the Candyman with our drinks, then Pinhead offers olives, from his head.

The businessmen are getting raucous and the young couple amorous, so we decide to leave, bidding the place farewell.

Back outside, it’s long since dark and a few of the other buildings around the old warehouse are lit up, a couple of accident repair and MOT units, and a children’s adventure play centre.

Now we go our separate ways. He’s off to pander more to the privileged, while I remain a cult and still poor, writing more fiction. Some will be horrible tales, but with a moral message.

As for August Underground’s Diner, for the kind of people who can afford to come here, I’d say bring the kids and leave them in the play centre. For those who can’t afford it, try one of the food challenges and eat for free.

© Steve Laker, 2017

My next collection of short stories – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is published in January.

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Worlds apart, connected by words

FICTION

Some time ago, someone started writing a story, and not long after, they stopped. It made its way to The Unfinished Literary Agency, where some writers got together to tell the story. And writers create worlds…

Return to Innocence

THE BEST LAID PLANS

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

The animal people live alongside a different race: sentient, non-organic, technological beings. And the robots are correct, that they came from the stars, as did we all, and that theirs was a slow evolution with a sudden growth spurt.

There’s a human there, finding her way around on a planet where her ancestors once lived. She’s trying to find something for her son, back on their own home world. It’s a plot device, which allows people to speak in fiction about that which they can’t in real life. It’s what The Unfinished Literary Agency was set up for, way back in her family’s history, and she thinks it will help her son. He’s lost, as she once was, unsure of how worlds revolve outside of physics. But it’s quantum physics which connects us all.

Her son once wrote a plan, presumably one of many, as this was ‘Plan 96’. At the time, he’d said it was a story he was working on, but he wasn’t sure where it was going or how it would end. So he left it behind when the humans left Earth. Now the boy is grown up and lost on the home world, wondering what happened to it.

On Earth 3.0 for the most part, industry is confined to the cloud cities, while the planet itself has been left to nature. In 2142, The Shard is a glacial Christmas tree, abandoned by humans a century before and now a towering forest, as nature quickly moved in.

As Eve walked over London Bridge, the locals – known for their tameness – were keen to greet her arrival. Beavers looked from their dams on the Thames, and a group of crows congregated on the handrail. As a collective noun, they were more a horde than a murder. “Hello, human,” one of them said.

Hello,” Eve replied.

What’s your name?” The crow asked.

Eve.”

Oh no, not again,” the crow said. Then the horde departed, without any enquiry of her business there.

In Threadneedle Street, the old lady slept under a blanket of ivy, as the Bank of England sat on vaults of human gold. The Old Bailey was tightly wrapped in green vines, where various birds conducted industry, and squirrels and monkeys picked fruit. The British Museum somehow looked as it always should, the building itself now preserved as a record of humanity and maintained by wildlife. The British Library too, where all of mankind’s writing is archived, everything with an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Goswell Road is still long, but now a wide, wooded path to Islington, and Hotblack Deisato’s old office.

A winding wooden staircase took Eve up to The Unfinished Literary Agency, a small, dark room on the top floor, with a crudely-cut window, about the size of a letterbox, at waist height on the far wall.

Inside was surprisingly clean for an office vacated a century before. Eve wondered who’d maintained it, or perhaps who’d remained after the human exodus. She sat at the desk and tried the lamp. It worked.

The walls were full of shelves, with manuscripts stacked a foot high. More were piled on the floor, and in the tray on the desk. There were hundreds of unwritten books, all untold human stories.

Eve looked in the drawers of the desk: Pens, notepads and other stationery, some candles and a tobacco tin. Then she found a name plate, the Toblerone sort that sits on a desk. In Helvetica black upper case, the name proudly proclaimed itself:

PROF. J.C. HESTER

Eve picked up a bound manuscript from the tray and began to flick through it. Someone had gone to the trouble of drawing a flick book animation in the bottom corner, a simple space rocket taking off in a cloud of smoke, with a person’s face looking from the only porthole. After this five second stick cartoon, the manuscript was entitled ‘So long, and thanks for all the humans, by MC Katze’. It was the story of a man and his cat, in which the cat takes her human to another planet, so that he can see the utopia awaiting mankind in the land promised to them. The twist in the tale is, the cat was an agent of Erwin Schrödinger, who told the human she was operating the spacecraft from inside a box on the flight deck, when she was actually flying it by remote control, and not in the box at all.

Eve heard a noise she wasn’t expecting, which worried her more than it would if it was expected. Her ostiumtractophobia (specifically, a fear of door knobs) was rooted in childhood, when someone (or something) outside had tried the handle of her locked bedroom door. The sound of keys in the door – perhaps ones she’d lost earlier – would be more paralysing still, if it were her door the keys were in.

The already-unlocked door of the office slowly swung open, and a character from one of the Earth 3.0 documentaries she’d watched on the home world walked in.

Looking very much professorial, in a tweed three-piece, topped with a flat cap and a monocle, a chimpanzee walked upright into the room. “Greetings,” he said, not seeming at all surprised to find Eve in his office. She must have looked puzzled. “It’s the Babel fish,” the chimp said. “Well, it’s not a fish,” he continued, “but that’s what started it. I assume that’s what you’re wondering, how you can hear me?”

Erm, yes,” Eve replied, “I’ve heard of the Babel fish…”

Well,” said the chimp, then paused. “Sorry,” he said, “I’m Jules.” He offered a hand.

Jules.” Eve shook his hand. “I’m Eve.”

Yes,” Jules said, “short for Julio, see, Jules I mean? Except it’s not, it’s still got five letters. It’s just quicker to say, with only the one syllable. Here’s a funny thing…” Jules lowered himself onto a pile of manuscripts.

Would you like your chair?”

Oh no, that’s not my chair. That was here when I arrived, so I’m sort of squatting here now. Besides, sometimes it feels more natural like this. Instinct I suppose.”

So,” Eve sat back, “this funny thing?”

Oh yes. Just one of many anecdotes left over by the humans. You’ll be aware of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, I assume?”

Yes, he invented the world wide web.”

Clever chap, yes. But here’s the funny thing. The words, world wide and web, are all one syllable. But abbreviated, it’s double-you, double-you, double-you. That’s nine syllables, which is a lot. But I read somewhere that someone suggested he called his invention ‘The Internet Machine’. Well, abbreviated, that would be TIM. And apparently, he was such a modest man, that not only did he give it away for free, he didn’t seek fame or fortune, he just did it for the greater good. It may be apocryphal, but we like it. It’s a rare example of man’s humility, and the web was altruism which could have saved many species. But it all went a bit King Kong didn’t it?”

It did,” Eve paused. “But you were saying about the Babel fish?”

Oh yes, I was, wasn’t I? Well, the name just stuck, in a tributary way. You know, not like the geographical river ones, but an historical – and it is an an, with a silent aitch – tribute. But now it’s the universal translation system for the world population.”

But how can I hear you?”

Oh, I see, yes. Well, it’s not an implant or anything now, no. No, without getting too technical (not my area), it’s carried in the wind, in radio waves, which are only audible to the subconscious. The upshot is, everyone speaks the same language. And really, that was mankind’s biggest mistake.”

One of them.”

Yes, there were a few. But there’d been researchers and ethics committees, scientific essays and peer-reviewed papers, and they all agreed that giving universal translation to the public would generally be a bad idea. Then Google just did it anyway.”

And others followed.”

Many. Then everyone.”

So,” Eve wondered, “the professorship?”

Oh that. The prof is in English, language, yes. Before that, my doctorate was in human psychology. I think the way the world changed was what guided me more into the languages, you know, in case they died out, with everyone using the Babel fish and all, and technology always hurrying them along. And the thing about being a professor is, I teach teachers how to teach teachers to teach, which I rather like. Took a jolly lot of work though.

But next, I want to do something different. I’m studying history, so I can teach the teachers about how it all went wrong. Because although the humans are gone, their past can teach us a lot.

I’m not a religious man, but whenever someone said everyone shouldn’t speak the same language, they might have been right. It’s a good thing if you’re a species evolved enough to debate, but take away certain barriers and an immature race will abuse it, with some using it for their own gain and not for the greater good. Someone was always going to package it up and sell it as a religion, or make it some kind of privilege, when it was around all the time. Us animals – as you used to call us – us people, had been communicating for many thousands of years before humans came along. Then the humans found out and wanted it for themselves.

It’s a tragic story but it’s a lesson from history which I’d like to tell others about, and of how that led to the evolution of the planet we see around us now. So it was all for the good really. I only hope humanity took that lesson away with them.”

It might be too early to tell,” Eve said.

How are things over there?” the professor wondered.

Lonely.”

That’s the thing with humans. When we look at your monuments, buildings, and many follies, you are capable of such beautiful dreams. But within those are some terrible nightmares.”

I know, Carl Sagan said something similar.”

Who’s she?”

He. He was a scientist, a thinker, and an inspiration.”

A dreamer then? And that’s the sad thing. Humans who dream are ridiculed if they speak of their visions. They become suppressed. But allowed to explore and discover, those people can transcend accepted human wisdom, in things like politics, which was a human invention anyway.

Anarchy is not chaos, when people are trusted to be individually empowered. An evolved race will sort it all out. But the ones who rise above it all are feared by those who govern and rule, and that leads to conflict. Conflict gets no-one anywhere, but debate can increase mutual understanding to find peaceful solutions. Too many humans were greedy, not just financially but morally.

I studied human politics for a while, and I had to conclude, it was quite a waste of time, for the humans. All it did was hold them back. It was a system which kept radical thinkers beyond its borders of conditioning. And the radical thinkers were only just getting a voice when everyone else did, so it got deafening.

If you ask me, I’d say most humans are essentially left-wing by nature, only becoming conditioned otherwise. Wherever you lie (or tell the truth) on the political spectrum, beyond that, you’re all human. Yet the one thing you all have in common is the very thing which drives you apart. Individuality is to be encouraged, but you can’t think as one. You’re generally a socially aware species. It’s just a shame there were so many who didn’t qualify by that credential.”

You have a deep understanding of the human condition,” Eve said, looking around the room.

Sometimes it helps not to be one to know one.”

Do you have a theory, on why the Babel fish was the catalyst?”

I think there’s one thing it will never be able to do, because it shouldn’t, and it ought to remain impossible. That thing, would be the interpretation of messages, of how they’re perceived by the receiver, which of course is completely subjective on the part of the individual, regardless of the intention of the messenger. Words only have meaning for some people if a specific person says them. The Babel fish is a translation device, not an interpreter. Too many humans, in their cut-off personal worlds, their microcosm universes, their ignorance and laziness, quite literally took too many things far too literally. And a breakdown in communication is conflict by any other name.

But even more fundamental, was humans’ sense of entitlement. A progressive race, but for their own gains. I know there are millions of exceptions, and it’s equally tragic that their voices were silenced. But back in human politics, that would be a victory for the right. More of you need to find your left wings, outside of your politics. You need to metaphorically fly free, or be allowed to, without those wings being clipped.

There’s a passage I’ve memorised, from one of your films. ‘I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone’. It was a film one of the crows showed me. Her ten-times-great grandfather had a cameo in that film. He’s uncredited though.”

That was The Shawshank Redemption, a prison film.”

Yes, very good too. Now there was a human who used an unfair situation which had been forced upon him, to do good for others, to blow a whistle and bring down a dictatorship. He quietly went about a longer plan, rarely drawing attention, then escaped the tyranny. I suppose we miss those kinds of people, the free in spirit. We are all spirits when we sleep, after all, with the means for the enquiring mind to explore the universe.”

Some more than others,” Eve added, looking out of the window. “When all we needed to do was keep talking.”

Quite ironic really, isn’t it?”

Looked at like this, yes.”

But you’re looking at something no-one’s seen for some time. For you it’s nostalgia.”

It’s a feeling of being home. And you speak of humans quite sentimentally.”

Well, I felt I got to know a few, through my grandfather’s stories from the zoo.”

He was in London Zoo?”

Chester actually. We moved down to London when the zoos closed. All my family as far as I can trace, were captive bred, as they used to be called. But my great, great grandfather was an immigrant from New York, and he’s the first I can find with the family name Hester.”

Er, how?” Eve turned to Julio.

The professor stood up and stretched. “Well, Boris – that’s my great, great grandfather – was rescued by a writer called Hester Mundis. She found him in a pet shop when he was young. She bought him, not as a pet, but to liberate him, and he lived with her and her eight-year-old son, in their apartment in Manhattan. I know Hester was expecting another child, so she found Boris a home with other chimps in Chester, and I gather he was on TV a few times. She wrote about him too, so he was immortalised in books, which must be a nice thing to have happen to yourself.

So we took her name, because she became mum to my orphaned or kidnapped great, great grandfather. If it wasn’t for her, I might not be here. I may never have been.”

And you didn’t mind being in captivity?”

I worked a lot of other things out there. You do, when you have the time and your basic needs are taken care of.”

You didn’t feel imprisoned?”

I’d never known anything else. I was never in the wild. Perhaps one day I’ll visit my own home country, but I learned a lot when humans were in charge. There are lots of arguments for and against on both sides. Those are less relevant now, but future historians will have plenty to write about. For now, I have plenty to write of here.”

Why’s that?”

Let’s rewind a little. A long time ago, a human said that given an infinite supply of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys would reproduce the Complete Works of Shakespeare. And it stands to reason that, given those resources, they would. But we wondered, why? What would be the point?”

It was a human thing?”

It was. But there was a flaw in that original plan.”

Which was?”

The monkeys. No offence to those with tails, but what it really needed was apes. You don’t even need an infinite number of them.

So after we’d finished reproducing Shakespeare’s works, we got started on the next plan. Then we quickly realised we might need more writers. Not an infinite supply, but far more than we have. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible.”

What’s not?”

Plan 96 is to discover and write the answer to the ultimate question, that of life, the universe and everything. But infinite apes aside, I don’t think humans are looking in the right place.”

So where do we look?”

Look into your heart, and don’t be afraid of yourself, because people might like that person. This was only your temporary home. You were squatters here before your nomadic race continued their journey, to find themselves. For now, you are gone from here, and you need to return to yourself. But there’s a record of how it all started, and how things panned out is recorded in our history. This is where it began and you are always welcome back, wherever you are.

But keep this. This is yours. You made this.”

© Louis Laker and Steve Laker, 2017.

This story will be included in The Unfinished Literary Agency (ISBN: 978-1979983556), available in January.

The thin veils of symbiosis

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There’s a story I’m writing, about a girl who’s never sought attention but now has everyone’s. Pretty much me in reverse, sort of a not-me. The girl in the story has things on her own mind, which she can’t tell others, while all those others enquire of her mind to help them. Thank whatever, I’m not that girl then. And yet, it’s true that I’m in every single one of my stories in parts.

symbiosisSymbiosis in nature

Fictional me has been as busy as my factual side, making my actual self an engaged writer (always a nice thing to be), splitting myself over two projects and with the two different genres (sci-fi and family history) becoming a symbiotic feeding mechanism. And I’ve nailed what it is, how one style of writing can help with another.

With factual writing, there’s much more to write, because it’s already there. Research reveals the facts, which the writer then tells as a real-life story. I’m a writer who likes to link things up and tie them off, so writing historical pieces about my family’s places of work and home means the links to the central characters are already there. It’s the sheer volume of recorded factual history which gives the writer so much to think and write about.

In fiction of course, we start with a blank page. These are stories which haven’t been written, of people and places who’ve been created. With no recorded history, the writer has to fill it in, at least between the lines, to make the fictional narratives strong.

So with so much to write factually, there are many unused thoughts and ideas, as it’s edited down. There are new things, never personally encountered before, which provide fresh ideas, and those can drive fiction. It’s actually quite easy to turn things in, when you look at a picture of a figure standing by a Scottish loch, and notice a ripple in the water behind. I’ve been a serious writer now for five years and I’ve only just worked that out. If others have been similarly wondering, you’re welcome.

Fictional me has stories lined up for publication over the next four weekends now. Next up, is ‘A Girl, Sheldon Cooper and Peter Cook’. Mindful that I’d never written another story which could somehow be linked to a specific different one (but still stand on its own), this one was a mix of two things: A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie (my – award-winning – children’s story), and Cyrus Song. It’s a story set in 2042, about a girl, a cat and a dog. In 2042, AI home assistants are ubiquitous and have universal translation algorithms (possibly thanks to the Babel fish, and a stoned ethics committee somewhere), which of course allows the three to talk.

Elsewhere and after that, there’ll be ‘Quantum Entanglement in Hamsters’, which examines a part of the human condition (apparently I’m good at that) in the context of a pair of Roborovski hamsters, called Hannibal and Lecter.

Next there’s a restaurant review of ‘August Underground’s Diner’, then ‘Another Nativity (For the Stage)’ at Christmas, the latter being a re-write of one of my old stories, originally a story about a nativity play, now made into a play of that story for the stage (pretentious, me?)

In the factual world, I’m still snooping around houses, gardens and people, in 1970s and 80s Kent, and in the Second World War (in France and Germany). I have a good feeling about the book (always completely unreliable and not reflective of future sales), it being one where I’ve really been able to free my inner, real self in the stories of others.

Just as the modest sales of Cyrus Song generate blips of The Perpetuity of Memory, it seems my theory is vindicated: That each book I write, is better than the last (in a different genre), improving my depth in the former, and that each subsequent book fuels sales of the previous ones. Silent Gardens (A Quiet History), a factual story, will attract curiosity in what else I’ve done, just as my sci-fi in Cyrus Song has led people to look at my old horror in The Perpetuity of Memory. The Paradoxicon (including ‘The Director’s Cut’) gets the odd look, and A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie stands on its own.

All of which leads me to predict with no confidence at all, that my next anthology, ‘The Unfinished Literary Agency’ will be well-received and garner further interest in my preceding titles. Meanwhile, I’ll move onto the next (Cyrus Song II, Infana Kolonia, and Forgive me No-one).

In my life-within-a-life, I’ve added some furniture to this blog. There’s a filing cabinet, where all posts are filed by month (going all the way back to the start), and a drop-down category list, intentionally made to be more Vogon, in its grasp of English (“I write blog”, “I write film” etc. but it’s true that “I write satire”).

Meanwhile, the girl continues to deal with a slightly lost son, trying to help him and his parents, and his sister. She’s recently taken one her own parents’ liberties away, having phoned the police when her dad went missing, warning that surrendering his license might be the price, but valuing his life more. She has an auntie who’s cut off because her dad can’t drive, and therefore with nowhere to go at Christmas. She has a sister with whom she’s estranged, despite her efforts over five years. This year, she’s asked that any remaining differences can be put to one side, as she’s made amends for past damage she’s done. She’s suggested that a reconciliation would be nice for their parents at Christmas, and that come the time, they can share driving duties to get everyone together. The girl is keen to get her kids and have them stay for New Year. She hates going out, but she’ll do all this. She’s right in the middle of everything and everyone, yet no-one seems to know.

The same girl is helping several friends with personal matters of counselling. One is a vulnerable girl expecting a baby (not hers, as she’s a girl) and until recently, the child was due to be taken from the mum. So the girl wrote letters, she transcended the situation and saw a way that everything might be saved. She saw something in her friend which others didn’t. While everyone else was cooing over a baby they might not see, and saying fuck to the system on social media, this one girl stayed silent. She was the only one who’d been honest with the mum about the chances of losing the baby, and as the only one right, the one to get the blame when it happened. So she risked her friendship, yet no-one knows because nobody speaks of her. She’s lonely and only craves recognition, not help. She writes it all down.

The factual and the fictional, writing as many people, about many others. Symbiosis in the real and the imagined, a thinly-veiled heart.

A story tied by strawberry string

FICTION

One of my favourite things about being a writer, is when I’m asked to write something personal for someone, but which might also be of interest or use to others. So when a young friend confided in me about her lost dog, and with a Cyrus Song character prequel to write about a teenage future vet, two became one. This is a Halloween story in this week’s Schlock, and a more grown-up version of the same sort of story I told in my children’s book

girl___in_the_woods___3_by_ravidhindsa-d98owuxGirl – in the woods – 3, by RaviDhindsa

DIARY OF A TEEN IN THE WOODS

My dear life,

That’s what you are, my diary. You’re my life. All of me is contained within your locked leather cover, which I wear the key to around my neck. Even though your binding is a cover for my life, that life continues outside, starting with the cover.

The book of my life is a retro-futuristic, mechanical puzzle box, with all the old metal watch parts I’ve stuck on. If Filofax were to launch a Hellraiser range, Pinhead himself would buy one of my books. You’re my diary of a cyber punk.

Like the extra-dimensional Cenobites, you contain much pain, my dear life, perhaps you even possess it. My cyber punk diary is a haunted book, covered with scars, like the ones on my arms. Other than you, my life is in a piece of faded strawberry rope, reminding me of a better place that might be. The rope is also a key.

The cat came back a few days ago. I thought of the old woman who swallowed a fly, and she swallowed a dog to get rid of the cat. I don’t want to eat a dog, or a cat, or any animal. I never want to eat much, and I only dined on a Kamikaze fly on the way back from school. So what I’m about to tell you, I’m only telling you, because it’s really strange.

I wished I had a dog, to stop the cat from scratching me. I wished for my old dog back. And she came back. All I had to do was call for her. Let me tell you what happened:

I met a man in the woods, about 30 years older than me. If this wasn’t recorded secretly in this diary, on hearing that, everyone would just assume the worst. But that’s just the way people’s mind’s work, many because, placed in that situation, they’d probably do what they might suspect that bloke of. People shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, which goes for this book too, dear life: A weird and wonderful thing on the outside, but full of psychedelia, some of which even I don’t understand. But what’s in my head goes in the book of my life.

So the guy in the woods was a nice kind of weird too. And the wonderful part is, he was exactly as I imagined him. Because he said to me, “This is your story, Hannah. I can give you the stories to tell, and stories only happen to those who can tell them.”

I called him Daniel, because that’s the book in the Christian bible after Ezekiel. Ezekiel 25:17. The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequalities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and goodwill, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s (and sisters’) keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee, with vengeance and furious anger, those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers and sisters. And you will know my name is the lord, when I lay my vengeance upon you. He’d done all of that. He was the shepherd, and Daniel came after Ezekiel.

Daniel is a fallen angel. He’s in the woods because his wing’s broken and he can’t get home. It’s his right wing that’s damaged. He says that’s the right wing which drove all the hate and fight in him, fuelled by alcohol. With only his left wing, he’s grounded and able to think more. Instead of fighting or fleeing (he can’t), he prefers to talk, to debate, and to learn from those with opposing views to his, always trying to look for common ground of co-operation. I gather he’s been around for a long time, because he’s obviously done a lot of thinking. And that’s all I really meant about him being around three times my age. He’s older than me, so he has wisdom, and I’ve learned from that gift, because I’m not scared of him, the dark angel in the woods.

He practices what others might call Voodoo magic, but he’s not a witch doctor, just a scientist. He explained to me, with proven science alone, how I could call my dog back any time I liked. Daniel explained how what we call ghosts are real, and how I can talk to them. Firstly, we need to believe that they’re around, and they’re easier to see if we understand them better. He said to think of it as wanting to be haunted, so that the spirits can hear us. There are lots of different kinds:

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 a broken wing.

‘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.

Once Daniel had explained the taxonomy of ghosts, I could imagine which parts of each made up Molly, my dog. I could picture her as the ghost dog she is now. If you know what you’re looking for, it’s easier to find.

The nature of the quantum universe in which we now understand we live, is that after we die, we continue to exist in a different form. What we call ‘life’, is merely a part of an ongoing existence, the greatness of which we don’t yet understand. It’s like thinking of a person more as their soul, and their body is just the vessel which manifests that in our world. Think of the body as a computer, and the human soul as the operating system and the software. It’s the latter which brings the former to life. When the computer breaks down, all of the data is still floating around but we can’t see it. Life carries on, but we suddenly find ourselves in a place where we neither have nor need a body, a place we are free to explore and with an eternity to do it, freed of our organic physical form.

While ghosts do exist and it’s easier to see them if you welcome them into our world, there’s also an open channel to them, which Daniel gave me the keys to. It’s the place where Daniel himself lives, between the conscious and the unconscious, in the subconscious. It’s the place we go to in sleep, but which we rarely remember, because we never recall the actual moment of passing into it. We’re always there in sleep, but unless we’re aware of it, we rarely remember it when we wake. Daniel is permanently lucid, and it’s possible to exist in a lucid form in dreams. All you have to do, is make sure you know you’re dreaming when you get there.

Every night, as you fall asleep, repeat to yourself, in your head, ‘I will speak with the universe tonight, and I will be aware that I’m dreaming.’

It takes practice. But I knew I’d found the lucid world when I met Daniel. Now he’s my guide, but not everyone needs one. Even if you don’t find a Daniel, the world of the subconscious is only locked in your head. The key to unlock it, is the mantra as you fall asleep. Eventually, the key will fit, when you’re least expecting it.

When you get there the first time, you’ll probably not be there for long. As soon as you realise you’re in your own dream and able to move and interact freely, you can get a bit worked up and shock yourself awake. All those times you’re falling asleep and you feel you’ve suddenly tripped: That’s you being in touch with the dream world (the universe) but not realising you were there, before jumping awake. Don’t give up. There’s nothing to be scared of.

So now,” Daniel said, “you have to call out in your dream, without waking yourself. If you do, Molly may come, but you’ll be gone. You need to think of Molly as you imagine she is now. What she once was, in your memory, is still there. But that memory is one recorded in your mind with your eyes. In the lucid, subconscious universe, you don’t have eyes, and yet you see. When you first closed your eyes to come here, you’ll have seen ethereal shapes, most likely a deep purple in colour, and rather like a lava lamp. Those visions are us, trying to make contact. If you can make it over into this world, by hanging onto that unconscious step between wakefulness and sleep, so that you are aware you’re here, then you see me as I am now.”

And I could truly see Daniel for what he was: Not a floating purple shape, perpetually changing form, but manifested in a woodland necromancer. Maybe it was him or the universe making it easier for me by appearing as I saw things, in my imagination, but limited by that usually being in an organic body.

From now on, you need to remember me, however you imagine me. Then if you suddenly realise you’re out here, dreaming on your own, you know that you only have to look for me and I’ll guide you. But Molly is here, just as I am. Just as you no longer have eyes, you don’t have a mouth to communicate with. But all of the five physical senses are replaced, contained and enhanced by the sixth. And we all know it’s the sixth sense which allows you to see dead people. Bruce Willis isn’t here though: that was just a film.

So you need to call out, without your physical sleeping self doing the same. You need to think. And you need to think hard. You have to will it, then wish for it some more. Do that loudly enough, and your wish will come true. You can’t test the universe, but if you truly connect lucidly in the subconscious dream scape, you will get an answer. I know it works, because something brought you here.”

Some things are worth listening to, and that made me think, which was the whole idea. And last night, I did get my first brief reunion with my Molly moo.

I wished I could talk to animals, or in this case, think with them. And it was when I started thinking really hard, that I felt the thought become a wish. The best way I can describe it, is when a cry becomes a laugh, like when you’re really upset because you think something’s ended, or someone’s gone, then suddenly it’s all made okay and you laugh through the tears. I heard someone else’s thought, kind of echoed, and I knew it was a dog:

“Moo?”

Moo,” I repeated.

Moo, me?” came the voice, not from a specific point, but all around, like being snuggled with your favourite person, who’s an auntie, a friend, an equal, but protective and craving love for themselves, when their own is unconditional. Someone you’d die for and who you know would return the favour.

I realised my eyes were closed. I knew that I was dreaming, and that this was my chance to hold on to that dream. But I didn’t want to open my eyes, because of the feeling: a love so great that you never want to leave it. Then I remembered something Daniel had said:

Don’t be afraid to open your eyes when you realise you’re dreaming. But remember, you don’t have eyes. Just think of it as sleeping with your eyes open though, and you’ll find it’s quite simple.”

And it was. And he was right about the five physical senses becoming one in the sixth, and of the sixth enhancing each of the five. I could see, but I could only describe things in terms a waking person might understand. I could listen to everything, for miles around, yet there was no competing to be heard. It was like an organic symphony, where the animals and trees were singing and playing instruments in harmony. But again, that’s difficult to describe for someone who’s awake. The instruments weren’t ones I recognised, but they played beautiful music nonetheless. Imagine trees which sound like pipe organs, grass sounding like harps, tubular bells for leaves and brass instruments in the wind, and you’re part way there. And the voices, from soprano to baritone and all carried in the breeze from unseen wildlife. I was listening to nature. And Molly’s was one of the voices.

I’m an atheist, but the bible says that when we go to heaven, we are made perfect. For starters, the science disproves this. But what we look like in ethereal form is as others imagine us. I believe there are three people in each of us anyway: The person we think we are; the person other people think we are; and the person we really are. In the afterlife, we’re the best of all three.

If you can imagine what I felt, try to think of a kind of an ethereal being, but able to move freely, and in solid form (Daniel explained a form of matter, called ‘supersolid’, which solidified the science in my mind: The molecules in a supersolid are arranged so that it can simply pass through other solid objects). And that form isn’t like the organic one which preceded, it’s a material made of immortality, like a mineral.

Molly was like soft, warm sandstone: As sandy coloured – with darker edges and flecks – as she was in the last life, but solid and strong, cast in spiritual stone. She still had her frayed knotted rope chew, still intact after 11 years of gnawing. Where once she was full of the inner warmth in her mortal self, now that warmth was the pure spirit of the next life, both in and around her. Next to me, that protective shield was as warm as her beating heart once was to my ear. Now that heart surrounded me.

In that subconscious woods, reality turns in on itself. It’s something I can’t explain, nor which I doubt many would understand. But that’s why I keep a diary. Maybe one day I’ll look back on these old journals, if I’m ever having an existential crisis and wondering what to do with my life. Probably something to do with animals, as I find them easier to relate to than human people. Or perhaps I might do something which helps me to understand the human condition better, so that I can then explain it to others in a way they might understand. Perhaps I’ll be a writer, or even meet one I could work with (I wonder what it would be like to have a writer who could make the animals talk). There are many scientific fields around such a huge subject, so maybe I’ll find one to excel at. Or maybe I’ll be quite good at a few things and use that somehow to work with others for some greater good. I could invent something which allowed me to talk with animals, and use that as a vet. That would benefit lots of people, animal and human alike.

So after I’d thought all that, I went back to the woods, to see if I could talk to Molly. I’d thought I had, but then she was one of the weird voices and sounds out there.

Moo?” And then, as if by magic, but in a place where there is no magic, because it’s real:

Moo.” And she ran to me, jumping at me and nearly flattening me, like she did before, when every day I was out at school was an eternity to her, wishing she could learn with me. And yet here, eternity was no different to a day, all turned inside out.

I miss you,” I said.

I miss you, moo.” So she did call me ‘moo’ too.

We talked for as long as I could hold the dream. We talked about all the things we’d done, as we’d grown up together. I told her what I was doing now, and all the things I had planned, but how I might change my mind. And the funny thing was, she said she knew. And the even weirder thing, I know now.

We walked among the trees and I carved our names. Molly said it was better than any cat could do, however clever they think they are.

But before we left, she whispered in my ear, and it reminded me of something she’d said when I was younger, when I used to talk to her, and when my younger mind could hear her. I can’t remember which of those conversations it was, but I remember it was a question.

Let’s run,” Molly said.

Why?” I wondered, when we didn’t have to, with no legs to restrict us.

Because,” she said, “one day we won’t be able to.”

So we ran all the way back to me waking up, and Molly running off into the woods, calling ‘Moo’ as she went.

I saw Daniel as I woke. He said this is the way it’s always be done. I know where to find him, and he’ll know when I need him. And I can go back there, any time I like, where time and distance are irrelevant. All I have to do, is think of my dreams and they’ll be waiting for me.

Molly’s running around in that woods, being a dog, always sniffing the ground above me, chasing things around, and chewing on the faded rope which ties this story. I looked at it, thought of the connection, then remembered what she’d asked me:

Can you kill beauty and love?”

That was quite profound for a dead dog, which is why she had to ask a living human.

Dear diary, of my life as a teen.

© Steve Laker, 2017

The other two Cyrus Song prequel short stories are those of Simon Fry (in Of Mice and Boys in 1984), and Captain Mamba (in A Young Captain Plays it Safe). The novel is available from Amazon and other book stores.

One better day, no empty bench in Soho Square

DEAR DIARY | FLASH FICTION

Like most people, I’ve lost many: family, friends, influences, inspirations, idols and muses. Outside of my inner circle, the most devastating loss for me was when the Starman left. But I know he’s out there, and still around; I just know.

Two more who hit me deeply, were Amy Winehouse and Kirsty MacColl, in their tragic and traumatic final acts. Before social anxiety became my unwanted chaperone, I would visit Kirsty’s memorial bench in Soho Square, where others gather every year to mark her birthday. I shan’t be there tomorrow, but it was with these things in mind that I wrote the story below, at a time when I myself was lonely and destitute, and when the cold menace of Christmas approaching was the loneliest time of all.

SohoSq

CAMDEN TOWN TO SOHO SQUARE

An old man in a three piece suit sits in the road, by Arlington House in Camden. The first cigarette is for contemplation, of the day before and the one to follow. He looks down at his shoes, flecked with the human remains of an October night.

He tossed his cigarette end through a drain cover, a portcullis to London’s intestines below. As he rose to his feet, a younger man walked almost alongside him, then boarded the same train at Camden Town, southbound on the Northern Line. At Euston, the young man wrote in a journal.

The old boy opposite doesn’t look so good. He’s wearing an LU uniform: Kinda hope he’s not gonna drive a train. Doesn’t matter to me, I’m off soon. He’s fallen asleep.

No-one knows I’m meeting her tonight. I don’t want to be a part of someone else’s Christmas, when at home I’m just a memorial, an empty chair at the dining table, with silver cutlery and a bone dry glass laid out for a ghost.

We’ve stopped just outside Warren Street. Above me, there life walks, and the city breathes, like a heavy smoker.

Old girl, new girl;
mother, daughter, Seven Sisters.
Roaming your many ways:
Shakespeare’s.

Saviour, black heart;
Angel, Bermondsey, Moorgate.
All that’s precious:
China.

Tears, laughter;
West End, Soho, Arnos Grove.
Where my heart is:
Push.

We’re on the move. I’ll get off at Tottenham Court Road and walk to Soho Square…

The old man was stirred by an on-train announcement:

“Ladies and gentlemen, due to an incident, this train will terminate here. All change please. All change.”

He spotted the notebook, open on the seat opposite.

…I’ll get off at Tottenham Court Road and I’ll walk to Soho Square, where I hope to see you. No empty bench, but my London, my life.

We met and we clicked,
like Bonnie and Clyde.
So similar:
Jekyll and Hyde.

We went out,
like Mickey and Mallory.
Why don’t you come on over,
Valerie.

We done stuff,
like Courtney and Kurt.
Laughed then slept:
Ernie and Bert.

Holding throats, not hands.
Necromancy.
Over there:
Sid and Nancy.

See you soon,

A man on the underground.

Emerging from beneath Tottenham Court Road, a young man blinked in the lights and mizzle, on the way to Soho Square. He sniffed, and snow fell in the back of his throat. He waited on the bench.

An old man in a three piece suit sits in the road, outside Arlington House in Camden. The first cigarette is for contemplation, of the day before and the one to follow. He looks down at his shoes, flecked with the human remains of an October night.

© Steve Laker, 2014.

A shorter tale of nightshade

THE WRITER’S LIFE | HORROR FICTION

Most of my short stories nowadays tend toward the longer end of that definition (4-6000 words), but I’ve written shorter ones, right down to flash fiction of 500-1000 words. I wrote many of the latter when I was homeless, writing whenever, and for as long as I could: In hospital waiting rooms, beneath street lamps, or by candle light. The story below was written in a doctor’s surgery.

My exposure with novels is limited to those who can afford them (although I make my books available by request through public libraries too), and with the time to read them. The latter isn’t such an issue with short stories, 25 of which are in my anthology. I continue to write short stories for magazines and web zines, and I’m planning a second collection of 17 longer stories for publication next year. This is the title story from the first, and it’s only 1760 words.

Like most of my writing, there are analogies, parallels and subtexts in The perpetuity of memory. It’s been said by others that many of my stories stand up to repeat reading, often revealing details which weren’t apparent previously. Like all good writers of short fiction, I try to carry maximum meaning and context with minimal words. If that all sounds a bit elitist, just think of this one in the context it was written: Waiting to be seen by a doctor, for ongoing mental health issues, while of no fixed abode. Other patients in the waiting room, all looking better than I felt, and no doubt returning later to a hot meal in a family home.

Living street homeless will leave scars on anyone.

Leg 3D tattoo

The perpetuity of memory

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

The invitation to be part of a rare commission by Dom Pablo Solanas was a work of art in itself: exquisitely crafted by the artist and a future priceless piece. This alone was a luxurious gift, even to someone of Christiana Kunsak’s means, yet it was merely an invitation to a private audience with Solanas himself. A box, carved from a single piece each of ebony and rare boxwood, interlocked to form a puzzle. The piece is entitled La armonia. The accompanying notes state that the name only exists for as long as the puzzle is in its unsolved form: once the puzzle is solved and the two pieces separated, a mechanism inside the piece ensures that they cannot be re-joined. Once the puzzle is complete, La armonia ceases to exist and the work becomes La ansiedad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

La ansiedad quietly whirred into motion again, the mechanical fingers retracting into the wooden flesh of the hand until the sculpture was briefly a chequered ovoid, before flipping open like a clam shell. It continued to change form, seemingly with perpetuity.

Dom Pablo arrived promptly and attired in a fashion exhibited in many public portraits of him: conflicting primary colours which somehow worked, on a man who also wore a fedora hat at all times, and who sported a perfectly manicured handlebar moustache.

Ms. Kunsak. A pleasure to meet you.”

Please sir: Christiana. Likewise, Mr Solanas.” Christiana offered her hand, which Solanas held firmly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christiana stared into the mirror and a wooden tailor’s doll looked back: her face, neck, chest, arms and legs had been tattooed and the illusion of carved wood from human flesh was utterly convincing.

It would take a level of intimacy permitted to very few, to see the original raw material beneath the artwork, made by Dom Pablo.

© Steve Laker, 2016.

My books are available on Amazon.

The Unfinished Literary Agency (First edition)

FICTION

As I continue to write short stories for a second collection, there are two so far in that next book from The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s a theme which pops up in other stories, but the agency itself has published four stories so far. This was the first, and it’s in my first anthology…

Horror writer desk

The Unfinished Literary Agency

The Unfinished literary agency was like no other that I’d worked for. In all my years of writing, I’d simply not heard of them. The first I’d ever heard of them was when I received a letter on headed paper. It was a rather fine letterhead: an off-white recycled stock, with the agency’s details die-stamped in blue ink. Intriguingly, the telephone number was prefixed “01”: an old, old London number. The letter said that they had some unfinished work which they would like me to complete: I had been summonsed by – or from – the past. I had neither the time nor the inclination to visit them in person, although I did some research and found that the agency was above Hotblack Desiato’s office in Islington.

It was a hot summer afternoon when my friends found the diaries. Just in time too, as it had begun to rain and the smell of wet dust filled the air as water hit arid pavements. The diaries were in a battered green skip, outside a building which was being demolished.

There were 126 volumes in all. Some were faux leather-bound journals, some A5 refill pads and even a few school exercise books. Most were stuffed into boxes; one once filled with Xerox toner cartridges. Other books were thrown in amongst the bricks and debris from the building. They weren’t numbered or dated, so I had no way of arranging them into chronological order. They simply sat in boxes in the order they’d been retrieved from the skip by Jasper and Mole.

One journal almost audibly begged to be read, with its lurid New York taxi yellow cover. As I picked it up, it felt like I held a life in my hand, or at least a part of one. In bold, black letters on the front cover was the legend: “I hope these are found when I’m gone. Within these covers, a heart once beat.” There was no hint as to who the author might have been: The writer was simply “I”. “I” had seemingly lived and died there, in Upper Street N1, then been thrown into a skip.

I was working on another project at the time, ghost writing an autobiography. I was a blogger by trade and I surely didn’t have time to read through 126 volumes of someone else’s life. What was I to do? Hand the books into the police and be laughed at? After a period of time, the diaries would be destroyed if no-one had claimed them, or returned to me. Would I really miss the tatty old boxes cluttering up my studio? That life in the skip had already passed. What were my friends to have done if they’d not pulled the journals from the skip though? To leave them there would surely have been criminal. So I kept them, as they’d been dumped in my studio. Jasper suggested I might like to write about the anonymous life found in a skip. As a fiction writer, I could be a biographer who didn’t have a clue about who their subject was. I’d get around to them eventually.

Two terrible things happened in the month that followed: Mole, ironically, was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and began an intensive course of chemotherapy; Jasper was killed, suddenly and for no apparent reason. Everything can change in a moment, without warning and forever. For several weeks afterwards, I looked at the journals in their boxes and wondered how I’d feel as I read them. They represented a time when all was well, when Mole and Jasper had found them. Perhaps I ought to leave things that way.

The journals languished in their boxes for a year before I finally started to read them. I’d resisted before because I knew that my inquisitive nature would turn the books into a personal mission: who wrote them? Who was “I”? Eventually curiosity got the better of me and I began to read. The journals provided a link to Mole and Jasper. To be honest, I needed an escape into someone else’s life.

It wasn’t the yellow taxi volume I picked up first. The one I started to read was an anonymous black book, much like most of the others, and chosen at random. It started in the middle of a sentence: “…I’m bleeding. I’ve been stabbed. My blood is everywhere…”

I didn’t know who I was reading about and that anonymity meant that each sentence was a story in itself: Who was this? Why was he bleeding? What on earth had happened? Despite the fact that he was bleeding, the writer continued with sufficient clarity as to maintain a tidy style of handwriting: the individual letters were scribed with care; grammar and punctuation were perfect. He just carried on. Occasionally there were dates: days and months but not years. Sometimes the writing referred to events which I could attach approximate dates to – mentions of news events and programmes on TV – but still, there were 125 more volumes to comb through.

Eventually I pieced sufficient volumes together to work out that the stabbing incident had occurred when “I” was 14. But when was this? How had a 14-year-old boy been stabbed and what were the consequences? With no means of knowing which journal to read next, I was drawn into the story: I may have to read all of the volumes to fit things together. There is no recording of the time of day that the stabbing happened. The volume I was reading could even be the last: “I” could have died aged 14.

The text in that particular volume became gradually more rushed. Words clashed with the edges of pages as they hit. The author was trying to fit as much in as possible before the pages – or time – ran out. I was just skimming; hoping to find out. Maybe I should hand these diaries in to the police after all? But “I” hadn’t. It were as though he’d entrusted all of this information to the journals and my job now seemed to be one of unravelling, in private.

I managed to find the volume which followed the book of the bloodshed. I realised that the easiest way to achieve this was to look at just the first page of each notebook: I was simply looking for a sentence which began part way through, because the last page of the bloodshed book ended mid-sentence, with I “…bleeding from my insides, spilling my guts for all to see. How am I to explain something which I don’t understand but which has nonetheless happened? I feel light headed, like the blood is draining from my brain and pouring from the same exit wound…”

And that’s where it ended. He’d bled through a whole volume. An exit wound? Had he been shot? Is this why he couldn’t go to the police? Was this the last chapter? I longed for “I” to take me further. I don’t recall how many first pages I read but the one that stopped me was the one which began, “…and all because of my sex.” Was he homosexual? It mattered not a jot but it was the only thing I could think of.

As I read further, the river of blood slowed to a trickle and was eventually stemmed. Perhaps if I’d been less presumptuous, I’d have realised sooner that the poor young lad had been having his period. He was a girl.

Why wouldn’t I want to pry around a teenage girl’s intimate thoughts? The diaries became more than curios from then. No longer was it just a mystery thriller; now it was eroticism. I had metaphorically tasted virginal, vaginal teenage blood. Now I had an angry angel. I wanted to know who this young writer was, why she had died and been thrown away.

I continued to read the journals in the same random order: just as they’d ordered themselves when they were dumped, as though that was the way the writer had intended. Perhaps I was over romanticising. “I” described things in a way which made me wonder if she ever expected or wanted anyone else to hear about them. But it was manna to a voyeuristic fiction writer with an anonymous autobiography at my disposal.

Although “I” was now a girl, I still didn’t have a name. In a way, I preferred it like that: the anonymity gave the diaries a universality. They were impersonal, so as to reduce the voyeurism a little, and yet “I” wrote of intensely personal things. I figured it was okay to write about these things because she didn’t want her name to be known.

Nothing is certain. That’s the number one cancer cliche. 18 months after Mole’s first course of chemotherapy, the tumours returned. It was difficult to tell which was murdering him quicker: nature or medicine.

My focus now was to try to establish some kind of time line. If I committed to reading all of the journals in detail, I should be able to use the clues I’d previously identified to string things in some rough order. This became an obsession, as I read more and more intimate parts of this girl’s writing. I could almost hear her voice as her pen strokes betrayed her mood. She was always alternately angry and hurried when she wrote of her father. He taunted her regularly, verbally and physically assaulted her. I had to relive episodes with her over and over again, as I placed things in order.

It was her father who shattered one of the biggest illusions for me. Up to that point, I had no idea what “I” looked like but I had imagined her: She was of course small, slim, blonde and extraordinarily pretty. She wore her hair in a pony tail for school and let it down when she got home. She’d sit in front of a mirror and describe herself in her father’s words in her diary: “I’m fat and ugly. I’m useless at everything and never get anything right. I’m stupid and weak. I’ll never amount to anything in my life. When I die – which will hopefully be soon – my epitaph will read: ‘Here lies Vicky Francis, who did nothing, went nowhere and was loved by nobody.’”

Vicky.

I missed the nameless girl of my imaginings. I’d been robbed of my floating abstract, now squeezed into a finite thing. I’d liked this girl with no name, whose every feature was of my own design. I enjoyed her clumsiness, her irrational moments and her occasional desires for outbursts of violence. So what if she was called Vicky?

Vicky had been to many places. In the mid 1970s, she was living with her father in London. From social and current affairs of the time when she wrote, I worked out that she was in her early 20s by then. There seemed to be no-one besides her and the old man and he was drunk most of the time. Vicky paid the bills with cleaning jobs and bar work. The more I read, the more the story changed in itself and the expectations of the reader. It gained greater depth and breadth as first Vicky’s appearance was revealed, then her name. Now it took on some of the period piece, with the addition of a place and time in history: 1970s London, Soho in fact.

Vicky wrote of the seedy Soho of legend in salacious detail: encounters with pimps, prostitutes, punters, gangsters and drug dealers; Hostess bars and clip joints: she didn’t say if she worked in any of them but she wrote with an intimate familiarity, as though she worked around them. She had wild and ambitious plans and was in a hurry to record them in her diary. Some days and hours were dozens of pages long. Vicky would record one day in minute-by-minute detail, then say nothing for a week. I missed her when she was away and would search for the next entry in the journals.

In the little spare time she had, Vicky was working on a project: a biography in fact. She didn’t name her subject but I should like to learn more of him for the basis of a fictional character. The man was a monster: Some kind of tutor but he abused his students when they got things wrong. He was apparently in a permanent drunken state, unable to remember his abuse on the morning after the day before. Very little more is written of this man. Like with so much else with Vicky, once she gets her teeth into something, she disappears while she pursues it. Perhaps it would be dangerous for her to document the details.

In Vicky’s story, this older man was a full 30 years older than her main protagonist. Her character is also 14. The man has much in common with Vicky’s father but he doesn’t abuse her directly. The tutor allowed a young girl’s adulation to get out of hand. Vicky’s father demolished her confidence and ruined her ambitions, over a period of at least a decade. It was an intense and abusive period in her life.

After 1985, the story became vague. The content of the diaries grew gradually more sketchy, as though an outside influence was distracting Vicky, or indeed the character she was writing about: the stories had merged together.

Toward what now appeared to be the end, when Vicky was in her 30s, she was homeless. She was scavenging food from supermarket bins and using a single hob to cook. A typical meal was the one she cooked herself for her birthday that year: an out-of-date chicken madras microwave ready meal, which she over-cooked “to make it a bit safer.”

Mole was nearing the end of his time too. He implored me to step back a little, to stop reading the 126 books so intently and focus – as I was supposed to – on putting them into some sort of order; to form a backbone for the story, then add the bones and fill in the gaps. Maybe then it would take on life. I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I needed to see the whole of Vicky and not selected highlights of her eventful life. I suppose I’d resisted because so many of my assumptions about Vicky had been false. How many others were?

I hope I die as peacefully as Mole did. The sudden but not unexpected ending of one life shone a light into the gaps of the one I was writing about. Vicky revealed a secret so massive that I was momentarily thrown and yet she didn’t write a word about it. After plotting a timeline of the period of her life which I held, I realised what a small part it was. The late 1970s, the whole of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s were missing. Those stories from 1995 still seemed to be the end though.

I estimated that the 126 volumes I’d still only skimmed over, amounted to about 15,000 pages, or 5 million words. Using that as a benchmark for number of words per year and knowing roughly the period of Vicky’s life which I knew about, I calculated the size of the diaries including the missing years. Using this very crude method, I reckoned that there could be close to 1000 journals somewhere: 40 million words, waiting to be heard. Vicky was a very prolific diarist and it would be a lifetime’s work for a biographer to record her life. In which case, a partly remarkable life is lost. And so I had to continue.

But how would I find all of those missing years? Why were there only edited highlights in the skip? I couldn’t believe that Vicky would have stopped for those periods. She always found time to write, whatever she was doing otherwise. If she’d married or got a job, she’d have written about it. It wasn’t so much the sudden ending of the diaries which intrigued me as those big gaps in the narrative. A life which was missing the 80s was a tragedy. Vicky came back afterwards, so where had she been in that defining decade? As a fiction writer, I could fill in the gaps but there was too much of the real story holding me.

I simply couldn’t think where those missing years might be. I didn’t even know exactly where Jasper and Mole recovered the original diaries from because at the time, I’d been so wrapped up in my own world that I’d not bothered to collect them myself. I hadn’t even thought to fucking ask. I’d lost my two best friends, and the one who confided her diaries to me. So I returned to being a fiction writer.

I resolved to confront this man, these men, the people in general, who had made Vicky’s life, so many lives, intolerable. I’d written about many such people: Evil but charismatic; the antagonists in my stories sometimes, but more often than not, the narrators. People who charmed their way into lives, leaving indelible marks. Characters so calculating as to ensure those scars were only on the inside: no-one could see the real harm. Characters whom I’d made anti-heroes and whose appealing looks and personality disguised a black heart. Invisible people.

Just as it is impossible to find someone if you don’t know where they are, it’s easy if you know who you’re looking for. Not only did I know who he was but I knew exactly where to find him.

We had a very pleasant evening together and I was seated at this very writing desk as I poured our last drink. In fact, this very manuscript of Vicky’s and so many others’ unfinished stories, was protruding from the top of my typewriter as I looked through the open curtains in front of the desk, out into the night at the street lamps. A sheet of off-white paper, bearing an unfinished story, the end of which would be determined by me, as I pressed the keys and the individual letters embossed themselves on the sheet. One keystroke, a metallic hammer into a soft surface, changing the story forever.

I stared back at myself from the window as I typed and reflected on such a tragic life, like a rabbit in the headlights:

“The end…

© Steve Laker, 2016

The Perpetuity of Memory is available now. My publishing schedule is on the book shelf page of this blog.