The extinction of the Victorians

FLASH FICTION

Today Extinction Rebellion begin their occupation of London in Parliament Square. Everyone’s invited to join them, and stay for as long as it takes.

As a science fiction writer who imagines future scenarios both near and far, I always keep on top of the news to see if I’m right and to get further ideas. I wrote this story late last year, when a delayed train interrupted my automation and I imagined a moment when factions might put differences aside to face a common cause…

queen second class

A VICTORIAN GAME OF BRIDGE

People remember where they were when big news events unfolded. When one strands you in a place, it’s impossible to forget where you were. I’d finished work for the week and I was at London Victoria when something changed.

It started like many evening commutes, with my train delayed, but no indication of by how long. Gradually more services were delayed, and the station concourse filled with shoppers and commuters unable to get home. I stared at the indicator boards as more and more trains were cancelled, and the station became uncomfortably crowded.

Eventually there was an announcement: There were trespassers on the line. A mixture of thoughts competed in my head: Just run them over, let them electrocute themselves, the needs of the many… But then I realised they’re human, and that it might not be a prank, but a cry for help. Unable to assist, I grew claustrophobic and decided to find a nearby bar where I could kill some time.

Blinking in the dark outside, the indicator boards were etched onto my retina: delayed, cancelled. I hoped the lives on the line wouldn’t be.

I found a pub not far from the station, where it seemed quite a few people had the same idea as me. It was a curious juxtaposition, as people who’d just been staring forlornly up at indicator boards watched a TV mounted high on the wall, captive. The news was on, and Victoria wasn’t alone.

All London termini were closing, as they became dangerously overcrowded. No trains were coming in or out of London. Outside King’s Cross, a lone man sat on a railway bridge, dangling his legs over the track. There was a single girl on a bridge outside Waterloo, and reports were coming in of others. Was this coordinated?

The question of organisation wasn’t part of the TV coverage, but I couldn’t help wondering if this might be some sort of protest. The alternative was far too fanciful, ghoulish, romantic and far-fetched to consider. But I’m a writer, so I considered it.

This was the time of Brexit, a homeless crisis, a Conservative government committing economic murder; of Trump, and the rise of the right. As a benefits claimant myself, I’d been abused by the government’s social cleansing agenda. I felt an empathy with these people on the bridges, and I couldn’t help wondering what might happen if they all jumped. Perhaps then an ignorant ruling dictatorship might listen. Too late for the jumpers, but they’d die martyrs.

The evening rolled on and the atmosphere in the pub wasn’t what I might have expected. People weren’t cursing impatiently at the inconvenience they’d been caused, they were phoning home to loved ones and finding places to stay the night. They were resigned to what was happening, and there was a feeling of togetherness about the place. For a moment, I felt humanity.

Road bridges were next, as jumpers sat above key motorways. No-one had seen this coming. The police didn’t have time to close bridges to prevent them being occupied, as the jumpers all came at once. Britain’s transport infrastructure was crippled. The number of lives threatening cancellation was estimated at around 900 up and down the country, and the situation was at a stalemate. The police had suspended most other operations to concentrate on the gridlock and the jumpers.

#WeWantOurLivesBack was on a banner draped over a bridge on the M25 between two jumpers, and the strangest thing: apart from one guy telling them to just jump and let him get home (he may have had pressing reasons), the stranded motorists below started getting out of their cars and slow-clapping. Others were sounding their horns, and still more were blasting music from their cars. Down there on the road, these people had become as resigned as we had in the pub. It wasn’t so much join them if you can’t beat them, but genuine empathy and support.

There’d been no response from Downing Street.

The pub was growing restless, but it didn’t make me anxious. Outside with the smokers, people clearly the worse for drink weren’t fighting each other, but chanting. There were no police on the streets. “Vive la Révolution.” The peasants were really quite revolting. Someone pointed out that Parliament Square was just around the corner.

Walking together through the streets of London at night, with no police, there was no looting, no criminal damage. It was anarchy, peace and freedom. This is what I’d dreamed of. We needed to make the most of it before the government sent the army in under the martial law which was surely coming. We’d made our point though. Something touched us that night, and captured us together.

Those martyrs were detained, delayed but not cancelled. They will not be forgotten. 

Liberté, égalité, fraternité was still far away (in France). But we’d made a start, sitting in the garden of the gated community, Anarchie au Royaume-Uni.

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Extinction Rebellion banner

© Steve Laker, 2018

Take time off from work, bunk off of school. The Government says we’re damaging our future. But unless they act, we don’t have one. This is about all of us, and we’re camping out in their garden.

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The invention of the pencil case

If it wasn’t for humans…

FLASH FICTION

Dog Pencil Case

THE INVENTION OF THE PENCIL CASE

The strangest lunch I ever had was with a veterinary doctor, and it was the meal which finally turned me vegetarian. I should note at the start, we didn’t eat any domestic pets.

I first met Dr Hannah Jones when we worked on a film together, and we’d remained friends since. We’d meet up every now then, I’d tell her stories from the writing world and she’d give me ideas from her field of science. It was Hannah who’d suggested we meet, as she said she had something important for me.

We met at a pop-up cafe at the Camden end of Regent’s Park. It was an indifferent day weather wise, unable to decide what it wanted to do. We sat outside nonetheless, as we both like to people-watch: me making up stories of what people in the park might be away from that setting, Hannah priding herself on identifying the bits of cross-breeds and mongrels, and sometimes scoring the dogs’ humans on parts of their anatomy.

The Camden end of the park is quieter nowadays, and at one point on that particular Saturday, we counted only 16 legs besides our own. It’s been that way since the last fire at the zoo, and that’s what Hannah said she wanted to tell me about. But first we ordered food. I went for a rare steak with fries, and Hannah chose a vegetarian pizza.

The cafe backed on to the old zoo, now a construction site. The distant sound of hammers and saws competed with the clatter of dishes from the cafe, which was quite arresting. The animals’ former home was being demolished in the background, while I was waiting for part of a former animal to arrive before me.

So I turned to Hannah, and asked her what she wanted to tell me. Something she’d been working on perhaps, some veterinary breakthrough, or anything I might use as a story.

You remember the first fire,” Hannah said, “and the cause was unknown?” She didn’t have to remind me. The London Zoo fire of 2017 killed four meerkats and Mischa the aardvark, and the cause of the blaze was never made public. I nodded. “Well,” she continued, “some colleagues of mine found out what started the latest one.”

Many more had perished in the great fire of 2020, and there was extensive structural damage. Most of the remaining exhibits had been moved to other zoos, and all who remained were the rarest and most threatened in the wild. Our food arrived and suddenly, char-grilled animal wasn’t terribly appetising.

So what was it?” I asked, as Hannah chewed righteously on her veggie pizza.

The kind of thing,” she said, “that is never likely to be made public.”

So why would you tell me?” I wondered.

Because you’re a fiction writer. If you write it, no-one will believe you.” I wasn’t sure how to take that, but I smiled nonetheless as I ate a fry.

Go on then,” I prompted. Hannah looked at my steak.

Aren’t you going to eat that?”

It doesn’t have the same sort of appeal it once had,” I said.

But that’s such a waste.” She was right. “Such a shame that not only does someone have to die to feed you, but their selfless act is unappreciated and their sacrifice goes to waste.” She had a point. “And pity the poor chef, cooking that for you, only to have it returned like there’s something wrong with it.” The only thing wrong was me eating it. As I chewed reluctantly, Hannah told me the story of the great fire.

I’ve got a friend who was in the forensics team. She told me this, and she told me not to tell anyone.”

So you’re telling me,” I said, “because if I write about it, no-one will believe it.”

But you’ll believe me,” she replied. “So, after the fire brigade put out the fire, they identified the seat of the blaze, in a pile of hay.”

Someone’s bed?” I wondered. “Did it catch in the sun?”

No,” Hannah replied, “it was deliberate.”

Someone started it deliberately?”

Yes.”

Arson. Why?”

We don’t know if it was. It started in the mountain gorilla area.”

Someone threw a lighter in?” I imagined it wouldn’t take long to work out how a lighter worked.

No,” Hannah said again. “It was all enclosed in strengthened glass.”

A keeper dropped a lighter?”

Nope.” She was getting quite smug now, knowing what I didn’t. I tried again.

So maybe the sun did start it, like the magnifying glass effect.”

All of the above remained possibilities for a while, and that’s how it’ll remain on the public record. Just like the first one: cause unknown.”

So what do you know which no-one else does, including me?”

This.” She unfolded a sheet of paper, a photo, and handed it to me. It was like a scenes of crime picture: little plastic signs with numbers on, dotted around the ground, like a golf course for ants, and an arrow pointing to a singed spot of earth about the size of a dinner plate. “That’s the seat of the fire.”

And this is inside the gorilla enclosure?”

Yes. Where this came from.” Hannah rummaged in her bag, then handed me something rolled in newspaper. “It’s what’s inside.”

Inside was a piece of dried wood about the size of a pencil case, with a small crater burned into the centre.

What the actual…” I didn’t finish.

Hold on,” Hannah said, “there’s this as well.” She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out what looked like a burnt pencil.

I knew by now what it really was, and it had a much bigger story to tell.

It seemed somehow poetic to write it down, lest anyone hear, so I used the charred, sharpened end:

THEY DISCOVERED FIRE?

Hannah nodded.

© Steve Laker, 2018

Simon Fry first meets Doctor Hannah Jones in Cyrus Song, where this story was born.

Buy me a coffee one off

Dining on darkened stools

FLASH FICTION

Pulp Pollution

PULP POLLUTION

As a one-time music writer, I’m crapping it, which is what every horror writer wants their readers to do, as they feed them to obesity in a crowded field. When I write fiction, there are parts of me in every story or character I create, but I’ve rarely lived the actual events in the stories. Now I’m seated alone in Green Inferno, a joint which prides itself on being carnivorous. My first observation is that if you’re in the story yourself, it’s not so easy to make it up as you go along.

The place is cavernous and filled with greenery, so that the experience is one of dining in a plastic south American forest, alone. As I look around, it’s hard to make out many other diners for the dense foliage, which eases my anxiety. Anyone walking through the bushes around me could be a customer, a lost tribe member, or one of the dishes. I hear running water but I can’t see a toilet. I turn my attention to the menu, which is the other point of this place.

It’s a meat restaurant, but with its focus on food provenance. All their dishes are locally sourced, and every cut of meat is traceable to an individual. Reared by organic local farmers, each animal was once a friend, and so every dish comes with a story, like Peter Davidson at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, describing his lifestyle and how that’s improved his finer cuts.

Mine is a shallow hunger, so I browse the appetisers. Among them, I’m intrigued by the pygmy cutlets. The beast once burdened by these isn’t described by species (I assume pork, from a pig), but as a character:

He (we’re told that much) was unwell for much of his short life (not terribly appetising so far). Bullied by his siblings and shunned by his elders, he’d been adopted by other animals. They stop short of actually naming the individuals here, but I gather this little chap had a bit of an identity crisis (I know how he felt).

Another of these pygmy things sounded a bit of an arse: His partner and children had fled his abusive patriarchy, then he’d been ejected by his drift (the collective noun for swine) and become a nomad (and no mates). For years he wandered with lonely guilt, until he died of a broken heart (impaled). In some respects, I could relate to him too.

The stories of the menu certainly make me question whether I should be eating what was once a sentient, self-determining being like me. As a horror writer, I’ve sometimes reflected on the act of consuming dead flesh, questioning if it might be both the most and least respectful way of disposing of a body. On the one hand, it’s everything which was in that living body being taken on by another (so a bit like holy communion). Conversely, it’s power over the body of the lost soul as it’s consumed (not unlike holy communion then).

I decided on a cut from each, whoever they were. While they remained nameless, they’d be just like any other meat on my plate. As food, once the organism has ceased to function, it becomes organic. It’s consumed, drained of its nutrients for the nourishment of the host, then what’s left is excreted as waste: Life as pulp fiction, picked up on airport news stands, consumed in the air, and cast into the bin on different shores, like so much human waste. Perhaps there are beach combers there, and some stories live again, but I was growing distracted in the plastic green inferno.

My stomach was growing cramped, like my surroundings; vegetation everywhere, but not a leaf to eat. And yet, the dishes I’d ordered were once living beings with stories. I owed them enough respect to eat them while they were still warm.

I’m not sure if it was a server or a customer who ran through the foliage behind me. I couldn’t tell if the sound of flowing water was from a distant stream or the glass now being poured beside me, as my food arrived. I couldn’t wait.

I dined alone as always, with only myself for company, pondering publication of this review. The writer who shit himself.

“Door open or closed?” It made no difference, as I passed an effigy of me. It appeared to smile as I flushed it away to some distant beach.

© Steve Laker, 2018

The origin of unpacked furniture

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FLASH FICTION

A recurring theme in my writing is The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s a fictional place (and there’s a book), which exists to tell the stories of others who are unable to tell their own.

The agency is also an analogy of the writing world, where writers crave an audience, in a place where people don’t have time to read. It has parallels, to how inner frustration made my own mind up to write down everything in it.

Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them, and sometimes I wonder if we may have a greater purpose, but haven’t worked out what it is yet…

laptop-cat-bb0919-3014947-600-1440509828000

THE OFFICE OF LOST THINGS

They are afraid of the sun, shrinking away as it climbs in the sky, and they are liveliest at night. They follow us, and we can’t outrun them. They are The Shadows.

I first became aware that I’d picked one up when my own shadow started carrying a guitar. No matter where I walked, indoors or outside, my shadow followed me. And regardless of what I myself was carrying (a bag, my jacket, thrown over my shoulder…), my shadow still travelled with its guitar.

This being Bethnal Green, I found an Italian greasy spoon, where the proprietor, a doctor, explained my condition. His Cockney dialogue was easy for the Babel fish in my ear to translate, and when he told me I was Hank Marvin, he offered me a cure, pointing to an item on the menu: “GSEG”, which was scrambled eggs, and my hunger was gone.

I was on my way to Islington, delivering a manuscript, to a place I’d heard about from other writers.

Above Hotblack Desiato’s office near Islington Green, is The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s where all the storytellers send their stories, and sometimes meet to share them, like a secret society, but open to all.

I climbed the stairs to the agency office, a windowless room in the loft. The lights were out and no-one was in. I tried the light switch but it didn’t work. Fumbling around, I found a desk, which I discovered had drawers, and the fourth one yielded a box of candles. I lit a cigarette, then a candle, and looked around the small office, which a broom might call luxurious.

On the desk was a typewriter, and next to it, a stack of papers: hand-written manuscripts. Besides the desk and a chair, there was just a large book cabinet occupying one wall. It held possibly hundreds of unwritten books, all from writers seeking attention, and all in a place where the sun never shines.

I sat at the desk and looked at my flickering shadow, cast by the candle. There was no guitar, just my cigarette dangling from my mouth, like a smoking tulip.

With no-one else around, I decided to stay for a while and started typing.

© Steve Laker

Dreams play TV

Wherever our lives may lead, we are all but a plot device.

The Unfinished Literary Agency (my second anthology) is available now. 

Life can be a gift (subject to status)

FLASH FICTION

Life in Tory Britain is subject to status. With social budgets cut, services out-sourced to the cheapest private bidder (usually a company one of the cabinet or a spouse is a stakeholder in), and parts of the NHS poised to be sold to US ‘care providers’, it’s nothing short of social cleansing. If you have money, you can afford to live. If not, the fascist regime will grind you down…

Ticks TowersGetty Images

TICKS

To continue enjoying this programme, please top up your viewing card. Thank you for choosing Living Loans.

She’d embraced the Living Loans rep at their first meeting. So friendly, right down to the company logo, a smiling cartoon figure, with comically long arms. Short-term credit loans were just the icing. The cake was the free Smart TV: fifty inches of ultra high definition, with all the streaming services her and the kid could eat. The rep installed it for her, and did away with complicated and confusing subscriptions. Weekly loans were loaded onto a single debit card, which doubled as a viewing card. Her whole life, on one simple piece of plastic.

Topping up was a simple £2 call on her Living Loans mobile. The week just lived was paid for. Television time would have to be rationed, and food for her and the kid would come from the bank.

With the kid fed and asleep, she microwaved a ready meal, with an extra 30 seconds, ‘just to be sure’. She lit a candle, and got cosy in a Onesie for Eastenders.

To continue enjoying this programme, please top up your viewing card. Thank you for choosing Living Loans.

£2 can do so much. With a quick call, it can summon another human soul, a friend to talk to and sort out problems. A chat with a smiling person, with long arms to reach into their pockets and help. She eagerly signed the new contract, ticked the boxes, and regained her life. She needn’t fear the postman any longer.

***

Dear valued customer,

There are insufficient funds in your account to maintain your contractual agreement with Living Loans. We understand that you may be experiencing financial difficulties and we are sympathetic to any partner who finds themselves in this position, so we would like to assist you in any way we can.

To ensure that you continue to enjoy the benefits of your Living Loans membership, we simply ask that you join our exclusive Living Lives Health Plan. Members are automatically contracted out of the National Health Service and benefit from private healthcare in our nationwide network of clinics. Our clinics offer one-to-one consultations, treatments and surgical procedures.

What’s more, initial consultations are free, so that you can get a feel for the level of care which we offer at our clinics. Thereafter, to receive ongoing medical care, simply insert your Living Lives membership card into any of our on-site drug or treatment administration terminals, located conveniently around our facilities.

The Living Lives Health Plan, brought to you by Living Loans: Loans for Life.

She signed where the crosses indicated, and ticked the boxes.

© Steve Laker, 2014.

My books are available from Amazon.

Leave heavy lifting to the reader

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Whatever the length of a story, each word has a load to carry, and it’s a writer’s job to make sure each pulls its weight. Where a key rule is ‘show, don’t tell,’ words often have to carry passengers, in meanings, parallels, and analogies. Writing a story of six words is good exercise for the longhand pen while away from the typewriter, where I’ve been with a notebook.

German times tables

Like many writers, around 90% of what I write is never published: it’s all notes and thoughts in journals. From some of those (less than 10%) something more might emerge, and one of my favourite writer sandpits to play in is the six-word story. Even within such a tight word limit, a story can have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but I try to use the minimalism of the format for more than one effect, even if it looks like I can’t be arsed.

I try to make my fiction evocative, invoking memories and questions: ‘What if…(…he’d finished the job; I just end this…)?’ The six-word story lends itself to that (leaving the heavy-lifting to the reader). Those stories then languish in my notepad, and some become more. Others remain just thoughts, but ideas shared might find another writer looking for an idea or a starting point. There are a finite number of plots and writers to write them, but infinite ways of telling the stories.

Being anonymous John, Malkovich (Malkovich, Malkovich…)

Malkovich-Banner-1024x576

Watching TV tonight, I jotted a few things down in my journal. I ended up with seven six-word stories, some final drafts, and others the seeds for my own longer stories or those of other writers. To a reader carrying their weight (of interpretation), seven stories of six words could be seven chapters in a story of 42 words.

Together, we can write books which have many more pages in the mind than they do in reality. ‘Leave heavy lifting to the reader’ is a story in itself…

Lonely dog seeks new homeless human

Innocence, learning, losing; life’s only path

Butterfly lands, human blinks, humanity sleeps

To their utter astonishment, it flew

A benevolent armada, above the clouds

I asked if they had music

In the beginning was the end

There are many more of the briefest tales at the online repository of such things, SixWordStories.net. My longer works are available from Amazon (other bookshops are available, and all of my titles can be requested from most (and at public lending libraries)).

In the beginning, this was new

I go everywhere, you go anywhere

I ask why, you tell me

At the end, we leave together

A momentary lapse of location

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FLASH FICTION

It’s been a while since I wrote anything, mainly because the battle to regain my personal independence from the Department for Work and Pensions is still ongoing, and becoming more like dealing with Vogon democracy by the day. But more of that another time. For now, this is a return from self-imposed social isolation.

social isolationHuffpost: from an article on technology and social isolation

Like playing truant from school, the longer I go without writing, the harder it is to come back, and the deeper I have to dig to pull myself out. But something dawned on me yesterday: I was effectively surrendering to the government’s social cleansing and economic murder machinery, by allowing them to stop me from writing, by weighing down my mental baggage.

Whatever holds you back from what you want to do is a demon. Don’t let that consume you, cast it out, like so much toxicity in your life. How? By realising it’s doing you no good for as long as it’s in your head, because it’s consuming you. When you realise that, you’ll see what’s in your head like you probably haven’t before (you were blind to it), and you’ll hate it. It’s been hating you all along, like a memory which taunts you by cheating on you. Don’t feed the trolls.

Some things I can’t write about autobiographically, but neither can I be censored as a fiction writer able to capture parallels. The story below is part analogy of the effect the social machine has had on me, and an exorcism.

This is where I’ve been. It’s short, but each word carries hours of feeling from being away. So many things banging in my head that I placed them into a single entity.

blood film strip

THE ORIGIN OF RECALL

I first became aware of my neighbours when I realised I could listen to them through the wall. I grew closer to them as I got older, but it I couldn’t meet them. My self-containment meant it would be a long time before I fully understood them.

At first I couldn’t make out what they were saying, their voices muffled by our adjoining wall. I learned that voice inflections, volumes and tones, belie a mood in any native tongue, and that anger is the same in any language. They made more sense as I heard them grow louder with every passing day, as though my hearing was improving. His name was Jonas, but I never learned hers.

I’d never seen them. Perhaps we’d meet outside one day, but for now I wasn’t ready to go beyond my comfort zone. Noisy neighbours slamming doors can be intimidating, and I had no wish to be a part of any argument beyond that internal wall.

My sleep was sporadic, I was unable to settle into any kind of routine, never knowing when I’d be woken by the neighbours. Days drifted into sleep through exhaustion, and I slept when they did, when the walls weren’t pounding in my head. There I’d sometimes dream of getting out.

The earth is billions of years old, and humankind have only walked on this planet for a fleeting moment. Given that we have so little time here, shouldn’t we all question what’s around us? At least then, our children will be able to continue conversations which we started, like so many small human legacies.

When the noise started again, I didn’t want to open my eyes. When I’d dreamed, I found the human senses are connected, not with one compensating for another if it’s lost, but withdrawing together in solidarity. The longer I closed my eyes, the less I could hear, and so I could sleep.

The last time they woke me, I’d still not met them, never ventured out into that corridor. He was pounding on the wall again, their voices so loud that no barrier could cushion the anger.

I knew I was what they were arguing about. I was “that fucking thing in there,” and I feared my reception if we ever met outside. The anger was punching through now, knocking against my head and chipping the paint from the wall.

I had an almost overwhelming urge to get out of there, but feared anything outside of my confines. I’d had time to think, learn and dream in there, and I couldn’t leave.

They say kids develop their formative memory at around two years old, and before that they know nothing and are subject to conditioning. We are all different, but we’re born the same, with memories which we forget, long before we’re able to talk. Knowledge boils while curiosity evaporates.

Maybe I should have got out when I could, improving my chances outside by being premature. But I stayed. Born still, I was free. I did everyone a favour. Natural selection, preserved in ultrasound images.

They hadn’t decided on a name for me: either Jonas or Joan, depending on what I came out as. If I was a boy, I’d have been named after him. I was Jonas.

ultrasound

© Steve Laker, 2019

So that was me exorcising the demons who would prevent me from doing what keeps me living. I won’t give up. I’ll keep writing, and I shan’t surrender to the mind beating.