Free-range chicken in Oregon

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

“As I was walking down Stanton Street early one Sunday morning, I saw a chicken a few yards ahead of me. I was walking faster than the chicken, so I gradually caught up. By the time we approached Eighteenth Avenue, I was close behind. The chicken turned south on Eighteenth. At the fourth house along, it turned in at the walk, hopped up the front steps, and rapped sharply on the metal storm door with its beak. After a moment, the door opened and the chicken went in.”

My literary mentor – Paul Auster – was once accused of using the convenience of coincidence in his writing. He pointed out that real life is often stranger – or more coincidental – than much which a fiction author could imagine. Then he compiled stories of American life in I thought my father was God and other true tales. The collection includes The Chicken, (above) from Linda Elegant of Portland, Oregon.

Auster and me both subscribe to the theory of fictional reality, which posits that in an almost infinite universe, somewhere – possibly a long time ago in a galaxy far away – everything which has ever been written in fiction has really happened.

I was already acquainted with a chicken which hatched from a Campbell’s soup tin, and who believed she was God. She hung around for a while, then disappeared into the obscurity of omnipotence, where you don’t want people to know where you are.

Clangers ChickenThe Clangers

THE CHICKEN BEHIND THE DOOR

I’ve found it difficult to write, talk, and even think lately, with the weight of many lives on my mind. I used to write so that I didn’t have to explain myself to people, instead referring them here. It’s because there’s so much in my head, and that I find it hard to speak to others, that I talk to myself. Far easier – and more entertaining for the reader – if I place myself in my own fiction.

There was a knock at the door, or rather a rap, a rat-a-tat-tat. Curious, I opened the door. There was no-one there.

Down here.”

I looked down, and there was a chicken. I invited her in.

So,” she said, “what’s up with you?”

To be honest,” I replied, “I don’t know. I mean, I can’t put a finger on an individual irritant, because there are so many.”

Have you got fleas?”

If I have, then they’ve given up jumping for a living. They’ve taken up residence. I feel permanently trapped. There are many places I’d like to be but I lack the means to get there.”

Well, fleas don’t eat wood.”

What’s that got to do with anything?”

I think you have worms.”

Eh?”

You’ve buried yourself,” the chicken said. “You’ve stuffed yourself full of problems which you don’t talk about. Let me give you some sage advice.” Coming from a chicken, that was ironic.

You’re right,” I said, “but I’ve not eaten for days.”

Why not?”

The oven blew up.”

Seriously?”

Literally. No, actually. The main element blew.”

Mind if I take a look?”

Be my guest.”

I already am,” the chicken said, walking to the kitchen. “I can’t believe you’ve finally let God into your life.”

I haven’t.”

Well, I’m here. Could you open this door for me please?” She pointed to the oven. “Thanks.” Then she walked in. “Close the door. Please.” I did. “Now,” she said, more quietly, “turn the oven on.”

Are you sure?”

I want to test your faith,” the chicken said from behind the oven door.

So I put the oven on 190°C and forgot about it. I came back to the typewriter to write this diary entry for my blog. Everything this far is what I’ve written since the chicken who claims to be God got into the oven.

You’re right,” she said, clanging the door closed behind her, “it’s fucked.”

Like I said,” I said.

And yet you doubted me.”

You what?”

I am God. I cannot be cooked and eaten. Placing myself in the oven proves this.”

But I already told you it was busted.”

And yet you shut me in there and turned on the heat.”

Because I knew you’d be fine.”

So you believe in me.”

Well, you’re here.”

So you believe in God.”

If God is a chicken which invites itself into my studio, then gets into the oven, asks me to cook it, then gets out unharmed, that just tells me my oven is broken.”

But has it not occurred to you,” the chicken said, “that you would not put a live chicken in your oven, and that I have no feathers? There’s no fleas or flies on me. See? Here I am, naked.”

She had a point.

So I put her in the freezer to keep her quiet. Once I’ve got a new oven, I’ll be having God for dinner.

© Steve Laker, 2020

Ballerine dans le noi*

MICRO FICTION

The hardest stories to write are those with no ending. A good writer will leave much to the readers’ imagination, with minimal words carrying the weight of many possibilities. How many fingers do I have? 

DogMe19SL*Dancer in the Dark (by Lars von Trier, whose Dogme 95 was the influence for The New Puritans) is my favourite film of all time.

Like a year in review, words are a frustration for the author with much on his mind, both personal and fictional, and with only finite space to convey it. Like an alien with a universal mind perched precariously on human shoulders, he longs to talk. But he understands that the speaker has no control over how his words are interpreted. Despite the universality of communication, reception is subjective.

The writer with a planet in his head, processing knowledge and speculation of stories which he must write but which haven’t ended, needs to find the words. They have to be minimal, but they must convey a life in flux, with many possible outcomes.

He turns to The New Puritans, a movement resurrected from the turn of the millennium and now a retro-renaissance, using minimalism in an age of overload, trusting human instinct to read what artificial intelligence and societally-conditioned minds can’t. He strips their manifesto to its bone marrow, and there he finds the words…

Dog Pencil Case

DOGME 19

Kill me.”

It’ll hurt more if we leave.”

Staedtler Noris 122

How many souls are in one mind anyway? How many lives are lost through the terminal decline of a single entity? If we cover our eyes then spread our hands, do we see beyond those bars? He hopes his words will retain readers, his friends.

The Nouveaux Puritains manifesto:

Primarily storytellers, we are dedicated to the narrative form.

  1. We are prose writers and recognise that prose is the dominant form of expression. For this reason we shun poetry and poetic licence in all its forms.

  2. While acknowledging the value of genre fiction, whether classical or modern, we will always move towards new openings, rupturing existing genre expectations.

  3. We believe in textual simplicity and vow to avoid all devices of voice: rhetoric, authorial asides.

  4. In the name of clarity, we recognise the importance of temporal linearity and eschew flashbacks, dual temporal narratives and foreshadowing.

  5. We believe in grammatical purity and avoid any elaborate punctuation.

  6. We recognise that published works are also historical documents. As fragments of our time, all our texts are dated and set in the present day. All products, places, artists and objects named are real.

  7. As faithful representation of the present, our texts will avoid all improbable or unknowable speculations on the past or the future.

  8. We are moralists, so all texts feature a recognisable ethical reality.

  9. Nevertheless, our aim is integrity of expression, above and beyond any commitment to form.

After such a long foreword, the writer who started this wonders if his chosen words can be held in the hand. He questions if it will ever end, or if this is just the beginning of another story. Counting the fingers he has left, he has to conclude that for now, these are just the gaps between chapters.

One better day in Soho Square

FICTION

Kirsty Bench

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.

Kirsty MacColl

Kirsty MacColl, 10.10.1959 – 18.12.2000

A sense of taste deprivation

FICTION

A place I found glancing around my mind, this is a flash fiction (500 words) trip, a story of an introvert recluse, and a parable of paranoia in a world where humans are merging with technology, but where a place is preserved for nostalgia…

horror-collectiblesNightmareToys.com

THE FLAVOUR OF AIR

The writer’s life is a solitary one, usually writing alone and only connecting with others when they read his work. In such a lonely place, being an author has its advantages: In a place of sensory deprivation, the writer can create people, places and events. He (in my case) can escape into situations he creates, and he can make places an extension of his real world so that he can better explore them. Alone and dealing with much in his mind, the writer gains support in his venture when readers want to know what he’s writing.

Welcome to my world, just one of many of I made. Sometimes I re-visit those old planets, but this is a new place, created around the life inside my head. This is a fictional world made real because I’ve written it. I might come back in future, or only visit briefly once.

It’s neither warm nor cold here. If the feeling of the place could be painted, it would be green. It’s fairly dark, an ambience of dawn mist hanging in streets lit by fluorescent tubes with peeling paint.

It’s best to be out in the village at night, as that’s when the mechabugs swarm windows. They look in every window with someone behind it. They form clouds at the front of the MetroMart, as us villagers stock up on what’s fresh that day.

Today there’s an offer on gourmet cat food. I don’t have a cat but the posh stuff can be passed off in a cottage pie. Some mushrooms complete that day’s single meal.

The flies disperse when the sun rises, a light grey orb behind clouds of dirty cotton wool, and the villagers return home. The village is deserted by day, the odd homeless person drifting through but never staying long.

Land sharks swim in the monochrome daylight, sharp fins of flint able to cut through granite. A few of the older villagers are amputees, mainly of one leg. At least one lost both legs and an arm to a land shark’s fin scything through the road.

We keep our curtains closed to the light, as a break in the clouds carries trillions of nano machines on the sun’s photons. They’re small enough to pass through solid materials at a molecular level but layers add filters. I use three layers to block out the sun, so my techninfection is fairly low compared to the average out there.

I know all this as tales reach me from the village. I don’t go out at night, so another villager pops in as I’m about to start writing, then drops my shopping off in the morning. He brought me a gift today, something not on my shopping list. He said it would remind me of outside.

Alone and dealing with much in his mind, the writer hopes his voice will be heard, that people will read what he’s written and know what he’s thinking.

Outside tastes of lime milkshake.

© Steve Laker, 2019

Självmonterande möbler

FLASH FICTION

Alien typewriterThe Verge: It began with ‘Spacewar’, a history of science fiction in video games

APPARENTLY

Although I’m nocturnal, I usually spend nights alone, apart from the chat windows in onine video games. It’s rare that I expect visitors in the early hours, least of all an invisible entity I’d invite into my studio. But apparently that was what I did last night.

The doorbell played the five tones from Close Encounters as it always does, regardless of the time. Normally I’ll expect to find someone behind the door when I open it but at 3am, it was apparent there was no-one there.

I poked my head out the door and looked around, perhaps for someone in need of help. I walked down the steps to the car park and saw nobody. Pranksters would have gained too much ground for me to give chase, so I returned inside, apparently alone.

With no sign of activity outside, the place where I least expected to see movement was back in my studio. As I raised my hand to push my front door, it obligingly opened for me, and one of my dining chairs slid into the hall. The chair paused before passing me, pushed by some invisible force, apparently grateful I’d held the door open.

Inside, my sofa had been moved into the middle of the room and was loaded with some of my books. Was I being moved out? Why hadn’t I heard from my landlord? How had that chair pushed itself past me? Nothing was apparent.

Nothing was moving around in the studio, so I sat at the desk; this desk, where I’m sitting now, except now I’m apparently not in my studio, with furniture which assembles itself around me.

Now I’m looking at the screen of the typewriter, the same one I talk to you on, and where I play video games; at my chat window from last night, and a message I sent in a pessimist sufferposting online gaming group:

Send my current location to any interplanetary craft which may be within scanning range.

They took me literally. Apparently, they took me, and all my stuff. Apparently literally.

© Steve Laker, 2019.

This was a writing prompt: ‘IKEA’. So I made a Swedish planet.

White Ace in Mountsfield Park

FLASH FICTION

I’m wandering my own mind for a while, as I often do. Right now it’s a particularly rough ride for my brain. Floating in cerebral seas of predators (dad’s apparently hastening decline; another Christmas separated by circumstance of family, when it might be the last when some remember who was there), as some sort of coping mechanism – for dealing with matters of the mind alone – I confronted the seed of all my problems.

My depression and other mental health labels may well have been dormant, undiganosed by a previous generation, but it was a knife-point robbery in 2011 which earned me my first PTSD tag. After that, drinking numbed things until it all fell apart. And now, I have a lump in my throat as a permanent scar from that bench, now removed from a park in Lewisham.

Just a couple of tricks of life can find a human with a park bench for shelter. It can happen to anyone, just like it did on that bench…

Catford Cat psychadelicThe Catford Cat on Twitter

EIGHT AND A HALF LIVES

If he wasn’t there every day, he could be anyone. You could walk past the same bench each day and not notice anyone sitting there, unless it was the same person every day.

Jim put it another way: If it wasn’t him there every day, it would be someone else. Or maybe no-one else would be on that bench. It was Jim who gave that seat stories to tell, if not by him then by those who listened to him.

These are the things Jim talked about, as he told his own stories on that bench in Mountsfield Park, talking about himself, and the Catford cat just beyond the trees, which he said watched over him at night.

She doesn’t have long here,” Jim explained, “there’s only so much time she can be here. Because she has so many people to watch over as they pass beneath her on the high street. As long as somone’s looking at her, the cat can’t move, because she has to watch them, you see? She only comes down after the last kebab shop has closed, and before the milk is delivered, and then only sometimes.

I wonder how many people have driven through Catford at three in the morning and thought to look up to check the cat is actually there? Most people who drive through Catford at that time just assume the cat’s there, watching over them as they pass through, when actually, she might be off feeding on life stories. A bit like me on this bench. They can’t see me either. And that’s just the way life passes, see?”

I lay here at night, and I see people walk past, oblivious to my presence. The darkness makes them blind, like the cat does. If you’re here in the park, you probably won’t see her stalking in the bushes. But she’s there, because you’re not in Catford High Street to check she’s above the shopping centre, where she can’t catch your gaze. Because if you catch her, she loses a life.

Perhaps people assume I’m asleep and they don’t want to disturb me. I suppose that’s a logical assumption to make at 3am. But what if I was a life lost?

See, I’m not. I’m watching them, through one closed eye. Watching out for myself, I guess. That’s why I’m always grateful when the cat’s here, because I can sleep for just a little while. No-one pays me attention when there’s a twenty-foot cat prowling around the edge of the park, see?”

It was Jim who scratched his name on that bench.

If you didn’t know it was there, if you didn’t know where to look among all the other hearts and initials, you’d never know Jim was among all those people.

But if you sit there at three in the morning, and if you listen to the wind in the trees, you might just hear the cat.

Where a pelican and can’t cross…

MICRO FICTION

Rhino Zebra

STRIPED PYJAMA CASE

If ever I couldn’t imagine where I might one day be, this is that place. I’m supposed to be a writer, but I couldn’t write this. A poet might have done a better job of not being seen.

This is the end and the beginning. It’s a barrier I reach as I walk in my sleep. It’s a frontier. I came here alone, not seeking company, but something found me when I fell in a ditch.

I sleep on my side, sheilding my eyes from the glare as humanity takes a Polaroid of itself. In someone’s blinding flash, I see the bones in my hand.

The ground rattles, and the people around me whisper, “If you hear hooves, think zebras, not horses.”

How to cross the road in striped pyjamas.

Tricks, treats and puppy dog tales

FLASH FICTION

A tale from the archives, which I dust off for Halloween. There’s an unwritten sub-text, of an old landlady of mine, who once set fire to people, and who had a small dog…

Pumpkin lamps2

TWO WISHES

There’s an old lady who’s very upset: she’s lost her dog. She’s here at the pub where I live with mum and dad: the lady; not the dog. Because the lady lost her dog. The lady and the dog are regulars but it’s just the lady today because she’s lost her dog. She’s telling mum and dad about her dog: it’s lost. The lady doesn’t know what happened to the dog. It just disappeared when she was at the pub yesterday. Today is Halloween. Mum, dad and the old lady are sitting by the open fire, telling ghost stories. The rest of the kids are out trick or treating and I’m here.

I’m creating a wish in the kitchen. I may only be eleven years old and a bit simple, but I can make wishes come true. Simple is a label: like a label on food. I pay the label placed on me no more attention than a chicken would on its packaging. The chicken is dead and unable to read the label on its packaging. I’m not dead but I have this label of being simple. Unlike a chicken though, I can grant wishes.

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

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

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

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

I return to the kitchen, happy that I’ve granted two wishes.

I remember my dad saying yesterday, “I wish someone would shut that fucking dog up and shove it down the old bat’s throat.”

© Steve Laker, 2016

Introverted writer syndrome

FICTION

One of my apparent trademarks (labels), is a writer who writes about writers writing. It’s the party in my head, my depression, and making it my friend, so that I can talk to it. It’s teaching the teacher to teach. It’s telling a mirror it’s not a true reflection.

Such an exclusive and excluded way of life can reverse things, or turn a way of life inside-out. So I wrote a story in a story, about a writer writing about a writer, writing about a writer, writing about a recursive introvert within an extrovert…

Ghost janitor2

THE GHOST JANITOR

I usually write at night, mostly ghost writing for other authors. This world was turned on its head recently, when I returned to my studio to find someone seated at my desk, writing on my typewriter.

I knew the man, Oskar. I’d met him at a writer’s retreat, and we had more in common than most, so we got talking. Oskar has what I don’t, and which I envy in him: a heart which knows nothing but love. He’s like a big, friendly dog.

What are you writing?” I asked.

Oh, sorry,” Oskar turned around, “I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I let myself in.”

Sometimes Oskar gets lost, so I gave him a key to use in emergencies (these things are subjective). He turned back and continued typing.

So what’s making the transit from human to machine?”

A stage play,” Oskar replied, “It’s about a stage writer, who’s also the cleaner at the theatre he writes for. The thing is, no-one knows about him. Nobody knows he’s a stage writer, or that he’s the cleaner. No-one even knows that he lives at the theatre.

If it wasn’t for a stage door being left open one night, Oskar would be homeless. He goes unnoticed because he lives under the stage, only venturing out at night, to clean up after the cleaner.

The cleaner employed by the theatre is an old lady, and she’s not very good. She spends most of her time smoking, drinking, and writing letters to her dead husband. Oskar knows this because he watches her from under the stage. Then when she goes home, he cleans the theatre so that it’s done nicely, and the cleaner keeps her job. It’s Oskar’s way of paying his keep.

There’s an old typewriter in the theatre director’s office, which looks out over the stage. That’s where Oskar writes most nights. In this story, he’s writing a stage play when the director walks in on him, not in her office, but she sees him through her window on the stage. She notices the main spotlight is on, then she sees Oskar, holding his hands aloft and taking a bow before an invisible audience.

She spots the paper in her typewriter, and puts it in an envelope. She goes down to the stage and asks Oskar what he’s doing, and he says he just switched the spotlight on to clean the stage. Then the director says, “I found this in my typewriter. I don’t remember writing it, so I wonder if I could leave it with you.” He asks her, why him. “Because I think you were looking for it,” the director replies, “and you’re the caretaker.”

So Oskar takes care of it. After the director leaves, he finishes his stage play. It’s the story of an understudy, someone who stands in for actors on stage. One night, the actor playing his role is ill, so Oskar is given the part. It’s not the starring role, he’s just in a group at for the final musical number. Oskar can’t dance or sing, because he’s funny, like me, and he’s called Oskar, like me. But at the end of the show, the whole audience stands up and claps. Oskar gestures towards the rest of the cast, then raises his hands and takes a bow.

No-one ever noticed Oskar, but he could write about people who could. He could create an audience. When he took that ovation, just for a moment, the whole world was Oskar’s.”

Oskar turned back to the screen. “So what do you think?”

I think Oskar gave the story a happy ending, for himself and his audience.”

And the theatre director,” Oskar said, typing again, “I’m just going to write an encore, for when Oskar comes back on stage.”

I left him to write while I got on with some cleaning. When I’d finished, Oskar was gone, back to wherever he lived whenever he wasn’t in my studio, which was every night but this one. He’d left an envelope on my desk. Inside was this story.

And Oskar had written his encore:

I wanted to call this story ‘Down, down,’ because it’s what’s inside me; a feeling that people duck when I’m talking to them, because I’m just a big, soft, pillow, stuffed with feathers, and they think I’m silly; and because in the end, the theatre audience liked him. I thought of calling it ‘Audience syndrome’. But I can’t play the lead role, because people will see me, which means the twist doesn’t work. But then if they just see me and not my syndrome, I’m the star. I can’t get the story out of the story. I’ll leave it up to you.

© Steve Laker, 2019

Harlequin lemonade party

FLASH FICTION

A CHILDISH HORROR STORY

Elefant-imperfetto-lab-1-1ImperfettoLab

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

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

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

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

© Steve Laker, 2019