An anté clockwise poker game

FICTION

I rarely write sequels, and this is no real exception. I’m more about writing different stories in alternative places (rooms, worlds, galaxies), and linking them all up in a way which I think only I might ever understand (but I don’t yet), over space and time. It’s all down to anyone wanting to get that far, and me wanting to give it up.

If someone were ever able to find their way from when I first stumbled upon The Unfinished Literary Agency, to a future when I came back to a post-human world to pick up my pen, then what I got up to in my Earth stories would fit in with all the extraterrestrial journeys I took. It’s an analogy of my life, part-autobiography, but fictitious.

I often write fiction about writers, writing about writers writing fiction. They’re the kind of people who have to see as much inside as others can see in the wider world which the writer can’t inhabit. To exist in that world of normality would be to deny the universe in the imagination of the writer contained within their own world, to remove temptation from the gambler, and the means to survive from the damned.

I sometimes write prequels, especially in the Cyrus Song realm of my universe, but those too are linked by a point in space and time which can only ever revolve around me. It’s become one of a few personal writing trademarks, and one I’m quite proud of, as it’s how I think of my literary mentor, Paul Auster.

Just as I like to dine in my own invention of August Underground’s Diner (and am occasionally resident chef there), I sometimes like to drink alone in a previous world I created, in a specific time and place. Although I’m a near– and far-future sci-fi writer, sometimes I have to go into the past to find the stories I need to tell, perhaps to prevent an alternative future, because there was another which could never happen.

My novels and short stories might collectively explain at least some of what’s in my head, but they don’t yet, which is why I keep on writing. No matter what other distractions I might have, I can always escape by addressing life in fiction, however violent that might be in a mind gym.

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OMAHA SANS SERIF

I never could get the hang of Wednesdays, so it was no great surprise that it should be a Wednesday when it occurred to me that particular day might be a bit different. No-one told me, it wasn’t something I heard. It wasn’t something I just told myself. It wasn’t even really a thought, just a feeling that something was going to be different on this particular Wednesday, intuition, for want of a better word.

It was a smell which prompted it, the fragrance of breakfast sausages and coffee, at my writing desk. On any other Wednesday, I’d be playing poker, either in a pub or a home game, often staying overnight and eating breakfast with the fish and the sharks in the remains of the morning, when the in-exorcised poker gods rewarded or punished those who’d entrusted their lives to luck in a game of skill.

This short chronicle centres on my typewriter and the mechanical manacles which keep me handcuffed to that retro machine. It’s also where I play poker online, every night except Wednesday, when I play live games. But when you play and lose, what do you have to show anyone else? Loose, aggressive, tight and passive are labels applied to poker players, but I had no material proof of any typecast, so I’d become as much a spirit of the poker table as I was a ghost writer who can’t be labelled.

I’d taken on extra work assignments to stop me chasing losses and playing with scared money, like I did once before in an alcoholic breakdown which ended with me living on the streets. Now I live in my writer’s studio, where I have a method of differentiating between work and home. The hardest part is writing fiction which feels as real as the poker, a simulacrum for the thrill of playing with your life, perhaps as simple as solving a cryptic crossword puzzle.

The day had gone much like any other, Wednesday or otherwise, with me in my studio working simultaneously on a short story for a magazine, and a crossword for the same publication. The story had a strict space limit (2200 words, or 4.25 pages, with a three-quarter page ad), so I’d edited it a few times to strip out unnecessary embellishments. I’d wanted to include some sideline action from the poker scene, the prop bets, the propositions. These are made between players, betting on events away from the table, often personal dares.

As on any other day, I walked clockwise into the village at lunchtime to pick up a newspaper and some lunch. If I walk in a clockwise direction, all my points of call are in order. It also allows me to mentally separate work and home, as both are in the same place. When I finish working at home, I walk anti-clockwise, but that’s for later.

As usual, I said hello to the homeless guy on the corner of the high street and put a pound in his Costa Coffee cup, the small blind in the poker cash games I used to play. He says hello back, but he doesn’t look up.

He always sits cross-legged, with his head down, looking at the pavement between his knees, and I’ve never wanted to interrupt whatever contemplation he’s having. I’d like to look him in the eye, but I can’t ask him to look at me; I can’t ask him to stop talking to whomever he’s in commune with. He may not want to look at anyone. I place my hand on his and say, “There you go mate,” just for some human contact, perhaps for my benefit more than his. It was a long time since I’d shaken hands with someone over a poker table, after I’d just won their entire life.

I went to the newsagent and bought The Guardian, then to the sandwich shop. And as usual, the man behind me in the sandwich shop asked for exactly the same as me.

I’ll have sausage and tomato on granary please”, I said, “with just a scrape of English mustard.”

I’ll have that please,” the man behind me repeated. “And a tomato soup, thanks.” In poker, that’s a raise.

This had been going on for weeks, and I’d not given it much thought. It was a little eccentric and perhaps the kind of thing I myself might do, unable to decide what to have for lunch, delegating the decision to someone else in a game of sandwich Russian Roulette. I’d never know when I might get to try something new, and free from the multitude of choices, I’d have a way of making my mind up for me, leaving it to ponder the more important things, the longer game. I didn’t want to embarrass the man by asking him, and if the shoes were swapped, I’d find the question of why I’m being followed uncomfortable. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I took some quiet pride in helping someone be more like me in their own lunchtime.

After my clockwise walk, I’m back in my studio, writing fiction, compiling a crossword, and eating whatever that other guy is.

I’ve never noticed him following me, and if I had, I’d think it more sinister than it is if I just assume coincidence. Mine is a small village, I go out for lunch at the same time every day, so I tend to see the same people, including the man behind me in the sandwich shop. I never see where he comes in from, and when we leave it’s in opposite directions. I continue clockwise, back to my studio, and he goes back the way I came.

Previously that week, I’d had the same lunch at my desk as a relative stranger had, wherever they were. On the Monday, it was tuna and green pepper on wholemeal, then salt beef and pickles on rye on Tuesday. On the Thursday I was contemplating a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel. On Monday, the sandwich shop man had mushroom soup, and it was chicken on Tuesday. Today’s soup for the other guy was tomato.

I never bought a soup with my sandwich, but today I wanted to copy my imitator, like he had me so many times. If we were to have lunch together, even in different places, I felt we should have the same. And although I didn’t realise it at the time, that was the feeling I’d have which said this particular Wednesday would be different to the rest, of Wednesdays and other days. It was a hunch.

On any other day, I’ll walk anti-clockwise around the village at the end of the day. It’s my way of leaving work and arriving home to relax, where the clockwise lunchtime walk is from home to the office. As I hadn’t finished my story or crossword, I walked clockwise to pick up my afterthought tomato soup.

I walked past the homeless guy again, looking down between his legs at his Costa Coffee cup. He seemed to be talking to himself. “Me again,” I said, “there you go,” and I dropped another pound into his pot. Another small blind, another hand.

Thank you,” he said, and I smelled sausages again, like I had at breakfast at my desk. Still looking down, he reached behind him for a cup. He took off the lid and took a sip of tomato soup.

Thank you,” I replied.

Why?”

Because you just answered a question that’s been on my mind for a while. And in a way, you’ve finished a story I’m writing.”

How come?”

Because I’ve been struggling lately. There’s a guy who buys the same as me for lunch every day. Today he bought a sausage and tomato sandwich on granary, and a tomato soup. Now I know why. I imagine he’s happier than me.”

That’s Will. He buys my lunch. Why would he be happier than you? He told me about a guy who makes his mind up. I guess you’re the one I have to thank for the variety. Does he know that?” Of course not. Will and I have never spoken. “Maybe if you told him, he might be happy.”

He seems happy to help you in his way. But surely you could tell Will what you’d like for lunch?”

I could tell them in the sandwich shop, but I’d feel uncomfortable there. I’m a bit smelly and that can’t be good for business. I’d put the customers off.”

For a moment, I didn’t know what to say. “Look at me,” was the first thing which came to me. “You’re a human being. You’re no different to me or anyone else, just that your story is different.” That’s what I loved about poker, that it was the great democratic leveller, anyone could play. But just like him, I knew mine were empty words.

I prefer to trust Will. He brings me surprises, things I might not have tasted before. He brings me fragrance, taste and touch. When I can’t see what I’m having for lunch, when Will doesn’t know what he’s bringing me, when you decide for him what flavours I’ll taste, which fillings I’ll smell, and how I hold it in my hand, depending how it’s held together, in a sandwich, a baguette, a bagel, it makes up for the lack of sight, because Will sees me when most other people don’t.”

He still didn’t look up as I placed my helpless hand on his, unable to offer anything but the money I had on me. “That’s just short of a fiver,” I said, an all-in shove at the poker table. “I can’t make Will redundant, so I can’t buy you lunch. You remind me of someone I used to know. Take that for yourself, and with my gratitude.”

People say don’t give money to the homeless, but I’ve been there. Many people who find themselves down there need coping mechanisms through their hours of invisibility, and to some it’s a survival strategy, at least by means of temporary escape. Who am I to deny someone a few hours of hope if I can’t shelter and feed them?

Back at the studio, I spent the rest of the day finishing the short story I was working on, and the cryptic crossword I was compiling, trying to make the first two across clues into a clue in themselves, about what the accompanying story is all about:

Illustrative, I see and I hear (7)

Sit uncomfortably with a book writer (8)

Or maybe:

Choppy Choppy’s hat (10)

An author in a pen (6)

Then again:

Breakfast sounds like soap (6)

The king is not well before the queen’s murderer (6)

I took my usual anti-clockwise walk at my normal time of 3am. The hour between three and four is one I enjoy, as it’s the quietest hour, and the best one to separate any day from the next. Trying to do so at midnight is pointless, as life doesn’t change with the calendar. Even though midnight on New Year’s Eve is the bridge between years, nothing changes in a moment. Although we have a birthday every year, we’re constantly ageing. The best divider is an hour to contemplate, when the world around you is at its calmest.

There’s little night life in my village, but further afield, nightclubs and even kebab shops are mainly closed after 3am, while the weariest players and the insomniacs try to find somewhere to sleep. An hour later, long before mechanical millipedes start their rush hour, the first deliveries of the day begin with the awakening of an invisible and anonymous workforce. In worlds which never sleep, there are those who make it through the night by working, and others who don’t. Most poker players are nocturnal, lights in the night.

Walking home from the office, from the studio back to the studio, I noticed the lack of nightlife hadn’t curtailed the local wildlife: tins of Special Brew on the pavement and the smell of weed in the damp October air, the howls of feral teens in the distance, calling out to other creatures of the night, like I did when I lived on the streets. I hoped my homeless guy was okay, that he had shelter at night. I’d find sleeping difficult if I thought he might be suffering.

The pond life had marked their territory, with streams of piss rolling down the pavement. I sped up to get home from work, following their calls, leading me to the end of the story, where I have to fold my hand.

Someone had left a special calling card, just outside my studio: a pile of sick, someone’s dinner post-mortem: ground meat in a red sauce, smelling like a sausage and tomato stew. If my homeless friend had been able to look at me, maybe I’d have seen the clouds behind his eyes. What he couldn’t see was how he helped me end this story.

On Thursday, the guy behind me in the sandwich shop had a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel for lunch. I never even asked him his name. No show of cards, like chopping the pot without playing the final hands. Wednesdays were never the same, because after this particular Wednesday, I never saw him again.

© Steve Laker, 2019

Some battles are fought in your head, and the war will never be won. But talking to yourself can unite you and your brain against a common foe within you both.

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A Pot Noodle of his story repeated

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There are few sounds more terrifying than someone trying your front door, but hearing keys in the lock is one of them. Lately I’ve been scrambling blindly for the keys to life, and put one in the lock to see if the door might open onto the string theory which contains my place in something, a history of me in a pot. Being British, I apologised to the door when I walked into it, and on the other side, something like a Korean re-unification…

Not PoodlePot Noodles feature in Cyrus Song

Also lately (for a day) I’ve been removing the strangeness from an estrangement I had with an old friend. It was a sad and frustrating falling out, as we went back so far, to our days at school together in the 80s. When it was Nazi salutes and steel-capped boots, when we had Punk and Ska, when The Specials asked: Why? Given that I’ve been going through the Tory social cleanser, I was reviewing my situation anyway. My friend just asked how I’d been. I’ll put the kettle on. It won’t go with the rest of me, but I’ll try anything once.

It began when we parted company because I was a fascist drunk. Not the goose-stepping Nazi-type, but figuratively, a thoroughly objectionable capitalist and a drunken narcissist into the bargain. Quite how I’d turned out like that, I can’t think.

Drink took over and I just lost it. Lost the plot and the will to live, not knowing what was worth living for besides a constant battle with the craving. Why do we have to fight? I don’t know why I pushed everyone so hard, towards somewhere I didn’t know, so that eventually they pushed me. Did they really want to kill me?

A brief chronology then of my breakdown (as it’s come to be known, because it was an alcoholic and mental meltdown). We’d have to pick up from around 2003, when I met my ex-wife and we moved to London. I’d been working in print since school, and ended up spending 25 years married to the paper and ink, including three years of running a brokerage with the wife.

Print was traditionally a booze-fuelled industry, with deals being done in Bermondsey pubs just as they were in the bars of Fleet Street. I always liked a drink, so I suppose some things were inevitable. They get in your blood. Running a firm was the top of a steep final slope.

My customers were the ones who’d followed me from other firms, so the business just rolled in with little effort from me. I adopted some mental line in my sandpit, that I’d spent years working for other people, as sales director on commission, when I could take all the profit, and I felt I was owed a retirement (entitlement). While the wife ran the business from home, I was seeing customers and getting pissed. Always a temptation, the booze became my absolute ruler.

I got to the point where I’d wake up and have to go to the fridge for a swig of White Ace, just to stop the tremors. By the time I’d dropped the kids off at school and got to the local corner shop, I’d be rattling so much the owners would have to take the change from my shaking hand. I’d get outside, neck a can of tramp juice, and the tremors would stop. I’d get out of the flat every day as soon as I could, so that I could go drinking, even if that was in Mountsfield Park in Lewisham, with all the other drunks.

If there was a singular catalyst, it would be the knifepoint robbery in that same park. It was after that, in 2011, that I got a diagnosis of PTSD and eventually, underlying depression, from whence besides my alcohol-fuelled mind, never digressed.

I was in the care of an excellent psychologist for a while, but I was still drinking more, and I took it too far. I lost contact with Dr Martin when I had to leave the family home, and my wife, so long a single parent already because of me.

From Catford to Bexley, where the wife and father-in-law put down a deposit and paid the first month’s rent on a flat; a nice one in a converted manor house with a swimming pool. In the village, I found a love of drinking among the locals, and an area at the centre of the live poker scene. And drugs. Already playing online, I embraced this new opportunity, the drugs and the late nights. I started playing in casinos and I did quite well for a while.

Don’t play poker while drunk though (you never would). Because I did that. I ended up thanking my wife for all she’d done, by running the business into the ground and taking it for every penny as my addiction won, to the exclusion of all others.

I was headed down to a life of not caring, while my wife was made redundant, applying for benefits, and replacing the furniture she’d let me keep with Argos Basics. I’d visit once a week or so to see the kids, but I was always itching to get back to poker, drink and cocaine.

From Bexley, I went to Sidcup. I was in another relationship (with a fellow alcoholic) and I abused that as well. Three years after leaving the family home in Catford, I was on my way back to the other chez Laker, my parents’ in Tonbridge.

The last chance saloon was one I was sure I wouldn’t be thrown out of; these were my parents after all, so I could carry on drinking, knowing places to hide it. By her own admission, my mum policed me too heavily, but she was never going to be qualified to deal with an alcoholic.

To this day, mum throwing me out of the family home was the greatest act of love and courage I’ve ever know. We’re fine now and it was a bilateral thing, with dad having to support mum. But where me and mum didn’t talk for a while, dad came to find me a couple of times.

It was when we laid Jay to rest that I found out the upset I’d really caused, when some friends told me how badly it had affected my parents (mum and dad visited with friends while I was absent, with possibly only the leave of nature). My sister still blames me for the way dad is now, even though his ongoing neurological condition was diagnosed long after we all made up (except for my sister), and he now says that having me around makes him feel better. They say boys are closer to their mums, but never mind the bollocks. We’re equally close to any parent, but in a way unique to each of us.

When dad came and found me those times (in McDonald’s), he gave me some loose change. He didn’t specify what it should be spent on, least of all tell me not to spend it on booze. When it comes to the debate about giving homeless people money, I found my personal sidings when I went off the rails.

Alcoholism is an addiction, just like drugs. Unlike most drugs though, alcohol cessation – complete cold turkey – can be fatal. That’s when I found myself at an impasse, living on the streets, of no fixed abode. Because the cessation drugs are powerful, and those administering them need to know where the addict is. So I was prevented, excluded from doing that.

It’s a chicken and egg, the home and addiction thing. A couple of ex-servicemen I was on the streets with had the same problem: You’ll be given shelter when you cure your addiction, when the former was precisely what we needed to address the latter. When it comes to giving money to the homeless now, I do so without question or instruction. I know that temporary escape from the cold and threatening outdoors can be found in a blue tin. I know that can stop the delirium tremens, keeping an alcoholic alive. At least until they find shelter.

In the end, I went through a controlled drinking programme, a reductionist measure which required me to attend a rehab facility at random times of the day over a three month period. I could get called any day of the week – sometimes two, others five – at anywhere between 8am and 6pm, and I’d be required to give a breath sample within the hour. By then I was sofa-surfing, so I did at least have a base, albeit not a home.

To illustrate the extremes, near the beginning of the treatment, I blew 126 (microgrammes of alcohol to 100ml of breath, where the UK drink drive limit is 35 (I had no plans to drive)) at 9am. At that point, I was drinking nine litres of tramp juice a day. Towards the end of the programme, I blew 21 at 4.30pm. Now I drink normal cider throughout the day (a functioning alcoholic using controlled drinking, to keep the rattles at bay) and I smoke weed. One addiction for another, but smoking broadens my mind and has allowed me to write some pretty good sci-fi.

After sofa-surfing, I got a room above a pub (the irony) and spent a year there, before the landlord turned out to be a criminal and started threatening me, which played right into my hands with the local council housing team. They moved me here, to my tiny studio, with a social landlord, and where I’m on a rolling tenancy. That gives me the security of shelter I need to make whatever I do, with the rest of whatever life I have left.

It’s been a thoroughly dehumanising process, but one which has made me human again. Now with multiple PTSD diagnoses picked up from various events on the street (beatings, a bottling, a throttling, being set light to (which apart from the aggressor, is hilarious when you’re trying to sleep in a sleeping bag which complies with EU regulations and isn’t flammable), broken bones), chronic depression and anxiety, at least I know what I am: a Pinhead with a load of Post-It notes stuck on it, outward signs which I try to make sense of from inside my head and my solitary surroundings.

It was all my fault and I deserved to end up where I did. What most don’t give me credit for is having it within me to grieve every day. When you’re a recovering alcoholic, that’s tough, not to simply reach for a drink, like all those times before. But as at least one person (‘Millwall Tony’) has pointed out, to me (and I hope others get it): “You were fucking ill mate.” My parents get that too, having taken the trouble to educate themselves, so that they can educate others, who no longer question the terms ‘functioning alcoholic’ and ‘controlled drinking’.

I make no comparisons, but Dad’s been through a lot, with me and latterly his illness. He says it’s nice to have me around, that the past is done, and that he’s proud of me. Them being bilateral, mum concurs. If only my sister would join the remaining happy family dots, a final crossing of the winding river we all went down. I built bridges but she just can’t get over it.

On her last birthday (which she shares with Kirsty MacColl), I told my ex-wife I’ll never forget how she and her family gave me a chance, and of how I’m grateful to her and the kids’ step dad for saving the two young ones.

The kids are fantastically funny and intelligent young people, one a budding musical and computing scientist, and the other a multi-linguist. Everyone’s better off (except me. I’m fine and I have all I need, but it’s hardly what you’d call comfortable), most importantly, the kids. I’ve said all my apologies to them and their mum, so many times I’ve been told to stop. That was a long time ago, but I can’t help feeling guilty. That’s my life sentence, of missing them every day, but being able to value the time we now get together, and without the need to be chaperoned. It took a lot of work, on all sides.

I did all that. I caused all that for other people. But I also did something for myself: I found myself and I’ve tried ever since to make myself a better person to know than the sub-human I was.

The state of the country – divided far more than it was when we were punks in the 80s – and the world at large, they fuel my depression, and my writing. At home, we’re headed for open civil unrest. In America, I see civil war. I fear for the world my children have inherited, and it’s only in some vain hope that my small voice can join with others and get noticed that I keep going. Why should I live in fear? Because we and the next generation are the exploited, and so were our fathers (and mothers).

The_Exploited_Pushead_Skull_BP_1024x1024

We are the pushead skulls. We are the stranglers and they are the damned, our two generations: La folie, and the history of the world, part one. There’s a guy called Pete here, rattling some test tubes around: says he’s got a plan.

I’m ashamed of what I did, and when I was drunk I tried twice to rid the world of me (the evidence of shoddy workmanship remains). I’m ashamed of what I represent: a human, when our species has so much to answer for; and a white British man, when the days of empire and the Christian forefathers killed and enslaved more people than the Nazis. History repeats and we’re seeing it now. I was the cause, and I have a moral duty to put things right, as we all have. My anxiety is crippling, and trips outside are rare, but better an armchair activist and still here, when there’s so much to do.

So what? So what, so what, you boring little…

It helps that I’m able to tell all this to a friend.

That’s why I write. Initially because I didn’t have anything else to do on the streets, but also because I found it easier to address some situations in fiction. It was never to make things somehow less real, but much of it wouldn’t be believed outside the medium of fiction, it’s too far-fetched. I had an epiphany, even though I’m a scientific atheist now. At the time, it was like my right wing got broke and I found the left one. Sort of a fallen angel, an Antichrist angelic upstart.

Somehow I managed not to drown. I found a way to kick my legs and keep my head above the water. It helped that there were others who saw me waving, and who came back to see what had washed up on shore: A liberal socialist, I swapped the boots for something more comfortable to be around. But I’m still crass. Doors like me, because I’m polite enough to apologise when I walk into them. I’m glad we could patch things up, when others are less accommodating. Why can’t they be the same?

I don’t care if any other friends return from estrangement. If they want to stay there, it’s where they placed themselves, and that’s out of my mind.

The longer story is on this blog, which I started when I was homeless. I regret a lot of what I did, but just as history can’t be erased, I leave it here as part of the narrative.

All things considered, I’m happier now. Like Douglas Adams, I ended up somewhere I never realised I wanted to be. So far I’ve written five books. That’s the story that was, and now is the start of the remainder.

Let’s leave the past where it belongs. We can pull it apart forever, but that would be a waste of the future.

As soon as you get your own things into what’s the nearest you’ll get to your own home, no matter how brutalist, you have life. Someone shut the door.

The Unfinished Literary Agency tells a longer story still, and Cyrus Song is worth a read. Signed copies are available on request, which will never be worth anything other than recording a moment in time.

“…If this all sounds a bit weird, that is, because it is. But it all somehow works and knits together in the manner of surrealist writers like Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas, with a substantial nod, of course, to Douglas Adams, who can make the impossibly strange seem mundane and ordinary. Steve Laker pulls this extraordinary juggling act off admirably well, producing a very good, thought-provoking, page-turning, and also at times darkly comic read.

Who knows—if you are looking for the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, you might just find it here, or in the ‘Cyrus Song’ of our planet. In the meantime, taking Steve Laker’s and Stephen Hawking’s advice, we all need ‘to keep talking’, and as long as there are books like these—keep reading.”

Stephen Hernandez, translator and interpreter.