Swimming through the grass, cutting names into trees, writing words in the sand, before they’re swept out to sea…
It was around six years ago now that I found myself on the streets, an alcoholic. But this story has only a part of me in it. It’s about the other people out there, the quiet ones. Those aren’t monsters under the bed. These are the ghosts…
“If I don’t write, I’ll drink. So I have to force myself. Because if I’m drunk, I can’t write.”
The story of how I became a ghost is surprisingly ordinary: I died. My actual passing was like that moment when you fall asleep every night: You don’t remember it. The next day, you’ll remember being awake before you slept; you know you’ve been sleeping and you may recall dreams. But you won’t remember the transit from wakefulness to slumber. So dying was just like that, for me at least.
It didn’t take long to realise I was dead because people just stopped talking to me. I could still walk around but no-one could see or hear me. A couple of times, people just walked straight through me, as though I wasn’t there. I wasn’t but I was.
When someone walks through you when you’re a ghost, you get to know a lot more about them on the inside. I don’t mean how their internal organs look (just like in a hospital documentary or horror film) but a feeling of their inner self. It’s surprising how many people you thought you knew turn out to be complete twunts.
Even though I was invisible and inaudible, I felt vulnerable in this brave new world. I’m used to being looked at. I like it. I dress provocatively. But here, no-one was looking at me, which made me anxious. I felt invisible. I was invisible. That’s how I ended up sleeping under George’s bed.
So kids: It’s not a monster under the bed, it’s a ghost.
It was while I was under there that I decided to write this story.
I’d suddenly found myself homeless. I had no personal belongings, nowhere to go and nothing to do. But like any child’s bed, George’s had cardboard boxes underneath it. I wouldn’t pry into something which might be private, but like most children’s beds, George’s sat above a wasteland of discarded ephemera: a little-used word but for the purposes of this story, it was the right one. It’s a collective noun, for things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time. Or collectable items that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity. Ephemera also has a certain supernatural aura about it (Ephemeral, an adjective meaning lasting for a very short time), so to a ghost and a writer, it suits the story very well.
As a ghostwriter, I could be anyone I wanted. I could do that in cardboard city but I had less to worry about under the bed.
It wasn’t me writing the story; I was employing someone else. When a man writes something, he is judged on his words. When a woman writes, it is she who is judged. Being a ghost was perfect. Because if a ghost writes the story, then they control it. If a ghost tells this story, it doesn’t hurt as much.
Among the discarded stationery, I found a note: ”If you don’t finish that story, I will personally punch you in the face. Cool?” I had no idea who’d written it, nor the circumstances surrounding it. I assumed it was a note given to George. Or it might have been one he’d planned to give to someone else and thought better of it. It could just as easily have been addressed to me. Whatever, and if nothing else, it was a kick start. Sometimes that’s what we need.
It wasn’t a physical kick (There was no room under the bed) but it was a mental jolt, like the friend who places an arm around your shoulder and tells you they believe in you. That’s a very brave thing for them to do, because the kind of person who says that kind of thing is going to end up stuck with you.
I needed something to sustain me while I wrote, but I was under George’s bed. I had no idea how the rest of the house was laid out, so I wouldn’t know where to find the food. It occurred to me that even if I found any food, I was ill-equipped to cook it. One revelation leads to another: Ghosts don’t eat. Do they?
Eventually, I’d gathered enough odd paper to make a useful pad. All I could find to write with was a crayon. A fucking green crayon. So then I began to write, in green crayon.
Should I really have been denied drugs, when it was that which drove me, once I learned to control it? Should those who thought they knew better have removed my lifeline? If I’d allowed them to do so, I’d surely have died from the withdrawal. At least that’s what I was afraid of. So I kept going. I kept shooting up. Then I ran away. I was 16.
Once you’re 18, the law says you can leave home without your parents’ or guardians’ permission. Strictly speaking, if you’re 16 or 17 and you want to leave home, you need your parents’ consent. But if you leave home without it, you’re unlikely to be made to go back unless you’re in danger. You are extremely unlikely to be obliged to return home if that’s where the danger lies.
It didn’t matter to me that I had nothing. Just as long as I could get a fix, I had all I needed. Even personal safety and well being become passengers when the heroin is driving.
There’s a dark magic within you. A frightful thing I cling to.
But as a ghost I couldn’t score, just as I couldn’t eat.
So I had nothing to do but write. It would be romantic to write that the flow of ink from my pen replaced the alchemy running through my veins, but I was writing with a green crayon.
The writing was a distraction, but it couldn’t mask the withdrawal symptoms. It turns out that even being dead can’t do that. So I was faced with the prospect of cold turkey, a cruel joke as I was hungry and couldn’t eat.
How could I write but not be able to eat? Actually I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure if it was delirium tremens brought on by my withdrawal, or the limitations of my new body, but I had no fine motor skills. I could rummage through things and pick them up, but I couldn’t do something like thread a needle if anyone had asked. I probably wouldn’t have been able to put a needle in a vein if I was alive, and I certainly couldn’t make my hands write. My fine motor skills were like those of a toddler. So I simply did what many authors do: They have an idea, some thoughts, a plot, and they’ll employ someone else to write their story for them: A ghostwriter. I was both a writer and a ghost. So I just thought my story; I willed it, in the hope that someone else might write it one day, now that I couldn’t.
I needed to haunt George.
I’ve read a lot and learned through self-teaching. I could have been so many things if it wasn’t for chasing the dragon. But that dragon must be chased, just as a puppy must be played with. So I’d read up on ghosts and the various types of haunting.
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 broken wings.
“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. I certainly wanted to communicate with George. In fact, to lesser and greater extents, I fitted parts of the descriptions of all types of ghosts. I’d not long been dead and already I had a multiple personality disorder.
All I could see of George when he first came into the room was his feet: Black elasticated plimsolls and white socks, like I used to wear for PE. I couldn’t say what size his feet were but I imagined them having a boy of about ten years old attached to them. I guessed George was quite a hefty lad by the way the sky fell slightly as he climbed onto the bed above me.
I laid still, because even though I myself was inaudible, my developing motor skills would betray me if I dropped the crayon or kicked anything. I could hear pages being turned and I was aware of movement above me. It could be that George was writing; doing homework perhaps. I didn’t want to entertain an alternative. I hoped he was writing.
No matter what we do in this life, we may eventually be forgotten. It’s a comfort I gain from writing, knowing that whatever’s published is recorded, and will be out there long after I’ve gone. The democratisation of publishing and reporting has meant many good and bad things, but for as long as the conversation is global, we need to keep it going. There may be voices with whom we disagree, but through writing, we can posit an alternative opinion and seed a debate. Beyond all that is happening in our constantly evolving universe is a simple fact: What is right will win. What is right can emerge from the anarchic democracy which is the internet, but only if there are enough voices. There will always be sides and factions but with everyone involved, those who engage the most because they are passionate enough will prevail. We don’t need to shout louder than the other side; we simply need to educate the ignorant. Evolution will tell the story of whether we became a liberal race and prospered, or if we destroyed ourselves because we were unable to evolve. Either way, history will record it. If we destroy ourselves, eventually our history will be lost in the vastness of space and time, and it may be as though we never existed. From the quiet above, I gathered George was quite a deep thinker.
There’s only one race on this planet and that’s the one we all belong to: The human race. Where death may scare most people, it doesn’t trouble me. I’m seeing evidence that the human consciousness exists independently from the body and continues to live after our bodies give up or we destroy them. What does scare me is even more existential: Being forgotten, as though I never existed. The human race faces an existential threat: That of ignorance. Simply by talking, we can make a difference. Listen to the previous generations, for they are our history. Talk to the next generation and don’t patronise them: They’re intelligent beings. They are the human race and the future. Maybe George would be heard one day.
After a while, the sky fell further and the lights went out. George had retired for the night.
Ghosts can see in the dark. As soon as George had been quiet long enough for me to be sure he was asleep, I was getting restless. I moved around and stretched a bit. I’d managed to keep the shakes under control, but now George was asleep, the withdrawal was becoming quite uncomfortable. Despite my anxiety and a developing agoraphobia, I was tempted to just get out and run around; to do something to distract myself. I decided against it. I’d be like a child who’d just learned to walk. I would bump into things and knock things over. I didn’t want George to have a poltergeist: They’re bad. I’m not bad and I didn’t want to be the victim of an exorcism, made homeless all over again.
I thought I’d try my night vision out and have another go at writing. I managed to draw a crude stick man, a house with a smoking chimney and a space rocket with flames coming out of the bottom. He was a green man, who lived in a green house (so shouldn’t throw stones) and he had a green rocket which burned copper sulphate fuel (copper sulphate produces a green flame). I wasn’t evolved enough to write.
I fought an internal flame: One which was a danger I wanted to flee but at the same time, a beckoning warmth. I didn’t know what time of day it was, and I had no idea how long George slept for. He might be one of those kids who was in and out of the bathroom all night, or he might be near enough to adolescence that he hibernated. Either way, or anywhere in between, I couldn’t keep still for even a minute.
The shakes were more like tremors now: Delirium tremens: a psychotic condition typical of withdrawal in chronic alcoholics, involving tremors, hallucinations, anxiety, and disorientation. Heroin withdrawal on its own does not produce seizures, heart attacks, strokes, or delirium tremens. The DTs were the manifestation of my other addiction, which I’d used heroin to cover up. It was somehow less shameful to be an addict of an illegal substance and hence a victim, than it was a legal drug which most people can consume with no ill effects. As an alcoholic, I was less of a victim. I was a sadomasochist.
As soon as you tell people you’re an alcoholic, if they don’t recoil, they just assume you’re always drunk. Or they presume that you must never touch a drop. Both are true in some alcoholics but there’s the “functioning alcoholic”, who still drinks far more than anyone should but who doesn’t get drunk. They can get drunk, but most functioning alcoholics simply drink throughout the day (a kind of grazing), to keep the delirium tremens and other dangerous side effects of alcohol cessation at bay. It’s called Alcohol Dependence Syndrome but most people saw it as a cop out. I couldn’t educate the ignorant, or get them to listen long enough for me to explain. So I started taking drugs. I got so tired of trying to explain alcoholism to people, educating their ignorance, that I gave up. You get much more sympathy as a drug addict. Yeah, right!
So as in life, this once functioning alcoholic is now a ghost.
For the brief period that I was on the road in the last life, one saying; one sentiment, was always to be heard in the homeless community: “Be safe”. Those two words convey much more than their brevity would suggest. But when you’re homeless, relationships and lives are fragile. It’s quicker and less sentimental to say “Be safe” to someone you may never see again than “I love you”.
Even if I was restless, I felt safe under George’s bed. To keep busy, I broke a promise and looked in the cardboard boxes. I placed the green crayon in my mouth, like a green cigarette. I sucked on it like a joint and the taste of wax was actually quite pleasant. It helped just a little as a distraction from the shakes.
The first box was a complete mixture: Sheets of paper, smaller boxes and random other stuff; like a model car, some Lego and, well, just all sorts. I gathered the papers first.
Some of George’s notes were apparently to himself: They were in a handwriting different to the first note I saw, so I couldn’t be entirely sure, but one such note read, “You came close a few times but you backed off. You didn’t want to be one of those boys who made her cry. That’s the only reason you did it.” If they were intended for someone else, he’d not delivered them.
There were unopened presents, and gifts addressed to others, but George hadn’t delivered them. Some things were wrapped, while others weren’t, but they were clearly intended for someone else as they had notes attached. A packet of 20 Marlborough Lights: “Should really have got two tens, then I could have given mum and dad one each. Like that’s going to stop them.”
I’d not seen or heard the parents. Without knowing even what day of the week it was, there could be many scenarios. In one, George’s parents argued a lot but they were very much in love. Perhaps they were frustrated and united against a common foe. With my parents, that was me. Whatever it was, I imagined something bonding them and keeping them together. That could have been George I suppose.
I wondered at what point in human evolution it might have been, that we started analysing things and where we started to over-analyse. Marriage guidance, or relationship management; fucking counselling, from professionals and the plastic police alike: We all have someone. We all love someone. They care about us and vice versa. But over time, something’s not right, so we take the lid off and start poking around in that jar. We keep chipping away, feeling more free to say things in an environment, which we might not in another. And eventually we say something irreversible. Something that’s niggling us deep inside and which doesn’t affect us until it’s dug up. And from there, the relationship breaks down further and ever more of the undead join the feast.
Rather than encourage engagement, that kind of situation can invoke the fight or flight reflex in the previous life; the past. And whether fleed or not, the past is history.
So we arrive in the next life with so much unsaid. We want to say it but we have to learn all over again, how to speak. And I suppose that’s why we want to haunt people.
George woke up. A light was switched on and the sky above me moved. I waited for the feet from above but there were none. There was movement like before, and the sound of paper. George must have been writing. Or drawing. After what I guessed to be around 20 minutes, he stopped, the light went out and the sky moved again. I was trembling quite violently by then, so I bit down on the crayon between my teeth and returned my attention to the boxes.
I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.
Do the first one: Get to know yourself and be happy with what you are. Then do the second: Those who loved you first time around will be the ones who are still there. So you’re not lonely.
The human body is merely a temporary host.
Put like that, we simply inhabit a body for a period of time, like a possession; In “life” we are already ghosts possessing bodies which give us physical form. That organic structure will age and eventually die, but our consciousness is separate from what we look at as a living body and it goes on living, long after the host gives up. Life, as we know it, is merely one part of an ongoing existence, the greatness of which we don’t yet understand. Knowledge comes with death’s release. You may well have lived in another body in a previous life: Deja vu tells us that; that feeling that you’ve been somewhere before. George had deep dreams.
The trembling had reached my head. There was more than one person in there, and the dialogue was two-way. I wasn’t talking to myself; I was talking to another person.
I began to realise that perhaps George and I were somehow connected. I always subscribed to pre-determinism in principle. A part of me knew that the Big Bang carried an imprint equal to its original noise; that everything was mapped out in that pre-spacetime manifestation of knowledge and understanding. I was drawn to believe that our futures were mapped out long ago, but that they were as inaccessible as our pasts: We had no control over either. Great swathes of George were alien to me. But why wouldn’t I explore, if George was my destiny? Or it could be the withdrawal, and I may have been withdrawing to a comfort zone. I couldn’t do that to George. What had this kid done to deserve me, inside him?
Life had been very much a game of give and take: If George had taken something, then he was indebted to someone else. If he received something and it wasn’t in recognition of anything he’d done, he was in someone else’s debt. When he gave something, he expected nothing back. It was simply an accepted fact that life gave back far less than was put in. No-one understood him, least of all himself. Did I? Could I?
His life revolved around visits to toy fairs with his father. They couldn’t afford the mint-and-boxed or the ready-made, so dad would just look around and George would use pocket money to buy spacecraft parts.
Broken and incomplete model kits were fuel for George’s shipyard in a cardboard box under the bed. When weekends were over, the shipyard had to remain where it was. When George was at his dad’s to build his craft, he didn’t. Because time was too valuable. So we were at George’s father’s house and it was the weekend.
When he wasn’t constructing, he was thinking. And he made more notes. He made the normal in my life fantastical, by explaining how science fiction writers were just one small step ahead of the real world. George knew I was there, or at least that it was possible for me to physically be there.
There were clippings from newspapers and magazines in the next box, including an obituary: Jemma Redmond was a biotechnologist who died aged 38 in 2016, like so many others in that awful year. The passing of her life was overshadowed by many more well-known figures in the public eye. But like George, she worked quietly, tirelessly and passionately. And she achieved some incredible things. She developed a means of using human tissue cells as “ink” in a 3D printer. She also helped in the design of 3D printers which reduced the cost of their manufacture. Jemma Redmond made it possible to “print” human organs for transplant into patients, and she reduced the cost so that the technique could be applied in the developing world. This is not science fiction. This is science fact, just a few years from now. Most people wouldn’t have known, unless it was brought to their attention and they then had the attention span to listen. But if anyone were to Google her name, her work is recorded in modern history.
There was a printout of a scientific paper about NASA’s EMdrive. The Electro Magnetic drive is a fuel-free means of propulsion, which could replace rocket fuel and all its limitations of bulk and speed. The EMdrive could take a spacecraft to Mars in 70 days. At present, it’s a two year trip, with a lot of psychological and physiological risks to any humans making the journey. Many of those problems would be overcome with the EMdrive. It’s due for testing soon and with development and improvement, could make other stars in the galaxy viable destinations for exploration and research. This is not science fiction. He had articles about solar sail arrays, the size of Colorado, taking tiny scout ships out to explore the cosmos ahead of humans. All of this could be possible within George’s lifetime.
But very few people know about these things because all of the bad news in the world shouts louder. If more people knew about the technological and scientific thresholds we’re at, they might talk about them. Others would then learn and eventually there might be a chorus of voices so loud that mankind has to listen and consider another way forward for the species.
George thought what a wonderful world ours could be if we concentrated on this stuff, rather than religion, conflict and capitalism. Of course, George was young and naïve in the eyes of most. He’d never be taken seriously if he proposed an alternative plan for humankind. So he kept and curated records, and he wrote about them. Like so many other people, he was recording his thoughts in the hope that someone might discover them later, or when he was older and might be taken more seriously. He was aware that he was documenting the present and the contemporary, and that it could become either history or the future.
My trembling had almost taken control of my limbs by now. Where it was first shaky fingers, then hands, now my arms and legs ached as though they needed to spasm.
The light went on again and the sky moved. There was more rustling of papers and scribbling with a pen or pencil. I started singing a song in my head, as I wondered something: I knew I didn’t need to eat, but would I need to get my hair cut out here? It was a song by the Crash Test Dummies: God shuffled his feet. If crash test dummies were to have nervous systems, I knew how one might feel by now. The light went off and the little big man upstairs settled back down. I needed coffee: lots of cream, lots of sugar.
My coffee used to come from a jug on a hotplate. George was planning a replicator. He explained in his notes how a replicator was just one step further on from a 3D printer. Scientists could already print human body parts after all. To print a cup, then some coffee to fill it, was actually quite simple. George was keen to point out in his notes that one should always print the cup before the coffee.
Like the quiet voices of mankind, George could only imagine. He could only wonder at the sky, or lie in bed and dream of what was beyond the ceiling. Humans travelling to other stars was one lifetime away. It was only a matter of generations before the dream could be anyone’s reality. George wanted to be anyone.
George escaped in his sleep. And he explained in his notes how it was possible to travel all over the universe. Not only was it possible, but everyone does it, every night. Everyone has dreams and George wrote his down. The spacecraft and all of its missions were in the same cardboard box; a microcosm universe beneath George’s bed. He explained how time travel could be possible:
It’s a simple matter of thinking of space and time as the same thing: Spacetime. Once you do that, it’s easier to visualise the fourth dimension: I am lying beneath a bed and I’m occupying a space in three dimensions (X,Y and Z); my height (or length), width and depth. Trembling limbs aside, I will occupy the same space five minutes from now. So the first three dimensions have remained constant, but the fourth (time) has changed. But also, I did occupy that same space five minutes previously. That, and every moment in between is recorded in the fabric of space time: I am still there, five minutes ago. I know the past. I don’t know if I’ll still be here five minutes hence: I can’t predict the future, even though it may be pre-planned from the start of all time as we understand it.
Of course, there is what’s known as The Grandfather Paradox: This states that if I were to travel back in time and kill my granddad, I would cease to exist. But if we assume that in George’s new world order, various ethics committees exist in the future, then time travel to the past could be undertaken in a governed, regulated and ethical manor. It might be a little like the First Directive imagined in many science fiction works, where it’s forbidden to interfere in any way in a species’ development, even if that means remaining invisible whilst watching them destroy themselves. This in itself is a paradox because no-one is qualified to say that it hasn’t already happened, conspiracy theorists aside.
When you’re despairing late at night and you just wish someone was there, but you don’t really want anyone around. When you’re confused, perhaps by internal conflict. That’s when you need a guardian angel. If someone would just phone you at that time, that would be perfect, because you’re not bothering them. You’ve not caused them any trouble. Guardian angels need a sixth sense and the ability to travel back in time.
George estimated his brave new world to be around 200-250 years from now; perhaps ten generations. There was a long way to go and a lot to do, and George would most likely not see any of it. Or so he thought. He was young and he had much to learn, then he needed to learn how to deal with it. The things which George wanted to do were the things I regretted not doing.
All things considered, I thought it might be better to not let George know that one of his prophesies does come true. It was too soon. He wasn’t ready. I couldn’t let him know that it was possible to send letters from the future, or that people from the past could be visited. It was a one-way street, a bit like going to see grandma because she can’t get to you. The departed are still around, we just can’t normally see them. Often they’re just watching over us. Sometimes they might want to speak to us but we need to be receptive.
By now, my arms and legs were in full spasm and I could feel my torso waiting to convulse. I cleared everything from around me as quietly as I could, so as not to interrupt whatever dream was unfolding above me.
The human body has an internal mechanism which shuts it down when stimuli get too much. An inconsolable baby will cry itself to sleep, and if a pain becomes truly unbearable at any age, we will pass out. I hadn’t tried to sleep since I’d been dead, but it looked like I was about to be shown how to.
I don’t know how far I travelled in the fourth dimension but I was woken by a voice:
“Georgie?” It was a man’s voice. Dad was home.
“In here dad.” George calling to his dad was the first time I’d heard him speak.
“I got you your magazines.” Dad was now in the room, quieter but closer. He had big feet.
“Thanks dad.” George’s voice had changed. Now that he was speaking at a lower volume, his voice was deeper: Young George’s voice was breaking.
“Writing, the science one, and paper craft. Is that right?”
“That’s the ones. Thanks.”
“What’s all this?”
“Notes. I’m writing a story. Here.”
There was a long period of quiet. George was shifting about on the bed and his dad was pacing around the room. There was that same distinct sound of pages being turned that I’d grown used to.
“Jemma Redmond. I read about her. Amazing woman. Deserves a posthumous Nobel.
“The EMdrive, eh? That’s exciting. I think we’ll use that for the interstellar stuff, and the solar sail ships for the wider galactic vanguard missions.”
“There’s some pretty deep stuff in here Georgie. Did you do this all yourself?”
“Well, I kind of had some help.”
“From whom? I’d like to meet them.”
“You can’t dad.”
“Promise you won’t laugh?”
“Can I smile?”
“You may smile”. There was a pause. “So, I had a dream.”
“We all have those. What about?”
“Nothing specific. Just a load of dreams mixed into one I suppose.”
“So you wrote about it. It’s good to write down your dreams.”
“But not all of that writing is mine. See, there was this girl.”
“A girl? In your dream?”
“Yes. A small girl, with blonde fizzy hair. And green teeth.”
“Green teeth? Was she a witch? Is she under the bed?”
“No. Well, she was kind of a witch. A dark witch but a good one. She was just wandering around, like she was showing me things. She might have been lost. I want to see her again.”
“I imagine you do. At least your witch has somewhere to live now.”
George left at the end of that weekend but it wasn’t the end of the story. He visits every weekend and he continues to record things for historians of the future. Eventually, he may realise that he was part of the machinery which kept the conversation going. He didn’t know this yet but he was encouraged in his chosen vocations.
I was there, under the bed. If I’d been able to write, I’d have just added a note for George:
Do what you enjoy. If you enjoy it, you’ll be good at it and people might notice you. If not now, then in the future. Don’t put off till tomorrow that which you can do today. Because if you do it today and you like it, you can do it again tomorrow.
Your life is not empty and meaningless, regardless of who is in it or absent from it. Your life is what you make it, for yourself and for future generations. Don’t give up.
Hopefully George will continue this story, now history, but in the hope that it might be read in the future. Perhaps he’ll find the notes I left him.
Dust to Funky. Be safe George.
To this day, Dad has never gone through George’s things under the bed. I’d have noticed.
© Steve Laker, 2017.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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)
Choppy Choppy’s hat (10)
An author in a pen (6)
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.
I write poems for the people, I write prose for myself, and I write for everyone. Sometimes I write in one form about writing in another. Poetry is often made of shared memories…
Words © Steve Laker.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
If I don’t write this now I’ll be conceding defeat, not to one nemesis or tormentor, but to life. The Tory social cleansing machine nearly got the better of me today, so I have no option but to write about the constant scream of consciousness.
This blog was once the daily diaries of a homeless drunk, written during an hour of public access time on a library computer. Lately I’ve not been able to find any time to collect my thoughts, let alone convey them. Rather than sit around all day, confused and wondering what to write, I thought I’d spend an hour like I used to in the library, writing, like I haven’t been lately.
Everything whirling in my head has become almost overwhelming, and there’s been plenty of it. Keeping it to myself while I contemplate how to address it meant that I didn’t confront it. Tired of life and the world, I have to write to save my own little place in both.
It’s pretty clear to all but the most ignorant that the world will end, one way or another, during our lifetime. It’s completely obvious to me and thousands of others, that the UK government are a bunch of fascist murderers. And it’s plain in my mind that I’ve not been right lately. Unless I can sort that last one out, I’ve got no chance of playing any part in doing anything about the other two.
The writer’s block is because my mind is so full of all that stuff. There are potential solutions and suggestions in there, but what’s been keeping them at bay is the world of me at the front of my head, the face I haven’t shown.
My ongoing battle with the Department for Work and Pensions is now well into its sixth month, not through inaction on my part so much as incompetence on theirs approaching Vogon levels. More on that another time, in a different post, where I’ll free another hour to write.
For now, the world of me has been laid to waste by the government’s best efforts to kill me by proxy, by denying me (like thousands of others) the so-called benefit (some would say a human right) of personal independence. They’ve taken away the money I’ve been judged entitled to for the last four years, which allowed me to live an independent life, while suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) picked up from mental and physical abuse I encountered while living on the streets. But of course, I put myself there by being drunk. As if the daily guilt wasn’t enough. I was ill, and I still am. Always judged.
I’ve been judged as deserving of personal independence by those qualified to do so (tribunal panels) in the past, but the system is designed to make people kill themselves, with out-sourced assessors deliberately ignoring evidence of entitlement to massage the government’s figures and pay their private sector employers’ and shareholders’ bonuses. It’s a murderous apparatus, employed by a morally bankrupt dictatorship. Like the wider world, the UK is a victim of the wealthy minority running government so that fascist capitalism trumps a more socialist approach which might otherwise save our species and our home. That’s another hour of writing a separate post.
When I used to write this blog in the library, it was my way of keeping in touch with my world and the wider one beyond, whether anyone gave a toss or not. It was always therapy. Lately I’ve assumed no-one cares, because I’ve been caring less about myself and most things beyond. I realise that even dealing with myself is not something I can do on my own.
I’d become convinced that if I felt as low and little about myself as I’d been ground down to feel by the social cleansing machinery, then anyone else would give even less of a shit. But every hour that I’ve stared at this blog I spent the last five years building, I can’t help notice that quite a few people follow it, and therefore me.
Most of my followers hitched up when they read one of my short stories, but others have climbed on board the wagon through empathy. I know my watchers here aren’t like those necrophiliac perverts at DWP, and you don’t want to see me fail (as in, die). How does knowing that make me feel? Honestly, I feel better.
I have a better life now, one where I don’t have to commandeer a public access computer to get all my thoughts down in an allotted hour. But actually, setting an hour aside to simply write is the best way to do that. Because the time we have together is allotted by me now, and it makes me feel better just talking to you. And whether I’m heard or not, it helps to talk.
This blog was once the daily diaries of a homeless drunk. Then it became that of a writer with mental health labels, writing about being a writer with mental health labels. I’m sober now, and I have a home. Then lately that stopped, and it was because of the killing machine. It was that which made me write for an hour tonight. I’ll stop now. I could go on, but if I stop then I know I can come back and write for another hour another time.
There’d be no point – indeed no point in being me – if I didn’t have readers. Hopefully this brief diary provided some insight (for voyeuristic perverts). I’m stopping now and not re-reading or revising. This was stream of consciousness stuff, like I used to write in the library. Once that meter ran out, I was cut off for another day at least: See you again soon.
There, I said it. I wrote it. I feel like a writer again. Lost and in need of rescue, but you can’t be rescued if you don’t shout. You can’t write if no-one can read. I feel better. Thanks for reading. For everyone who got this far, there are many who didn’t. But they might read this sometime. They wouldn’t if I hadn’t written it.
“Remember the compliments you receive, forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.” Baz Luhrmann. Keep moving. Keep living. It’s too late to floss my teeth, but I won’t let fascists dance on my grave.
I need to pay my annual hosting fees soon, and fascist Tory human rights policies mean I can’t afford to. Donations always help me to keep writing this blog ($1 per follower who could afford it would be massive), and there’s Cyrus Song: a perfectly plausible solution to all our problems, available for less than a decent coffee as an eBook (also available in paperback, like the rest of my books).
As an alien visitor to this place, I needed to get rid of an old chest I’d been carrying around for far too long, so I tried giving it away for free. I found talking difficult, and I wasn’t sure anyone understood me.
“Sorry, we’re just closing.”
“But I’d like to donate this.”
“Is it broken?”
“I just can’t get it work. I figure someone else might make better use of it.”
“But it’s yours. Doesn’t it have sentimental value?”
“It’s pretty empty.”
“So why would we want it?”
“Because it’s pretty when it’s empty. You’re a charity, right?”
“We are, but I think you might be better off going to a hospital.”
I couldn’t be bothered with the walk, so I lay down outside the British Heart Embassy, hoping they might find the manufacturer and send the antique inside the chest for repair.
My head felt better.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
Living and working in a small studio, I save space and increase the functionality of the room by sleeping on a futon. It’s guest seating when folded by day, and a reminder of nights sleeping wherever one could unfold at night.
It’s like sleeping on packing crates: just enough of a bed to allow the spreading of one’s weight, but not so comfortable that one is ever likely to sleep soundly (which I never can with PTSD from sleeping on the streets, waiting to be set alight and ready to run). It’s sleeping with one eye open, and a restless leg hanging out of the side; then tucking the feet in, even if the head can’t sleep.
I’m lucky to have a crate to sleep on, which can be folded away as I unfold myself from it. If I didn’t, I’d spend all day on it. I know I’m not alone in there.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
Everyone happens in a place, and if I were to put my finger on where I became a writer, it would be McDonald’s. When I first found myself homeless through drinking, I’d spend my days there, eventually becoming a bit of a fixture.
Seeing a solitary figure in the same place every day, scribbling in a note book, people were naturally curious, and it wasn’t long before I was relating my story to small groups. Mine is a cautionary tale of the dangers of addiction, but which led me into a life I’d never have known if I hadn’t been thrown into it. I’m part of the human library.
I made a lot of friends and lived a lot of life on the streets, so when people started asking me what I’d do with all those notes I was making, I said I might one day turn them into short stories, and maybe publish a book.
This all leads to The Human Lending Library, an entity which I thought fictitious because I’d made it up, along with The Unfinished Literary Agency. I’m re-posting the story below because someone recently prodded me to say that there really is a human lending library, where people borrow people instead of books, and the borrowed tell their story. It originated (unsurprisingly) in Denmark in 2000.
The real human lending library serves exactly the same purpose as the one I imagined, back when I originally wrote Reflections of Yesterday. The story is set in a place close to my heart (Lewisham), where I saw much of the light and dark in the human condition. As an aside – with reference to the recent thinking on Stephen King (a horror writer I’ve been compared with) having an entire universe where he interconnects his stories – there’s an early appearance by a couple of characters from my own Cyrus Song in this unrelated story, as extras in a background scene.
The following fable was the result of long conversations and many notes, some made by the human whose story this is. For the most part, I transcribed those notes directly, which is why this is a bit of a long read.
This is the story of Huxley and Marlene: That’s “Mar-lay-nah” innit…
REFLECTIONS OF YESTERDAY
The Unfinished Literary Agency is an underground publishing house, which I set up to tell the stories of others; Stories which would otherwise go untold. Like most of the characters in these stories, Marlene thought she was unimportant: She was a nobody. No-one would want to read a story about a random girl like her. So I made a suggestion on how we might make the story more interesting, while keeping it real.
It starts with a Beagle: a dog called Huxley, Marlene’s best friend and confidante. She insists on her name being written that way, without any character accents to denote that it’s pronounced “Mar-Lay-Nah”.
They were having a picnic in Mountsfield Park, surrounded by her life, in three Sports Direct bags. A man asked: “Why do so many homeless people have dogs?”
“Because most people aren’t like you, sir. Most people don’t stop to talk. In fact, most people just walk on by. If someone just says hello, it makes me feel better. While there are so few people like you, I have a dog. I have Huxley, and he’s company. He listens. I’m Marlene. What’s your name mate? Sit down if you like.”
“Jay, and thanks.” Jay swung his rucksack from his shoulder and sat next to where Marlene lay on her sleeping bag, under a tree. It was a quiet time: mid-afternoon. Parents would be returning from shopping in Lewisham and getting ready to pick the kids up from school, before coming to the park. Every now and then, people walked by on the pathways. There were only two other people on the grass: a young red-haired girl, seated cross-legged, looking at something in her hand; and an older man, lying on his side and propped up on one arm. The girl passed something to the man and he looked at his hand for a while, before blowing something from his palm.
“You’re Muslim, right?
“Yeah, the rucksack sort of gives me away, doesn’t it?”
Shared irony is always a comforting bond: A tie formed when two people who’ve never met before, realise in a moment that they’re of similar intellect; When one can crack a joke and the other doesn’t feel the need to demonstrate anything by finishing it off; When one doesn’t have to ride the coat tails of the other, because they both get what didn’t need to be said. They are equals. There’s usually some wag around in a social situation who’ll feel the need to fill things in: The kind of person who might give you unsolicited advice at a pub fruit machine or pool table. There were no spare parts in this conversation.
“How long have you been here?” Jay asked.
“Today, only about an hour. I try not to think about how long it’s been in all.”
“You know.” It was another shared moment.
“You’ve been here?”
“Yeah, I was out here for just over a year before I converted.”
“So what happened? I mean, if you want to tell me.”
“I think I might be as reluctant to share the tale of how I came to be here as you are. My conversion to Islam though, was an awakening. Some might call it an epiphany but I don’t believe in God. Or Allah.”
“What? Explain that one, please.”
“Well, one day when I was out here, someone gave me a copy of the Quran. To be honest, my first thought was, ‘Thanks. This looks delicious’, but I couldn’t throw it away. No matter the contempt I have for religion and all that it’s caused, I respect every other human and that includes their beliefs. I wondered perhaps if I might reject God because I don’t understand him. I find that sense of not knowing unnerving, a fear of the unknown. The best way to deal with fear is confront it. So I decided I’d educate myself. I felt I owed it to the man who’d given me his copy of The Recitation.
“It was a coping mechanism and a comfort. It was escapism to safe entertainment. At it’s core, the Quran is just a different telling of the same events; The same stories, told by someone else with a different perspective. An alternative to the Bible. Despite what many perceive, a lot of the ancient Islamic texts have their roots in the one thing which unites us all: Humanity. In many ways, Islam is actually much more tolerant than Christianity. The Quran was the Guardian, to the Bible’s Telegraph. And where Jesus was just a nice guy, I wouldn’t be surprised if Muhammad smoked a bit of weed. I don’t know, I just found the Quran much more accessible than the Bible. The Bible’s dictatorial, whereas the Quran is a guide. It was refreshing to see a different take on things. But either book in the wrong hands…
“So I took the faith and changed my name to Javeed. It means forever. But when I say I took the faith, I didn’t. Because I can’t have faith in something which is unproven; a paradox. I need to question what I don’t understand, and religion will not be interrogated. Instead, it tells us that we must believe and have faith. I’m not ready to relinquish my will. But I did have a new found faith in humanity and, just as I’d read that man’s Quran, I felt indebted to Islam. So I started attending the mosque. It was shelter, company, and food. Was I using Allah? If he exists, then he will judge. Until then, I consider myself free.”
“So why do you still dress that way? Do you go to prayers?”
“Because I get something from it. I see other people’s ways of looking at things. It taught me to see that failure, me losing my home and all, was just that to the weak man: A failure. But the strong man sees a challenge and he rises to it, to change, to make things better. And I felt I might be able to do some good. You see, there are a lot of young Muslims who feel alienated and persecuted. Well, I know how that feels. I suppose the best way to sum up a situation I don’t understand, is I’m not bound by Islam but by humanity. With my brothers, we are all members of the same human race. That’s what I found Islam to be. It’s not a religion to me, it’s a family.”
“What about the women?”
“Well, that sits very uncomfortably with me. But I could run away and ignore it, or I could try to do something about it. I see those women and girls as suffragettes. They’re way more persecuted than the men, and by the men. Over time, I’m trying to make the Imam and others more progressive.
“So you’re radicalising them? That could take a while.”
“My name is Javeed. It means forever.”
“What was your name before?”
“Jim. Which means Jim. Anyway, Marlene, I should go. I’m cramping your style. I think these people walking past are giving us an even wider berth than they’d normally give you alone. They are no-one. Because every one of them who walks past, you’d probably not recognise if you saw them again. Let them stay that way. Let them retain their anonymity, and be forgettable. Here, let me compensate you for your time.”
“Compensate me? Like, pay me for talking and listening? I’m a captive audience mate. Besides, it was nice. You actually remind me of someone, but I don’t remember who.”
“I wouldn’t know. In any case, it was a pleasure. You’re a valuable person Marlene. Don’t forget that. Here…”
“A tenner? You sure?”
“Of course. It seems quite appropriate. On the reverse of the ten pound note, is Charles Darwin: Evolution and the rest of it. And his ship, HMS Beagle. Well, I do believe Huxley here is a Beagle.”
“Can’t argue with that. Thank you. Thanks mate.”
“You’re welcome my friend. I don’t care what you spend it on. That’s your business. I’d like to think that you used it to do something, to make things different. Keep your head up kid. I know you can swim, you just gotta keep moving your legs.” Jay stood and shook Marlene’s hand. “Be safe.”
Something. Something to make a difference. To eat a hot meal would make a change. But she couldn’t dine out wearing five layers of clothes, or with Huxley and her house in tow. Instead, she bought some food, which she had no intention of eating. She bought five loaves of bread, some wafer thin ham, a block of Cheddar and some tomatoes; all of which were reduced as they approached their sell-by dates. She also got some plastic knives and cling film. The food probably would have been destined for the homeless, but she had a plan: She would make sandwiches and sell them. Any she didn’t sell, she would give to the homeless, most of whom lacked the resources to make a sandwich of their own. The way Marlene saw it, she was buying raw materials to make into something and add value. In percentage terms, the margins were very large, so she could cover her costs, make a little profit for herself and give something ready-made to those with no money. The business plan required her to place faith in the general public to buy her goods, but other than that, it was sound.
On the first day, most of the sandwiches went to the homeless. Pure prejudice seemed to keep people away. Her stall was a makeshift table made of plastic bread crates, her hand-written sign listing her sandwiches: Ham or cheese, with or without tomato. Sandwiches just like mum used to make. All were priced at 50p. But it seemed that the same anonymous people who passed her by, were equally unprepared to give her money for something she’d done. They needn’t have any concern for hygiene. She wore plastic gloves while making the sandwiches, and sanitary wipes to keep her hands clean. She’d lost £5, but she’d given homeless people something to eat.
The next day she spent less and broke even. At least people were coming to her now, parents with kids mainly, perhaps reassured by her presence on a second day. For the next few days, she reached a plateau and her venture stagnated. She was covering her costs, giving a few sandwiches to the homeless and making a few pence each day. She needed to upsize but for that, she needed more capital.
She wondered about what she was doing; interrogated her business model. Perhaps she appeared too needy. But she’d never begged, and people were buying from her of their own free will. She wasn’t asking for anything. There was no mention of helping the homeless on her sign, as she imagined people might make the wrong association with her food. Perhaps those people weren’t even eating her sandwiches but 50p was such a small sum, and at least they got something. Some of her customers became familiar faces. They talked to her and she learned about them.
It was at the end of the second week that Marlene decided to make a change. She wrote a new sign, with just the sandwiches on and no prices. She stood an empty baked bean tin next to her sandwiches on the stall, and stuck a label on the tin: Thank you.
Human psychology is a deep and complex field of study and her human lab mice proved a theory: If presented with something which requires questioning, most will walk on by. But some people will seek answers. The revamped sandwich stall invited people to enquire, at least about the price of a sandwich, or to find out what they were being thanked in advance for. Without too much prompting, some humans quickly exhibited completely altered behaviour. They found themselves in a new paradigm; one where they were being thanked for taking something, and invited to leave a donation. The important decisions about the transaction had been placed firmly back with the customers: Whether to take something and if so, how much to pay for it. She remained a few feet from the stall; still present but not so close as to distract from people’s own free will. At the end of that first new day, Marlene’s tin contained £6.35.
She had a viable business model, of the simplest kind: Source cheaply, add value and sell at a profit. The added value here was the sandwiches being made: It was Marlene’s time. Her modest success was down to her honesty, and her trust in that of others: She could make no secret of the fact that her stall was unconventional. On the few occasions when she was asked the price of her sandwiches, she simply asked people to pay whatever they felt the food was worth. And there were those who took food and left nothing, but she wasn’t going to question them. One could quite easily be someone just like her, who might be embarrassed. By maintaining a distance, Marlene relied almost entirely on human spirit and her faith in such was somewhat restored.
But she wasn’t getting anywhere. Her business was standing still. She wasn’t making anything of Jay’s gift. So Marlene and Huxley took a walk. They couldn’t walk as far or for as long as they used to.
The sky was peach melba with a crème brûlée topping, and a warm breeze drove the day’s dust out of Mountsfield Park. Midges were beginning to form vortices around nothing, and ants were retreating to warmth. Marlene instinctively raised her wrist to her eye as something approached, but one midge didn’t make it home that night. Greenwich was the limit now, and even that took from afternoon to night, with frequent breaks. But everything in between was their time. Evenings were Huxley’s.
Marlene didn’t know Huxley’s exact age but they’d said he was already getting on a bit when she took him as a rescue dog from Battersea. His snout and some of his coat were greying, but no matter his age, Huxley liked to walk. He liked being outside – perhaps something to do with his previous life, chasing hares – so he was the perfect dog for a homeless nomad. He wasn’t a weaponised dog. An owner makes a dog and a dog’s love is unconditional. Marlene was sure Huxley would kill or be killed for her, but she never sought to find out. She threw Huxley a stick. ”Sticks and stones. My old bones…”
Fetching sticks aside, the only time Huxley wasn’t with Marlene, was when she’d had to work to repay a favour, or buy him food. A slut, a dirty whore, a re-useable doll: Just words. But she’d had fingers broken, been raped and left for dead in the park when she’d first washed up there. It wouldn’t have happened if Huxley had been there, but she hadn’t wanted him there. She would kill or be killed for him.
The Royal Borough of SE10 was no better than SE13: Postcodes didn’t change the status of a homeless person. But with that status come certain rights: You are always safe with your own kind. Although not true of humanity as a whole, there was an unwritten code in the homeless community; a people without borders. They were people of limited means but with deep resources.
And so Marlene and Huxley would regularly join a group who congregated in Greenwich Park, at the top of the hill, by the Royal Observatory. There they were left alone at night, by all but the most curious and determined. They looked out at Docklands on the peninsular, with the City in the background. All of life was there, most of it indiscernible to the untrained eye.
At low tide, the banks of the Thames attracted beach combers. They’d look for coins beneath the bridges and barriers; They’d turn over stones and prod through the mud for other treasures; One day perhaps, a priceless artefact or discarded weapon. Further out, walkers would be among the undead, as street people pushed against the tide of robots to pick up after them. The invisible cleaned up after the anonymous.
Fiction writers have sometimes been accused of over-stretching the imagination; of inventing convenient coincidences to carry a narrative. While it is true that fiction is often stranger than fact, by its very design, it is also true that life imitates art. Although they can be tropes for a lazy writer, strange coincidences do occur in real life. However fantastical these situations can seem, when reported as fact, they become received wisdom. When written as fiction, the author is more likely to be questioned. This is exactly why Marlene said that the next chapter shouldn’t be written about, but for the same reasons, I insisted it should. She had entrusted this story to a writer and that writer was me. I couldn’t teach Marlene to write. At least, I couldn’t teach her how to write as I saw writing, because I would have to teach her how to write like me. When I myself don’t know why that is.
I was writing the story of Marlene, but I was also writing the story of a writer, who wanted to be a writer like Paul Auster: One who writes “in a certain way”, which sometimes frustrates him, because he can’t teach others how he does it; a writer who used himself in many plot devices and a named character in at least one story. On occasion, he’s used seemingly wild coincidences in his plots. But by way of a demonstration of how life can turn up these events, in October 1989, he asked listeners of National Public Radio’s Weekend All Things Considered programme to send in true stories, to be read on-air as part of the National Story Project. The response was unexpected, with over 4000 submissions. Everyone, it seemed, had a story to tell. True Tales of American Life gathered some of these personal accounts to demonstrate that life could really be stranger than fiction. One such story was “The Chicken”, from Linda Elegant of Portland, Oregon:
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.
Other Auster trademarks are tributes to people he admires, with cameos or as a clue to a name in one of his characters, subtle references at various depths of immersion; Stories set in and around areas he knows intimately, like a pre-teen knows his or her genitals; and links to his other stories, through places or people; sometimes fleeting, others more overt.
It was while on the hill in Greenwich that one unlikely thing happened, when an unexpected Ellery Moon came into the story:
It was unusual but not unprecedented for someone inclined by curiosity to climb the hill and share the view from the summit. There’d never been one with a guitar before, least of all a twelve string. Ellery had come there to look at the Maritime Museum from an elevated viewpoint.
Odd and quirky things do happen. Sometimes, something breaks through the monotony and invites us to think differently. It’s a meeting of magnetic poles: Attraction and repulsion.
Ellery was a scholar of European neoclassicism in the visual arts. It was a modernising movement when it emerged in the mid 18th century, but also a conservative one. It sought to fight back against received wisdom and accepted norms, by simplifying things. In architecture, it was an admiration of the function and simplicity of ancient Greek and Roman buildings, relatively unadorned with fussy decorative features. Ellery saw the maritime museum as an example of the architecture, with imperialism at its heart. Nationalism was something he found repellent but in order to understand that which he didn’t know, he needed to question it. “Architecture is frozen music”, he said. As far as Marlene was concerned, he simply spoke to buildings, as others do animals or plants.
Although Ellery’s interests were not ones she shared, Marlene found his interpretations of the world fascinating, and him an engaging orator. Everything was linked, he said. And where there were no obvious connections, they were still there to be discovered. He explained how certain things were triggers for him, which would most likely not affect many others: He was in touch with his senses to an extent where an oil painting, a piece of music, an architectural structure, or even a passage of words, would evoke in him a vision or a memory; one so powerful that it could make him visibly weep. Although it wasn’t recognised as a mental illness, it had a name: Stendhal Syndrome. It was another easy label to apply.
Ellery’s songs were not exercises in subtlety, his voice an embattled rasping call to action. His lyrics, an angry mix of threat and paranoia, chasing doomed dreams as he faced invisible oppressors. For him, music was an inferno, into which he’d toss caution and the inhibitions which he believed bind us in life. Anthems, protests and love songs, delivered in a rasping 60-a-day voice, with his guitar a machine gun triumphing against those unseen forces. He sought no-one’s approval for anything he did.
He taught Marlene to sing. She’d never been able to sing, but Ellery told her she always could, she simply lacked confidence. “You need to get out of your comfort zone and face a fear”, he said. “At school, I was just like all the other kids; mumbling words behind a hymn book in assembly. But then I started going to pubs and I was introduced to Karaoke. Some friends of mine were in a band, and it was hearing their voices over a microphone that made me wonder what I might sound like if I opened my lungs. And that was where I found it: All my anger and frustration was in my voice. It sounds narcissistic and clichéd, but when I heard my own voice over the speakers, it was an awakening. I didn’t even notice anyone in the room, even though the bar was packed. I was just into screaming and howling, but in some sort of tune. When I’d finished, I looked around and everyone was silently staring at me. I just thought, ‘Fuck you’ as I put the mic back in the stand, then they starting applauding. At first, I thought they were glad I’d finished. But they kept going. A few of them cheered and whistled, perhaps even more relieved that I was done. But then, one person stood up; then another; six in all. One shook my hand, then another, who slapped me on the shoulder and told me, “Nice one, mate”. They liked me. Wanna know what song it was that I ripped apart and threw around that room?”
“I’d imagine it was more an interpretation or tribute, rather than a straight cover or impression?”
“Fuck yeah. If you’re gonna sing a song, it’s more of a tribute to the original artists to give it your own style, rather than just ape them. The great thing is, it works if you’re shit at singing. It’s subjective, both to the performer and the listener. To the ears of some, a cover tribute takes on greater meaning than the original. Music history is littered with examples, depending on who you listen to. But the best example is probably Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails on Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt: “It’s his now.” For me, even though I’m a space boy, Bauhaus owned Ziggy Stardust’s eponymous track. That was even better than the Starman himself. There are examples in films and TV series too, where someone has taken a classic and re-imagined it, or turned literature into film; or vice versa. The arts are self-pollinating, but if we treat them as less than living entities, they will perish. I want to cede a new renaissance.
“So my first ever song performed in public, was George Michael’s Praying for Time, from the Listen Without Prejudice album.”
“But sung as…”
“But sung as me. That was the thing. For four minutes, I made that song my own. They said I sounded like an angry Michael Stipe. They said I held my forearms upwards, screaming at them all the time, whether I was standing or crouching; like I was displaying stigmata in my self-harm scars.
“These are the days of the open hand. These are the days of the beggars and the choosers. This is the year of the hungry man. Whose place is in the past. Hand in hand with ignorance. I sang twenty years and a day. But nothing changed. The human race found some other guy. And walked into the flame. And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate. Hanging on to hope. When there is no hope to speak of. And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late. Well maybe we should all be praying for time…
“But I was still using someone else’s words. To be honest, I don’t know if any of my own songs are any good. It’s impossible to be discovered, so no-one will hear them. But they’re all I want to say and if people get to hear them, they might tell others. The best chance to be heard, was to cover something someone else had already done. In so many cases, the words are there, and I wish I’d written them. But I didn’t, so I sung them. Even as I tell you this, I’m unsure as to what might be too much to say. I want you to get it, without having to question too much; but I don’t want to insult your intelligence by telling you too much, because then I take away from your personal interpretation. And right here, right now, I just don’t know when to shut up.”
Words can only be stopped when the mouth is otherwise occupied, and a first kiss is a catalyst for many more. Exchanges of bodily fluids quickly evolve, from the first drop of saliva, to ones which can be life-changing.
As one life ends, so another begins. It’s just changes. They have happened in the past, to create the now; and others are planned, to shape the future. The world turns on its axis, one man works while another relaxes.
Ellery sang at the birth, and Marlene gave them Ebony: An ornamental wood, dense enough to sink in water, with a smooth finish when polished, making it valuable.
A “Paupers funeral” is one paid for by the state. It’s normally at 9am, as that’s the cheapest slot, and you can only be incinerated. It’ll be attended by a suited figure, there to ensure that everything is done. There’ll be three pieces of music: One to welcome the mourners; another to accompany the lowering of the coffin; and the end.
The music didn’t even have words which Marlene could imagine Ellery singing, in his angry, impatient voice, struggling to escape, from something. She remembered him singing Amy Winehouse at The Dublin Castle, where Amy used to drink and play; and Madness. Suggs spoke about her, in the way Suggs speaks:
“We used to see her around in Camden, we started off in The Dublin Castle, a place where Amy very much liked. I wrote a song about Amy Winehouse which is on this record called ‘Blackbird’, without going on about it, it was a very tragic thing.”
When a panic attack strikes, it will do so without warning and for no apparent reason. A partner unable to free himself; their baby sealed in a burning box; and Marlene, on the wall.
“Even if I am in love with you. All this to say, what’s it to you? Observe the blood, the rose tattoo. Of the fingerprints on me from you. We’re still alone, around the danger zone. And we don’t talk about it. The passing of every soldier, but the only soldier now is me, fighting things I cannot see. I think it’s called my destiny. I am changing. Don’t give away the good too soon. I tried hard to resist, when you held me in your handsome fist. It reminded me of the night we kissed. Of why I should be leaving.”
And as one story ends, so another begins. Huxley went quietly at the PDSA in New Cross, where he met and said farewell to Doctor Jones. Hannah Jones then became a part of the story again, when she called Marlene a few months later: An injured beagle had been brought into the hospital by a stranger. He’d found the dog at the kerbside and guessed it had been hit by a car. It was barely more than a pup and it hadn’t been chipped. Before he went to Battersea, would Marlene be up to meeting him?
They were having a picnic in Mountsfield Park, when a man asked: “Why do so many homeless people have dogs?”
“Because most people aren’t like you, sir. Most people don’t stop to talk. In fact, most people just walk on by.”
“Ignorant people, perhaps. You’re homeless though, right?”
“What gave me away? The bags?” Shared irony is always a comforting bond: A tie formed when two people who’ve never met before, realise they’ve clicked. “Yeah, I’ve lost the lot mate: Home, money, people I cared about. I’m Marlene. Ironically, it’s derived from Mary Magdalene. But mine’s Mar-Lay-Nah, after the Suzanne Vega song.”
“I’m Jim. It means Jim.”
“Wanna hear a story, Jim? This guy came up to me once, right here. If you grew a beard, you’d probably look like him actually.
“So this other guy, he gave me a tenner. The Bank of England tenner has Darwin on it, and a picture of his ship: HMS Beagle. And Huxley here is a beagle. And the guy just said to make something with that tenner. It took me to a lot of places, that note and those words. I met a lot of people and heard their stories. And after that, I realised what it was I could do. I worked out that it was the best way to give the most back. Money is like the air: breathe it in, breathe it out. It’s just selfish to hold on to it.
“One day, I might learn to play this twelve string here. It was Ellerey’s. He taught me to sing. He allowed me to find my voice, even if it was in the words of others.
“But before I go out busking, I’ve set up The Human Lending Library. It’s a massive place, full of stories, but not housed in a building. It’s a library without borders. You don’t borrow books; you borrow a person. You don’t take them home with you, although some might appreciate that. No, you just ask one of them to tell you a story. And most of the time, they’ll have a story to tell, which they didn’t think anyone would want to hear. It might be their own or someone else’s: Someone who’s no longer around to tell their own story. But if someone asks, that changes things for the story teller. And it often changes the way the listener thinks of those story tellers.
“Libraries stand for freedom. Freedom to read, to think, and to pass on wisdom. They are about education, which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university. They’re safe entertainment. Some of the most under-appreciated people in society are librarians, yet without those gatekeepers of knowledge, we are ignorant.
“Our children lack the knowledge we have. We need to teach them. With knowledge, they can navigate the world, understand things, question others and solve problems. We must tell them the truth and not let them be lied to or misled.
“We should read aloud to others, or recite stories to them. Read them things they enjoy, even if those are stories we’ve already tired of. Or tell them a new story. And we can write. All of us – readers and writers – can dream. All of us can make a change, just by thinking more and doing things differently.
“Well, I’m one of the librarians and we’re everywhere. All anyone has to do, is rather than walk past, just ask. Both parties get something far greater than money from that free transaction.”
And Jim was lost for a moment.
Marlene didn’t expect a donation; She didn’t ask. It was pure coincidence that Jim gave her a ten pound note. A coincidence which gives meaning to the phrase, what comes around, goes around. Marlene’s situation too.
Marlene didn’t think this story worth telling. But by looking at things differently, she didn’t fail and end up back in the drain. She returned to where she felt she belonged, where there are far greater things than money. History repeating need not always be a death toll. Even in the darkest places, there is hope. Sometimes, we need to be stripped of everything to realise that there is more to life and to start seeing the world differently. The Human Lending Library is fictional, but with its base in the facts of Marlene and others’ lives.
She mock-fretted that if her story was told, people might read it and be moved to act upon it. Pretty soon, the librarians might receive sufficient donations to change their circumstances and living arrangements. There might one day be no Human Lending Library.
I told her not to worry. Such a dream was just that: firmly in the realms of fiction.
(C) Steve Laker and Marlene (that’s “Mar-lay-nah”), 2017
From The Unfinished Literary Agency, available now in paperback.
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