August Underground’s chicken

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FOOD & DRINK

As someone who doesn’t go out much, I have to be inventive if I want to. Having few people to socialise with, I sometimes take real life visitors out in my virtual worlds. So when my kid sister needed some menu ideas, I took her to August Underground’s Diner, a place I invented in Islington…

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Mine is a themed restaurant, a tribute to cult, horror and sci-fi movies. Various film memorabilia, props and costumes are dotted around, and the place is staffed by cosplay actors.

It’s a subterranean affair on a small industrial park, a short walk from my Unfinished Literary Agency above Hotblack Desiato’s office in Upper Street, N1. Originally a venue I created to address some personal issues, I’ve adapted it since to help others. I cook a lot for myself back home, and for my sister (Courtney), so when she asked me for some of my recipes, the easiest place to bring her was here, for when she can’t come round to my place, and has to cook for herself.

I’ve had my favourite booth converted, so that I can demonstrate my recipes by cooking them at the table. Although we won’t be requiring the chefs tonight, we’re nonetheless shown to our table by chief hellraiser, Pinhead. I write down the ingredients I need for this recipe, he sticks it on a pin and heads for the kitchen.

PAN-SEARED POACHED CHICKEN AND BROCCOLI

Seared poached chicken2

Ingredients:
Chicken breast fillet (skinless)
Purple sprouting stem broccoli
Cooking oil
Butter (salted)
Salt and pepper

Originally a carnivorous establishment, as my dining habits have changed, so have the menus at August Underground. Most of the food now is vegetarian, and the fewer meat dishes are free-range. I usually cook this for myself, and Courtney needs to learn to do the same, so this is a recipe for one.

Once Pinhead returns with my ingredients, I fire up a pan over a medium-high heat and pre-heat the oven to 190c. I also lay out a sheet of foil (about A4 size) ready for the second stage of cooking. The two-cook method first seals the meat in the pan, locking in the juices, which then steam the meat at the poaching stage. So there’s less to do, I season the pan with a good grind of salt and pepper at this point.

I heat a teaspoon of vegetable or sunflower oil in the pan, and fry the chicken for about 5 minutes either side. Half way through I add a knob of butter to the pan and fry 3 or 4 broccoli stems, shaking the pan to coat them with butter. I end up with chicken which is sealed and browned on the outside, and broccoli which is charred.

I tip the contents of the pan (cooking juices too) onto the foil and close it loosely (like a purse, or a pasty), leaving a small gap at the end for excess steam to escape. The parcel then goes into the pre-heated oven for 30-35 minutes to poach.

I serve this dish with either gravy (sometimes adding a Yorkshire pudding) or cheese sauce (pictured above). For the cheese option, I use shop-bought stuff: Plonk some chunks of strong Cheddar in for more cheesiness, and heat it in the microwave.

People would pay a tenner for that in a gastro pub but my diner is virtual, so Courtney pays and now knows how to cook this for herself.

The original August Underground’s Diner review is in my second collection of short stories, The Unfinished Literary Agency.

With one leg outside the covers

MICRO FICTION

As one door closes, another one opens. And there goes door 24 on my advent calendar. I have little patience for such things, but just enough to carry on regardless, listen to Ska and write what will or won’t fit anywhere else.

This whole dehumanising, debilitating, illness-inducing appeal process I’m going through, up against the social cleansing agenda of the ruling fascist UK government, is exhausting. But as one light goes out, another switches on.

While I still have the willpower to battle their Vogon bureaucracy, I can’t focus on any fiction longer than the flash format. I enjoy the six-word discipline every now and then (‘They had shoes, but none fitted’), and I sometimes venture into the middle ground.

By some odd coincidence of life, I was talking to a friend who’d lost someone recently, and I was reminded of something. Like me, he believes they still walk among us.

In any case, I’m a romantic poet and a horror writer with little time to be both. I guess I’d call this ‘Sleeping with one leg outside covers’…

Shadow Father story

Dining in the belly of cults

HORROR FICTION

Blood dripping

This is a story from my second anthology, of a writer moving from one field to another, using prose to aid his transit. It’s a tale of dark mirrors and cult followings, and a restaurant review full of tributes…

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One of the many images looping on screens around August Underground’s Diner

AUGUST UNDERGROUND’S DINER

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few other diners are dotted around: a young couple, having a horrifically romantic evening, and a group of business types, clearly working on someone’s bonus or expenses. There’s a dog under the young couple’s table, a beagle I think. Dogs are okay here, but children aren’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Vegetarian options can all be printed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s nothing shocking about my steak when it arrives, perfectly cooked and seeping blood (you get fries with it, to mop up). But it’s curious and surprising in its taste and texture.

Although I just called my agent an arse, there is one word I will never use, in a review or elsewhere. It’s that word beginning with ‘M’, so beloved of some foodies, but if I even see the word on a menu, I’ll leave a place immediately and vow to never return. I’ve seen some savage cinema but that word is a monstrosity on its own and in any context.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Steve Laker, 2018

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.

The perpetuity of memory

HORROR FICTION

Blood dripping

1329953557707 (1)

THE PERPETUITY OF MEMORY

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

The invitation to be part of a rare commission by Dom Pablo Solanas was a work of art in itself: exquisitely crafted by the artist and a future priceless piece. This alone was a luxurious gift, even to someone of Christiana Kunsak’s means, yet it was merely an invitation to a private audience with Solanas himself. A box, carved from a single piece each of ebony and rare boxwood, interlocked to form a puzzle.

The piece is entitled La armonia. The accompanying notes state that the name only exists for as long as the puzzle is in its unsolved form: once the puzzle is solved and the two pieces separated, a mechanism inside the piece ensures that they cannot be re-joined. Once the puzzle is complete, La armonia ceases to exist and the work becomes La ansiedad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

La ansiedad quietly whirred into motion again, the mechanical fingers retracting into the wooden flesh of the hand until the sculpture was briefly a chequered ovoid, before flipping open like a clam shell. It continued to change form, seemingly with perpetuity.
Dom Pablo arrived promptly and attired in a fashion exhibited in many public portraits of him: conflicting primary colours which somehow worked, on a man who also wore a fedora hat at all times, and who sported a perfectly manicured handlebar
moustache.

Ms. Kunsak. A pleasure to meet you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Christiana stared into the mirror, and the illusion of wood carved from human flesh was real. It would take a level of intimacy permitted to very few, to see the original material beneath the artwork, made by Dom Pablo. The mannequin beneath the wooden skin.

© Steve Laker, 2015

Both The Perpetuity of Memory and The Unfinished Literary Agency, are available now in paperback.

If I had a hammer and a fuzzbox…

FICTION

A conversation between narrators, protagonists and characters; an interview with a writer, from a couple of years ago. I look at the sun and I look in the mirror…

PinkSunshine

PINK SUNSHINE

Like so many things, and with so much in life, he didn’t realise at first that he was in the room. It was only when he had an itch in his left eye that he first thought he noticed. But he couldn’t be sure, because his eye instinctively and reflexively closed when he rubbed it. Nonetheless, his right eye picked up on something and his brain took over. It was a subtle oddness, noticing something he hadn’t before; a thing which was very strange indeed. It was like catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror through a lazy eye, a few extra microseconds to focus. His reflection seemed to be moving more slowly than he was, or rather, struggling to keep up.

This newly discovered physical inflection hadn’t affected him before, because it’s subtlety was such that he’d not noticed it. Even though that might seem a slightly strange thing to think, he decided to leave it in, as it may be relevant. Perhaps it was newly acquired. Wherever it had come from, he was curious. If it had always been there, he was more intrigued by it for that very reason. He had a tick. He decided he quite liked it. He was going to keep it. In that room, where he’d ended up, without realising that was where he wanted to be. But the mirror must always be returned to its own room.

The mirror was not something he was keen to look in, which is why he kept it hidden away. It was in the cupboard beneath the sink in the bathroom. It was behind two closed doors and the light was usually off, so that what it saw was mainly darkness. He was mainly nocturnal himself, the curtains perpetually closed and his work lit artificially. He didn’t like the sun. He saw its orange glow separated into different wavelengths of light: Red, black and white. The latter were binary; darkness and light, with no deviations to greys. First light brought another fear: letters. The daily mail was full of hate, from creditors chasing him for money he didn’t have; and fear, of ever-approaching legal actions.

Next to his bathroom was the locked room. The door to that room was always locked, except when he unlocked it to enter or leave the room. He worked under lock and key, but with an element of danger deliberately built into the situation. He would write more of that later. And when he wasn’t working, what he did was kept secure.

He was in the room when there was a knock at the front door. This wasn’t unprecedented at 3am, so he had few reservations about seeing who it was. As he opened the door, the outside security light did two things to the man on the threshold: It illuminated him, but the angle of the light obscured him, so that he was partly silhouetted.

“Steve Laker.”

“Yes,” he said.

“Good. You know me. Do you mind if I come in?”

“No I don’t. Who are you?”

“Steve Laker. May I come in?”

This was strange, yet not so strange that he could deny it was happening. “Do you have ID?” he asked.

“Of course.” The man took a wallet from his jacket pocket and handed him a driving licence and a business card. The licence appeared genuine and the business card gave his profession as private investigator. “Everything okay?” the man asked.

“Yes.” He thought for a moment. “I’m sorry, but this all seems somewhat familiar.”

“That’s because it’s a plot device. Paul Auster used it very well in his book, The New York Trilogy. In one of the stories, the narrator meets a detective called Paul Auster.”

He invited him in. He found the prospects of many conversations frankly fascinating.

They sat in the living room, him on the sofa and the man on a futon, and they drank coffee, which they both liked the same way.

“What are you working on?” he asked. He wondered what it was in the room which might have given him any idea he might be working on something, anything in fact. “You have a locked room, right?”

“Yes.”

“What colour is yours?”

“It depends.”

“Hmm, I know. What colour was it the last time you were in there?”

“Duck egg blue.”

“Small blue thing. From Vega.”

“Small Blue Thing, by Suzanne Vega. That’s how I imagine it. Do you smoke?”

“You have to ask?”

So they drank coffee, listened to music, and smoked a fine blend of Indica and Sativa marijuana.

“So, why is your locked room duck egg blue? What are you doing in there? Obviously, nothing at the moment, but when you’re in there?”

“Who’s to say I’m not?”

“And who’s to say it’s not duck egg blue?”

“Who’s to say whether I’m sick or not? Who’s qualified? Which judge? The main thing in that room is me. I’ve just finished a book and I’m wondering if it’ll be my last. So I’m writing things down in there. I’m getting things off my mind and as I’m doing that, more stories are occurring to me. So I’ve decided it’s best just to carry on in that respect, but for some of the things I want to say.

“When I wrote that last book, I had people around me. People who took an interest in a writer. Now that I have somewhere permanent to write; a writer in residence; those people are no longer around. Everything has changed. And yet, I look around me and I ask if it’s possible that everything in the entire world just suddenly changed, or was it just me? Whichever the case, I don’t know how it happened. So I’m trying to make sense of it in that room. I’m writing it all down and I’m writing letters to people. That’s the difficult part.”

“Writer’s block?”

“Writer’s block, only insofar as it’s a barrier erected by me.”

“Like a defence mechanism?”

“To protect me from my own internal truth? Perhaps. But not normally. In fact, writing is my means of exorcising it all. It’s just that some of it I may not share.”

“Such as?”

“There are other things in the room. I write about those too. I’m exorcising things which are in that room by writing about them, then leaving the writing in the locked room as well. It’s a bit counter-productive really, because I’m adding to it all the time. I find it recursive, inward reflection. Then I read it all back to myself, and it’s self-magnifying. When what I think are well-chosen words are read aloud, they prove themselves and take on other meanings. Then I think more. Because I’m challenged and afraid of the unknown. So I question it, gain answers and write. Then there are more questions which occur to me. Will I ever publish my findings? I think the space will eventually become too small.

“If you paint a room of finite size in a different colour, then do it again, and again, and again… How long before the layers of colours have built up, to make the room gradually smaller with each coat, until there’s barely room to swing a cat which I don’t have?”

“A rhetorical question?”

“Like so many I ask that room.

“My will and testament are in there, somewhere. I’ve written my funeral pinks: Not the blues of Auden’s poem, but pinks: Pink slips, ownership papers. I’d like to be shot into space, or scattered in an ocean, but I’m resigned to being burned. Some of me will at least escape. But whatever happens, all of me will continue the prediction imprinted in the big bang.”

“Doesn’t pre-determinism make you question the nature of your own free will?”

“Pre-determinism is the idea that all events are determined in advance. It is the philosophy that all events of history, past, present and future, have already been decided or are already known, by God, fate, or some other force, including human actions. Of course, this makes me question my own free will and that of others. But my own free will has allowed me to predetermine my end. If what I wish for doesn’t happen, then I have to console myself that it wasn’t meant to be.

“I’ve written a humanist service, and even though I’ll be cremated, I should like the minister to say, “Ashes to ashes”, then I’d like the congregation to say, “Funk to funky”. If they then wish to sing, “We know Major Tom’s a Junky”, then I shall smile behind my casket lid and they will know that I did.

“I don’t deny that there might be one or more greater intelligences out there. I reject God in the only image I know: That of man. I long to refute the Church of England and others. I hold them in the same contempt as they do the LGBT community. And I renounce all religion for all of the blood that’s been spilled in their gods’ names.

“So for the music, I’d like The Duel, by Giorgio Moroder from the Electric Dreams soundtrack, because it’s one of many to my life. Then, Everyone says hi, by David Bowie, from his Heathen album, for I am a heathen and one day I’ll see the original again. Finally, Grey Will Fade, the title track from Charlotte Hatherley’s debut album, because the grey will fade; This too shall pass.

“If people can take care of that by co-operating, it would give me comfort in knowing that they’ve done that, and that they’re capable of much more. And that it was pre-determined; meant to happen. But I haven’t published those wishes and I dare not, for fear they might be ignored or forgotten. At least if I can think that it might happen, that would be comfort enough. It’s a subject I’ve written about in one of my new stories.

“I have few personal belongings, other than what’s in that room. My most valuable possession, one would assume to be my typewriter. It is indeed important and I bequeath it to my children, so that they might carry on what I started, if they so choose. They might be able to make sense of, even finish, some of my stories. I’ve written about how my most valued personal possession is my pen, because it represents freedom and escape. The typewriter isn’t portable, but the pen could go with me anywhere, if I went anywhere. Then I’d be afraid of losing it while I was out, and that compounds the whole fear I already have of being beyond the door. It’s the only pen I’ve ever owned, given to me by a nameless character who narrates a story I wrote in my last book. It’s a bespoke Waldmann Adámas, made from titanium and gun metal. It’s effortless to write with, and to simply hold in one’s hand; It’s a thing of aesthetic and ergonomic, functional beauty.

“There’s a collection of blue marbles in the room: Small blue things, made of glass. It’s comforting to run my fingers through a bowl full of them. Then I imagine I’m handling what were once the building blocks of an ancient city of glass, eroded over millennia, so that they are perfect spheres, like sapphire pebbles on a beach. Small, blue ghosts. When knocked together, they sound an echo from the past.

“I’ve not been so busy lately, that I haven’t had the time, to open up my mind, and watch the world, spinning out of time; to paraphrase Blur. Because I wonder if I might be out of time to do all the things I want to. But the battle to step out is an ongoing one. It’s agoraphobia which really holds the key to that room, with anxiety and paranoia as deputy screws. But that’s where everything is; All my expressionism, for expression is freedom.

“I experiment, play, throw away, like a child trying on clothes and make-up at her mother’s dressing table. Except I can’t, so every one of those unfinished tales is in the room, along with finished ones which might never see the light of day. They are all of me. The unfinished ones annoy me sometimes. Not hugely so; a bit like having a hair in your mouth.

“With all that I’ve written behind that door, it’s quite a crowded room. Metaphorically, figuratively, and literally, it is full of people and places, with lots going on. There may come a time when I have to radically rethink the locked room, for things might become so many that they have to spill out, as I can no longer keep the door closed. People and situations could fall into the hall and start to inhabit other rooms. I still have a lockable front door to the flat.

“One who could get out, is a recurring character in some earlier stories. He’s a writer with no name and he wants to go out and kill people. Well, his protagonist does, so that he can write about it. He longs to cause pain, humiliation, fear and shame. He wants to go out, but he dare not, for fear he kills someone and he’s identified. But he longs to make his new stories real, just as he lived his old ones. If he completes his next book, some of it would be chronicles of his killings; confessions told as fiction but with clues scattered around. He wants to go out but he fears the consequences if he does. Yet those very scenarios would provide the fuel for new work.

“There’d be a roadie, crashed out on the floor in a pile of paper. He spent some time out on the road, touring with various groups: The Anti Nowhere League, Angelic Upstarts… He could tell many stories. There were two people in one particular band who he struck a pact with. It was a long and philosophical conversation which led to the pact, but it’s as simple or complicated as an opinion on the punk movement. It negates the need for many things, other than trust in fellow humans. The pact was signed on a Crass anarchy flag re-purposed as a table cloth.

“If ever I want to die, I simply have to make a phone call and say a codeword. If I can’t speak, or I don’t want to say the word, I can text instead. About thirty minutes after that, I’ll be dead.

“It was a gentleman’s handshake; a pinky promise, made when we were young boys. Despite our innocence, with hindsight, I can’t find anything; no moral argument, which I believe could invalidate that verbal contract. It’s more than one story.

“Three teenage boys are lost. For all anyone knows, they could be Kiefer, Jason, and either of the Coreys. They could be Kiefer and Feldman again, River Phoenix, or Wesley Crusher.

“The other two stood by him, and he still stands by them. No-one knows who they are. Most people could take an educated guess but they may just never know. We are all so flung apart now, by families and circumstance, that very few people would be able to join all the dots between what’s gone on since the big bang of us all becoming adults. It would be a map in the stars, destined to be there, right from the very start.

“No-one knows who he is to the other two. If it’s not his turn first, he could be called upon to deliver his end of the bargain. Then there’s only one left for him to call before he might be found out and caught. And then he has a decision to make. It could happen in any order and they did it to mix life up a bit. Teenagers think like that, and sometimes, when he thinks about it, it’s a suicide pact. That’s why the importance of that word, whatever it is, wherever it’s hidden, has been discussed among them, without mentioning it, at great length. It’s a word which the three of them will take to the grave.

“If it’s his turn first, he doesn’t know how the others will do it. That’s the beauty of it. He could be sleeping in bed one night, or out doing some shopping, when they come. All he knows is that as soon as he’s said that word, he will be killed. And there’s no reversal, no returns. But if it’s not his turn first, he could be called on to kill his friends.

“Another story concerns conversational furniture.”

“That which we put into a dialogue to remind the audience of the setting.”

“Perhaps if just to separate it from a monologue. It’s a challenging story to write, and one of many drafts.

“I write a lot about what makes people different, or how some people see things differently: Many viewpoints; multiple personalities.

“There is much I wish to write, to express, to set free. Some of it is in that room and more is in my mind, in that room. There are people I wish to exorcise, to deny their very existence. Those are more stories.

“There are more, in Neurotribes. That unfolding story considers the various spectra of the human mind; because everything can be looked at as having a place within a spectrum, when compared to others. In there, we have personality disorders, inner voices and dramatic emotional swings. The Neurotribes are groups of people who simply think differently. Together, they cover the whole visual spectrum of colours: A rainbow of thoughts and voices. They are nomadic peoples, often fleeing religious persecution. They are not of any religion but it is religion which persecutes them, with its warped view of sexuality being confined to two types: heterosexual male and female.

“The neurotribes believe in five genders, like native Americans did before the pilgrim fathers invaded. Within the tribes there are Female, male, Two Spirit female, Two Spirit male, and transgender people. These five genders and their ways of thinking gave rise to their philosophy of “Human operating systems”: Just because a computer doesn’t run a specific operating system, doesn’t mean it’s dysfunctional.

“There’ll be some kind of epilogue or revelations in Acquiescence, a story of self-flagellation, where God inflicts upon himself, all of the scars inflicted upon his own children by him. As an immortal, his atonement will be infinite, as he hangs for all to see on the cross.

“I do have company in there, in the locked room. It’s the subject of yet another unfinished work behind the locked door. It’s a story which transcends barriers by telling itself in a universal language: There is no God left to narrate chapters but there is still a planet to tell a chronicle. It’s the story of a lone man and companions of his own making, through his understanding of science and philosophy. There are three water nymphs in his locked room, each in a different form: Solid, liquid, and gas; Ice, water and steam. Theirs are troubled minds and where others might see them as odd, he sees them as three beings in the same spectrum, this being the one of their varying degrees of transparency. He helps them and treats them as his own, but there is a barely visible tension in the tale. He harbours a secret, which if told to one of them, would change the whole story. But he dare not speak it.

“He adopts a philosophy, in which that which is unknown will always be the greatest thing. For to find out the truth would be to end a dream. And people say I should get out more.

“Every story is a metaphor. There’s a part of the writer in all of them. Sometimes it’s subtle and others, it can be as obvious as a monologue turned into dialogue to convey inward reflection through fictional narrative; An interview with a ghost.

“It’s difficult to know how to end a story like that. We want the reader to think, so we leave loose ends but we need to find a way of influencing their thoughts, both narrowing them for the narrative and expanding them for the greater good.

“There is usually at least one extra person in my stories, even though that might not be apparent. There will often be at least one, somewhere unseen in the background but vaguely apparent in the prose. An even harder trick to pull off, is one fewer. Repeat readings will often reveal more, or indeed less but only where less is more. It’s all down to how many layers of opacity I apply; how many coats of paint. Sometimes it’s down to an individual reader’s interpretation of the number of narrators they can see or hear.”

“There is another way.” The man stood and walked to the locked room. He was moving the literal furniture around. “May I?”

He returned with a pen. “My pen?”, said the seated man.

The man placed the pen in his pocket. “The only one. Shall I show myself out?”

He remained in his seat for a while. Everything falls at the same speed in a vacuum. Objects don’t fall to earth. It’s the ground rushing up to meet them; the movement of the earth through space creates what we feel as gravity. A seated person doesn’t feel their own weight beneath and behind them: It’s the force of the earth pushing up. It’s the feeling of travelling through space at 67,000mph.

The door closed and the man stood. He was alone, outside the locked room. The visitor had taken the key. He tried the handle and the door was unlocked. He entered the unlocked room and closed the door. The key was on the inside. It was always on the outside. It was there, because he wanted control on the other side of the door. He could unlock the door to allow himself in, but he couldn’t lock himself in. If someone else were to enter the flat, they perhaps might. They could then leave with the key. It was a delegation of some element of control to pre-determinism.

With the key now on the inside, whether or not he was locked in, was entirely under his control. If he so wished, he could throw the key far from the window.

The man retrieved the mirror and stood it in front of him at the desk. Propped against the closed curtains, it provided a window to look out from the locked room. The slight delay, or the lazy eye, wasn’t there. When he looked up from applying shocking pink eye shadow, his eye connected with the eye looking in immediately. The application of rouge was now just a cosmetic blusher, hiding nothing.

He stood up and moved back from the mirror. The hat, the shirt and the trousers were androgynous; The heels only lifting his own by two inches, but they no longer had to be tip-toed around in.

He opened the curtains and looked outside. The sun was still below the horizon; a dark red morning sky. He saw himself reflected as the sun rose, turning the sky a peachy pink. He was outside the realms of his reality, yet in his comfort zone. Seeing another person and feeling comfortable in their presence, more confident and less confused. Two roads, with one less travelled. Switch on your TV, you might catch him on channel two.

He’d left himself a note:

It was the last thing he had. I know that he will do anything to get it back.

(C) Steve Laker

“A life made of plastic, was what made mine so fucking fantastic.”

The psychopathy of typeface

FICTION

This is a re-write of a story I first wrote four years ago (which in itself is an irony, given the narrative). Like then, it’s about getting into character, clearing the mind, and of severance pay in the name of art. It’s a new puritan tale with no dialogue…

Helvetica Neue

HELVETICA NEUE HAUS

I’m a writer with mental health labels, writing about a writer with mental health labels: Kind of Hellraiser with Post-It Notes. I write stories too. In this one, I’m writing about a writer. The writer is writing about a writer. That is to say, the writer whom I’m writing about, is doing as I am.

The paper I’m writing this original manuscript on is from Smythson of Bond Street. My pen was a gift: hand-made by Waldmann Adámas from Titanium and Gun Metal. The ink is sticky and thick, like the tarred blood of a heavy smoker, stored in the barrel as many thoughts yet to take form. It flows through the pen, a symbiosis of ergonomics and aesthetics, as my words spill onto the page like so many injuries. The true art of the storyteller is breathing life into the words.

When I’m at my most prolific, I turn to my Royal Epoch typewriter: I can type much faster than I can write freehand. I like holding my syringe-like pen but I gain equal satisfaction from typing. Each depression of a key on a manual typewriter needs to be of a certain force: too gentle and the words are faint; whispered. Too hard and the ink will impress too deeply into the virginal paper. Just the right amount of pressure in the finger delivers an optimum amount of black ink. I had the hammer heads of the characters individually carved by a Monotype compositor of my acquaintance.

Once upon a time, stories weren’t written on computers and word processors, where they leave an indelible imprint, even if deleted. Long ago, there was the letterpress printing machine, or platen press. Individual characters of type were arranged in a frame, then ink applied and the words pressed into sheets of paper. It was the pre-press art which I found most fascinating: A compositor (like my acquaintance) produces the individual printed letters from hot metal on a Monotype machine. The operator uses a keyboard to enter the characters and the machine creates each as a metal block. My friend is not just typing the words which will tell a story, but creating the very letters themselves. Instead of putting ink on paper, he’s typing the mechanisms which will later do so: he’s writing a machine which will print.

To make the words which come from my typewriter, the individual metal blocks were soldered to the ends of the hammers, so that every character I type is in the Helvetica typeface.

Often I’ll type up my hand-written notes, and there are several motivators: something which I’ve hand-written whilst on the move or in haste will take on sufficient merit to be typed up as a manuscript for publication. Sometimes haste itself will dictate that the incessant presses of keys is a more efficient way to hasten my thoughts into reality. Typing is rough, violent and more invasive than handwriting. Occasionally, I just like to type and see my words in Helvetica. I can make anything appear in physical form in semi-permanence. That piece of completed writing then exists in only two places: my mind and printed onto the paper. I can destroy the paper at will. Sometimes I burn blank sheets of paper so that the words I planned for them may not be seen.

Besides the indelible nature of electronic words, I eschew computers for many reasons. Screen fonts have naturally had to be digitised: this is introducing an impurity, as well as leaving messy marks, like some typographical incestuous rape. It’s the same as comparing LPs and MP3s: the latter are digitised and lose much depth and nuance in the process. To the casual, uneducated listener, there’s no difference. But to the trained ear, listening on quality equipment, the two recordings are identical, yet worlds apart. There’s simply no substitute for the platen impression of type pressed forcefully into a sheet of paper and there is no place in my writing for digital typefaces or printing machines. I refuse to refer to digital printing vehicles as presses, simply because they aren’t; they don’t: they don’t physically press the type into the paper.

My manual typewriter is an instrument of beautiful torture. A metal skeleton, a mechanical device made productive automata through my fingers. It produces the flesh and blood which are my stories, in the purest font: Helvetica. The letterpress printing machine is the mechanical animal which spews out many copies.

The typeface itself is a thing of naked beauty. When each individual perfect character’s form can be joined with others to make words, the collective aesthetic is greater than the sum of the parts. My typewriter, as unique as the writer who uses it, creates stories more real than any written using anything else.

When I’m happy with what I’ve written, my original, typed manuscripts are delivered to the printer: Smith & Young in Bermondsey. Like me, they view print as an art, not technology. Like vinyl records, the connoisseur can feel and appreciate the depth and richness of letterpress printing.

I do my best to make first draft and final copy the same. I don’t use correction fluid: it spoils the otherwise pristine, two-tone typed page with a smudge of grey, and an error on my part. Mistakes happen and when they do, I simply begin the page again and destroy the original. Given an infinite number of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys will eventually produce a faultless, complete works of Shakespeare. My compositor is not a monkey operating a machine: He’s a writer, like me. His is a highly skilled trade and he is one of only a very few remaining.

When this story is finished, it will leave me as the one and only copy which exists. I don’t use carbon paper, nor take photographs. Once the copy leaves me, I have no record of it. I can’t revise it: the manuscript I despatch is the final draft. For a while, the story doesn’t really exist: it’s sheets of paper in an envelope in a courier’s bag. That courier cares no more for what he or she is delivering than they do my motivation. Should they be involved in an incident and my parcel is displaced, then that is a story which will never be told.

The courier will wait with the printer, while the Monotype operator typesets my manuscript. It’s written again, by a different writer. My key strokes on paper become the voice of the mechanical animal which will spew out potentially infinite copies of this story. Once the typesetting is complete, the courier returns with my original manuscript.

For a brief period, two copies of my work exist in physical form: I have an ink-on-paper typed copy, which I can destroy at any time. The other copy exists as potential energy, written in metal, and can print an undefined number of copies of my story. As an entity, the work’s power has increased, because it now exists in both a physical and potential form which is much harder – if not impossible – to destroy. The work could well exist in two minds, if the Monotype operator absorbed the story as he wrote it.

With all that potential, a problem troubles the puritan mind. I trust the man at Smith & Young: he’s a good friend and respected in print. He can type almost as speedily on a Monotype setting machine as I can on a manual typewriter (A small piece of trivia for the buff: the Monotype keyboard doesn’t use the QWERTY layout). I trust my colleague to use my specified paper stock when printing the orders I send him but it’s those copies which cause me discomfort. I have no control over the format, media or device which a subsequent reader may see my work presented upon. If it were anything other than my specified stock and printed letterpress in Helvetica, then the reader would be seeing something which I’ve not given them the authority to view and which is not in the pure form it was intended.

This story isn’t finished. It needs an intermission and to that end, I shall excuse myself for an evening out.

The walk from London Bridge station into Bermondsey always evokes memories: through the tunnels under the station, where much of The Specials’ Ghost Town video was filmed, then a quick stop at The Woolpack on Bermondsey Street for a late morning gin and tonic.

Ink, paper and alcohol have always been uneasy bedfellows. Just as the meat porters of the old Smithfield market used to drink in The Hope pub at dawn, so did the writing communities around Fleet Street, Soho and Bermondsey, the print bloodlines of London.

I used to drink in The Hope some early mornings with a meat porter, appropriately called Red. His white overalls would be smeared in the blood of more than 100 pigs. The shades of red were like splattered timestamps, the darkest dating back to midnight. “I can chop a pig down and cut it up in five minutes,” he said, clutching a fresh copy of the Guardian against his belly. “Legs, shoulders, loins. All done proper like. It’s an art. Chopping a pig down’s an art.”

As Smithfield Market wound down after a night of dismemberment and meat trade, men in white coats breathed in the still, chilly air as the sun rose above Farringdon. Wholesalers – the ones with clean coats – emerged too, wheeling the last of their purchases towards refrigerated Transit vans, dodging a few early risers in suits on the sober march towards the City.

The blood would elicit gasps in any other part of town and some coats were grislier than others. “You get bloodier when you’re cutting up lambs,” explained Red, who had the bearing of a retired boxer. “Lambs you put on a block, and cut towards you. When you do pigs, they’re hanging up so you cut away from yourself.”

I saw a few familiar faces from the past at the Woolpack but couldn’t quite place them.

A few doors down, I popped in to see George in his eponymous barber’s shop. For some reason, in all the years I recall going to George’s, George has been the same age: early seventies. He’s probably over 100 by now.

George still does a military short back and sides. The haircut, a shave with a badger hair brush and a cut-throat razor, burning wax tapers flicked into my ears and a hot towel compress, are all complete within twenty minutes and George has me looking as I like to for important meetings. Like me, George doesn’t talk as he works, which suits us both. Time in his skilful hands is relaxing and contemplative, while he goes about his craft perfectly and to the exclusion of all external distractions. He’s a perfectionist, like me. He invests in fine tools, maintains them with love and employs them with precision. Over a drink at the Woolpack one night, George showed me exactly how sharp one of his cut-throat razors was, by requesting a whole tomato from the kitchen. George opened the razor and rested the blade on the tomato on the bar. Merely steadying the blade with one hand, he raised the handle with his other hand and the blade began to cut through the skin of the tomato under its own weight alone. George noted my fascination with the implement and allowed me to keep it that night.

As is custom, I declined something for the weekend, tipped George and bade him farewell. From there, I decamped briefly to M. Manze, just down the road. Manze’s is the oldest – and best, in my opinion – pie and mash shop in London.

Pie and mash is nineteenth century fast food: the somehow grumpy but friendly staff plate up one’s food in the manner of a borstal inmate high enough in the pecking order to be placed on kitchen duty, then one joins others and quickly eats, head down in a booth where the seats are made of wood and the tabletops are white marble. I eat pie, mash and liquor, with chili-infused sarsaparilla vinegar, staring down at the chequered floor and playing mind chess.

After that, a quick dash over Tower Bridge Road and down an alley through some housing blocks, to The Victoria in Page’s Walk. The Victoria was the Evening Standard pub of the year in 1972 and the green and white plaque still adorns the wall, alongside black and white photographs of the building. The rest of the pub is at it was then as well: a great little south east London drinking den, where many go only because they need to and others because they happened upon it.

Smith & Young in Crimscott Street was just around the corner from the pub, so my compositor joined me after he’d locked up for the weekend. We had an agreeable few hours, him unwinding with a few pints and me on Tanqueray gin and Indian tonic water.

Suitably lubricated, we agreed it might be time to eat (great minds think alike), so we made our way back by foot toward London Bridge Station, and to Charing Cross by rail, across Hungerford Bridge and from where we would eventually part company. It was no concern of mine where my companion had to travel to but the terminus afforded me a ten minute ride home, so it was convenient.

We walked the cobbles of Villiers Street and crossed embankment, clogged with weekend traffic; mainly coaches and black cabs taking workers home and bringing a different life into the West End. This part of London is roughly half way between the old writing districts of Fleet Street and Soho, the bohemian heart where Jeffrey Bernard once held court in The Coach and Horses, whilst being famously unwell.

The two of us boarded The Tattershall Castle, an old steam ferry moored permanently at Embankment. We chose to sit on deck and enjoy the view: dominated by the graceful London Eye and Art Deco wonder of Shell Centre on the south bank, and the brutal but beautiful Hungerford rail and foot bridges spanning old lady Thames; it was a conflicting postcard.

The steamer was built by William Gray & Co. in 1934 as a passenger ferry on the River Humber for the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). She plied a route between Corporation Pier in Kingston upon Hull and New Holland Pier Station, New Holland. During the Second World War she found service as a tether for barrage balloons and for troop transfer on the Humber estuary. After the war, with the nationalisation of the railways in 1948, she became part of British Rail’s Sealink service. In 1973, after long service as a passenger and goods ferry, she was retired from service and laid up. In 1976 the ship was towed to London. Repairs on the ship were deemed too costly and she was retired from service. The opening of the Humber Bridge made the ferry service, known to have existed since at least Roman times, redundant. PS Tattershall Castle was first opened on the Thames as a floating art gallery until her eventual disposal to a brewing company. Now it’s a floating bar and restaurant, where we ate.

The meal functioned as such, with no need for friends to engage in casual banter at the expense of the enjoyment of good food. We enjoyed a post-dinner hand-rolled cigarette in pleasant silence, leaning over the handrail of the deck. For my part, I reminisced about a fine and productive evening and looked forward to seeing my story in finished form. He said it looked good to him when he typeset it.

Great minds: I don’t know what went through his, but the eyes remained open as his head fell away from me. The lights of the South Bank danced on the river as the head splashed down like a full stop on my typewriter hitting the page, then floated away. The barber’s cut throat razor sliced through the neck as easily as Red’s meat cleaver dismembered pigs at Smithfield.

My writing is art. I bring things to life with my words by putting myself in the stories. I’ll burn this copy of the story but it still exists by design, ready to be printed by the mechanical animal, in Helvetica and on paper from Smythson of Bond Street. Just as I intended it to be read.

© Steve Laker, 2018

The mermaid in the bathroom

HORROR FICTION

Fiji Mermaid
A shrunken and dried-out mermaid (from “Fiji Mermaid” Photo © Russell Richards, from AmusingTheZillion blog)

MERMAID IN THE BATHROOM

Never tell a kid they’re being silly. My daughter told me this, adding that if I told her she was being silly, then it might be me who looked that way in the end. She was four at the time, and in a land which didn’t know tiredness.

My mum used to tell me I was “overtired” most weekends, when I was allowed to stay up later than on schooldays. I’d milk those extra couple of hours, hiding my yawns behind the hood of my dressing gown until I caught my second wind. When you’re gliding on that bonus bogus gust, you really don’t want to come down. But your wings aren’t your own; you’re someone else’s responsibility, and the strings aren’t those you use to puppeteer your parents, they’re kite strings. If only life were still so simple.

Back when the youngest was four, her older brother was seven, and they’d choose which story they’d like read to them before bed, usually the longest they could find on the contents page of an anthology. Eventually we ran out, so I started writing bedtime tales of my own, which gave me editorial control over the duration of any night’s literary theatre. Matinees were a different matter, because a story in the afternoon for one so young and adventurous would only be told when the explorer had been laid low by an injury, a cold or a pox.

The youngest used to call matinees ‘manatees’: sea cows, supposedly mistaken for mermaids by ancient mariners (probably high on rum). The little one was keen to point out the manatees’ accolade among the animal kingdom as the most spherical animal on earth (which they are).

Always hoping to be the harbinger of dreams, not nightmares, I’d write stories appropriate to the audience, but there’s no accounting for imagination, especially in a child with a wild mind.

After bedtime, my youngest one announced that she’d seen a manatee down the toilet and she couldn’t pee. Like any dismissive parent, I replied that she was just imagining it, if she needed a pee that badly, she’d go, I’d sort it out, and to go back to bed. She protested that the manatee needed rescuing.

When they get up and tell you there’s something troubling them, don’t dismiss them. That might be the only chance they’ve had that day to think about certain things, and if you’re the nearest person, they’re going to want to talk to you. However much it might sound like nonsense, there could be something in there (it’s like dream-interpretation without so much bullshit). Send them straight back to bed and whatever is on their mind will fester and mutate. Tell them they’re just being silly, and they’ll never confide in you again. There was a manatee in the toilet.

I remember teasing girls at primary school, telling them their reflection was a devil in the toilet water (I made one wet herself). I used to throw my sister’s things on the fire. I was fascinated by the flames and what they did, especially the way a doll’s face melted. I didn’t have an open fire like my parents, so I wondered if my eldest might have taken to flushing his sister’s toys down the lav.

I lifted the lid and only my own face looked back. I flushed myself away in any case, and we watched from an angle as nothing but bubbles came round the U-bend. “Someone’s breathing,” she said. I told her not to be silly. “You’re silly. You’ll see.” Then off to bed she packed.

Next to wake her was a monster in the cupboard. Again I guided her back to bed, but only after we’d inspected the wardrobe. Like most, it had clothes hanging in a line, like so many days of the week. I was asked to leave the stage door open, in case someone should wish to swish through my old suits, the curtains leading from Narnia.

There was only a ghost under the bed to deal with, then all was quiet for a couple of hours, so I decided to have some supper: not a pretentious name for dinner but the last meal of the day, this being a grilled haddock with some extra bits which look good on Instagram (I always take before and after shots, as the latter reminds the kids of cartoons: a fish skeleton with just the tail intact).

The night passed without incident, and fortunately my bladder roused me to flush the toilet again before anyone else got up and had nightmares. The fish tail went first time, a skeleton swimming in the sewer.

I was surprised at how calmly the kids told me there was a fish in the toilet the next day, as though this was an everyday event. In no particular hurry to get to the bathroom, I explained that I’d been silly the night before and flushed the remains of my supper. “But it’s moving,” the youngest said. The eldest lifted the lid, and all three of us peered over the rim into avocado cave.

There was indeed a tail, once belonging to a fish. And it was moving, as they’d said. I assumed it was the movement of the water in the bowl. I flushed the toilet, the water level rose almost to the brim, then quickly dropped, signing off with the kind of sucking noise you’d hear in an airliner toilet. The tail was still there as the water rose again around it, and it was still flapping. “Well, as long as it’s breathing,” I joked, and closed the lid. “I’ll chuck some bleach down.”

You can’t do that.”

Why not?”

You’ll kill it.”

But it is a cartoon fish skeleton.”

But it could be a mermaid.”

Don’t be…”

Nope. Let’s have me being the silly one for once. Let’s have me pulling this fish skeleton out, and posing with it like either Tom or Top Cat for them on their mobiles and social media.

I flushed once more before lifting the lid, only to have my hopes dashed when I did. The bowl was full and the tail was still poking out of the U-bend. It was still moving, but only slightly. “What’s obviously happened,” I said, “is it’s got stuck behind something else that’s blocking the toilet. Did either of you have a Sinead in the nigh?” (A ‘Sinead’ is our code for ‘before you go on stage, do you need a big poo?’). Neither had.

It’s a mermaid,” the little one said, “and it’s drowning.”

Don’t,” I paused, “rule it out.”

Like Ewan McGregor in a twisted version of The Little Mermaid, I thrust my hand down the toilet and tugged.

There was squelching and noxious bubbles, movement in my hand, then a sudden emptying of the Hoover dam as I lifted the fish tail out.

I used to write my kids bedtime stories and trust their imaginations not to have nightmares. I wouldn’t want to be in a child’s nightmare. That’s the kind of place where things can fester, like a fish tail in the toilet, actively refusing the liberation of the sewers.

In that world, the tail is indeed that of a mermaid. On first sight, it’s the tail of a fish swum into the body of a child’s doll: small, pink and wrinkled from sewage erosion, the arms contorted from entrapment in the drainage pipes. You’re about to pull the fish from the doll when the arms start to move. You imagine the crack of the skull on the porcelain toilet pan if you’re to put it out of its miserable life. Then it cries.

It can’t breathe,” the little one says.

I’m not sure if what’s in kids’ imaginations is real, or if us dismissing it makes it real. “Can we keep it?”

So now I’ve got this puss-ridden thing, bloating about in an aquarium. It’s hardly a talking point, so it’s a feature in the airing cupboard, only coming out when the kids come to stay. Their mum wouldn’t let them have pets.

I sleep with the lights on, only in case that fucking thing gets out. Who looks stupid now?

© Steve Laker, 2018.