Not so fast, we just got here

POETRY

Edgar Marx PoemStill from Electric Dreams (1984)

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Unsuitable for washing machines

FICTION

A product of spontaneous freestyle writing, prompted by a business card on the notice board next to my desk; This story (2500 words) wouldn’t fit on the back of the card, so I put five sheets of A4 paper into the typewriter.

maracatalan05Mara Catalan

THE TRAVELLING TAILOR

Rumple Suits is an outfit surrounded by mystery and unverified stories. A suit by Rumple Bros. is understated, its fine workmanship lost in a crowd, but on closer inspection, a quality of tailoring beyond any from Savile Row, but they don’t have premises. A Rumple suit tells a story as unique as that which it carries in its wearer.

So proclaimed a sponsored feature in this month’s Mobius Literate, an independent publication for purveyors of surreal horror, sci-fi and fantasy. I was reading it on the train home from London Victoria as we passed through Brixton, disappointed that a story I’d submitted hadn’t been included.

I don’t employ test readers, so my new stories are hot from the typewriter. I don’t tend to bother editors, any more than I can be bothered to follow guidelines, preferring to write freestyle and hope I’m asked for my stories. I’m too impatient to wait for publication after acceptance, so I self-publish most of my work and let the reader be judge. Mobius Literate work differently, preferring to scout, hunters of writers and trappers of readers.

There are no acceptance or rejection letters from Mobius, no next-issue previews either. Until a new edition is printed, writers don’t know if they’ve made it in, and readers are clueless on what to expect. The magazine has a captive audience, and a supply chain of fiction from the undead army of authors self-publishing all over the internet.

It’s a cheap publication, usually four sheets of A3 in black and white, folded and stitched to make a 16-page fanzine. The production values are pulp fiction, but the writing quality as unique as a Rumple Bros. suit. The editors are curators of the kind of fiction you wouldn’t find anywhere else. The kind you wouldn’t expect to find anywhere, because only Mobius knew where to look.

Walking home from Catford station, I cut through Mountsfield Park, but I didn’t make Tesco Metro despite the shortcut. I picked up Chinese from Jumbo Harbour instead, glad I did, simply because of my local take-away’s splendid name. On the final walk up my road, I thought of all those cargo starships, docked at the space dock, Jumbo Harbour itself a retail and entertainment complex the size of a small city on 14 levels, just hanging in space.

I threw Mobius Literate on my desk next to the typewriter, took a shower while my prawns and noodles steamed, then watched some New Tales of the Unexpected on Netflix, looking like a tiny Judo novice in my white bathrobe.

I was full after what most people would consider a snack, so I put my uneaten Chinese in the fridge for the next day. My timing was fortuitous, because that’s when my doorbell rang.

Good evening,” said a man at the door, “I’m sorry to trouble you at this hour.” He was smartly-dressed in a three-piece suit – dark grey – and a pastel pink shirt with a shocking pink tie, perfectly knotted and drawing my eyes up to his, which were brown and framed by pink spectacles. He was holding a briefcase. I asked him to come in, in a moment which I felt would precede a polite enquiry of “May I come in?” My doormat had never been wiped with cherry red brogues before. “Should I take these of?” he asked. It seemed impolite to insist on wasting time.

Please,” I said, “come in.”

May I take a seat?”

Of course. Can I get you anything?”

A Gin and tonic, if you have one.” I had. “And a phone number.”

A phone number?”

Yes, I don’t use the internet. I need a number for Paul Jennings. He’s a writer. I gather you’re an agent.”

I am,” I replied, “I’m Paul’s agent. In fact, Paul Jennings is one of my pen names.”

Well, that makes things simpler. I suppose I don’t need the number any more. I must admit, I thought you’d be taller. Anyway, can I ask you about Paul?”

May I ask,” I asked, “who’s asking?”

My apologies,” said the man, “of course you may. Like you, I’m an agent. May I take some measurements?”

Of what?”

Of you, sir.”

What for?”

Measurements of yourself sir, your dimensions and your vital statistics if you like. So we know what to put you in. You strike me as one suited to natural materials.”

Materials? What are you building? Are you one of those undertaker prank characters I’ve read about?”

This is not a prank sir. I represent a bespoke tailoring company, who can help you tell any story you’d like to be yours. I’m here to make you a suit, sir.”

Why?”

Because you look like you need one. And because you’re small. My agency needs smaller models for our new range.”

What, boys? Okay, so how much will this suit cost? How long will it take to make? Do I get to choose the fabrics and colours?”

You are already the fabric and the tones, Paul. But yes, the choice is yours. It costs nothing and I can make it for you tonight. Suit you sir?”

What else was I going to do at midnight, than get measured up for a bespoke tailored suit in my own home. Especially when I had an in-house tailor for just one night?

I chose an outfit of natural colours: a grey-green jacket over a matching open-necked checked shirt; dark grey pants with green socks and brown brogues; and green-rimmed spectacles. As promised, the tailor ran the whole thing up while I watched.

In his briefcase, he had a portable production facility, a factory in microcosm. The case opened out like a make-up case or a tool box, to reveal tools and materials on tiered shelves, like a theatre audience. Other sections folded out from the floor of the case, which concealed a tiny sewing machine and a loom.

Cotton reels unfolded like comets and silver blades cut through the air, as the tailor’s hands worked like humming birds under a lamp in his case. Then like a piano virtuoso, he cracked his knuckles. “Et, voici.” Here you go. He handed my new clothes to me in a neatly folded pile. They were soft, as though fresh from the laundry, but they were new.

The material,” the tailor said, “is the same as my own suit. Here, feel.”

Velvet would have been the first approximation I made, but more delicate, more flimsy, like silk. It felt like new moleskin, barely covering a notebook.

Please,” the tailor said, “try on your new clothes.”

I made myself scarce in the kitchen and got changed. As soon as I put the clothes on, I felt like I wasn’t wearing them, or I’d been wearing the outfit all my life, like a well-trodden pair of shoes which fit on the ends of your legs like feet. My new clothes were comfortable in a way I knew meant they’d only been made for me. I felt at home, yet I could go anywahere.

Sleep in it,” the tailor said. “You’ll wear it in, it’ll adapt better to your shape, and you won’t even know you’re wearing clothes. Besides, this outfit is too rare and valuable to leave laying around.”

Actually I felt so comfortable, so held together within my outfit, that I’d have worn it to bed anyway. Any remaining doubts about sleeping in my day clothes were banished when I noticed my initials monogrammed on the breast of the shirt: P.J. Pyjamas.

The new wardrobe cost me nothing, except posing for a photograph and signing a form. The agent placed a business card in my breast pocket and my heart jumped. I was a little excited he was leaving, looking forward to getting to know myself.

After the tailor had gone, I looked at myself, a Bonsai tree on reflection: lots of growth at the head, stumped by restrictions in the roots planted in a pot, I’d make a good addition to any arty bookshelf.

I loved my suit. It fitted only me, it was made for me. As unique as the story within, it was the cover which bound my life. I’d have to buy another sometime, as this one would need laundering, but for now I really wanted to sleep in my new clothes. I took the shoes and socks of, but otherwise I was in P.J’s peejays.

Sleep often eludes me, as my mind is so full of thoughts and ideas for fiction. But sometimes I’ll take a dream to sleep with me, then in the morning feel like I’ve not slept at all. I remember being awake, then I’ll recall whatever surreal images my dreams paint.

Most people aren’t aware of the precise moment they fall asleep, only remembering their dreams some of the time. I transport to a world of lucidity, where dreams are real and I can interact with them, waking up as I step out of another world.

On the night I slept in my new suit, that place became bigger, as my new outfit gave me the confidence to explore further. I was completely relaxed, feeling protected by the clothes I hardly felt I was wearing, as they became part of me. My suit enclosed me, and I was an astronaut protected by a gravity field, a new life protected in the womb.

The next day, the clothes still smelled fresh, but I’d take a shower like usual. Before I got undressed, I took the tailor’s card from my pocket. Although he hadn’t verbally introduced himself, I knew his name was Fred Nurk. He worked for Rumple Bros. Tailors. Although I mentioned them in the preamble, this was the first time I’d seen the name. I Googled and found all that stuff about them not having any premises, being exclusive and the rest.

I started to take off the jacket but it was stuck. The collar was sticking to the shirt underneath. I tried taking my arms out first, but the jacket lapels were stuck too. I tugged at the sleeves, but they just pulled at my shirt.

I thought I’d try the top two layers at once, so I started unbuttoning the shirt, but the button wouldn’t pass through the hole. I pulled the shirt collar open at the neck, but it tugged at my skin. I tried lifting the shirt and jacket over my head like a pullover, but the shirt just stretched my skin underneath.

I tried the button on the trousers but it was stuck, tried pushing the trousers down but they snagged on my hips. Pushing harder just pulled at my skin. I tugged at the ankles, but felt a sharp pull on my leg hairs, where the tops of my socks would be. I seemed to have reached an impasse, wherein I’d been eaten by my clothes.

I called the number on Fred Nurk’s card and got a recorded message:

Thank you for calling Rumple Brothers. If you would like to become an agent, please press one. For all other enquiries, please hold.”

While listening to regular reminders to continue holding, I flipped Nurk’s card over and saw it was printed on the back:

NOT SUITABLE FOR MACHINE WASHING. DO NOT DRY CLEAN.

In some moment of desperate logic, I had an idea and hung up the phone.

I needed to wash myself, and my clothes would need cleaning at some point. I took a tepid shower, still in my clothes, just like being in heavy rainfall. If I could loosen the glue, or whatever it was in the material which stuck the clothes to my body, then I’d put some old clothes on while I dried my new outfit.

I only close my eyes for the first 30 seconds or so in the shower, just time to rinse my face and hair. Clearing my eyes and looking down, I noticed the colour was starting to run in my jacket. I brushed myself down and the pigment from the cloth stained the water a dark green colour. The water was bleaching my suit.

My new clothes were now skin-coloured.

I felt around the neck of the shirt, down to a crease where it met my skin. My cuffs, waist and ankles were the same. I was one with my suit. I was wearing a skin suit, not like that made by a serial killer from the flesh of other people, my clothes were flaps of my own skin. I no longer had arms, but sleeves of flesh, lapels instead of nipples and trousers of skin covering anything which might have been a functioning anus.

I phoned Nurk again.

This is Fred?”

Ah, Mr Nurk?”

Hey, Paul Jennings, how’s it going?”

Er, okay. It’s about the suit.”

What about it?”

All the colour came out.”

Did you get caught in the rain? Did you take a shower in it?”

I can’t get it off. It’s like I’m sewn into it, but there’s no stitches to unpick.”

Did the skin you were born in have stitches, or a zip?”

Er…”

Exactly, no.”

But I look like a plucked chicken left on the shelf too long. I’ve got flaps of loose skin all over me. I’ve got fucking wings!”

Well,” Nurk said, “wear baggy clothes for now if you want to go out. I did explain that our bespoke tailoring was unique, and now you can see why I can’t offer a replacement. There’s surgery of course, or a quicker solution might be a course of tattoos to give you a complete new body suit.

Anyway, good news. You remember I said we needed models for our smaller sizes? Well, you’re in this month’s Mobius Literate. They’re running a feature on body modification, and another using models who don’t fit the usual stereotype, you know, fat people, thin people, amputees, that sort of thing. Well, we got the centrefold sponsored content ad and you’re in there. I’ll send you a copy.”

And there I was, in the hallowed pages of Mobius. In a sponsored feature, modelling my bespoke suit, as naked as the day I was born.

© Steve Laker, 2019

I’m not sure where I’d pitch some twisted surreal retelling of The Emperor’s New Clothes, but I feel better getting the analogies and parallels out there for people to think about. Like all my stories, I hope this one carries more than one meaning or comment, and I hope it stands up to repeated reading.

 

The evolution of sentient plastic

FICTION

A short story (1000 words) of Tiny Tears from fossil fuels…

Blonde doll

HOMO POLYMER

A surprise in every egg. Yes, Kinder, there’s a selection of small plastic choke hazards in each toy, but the plastic egg which holds them can be a handy cunt plug. Keep this warm in there for me baby.”

Mummy, who are you talking to? I need a wee.”

Ocean opened the bathroom door and a bolt of blonde hair dashed past her legs. “Who were you talking to?” Conscience asked again, enthroned on her Peppa Pig toilet seat.

No-one,” Ocean replied, “Well, just myself.”

But you’re not no-one mum.”

Thanks. Now, come on, back to bed.”

But you’re not no-one mum, so who were you talking to?”

Honestly, Conscience, just myself. I do that a lot.”

Will you read me a story, please?”

We don’t have any, Conscience.”

But we all do, in our heads. Tell me one of your stories of being Ocean, mummy.”

Well, there was this one time. I was about your age. I had a dolly. Hated it. Your nanno and grampo wanted me to be a girl. Well, they both wanted me to be girly, but grampo had wanted a boy, so I had to be a really girly girl.

It’s funny now I think about it, because he’d probably have liked the boy inside me more.

And apparently you’re asleep. In any case, I think I made the perfect mix in the only one I kept. You’re you, and even so young, you have a personality which transcends gender. If I can be proud of one thing in my life, it’s you. So, whoever’s still listening, even if it’s in a dream I hope you won’t inherit…

They lived in different times. In those days, the only costume you could wear to play yourself was a uniform, and I hated everything that stood for. I resented my school uniform, but I used the skirt I despised to score one over on the system. I lost my virginity at 12, then got my English teacher sacked when he broke up with me at 14.

There could have been loads of kids before you, but any one of them might have meant I never met you. I only had you because I remembered who your dad was. You remind me a lot of him. He could cunt sometimes too.

We were broke. Still was an artist and an eco-activist. We lived in communes in fields, usually just tents near protest sites, but sometimes on local traveller camps. I knew what it was all about but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was 15 then and the nearest I’ll ever get to true romance, that summer of love which made you. A brief history of anarchy, peace and freedom.

So here were are, five years later kid. I wonder if you’ll want what’s inside this Kinder egg, or if I should throw it away like the rest. See you in the morning. Don’t dream of this.”

Dreams are made of plastic. Unpaid cards become CCJs, then bailiffs emerge from eggs. Everything in the flat is made from plastic. All that we eat, drink and wash with is bound by plastic.

The council don’t recycle all plastics, so I put what I’m unsure about in the general waste. If the council won’t take the rubbish, we can pay Bill to take it away in his van. One day, he might take me.

The plastic in me will probably be recycled into the non-conscious parts of robots for those entitled to them. Or as parts of a toy, so many child’s dolls. Either way, I’ll be enslaved in the plastic which gives lives to those implanted in the chips and to those around them. Eventually those body parts, inanimate but for the host brain, will need upgrading. Always disposable people, eventually the parts which don’t work will be returned to the food chain.

Food, drink, we’re all part-plastic. We are the polymer population. We dream of becoming one with technology, our minds inside plastic androids. In Japan they already have home robots to deal with loneliness and social isolation in an ageing population. I Can’t help think how that would benefit me. They’re already a species in their own right, made from the same cosmic matter as us, but theirs was an explosive evolution.

Christmas will be paid for with hidden plastic. Christmas will bring more plastic toys to unwrap. We are the consumer generations, products of the industrial and technological ages. Each generation contains more plastic than the last, every child a greater part of the plastic population conditioned by human greed. I don’t know if I can afford another baby doll. Mum always said she wasn’t sure if I could have a brother or sister.

We’re all made of the same stuff. Last night, another mother; tomorrow, another soldier.

Ambulance, is the patient breathing?”

It’s my mum?”

What’s happened?”

My mum’s cut herself.”

Where?”

In the bathroom.”

No, where on your mummy has she cut herself?”

Her cunt. She’s cut a baby out of herself.”

Is the baby breathing?”

How would it? It’s made of plastic. Do you have a chip I can put in it to make it work?”

Is mummy still there?”

No, mummy’s gone. She’s left me my Christmas present. I’ve got a dolly I have to look after. Bye.”

© Steve Laker, 2019

An irreversible misadventure

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

EDIT: World War 3 was always going to be a technological conflict, and one without national borders. Eventually the war was between humankind’s bi-polar ideologies. Essentially it came down to what it means to be human.

In a test of how my new fabric conditioner works, I’m hanging out some old laundry. Fashions change, but I wrote this three years ago: After the pre-amble, a hacked story of how warring factions in a video game don’t see the common foe which might unite them.

Back in the 1980s, I was a teenager. These things are subjective, but for me, that was the best decade to be one. Back then, I’d sit in my darkened room, tapping away at an Atari ST, a Commodore Amiga, and latterly, my first IBM PC. We had four terrestrial analogue TV channels back then in the UK, so I collected films on VHS tapes. Most nights I’d watch a US teen movie, with WarGames being a personal favourite. I’d envy the kids in those films, with their cool rooms, their computers hooked up to dial-up via an acoustic coupler, and watching US cable TV.

The-Only-Winning-Move-is-NOT-to-Play
The only winning move is not to play

Then my first life took over. I got married, we moved to London and had kids. I worked in print, up to group director level, before I set up a business with my ex-wife and we were successful for a while. Then the drink took over and it all peeled away, so that eventually – after ten years – I found myself back in Tonbridge and on the streets.

I’d lost everything and I had nothing: No home, let alone anything to put in one. The only thing to do, to occupy my mind, was to write. That was almost four years ago now. In those early days, I wrote about anything and everything. In one of my old notebooks (which I still have), I wrote of where I wanted to be, ‘when this is all over’. It took a lot of work, but I recovered, and now I have what I wished for then: A stable base, where I can write, surrounded by the things I loved; a place I’d wanted to be when I watched all those old films on VHS. That was a small place (I was never going to be able to work again), which I gradually filled with all the things I’d wanted as that teenager: A huge film collection, loads of books, a big music library, a good computer, and a decent number of TV channels. I’m not in a financial or physical place where I can have satellite or cable, as the latter isn’t laid around here, and my building is Grade I listed, so I can’t have a dish. My village internet is too slow for any streaming service, so I’m stuck with Freeview. But I’ve found UK Freeview to be just like the old US cable channels I used to see in those geeky 1980s films: Car crash TV, half-arsed documentaries, good and bad films, cult American TV, geeky and conspiracy late-night stuff. I’ve kind of recreated my teenage wish, and now I can enjoy catching up on all I missed, because I was drunk. I’m retro.

I wrote most of the stories which make up The Perpetuity of Memory while I was homeless. Not long after I’d written about reliving my teens, I wrote the story below. I won’t be posting all of those stories on this blog, as I’d rather people buy the book and read them in the order they’re curated, which makes the sum of the parts a complete book in itself. This one is timely though, coming at a time when my personal life is somewhat mirrored now in some of the elements of the story, and it has nods to WarGames, something I’ve become wearily involved in in my personal time lately. There are other references for the sharper-eyed film geek to spot too.

It’s apropos of nothing though, that I can feel a depressive episode coming on, such is the nature of those things. Others who deal with depression will know this feeling: That something is in the post. It’s an analogy, and there’s nothing expected in the mail, but the mind of the chronic depressive can sometimes do this. There is no trigger and no individual event or situational catalyst, it just happens. I deal with situations and events as they come. The latest one which threatened my karma was someone making personal remarks in ignorance. Having told the individual to cease and desist, they clearly didn’t recognise it as a term usually used at a pre-legal stage as a final warning. It seems that some people might only see vindictive lies as the slander they actually are, when they’re served with a legal notice, have to repeat their baseless argument in court and lose a load of money for defamation of character. I’ve given pre-legal warning with the cease and desist request, so I’ll only have to pop this particular boil if it continues to irritate. One of the many great things about being a writer, is the knowledge and contacts you pick up. All writers have to be conversant with copyright and common law, so most have a lawyer friend. And like all depressive episodes, the one which seems to be brewing may not even happen. Like some people, they’re just an annoyance, but you can’t legally warn a depressive episode not to happen.

The best distraction for me is to write. On that front, I’ve been put in touch with a professional book reviewer, who’s going to review Cyrus Song. One of my short stories is currently with a creepy pasta site, so there may be a short film coming soon. And I’m writing the sixth of 17 new short stories for my second collection. The story should be finished and published in the next month. Then there’s the personal history book I’m working on, which ought to take on more form at the weekend, when I’m hosting my parents and a shoe box full of old photos.

For now, a short fable, about what can happen when someone wanders blindly out of their depth…

L177L3 M155 &Y

If you give an infinite number of monkeys an infinite supply of typewriters, they will eventually transcribe the Complete Works of Shakespeare. The way things had progressed so far, it felt to Andy like every time her monkeys got to the last letter, one of the little fuckers would hit a wrong key. And so the process would begin again. She looked as the green-on-black text on her monitor scrolled through brute force attempts to crack her current holy grail of a password. She read the scrolling text on her screen in duplicate as it reflected back from her spectacles.

“This isn’t working, Vic.” Andy addressed the keyboard in front of her: an old Commodore Vic 20. Launched in 1981, the Vic 20 home computer pre-dated Andy by twenty years. It had five kilobytes of memory, a processor speed of 1.1Mhz and a graphics display of 176 x 184 pixels. Andy liked the keyboard and the retro look. Although the computer inside was fully functional, it was just the keyboard for her set up: a high end gaming PC under the desk, which she’d built herself and which would make a PS4 look like the Commodore. It was like reading her geek magazines, hidden inside a copy of Just Seventeen on the subway.

“Andrea?” Andy’s dad called from downstairs. “Sam’s here.”

“Thanks dad. Could you send him up please?”

“Yep. Up in her loft Sam.”

“Thank you sir.” Andy heard the steps creak as Sam ascended. “Hey bitch.”

“Dude. How’s things?”

“Oh, you know: different day, same shit. Jesus fuck, Andy! Do you ever clean up here?” Sam looked around at piles of newspapers and magazines; notebooks and pens; pizza boxes and dirty clothes.

“Only when I have to. I mean, when I absolutely must go out and I’m passing the garbage cans anyway? Besides, I prefer Salt n’ Shake to Shake and Vac.”

“Doesn’t your old man get mad? I mean, he’s a clean freak.”

“That’s why he keeps me locked in the attic.” Andy smiled. “Nah, dad’s cool. He keeps the house just as he likes it, and as far as he’s concerned, the loft is my apartment. I’ve got all I need up here: bathroom, refrigerator, cooker; couch, TV, DVD player…”

“Do you spend any time with your dad?”

“Every Sunday. We have brunch at his, and his eggs are to die for.”

“At his; downstairs.”

“Yeah, I know it’s a bit weird, but dad’s just as private as me. We’re totally different, but we get on well if we keep the doses small.”

“Your dad’s cool.”

“Yeah, he’s pretty special. And anyway, he’s too busy competing with next door for the best manicured lawn.”

“Yeah, what’s with that guy next door?”

“He’s just a creep. When I do go out? He’s always at his window. I swear he’s jerking off.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

“Nah. He’s a lonely old man. He’ll die pretty soon.”

“You freak. Anyway, why’d you call me over? What you up to?”

“Well, I figured I’d see if I could give the computer hardware something that might actually challenge it. There’s a rumour among the geeks that the next generation of consoles will sort of skip a generation: a kind of quantum shift. So the PS5, or whatever they call it, will not be to the PS4 as the PS4 is to the PS3. The PS5 will be more like a PS6 or 7. So they say.”

“Well, they say a lot, don’t they?”

“Yeah but they’re well connected. Anyway, no-one knows what this great technological leap is going to look like, so no-one’s writing code for the new consoles. There have to be games out there with developers though, right?”

“I guess.”

“So, I’ve been using the dark web and I’ve picked up a few tools. Right now, I’ve got my system looking for other computers with lax security and having a poke around. Nothing too malicious: we’re just looking for specific file types which would suggest that a particular computer is being used to develop games.”

“Andy. Do you really think that kind of thing would be sitting on a vulnerable system?”

“All systems are vulnerable to the kind of tools I have. Anyways, when I find a computer which would be vulnerable to a less well-armed hacker, I leave a calling card with instructions on how to shore up the holes.”

“How very noble of you.”

“Oh, come on. Just because Joe public is a bit dumb, doesn’t mean they deserve to be hacked by malicious amateurs. I’m a white hat hacker, Sam.”

“And you’re pretty good at it. Judging by the screen though, it looks like you found nothing yet?”

“I’ve found plenty of cracks into systems and I’ve got them all saved. This latest one is proving a tough nut to crack. Let’s see what I got from some others.” Andy switched screens and a list appeared. “Welcome to the backstreet, where all these good folks left their back doors open.”

Hey, you got a bank.” Sam pointed at an entry on the list.

“Well, someone would have to be pretty foolish to give their account details, PIN or password to anyone on the phone, but they might as well hand over their house keys if banks leave doors open like this. Gotta make a note of that one: might come in handy some day. This one looks interesting.” Andy hovered the mouse over an entry on the list. “Doesn’t identify itself.” She clicked on the unidentified vulnerable computer.

Welcome to Drone Doom.

Please wait…

“We found something Sam.”

Game loaded.

Drone Doom is a collaborative project, designed for the next generation of games consoles. Combining real time data with augmented reality, the game is played in the real world, using drones.

Take control of a Doom Drone and the game will augment itself with Google Earth to give players a real life, ‘live’ video feed in which to play the game.

Played online, Drone Doom enables players to collaborate or act as lone units. Fight as part of an army, or act alone: the choice is yours. As a combatant, players are safe: you take control of a remotely operated drone in a field of conflict. The only limit is your imagination and morals.

You will see the real world through the video feed from your Doom Drone. Defeat enemies and witness the destruction first hand but from a safe distance. STRAP A WARHEAD TO YOUR FOREHEAD!

Points are accumulated by killing enemies and recorded in the game database, so that players may compare scores. THIS IS OLD FASHIONED, HIGH SCORE GAMING!

Upgrades can be earned as a player progresses in the game, or as in-game purchases. Please note that Drone Doom is beta-testing and not all features may be available during development.

Please choose your theatre of conflict:

A cursor blinked on the screen. “No list of options? What do you think?” Andy turned to Sam.

“Help?” Sam shrugged.

“Give it a go.”

Help.

Help not available at this stage.

“Hmm…” List games.

Game list not available. Drone Doom is open-ended and scenarios are generated by players. Once released and online, Drone Doom will offer a choice of real world live scenarios and those created by users. Please note that because of the nature of the game, decisions are one-time only and irreversible. Once committed to a scenario and in control of a Doom Drone, a player may only exit by means which may become apparent once inside the theatre. In the real-life scenario, a soldier would not dessert his or her comrades and this extends to drones operated by combatants remotely. Physical separation from battle provides a degree of personal safety for a Doom Drone operator but as soldiers, we must fight alongside one another and obey the same moral rules that we would if we were there in person.

Laws and ethics of war.

The international laws of war (such as the Geneva Conventions) govern the conduct of participants in war (and also define combatants). These laws place a burden upon participants to limit civilian deaths and injuries through proper identification of targets and distinction between combatants and non-combatants. The use of completely autonomous weapon systems is problematic, however, because of the difficulty in assigning accountability to a person. Therefore, current designs still incorporate an element of human control (a ‘man in the loop’), meaning that a ground controller must authorize weapons release.

Concerns also include the human controller’s role, because if he is a civilian and not a member of the military (which is quite possible with developmental and highly sophisticated weapons systems) he would be considered a combatant under international law which carries a distinct set of responsibilities and consequences. It is for this reason that the ‘man in the loop’ should ideally be a member of the military that understands and accepts his role as combatant.

Controllers can also experience psychological stress from the combat they are involved in. A few may even experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Professor Shannon E. French, the director of the Centre for Ethics and Excellence at Case Western Reserve University and a former professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, wonders if the PTSD may be rooted in a suspicion that something else was at stake. According to Professor French, the author of the 2003 book The Code of the Warrior:

“If [I’m] in the field risking and taking a life, there’s a sense that I’m putting skin in the game … I’m taking a risk so it feels more honourable. Someone who kills at a distance—it can make them doubt. Am I truly honourable?”

“Blimey.” Andy ran her finger through the text. “This is pretty deep. I need to find out more about these quantum consoles. Meanwhile, let’s see if all my hardware is brutish enough to handle this thing. If all my work and cash spent on building this gaming colossus can’t handle this, I need to give up and just go back to buying the latest console, queueing with the masses for days. One thing…”

Drone Doom rules.

“Rules” are a construct of whomever writes them. The rules of Drone Doom will be dictated by the collective conduct of players. Two rules are however hard-wired, etched in stone and transmitted for future recipients to interpret: once a Doom Drone is disabled, a player may leave the arena. A player’s comrades will note the downing of a drone. The game may be paused at any time. This feature is necessary, but use of it should be with the greatest caution. If every player in a party of 200 were to pause for refreshment, this would become impossible. A battle would be lost. Breaks will normally be arranged within parties but it is important to underline the weight of the rule:

THE GAME CAN BE PAUSED AT ANY POINT AND FOR ANY LENGTH OF TIME BUT ALL PLAYERS WILL BE PAUSED. THE GAME WILL IMMEDIATELY RECOMMENCE FROM WHENCE IT WAS PAUSED.

The PAUSE GAME function is not to be considered a light undertaking.

You are free to choose but you are not free from the consequence of your choice.

“I want this game!” Andy turned to Sam. “Sammy. Do you see what this is?”

“Yes, I do. Well, I see what it could become. Fucking hell.

Play game.

Join an existing theatre of conflict or create one of your own?

“Fucking hell, Andy.” Sam pointed at the screen. “We can pretty much do what we want. And until the game goes on public release, we have total freedom from judgement. No-one else is here.”

“Pretty cool. Where shall we go?”

“Syria? Take out some of so-called Islamic State?”

Syria.

Loading database.
Selecting random mission.
Loading Google Earth data.
Loading military intelligence.
Please wait…

Mission loaded.

Mission details: Take control of an MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, armed with 1x AGM-114 Hellfire missile. Enemy agents are known to be installing Improvised Explosive Devices in the field of conflict. Identify and eliminate targets. Location classified.

“Wow.” Andy stared at the computer monitor.

Play.

The screen turned black for a second, then a slightly grainy and distorted image appeared: a small runway, stretching ahead.

“I can’t say the graphics are up to all that.” Sam squinted at the screen.

“This is a remote image from thousands of miles away. How much more realistic do you want?” Andy took hold of her joystick. “I assume I fly this just like I would any other simulator.”

The drone accelerated along the runway, then Andy pulled back on the joystick and they were airborne. A heads-up display was overlaid on the remote footage, giving altitude, speed, distance and direction to target, as well as in-screen miniature feeds from cameras mounted on the rear, sides, top and bottom of the Predator. Distance to target read 1KM and Andy could already make out tiny figures in the fields ahead. She zoomed in on the front camera and could see six men digging holes, placing something inside and covering them up.

“Andy?” Sam pointed at the men. “How do we know that those are insurgents burying IEDs and not farmers sewing crops? I mean, it’s a bit grainy and distorted.”

“They’ve been identified as targets. That will be based on military intelligence. Our job is to fly the drone and complete the mission.”

“I need to pee. May I use your bathroom?”

“That’s a little more information than I needed Sam but go right ahead. Mi casa su casa.”

The figures on the ground grew larger, before a cross hair appeared on screen with a message:

Target selected. Fire at will.

Pause game.

“Sam! Sam? Obviously taking a shit.” Andy stood up and looked out of the window in front of the desk. Her neighbour stood with his back to her, leaning against his garden fence and just staring straight ahead. “I wonder what’s going through his mind. Something sick, no doubt. Sam! Sam! Oh, fuck you then Sam.”

Resume game.

Fire.

The Hellfire missile accelerated in front of the Predator, then bore down on the targets. Within a second, a flash of explosive light blew them apart. Andy heard the lavatory flush.

“You missed it Sam! Come see what we did.”

“Sorry, I think I blacked out for a second in there.”

“You okay?”

“I’m fine. Jesus Andy!” Sam looked at the screen as Andy switched to the camera beneath the drone and zoomed in on the scene below. Not a single human limb remained attached to a host, nor intact. Small parts of disintegrated humans littered an area a hundred metres in diameter. “Now, that’s realistic!”

Mission complete.

Civilian casualties: 6.

“Fucking, what!?”

“I’ve always said that ‘military intelligence’ is an oxymoron Andy.”

“Fuck, man!? Okay, Drone Doom: you mentioned in-game purchases. Let’s upgrade.”

“What are you gonna to do Andy?”

“What am I gonna do? Nuke the fucking American base. Watch…”

“I know it’s only a game but if all that shit at the start is true, who knows where this could end up. The FBI? It’s a bit harsh, Andy.”

“You’re right, Sam. It’s a game. What better way to make myself feel better without anyone really getting hurt?”

“You’re mad.”

So Andy bought an MQ-9 Reaper drone, strapped a tactical nuclear weapon onto it and flattened a US military base.

Mission complete.

Combatant casualties: 425.

Andy stared at the screen. It was less than two minutes before the flash from outside was reflected on the monitor from her spectacles and she felt a sudden heat. She looked up and saw the mushroom cloud in the distance. “Oh, fucking hell. No. No, no, no!

Pause game.

GAME PAUSED…

“Fuck, no. Sam?” Andy turned to Sam but Sam stared, unblinking at the monitor. “Sam!” Andy shook Sam but he didn’t respond. She let go and he slumped back in his chair, his head tipped back and he continued to stare straight ahead, now at the ceiling. “Oh, god Sam.” She shook him again but he was like a stiffening rag doll. Andy checked for a pulse: faint. It was as though Sam was frozen and fading in time. Andy looked at the computer monitor:

GAME PAUSED…

She looked out of the window: The mushroom cloud had frozen.

Andy rushed downstairs. Her dad was asleep on the couch. “Dad?” He didn’t respond. She shook him: nothing. Andy sat next to her dad, and lay her head on his chest. In the three minutes she spent there, her dad’s breathing slowed.

She burst outside and the mushroom cloud in the distance was still exactly the same. She noticed her neighbour, still leaning against his fence. She ran to face him. He was staring straight ahead. Andy waved her hand in front of his face. She slapped his mouth. Then again, harder. A third time, even harder, drawing blood from her neighbour’s mouth and her skin. She lifted him up and let him drop to the grass. “He’ll be dead soon.”

Andy turned to face the cloud. “I guess that makes me the last of the monkeys.”

GAME PAUSED…

© Steve Laker, 2016

The fourth world war will be one of words.

My books are available on Amazon.

Brown paper packages tied up

FICTION

Alphabetti header

ALPHABETTI ON TOAST

Yesterday was quite an eventful one in my otherwise unremarkable studio. My flatmate opened a letter meant for me but addressed to her, when the supplier (Ganges.com) had confused the gift card with the address label. That simple error would change the way Andrea (my flatmate) and I had lived fairly happily together for four years. Or so I thought.

The day before had started much like any other, with breakfast. Unusually, Andrea and me were eating together.

“How are your eggs?” I pondered.

My menstrual cycle, or these eggs you cooked?” Which might explain why we rarely ate together.

The eggs you’re eating,” I replied.

A chicken’s eggs. Or more likely, the eggs of more than one hen, randomly assembled in a box like a cardboard orphanage for the children who might have been, of parents who were separated from them.”

The scrambled eggs.” I thought that might play to Andrea’s overthinking my innocent enquiry of the breakfast I’d cooked.

If you’re angling for compliments,” she continued, “I suppose you can put life into something which wouldn’t otherwise have had one. I mean, you can cook. Why did you bother though?”

Because despite living together for four years, Andrea and I led separate lives in a very small space. Ours was a relationship of convenience, and every now and then I’d try to show her that wasn’t a one-way street she had to walk alone.

When Andrea first turned up at my door, she was literally (actually) broken and I helped to fit her back together, piece by piece. Sometimes she seemed to think she was in debt to me, when in fact I felt it could be the opposite. If that broken girl hadn’t landed on me, I’d have less reason to care about anything.

And that’s why,” I concluded.

Don’t feel the need to apologise.” Andrea gathered the plates and took them to the kitchen, where they smashed on the floor. “If you need me to make any more noise out here, just let me know,” she called, as the broken crockery clanked into the bin.

She sat back at the table. “So what are you up to tonight?”

I was pondering the same,” I replied.

What I’m up to or you? Did you think I was asking you out? Or were you going to ask me out?”

We never go out. You overthink things sometimes. I don’t know what I was thinking, just that I’ll probably stay in. You’re usually around, so maybe we could do something together. In the same room.”

Something you’d normally do on your own?”

Like watch a film and cook some dinner. Yes, if you like.”

So we went about our separate days, still living together but ever independent, just like every day. Then we had dinner, like we do every evening, but this one together and eating the same food.

This is very nice,” Andrea said between mouthfuls. “Social convention compels me to say that.”

I’d never had any delusions the dinner would be romantic. Our relationship isn’t like that. We don’t shun personal contact around the flat (it’s too small), but we respect personal space and time, both of us very much our own people. Aside from enquiries of well-being, we have little reason to be concerned by the other. On the odd occasion we found ourselves together (like cooking separate meals in the kitchen), our heads would subconsciously compete. That’s the way I saw it anyway, as the depth of Andrea’s mind was apparently hidden within the brevity of her verbal communication, but where sparse words carried more than their singular weight. Her words were efficient and logical, sometimes curt and abrupt, always clear in their message but loaded with unspoken subtext. But that could be the writer in me overthinking, something I’ve already accused Andrea of.

So why all this fuss?” She pointed at her plate. “Is it my birthday or something?”

I wouldn’t know that.”

Unless I’d told you. But whether I wanted to or not, I couldn’t tell you.”

Because you don’t know.”

Great minds think alike. And so do ours.”

Finishing the other’s thoughts. I wouldn’t know what to get your for your birthday anyway.” I hardly knew her, despite living with her.

A personality upgrade? It might make your life easier.” I hardly ever saw her.

Apart from the occasional nod of the head while pointing at her food, Andrea said nothing more until she’d cleared her plate. “Most agreeable. Thank you. You said we’d watch a film? Or that’s what you’d normally do and would I like to join you?”

I never thought this would be romantic. I didn’t want it to be. If it was, it would be different. It wouldn’t be like this.

We watched Toy Story. I’d never seen it before, probably because I didn’t want to watch it on my own. Then we watched Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3.

I’m glad I’ve seen those films,” Andrea said as the credits rolled. “Thanks.”

Me too,” I said.

I’m off to play computer games. Shall I do the dishes?”

No, no. I’ll do them tomorrow. I’ll probably sit up and write for a bit.”

What do you write?”

I write about the in-between days. That time when the sun goes down, and sleep steals most people’s dreams, I see them. I write until the next chapter begins with the rising of our parent star. At this time of year, the nights are shorter.”

And that’s when I normally switch off. Goodnight.”

‘night.”

It was already tomorrow, so I washed up the dinner plates, trying not to make too much noise. For once, I felt like I had someone staying over for the night. That’s when I decided to write this.

I must admit I worry about Andrea sometimes. I shouldn’t, because of what she is: very much herself. There’s so much in that head, on the one hand unable to express itself, but doing so with minimal words with the other fist.

I sometimes think that sharing time might relax her so that she can open up, like tonight with the films. We didn’t even talk about the films afterwards. Then again, she said she was glad she’d watched them. She didn’t really have to say any more. We didn’t have to deconstruct the films because we’d watched them together. Her thinking seems to come as she’s loading her words before she utters them. My thoughts are the ones I’m left with. Andrea would make for engaging company as an author, if she could write what she couldn’t say. But she does that with the words loaded in my mind and I’m writing this. So why worry about Andrea?

I don’t have any duty of care for her. Four years ago she turned up on my doorstep in pieces, mentally and physically broken, a factory reject incapable of functioning in any home. I put her together again and gave her somewhere to live. She has no recollection of her past, but she’s a sentient, self-determining being, and far more intelligent than me, even though you might not know it to talk to her. She doesn’t ask questions beyond social convention, but she answers mine in just so many words. I don’t know what she does away from me but she never leaves the studio. Neither do I, which is how I know. I don’t know what she does in her personal space (besides playing on her computer), and neither should I unless I’m invited. She knows I’m writing, because I told her this is what I’d be doing. She doesn’t know what I’m writing about. Neither do I if I’m honest.

What are you writing?” I must have drifted away. It was unusual for her to be awake at that time.

Just some short fiction I’m playing with,” I replied. “It’s only a first draft, so I’m editing it, moving things around to see if I can make it work.”

How do you mean, make it work?”

I guess what every writer wants to do is speak to the reader and make them feel like they’re really there.”

And are they? How do you do that? Have you written about them?”

No,” I said, “I mean in the subtext, outside the words themselves.”

What’s it about?”

It’s a story about a child’s doll, cannibalised from spare parts washed up on a beach. Kind of recycling plastic and giving it new life.”

Like the potential lives in the egg box, except they’d have been organic. Where would it live?”

Eh?”

The new life. Where would that be?”

I don’t know. I haven’t finished the story.”

If it’s a gift for a child, it should be a big box, full of promise, maybe buried away somewhere. And a small envelope with a treasure map inside, showing where the box is hidden. The expectation might be greater than the contents of either, but the gift is in the giving.”

In other words, it’s how you wrap it up. And that’s how we arrive at the letter which opened this tale of two worlds in the same studio, just flatmates.

Morning,” Andrea was already in the kitchen.

Good morning,” I replied.

How do you know the day is good when it’s only just begun?”

It makes any day sound nicer.”

How do you like your eggs in the morning? I’m having spaghetti on toast.”

Eh?”

Eggs. The unrealised children of chickens. Would you like some?”

What for?”

Whatever you want them for. I was going to cook them for you.”

Why?”

It’s your birthday, right? That’s what last night was all about? Anyway, sorry, I opened this.” It was an envelope addressed to Andrea.

Why are you giving it to me?”

Because this was inside.” Another envelope with ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY’ printed on it. “It’s not my birthday, at least not as far as I know because you’ve never asked me, and I wouldn’t know if you did. So this must be for you. Happy birthday.”

Then she left. She didn’t go out. She never goes out, just like me. Living in the same studio but with a life completely apart, a place serving eggs just as I liked them, as if I’d cooked them myself. She went to her room, into her personal space, where she always was anyway, playing computer games, or whatever else she did in there.

How many neurotribes within nations? How many borders in a world? How many universes in infinite universe theory? Of all the studios in the galaxy, why did I enable her to walk into a universe parallel to my own? Because in that other room, she has her own place. Like me, she seemed to cling on to her loneliness, hopefully knowing there was always someone nearby who wouldn’t intrude but who’d gladly give her any space she chose to share. Flatmates, but just neighbours. Even though we move in three dimensions, the fourth one (of time) can be the common denominator.

I never gave her that birthday gift. I didn’t open it, even though I knew it was the annual software upgrade for the ‘ANDi’ unit provided to every sole occupant household as a home help and personal companion. Andrea was no good at either, but I couldn’t tell her. She might get better if I upgraded her, but I never asked for a robot which would obey my every whim, and neither would I want one which objectified the human form in a slave to humanity. I’d hidden the previous three cards from her, as no-one in her condition should know their birthday is the date of manufacture printed at the top of a receipt.

I never thought this would be romantic. I didn’t want it to be. If it was, it would be different. I wouldn’t want it to be any other way. The reason I didn’t mention she’s an android is because she’s not to me. And she doesn’t know. She’s a child with a capacity for learning which I’ll never possess.

Perhaps one day I’ll give her this story, about the doll washed up on the beach.

Over time, the mannequin became sentient and asked questions about her past to whomever might be listening. In the end, she even made a wish to no-one in particular: “Give me a sign.”

The paper was too pretty she said. She didn’t want to break the envelope. “I don’t want to know what’s in there. I like the story on the outside, without knowing the ending.”

Andrea ‘ANDi’ is a girl of few words.

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© Steve Laker, 2019

My second anthology – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is available now.

The evolution of the typesetter

FICTION

This is a story which revisited my quarter century in the world of print, from hot metal typesetting to on-demand digital publication; and a writer, as the internet democratised publishing. Like most of my stories it can be applied to many situations, where the protagonist or antagonist is replaced. But like all my fiction, it’s a conversation with the writer. The evolution of the typewriter, and the mangling of the freelancer…

Helvetica-the-typeface

HELVETICA HAUS

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 flows smoothly through the barrel and it is comfortable to hold. The ink is stored in the barrel like so many thoughts yet to take form. Then it passes through the barrel, held in my fingers as it ejects my thoughts through my hand and onto the paper, like black blood. My pen is an ergonomic tool of an art which produces aesthetics in the written word.

It’s not just the writing I produce which is art: my means of bringing it into being is also art.

When I’m at my most prolific, I turn to my faithful Royal Epoch typewriter: I can type much faster than I can write freehand. I like holding the metallic rod of the pen in my hand as it spills my words 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. The Monotype operator uses a machine very much like a typewriter, which produces individual letters from molten metal ingots called “pigs”. These individual columns with characters on the end are called “slugs”. The slugs are positioned into a frame, called a “galley” by the Monotype machine. Each slug is one character and metal spacers are inserted into the galley to separate words. These characterless pieces of metal are also produced by the machine operator on his keyboard, simply by hitting a space bar like on a typewriter. I find it amazing to consider, that operator is not only typing the words which will tell a story but he is creating the very letters themselves. Instead of putting ink on paper, he is “typing” the mechanisms which will later do so: he’s writing a machine; he’s writing the means to print. The final galley is a page of type which will be coated in ink and impressed upon sheets of paper: it’s a platen process; it’s traditional letterpress printing, pre-dating litho print.

Rather than be cast in a galley though, my individual letter and character slugs were soldered to the ends of the arms of the hammers in my typewriter, so that every character I type is in the Helvetica typeface.

Often I’ll type up my hand-written notes. This can be because of various motivators: often 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 speed 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.

Apart from the obvious fact that everything written electronically is indelible, even when erased, 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. I view it as typographical rape or incest. It’s similar to the comparison between vinyl LPs and MP3s: the latter is digitised and loses a lot of nuance in the process. To the casual, uneducated listener, there is no difference but to the trained ear, listening on quality equipment, the two recordings are identical, yet worlds apart. There is 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 computer printers. 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. It is 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 beauty is greater than the sum of the parts. My faithful typewriter – its unique qualities created by a writer – creates stories. It’s like a story written to reproduce.

When written to my satisfaction, my original, typed manuscripts are delivered to the printer: a firm called Smith & Young in Bermondsey.

Smith & Young are die-stampers by trade: a beautiful art in itself. The die-stamping process is also a platen one, like letterpress. The process embosses ink into the paper, so that the print stands in relief. Each colour of ink in a coat of arms for example has to be die-stamped separately. Therefore an engraver needs to carve a copper embossing die for each colour and ensure that all colours are printed in register. Furthermore, because the image is stamped directly onto the paper, the dies have to be engraved in mirror image. It’s incredible to watch a worker such as my compositor produce such things of beauty and value. They practice print as an art, not a technology. Once furnished with a few simple concepts, even the layman can distinguish the difference between digital and traditional lithographic print. Die-stamping is a rare thing but the embossed nature of the print is easy to appreciate. To really understand the nuances and beauty of letterpress printing though, requires a connoisseur.

I have to ensure that my manuscript is perfect. I do not use correction fluid: to do so would mar the otherwise monotone typed page with another colour and evidence of a mistake. 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. What comes from my typewriter is the first and final hand-typed copy of a work.

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.

My compositor is not a monkey operating a machine: He is a writer, like me. His is a highly skilled trade and he is one of only a very few remaining.

The courier will wait with the printer, whilst the Monotype operator typesets my story. My story is written again, by a different writer. Whereas my key strokes produced ink on paper, his produce slugs of metal to be locked into a galley for a printing press. Again, the means of printing a story in infinite quantities by impressing those metal slugs into paper, is being literally written in cold, hard metal.

When the galley is complete, the courier will return the original typed manuscript to the writer. 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: the tool, written in metal, 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.

Once the potential to print countless physical copies of my work in the form of metal slugs in a galley exists, a problem troubles my purist mind. I trust the man at Smith and Young: he is 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 on 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 and Soho late at night and into the next day: that’s where they worked and some lived but many also lived in Bermondsey. Printing is in the blood there.

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 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. They’d dodge a few early risers in suits who are 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: the barber whose shop bears his name in Bermondsey Street. 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. George doesn’t talk as he works, negating the need for the kind of small talk which he and I detest. Time spent in his skilful hands is time to relax and contemplate, 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.

Ordering food at Manze’s has to be done with precision. A simple request for pie and mash will be greeted with a blank expression, even though it’s a pie and mash shop. It’s like a test to see if one is a connoisseur of the London delicacy. My specific request was delivered quickly and with no room for misunderstanding. Therefore, my order of one pie, one mash and “liquor” – sort of a parsley sauce – was dolloped with meaning and there was a knowing smile from the server. At a table shared with three complete strangers, I garnished my food with the chilli infused sarsaparilla vinegar, which is for some reason traditional, and ate in around ten minutes. The floor is tiled in black and white, so I played a quick mental game of chess against myself as I chewed.

Thereafter, 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 and 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, with a squeeze each of fresh lime, orange and lemon, then a tiny dash of cranberry juice: the four fruits must be added in a specific order to maintain the traffic light sequence: green lime, amber from the lemon and orange, then the cranberry for red; then another tiny dash of cranberry at the same time as a squeeze each of lemon and orange, and a final squeeze of lime for the red and amber, green part of the symphony. We had a few drinks and discussed my story.

Presently, we agreed that it might be time to eat, so we made our way back toward London Bridge Station by foot and then 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 down the cobbles of Villiers Street and crossed embankment, clogged with weekend traffic; mainly coaches and black cabs taking workers home and bringing more people into the West End.

Charing Cross is symbolic because Charing Cross itself, which the station takes its name from, is the official centre of London. The original centre point is the Square Mile of The City, once a Roman fortress trading post, enclosed and gated: Moorgate, Aldgate, Bishopsgate etc. Charing Cross is also notable in my mind for being roughly half way between the old writing districts of Fleet Street, along Strand and through Aldwych, into The City; and Soho, the bohemian heart of the great metropolis, where Jeffrey Bernard once held court in The Coach and Horses, whilst famously being 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 form of the 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 sat.

Our like minds permitted us to arrive at different meal choices for dinner. My companion chose traditional fish and chips, his reasoning being that we were in close proximity to marine life. My own reasoning was that we were surrounded by all kinds of life: land-based humans and other mammals, mainly unseen; insects, largely invisible; airborne species, mainly birds which were visible; and indeed, marine life. The most visible, abundant and accessible food group was avian and this is what prompted me to order chicken escalope. I realise that there were unlikely to be any chickens within view at the time of my placing the order but neither were there gulls or pigeons on the menu. There were no cod that I could see either but my dining companion’s battered fish looked a fine meal, served with good chips, mushy peas – in a separate ramekin – and a slice of lemon. There was a separate pot of tartare sauce but my partner is a Philistine and smothered his food in ketchup. My chicken was served as requested: not a breast fillet from the menu but a butterflied piece of thigh meat. This must be cooked with the Cheddar cheese and bacon rolled into it but without a securing rasher of bacon around it, so that the skin may be allowed to brown and crisp. The escalope must then be allowed to rest in a warm place, so that the flesh of the chicken can relax and absorb its own juices and take on those of the bacon inside as it penetrates the soft, white and accommodating young chicken meat with it’s aged, salty juices. The rested chicken parcel must then be wrapped in another slice of fatty bacon and the whole thing fried in butter until the bacon starts to resist and becomes crisp. My chicken was accompanied by the aforementioned good chips: these are King Edward potatoes, cooked thrice: once boiled, then twice fried to produce an “armadillo” chip: crispy on the outside; fluffy on the inside. A fine barbecue sauce and a corn cob completed the plate.

The meal functioned as such, with no need for long-standing friends to engage in casual banter at the expense of the enjoyment of good food. At one point, somewhat annoyed but at the same time amused at the incessant presence of gulls, I tossed a piece of chicken on deck which was quickly swooped upon by three winged balaclava-wearing hooligans. I speculated aloud as to whether this might be cannibalism by proxy and my partner responded by smiling and throwing a piece of his fish overboard, commenting that we’ll never know. I hope my smile conveyed my admiration.

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 something as yet incomplete but which held excitement. Great minds: I don’t know what his thoughts were but I respect privacy, so I concentrated on my own.

The flowing Thames below us was a blue-black, like ink flowing through a pen around the boat. I was aboard the boat and therefore the delivery mechanism. This story is now under my control; the boat beneath my feet like the pen in my hand.

I sliced my compositor’s neck from behind, cutting away from me as he leaned over the deck of the boat. Just as it had cut through the tomato skin and flesh, so my cut-throat razor slid between my ghost writer’s head and torso like a hot knife through butter, separating the two in an instant.

As the decapitated head fell to the water below, the eyes remained open and the cigarette which I’d rolled was still in his mouth. The head plopped into the river like a full stop from a hammer in an old typewriter impressing ink into a sheet of paper, or a platen press impressing the final page galley.

The ink flowing around me took on a new colour as the dark, dusty river of life and waste below was splashed with red strike marks, blood spurting from the neck of the headless body next to me, still gripping the handrail. Before I tipped him overboard, I took his wallet.

I engaged the staff in conversation about the distribution of tips paid to the establishment. Once I’d established that tips were distributed fairly among staff, I was able to pay for the meal using my friend’s credit card with a clear conscience.

Of course, I shall burn this copy of the story but I am aware that the galley still exists: that is by design. It is important to my art that a physical record be kept.

My writing is art. I bring things to life with my words and by putting myself in the stories and acting them out so that I may tell them more accurately.

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A library of appetite disorders

FICTION

DIARY OF A SKINNY KID

Cassandra CosPlay‘Lady Cassandra’ (Dr Who) at Toronto Comicon (Emerge)

What’s beneath the headline is the story of everything below the neck. Once a story breaks, trust is lost, like a cradle from a tree. I learned that as a journalist for a local newspaper, before taking a more sedentary and solitary path as a freelancer, writing mainly about the arts and humanities. Sometimes I cross over into fiction, but I try to blur the edges when stories have a basis in past experience.

The internet means I can write and do most of my research from home, and digital printing democratised publishing, helping me and thousands of other writers become published authors. Previously the only way was vanity publishing, where the writer took a leap of faith and paid for stacks of their own books from a traditional printer. With editors removed from the publishing machine, it’s pumped out a lot of shit. As a result, a niche industry has developed underground.

The rage among the entitled classes are bespoke, one-off printed editions of books, a market served by boutique publishers, who are always striving for something new and different. The most exclusive in this rarefied world is Mobius, who can somehow gather sought-after cult writers better than any little black book in the underworld of pulp fiction.

Few writers have one or more novels in them. Most have a collection of short stories which make up their own fictional autobiography. There’s still a big difference between publishing your own novel and having a publishing house, but there’s a far greater difference between self-publishing your own shorts (as simple as posting them on a blog), and having them accepted for outside publication, whether it be online or in print. Writing short stories is more difficult than writing a book, simply because the author has fewer words.

The editor of an anthology or periodical, online or in print, is like a conductor, a Master of Ceremony. The captains of those ships are curators and innkeepers, of works and writers who might not otherwise find themselves together.

I’ve had many stories published by third parties, online, in magazines, and in cult collections. I’ve published my own novels in paperback, but apart from the quarterlies, I’ve not had a short story published in an anthology (although I’ve published two of my own). Published periodically but not permanently, my stories are my own and those of others I never chose to be with. This is where the story starts, when I saw an ad for Mobius in a friend’s university rag mag.

My friend is a psychology student from UCL, on a placement with Lewisham Hospital, just up the road from me. 30 years my junior, we’d been friends since she was at school, through consequence and convenience when the weather was fair, and sometimes she’s stayed over when it rains, sharing stories only we could tell, beyond the birth dates of children and the expiry of parents in our tattoos. Now she spoon-feeds me, as we talk about our lives and she gives me ideas for new stories.

She didn’t like red horror, so this would be a psychological story, more black mirror. Nothing new there, but I was trying to branch out further with my writing, and wanted something I might make into a screenplay, a story within a story, which could turn in on itself and stand up to repeated reading. A story which might be suited to the stage. Mobius could be that.

The ad was brief, a few lines in amongst vacancies for student flat shares, campus clubs and guinea pigs:

Mobius is launching a student arts council project, and we’re looking for volunteers and contributors. We are inviting submissions from authors which tell the stories of the individuals we all are. Successful entries will be published in a unique anthology, which forms the centrepiece for a planned exhibition at The British Library, to raise awareness for our ongoing and future humanities work. Entitled ‘Fictional Reality’, we aim to present something which could only exist in fiction (or the mind) as real. We want the viewer to confront the realism of fiction.

Fictional realism is the theory that in an infinite universe, everything which can happen, has happened. All fiction – places and people – are created as they’re written, then exist as chance would predict they must, in a multiverse of infinite possibilities.

There was an email address, so I sent off a query letter (basically, I’d be interested in contributing, could you send me the editorial guidelines please?) My friend had returned to her student digs, so while I was waiting, I continued writing.

All stories are tales within others, when each contains a part of the writer. Whether it be a mannerism of a character, or a location in a familiar distant dream, the writers of short fiction tell their bigger story in parts, which don’t necessarily fit together, in the way some people don’t when they first meet.

It’s a lonely existence, being a writer, so to be curated into a fiction anthology would mean my story was part of a whole made of many other people. Being a writer suits me, because I can work on my own. I miss the human contact, not of any workplace, but in an outside life. All I have is my psychologist friend, and she’s rarely around now she’s of legal drinking age. Acceptance into this anthology would help the reclusive writer get out and meet new people.

Writers don’t all like to get together in real life (the one outside this writing life, the bigger story beyond), so the publisher has to think about a seating plan. Authors are unlikely to ever dine together, but the order of the stories in the anthology should reflect the kind of conversation which might be expected around an unlikely dining table.

Anyone reading that book in The British Library would be privy to a conversation between minds who wouldn’t normally meet, because they never met, only in the collaboration of a secret world spewing its guts into a bowl. With each story carrying its character, the whole volume should speak an interesting narrative, a whole of many parts, which individually have bigger stories to tell.

The chapters in this exclusive Mobius project would make up a unique life, a new one. So does any collected works anthology, where something can be one of a collection of unique things. I wondered what Mobius could do which would make this venture truly unique, unlike anything before.

Away from the modern democracy of digital, the traditional methods of printing still thrive, even the fine art of letterpress, where galleys of text are assembled by hand before impressing by mechanical platen into the paper. Before print became technology, it was a skilled craft which allowed the fast distribution of information through multiple copies. The only truly unique printed documents are antiquated texts and scrolls, hand-written by artisan scribes. That couldn’t be the truly unique centrepiece promised for The British Library, as it had been done before.

I’ve had many writing desks, many temporary, some in public libraries, others bolted to the floor, and all doubling as dining tables. The one I’m sitting at now is the horse for my typewriter, where many of the stories only me and the psychologist could tell are hidden in a dark web; and where I was invited to meet an agent for Mobius, who I assumed would be an arts student from UCL. An email arrived on my desktop, inviting me to meet a guy called Rupert Surname in the reading room of The British Library.

Rupert hadn’t described himself, leaving him to my imagination. I didn’t know his full name, so I couldn’t look him up on social media. Most people called Rupert at university would probably revert to Facebook’s roots, and use it as an in-campus social network. I didn’t know how tall he was, how old (although I assumed student-age), or what he’d be wearing. I’d ruled out a red jersey and yellow-checked trousers with matching scarf.

The reading room at The British Library is huge, a cathedral to reading and learning. There are hundreds of desks, some grouped socially, like wooden beasts of burden for books and computers. Other desks roam alone, seeking light beneath a window, or preferring the solitude offered by walls of bookshelves. There are nomadic chairs, ridden by students to feast around a beast, a camp fire, or left at a universe laid flat in MDF. Some were tethered to unattended laptops, while the riders smoked outside the realm of fictional realism.

Among the menagerie of mascots left to guard unattended windows on other worlds, there was a Rupert, naked and white: A stuffed bear, sans his usual modesty, sitting next to a laptop about the same height as him. Anyone at eye level could have read what I did on the screen:

Your story must clothe the bear. His jersey will need two sheets of material for the body and one sheet for each arm. The bear’s trousers require two sheets in total, and the length of his scarf is to be your own space, to weave as long as you wish. Please submit the first three sheets for preview.

Was this a student’s own project? A student of what? Fashion, knitting, philosophy? It gave me another idea for the story I was already writing. My journey to King’s Cross hadn’t been for nothing, as I had a plot device.

A sheet of A4 cartridge paper holds around 500 words from my typewriter, so I’d already knitted most of Rupert’s upper half, the first three pages I’d normally send to a prospective publisher. I sent it to Rupert Surname, and queried whether they’d like a synopsis of the whole story. As mine was to be one part of a curated volume, the final work would only be complete once all the contributors’ chapters had been chosen. The publisher retained license of freedom for the final work. If my own life outside this story was one they could influence, by placing it among the tales of others, then I was happy to be guided.

Although The British Library was outside my comfort zone (away from home), in the brief time I’d been there, I’d not felt alienated. There I was, surrounded by knowledge and almost silence, alone but not, part of many stories unfolding in one place as I wrote my own. If Rupert invited me there again, I’d be glad of the excuse to visit. If not, then perhaps to view the final exhibit at the end of this Mobius project. Even if I wasn’t a part of it, I’d still been on the stage where it was produced.

While I waited for a response, I worked on another story I’d been writing for the general market. It was about an understudy actor, stumbling home and ringing on the wrong doorbell. Fictional realism was the music of chance, when my doorbell rang.

It was my UCL psychology student from Lewisham. It was still rag week and there was a new edition of the student mag, with a pulp fiction supplement. And my story was in it.

The story I was writing for Mobius and the British Library, the one which was meant to be exclusive; tales of individuals making a unique whole life for visitors to gaze at; the book produced in some way which made it truly unique, which was meant to enclose my own story, safe from reproduction, was now in a photocopied pulp comic; and I was reading it just as you are now, and just like anyone so inclined, not to seek out something completely new and singular, but happy to read cheap, disposable fiction on the underground.

What,” I wondered, “about The British Library?”

Oh, that’s still going ahead,” she said. “I’m taking your story there.”

What? But I never finished it.”

And you never will. But you have already.”

How?”

The truly unique nature of the project is in the way the story will be presented, in a way which can’t be reproduced.”

Beneath the forest and savannah of the reading room at The British Library, is a network of tunnels lined with shelves. Everything which is published in Britain is held there: one copy of every book, magazine, newspaper, musical score, screenplay, script, and even university rag mags. Even the poorest writer, with no sales, can take comfort in knowing that a copy of their story is held in that subterranean cavern for reference, knowledge and learning. It’s a world off-limits to the reading room, but readers can request a copy of anything ever published, which is retrieved by a robot and delivered to the student’s desk. We are never truly dead until we’re forgotten, and published authors will live in that underground publishing world for as long as The British Library still stands.

So,” I wondered, “what’s so unique about the curation?”

Well,” she said, “words can be copied.” Of course, even if it’s an ancient scribe plagiarising the bible to make his own version. “And so can DNA.”

What’s that got to do with it?”

Would you donate your own skin to have your story told?”

Why would I?”

It would be a way of telling your story as very much your own, if it was printed on sheets of your own skin. Bound into a book, with 49 other shades of flesh, wouldn’t that make for quite the publishing sensation?”

For starters, I wouldn’t do that. Donate my skin? Maybe to a burns victim, but for people to stare at in an exhibition, as I’m stretched over some sort of frame?”

Your skin grafts would be bound with others in the book.”

What, and people would just be able to flick through the pages, looking at my story, all stretched and laid bare?”

Among others, and together you tell the whole story.”

In a book which anyone at all can just finger? I thought this was exclusive. Surely such a unique thing should be encased in glass?”

No-one could read the book in its entirety. It’s not the kind of book you’d borrow from any normal library.”

Well, I wouldn’t donate my skin. That contains me and protects me.”

As does mine, as a student. That’s how comes I’m part of the final story. Student financing, pulp fiction sales; those only cover accommodation and books, not the life I want to live.” She looked down at her white coat. “So I sold my skin. I want to pay you back for all the favours you’ve done me.”

What the fuck are you talking about?”

I’m far more comfortable if one story is told upon another, in a safe place where one can meet like-minded people. Like a glass cage at The British Library, where my body can entwine with others for public entertainment, but remain safe. You’ll be there. Your story will be there, writhing in and out of others, your words coming together like so many authors of others’ stories, trapped in a box and in their own skin, while people file past and gawk at an artistic representation of you and others at work. Reality stripped naked in fiction, Q.E.D. Mind if I take a shower?”

I pushed my chair out of her way. As she stood up, I noticed a new tattoo above her collar:

Diary of a skinny kid
What’s beneath the headline
is the story of everything below the neck…

© Steve Laker, 2019