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.

Alphabetti footer

© Steve Laker, 2019

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

Advertisements

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.

Save

Dining on darkened stools

FLASH FICTION

Pulp Pollution

PULP POLLUTION

As a one-time music writer, I’m crapping it, which is what every horror writer wants their readers to do, as they feed them to obesity in a crowded field. When I write fiction, there are parts of me in every story or character I create, but I’ve rarely lived the actual events in the stories. Now I’m seated alone in Green Inferno, a joint which prides itself on being carnivorous. My first observation is that if you’re in the story yourself, it’s not so easy to make it up as you go along.

The place is cavernous and filled with greenery, so that the experience is one of dining in a plastic south American forest, alone. As I look around, it’s hard to make out many other diners for the dense foliage, which eases my anxiety. Anyone walking through the bushes around me could be a customer, a lost tribe member, or one of the dishes. I hear running water but I can’t see a toilet. I turn my attention to the menu, which is the other point of this place.

It’s a meat restaurant, but with its focus on food provenance. All their dishes are locally sourced, and every cut of meat is traceable to an individual. Reared by organic local farmers, each animal was once a friend, and so every dish comes with a story, like Peter Davidson at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, describing his lifestyle and how that’s improved his finer cuts.

Mine is a shallow hunger, so I browse the appetisers. Among them, I’m intrigued by the pygmy cutlets. The beast once burdened by these isn’t described by species (I assume pork, from a pig), but as a character:

He (we’re told that much) was unwell for much of his short life (not terribly appetising so far). Bullied by his siblings and shunned by his elders, he’d been adopted by other animals. They stop short of actually naming the individuals here, but I gather this little chap had a bit of an identity crisis (I know how he felt).

Another of these pygmy things sounded a bit of an arse: His partner and children had fled his abusive patriarchy, then he’d been ejected by his drift (the collective noun for swine) and become a nomad (and no mates). For years he wandered with lonely guilt, until he died of a broken heart (impaled). In some respects, I could relate to him too.

The stories of the menu certainly make me question whether I should be eating what was once a sentient, self-determining being like me. As a horror writer, I’ve sometimes reflected on the act of consuming dead flesh, questioning if it might be both the most and least respectful way of disposing of a body. On the one hand, it’s everything which was in that living body being taken on by another (so a bit like holy communion). Conversely, it’s power over the body of the lost soul as it’s consumed (not unlike holy communion then).

I decided on a cut from each, whoever they were. While they remained nameless, they’d be just like any other meat on my plate. As food, once the organism has ceased to function, it becomes organic. It’s consumed, drained of its nutrients for the nourishment of the host, then what’s left is excreted as waste: Life as pulp fiction, picked up on airport news stands, consumed in the air, and cast into the bin on different shores, like so much human waste. Perhaps there are beach combers there, and some stories live again, but I was growing distracted in the plastic green inferno.

My stomach was growing cramped, like my surroundings; vegetation everywhere, but not a leaf to eat. And yet, the dishes I’d ordered were once living beings with stories. I owed them enough respect to eat them while they were still warm.

I’m not sure if it was a server or a customer who ran through the foliage behind me. I couldn’t tell if the sound of flowing water was from a distant stream or the glass now being poured beside me, as my food arrived. I couldn’t wait.

I dined alone as always, with only myself for company, pondering publication of this review. The writer who shit himself.

“Door open or closed?” It made no difference, as I passed an effigy of me. It appeared to smile as I flushed it away to some distant beach.

© Steve Laker, 2018

A momentary lapse of location

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FLASH FICTION

It’s been a while since I wrote anything, mainly because the battle to regain my personal independence from the Department for Work and Pensions is still ongoing, and becoming more like dealing with Vogon democracy by the day. But more of that another time. For now, this is a return from self-imposed social isolation.

social isolationHuffpost: from an article on technology and social isolation

Like playing truant from school, the longer I go without writing, the harder it is to come back, and the deeper I have to dig to pull myself out. But something dawned on me yesterday: I was effectively surrendering to the government’s social cleansing and economic murder machinery, by allowing them to stop me from writing, by weighing down my mental baggage.

Whatever holds you back from what you want to do is a demon. Don’t let that consume you, cast it out, like so much toxicity in your life. How? By realising it’s doing you no good for as long as it’s in your head, because it’s consuming you. When you realise that, you’ll see what’s in your head like you probably haven’t before (you were blind to it), and you’ll hate it. It’s been hating you all along, like a memory which taunts you by cheating on you. Don’t feed the trolls.

Some things I can’t write about autobiographically, but neither can I be censored as a fiction writer able to capture parallels. The story below is part analogy of the effect the social machine has had on me, and an exorcism.

This is where I’ve been. It’s short, but each word carries hours of feeling from being away. So many things banging in my head that I placed them into a single entity.

blood film strip

THE ORIGIN OF RECALL

I first became aware of my neighbours when I realised I could listen to them through the wall. I grew closer to them as I got older, but it I couldn’t meet them. My self-containment meant it would be a long time before I fully understood them.

At first I couldn’t make out what they were saying, their voices muffled by our adjoining wall. I learned that voice inflections, volumes and tones, belie a mood in any native tongue, and that anger is the same in any language. They made more sense as I heard them grow louder with every passing day, as though my hearing was improving. His name was Jonas, but I never learned hers.

I’d never seen them. Perhaps we’d meet outside one day, but for now I wasn’t ready to go beyond my comfort zone. Noisy neighbours slamming doors can be intimidating, and I had no wish to be a part of any argument beyond that internal wall.

My sleep was sporadic, I was unable to settle into any kind of routine, never knowing when I’d be woken by the neighbours. Days drifted into sleep through exhaustion, and I slept when they did, when the walls weren’t pounding in my head. There I’d sometimes dream of getting out.

The earth is billions of years old, and humankind have only walked on this planet for a fleeting moment. Given that we have so little time here, shouldn’t we all question what’s around us? At least then, our children will be able to continue conversations which we started, like so many small human legacies.

When the noise started again, I didn’t want to open my eyes. When I’d dreamed, I found the human senses are connected, not with one compensating for another if it’s lost, but withdrawing together in solidarity. The longer I closed my eyes, the less I could hear, and so I could sleep.

The last time they woke me, I’d still not met them, never ventured out into that corridor. He was pounding on the wall again, their voices so loud that no barrier could cushion the anger.

I knew I was what they were arguing about. I was “that fucking thing in there,” and I feared my reception if we ever met outside. The anger was punching through now, knocking against my head and chipping the paint from the wall.

I had an almost overwhelming urge to get out of there, but feared anything outside of my confines. I’d had time to think, learn and dream in there, and I couldn’t leave.

They say kids develop their formative memory at around two years old, and before that they know nothing and are subject to conditioning. We are all different, but we’re born the same, with memories which we forget, long before we’re able to talk. Knowledge boils while curiosity evaporates.

Maybe I should have got out when I could, improving my chances outside by being premature. But I stayed. Born still, I was free. I did everyone a favour. Natural selection, preserved in ultrasound images.

They hadn’t decided on a name for me: either Jonas or Joan, depending on what I came out as. If I was a boy, I’d have been named after him. I was Jonas.

ultrasound

© Steve Laker, 2019

So that was me exorcising the demons who would prevent me from doing what keeps me living. I won’t give up. I’ll keep writing, and I shan’t surrender to the mind beating.

A story written into a person

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 fluid.

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.

Christmas holiday on thin ice

HORROR FICTION

Blood dripping

As has become tradition, the tail end of Advent is the time for my alternative nativity. With the state of the UK and the world beyond, this could be the last Christmas humanity sees. Or it could be that biblical prophesies about The Beast and the Antichrist are played out in the present.

Soon we might see a new star in the sky, the second coming of extraterrestrial visitors. Or it could be just another Christmas in the UK, where a fascist dictatorship is intent on social cleansing, through economic starvation and murder.

Union blood

The original Another Nativity was written when I lost any religion while I was living on the streets, and it’s in my first anthology. It was re-written as a play for Schlock webzine, which proclaimed, Steve Laker gets into the Yuletide spirit with a ruthless, uncompromising deconstruction of immaculate conception”.

It’s more anti-Christmas, crass commercialism and consumerism (and waste) than Antichrist (my atheism is grounded in science, as the prosecution in this story); and it’s a social comment, on how – like at weddings – everyone feels obliged to have the best one ever, while the host is slowly pressured by perceived expectations. It’s human shame, drawing attention by schlock pulp fiction, to other issues all too conveniently overlooked at this time of year.

It’s Christmas, where the human stage is thin ice, and one of my hats is that of the horror writer with a dark heart. Please take your seats, as the curtains open…

Another nativity

ANOTHER NATIVITY

(Contains material guaranteed to offend)

Another year, another end of term, and another Christmas. A different group of children, at another school, and another nativity…

Why are they doing the nativity at a secondary school? It’s a primary school thing, surely.”

It’s art, apparently.”

It’s bollocks.”

Well, it says here, A modern artistic twist is given to the well-loved story of Mary and Joseph finding shelter at Christmas, so that they may have their boy child, born of the Lord.

Like I said then, bollocks.”

Actually, I’ve heard of the writer they drafted in. I’ve got a feeling this might be a bit different. And besides, it’s our fucking daughter.”

Oh, does she still live here?”

Yes, I know.”

She’s fucking twelve. Where is Maz anyway?”

She’s at the school. There’s food.”

Oh, that’s a clincher then…”

 

Parents, guardians, family and friends, welcome to our production of Another Nativity for the stage.

The following is a true story, a Christmas message, adapted from the bible…

Act I

It was the old-school cheap props method of a cushion up her jumper which made Marilyn feel so secure on stage. She was pregnant. She couldn’t make out her father in the audience. This was a nativity, nothing else.

The stomach cramps were stage fright, only that. The audience out there really cared. She could get over this and speak her lines, after so many weeks of rehearsal. It was just a nativity. A man speaks:

Marilyn, we’re here to tell a story and we need your help. You are welcome here. Tell us first, how you came to be here.”

Joe and me have been walking for three days. We’re homeless because my dad chucked us out. As you can see, I’m pregnant. We came here for the health care and to register the birth.”

How did you come to be with child?”

I was raped.”

By whom, Marilyn?”

I don’t know. I didn’t see him.”

The child is not your partner’s?”

No.”

No. Thank You Marilyn. To spare you further questions for now, I will refer to the statement which you made previously under oath.

You suspected that you were pregnant because you’d missed a period, so you took a test. The test was positive. You thought little of it, hoping that the test was incorrect or that the problem would go away. Is that correct?”

Yes.”

You met Joe around two weeks after this, and a month into the relationship, you had unprotected sexual intercourse for the first time. Your hymen was ruptured and you bled. Is this right? Is this what you said?”

Yes.”

Confused, you thought that this might be your existing pregnancy miscarrying, so you took another pregnancy test immediately after that first sexual encounter: it too was positive. Correct?”

Yes.”

It was too soon after you’d had intercourse with Joe for his sperm to have penetrated any eggs in your womb, yet he had clearly taken your virginity. Therefore, it would seem that you’d been pregnant and a virgin at the same time.

I should like to call on Doctor Bateman. Doctor: you have examined the patient. Can you confirm the stage of her pregnancy?”

Yes, your honour. Based on the current size and development of the foetus, the patient is 20 weeks pregnant. This would place the date of conception several weeks prior to her first sexual encounter with her current partner.

Of course, the hymen can become ruptured in many ways besides intercourse. It is possible to be a virgin whilst not having an intact hymen but it is impossible to become pregnant with the hymen intact. I wish to hand you over to Inspector Aldred.”

Thank you doctor. Your honour: the doctor is of course correct in her statement. Our priority was to identify the father of the child. The claimant’s partner had volunteered for a DNA swab. Clearly we also needed the DNA of the mother and baby. This was gained with consent. I can confirm that the claimant’s partner is not the father of the unborn child. Furthermore, the unborn child’s DNA is identical to that of the mother.”

Which suggests a number of things Inspector.”

Yes your honour. We can discount accidental insemination through heavy petting, simply by virtue of the DNA tests. This leaves two scientific explanations for a baby which carries only the DNA of its mother. I shall return the stage to Doctor Bateman.”

Thank you Inspector. The first possibility is that the claimant produced a clone of herself. This has been observed in the natural world. However, any parthenogenetic progeny of a mammal would have two X chromosomes and would therefore be female: this child is male.

The remaining possibility is that the claimant is carrying a chimera. It is extremely unlikely but nonetheless possible, in theory at least, that an egg could be cloned by the mother, develop through the embryonic stage and only then be fertilised by male sperm to make the embryo viable. There is much academic research on the subject but it is not a phenomenon which has been observed under scientific conditions.”

It is therefore highly unlikely Doctor?”

Yes your honour.”

Thank you doctor. It would appear that there are two possibilities: the first is improbable and the second, more so. Either young Marilyn here has self-produced an embryo which her partner has then fertilised, or the alternative is quite fantastical.

The only remaining explanation is an immaculate conception. This would be a miracle and therefore, grounded in something other than science. But it goes further than religion and faith as well, because the most important thing of all, is how Marilyn feels about all of this.”

I feel sick.”

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, we’ll take an interval. Court is in recess.”

Unseen backstage, Marilyn is being tended by three wise souls and three shepherds. In this production, those roles are respectively opportunist capitalists, looking to package up a religion and sell it, and those who might otherwise guide her: legal counsel, social services, and rehabilitation advisers.

While the jury has retired, we should like the public gallery to consider the implications of this unique case.

It cannot be denied that young Marilyn is pregnant, so we have to consider two possibilities: That she is pregnant with her partner’s child but through naivety rather than intention, and it is highly unlikely in any case. Equally unlikely however, is that she may have had an immaculate conception and is carrying the child of God. Either way, she is the incubator, the transport and the means of delivery. The foetus is viable but still at a stage where it may be legally aborted.

There are other ethical matters to consider however, albeit some theoretical: if she is carrying the son of God, who has the authority to deny that child’s life? If the father were to be her partner, there is no way to prove this, nor indeed is there sufficient proof that that the two of them may have engaged in underage sex.

Given the evidence before us, I have reached a decision.

I invite you to join us in court, for Act II.

Marilyn, firstly, I commend your courage in taking the stand today, and sharing your story with us. It’s a story which some might otherwise use for their own immoral gain, but your testament, and the expert evidence presented here today, allow us to prove something different, and to change the way people think, that while beliefs are to be respected, they should not deny liberty.

Even though I’m an atheist who can also reconcile some religious theory with science, I have to rule on something which others might consider superior to me. But as a judge, I must transcend beliefs, and witness false deities worshipped by the gullible. Standing before me, metaphorically – or some would believe, all around – is God. A god who refuses to be questioned, for questioning denies faith. I put it to this god, that questioning faith is a human liberty, and should he wish to be judged, let him stand before this court.

God had sex with you, Marilyn, without your consent. The conception may be immaculate, but the situation which I am faced with is unprecedented. With the eyes of the law, I see before me a 12-year-old girl who is pregnant. I will recommend that further counselling might be appropriate, so that you may retain the liberty of choice. I will ensure that choice is informed.

God, I find you guilty of rape, and of sex with a minor. Sentence is simply that which you desire: for stories of your deeds to be told in public. Marilyn, is there anything you’d like to add, anything you’d like to say to God?”

Yeah. I didn’t ask for this child, so why should I carry it for you? Maybe so he can spend thirty years tricking people about his old man, a filthy old kiddy-fiddler. But this kid can make amends for that, by killing himself, or as the other story goes, God gave his own son. Why? Because he thought he’d be found out? I can write stories too.

The son of God, who feeds the starving, by breaking bread and making wine, proclaiming that all those who consume it will be taking his body and his blood. Cannibalism by self-flagellation.

You are one sick and twisted old man, God. Behold, meat stolen from a fucking supermarket, for my family’s Christmas dinner, born to you this day from my vestal virgin vagina. Witness, the son of God, still-born on stage.”

From all at the school, and the many others who worked on this production, we thank you for coming. We hope to see you again for our Easter production.

Thank you for your Harvest Festival donations this year. All of the basics tinned goods which no-one else wanted are very welcome. Next year, please bring something worthwhile for the homeless, especially the girls. We desperately need sanitary products.

Have a very merry Christmas.

© Steve Laker, 2017

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…

A-Freaky-Dinner-Party-horror-movies-2921847-800-600

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.