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
It was the only sea shell which didn’t contain the ocean. When held to the ear, it was silent.
Every shell, on a beach or miles inland, carries a recording: The last sound, to be played back innumerable times if anyone listened. But one shell contained nothing when he held it to his ear. A vacuum. It fitted perfectly into his hand. The size of an adult thumb, his fingers clasped the shell tightly as he walked along the beach.
He shooed some gulls from a discarded bag of chips and sat down to eat with his invisible partner. The birds strutted around, like impatient waiters keen to get home. The chips tasted of the sea: salt. If the ocean had contained none, he would gladly have drained it.
The water played tricks, as though enticing him to drink it: Small and gentle waves merely caressed the beach, like spilled pints of beer in a desert. The water was brown and the moonlight sparkled on frosty suds on the surface: A cola float. A plastic bottle was pushed temptingly towards him, but it was empty; not even a note inside.
The boy looked out over the sea. There were no lighthouses; no ships in the night. Just the spectral light of the sun reflected from the moon. It was silent. It was still. It was beautiful.
Clouds moved slowly across the sky, like the last sheep returning home after a storm. They cast shadows on the shore as they passed in front of the moon and were lit up like candyfloss. Then a figure walked from the shadows: A man, wearing a tall hat and a long coat, silhouetted against the moon, his shadow stretching up the beach to cover the boy’s feet.
The man scooped the plastic bottle up and turned to the boy: “Hello son.” The boy said nothing. He didn’t even look at the man. He just stared at the beach. The man spoke again: “Hello.”
“Hi. I’m not your son.” The boy still looked straight ahead.
“Of course you’re not. I’m so sorry”, said the man. “I’m not your father.” The man sat down and placed the bottle beside him. “What would you prefer?” The boy just stared at the man’s boots: Black pixie boots, with probably two inch heels. “Perhaps you don’t understand. Maybe you only know certain words.” The man stood. “I’ll write some down for you, here in the sand:
“I like that one.” The boy pointed. “Human”.
“Do you have a name?”
“What’s your name?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know your own name?”
“I lost it.”
“Do you have parents?”, said the man, sitting back down.
“I think so.” For the first time, the boy looked up. “They were out there.” He pointed to the sea.
“There are many things out there,” said the man. “That’s where I used to live.”
“On a boat?”
“No, beneath the waves. So much quieter.”
“In a kind of submarine.”
“Where do you live now?”
“Not really. I’ve made a place. Wanna see? Get a drink, have a smoke?”
“Is it far?”
“About five minutes away.” The man stood again. “If you don’t trust me, then you should thank your parents. I’m a stranger. Your parents aren’t here. If you like, I can just go and I’ll bring you back fresh water. You can wait here. But I have a story to tell you. If you don’t hear it, then you’ve lost nothing.
“You never know what’s gonna happen next. And the moment you think you do, that’s the moment you don’t know anything. This is what we call a paradox. Are you with me?”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Talus: Theodore Anthony Nikolai Talus. You can call me Theo.” The man looked at the sand. “I’ll call you Hugh.”
“It’s short for human.”
Hugh stood up. Theo offered his hand and the boy held onto his thumb: it was bony and gnarled; twisted and covered in callouses. As they walked, it became clear in the moonlight that the beach was a cove: Sand bordered by ocean and overhanging cliffs. Hugh felt safe, as though physical contact confirmed Theo to be real. He looked up at this man from the sea, the man who’d emerged from the shadows. As though sensing his gaze, Theo looked down. “How old are you, Hugh?”
“Haha!” Theo stopped and grinned. Everything was quiet and a wave broke on the shore. “Hahaha! Sorry. I just had a thought.” Two more waves broke.
“I just said to you, back there, do you want to come back for a smoke? And you’re nine!? I’ve just got this phrase in my head: ‘Act your age and not your shoe size.’” Theo looked down at his feet.
“I just need a drink.”
“Of course. Sorry. Not far now. About twenty Mississippis or elephants, I’d say.”
“Seconds. A Mississippi is a second and so is an elephant. In fact, as one Elephant drank from the Mississippi, another one saw it. It walked over to join its friend and then there were two elephants. Others saw them and soon there were twenty elephants, drinking from the Mississippi. And here we are.”
Theo lead Hugh into a cave at the foot of the rock face. A wave broke on the beach; a Mississippi and an elephant; then they were at a small wooden door, marked ‘No. 7 ⅞’.
“No-one ever comes here. This cove is permanently cut off by the tide.” Theo opened the door and gestured Hugh inside.
“What does the sign on the door mean?”
“Nothing really. That’s just what was printed on one of the pallets I made the door from. Quite a few wooden pallets wash up on the beach. I just tell myself that this is life number seven and that I’m seven eighths of the way through it. Anyway, come in young Hugh man.”
Inside was like the interior of a wooden cabin, complete with an open fire in one wall. The walls and ceiling were lined with lengths of wood from pallets, and sections of wooden boxes. More boxes and pallets had been made into shelves which lined the walls and every shelf was full of items apparently washed up and collected from the beach: Bottles, tins and cans; sea shells, mermaid’s purses and petrified starfish; driftwood, fragments of metal and plastic.
“Could I get a drink now?” Hugh asked.
“Of course. Sorry. Wait here. I’ll just be a moment.”
Theo walked through a second wooden door at the back of the cabin and Hugh heard water being poured.
Dried seaweed hung over the shelves and there were two oil drums on either side: Both were filled with carrier bags and plastic drinks collars. The oil drums were marked, “IN” and “OUT” in white paint. Theo returned and handed Hugh the plastic bottle.
“That’s what I do some of the time,” Theo said, pointing at the drums. “Break the ties of the plastic things, imagining they’re the necks of the bastards who threw them away.” Hugh just nodded his head as he gulped from the bottle. “Sorry if that’s a bit warm. Nowhere to plug a fridge in, even if I wanted one.”
“It’s okay. It’s water; no salt.”
“Take a seat.” Theo motioned towards the wall opposite the shelves. A couch had been fashioned from packing crates and fishing net. To one side was an up-turned fruit box with a set of scales and sea shells on top, and on the arm of the sofa was a book. Assuming this to be Theo’s spot, Hugh sat at the opposite end.
Theo stoked the fire with his boot and pulled some dried seaweed from the shelves. He screwed the seaweed up in his hand and sat next to Hugh.
“Mind if I do?”
“No. It’s your home.”
“Mi Casa, su casa.” Theo tore a page from the book on the table and used it to roll a cigarette with the dried seaweed. “Let me show you something.”
“What are you gonna show me?”
“I’ll show you how much smoke weighs. Watch.” Theo pulled the table towards him and pointed to the scales. “These are liberty scales. On the one side here, we have a crucible; a bowl. I’ll put this cigarette on there, like so.
“Here on the other side, we have a flat plate. It’s empty, so it’s up in the air. Now I need to balance the weight to the cigarette.
“See these shells here? Lots of shells; Lots of shapes, sizes and densities: Many different weights. The bigger ones, they look like shells, but the others? You’d be forgiven for thinking that some of them were just large grains of sand. But if you look really closely, they’re tiny shells. Think how many of those might be out there on the beach and no-one would know. And all of them were once somebody’s home.
“So, by adding shells of different sizes…
“With trial and error…
“The scales should…
“Take some off, and the scales should…
“Balance. There you go.” Theo sat back and pointed at the scales. “So, there you have my cigarette, perfectly balanced. Do you have a light?”
“Er, no. You have a fire though?”
“Of course. Excuse me.” Theo picked up the cigarette. The plate of shells dropped but none fell off. Theo lit the cigarette from the open fire and cupped his hand under it as he returned to the sofa. As he sat down, he tipped a few flecks of ash into the bowl of the scales. The scales moved just a fraction, as though caught in a gentle breeze. Were it not for that brief movement, the plate of shells may as well have stayed at their lowest point. The scales had tipped, barely discernibly.
The smoke from Theo’s cigarette transported Hugh: The burning seaweed conjured images of a roadside Chinese food market; Of flames doused with salt water. A burning street washed away by a tsunami.
With every draw on the cigarette, Theo carefully tipped the ash into the crucible and the shells rose, fractions of a millimetre at a time. When Theo had finished the cigarette, he supported the crucible from underneath and stubbed out the butt in the bowl. He slowly moved his hands away and the shells rose to balance the scales.
“You see? Almost nothing. That’s how much the smoke weighs. The same as the words on that page: Almost weightless as they just sat there in the book, but now free. Out there.”
“That’s quite philosophical.”
“A lot of the words in the book were. But I’ve been trapped here in this cove for long enough now that it’s time to let them go.
“That book was a journal when it was washed up on the shore. It can’t have been in the sea for long because it was still holding together, but the pages were just one pulpy lump. I could tell it’d been written in because the edges of the pages were streaked with blue ink. I hoped I might be able to read those words; someone’s diary or manuscript; someone lost at sea.
“So I hung it out to dry. Every couple of hours, I’d go out there and gently manipulate the pages, hoping they’d all become separated and that there were some words left; something to read, something to do. But when it had all dried out, it was nothing but blank pages.
“It was quite beautiful actually. Where the ink had run and dried out in different ways, some pages looked like sheets of marble; Others were like blueberry ripple ice cream. Pencils wash up on the beach all the time.”
Theo stood and walked to the shelves. He pointed to a box. “Lots of pencils. My favourites are the Staedtler Noris range: the black and yellow ones.” He picked some more seaweed from above the fire. “My preferred pencil is the Staedtler Noris 120: That’s an HB, or grade 2 in America.” Theo walked back to the sofa. “Even better than that though is the 122: The HB pencil with an eraser on the end. All wooden pencils float, of course; but it’s like the 122 has a little life preserver to help it to shore.” He sat down next to Hugh. “That pencil needs to be written with. And there are so many stories in a single pencil.” Theo tore another page from the journal and rolled a cigarette. “Can I get you anything, Hugh man? Another drink? I could probably rustle up something to eat if you like.”
“No, I’m okay. Can I use the bathroom?”
“Mi casa, su casa. It’s right out there.” Theo put the cigarette in his mouth and nodded to the front door. Hugh didn’t move. “What, you expect me to be all en suite?”, Theo continued. “All that’s out back is a store room: Go check for yourself. I’m here on my own, the cove is a cove and the cave is cut off. So, just do what you need to do out there.”
“On the beach?”
“Would you go to the toilet on your own front lawn?”
“I don’t have one.”
“Neither do I. So, do what you have to do out there, near the water. I normally go right where the waves break but I don’t want you getting washed away or anything dramatic like that. Nature will clear up behind you. There’s plenty of seaweed out there if you need to wipe but bring it in here and throw it on the fire when you’re done. I don’t want to smoke it.”
“I only need a pee.”
As Hugh stood in the moonlight, he could appreciate why so much from the ocean was washed up in front of Theo’s cave. With the tide only about twenty feet from the front door, it swept debris along the curved edges of the cliffs stretching out to sea in an arc on either side. He could already see some of the next day’s haul: Plastic bags to go in the oil drums; Wood and paper to be dried and burned; Empty bottles and drinks cans to be used as storage or perhaps to make a sculpture; Dead fish to cook and eat; seashells and other things for the cabinet of curiosities.
Inside, Theo sat on the sofa with the cigarette still in his mouth, unlit. “I don’t suppose you found a light?”
“No. Even if I had, we’d need to dry it out anyway. May I?” Hugh took the cigarette from Theo’s mouth. He lit it from the open fire and took a drag before handing it back.
“Thanks.” Theo took a draw on the cigarette as Hugh sat back down. “You sure you won’t have one? I won’t tell.”
“There’s no-one to tell.” Hugh slid down on the sofa and gripped a wooden box between his feet. He manoeuvred it closer, then rested his legs on it. “Su casa, mi casa.”
“So, I started to write things down. First with a 122, then later I switched to a 120.
“Of course, the writer always has freedom with a pencil. The eraser gave me more freedom. I was writer and editor. Maybe I wrote that 122 down to a stub: I don’t recall individual pencils.
“In any case, I decided that the 120 would permit me yet more freedom. Even though it lacks the eraser and although I could still rub out the words if I really needed to, the fact that I couldn’t allowed me to write more freely. The editing was out of my hands.
“I filled that book with memories: mine and those of others.
“And when I say I filled the book, I mean, it was full. Towards the end, my writing was so small that you’d need a very good pair of eyes, a magnifying glass or strong glasses to read it. The odd pair of glasses wash up on the beach every now and then but it’s usually just the frames. So I could look sophisticated perhaps but someone would only have to poke at my eyes to see that I was a fraud.
“Once the last page was filled, I started again; in the margins and at the top and bottom of each page.
“Every day, I’d hope for a new delivery of writing paper. Lots of paper gets washed up but it’s all newspapers and magazines.
“Newspapers just disintegrate: They’re the lowest grade of pulp paper and revert quickly. Magazines are so heavily polished and covered in pictures that they don’t wash. I needed a certain kind of paper. I needed another notebook.
“But nothing got delivered. And that’s when I started smoking.”
“So the book with all your notes in…”
“Stories. Many stories. And there were many more left in the pencils but I had nowhere to write. So I smoked it.”
“Can you remember any of the stories?”
“All of them. I lived them.”
There are as many pictures in words as there are words in pictures. A good story is only one tenth in the words. If the writer chooses the words well enough, the other nine tenths doesn’t need to be written because it’s already there, in the words: It’s the images which the writer conjures; the dreams; the dark matter which makes up most of the universe. Every story ever written has a part of the writer within it, whether it be the author inhabiting a character or a story on the fringe of experience.
“Will you tell me one of the stories?”
“A bedtime story, at your age?”
“Something to connect me to the sea.”
“How about a story with no ending, until you fall asleep?
“It is a story with no ending, because the ending may never and will never be told nor heard. It concerns a man who has outlived his children, his grandchildren, and who will outlive every generation which will come after him.
“Ever since he was a boy, he was curious. So much so that his curiosity got him into trouble when he started to find answers. But his curiosity was eventually rewarded. He was given the means to find out anything he liked. But it was a poisoned chalice; a curse. There was a condition: He may not speak of his discoveries.
“This is just the beginning of that story. In fact, this is merely a summary of the first chapter; A synopsis.
“A synopsis tells the whole story on one page: Just a few well-chosen words which contain many more words and images within themselves; The stars visible in the sky: Cosmic pinpricks in the dark matter.
“The boy lived in the ocean, in a city deep beneath the waves. His parents told him everything they knew about the world around them. The more stories they told him, the more inquisitive he got.
“He was fascinated by the surface. Everyone said that there was nothing above the surface. In fact, even talking about it was forbidden. Travelling there was impossible. But the boy was convinced that beyond the surface, there was something else. And beyond that, something further still. He wanted to build a tower to the surface, to break through and be witness to what was above.
“The surface wasn’t the only taboo. Speculation about anything outside of generally held beliefs was frowned upon. Imagination was effectively illegal. But there were rebels: Those who would meet in secret to defy the thought police.
“The boy joined a fringe society: They called themselves The Biblical Dead. They broke the rules, discussed and even wrote about things which only existed in imagination.
“The Biblical Dead would meet in a den outside the city. They’d smuggle in words they’d written and read their stories to each other. The Biblical Dead had a members’ code: What is said to the dead, what is heard by the dead and who is seen with the dead, remains with the dead.”
Hugh was asleep, so Theo rolled a cigarette and stood outside on the beach, surrounded by the cove.
“And you must not hear the end of the story, young Hugh. The curious boy was unable to contain his ambitions and he betrayed The Biblical Dead, simply by referring to them in a story he wrote and which he lost. The society found out about this and he was banished.
“If he wished to tell stories, then he must do so only to himself. But he must have stories to tell. And so the legend has it that the curious boy was sentenced: To live every life which has ever been lived and all which will come. He must learn for eternity, as every human and every animal which ever roamed the earth and every creature that still will.
“But he must never speak of it.
“You never know what’s gonna happen next. And the moment you think you do, that’s the moment you don’t know anything.”
Hugh lived alone in his new home for many years. Every day, he would continue Theo’s work, collecting things from the beach. The fire was kept burning by a regular supply of wood and he collected many curiosities for the shelves: Shells, mermaid’s purses, tins, boxes and bottles. None of the bottles contained messages.
He quickly learned how Theo had made fresh water with a simple desalination plant: a saucepan of salt water, boiled and the steam collected in a funnel overhead. As the steam condensed, it rolled down the inside of the funnel and collected in a tray underneath the saucepan.
Most nights, Hugh would cook dead fish washed up in the cove. Occasionally, an expired crab would make a gourmet treat. There was a plentiful supply of seaweed, to boil, fry or smoke.
The supply of pencils was maintained by the tide but the paper was newsprint and magazines; only good for the fire. There was never another notebook: Just the remaining pages of Theo’s, with writing so small that Hugh couldn’t read it and so he smoked the pages just as Theo had.
If Hugh had had the means to write, there were two things which he’d like to have made special note of: an unbroken jam jar and a shell which scuttled across the cove one day as he was beach combing.
The intact jar, placed to his eye, would make an ideal magnifier. He picked up the walking shell and studied the homeowner inside: A hermit crab, perhaps looking for a new home.
Hugh took the jar into his shack. He placed shells inside which were larger than the crab’s then arranged them in a line on the beach. He went back inside and read the last pages of Theo’s book through his new magnifier.
The next morning, he checked the shells he’d laid outside. As he suspected, one had disappeared and a smaller one lay in its place.
Hugh picked up the discarded shell: It fitted in his palm like a gnarled thumb. He placed it to his ear and it made no sound.
© Steve Laker, 2017
This story is taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency, out now.
I’ve called this ‘What’s the matter with us?’
THE WRITER’S LIFE
When does life actually end? When we stop breathing and our heart stops beating, when our brain dies, or when we’re forgotten, or no longer loved? An hour spent randomly clicking around Wikipedia is never time wasted. It’s a well-known almost-fact that all articles on Wikipedia eventually lead back to philosophy. In fact the theory itself is further recursive with its own Wiki entry.
I’m finding that self-curated tours around the internet, armed with some common sense and a curious mind, can be quite fulfilling. It’s a world where you can go virtually anywhere, with little regard for safety, yourself, or others. It’s a universe of ideas, and full of parallels with the land of the living (undead). Bidding my imaginary room mate (Jeff) a pleasant evening, I headed out earlier onto the internet and into what’s on my parallel mind.
According to the theory of fictional realism, everything which has been written or imagined already exists. At the quantum level, every reality which was a possibility but which didn’t become reality (to the observer), became real and actual in a parallel universe. It’s an idea which makes quantum computers able to open portals to new dimensions and invite demons into our world, but for now, I was just concerned with the virtual universe and microcosm of human existence which is the World Wide Web.
(One of those little QI-type facts you pick up and never forget: The World Wide Web was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who gave it away for free (imagine how different the world would be if it had been capitalised from the start. No, don’t). The story (perhaps apocryphal) goes that the prefix before any URL would be an abbreviation of “The Internet Machine,” which is of course TIM. Berners-Lee – a modest man – resisted this and instead suggested WWW for World Wide Web, which we still use today. But it’s a contradiction: when spoken “WWW” has three times as many syllables as the words it seeks to abbreviate. I don’t know if it’s all true or not, but it does no-one any harm to assume it is.)
Among all the fake news and the hacking of democracy, the internet still serves as a crucible for all human knowledge. There are holes, dents and bits missing from the universal encyclopedia, but that’s further reflection of the collective hands of the one race who made it.
Unable to go out much in my physical world, I thought I’d broaden my virtual horizons. The first thing I happened upon could easily be my transport in that virtual universe, as it was never built and always remained a dream.
Based on the Dornier Do X sea plane, this was a larger future imagining. I’m no physicist but the wings would have to extend way off the sides of my monitor and have six or eight propeller engines each. Still, it’s a romantic idea. I assumed such a splendidly redundant thing was at least plausible, and it only takes imagination to jump on board a big yellow bird: Sesame Street meets Transformers.
Our leviathan landed on a lake, where I found another place which never fulfilled its intended purpose: Fort Montgomery on Lake Champlain was built after the American War of Independence, on the border with British Canada to protect against British invasion. It was discovered by the British when they found it had been built on their side of the border. It was subsequently abandoned and became known as “Fort Blunder,” which kind of sums up the whole British colonialism and latter American imperialism we witness today: Incompetence, written all over the rest of mankind’s history (a bit like war).
Landing close to water back on the real world, I saw a sea lion in a world created by humans. I’d normally dismiss anything which exploits an animal for human entertainment, but this guy seems to turn the whole thing on its head (he perhaps has with connections with Lake Champlain):
Assuming the keepers’ calls aren’t connected to any past aversion technique, this is a perfect demonstration of assembled intelligence levels. In Cyrus Song, some of the zoo animals are grateful they’re there, because they get food and shelter, and they can take the piss out of humans.
The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy noted that Earth was “Mostly harmless.” Perhaps an addendum: “A bit like America: Nice, but full of humans.”
Humans are capable of beautiful dreams and horrible nightmares. All we need to do is keep talking, and listening. Everything that’s happened, and much which didn’t, remains in parallel universes created when someone had the idea. Life ends when we stop thinking.
Random thought: Fairground ghost train + pinball table = roller coaster.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
How do I do sci-fi? In many ways, but sometimes I’ll have a debate with myself, I play devil’s advocate, argue, propose ideas and put them to a vote. It’s really a case of asking “what if…” then thinking of ways that might actually be possible. Many science fiction stories of the past have been branded preposterous, only for science to catch up later and prove the ancient scribes right.
What if humans weren’t evolved from apes at all? What if the ‘Missing link’ in human evolution didn’t exist, so we’d been vainly searching for something we’d never find? What if some modern humans did evolve from Neanderthals but most homo sapiens evolved from dolphins?
What if we explored the ocean beds – a landscape we know less about than the surface of Mars – and found fossils of ‘mermaids’, which were actually the evolutionary stages between dolphin and modern human? What if once in pre-history, the first human emerged from the sea, just like primitive mammals evolved from fish? Dolphins are air-breathing mammals, just like us.
What if the dolphins’ purpose was to make us? With bigger brains than ours, dolphins are undoubtedly more intelligent than us. We only lack proof because we haven’t been able to work out their communication, much of which is inaudible to us and possibly telepathic.
What if the dolphins’ telepathy allows them to speak to cousins in distant galaxies? What if humans are an experiment? What if it’s been the dolphins studying us all along and not the white mice?
What if news has been sent back to the home world, that humans are an infection on a planet? What if wild dolphins swimming alongside boats are trying to tell us something, but we don’t understand?
What if diminishing dolphin populations are only partly as a result of climate change and fishing? What if Douglas Adams was right, and all the dolphins beamed off of Earth just before the whole experiment concluded? What if most of them have already left?
It’s paradoxical but it’s plausible. Remove every “What if” and it reads differently. Now it becomes fact in the eyes of the gullible. If an alien intelligence scanning Earth picked up just this blog post, it might not be inclined to research sources and accept this all as fact, just as the original Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy described Earth as simply “Mostly harmless.”
THE WRITER’S LIFE
Like a shit sandwich in the post, and like death, a computer crash is one of my life’s expectations. The postman delivered, my computer had a fit, but the world didn’t end and I didn’t die. I had to do some finding of the self though, in the worlds I’ve created.
Kasparov – Deep Thought. Game in one gate, Geek Magazine
I lost a few work-in-progress short stories but I still have the ideas, so I can start them again. I’d also written a fairly definitive post on how the world might end or not, as well as theorising some more on life, the universe and everything. It’s not lost as it’s still in my head, much as it was in Arthur Dent’s at the end of the original Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
The world’s current predicament is complex, with many actors and possibilities. In an age where the daily news is sometimes like watching a surreal cartoon, where disinformation and misinformation have devalued (or destroyed) democracy, it’s easiest to just cut through everything that’s unpredictable and variable leading up to to an outcome and just think of the latter: the ultimate goals, or how the film ends (spoiler alert).
I’ve written before of how humankind needs a common focus. In the absence of a previously-undetected alien invasion to unite warring factions against a common foe, the world and its population needs a unifying cause. The planet we all share with those who were here before (the animals) might be a good starting point. Given our stunted evolution, this is the only planet we have.
We’re essentially witnessing the beginning of World War 3, and it’s a technological war between left and right. If we’re ever to evolve as a species beyond our technological age and into an exploratory era, we need to sort ourselves out. The main problem on Earth is that as it stands, there isn’t enough room for everyone.
The right-wing solution is population reduction. We see it in the domestic and foreign policies of the US and UK, where social cleansing is sold as protectionist security. We’re lied to about threats, but a gullible population will believe what it’s told if it’s repeated enough.
The geopolitical stage is set for any number of conflicts which could escalate into global war, with 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons controlled by Trump and Putin, the former a neo-Hitler personified, looking to purify the planet’s population through extermination. Such short-term, blinkered vision, typical of fascists. At the moment, some kind of war seems as inevitable as my computer crash. Even if no-one presses a button, the unrest is palpable and in the UK at least, I foresee an uprising. Like much else, that’s another story for another time, now that I have the typewriter back.
There’s another way, but the time and co-operation it would need is probably beyond humanity as it stands, on the brink of war. The other way is for us to return much of the planet to the animals, to convert to vegetarianism, or eat lab-grown meat.
We use more land for our livestock and to grow food for them than we occupy ourselves. If we accept that we’re not entitled to eat someone who has to die to feed us, we’re out of arguments to eat meat (not that that one’s a good one). Meat grown in the lab is grown from stem cells, just like in a real animal. The only difference is it doesn’t come from an actual sentient, self-determining being. If that remains anyone’s reason to eat, they themselves ought to be eaten. It’s another story I can write now I’ve reclaimed the computer.
In yet another story, we free up all that land which imprisons populations destined for slaughter, nature reclaims it and there’s plenty of room for us all to live together.
There’s a third way, which involves the far right getting its own way by the introduction of a species test. Being sub-human, they all fail and are used as food for those who insist on eating meat.
We need to accept that we’re tenants on this planet and not owners, to lose our sense of entitlement. Then there’s the damage we’ve done and our moral responsibility to clean up after ourselves and repair our damage, whether or not we evolve to colonise other planets. If we do, I hope we treat them with more respect than we gave Earth.
Humankind (as it stands) is an infection, gradually doing its best to eradicate itself. The planet which supported us for so long will reclaim itself for all those who were here before. We can only hope the next ones to find Earth treat it with more respect, or that nature makes it a world which is toxic to humans. Universal karma.
I’d written all of that and more in one coherent article, then I lost it in the computer crash. I’ve written it all before and the various articles are all over this blog, but my unifying entry went missing. It’s all still in my head somewhere and I’ll try to remember it all, or find some white mice willing to remove my brain and replace it with something more simple.
While the computer was down, the post arrived and I put myself through the bi-annual dehumanising process of applying for PIP (a disability benefit). It’s now in the hands of the department of social cleansing, who will no doubt require me to attend a fitness-for-work (real work) assessment. Among other things, I’ll be asked if I can walk 200 yards. I can, but there’s no accounting for the silent assassin which is the panic attack always in tow. My invisible disability will then see me referred to tribunal, like twice before. My benefit claim will most likely be approved at that stage (like twice before), but not before the social machine has done its best to reduce the size of the population by one. I, Steve Laker…
I’m still here, even if I’m one who matters little in the greater plan. I’m socially anxious and excluded, but life’s about finding your own place in the one place you feel at home, even if you’re paranoid. For me, that’s in the world I created, even if the physical borders don’t extend beyond my studio. That’s where I create other universes.
Only by moving forward will you find true redemption, if not from your persecutors then in yourself. I understand the human condition, and that only really came about because I had an alcoholic breakdown. In the greater scheme of things, everything still worked out for the better, if I consider where else I might have been now.
This planet we all share is the supercomputer of Douglas Adams’ imagining: Deep thought, which replaced the original Earth, destroyed by the Vogons to make way for a hyperspace bypass in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’m just one part of that Earth 2.0 and my own Earth 3.0, with all the answers inside me, like all of us as parts of the grander scheme (the computer program). A computer works best if all the component parts work together.
All we need to do is keep talking, and we need to involve the animals in the conversation, as they’re part of the program too. We’re not far off realising a real-life Babel fish, once AI and quantum computing are let loose on the task.
Many animals with larger, more complex brains than ours, we dismiss, simply because they can’t talk. We don’t give them sufficient credit for having, for example, a sense of humour. I wrote a book about it. And I’ll write more books, in the hope that people read and see that there really are perfectly plausible answers to the questions of life, the universe and everything.
“There won’t be anyone to stop you if you’ve truly made up your mind, but no matter how bad it is, and how little people might seem to care, every lost life affects others. You’ll only be aware of the splash you make, not the ripples you create.”
I wrote that, while I was rolling like a stone.
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