The invention of the pencil case

“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…”

FLASH FICTION

Dog Pencil Case

THE INVENTION OF THE PENCIL CASE

The strangest lunch I ever had was with a veterinary doctor, and it was the meal which finally turned me vegetarian. I should note at the start, we didn’t eat any domestic pets.

I first met Dr Hannah Jones when we worked on a film together, and we’d remained friends since. We’d meet up every now then, I’d tell her stories from the writing world and she’d give me ideas from her field of science. It was Hannah who’d suggested we meet, as she said she had something important for me.

We met at a pop-up cafe at the Camden end of Regent’s Park. It was an indifferent day weather wise, unable to decide what it wanted to do. We sat outside nonetheless, as we both like to people-watch: me making up stories of what people in the park might be away from that setting, Hannah priding herself on identifying the bits of cross-breeds and mongrels, and sometimes scoring the dogs’ humans on parts of their anatomy.

The Camden end of the park is quieter nowadays, and at one point on that particular Saturday, we counted only 16 legs besides our own. It’s been that way since the last fire at the zoo, and that’s what Hannah said she wanted to tell me about. But first we ordered food. I went for a rare steak with fries, and Hannah chose a vegetarian pizza.

The cafe backed on to the old zoo, now a construction site. The distant sound of hammers and saws competed with the clatter of dishes from the cafe, which was quite arresting. The animals’ former home was being demolished in the background, while I was waiting for part of a former animal to arrive before me.

So I turned to Hannah, and asked her what she wanted to tell me. Something she’d been working on perhaps, some veterinary breakthrough, or anything I might use as a story.

You remember the first fire,” Hannah said, “and the cause was unknown?” She didn’t have to remind me. The London Zoo fire of 2017 killed four meerkats and Mischa the aardvark, and the cause of the blaze was never made public. I nodded. “Well,” she continued, “some colleagues of mine found out what started the latest one.”

Many more had perished in the great fire of 2020, and there was extensive structural damage. Most of the remaining exhibits had been moved to other zoos, and all who remained were the rarest and most threatened in the wild. Our food arrived and suddenly, char-grilled animal wasn’t terribly appetising.

So what was it?” I asked, as Hannah chewed righteously on her veggie pizza.

The kind of thing,” she said, “that is never likely to be made public.”

So why would you tell me?” I wondered.

Because you’re a fiction writer. If you write it, no-one will believe you.” I wasn’t sure how to take that, but I smiled nonetheless as I ate a fry.

Go on then,” I prompted. Hannah looked at my steak.

Aren’t you going to eat that?”

It doesn’t have the same sort of appeal it once had,” I said.

But that’s such a waste.” She was right. “Such a shame that not only does someone have to die to feed you, but their selfless act is unappreciated and their sacrifice goes to waste.” She had a point. “And pity the poor chef, cooking that for you, only to have it returned like there’s something wrong with it.” The only thing wrong was me eating it. As I chewed reluctantly, Hannah told me the story of the great fire.

I’ve got a friend who was in the forensics team. She told me this, and she told me not to tell anyone.”

So you’re telling me,” I said, “because if I write about it, no-one will believe it.”

But you’ll believe me,” she replied. “So, after the fire brigade put out the fire, they identified the seat of the blaze, in a pile of hay.”

Someone’s bed?” I wondered. “Did it catch in the sun?”

No,” Hannah replied, “it was deliberate.”

Someone started it deliberately?”

Yes.”

Arson. Why?”

We don’t know if it was. It started in the mountain gorilla area.”

Someone threw a lighter in?” I imagined it wouldn’t take long to work out how a lighter worked.

No,” Hannah said again. “It was all enclosed in strengthened glass.”

A keeper dropped a lighter?”

Nope.” She was getting quite smug now, knowing what I didn’t. I tried again.

So maybe the sun did start it, like the magnifying glass effect.”

All of the above remained possibilities for a while, and that’s how it’ll remain on the public record. Just like the first one: cause unknown.”

So what do you know which no-one else does, including me?”

This.” She unfolded a sheet of paper, a photo, and handed it to me. It was like a scenes of crime picture: little plastic signs with numbers on, dotted around the ground, like a golf course for ants, and an arrow pointing to a singed spot of earth about the size of a dinner plate. “That’s the seat of the fire.”

And this is inside the gorilla enclosure?”

Yes. Where this came from.” Hannah rummaged in her bag, then handed me something rolled in newspaper. “It’s what’s inside.”

Inside was a piece of dried wood about the size of a pencil case, with a small crater burned into the centre.

What the actual…” I didn’t finish.

Hold on,” Hannah said, “there’s this as well.” She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out what looked like a burnt pencil.

I knew by now what it really was, and it had a much bigger story to tell.

It seemed somehow poetic to write it down, lest anyone hear, so I used the charred, sharpened end:

THEY DISCOVERED FIRE?

Hannah nodded.

© Steve Laker, 2018

big-pencil3

Many of my stories are connected in some way (just like all of us, to everything in the universe), and this could be a prequel to a plot device and the best laid plans.

An aardvark in the air tonight

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Like everyone else, I was saddened by the news of the fire at London Zoo. It’s a place I know very well, from several visits over many years, and one very close to my heart when I wrote Cyrus Song. Four meerkat brothers are missing presumed dead, an aardvark called Misha perished, and I lost a little friend.

Misha and OttoMisha and Otto

I first visited London Zoo in 1977 on a primary school trip. Back then the big draw was Guy the gorilla, and we happened to visit on the day he died. Hoping I hadn’t cursed the place, I’ve returned many times since without incident, and most recently for the chapters of Cyrus Song which are set there.

A lot of research went into the book, to make the science plausible and the characters real. The three human leads each have a notebook on a shelf in my studio, containing their life stories, very little of which made it into the novel, but it was knowing the characters which allowed me to bring them to life in the unwritten words. I familiarised myself with London Zoo’s ‘Inventory’, and researched many of the species therein, so that I could give them voice and personality through the Babel fish.

Unfortunately on the day Simon Fry visited, the aardvarks were asleep:

There were too many interesting animals I wanted to speak to for me to be able to place them in any sort of order. So I decided to just go from A to Z. In the time available, I’d probably be able to speak to the aardvarks and the zebras, but very few others. But the big draw for me was the reptile house: Not because of my fascination with snakes in general, but because London Zoo is home to one male and one female black mamba.

Of course it would be handy if London Zoo laid out all of their exhibits alphabetically, but that wouldn’t be practical, so they didn’t. This being a warm spring Sunday afternoon, the zoo was quite busy. The aardvarks are in the ‘Animal Adventure’ area, which is mainly for young people. And aardvarks are nocturnal, so they were asleep. Which was a shame, because Misha and Otto looked like a couple very much at ease in one another’s company, at least when asleep. Otto had arrived from Berlin Zoo in 2014, so I’d have liked to ask him about that city, and whether he’d seen David Bowie.

It’s cold comfort that the post mortem shows she died of smoke inhalation in her sleep. But there she was, little Misha, curled up with Otto and both looking very pleased with themselves in dreams. I can only imagine how the guy from Berlin must be feeling now, but I do know that the zoo staff are very socially aware with the animal people, so he’ll be getting some sort of aardvark counselling. If only he could read my book, he’d see that I put him and Misha (she was from Holland) in a story which changed a lot of lives, and gives a perfectly reasonable answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything.

I’ve written many times of how I don’t write for the money, because there’s hardly any for the undiscovered self-publishing masses. I have my basic needs covered, so anything I make from writing I give away. I can hardly be called a philanthropist, as it’s really not much, but it’s what I don’t need. When life decided to give me a second chance, I resolved I’d pay it back.

As well as the charitable donations, I make my books available in libraries (on request), as I realise not everyone can afford books (I couldn’t once, and I used to base myself in a library when I was living on the streets). For those who can afford books, buying mine benefits good causes (mainly animal, homeless and addiction) and hopefully delivers a good read. Of course, anyone can donate directly to the charities but if we’re honest, most won’t. If someone’s buying a book anyway (because it’s received good reviews), the altruism by proxy is a small bonus. So it seemed only right to donate any proceeds from the sale of Cyrus Song in January to the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the whole science side of the zoo which the public displays and learning support.

I shan’t milk the passing of every individual leaf cutter ant to plug my book, but Misha has a place in my heart from it.

History predicts that each new book increases interest in preceding ones, so with The Unfinished Literary Agency almost finished, Cyrus Song might get noticed more. And that’s good for Misha and Otto.

In loving memory of Misha Aardvark, 20.06.07 – 23.12.17