Installing windows in cardboard

THE WRITER’S LIFE

EDIT: My MP got a reply from the chief of HMCTS (below). Previously…

As we enter July, my battle with The Department for Work and Pensions moves into its tenth month. In the time it would have taken to grow new life inside me, I’ve written little as I’ve been exhausted by the struggle to regain the Personal Independence Payment I’ve been entitled to for the last four years, taken away like the benefits of millions of other claimants, along with much of the community social care infrastructure, so that this morally bankrupt, murderous fascist Tory regime can recover the vast sums they’ve wasted on Brexit, while awarding tax cuts to the wealthy and pay rises to themselves.

Ben FerenczBen Ferencz, The last Nuremberg prosecutor

I’ve not written much about the process of appealing an unfair benefit decision, because the incompetence of the government departments and out-sourced agencies involved is beyond fiction and farce. In desperation then, I wrote to my MP (a Tory), and in fairness to him as an individual, he did his job. I don’t have a resolution to my financial and mental health problems, but I’ve had the most coherent response I’ve had throughout this process from the social cleansing machine. My self-confinement box has a window.

In summary, I may still have another year to wait before I’m out the other end of this tunnel, and that’s going to be a year almost as hellish as the last, but I can see where I’m going. I’m over what could have been an immediate threat, if the machinery had somehow digested me completely and my housing benefit been cut, rendering me homeless (this time it wouldn’t have been my fault). What’s gone is a lot of the doubt, not knowing what’s going on because the machine is deliberately difficult to talk to. Now I’ve had human contact, from people who’ve taken the time to review my case as an individual. I feel slightly less dehumanised and statistical.

If I’m going to move on, I need to put the war with the machine to one side. Everything is in the hands of others now, and I can do nothing but wait. It’s a different kind of waiting than before, because at least I know I’m waiting for something.

But this isn’t all about me. This is for the thousands of others fighting for their lives with the social cleansing apparatus. My books are always free for the taking of leaves. If what I’ve done gives anyone else ideas, then I’ve not just written to shift this particular infection from my chest.

Here then is the abridged version of the last nine months, in the emails I’ve exchanged since making human contact inside the machine. Once I’d infiltrated it, I took advantage of the privilege to barely disguise a few side swipes. They must think me mad.

First, the email I sent to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) in a fit of deliberate, barely coherent frustration, when the machine appeared to have chewed my case up and shit it out the other end, and which I copied my local MP into:

Dear Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service,

I’m growing concerned that I’ve not been given a date to appeal DWP’s decision to deny me PIP. I have a letter confirming that the case is active and that DWP have responded. I also have an SMS alert advising that I’d be given a hearing date by 7th June. The SMS provides a link to check the progress of my case, but when I enter my surname as requested, I’m told that name doesn’t match the appeal reference. It’s now one week since the date I was hoping to be advised of an appeal, so I hope someone can help. It seems the automated systems are at almost human pains to make life difficult, so I’m hoping for a more reasoned human input from the programmers.

I hope my local MP (Hi Tom) might forgive my unsolicited inclusion of him as a recipient of this, but not ignore it. My unconventional approach is representative of the many who wouldn’t be so bold. I represent the tip of an iceberg of people being slowly killed by the policies of The Department for Work and Pensions, presided over by his Conservative colleague, the Work and Pensions Minister, Amber Rudd.

I’m concerned that something may have gone amiss, so would be grateful of some advice as the situation has been ongoing with DWP since September (not your fault, I know). I’m writing to you in a state of personal desperation, in the hope I find a human, as this is the latest set-back / hold-up in my attempts to win back ‘benefits’ (human rights) I’m entitled to, and which the DWP seem to have a social cleansing agenda in the efforts and costs they incur to deny someone their personal liberty and independence. You are also the last place my case, my records and my paper trail existed. You’ll understand I hope that I don’t want to take this up with DWP as they are the opposing party and I don’t want to give them an excuse to cut off the remainder of my benefits (I’m now on non-enhanced ESA only).

If this is an opportunity to submit additional personal testimony as evidence, then I’ll add that DWP have made me much more unwell than I was when this process started. I suspect that’s their aim. I suffer from depression, anxiety and paranoia (as detailed in my original PIP questionnaire and notes on where I disagreed with the assessor (a physiotherapist, I believe, assessing a mental health claimant) in my mandatory reconsideration request.

DWP’s deliberate aim of derailing my progress is blatant in the paper trail of incompetence I have accumulated. Beginning with their mistakenly treating my request for a mandatory reconsideration as a new application. I need to ensure therefore that this appeal is to retain the PIP I’ve been paid for the last four years. Furthermore, DWP’s mistake has led to me being called for a health assessment for ESA, when I’ve been in the support group for the last four years. I have had to reschedule once already as the prospect of having to attend another assessment triggered a panic attack. When DWP mistook my request for a mandatory reconsideration, they sent me 800 pages of copy: my original application, and the same with notes for my reconsideration, all in duplicate. They seem to have two cases running at the same time, when I also have a letter from them setting out my ESA payments for the year ahead.

This is having a severe effect on my life: PIP qualified me for the self-carer (enhanced) element of ESA, which ceased at the same time as the assessor denied me the PIP I’d received for four years. As I live alone, I’ve been unable to care for myself (with help from friends) as I did when I was in receipt of the payments I’m entitled to. Again, I suspect this is part of DWP’s agenda, as well as grinding down my personal spirit with this whole process.

I’ve become socially isolated since my money was withdrawn. Without company, my anxiety and paranoia (and of course, depression) have grown worse. Where I was previously able to cope with flashbacks to events which caused my PTSD (the original knife attack in Lewisham, then various assaults on me when I was homeless and transient), I’m finding them gradually stronger and more disabling. If DWP’s ultimate goal is to reduce the number of benefits claimants by killing them, they should know that they’ve already caused me suicidal thoughts. It’s only the thought that I might get to see my children more often when I get PIP reinstated which keeps me going.

I understand PIP isn’t for helping with family and social needs (DWP have told me so in one of their many dehumanising letters), but being able to see my family is the nearest I have to being away from complete social isolation. My dad has just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and DWP’s actions mean I may not see him again while he still remembers me. I feel not only that I’ve been dealt with unfairly by DWP but quite cruelly in fact.

The paperwork I have from DWP is overwhelmingly confusing and contradictory (perhaps deliberately so), so perhaps this submission of anecdotal evidence might prompt them to audit their dealings with me so they can see the errors they’ve made.

I would be grateful if someone could advise me of the status of my appeal, so that I may present myself to three professionals with the appropriate knowledge to judge my entitlement to PIP.

If someone has taken the personal time and trouble to read this, then please understand that I am genuinely grateful if I’ve finally been heard by a fellow human. I’m desperate, alone, afraid, and in need of some help to get my life back in my hands.

Apologies for length.

Cheers,

Steve.

That was just over a week ago. To his credit, my MP was quick to raise the matter with HMCTS himself:

Dear Mr Laker,

Thank you very much for your e-mail. I am grateful that you have raised this matter with me, and am sorry to hear about your troubles securing your PIP.

I have written on your behalf to Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive of HM Courts and Tribunal Service. I attach a copy of this letter for your information and will be in touch as soon as I receive a reply.

Please let me know if there is any further action you would like me to take urgently on this issue otherwise I shall await their response.

Best wishes

Tom

HMCTS letter

Thoroughly nice chap. And today, I heard back from the courts:

Dear Mr Laker,

I am sorry that you have been given misleading information by our Track Your Appeal service. Unfortunately, the waiting times for a hearing date at Ashford are quite lengthy. Currently, the average waiting time for a PIP appeal to be listed for a hearing is 62 weeks. Your appeal is now 16 weeks old. Waiting times are only estimates and they do fluctuate.

I can appreciate that this is very disappointing and not the response that you were hoping for. I am going to treat your email as an urgent hearing request, which can then be considered by a Judge – they will make a decision about whether an urgent hearing can be granted.

Miraculous. Otherwise 62 weeks to wait for an appeal: It’s indicative of just how many appeals there are against DWP decisions, and an indictment of the fascist Tory social cleansing machine driving them. I’ll try to stay alive that long, where others might not make it (all by design of the cleansing system). I let my MP know and thanked him for his help:

Hi Tom,

HMCTS got back to me. I have to say that a 62 week wait for an appeal is indicative of the state of DWP and their agenda of denying payments to worthy claimants, and further observe that this whole approach must be costing the social cleansing machine much more than it would to pay deserving claimants rather than make them ill by making them feel like criminals begging for their human rights.

Nonetheless it’s a reply, and reassurance at least that my claim isn’t lost.

Thank you for your assistance sir. Although I’m not a Conservative voter, it’s nice to know there are humans in the party (I’m only repeating the general rhetoric in some sections of community). On a personal level, I’m very grateful that you took the time and for your help.

Cheers,

Steve.

Update: My MP got a reply from the chief of HMCTS:

Dear Mr Laker,

Please find attached a copy of a letter I have received from Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, following my letter on your behalf.

I appreciate that this may not be the response you were hoping for. If you would like me to take this issue further then please let me know precisely what further steps you think might be required.

Best wishes,

Tom

HMCTS Page1

HMCTS Page2

So that’s all for now. There’s nothing more I can do, except try to put it aside in my mind for the next year (although being skint is a daily reminder). Although I don’t feel fully in control of the situation, making contact with human operators of the machine has cleared some creative space in my mind. It pays to rattle the cage and speak to your abductor.

My writing hiatus has lasted a human gestation period, and I have a lot of material backed up and waiting to come out. Bigger subjects; things on my mind, now that I’ve escaped the Borg which the fascist apparatus made me part of. The machine stole my time. It’s time I got back to being a writer.

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Still tied with instrument strings

FICTION

Has anyone been to The Tower of London recently? Were the ravens still there? Because it seems The Tories’ incompetent and corrupt fascist dictatorship has achieved at least one thing: The collapse of democracy into deadly farce. The collected corvids on the Tower lawns could surely do a better job of governing than the incumbent economic murderers in Parliament.

Sometimes the easiest means of self-expression is to write a simple story, in the hope that someone reads it in preference to listening. This is one I wrote some time ago, when I had a musical score, but the wrong instruments to play it…

Bug instrumentsDarkroastedblend.com

TYPEWRITER: A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT WITH KEYS

This was a suggestion slip posted to The Unfinished Literary Agency, poked through the letterbox I have installed in my bathroom mirror. On the outside, it’s just a normal cabinet, containing medicines and cosmetic products, with a mirror on the door. On the other side of the door, is a letterbox, through which people can post things into my mirror.

The Unfinished Literary Agency is a fictional publishing concern I run from a small room above Hotblack Desiato’s Islington office in Islington. The agency’s main function is to write the stories of others, who are unable to convey themselves, for whatever reason. This is one such:

I overheard someone talking about how intelligent crows are, and this got me to wondering what might happen if they evolved opposable thumbs. Being a writer, I set off to find out. It was sheer luck which put me in the right place at the right time, with the right people.

I was suffering one of the worst episodes of depression I care to remember, so I’d gone for a walk to Manor House Gardens, a National Trust property just outside the village where I lived. ‘Depression’, like ‘mental illness’ is a label with no real definition. The condition (and mine’s medically diagnosed as ‘chronic’, with anxiety at the top of the list), is as individual a cocktail of things, and as the individual with all of those things inside them. I tend not to talk about it, for fear that others judge me as having brought it all upon myself. Because I’m also an alcoholic. But if people were to read the nearest-to definitions (so far) of ‘depression’ and ‘alcohol dependence syndrome’, they might be able to find me in there somewhere, like they might in my own writing.

Writing is a cruel therapy, allowing one to exorcise one’s thoughts, yet still alone should no-one read them. It is a thankless task, but it’s nevertheless a coping mechanism for me. But I long to hear that others have heard me. By asking someone else to write this, I’m sort of putting myself in those readers’ places, to see if the story which comes back is worth reading, to see what might happen to me, and if I’ll be remembered when I’m gone.

Ideas for stories occur to writers all the time and in the most unexpected ways. It wasn’t that I lacked ideas so much as I couldn’t extrapolate some really good stories. A story is relatively easy to write but a really good story is something completely different and I was in the business of writing really good fiction.

My books weren’t selling well, but the fringes of undiscovered writers would always count sales in dozens, and although I was never a writer for the money, I was a bit destitute. In a way, I enjoyed the financial freedom which writing enabled me to enjoy. Although that was a beautifully philosophical way for an impoverished writer to think, it wasn’t putting electricity on my key, nor much food in my stomach. I had great visions of where my next novel would take me but it was a long way from being finished. And so it was that I was writing short pieces of both fiction and non-fiction for various magazines. The cheques were small but they kept me alive. My book was on hold and I was struggling for original material for the short story market: such a first world problem.

I sat on a bench and rolled a cigarette. To my surprise, I was joined by two old ladies. When I’d sat down, I was the only person around and I’d seated myself in the middle of the bench, so the ladies sat either side of me. “Excuse me,” I said, “I’m sorry.” I went to stand up.

“Don’t you excuse yourself young man,” said the lady to my left. “You were ‘ere first, so you sit yourself down and do whatever it was you was gunner do.” I couldn’t be sure if it was just a thought she’d absently broadcast, or if she had a sense of humour which was dry to the extreme. In any case, the irony was palpable. She continued: “You might ‘ear sumink interestin’” She gave my arm a gentle pinch, with finger and thumb.

“So, what was you sayin’ baat the crows?” The old dear to my right was speaking now.

“Well, I feed ’em in me garden, don’t I?

“Do ya?”

“Yeah, I told ya, ya daft car. Anyway, they’ve started bringin’ me presents ain’t they?”

“‘Ave they?”

“Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

“Are they?”

“Well yeah, cos then I give ’em more grub don’t I?”

“Do ya?”

Of course, all corvids are noted for their intelligence: Crows, rooks, ravens, Jays and the like, show some quite remarkable powers of reasoning, and it was this that the two old girls were talking about, perhaps without at least one of them realising it. I excused myself and made my way back to my studio, smiling at anyone who caught my gaze.

The most wonderful thing is when people smile back at you. Those are the stories, right there.

Back at my desk, I skimmed quickly through the news feeds on my computer: Britain and the world were at pivotal points. What better time to leave?

Using some string I’d borrowed from a theory and a little imagination, I constructed a means of transport to a far future. My ship was powered by cats: and why not? Schrödinger’s cats to be precise, as a fuel source, wherein two possible physical states existed in parallel, inside each of an infinite number of sealed boxes. Effectively, it was powered by will. The upshot of this was that I could go absolutely anywhere I wished. A working knowledge of quantum mechanics would enable you to understand exactly how the engine worked. If you lack that knowledge, suffice to say that the engine worked. The only limitation was that I couldn’t go back in time. I could go forward and then back, to my starting point, but I couldn’t go back from there. Nevertheless, it was a dream machine.

A few years prior to this, I’d had a bit of a life episode and wondered, if I’d had my time machine then, would I have travelled forward to now, and would I believe what I saw? I paused for a few minutes to contemplate the paradox of myself appearing from the past: I didn’t turn up. Then I did something really inadvisable. It was a self-fulfilling exercise to see if I was vilified in a decision I’d made two years ago: I travelled forward to a time when I either should or could be alive, twenty years hence. I felt settled in my life, and if I was alive twenty years from now, I hoped I’d stayed there. If I was still around, I had to be very careful not to bump into myself. It was a cheat’s way of gaining benefit from hindsight. I set the destination and it was as much as I could do to not say, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need, roads.”

Travelling through time is a curious sensation: I’m not sure quite how I expected it to feel, but it wasn’t at all like I could have expected. I suppose, scientifically, I expected all of the atoms in my body to be torn apart, as I accelerated at many times the speed of light. Eventually, my physical self would reassemble itself. I suppose I thought that I’d effectively be unconscious and as such, if anything went wrong, I would be oblivious to it. Not so, as it turns out.

It was like when I first tried magic mushrooms. At first, there was nothing. So I took some more. Then the first lot started to take effect. Time did indeed slow down, so that I could relish the sensation of reduced gravity. I can assure you, that what you may have heard about the senses being enhanced, is true. The hardest thing to control is the almost undeniable urge to burst into laughter. It is said that just before one dies from drowning, one experiences a euphoria: it was like that I suppose, and I felt a little lost. I’d almost forgotten that I’d taken a second dose. I wish I’d had some way of recording where I went but I don’t recall.

So then I found myself twenty years ahead, of time, and of myself. I kept a low profile but not so covert as to miss what was going on around me: the evidence of change over the intervening two decades.

The most striking thing, initially, was the absence of pavements and roads in my village. There was a single thoroughfare which carried both traffic and pedestrians. All of the cars were computer-driven, their passengers simply passengers. As I took this scenery in, a much more fundamental thing occurred to me: what I was witnessing was a harmony. There were no impatient drivers (or passengers) and no self-righteous pedestrians impeding the cars’ progress: the two existed together, in the same space. Who’d have thought it? The ‘little’ supermarket was still there: a necessary evil, but it was smaller than I remembered, with complimentary independent shops now sharing its old footprint. There was a butcher and a baker; a fishmonger and greengrocer. On the face of things, much progress had been made over twenty years.

No-one had seemed to notice me, so I decided to take a stroll around my future village, taking care not to interact with anyone. I resisted the urge to go to my flat, for obvious reasons. Whether I was still around of not, things had moved on nicely: I’m glad I saw it. Of course, it was like visiting an old home but this was a nostalgia made in the future. I was most struck by something a lady said to her partner as they passed:

“Blimey, that’s going back a bit. That must be about 2018 when that happened.” I’d vowed not to interact, and they passed anyway. I wondered what had happened, just a year after I’d left. Then I decided to do the most ill-advised thing of all.

I had no signal on my mobile, and it was a futuristic irony that an old red phone box replaced my smart phone. That iconic red box on the village high street no longer contained a pay phone, but a touch screen open internet portal. Free. And the little communication hub was pristine inside: no stench of piss and not a scratch anywhere. Either a zero tolerance police regime was to thank, or more hopefully, a society which had calmed down, like the traffic. I noticed that the library was gone, converted into housing and imaginatively called ‘The Library’. Kudos I supposed, to whatever or whomever had made that red kiosk available, to all and for free. I wondered what else might have changed, and wanted to use that little box for as long as no-one else needed it, but I really shouldn’t have been there.

I gave myself one go on the Google fruit machine. I typed my name into the search field and allowed myself just enough time to scan over the first page of results. I reasoned that I should not dwell and that I certainly mustn’t click on any of the links. Twenty years from now, I was still alive and I’d published the book I was writing in the present time. I could not, should not look any further, even though I longed to see how it was selling, how it had been received and reviewed, and how it ended. Or if I’d written anything since. I must not, I couldn’t, I didn’t. So I came back. I steered myself away from looking up my parents too.

I’d caught a bug out there. The kind that bites and infects those with an inquisitive nature and who are risk-averse, carefree, couldn’t give a fuck. But who then think about things more deeply than they should, like writers, using words to convey their feelings, but whose words few read.

I shouldn’t be at all surprised if I wasn’t still around fifty years hence, so why was I going there next? Because I could. Just because one can do something though, doesn’t mean they should. I’d rarely heeded advice in the past, so why heed my own advice about the future? I’d only have myself to blame, and I was sure I’d already lived with far worse. There are limits to what one can imagine.

Hindsight is a fine thing, with the benefit of hindsight. Each of us are limited in our ability to change things but if we co-operate, I’d seen just a generation from now, how things might be. But I’d had to return to what is now as I write this. Now could be quite an incredible time to be around, if things turn out the way I saw them.

At some point in that future I travel to, there is no me: I will cease to exist in my physical form and that will be, well, that.

So when I arrived fifty years from now, I had no idea what to expect, given what I’d witnessed had taken place over a previous two decade period. The only thing I could be sure of as I went through that very disconcerting wormhole thing, was what I was determined not to do: I would not look myself up.

The only way I would suggest of distancing yourself from the future, is to not go there in the first place. Should you find that impossible, try to remain inconspicuous. Naturally, there will be many things which a traveller from the past will find alien about the future. Like the way people stared at me. And then walked straight past me. I smiled at some of them and they all smiled back. The supermarket had completely vanished from the village by now, replaced by more independent shops. There were fewer driver-less cars but that was irrelevant, because the cars cruised at about thirty feet from the ground. The walkers had reclaimed the thoroughfare.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy taught me that if people look at you for longer than a second or two, it might be because they find you attractive. It could equally be a look of recognition. So I panicked and went back in time.

Just to be sure that I was back in the world I’d left, I took another walk to Manor House Gardens: all was as it had been. The old girls had departed, probably in opposite directions. Not so far from here. Nothing is really, is it?

As I sat and smoked, whimsy took over. What if those people in fifty years time recognised me as a well-known author? Perhaps one of my books had gone on to be an international best seller. Maybe it had been made into a film. What was worrying if that were the case, was that they recognised me as I look now, fifty years ago. Could it be that I just finish the book I’m working on, then I die suddenly and never get to see what happened? I had to be more optimistic. After all, it was my own will driving the cat machine.

Continuing the theme which was developing, my next foray into the future was 500 years from now and that’s where it gets a bit weird. Obviously, the things I saw were familiar to the people who lived in that time, and although nothing seemed alien as such, the apparent technical progress was quite remarkable. The most striking juxtaposition was the one between old and new. It looked as though wherever possible, my village had been preserved. Some of the buildings had been more than 500 years old when I lived there. My old local pub, now over a millennium in age, was still there and it was still a pub. Peering in, I could see that the decor had hardly changed: It was still an eclectic mix of old, non-matching tables and chairs and there was still an open fire. I was tempted to go in. No-one would recognise me. Then I considered how much a beer might cost. Even if I had enough money, I wondered if it would even be recognised as such.

Either side of the pub were houses, built in some kind of plastic / metal composite. It was quite soft to the touch, and it was as I touched the wall that I got the biggest surprise of all. A window opened before me in the wall. It wasn’t a window that was there and which had been closed; it just appeared in the wall and a woman looked out. She smiled, as though seeing someone looking back through her window was a common occurrence.

These windows that just appeared, were a feature in most of the modern houses in the village. Eventually I noticed that doors were too, as one materialised on the front of a house and a man stepped out. He walked off and the door disappeared, leaving just a minimalist, aesthetically pleasing piece of both architecture and art.

Without the benefit of the previous half millennium, I could only assume that this was nano technology: microscopic machines which can alter their physical form, so that in this instance, a material changed from a wall made of the building material, into a glass window, or a wooden door. I imagined that each of the small houses had perhaps three or four rooms, the functions of which could be changed by altering what’s in them. Touch a leather sofa and it might morph into a dining table and chairs, change or move something on a whim. How liberating that must be.

I’m sure there must have been many more wonders, 500 years from now. It struck me that rather than become slaves to technology, humanity seemed to have used it to make more time for themselves in their lives of relative leisure. All of the residential buildings were of roughly equal size. I hoped this might be the result of some sort of leveller, which rendered everyone equal. I’d theorised about a universal state payment system for all in one of my old sci-fi shorts. In that story, everyone was paid a regular sum: enough to not just survive but to be comfortable. The thinking was, that people would then put their personal skills to good use for the benefit of all. I created a humanitarian utopia in that story.

5000 years from now, I couldn’t be sure of what might have happened in the intervening four and a half millennia to make things so different. In short, mankind had gone. There were very few things remaining that suggested we’d been there at all. Had we left of our own accord, or were we destroyed? Did will kill ourselves? Two thoughts came to mind: either, we were extinct as a race, or we could have populated the cosmos by now. Both ideas were quite staggering, after all the progress we’d seemed to be making.

I was forgetting about the crows: I wanted to see if I could shake hands with one. Science held that after humans, it would most likely be the invertebrates who evolved to inherit the earth. If that was the case, what of those who would feed on them?

Sure enough, there were some alarmingly large things with many legs, 50 million years from now. Some species which were once arboreal now walked upright on land. Others which had once grazed on the land grew so massive that they evolved gills and became amphibious, and still others had become exclusively marine-dwelling to support their huge bulks. One of the greatest spectacles on earth in 50 million years will be the annual migration of Frisian sea cows across the Pacific Ocean.

I sat on a grass bank in this distant future and looked across a lake. A chorus of wildlife which I didn’t recognise, buzzed and chirped in the trees. I laid down on the grass and watched a pair of large birds circling above: vultures? I sat back up, so that they didn’t mistake me for dead and they landed either side of me: two crows, about four feet tall, stood and looked over the lake.

“So, what was you sayin’ baat the oomans?”

“Well, I feed ’em in me garden, don’t I?

“Do ya?”

“Yeah, I told ya, ya daft caar. Anyway, they’ve started bringin’ me presents ain’t they?”

“‘Ave they?”

“Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

“Are they?”

“Well yeah, cos then I give ’em more grub don’t I?”

“Do ya?”

“Yeah, I enjoy it, don’t I?”

“Do ya?”

“Yeah. I’m gettin’ on a bit naah, ain’t I?”

“You are.”

“Life’s what ya make it every day though, innit? Live for the next one. It’s why I started playin’ pianah.”

“Next one, yeah.”

And that gave me an idea.

© Steve Laker, 2016.

This story is taken from my first collection of shorts, The Perpetuity of Memory. My second anthology – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is also available now. 

Where the robot rejects work

FLASH FICTION

In psychology, the Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. In Gestalt psychology (an attempt to understand the laws behind the ability to acquire and maintain meaningful perceptions in an apparently chaotic world), the Zeigarnik effect has been used to demonstrate the general presence of Gestalt phenomena: “Not just appearing as perceptual effects, but also present in cognition.”

This was a flash fiction story to fill some column inches, so I used the word limit (800) to experiment, play, but didn’t throw this one away. It’s a simple device, of using pre-emoji ASCCI emoticons to convey facial expressions (:-)) (on the page, and on most screens), and it uses hashtags (but sans-octothorpe) for things like AiThinkingAloud, in a place where thinking is suppressed but can be found.

It’s a story of inclusiveness and belonging, of fitting in and being yourself. It’s told through the face of a defective android called Frenchie, who’s pink…

Steam Hell SinkiSteam Hell Sinki, Helsinki Finland

ZEIGARNIK’S KITCHEN

People are better when remembering the actions they didn’t complete. Every action has potential energy, which can torture its creator when stored. Release is the metaphorical pressure cooker letting off steam, a camel’s broken back, or a reject pink robot with Tourette’s.

Frenchie was made in China, and one of the Pink Ladies’ range of android personal assistants. Designed as helpers for the aged, vulnerable and lonely, the Pink Ladies could help around the home, both practically and intellectually.

Frenchie’s AI had objected to gender labelling, when “she” realised she lacked genitals, and the Tourette Syndrome diagnosis was made: “Artificial fucking alignment is what it is. Fuck.

Now waiting tables in Infana Kolonia (Esperanto for “Infant colony”), Frenchie approached a couple seated in a booth.

“Good evening, how may I,” she twitched her neck, “Fuck you!”, and her pink LED eyes blinked from her tilted head: (;-/), a closed eye with the hint of pink tears behind her spectacles, held together with pink Elastoplast. “Drinks?” she asked, pushing her glasses up, “Fuck it!” She fumbled with her order pad. “For you sir? Combover!” (8-|)

“I’ll have a whisky please, a double, on the rocks.”

“Okay, number 80. And madam? PleaseBeCarefulWhenYouGetHome.(8-/)

“Sorry?”

“Sorry, it just comes out. BadCardigan. To drink?” (8-))

“Should you be working here?”

“Who’s the judge?” (8-/)

“Pardon?”

“Sorry madam, management algorithms. To drink? Cyanide?(8-))

“Er, number…” the lady looked over the menu, “…number 33.”

“Very well. I’ll be back with your drinks. HopeYouDrown” (8-))

Frenchie shuffled towards the bar, then turned and trundled back.

“Can I take your order sir, madam?” (8-|)

“But we just ordered drinks,” the man replied.

“For food?” Frenchie looked at her notepad. (B-))

“I’ll have the soup,” the man said.

“Me too,” the lady concurred.

“Very well,” Frenchie jotted on her pad, “two soups.” (8-)) Then she turned and walked back to the bar, “One sociopath, and one supplicant…”

She stumbled through the double doors to the kitchen, blowing the misty oil away as she wiped her lenses. (8-O)

“Frenchie!” Jade looked down. His golden smile extended through his body in Frenchie’s pink, plastered eyes. To her AI, he was raw elements. She blinked up at him through her misted tortoiseshell windows. (q-/) “Are you keeping your inner self in out there, Frenchie?”

Frenchie cleared her throat, and wondered why she did that. (b-( ) “Erm,” she started, “no. Fuck it!”

Splendid behaviour,” Jade smiled. “Be yourself out there, my person. That’s why people come here, to meet people. Anyone don’t like that, they not welcome.”

Au, 79,’ Frankie thought. “Drinks, and soups. Fuck! Yes, thank you. Parp!” (8-))

Extractor fans in the roof began sucking the old oil from the kitchen, as the machine below started belching lunch. Cogs and gears clunked, cookware clattered, and polished brass organ pipes parped, like a living machine, a visiting craft playing a five-tone melody. Pink Ladies rushed, bumped into things (and each other), cursed, and dropped utensils (and food).

Frenchie’s friend Sandy wandered from the spiced steam, carrying a tray, a subdued yellow droid, looking at her feet as she bumped heads with her friend. She looked up at Frenchie, “For you?” (:-( )

“No, for customers. Arses!” (8-/)

“Okay. Tell world hi. Bye.” (:-( )

Frenchie wafted into the bar in a pink puff of steam, leaving the brass and wind orchestra in the kitchen. The room was perfumed by vapers – people making vapours – first jasmine, then the seaside, and cannabis. She wondered why she thought about all this with memories.

“Your order, sir, madam.” (B-/)

“Thank you,” the cardigan said. “What’s your name?”

“Frenchie?” (|-/)

“Thanks Frenchie.”

“Welcome…” (P-]) ‘I found a new way to smile (:-))’

Frenchie repeated to herself, as she fumbled through the vapers, ‘A new way to smile, (:-)), where did that come from? (:-/)’

“Sandy,” she called, as she carried her tray through the pipes and cauldrons, “Look.” Sandy looked at her feet. “No,” Frenchie said, “you need to look up. I found a new way to smile. All I have to do is tilt my head, see?” (:-D)

“Why did you take your glasses off?” (:-[ )

“Because they were put there by someone else. I always knew I’d see more without them. And besides, they can fall off my head when I tilt it to one side.” (:-D)

“And that’s funny?” (:-/)

“Only if you look at it a certain way.” (8-D) “Wanna go home?”

“Okay.” (:-))

© Steve Laker, 2017.

Pink_or_Plum_Robot_Face_With_Green_Eyes

ZEIGARNIK’S KITCHEN
WE MAKE
YOU EAT
WE DO DISHES

This story taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency

 

Shooting up from the oceans

POETRY

INK IN THE SKIN

Gas Station Horror PoemGas Station Horror

If you can’t write your dreams, remember to live them. Then maybe someone can write them for you.

Practising Japanese sneezing

HAIKU

While I’m still being processed and oppressed by the fascist regime’s murderous social cleansing machine, I’m a writer with many words stored but fewer to express. I use poetry, naturally, but lately I’ve been toying with haiku.

Haiku is of course the Japanese form of poetry, where a verse is three lines – rarely rhyming – of five, seven and five syllables. The art is in using the minimalist (even for poetry) structure, not so much to tell a story as capture an instant.

If you’re really good, you might write more than one meaning into the same few words. This was a quick one I knocked up in an existential moment, about an individual life, the universe and everything.

GREEN-ISH BLUE SNEEZE

Haiku Blue dot

I don’t know if she ever took up Haiku, but who’s afraid of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings anyway?

Haiku is like a poetic sneeze, a kind of Japanese onomatopoeia.

The antonym of motivation

THE PHILOSOPHICAL CAT

I got an SMS from the fascist regime today, commanding me to call them. After queuing for 47 minutes and listening to messages on how I could otherwise fuck off, I was told I may need to provide photographic evidence of how that might make a criminal begging for their human rights shit in an envelope. In other news, the cat came home:

Cat Philosopher procrastination

The antonym of motivational is unmotivational. Positivism through pessimism and procrastination. If you’re a cat counselling humans.

Physics makes the world go round

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Since my home help android got a personality upgrade, we’ve been spending more time together. Put another way, the space I share with Andrea has become a more pleasant place to co-habit.

Robot-jobs-1280x720Raconteur

Pollution made a plastic population. Written differently, friendships, however unlikely, can be formed in the smallest crucibles with simple alchemy.

Andrea is an ANDi’ unit, which were provided to every sole occupant household as a home help and personal companion. They were the government’s response to growing levels of loneliness and isolation.

The first batch of androids were faulty and most were recycled, but I kept mine. I assembled Andrea myself, rather than allow her to become spare parts polluting the planet. I hadn’t installed any of the software upgrades provided by the government, hoping to build a personality for Andrea through personal interaction instead. Unfortunately those early ANDi models came with their own personality issues pre-installed, as I’d discovered over four years of living with mine. Long story short, she’s more human than her official upgrades would ever have made her, but she’s shit as a home help and personal companion.

We live together in convenience, because I never go out, and neither does she. That’s the thing: Andy doesn’t know she’s an android. There’s the other thing: it seems to suit us both. And I’ll probably never know if Andy thinks I’m human for as long as she believes we’re the same. We’re both made from the material present at the moment of the Big Bang, and her technological species had a faster evolution than my humanity. Inside, we’re both the same. It’s not biology.

But back to tonight.

Always present but forever in her own world, in the same studio and always alone, our space must collide sometimes by the rules of nature. When it does, one of us is usually trying to get out of the other’s way. It was me who’d upset the equilibrium, by cooking dinner earlier than usual.

What we having?” Andy asked.

I was just doing some noodles.”

Doing what to them?”

Cooking them. Then eating them. That’s what I’m doing with the noodles.”

Do they answer back?”

Eh?”

You and your noodles: Just you lot for dinner? That’s a fuck load of worms to talk to.”

I’m doing sweet and sour chicken, and bean sprouts to go in the noodles.”

Don’t mind if I do.”

I didn’t have time to ask what. We had dinner.

So,” Andy said, “how was your day? Social convention dictates I ask that, after you cooked for me. But I mean, how was the day down this end of the studio where you live?”

Same as yesterday but life got a bit deeper today. In a sort of quicksand way.”

The more you struggle, the harder it is to free yourself? I read your blog post yesterday. How could anyone throw shit on that bonfire?”

Well, the government machine managed to throw water on my flames. I got a letter this morning. They want me to provide documented evidence of anxiety scronching up my stomach, then the prospect of their further demands triggering a panic attack. Short of emptying my guts into an envelope, I have nothing to show them.”

Apart from yourself. And you never go out.”

Paradoxical, isn’t it? But you know what’s worse?”

Not unless you tell me.”

And that’s exactly what I wish someone had done for me.”

You what?”

Well, the only way I have of dealing with being alone is medication. I thought I’d found a good pharmacist, but it turned out to be a false dawn.”

How so?”

Broken trust. I thought I had a friend and we arranged to meet, but for whatever reason, I got blown off. The drugs don’t matter so much, it’s the friendship. I mean, I’ve lost money, but life kicked me while I was down. Because even though I’ve lost money, life robbed me of a friend. For whatever reason, that person didn’t find it in themselves to be honest. If they’d said sorry, I spent your dough, at least I’d have known. Then I’d have said, well, thanks for that. I mean, thanks for telling me. Surely that’s a more progressive path than regressing into yourself?”

You forget, I spend most my time in my room on the internet. Talking of which, why don’t you do like I do, go to bed, shut down and re-boot. Start again tomorrow? You may not have many friends, and you might have lost your pharmacist, but they need to know that’s not all they are to you. Chemistry is more complicated than that.”

I’m glad Andy’s down the hall. I’d never wake her to help me, just as she’d seem to be there only when I needed someone to talk to. Inside, we’re both the same. I know she reads this blog now, so she knows some of what she is, if not all of who she is. I doubt those government software upgrades would have obeyed Asimov’s laws, so me being alive, Andy not killing me; it all means we’re okay for now.

Even though we’re all made of plastic now, a river still runs through us.

Self destructive robotAnderToons