The psychopathy of typeface

FICTION

This is a re-write of a story I first wrote four years ago (which in itself is an irony, given the narrative). Like then, it’s about getting into character, clearing the mind, and of severance pay in the name of art. It’s a new puritan tale with no dialogue…

Helvetica Neue

HELVETICA NEUE HAUS

I’m a writer with mental health labels, writing about a writer with mental health labels: Kind of Hellraiser with Post-It Notes. I write stories too. In this one, I’m writing about a writer. The writer is writing about a writer. That is to say, the writer whom I’m writing about, is doing as I am.

The paper I’m writing this original manuscript on is from Smythson of Bond Street. My pen was a gift: hand-made by Waldmann Adámas from Titanium and Gun Metal. The ink is sticky and thick, like the tarred blood of a heavy smoker, stored in the barrel as many thoughts yet to take form. It flows through the pen, a symbiosis of ergonomics and aesthetics, as my words spill onto the page like so many injuries. The true art of the storyteller is breathing life into the words.

When I’m at my most prolific, I turn to my Royal Epoch typewriter: I can type much faster than I can write freehand. I like holding my syringe-like pen but I gain equal satisfaction from typing. Each depression of a key on a manual typewriter needs to be of a certain force: too gentle and the words are faint; whispered. Too hard and the ink will impress too deeply into the virginal paper. Just the right amount of pressure in the finger delivers an optimum amount of black ink. I had the hammer heads of the characters individually carved by a Monotype compositor of my acquaintance.

Once upon a time, stories weren’t written on computers and word processors, where they leave an indelible imprint, even if deleted. Long ago, there was the letterpress printing machine, or platen press. Individual characters of type were arranged in a frame, then ink applied and the words pressed into sheets of paper. It was the pre-press art which I found most fascinating: A compositor (like my acquaintance) produces the individual printed letters from hot metal on a Monotype machine. The operator uses a keyboard to enter the characters and the machine creates each as a metal block. My friend is not just typing the words which will tell a story, but creating the very letters themselves. Instead of putting ink on paper, he’s typing the mechanisms which will later do so: he’s writing a machine which will print.

To make the words which come from my typewriter, the individual metal blocks were soldered to the ends of the hammers, so that every character I type is in the Helvetica typeface.

Often I’ll type up my hand-written notes, and there are several motivators: something which I’ve hand-written whilst on the move or in haste will take on sufficient merit to be typed up as a manuscript for publication. Sometimes haste itself will dictate that the incessant presses of keys is a more efficient way to hasten my thoughts into reality. Typing is rough, violent and more invasive than handwriting. Occasionally, I just like to type and see my words in Helvetica. I can make anything appear in physical form in semi-permanence. That piece of completed writing then exists in only two places: my mind and printed onto the paper. I can destroy the paper at will. Sometimes I burn blank sheets of paper so that the words I planned for them may not be seen.

Besides the indelible nature of electronic words, I eschew computers for many reasons. Screen fonts have naturally had to be digitised: this is introducing an impurity, as well as leaving messy marks, like some typographical incestuous rape. It’s the same as comparing LPs and MP3s: the latter are digitised and lose much depth and nuance in the process. To the casual, uneducated listener, there’s no difference. But to the trained ear, listening on quality equipment, the two recordings are identical, yet worlds apart. There’s simply no substitute for the platen impression of type pressed forcefully into a sheet of paper and there is no place in my writing for digital typefaces or printing machines. I refuse to refer to digital printing vehicles as presses, simply because they aren’t; they don’t: they don’t physically press the type into the paper.

My manual typewriter is an instrument of beautiful torture. A metal skeleton, a mechanical device made productive automata through my fingers. It produces the flesh and blood which are my stories, in the purest font: Helvetica. The letterpress printing machine is the mechanical animal which spews out many copies.

The typeface itself is a thing of naked beauty. When each individual perfect character’s form can be joined with others to make words, the collective aesthetic is greater than the sum of the parts. My typewriter, as unique as the writer who uses it, creates stories more real than any written using anything else.

When I’m happy with what I’ve written, my original, typed manuscripts are delivered to the printer: Smith & Young in Bermondsey. Like me, they view print as an art, not technology. Like vinyl records, the connoisseur can feel and appreciate the depth and richness of letterpress printing.

I do my best to make first draft and final copy the same. I don’t use correction fluid: it spoils the otherwise pristine, two-tone typed page with a smudge of grey, and an error on my part. Mistakes happen and when they do, I simply begin the page again and destroy the original. Given an infinite number of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys will eventually produce a faultless, complete works of Shakespeare. My compositor is not a monkey operating a machine: He’s a writer, like me. His is a highly skilled trade and he is one of only a very few remaining.

When this story is finished, it will leave me as the one and only copy which exists. I don’t use carbon paper, nor take photographs. Once the copy leaves me, I have no record of it. I can’t revise it: the manuscript I despatch is the final draft. For a while, the story doesn’t really exist: it’s sheets of paper in an envelope in a courier’s bag. That courier cares no more for what he or she is delivering than they do my motivation. Should they be involved in an incident and my parcel is displaced, then that is a story which will never be told.

The courier will wait with the printer, while the Monotype operator typesets my manuscript. It’s written again, by a different writer. My key strokes on paper become the voice of the mechanical animal which will spew out potentially infinite copies of this story. Once the typesetting is complete, the courier returns with my original manuscript.

For a brief period, two copies of my work exist in physical form: I have an ink-on-paper typed copy, which I can destroy at any time. The other copy exists as potential energy, written in metal, and can print an undefined number of copies of my story. As an entity, the work’s power has increased, because it now exists in both a physical and potential form which is much harder – if not impossible – to destroy. The work could well exist in two minds, if the Monotype operator absorbed the story as he wrote it.

With all that potential, a problem troubles the puritan mind. I trust the man at Smith & Young: he’s a good friend and respected in print. He can type almost as speedily on a Monotype setting machine as I can on a manual typewriter (A small piece of trivia for the buff: the Monotype keyboard doesn’t use the QWERTY layout). I trust my colleague to use my specified paper stock when printing the orders I send him but it’s those copies which cause me discomfort. I have no control over the format, media or device which a subsequent reader may see my work presented upon. If it were anything other than my specified stock and printed letterpress in Helvetica, then the reader would be seeing something which I’ve not given them the authority to view and which is not in the pure form it was intended.

This story isn’t finished. It needs an intermission and to that end, I shall excuse myself for an evening out.

The walk from London Bridge station into Bermondsey always evokes memories: through the tunnels under the station, where much of The Specials’ Ghost Town video was filmed, then a quick stop at The Woolpack on Bermondsey Street for a late morning gin and tonic.

Ink, paper and alcohol have always been uneasy bedfellows. Just as the meat porters of the old Smithfield market used to drink in The Hope pub at dawn, so did the writing communities around Fleet Street, Soho and Bermondsey, the print bloodlines of London.

I used to drink in The Hope some early mornings with a meat porter, appropriately called Red. His white overalls would be smeared in the blood of more than 100 pigs. The shades of red were like splattered timestamps, the darkest dating back to midnight. “I can chop a pig down and cut it up in five minutes,” he said, clutching a fresh copy of the Guardian against his belly. “Legs, shoulders, loins. All done proper like. It’s an art. Chopping a pig down’s an art.”

As Smithfield Market wound down after a night of dismemberment and meat trade, men in white coats breathed in the still, chilly air as the sun rose above Farringdon. Wholesalers – the ones with clean coats – emerged too, wheeling the last of their purchases towards refrigerated Transit vans, dodging a few early risers in suits on the sober march towards the City.

The blood would elicit gasps in any other part of town and some coats were grislier than others. “You get bloodier when you’re cutting up lambs,” explained Red, who had the bearing of a retired boxer. “Lambs you put on a block, and cut towards you. When you do pigs, they’re hanging up so you cut away from yourself.”

I saw a few familiar faces from the past at the Woolpack but couldn’t quite place them.

A few doors down, I popped in to see George in his eponymous barber’s shop. For some reason, in all the years I recall going to George’s, George has been the same age: early seventies. He’s probably over 100 by now.

George still does a military short back and sides. The haircut, a shave with a badger hair brush and a cut-throat razor, burning wax tapers flicked into my ears and a hot towel compress, are all complete within twenty minutes and George has me looking as I like to for important meetings. Like me, George doesn’t talk as he works, which suits us both. Time in his skilful hands is relaxing and contemplative, while he goes about his craft perfectly and to the exclusion of all external distractions. He’s a perfectionist, like me. He invests in fine tools, maintains them with love and employs them with precision. Over a drink at the Woolpack one night, George showed me exactly how sharp one of his cut-throat razors was, by requesting a whole tomato from the kitchen. George opened the razor and rested the blade on the tomato on the bar. Merely steadying the blade with one hand, he raised the handle with his other hand and the blade began to cut through the skin of the tomato under its own weight alone. George noted my fascination with the implement and allowed me to keep it that night.

As is custom, I declined something for the weekend, tipped George and bade him farewell. From there, I decamped briefly to M. Manze, just down the road. Manze’s is the oldest – and best, in my opinion – pie and mash shop in London.

Pie and mash is nineteenth century fast food: the somehow grumpy but friendly staff plate up one’s food in the manner of a borstal inmate high enough in the pecking order to be placed on kitchen duty, then one joins others and quickly eats, head down in a booth where the seats are made of wood and the tabletops are white marble. I eat pie, mash and liquor, with chili-infused sarsaparilla vinegar, staring down at the chequered floor and playing mind chess.

After that, a quick dash over Tower Bridge Road and down an alley through some housing blocks, to The Victoria in Page’s Walk. The Victoria was the Evening Standard pub of the year in 1972 and the green and white plaque still adorns the wall, alongside black and white photographs of the building. The rest of the pub is at it was then as well: a great little south east London drinking den, where many go only because they need to and others because they happened upon it.

Smith & Young in Crimscott Street was just around the corner from the pub, so my compositor joined me after he’d locked up for the weekend. We had an agreeable few hours, him unwinding with a few pints and me on Tanqueray gin and Indian tonic water.

Suitably lubricated, we agreed it might be time to eat (great minds think alike), so we made our way back by foot toward London Bridge Station, and to Charing Cross by rail, across Hungerford Bridge and from where we would eventually part company. It was no concern of mine where my companion had to travel to but the terminus afforded me a ten minute ride home, so it was convenient.

We walked the cobbles of Villiers Street and crossed embankment, clogged with weekend traffic; mainly coaches and black cabs taking workers home and bringing a different life into the West End. This part of London is roughly half way between the old writing districts of Fleet Street and Soho, the bohemian heart where Jeffrey Bernard once held court in The Coach and Horses, whilst being famously unwell.

The two of us boarded The Tattershall Castle, an old steam ferry moored permanently at Embankment. We chose to sit on deck and enjoy the view: dominated by the graceful London Eye and Art Deco wonder of Shell Centre on the south bank, and the brutal but beautiful Hungerford rail and foot bridges spanning old lady Thames; it was a conflicting postcard.

The steamer was built by William Gray & Co. in 1934 as a passenger ferry on the River Humber for the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). She plied a route between Corporation Pier in Kingston upon Hull and New Holland Pier Station, New Holland. During the Second World War she found service as a tether for barrage balloons and for troop transfer on the Humber estuary. After the war, with the nationalisation of the railways in 1948, she became part of British Rail’s Sealink service. In 1973, after long service as a passenger and goods ferry, she was retired from service and laid up. In 1976 the ship was towed to London. Repairs on the ship were deemed too costly and she was retired from service. The opening of the Humber Bridge made the ferry service, known to have existed since at least Roman times, redundant. PS Tattershall Castle was first opened on the Thames as a floating art gallery until her eventual disposal to a brewing company. Now it’s a floating bar and restaurant, where we ate.

The meal functioned as such, with no need for friends to engage in casual banter at the expense of the enjoyment of good food. We enjoyed a post-dinner hand-rolled cigarette in pleasant silence, leaning over the handrail of the deck. For my part, I reminisced about a fine and productive evening and looked forward to seeing my story in finished form. He said it looked good to him when he typeset it.

Great minds: I don’t know what went through his, but the eyes remained open as his head fell away from me. The lights of the South Bank danced on the river as the head splashed down like a full stop on my typewriter hitting the page, then floated away. The barber’s cut throat razor sliced through the neck as easily as Red’s meat cleaver dismembered pigs at Smithfield.

My writing is art. I bring things to life with my words by putting myself in the stories. I’ll burn this copy of the story but it still exists by design, ready to be printed by the mechanical animal, in Helvetica and on paper from Smythson of Bond Street. Just as I intended it to be read.

© Steve Laker, 2018

The internal scars of fight club

THE WRITER’S LIFE

A question asked of me recently on Quora was, Do you have any tips on how to write fight scenes? Not wishing to be anyone’s pro bono ghostwriter, I related to the question in the same way it was posed to me: personally…

fight_club_desktop_wallpaper_by_jaseighty6-d5wgva5JaseEighty6, DeviantArt

Just as there are a finite number of plots but near-infinite stories, there are countless fight scenarios. Assuming a physical fight, and not the kind of mental torment which can play in the mind forever, then it comes down to genre.

‘Show, don’t tell’ is most writers’ rule, each has their own style, and you’ll get a different answer from every author you ask. Experiment, play, throw away, and you’ll find something which works for you.

There’s a part of the writer in every story, whether it be a personality trait in a character, or a location from the fringe of memory. I write mainly science fiction, horror and surrealism, but whether one of those or something completely different (I write children’s stories too), I’ll always put myself in a story. If I was writing a fight scene, I’d place myself in one or more of the characters – probably writing in first person – so I’m in the thick of the action, either beating someone up or getting laid out myself.

Us writers we have only words, so the imagery is in our readers’ minds rather than on-screen, but we can engage all of the senses nonetheless.

Avoid cliches (we know blood is blood red), and think yourself into the scene: The way someone’s face contorts when you punch them in the jaw; and on the other end, a splitting sound, like a wishbone being pulled as a mallet hits you in the face. There’s a sharp, searing headache as your brain bounces around your skull and you fall, grateful as the concrete floor turns out the lights. You wake with a mouth full of gravel, and spit jagged pearls, marbled red like tiny scoops of raspberry ripple ice cream, and you smell iron, like the barbells at the gym, as blood congeals in your nose. As you tend your wounds in the mirror, you plot revenge.

Fight scenes are situations you need to have been in to tell the story convincingly. Some things in real life become impossible to relate, so the fight is in the words as they’re written on the page. It’s why I use a typewriter: the physical impact of metal platen onto pristine paper leaves not just a mark, not only words in ink like a tattoo, but an impression, and a much deeper scar.

If the battlefield is the kind of mental torment which can play in the mind forever, then this was a parable of the internal conflict I face every day in my head. That’s why I write, experiment, play and throw away: Writing as therapy.

Dialogue can help, and sometimes talking to yourself can be as useful as fighting your alter ego. The first rule of fight club in writing, is there are no rules.

Father’s Day in a cardboard box

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

I doubt I’m unique in this, but I wonder how many other writers find themselves referring to their own stories in real-life situations. Maybe I’m just up myself but I do it anyway, because much of my humanist writing is fictional accounts of situations I’ve found myself in. When someone else finds themselves similarly displaced, it’s often easier to refer them to something fictional than remember the real life which took me there (I did that when I was writing the stories) and fantasy is far more entertaining than the real world anyway.

I’m an empath, and that empathy is as much with my fictional characters as my organic family and friends. Just as I can often put myself in their place, tell them what they’re thinking, then suggest something they might not have thought of, I inhabit my characters. Those are drawn from people I know – in life and in fame – then mixed up with parts of me to make someone completely different. It means I can tell people in real life where to find themselves in my characters and stories.

The story which follows is one I’ve told before but now is a timely reminder, on the weekend of Father’s Day. Just like George in this story, I have memories of visiting toy fairs with my dad, and like George and his dad, we couldn’t afford much, so I’d rummage around in the boxes of spare parts to see what I could build. I don’t have much money to spend on my children, but I hope they’ll have at least some fond recollections in future.

There are parts of me in all three of the characters in this story, but most of me is under the bed. The boy on the bed is my younger self, my much younger dad, and my own son. The dad in the story is my own, he’s me, and he’s my older son.

To all the kids who miss their dads, and for the dads too. For those who can only send a card…

Toy Story Box

CARDBOARD SKY

The story of how I became a ghost is surprisingly ordinary: I died. My actual passing was like that moment when you fall asleep every night: You don’t remember it. The next day, you’ll remember being awake before you slept; you know you’ve been sleeping and you may recall dreams. But you won’t remember the transit from wakefulness to slumber. So dying was just like that, for me at least.

It didn’t take long to realise I was dead because people just stopped talking to me. I could still walk around but no-one could see or hear me. A couple of times, people just walked straight through me, as though I wasn’t there. I wasn’t but I was.

As someone walks through you when you’re a ghost, you get to know a lot more about them on the inside. I don’t mean how their internal organs look (just like in a hospital documentary or horror film), but a feeling of their inner self. It’s surprising how many people you thought you knew, turn out to be complete cunts.

Even though I was invisible and inaudible, I felt vulnerable in this brave new world. I’m used to being looked at. I like it. I dress provocatively. But here, no-one was looking at me, which made me anxious. I felt invisible. I was invisible. That’s how I ended up sleeping under George’s bed.

So kids: It’s not a monster under the bed, it’s a ghost.

It was while I was under there that I decided to write this story.

I’d suddenly found myself homeless. I had no personal belongings, nowhere to go and nothing to do. But like any child’s bed, George’s had cardboard boxes underneath it. I wouldn’t pry into something which might be private, but like most children’s beds, George’s sat above a wasteland of discarded ephemera: a little-used word but for the purposes of this story, it was the right one. It’s a collective noun, for things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time. Or collectible items that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity. Ephemera also has a certain supernatural aura about it (Ephemeral, an adjective meaning lasting for a very short time), so to a ghost and a writer, it suits the story very well.

As a ghostwriter, I could be anyone I wanted. I could do that in cardboard city but I had less to worry about under the bed.

It wasn’t me writing the story; I was employing someone else. When a man writes something, he is judged on his words. When a woman writes, it is she who is judged. Being a ghost was perfect. Because if a ghost writes the story, then they control it. If a ghost tells this story, it doesn’t hurt as much.

Among the discarded stationery, I found a note: ”If you don’t finish that story, I will personally punch you in the face. Cool?” I had no idea who’d written it, nor the circumstances surrounding it. I assumed it was a note given to George. Or it might have been one he’d planned to give to someone else and thought better of it. It could just as easily have been addressed to me. Whatever, and if nothing else, it was a kick start. Sometimes that’s what we need.

It wasn’t a physical kick (There was no room under the bed) but it was a mental jolt, like the friend who places an arm around your shoulder and tells you they believe in you. That’s a very brave thing for them to do, because the kind of person who says that kind of thing is going to end up stuck with you.

I needed something to sustain me while I wrote, but I was under George’s bed. I had no idea how the rest of the house was laid out, so I wouldn’t know where to find the food. It occurred to me that even if I found any food, I was ill-equipped to cook it. One revelation leads to another: Ghosts don’t eat. Do they?

Eventually, I’d gathered enough odd paper to make a useful pad. All I could find to write with was a crayon. A fucking green crayon. So then I began to write, in green crayon.

Should I really have been denied drugs, when it was that which drove me, once I learned to control it? Should those who thought they knew better have removed my lifeline? If I’d allowed them to do so, I’d surely have died from the withdrawal. At least that’s what I was afraid of. So I kept going. I kept shooting up. Then I ran away. I was 16.

Once you’re 18, the law says you can leave home without your parents’ or guardians’ permission. Strictly speaking, if you’re 16 or 17 and you want to leave home, you need your parents’ consent. But if you leave home without it, you’re unlikely to be made to go back unless you’re in danger. You are extremely unlikely to be obliged to return home if that’s where the danger lies.

It didn’t matter to me that I had nothing. Just as long as I could get a fix, I had all I needed. Even personal safety and well being become passengers when the heroin is driving.

There’s a dark magic within you. A frightful thing I cling to.

But as a ghost I couldn’t score, just as I couldn’t eat.

So I had nothing to do but write. It would be romantic to write that the flow of ink from my pen replaced the alchemy running through my veins, but I was writing with a green crayon.

The writing was a distraction, but it couldn’t mask the withdrawal symptoms. It turns out that even being dead can’t do that. So I was faced with the prospect of cold turkey, a cruel joke as I was hungry and couldn’t eat.

How could I write but not be able to eat? Actually I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure if it was delirium tremens brought on by my withdrawal, or the limitations of my new body, but I had no fine motor skills. I could rummage through things and pick them up, but I couldn’t do something like thread a needle if anyone had asked. I probably wouldn’t have been able to put a needle in a vein if I was alive, and I certainly couldn’t make my hands write. My fine motor skills were like those of a toddler. So I simply did what many authors do: They have an idea, some thoughts, a plot, and they’ll employ someone else to write their story for them: A ghostwriter. I was both a writer and a ghost. So I just thought my story; I willed it, in the hope that someone else might write it one day, now that I couldn’t.

I needed to haunt George.

I’ve read a lot and learned through self-teaching. I could have been so many things if it wasn’t for chasing the dragon. But that dragon must be chased, just as a puppy must be played with. So I’d read up on ghosts and the various types of haunting.

The “Crisis Apparition” is normally a one-time event for those experiencing it. It’s when a ghost is seen at the time of it’s predecessor’s passing, as a way of saying farewell to family and friends. It would be like going about your daily business, then suddenly seeing your mum outside of normal contexts. Minutes later, you receive a call to tell you that she’s passed away. With practice, the deceased may be able to visit you more than once, to reassure you. If they do that, you might have a guardian angel. In my case, a fallen one with broken wings.

The reluctant dead” are ghosts who are unaware they’re deceased. They go about their lives as if they were still living, oblivious to their passing. This innocence (or denial), can be so severe that the ghost can’t see the living, but can nonetheless feel their presence: A kind of role reversal. This can be stressful, for both the haunter and the haunted. In films, it’s usually someone moving into the home of a recently deceased person. Perhaps they lived and died alone in their twilight years. To them, the living might be invaders. These are not ghosts which need to be exorcised: Simply talking to them about their death can help them to cross over and leave your home.

Then there are ghosts who are trapped or lost: They know they’re dead but for one reason or another, they can’t cross over yet. Cross over into what? Some may fear moving on because of the person they were in life, or they might fear leaving what’s familiar to them.

There are ghosts with “unfinished business” broadly split into two categories: A father might return to make sure his children are okay. Or a lover might hang around, making sure their partner finds happiness and moves on. But there’s also the “vengeful ghost”; perhaps a murder victim, back to haunt their killer.

Residual ghosts” usually live out their final hours over and over again. They often show no intelligence or self-awareness, and will walk straight by (or through) you. Many think that these types of ghosts left an imprint or a recording of themselves in our space time.

Finally, the “intelligent ghost”: Where the entity interacts with the living and shows a form of intelligence. I certainly wanted to communicate with George. In fact, to lesser and greater extents, I fitted parts of the descriptions of all types of ghosts. I’d not long been dead and already I had a multiple personality disorder.

All I could see of George when he first came into the room was his feet: Black elasticated plimsolls and white socks, like I used to wear for PE. I couldn’t say what size his feet were but I imagined them having a boy of about ten years old attached to them. I guessed George was quite a hefty lad by the way the sky fell slightly as he climbed onto the bed above me.

I laid still, because even though I myself was inaudible, my developing motor skills would betray me if I dropped the crayon or kicked anything. I could hear pages being turned and I was aware of movement above me. It could be that George was writing; doing homework perhaps. I didn’t want to entertain an alternative. I hoped he was writing.

No matter what we do in this life, we may eventually be forgotten. It’s a comfort I gain from writing, knowing that whatever’s published is recorded, and will be out there long after I’ve gone. The democratisation of publishing and reporting has meant many good and bad things, but for as long as the conversation is global, we need to keep it going. There may be voices with whom we disagree, but through writing, we can posit an alternative opinion and seed a debate. Beyond all that is happening in our constantly evolving universe is a simple fact: What is right will win. What is right can emerge from the anarchic democracy which is the internet, but only if there are enough voices. There will always be sides and factions but with everyone involved, those who engage the most because they are passionate enough will prevail. We don’t need to shout louder than the other side; we simply need to educate the ignorant. Evolution will tell the story of whether we became a liberal race and prospered, or if we destroyed ourselves because we were unable to evolve. Either way, history will record it. If we destroy ourselves, eventually our history will be lost in the vastness of space and time, and it may be as though we never existed. From the quiet above, I gathered George was quite a deep thinker.

There’s only one race on this planet and that’s the one we all belong to: The human race. Where death may scare most people, it doesn’t trouble me. I’m seeing evidence that the human consciousness exists independently from the body and continues to live after our bodies give up or we destroy them. What does scare me is even more existential: Being forgotten, as though I never existed. The human race faces an existential threat: That of ignorance. Simply by talking, we can make a difference. Listen to the previous generations, for they are our history. Talk to the next generation and don’t patronise them: They’re intelligent beings. They are the human race and the future. Maybe George would be heard one day.

After a while, the sky fell further and the lights went out. George had retired for the night.

Ghosts can see in the dark. As soon as George had been quiet long enough for me to be sure he was asleep, I was getting restless. I moved around and stretched a bit. I’d managed to keep the shakes under control, but now George was asleep, the withdrawal was becoming quite uncomfortable. Despite my anxiety and a developing agoraphobia, I was tempted to just get out and run around; to do something to distract myself. I decided against it. I’d be like a child who’d just learned to walk. I would bump into things and knock things over. I didn’t want George to have a poltergeist: They’re bad. I’m not bad and I didn’t want to be the victim of an exorcism, made homeless all over again.

I thought I’d try my night vision out and have another go at writing. I managed to draw a crude stick man, a house with a smoking chimney and a space rocket with flames coming out of the bottom. He was a green man, who lived in a green house (so shouldn’t throw stones) and he had a green rocket which burned copper sulphate fuel (copper sulphate produces a green flame). I wasn’t evolved enough to write.

I fought an internal flame: One which was a danger I wanted to flee but at the same time, a beckoning warmth. I didn’t know what time of day it was, and I had no idea how long George slept for. He might be one of those kids who was in and out of the bathroom all night, or he might be near enough to adolescence that he hibernated. Either way, or anywhere in between, I couldn’t keep still for even a minute.

The shakes were more like tremors now: Delirium tremens: a psychotic condition typical of withdrawal in chronic alcoholics, involving tremors, hallucinations, anxiety, and disorientation. Heroin withdrawal on its own does not produce seizures, heart attacks, strokes, or delirium tremens. The DTs were the manifestation of my other addiction, which I’d used heroin to cover up. It was somehow less shameful to be an addict of an illegal substance and hence a victim, than it was a legal drug which most people can consume with no ill effects. As an alcoholic, I was less of a victim. I was a sadomasochist.

As soon as you tell people you’re an alcoholic, if they don’t recoil, they just assume you’re always drunk. Or they presume that you must never touch a drop. Both are true in some alcoholics but there’s the “functioning alcoholic”, who still drinks far more than anyone should but who doesn’t get drunk. They can get drunk, but most functioning alcoholics simply drink throughout the day (a kind of grazing), to keep the delirium tremens and other dangerous side effects of alcohol cessation at bay. It’s called Alcohol Dependence Syndrome but most people saw it as a cop out. I couldn’t educate the ignorant, or get them to listen long enough for me to explain. So I started taking drugs. I got so tired of trying to explain alcoholism to people, educating their ignorance, that I gave up. You get much more sympathy as a drug addict. Yeah, right.

So as in life, this once functioning alcoholic is now a ghost.

For the brief period that I was on the road in the last life, one saying; one sentiment, was always to be heard in the homeless community: “Be safe”. Those two words convey much more than their brevity would suggest. But when you’re homeless, relationships and lives are fragile. It’s quicker and less sentimental to say “Be safe” to someone you may never see again than “I love you”.

Even if I was restless, I felt safe under George’s bed. To keep busy, I broke a promise and looked in the cardboard boxes. I placed the green crayon in my mouth, like a green cigarette. I sucked on it like a joint and the taste of wax was actually quite pleasant. It helped just a little as a distraction from the shakes.

The first box was a complete mixture: Sheets of paper, smaller boxes and random other stuff; like a model car, some Lego and, well, just all sorts. I gathered the papers first.

Some of George’s notes were apparently to himself: They were in a handwriting different to the first note I saw, so I couldn’t be entirely sure, but one such note read, “You came close a few times but you backed off. You didn’t want to be one of those boys who made her cry. That’s the only reason you did it.” If they were intended for someone else, he’d not delivered them.

There were unopened presents, and gifts addressed to others, but George hadn’t delivered them. Some things were wrapped, while others weren’t, but they were clearly intended for someone else as they had notes attached. A packet of 20 Marlborough Lights: “Should really have got two tens, then I could have given mum and dad one each. Like that’s going to stop them.”

I’d not seen or heard the parents. Without knowing even what day of the week it was, there could be many scenarios. In one, George’s parents argued a lot but they were very much in love. Perhaps they were frustrated and united against a common foe. With my parents, that was me. Whatever it was, I imagined something bonding them and keeping them together. That could have been George I suppose.

I wondered at what point in human evolution it might have been, that we started analysing things and where we started to over-analyse. Marriage guidance, or relationship management; fucking counselling, from professionals and the plastic police alike: We all have someone. We all love someone. They care about us and vice versa. But over time, something’s not right, so we take the lid off and start poking around in that jar. We keep chipping away, feeling more free to say things in an environment, which we might not in another. And eventually we say something irreversible. Something that’s niggling us deep inside and which doesn’t affect us until it’s dug up. And from there, the relationship breaks down further and ever more of the undead join the feast.

Rather than encourage engagement, that kind of situation can invoke the fight or flight reflex in the previous life; the past. And whether fled or not, the past is history.

So we arrive in the next life with so much unsaid. We want to say it but we have to learn all over again, how to speak. And I suppose that’s why we want to haunt people.

George woke up. A light was switched on and the sky above me moved. I waited for the feet from above but there were none. There was movement like before, and the sound of paper. George must have been writing. Or drawing. After what I guessed to be around 20 minutes, he stopped, the light went out and the sky moved again. I was trembling quite violently by then, so I bit down on the crayon between my teeth and returned my attention to the boxes.

I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.

Do the first one: Get to know yourself and be happy with what you are. Then do the second: Those who loved you first time around will be the ones who are still there. So you’re not lonely.

Life, packaged.

The human body is merely a temporary host.

Put like that, we simply inhabit a body for a period of time, like a possession; In “life” we are already ghosts possessing bodies which give us physical form. That organic structure will age and eventually die, but our consciousness is separate from what we look at as a living body and it goes on living, long after the host gives up. Life, as we know it, is merely one part of an ongoing existence, the greatness of which we don’t yet understand. Knowledge comes with death’s release. You may well have lived in another body in a previous life: Deja vu tells us that; that feeling that you’ve been somewhere before. George had deep dreams.

The trembling had reached my head. There was more than one person in there, and the dialogue was two-way. I wasn’t talking to myself; I was talking to another person.

I began to realise that perhaps George and I were somehow connected. I always subscribed to pre-determinism in principle. A part of me knew that the Big Bang carried an imprint equal to its original noise; that everything was mapped out in that pre-spacetime manifestation of knowledge and understanding. I was drawn to believe that our futures were mapped out long ago, but that they were as inaccessible as our pasts: We had no control over either. Great swathes of George were alien to me. But why wouldn’t I explore, if George was my destiny? Or it could be the withdrawal, and I may have been withdrawing to a comfort zone. I couldn’t do that to George. What had this kid done to deserve me, inside him?

Life had been very much a game of give and take: If George had taken something, then he was indebted to someone else. If he received something and it wasn’t in recognition of anything he’d done, he was in someone else’s debt. When he gave something, he expected nothing back. It was simply an accepted fact that life gave back far less than was put in. No-one understood him, least of all himself. Did I? Could I?

His life revolved around visits to toy fairs with his father. They couldn’t afford the mint-and-boxed or the ready-made, so dad would just look around and George would use pocket money to buy spacecraft parts.

Broken and incomplete model kits were fuel for George’s shipyard in a cardboard box under the bed. When weekends were over, the shipyard had to remain where it was. When George was at his dad’s to build his craft, he didn’t. Because time was too valuable. So we were at George’s father’s house and it was the weekend.

When he wasn’t constructing, he was thinking. And he made more notes. He made the normal in my life fantastical, by explaining how science fiction writers were just one small step ahead of the real world. George knew I was there, or at least that it was possible for me to physically be there.

There were clippings from newspapers and magazines in the next box, including an obituary: Jemma Redmond was a bio-technologist who died aged 38 in 2016, like so many others in that awful year. The passing of her life was overshadowed by many more well-known figures in the public eye. But like George, she worked quietly, tirelessly and passionately. And she achieved some incredible things. She developed a means of using human tissue cells as “ink” in a 3D printer. She also helped in the design of 3D printers which reduced the cost of their manufacture. Jemma Redmond made it possible to “print” human organs for transplant into patients, and she reduced the cost so that the technique could be applied in the developing world. This is not science fiction. This is science fact, just a few years from now. Most people wouldn’t have known, unless it was brought to their attention and they then had the attention span to listen. But if anyone were to Google her name, her work is recorded in modern history.

There was a printout of a scientific paper about NASA’s EMdrive. The Electro Magnetic drive is a fuel-free means of propulsion, which could replace rocket fuel and all its limitations of bulk and speed. The EMdrive could take a spacecraft to Mars in 70 days. At present, it’s a two year trip, with a lot of psychological and physiological risks to any humans making the journey. Many of those problems would be overcome with the EMdrive. It’s due for testing soon and with development and improvement, could make other stars in the galaxy viable destinations for exploration and research. This is not science fiction. He had articles about solar sail arrays, the size of Colorado, taking tiny scout ships out to explore the cosmos ahead of humans. All of this could be possible within George’s lifetime.

But very few people know about these things because all of the bad news in the world shouts louder. If more people knew about the technological and scientific thresholds we’re at, they might talk about them. Others would then learn and eventually there might be a chorus of voices so loud that mankind has to listen and consider another way forward for the species.

George thought what a wonderful world ours could be if we concentrated on this stuff, rather than religion, conflict and capitalism. Of course, George was young and naïve in the eyes of most. He’d never be taken seriously if he proposed an alternative plan for humankind. So he kept and curated records, and he wrote about them. Like so many other people, he was recording his thoughts in the hope that someone might discover them later, or when he was older and might be taken more seriously. He was aware that he was documenting the present and the contemporary, and that it could become either history or the future.

The trembling had almost taken control of my limbs by now. Where it was first shaky fingers, then hands, now my arms and legs ached as though they needed to spasm.

The light went on again and the sky moved. There was more rustling of papers and scribbling with a pen or pencil. I started singing a song in my head, as I wondered something: I knew I didn’t need to eat, but would I need to get my hair cut out here? It was a song by the Crash Test Dummies: God shuffled his feet. If crash test dummies were to have nervous systems, I knew how one might feel by now. The light went off and the little big man upstairs settled back down. I needed coffee: lots of cream, lots of sugar.

My coffee used to come from a jug on a hotplate. George was planning a replicator. He explained in his notes how a replicator was just one step further on from a 3D printer. Scientists could already print human body parts after all. To print a cup, then some coffee to fill it, was actually quite simple. George was keen to point out in his notes that one should always print the cup before the coffee.

Like the quiet voices of mankind, George could only imagine. He could only wonder at the sky, or lie in bed and dream of what was beyond the ceiling. Humans travelling to other stars was one lifetime away. It was only a matter of generations before the dream could be anyone’s reality. George wanted to be anyone.

George escaped in his sleep. And he explained in his notes how it was possible to travel all over the universe. Not only was it possible, but everyone does it, every night. Everyone has dreams and George wrote his down. The spacecraft and all of its missions were in the same cardboard box; a microcosm universe beneath George’s bed. He explained how time travel could be possible:

It’s a simple matter of thinking of space and time as the same thing: Spacetime. Once you do that, it’s easier to visualise the fourth dimension: I am lying beneath a bed and I’m occupying a space in three dimensions (X,Y and Z); my height (or length), width and depth. Trembling limbs aside, I will occupy the same space five minutes from now. So the first three dimensions have remained constant, but the fourth (time) has changed. But also, I did occupy that same space five minutes previously. That, and every moment in between is recorded in the fabric of space time: I am still there, five minutes ago. I know the past. I don’t know if I’ll still be here five minutes hence: I can’t predict the future, even though it may be pre-planned from the start of all time as we understand it.

Of course, there is what’s known as The Grandfather Paradox: This states that if I were to travel back in time and kill my granddad, I would cease to exist. But if we assume that in George’s new world order, various ethics committees exist in the future, then time travel to the past could be undertaken in a governed, regulated and ethical manor. It might be a little like the First Directive imagined in many science fiction works, where it’s forbidden to interfere in any way in a species’ development, even if that means remaining invisible whilst watching them destroy themselves. This in itself is a paradox because no-one is qualified to say that it hasn’t already happened, conspiracy theorists aside.

When you’re despairing late at night and you just wish someone was there, but you don’t really want anyone around. When you’re confused, perhaps by internal conflict. That’s when you need a guardian angel. If someone would just phone you at that time, that would be perfect, because you’re not bothering them. You’ve not caused them any trouble. Guardian angels need a sixth sense and the ability to travel back in time.

George estimated his brave new world to be around 200-250 years from now; perhaps ten generations. There was a long way to go and a lot to do, and George would most likely not see any of it. Or so he thought. He was young and he had much to learn, then he needed to learn how to deal with it. The things which George wanted to do were the things I regretted not doing.

All things considered, I thought it might be better to not let George know that one of his prophesies does come true. It was too soon. He wasn’t ready. I couldn’t let him know that it was possible to send letters from the future, or that people from the past could be visited. It was a one-way street, a bit like going to see grandma because she can’t get to you. The departed are still around, we just can’t normally see them. Often they’re just watching over us. Sometimes they might want to speak to us but we need to be receptive.

By now, my arms and legs were in full spasm and I could feel my torso waiting to convulse. I cleared everything from around me as quietly as I could, so as not to interrupt whatever dream was unfolding above me.

The human body has an internal mechanism which shuts it down when stimuli get too much. An inconsolable baby will cry itself to sleep, and if a pain becomes truly unbearable at any age, we will pass out. I hadn’t tried to sleep since I’d been dead, but it looked like I was about to be shown how to.

I don’t know how far I travelled in the fourth dimension but I was woken by a voice:

Georgie?” It was a man’s voice. Dad was home.

In here dad.” George calling to his dad was the first time I’d heard him speak.

I got you your magazines.” Dad was now in the room, quieter but closer. He had big feet.

Thanks dad.” George’s voice had changed. Now that he was speaking at a lower volume, his voice was deeper: Young George’s voice was breaking.

Writing, the science one, and paper craft. Is that right?”

That’s the ones. Thanks.”

What’s all this?”

Notes. I’m writing a story. Here.”

There was a long period of quiet. George was shifting about on the bed and his dad was pacing around the room. There was that same distinct sound of pages being turned that I’d grown used to.

Jemma Redmond. I read about her. Amazing woman. Deserves a posthumous Nobel if you ask me. No-one did.

The EMdrive, eh? That’s exciting. I think we’ll use that for the interstellar stuff, and the solar sail ships for the wider galactic vanguard missions.”

There’s some pretty deep stuff in here Georgie. Did you do this all yourself?”

Well, I kind of had some help.”

From whom? I’d like to meet them.”

You can’t dad.”

Why not?”

Promise you won’t laugh?”

Can I smile?”

You may smile”. There was a pause. “So, I had a dream.”

We all have those. What about?”

Nothing specific. Just a load of dreams mixed into one I suppose.”

So you wrote about it. It’s good to write down your dreams.”

But not all of that writing is mine. See, there was this girl.”

A girl? In your dream?”

Yes. A small girl, with blonde fizzy hair. And green teeth.

Green teeth? Was she a witch? Is she under the bed?

Shit!

No. Well, she was kind of a witch. A dark witch but a good one. She was just wandering around, like she was showing me things. She might have been lost. I want to see her again.”

I imagine you do. At least your witch has somewhere to live now.”

***

George left at the end of that weekend but it wasn’t the end of the story. He visits every weekend and he continues to record things for historians of the future. Eventually, he may realise that he was part of the machinery which kept the conversation going. He didn’t know this yet but he was encouraged in his chosen vocations.

I was there, under the bed. If I’d been able to write, I’d have just added a note for George:

Do what you enjoy. If you enjoy it, you’ll be good at it and people might notice you. If not now, then in the future. Don’t put off till tomorrow that which you can do today. Because if you do it today and you like it, you can do it again tomorrow.

Your life is not empty and meaningless, regardless of who is in it or absent from it. Your life is what you make it, for yourself and for future generations. Don’t give up.

Hopefully George will continue this story, now history, but in the hope that it might be read in the future. And maybe he’ll find the notes I left for him.

Dust to Funky. Be safe George.

To this day, Dad has never gone through George’s things under the bed. I’d have noticed.

© Steve Laker, 2018.

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now in paperback.

The silence of the writing prompt

THE WRITER’S PROMPTS

I picked a writing prompt at random from 642 Things to Write About (San Francisco Writers), and it asked, What is the sound of silence and when did you last hear it? What was missing? And now I’m alone, but for memories…

Depression in menDepression in men: suffering in silence (British Psychological Society)

A less active mind (or one which doesn’t misfire like mine) might dismiss the questions as being nonsensical: Silence implies no sound at all, so the sound is nothing, and what was missing was any kind of sound at all. But that demonstrates no imagination at all. In an imagined empty room with no visible means of exit, there’d be no way out for those souls, when the two exits are to stop imagining (they never started), or to use one’s imagination (which they lack). In my mind, that would be a personal hell.

In amongst my pseudo-scientific atheist belief system is a theory of heaven and hell as personal, and an idea of what each looks like (to me at least). In the simplest terms, I understand how the quantum universe works, and how everything exists in parallel, in one or other state, before one is called into existence by a catalyst.

The simplest demonstration of foundation is the path which splits in two: I’m walking along a path, when I happen upon a fork in the road: Was it there before, when I couldn’t see it? For argument’s sake (and because I’m left-handed), I choose the path on the left. Assuming there are walls and I can’t see the path I didn’t choose, does it still exist? It’s a paradox but it’s useful in explaining death in simple terms.

I imagine the moment of death as little more than a blink of the mind’s eye. For now I exist in a place (a universe), which I’m aware of being around me and all that entails (including physical limitations). At some point in the future (possibly predetermined), my body will cease to function, but the universe in which it lived will carry on. Family and friends may mourn (or celebrate), but I’m not in that world any more. At least, my spirit isn’t.

I use the analogy of a radio or TV to explain my understanding of the human spirit: It sits for the most part, inanimate. But once switched on, it broadcasts. Those signals are always in the air around us, and the media device decodes them into sound and vision. It’s the same with the physical human body (the media decoder), and the spirit (the media itself).

My body now lies like a broken TV set in one universe, while my spirit suddenly became aware of different surroundings: ones in which I have no physical limitations. With no need for food, water, or air, I exist in a form which is free to explore. And I have an eternity to do it.

To me, that’s a dream. The door to all of the universe’s knowledge opens and I’m in a personal heaven. To someone else though, that same place might be hell. A different spirit might find themselves overwhelmed and unable to process their thoughts on what they’re witnessing and experiencing. That’s the sound of silence I’ll never hear. My silence will be me cursing unheard, frustrated at my message not getting through (I need to sign up for ghost courses and learn how to haunt people).

In my scientific atheist, the silencing sound is religion, an invention of man to suppress any thoughts outside a set of conditions, and the wrath of “God” upon all those who seek to disprove or deny him. The last time I heard it was when I tried explaining all this to a small audience. I can’t be sure if the blank expressions were blinded by a light going on, or simple minds blown. What was missing was either a collective imagination or visible clues of a group epiphany. But then I’d possibly just convinced them that God doesn’t exist.

Forest Gump never compared life to a jigsaw puzzle, but it was part of a short story I wrote once. I went on to suggest not following convention by starting on the outside. Just like life, I recommended doing the middle first. Because then the puzzle takes longer to complete. Think outside the box room, the puzzle box and the box of chocolates. That’s as simple as imagining what’s out there.

In using these writing prompts, I’m not really confronting my own fears though, am I? That’s why I originally started writing this blog: The world of the writer with depression. Maybe I can use them more. Perhaps I just did: Because there’s a silence not unlike that I described from my Christian conversion / aversion group: It’s the silence of being ignored. It’s been employed by some cultures as an effective mind-control technique, and outlawed by others (Imagine living in a place where you can’t be heard, despite being entirely aware of the world you inhabit, and the universe beyond).

That’s what isolation feels like sometimes, being overtly avoided. So with little but the thoughts in that empty room, the cracks in the mind of the writer grow larger, letting in the light. The silence of the indie vegetarian can feed on flesh fiction, while the culture vultures on the fringe feast on the spectacle. I remember a time…

The homeless man on the street holds his empty lunch container; a soup cup, hoping to catch another meal. All around, people rush to get out of the rain filling his cup. He’s grateful the storm keeps his head bowed, his face out of sight of those he once knew. He drinks, kissed by someone afar. Even when all the people have gone home into the quiet night, the earth is never silent unless you stop listening.

An elephant plugged into the wall

THE WRITER’S LIFE

If there’s something more disconcerting than footsteps approaching your door late at night, it’s hearing the sound of a key in the lock. It could be someone returning keys I’d lost, and their excuse for letting themselves in, that it was the easiest way to be sure they had the right address. That’s potentially a psychopath killer I just allowed to walk into my home, just with my imagination (I wonder if many other people have such thoughts). It started with a writing prompt: ‘A knock at the door’…

Elephant butt

In real life there’s rarely more than a waste of time at my internal door (the outside one has a bell), but I sometimes wish I could turn the door off like my phone. Like the rest of the social tenants in the building, my main income is from disability allowance (that’s what it’s called when you have mental health issues). Yet I seem to be the only one who has things, or rather, who makes things last on a budget, which is then messed up because I’m always being asked for baccy, money (and even food) by those who’ve run out. Anything for a quiet life, but if only that door wasn’t there.

A Do Not Disturb or Fuck Off sign would be redundant, as it’d be ignored. They always turn up at the most inopportune moments, just as I’m cooking or eating. They’re not to know of course, but it’s like they have a radar. I’d give them x-ray specs, but then they’d see the other reasons why I sometimes don’t go to the door. Short of installing an electrified Braille panel, there’s no way to repel the ignorant and illiterate. There’s no point ignoring the knock, because they’ll only come back later. Sometimes they do, when they’ve run out of what I gave them. That’s when they get told where to go (after I’ve closed the door on them, and I chant voodoo incantation as they walk away).

Voodoo magic works in the quantum universe, as that’s where it’s drawn from in the first place: Every single one of us is connected to everything else in the universe through quantum entanglement (sub-atomic particles, ripped apart at the moment of The Big Bang, which retain a quantum link to their partner, over the vast distances of the cosmos). If you’re connected to that ‘spirit world’, you can use your connectivity with things to impart wishes on them, otherwise known as a spell or a curse.

In a future world of my imagining, we’ll live in houses made of nano-blocks: These are microscopic machines, which can change shape and form. The upshot is that your entire home can be changed with a gesture.

Imagine if you will, a single-room living pod (this is comfortable universal housing, in a world of over-population) which can be changed into any other room. During the day, you might work in your home office, then make it more of a living space when you finish for the evening. You touch your office chair and push it gently into the middle of the room, as it changes into a sofa. You swipe your desk and it becomes a coffee table. Press the back wall and a kitchen appears, and so on. Then later it can become a bedroom, and all the time you can create new furniture, change it and move it around on a whim. A different home every day. In that world, I’d remove problems of the door with a swift swipe of the hand.

For now I’m still in this room, albeit with a stranger I’ve just invited into my imagination, which makes them real, and host to other stories. I’ve been on a freestyle ramble around my virtual life and worlds, remembering places I wrote before, where I might show my new guest around.

Perhaps we’ll dine out at August Underground’s, or maybe print a pizza. We could invite some local cats and dogs round and plug in the Babel fish, or take a trip to London. Or we might just talk into the night, before one of us kills the other, or we think of more things we could do together.

There’s always an elephant in this room, and that’s me, recently climbing the walls with no-one to talk to and writer’s block. The elephant plugged back in, and there was a knock on the door.

Wearing a sieve like a helmet

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Although I’m (not over but) dealing with a few issues in my real life, I’ve still been struggling to write. The real world issues are the ongoing personal lives of loved ones (friends and family), those of the world at large, and the ones in my head. With so much to write about, I’ve struggled to know where to start, or started writing and found myself in a land of digression. But I digress. I’ve found a solution. It’s something I’ve had for ages, but which I’d forgotten about.

Pinhead LegoPinhead (centre): Head like a sieve

Salvation came indirectly from a kindred spirit, another blogger commenting on my last post. I felt empathy, as I was reminded how the universe can answer you if you ask for something, and I read Annother Voice | Unsilenced. That moment of quantum entanglement was what reminded me of the thing I’d lost: Not empathy or universal connectivity, but a book.

Like other writers, that blogger often uses writing prompts, an exercise I’ve rarely undertaken since I first got into writing on a home study course. I’ve always preferred writing freehand, in a notebook always about my person, or at my desk, just seeing what comes out. That’s where most of my fiction starts life, but writing about life can be difficult: It’s that paradox of having too much to say in my head.

I’ve had to compartmentalise my mind (again), so that all I can’t easily write about (the complicated and the not finished), I’ll think about some more first. What’s left is fiction ideas, plots and outlines in one pile, and other freehand notes in another. Then, like my mental health labels, I’ll pin those memos in my head and try to make sense of it all (like Hellraiser with Post-Its).

Pinhead Post It

Still though, I find there’s so much from my mind in those notes that it’s hard to know where to start. That’s where the book came in.

I first noticed 642 Things to Write About in a book store when I was out with my children, and immediately I dismissed it. As the name suggests, it’s 642 ideas about things to write. But I can come up with ideas from my own imagination; that’s where my stories come from. I thought The San Francisco Writers’ Grotto had quite some front, publishing a book of mainly blank pages, with suggestions for things to write about at the top of each. They were charging people money to write their book. So I bought a copy.

The impulse to buy came with a simple thought: 42, which always gives rise to other thoughts. These may be just 642 ideas, but they’re those of other writers. There are only a finite number of plots, but an infinite number of stories which can be written. Each copy of 642 Things sold – if filled by writing freehand – would be a unique volume. I thought I could get quite into that.

Even though I have a fertile imagination, there’s something challenging and refreshing about writing something suggested by someone else. I liked to think those writers at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto might be interested to see what others made of their ideas (in fact, I’ve been tempted in the past to ask another writer to take one of my ideas, then for us to write two completely different stories). Then I forgot about it.

The book and the beginning of my 642 Things got lost in my real life, just as I was lost in my inner third world and my thoughts, so that I forgot my virtual life and writing. It was the perfect storm. And then that other voice came along, reminding me of writing prompts, and that I had a whole book of them. I guess that prompted me to write a blog post about writing prompts, a foreword to my own 642 Things, some of which I’ll share and a few may become stories.

The best prompt came from another writer and blogger, a kindred spirit who connected the dots without realising, when I didn’t know what to write. Sometimes we wonder if anyone’s reading us, and I’m glad I read that other voice.

I’m the cracked actor with much on my mind, wishing to escape. Blessed are the cracked, for they let in the light, like umbrellas in the night: Full of holes where the rain gets in, but the holes are small so the rain is thin.

In make-up with Max Headroom

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There are three people in all of us (and I’m one of them): The person we think we are; the one others see; and the third, inner (or shadow) self. I’m in touch with that third person, just as I can write from the perspective of others. I can read thoughts, then write them down for people to think about. I can be omnipresent in my virtual worlds, directing the thoughts of those there with me, and that’s where I’m finding myself lately, in an empty room. It’s where I left my ego.

Max Headroom in make-upJohn Humphrys at Frieze

A great philosopher never wrote this:

Imagine you’re in an empty room, with no visible means of exit: How do you escape?

Whether or not anyone had posited that mind experiment before, it was one I’ve posed to myself many times. In any case, I’d first ponder whether the subject might not want to escape. Then I’d propose one of two things: Stop imagining, or use your imagination.

I may not got out much (social anxiety), but I will if someone needs me and they can’t get to me. It’s far easier (mentally) not to go out, and have friends like me, who’ll make an effort when I need someone. Unfortunately, I don’t have one of those.

I thought I did. Even as recently as my birthday, I was prepared to put my personal plans to one side to help a friend who said they needed a shoulder and an ear. Even if they didn’t need me on the day, I’d let it be known that I’d appreciate the company (to one who said they’d drop everything for a friend in need), but apparently it doesn’t work that way. I seem to be back living on one-way streets again, but that’s fine.

I’m used to being kerbside, just watching the world go by or hitching a ride, and my birthday told me where I stood: Far from alone in the real world life, but apart from most and not a part of many. I have to choose my own adventure, like the fighting fantasy books I used to read before I had anyone to play Dungeons and Dragons with (back in my teens, but no longer). All the geeks grew up and got jobs. I’m the only one who lost all their hit points and longed to be a teenage nerd again, but when memories are forgotten, they become stories.

Everyone else respected my annual tradition of wanting to be alone, on the one day of the year I can allocate myself to gather my thoughts. Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder, and the mind grows wiser, as I realised I’m better alone than surrounded by carrion feeders anyway. It seems some I thought were friends (in the mutual, two-way paradigm) are only that for their own convenience, when I have something they want, or when it suits them. A plague of rain and floods on fair weather friends, as no-one needs those, least of all when mental health issues make that one vulnerable (and causes one to refer to oneself as ‘one’).

In the virtual world, a quick scan of the (admittedly, quite a few) messages on Facebook told me more than a night out with all of them would (I wouldn’t have time to get round them all, it’d cost too much to drink with each, and I’d have to travel). There were many notable absences, which stung a bit, but that perhaps told me something too: they’re less likely to be there in the real world when I need them than I thought.

Truth is, people are frightened of what they (and I) don’t understand: my broken brain. Always the elephant in the room, laying eggs for people to walk over, I don’t have the luxury of avoiding me, because I live there. I can’t run away to escape my mind, and no-one else visits it, so I face the mirror.

Ever the cracked actor, this blog has always been both the mask I hide behind and some of what goes on behind it. I’m far more comfortable being someone else, but that’s often the person I want to be, in whom I feel comfortable, but who others can find overwhelming in real life. But in the virtual world, I can be that inner persona.

As a writer who’s been compared to others I admire in the various genres (Lovecraft, Kafka, King and Poe in horror; Douglas Adams for sci-fi; Paul Auster in my more complex writing; many children’s authors; and the surrealists, Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas for Cyrus Song), I’ve decided now’s as good a time as any for reinvention and a change of clothes.

My recent depressive episode coincided with the latest attack of writer’s block. Having worn so many hats in the past, I wasn’t sure which one to put back on. But then that third person in me suggested another way: don’t conform to any. Do something different, unconventional and surprising. Mix things up a bit and come up with the thoughts no-one has (like the two foundation ideas in Cyrus Song). There are a finite number of plots, but infinite ways to write them, each creating a new universe and all talking to me.

Be original: Your individuality is your originality. This could be a metamorphosis, a changing of the chameleon’s colours, or just another crack I’ve found in the actor’s mind, but I’ll see where it takes me and my typewriter as we make up and wake up.

Much of the writing I did in those recent troubled times, and which is in the notebooks I carried around and sat in front of the TV with, is all over the place, like I was. In amongst it all though, there are stories, and some like none I’ve written before. There are elephants in there: floating elephant heads, which walk on their trunks (eight each, like a spider), sucking up eggs and denying the birth of another life, preventing sentience, self-determinism and coping mechanisms.

There’s a plastic population: people who are part plastic (every human); there’s the hacking of human DNA; a quantum computer, becoming one with its creator; nano-drones, right under our noses, observing and interacting with us while we curse a sneeze; the tale of an escaped Schrödinger’s cat, back to tell tales of nine lives spent in parallel universes; and the world’s greatest irony, in a lake beneath the Kalahari desert, where the water is fossilised.

I don’t know what else might emerge. As a writer, I’m going to experiment, play, throw away, and I’m keen to find out. I’m stuck in a room, but I have an imagination. I’ll write more in that third person and occupy the shadow self. Making love with my ego. Like a leper messiah.

Cyrus Song is available now.