An anté clockwise poker game

FICTION

I rarely write sequels, and this is no real exception. I’m more about writing different stories in alternative places (rooms, worlds, galaxies), and linking them all up in a way which I think only I might ever understand (but I don’t yet), over space and time. It’s all down to anyone wanting to get that far, and me wanting to give it up.

If someone were ever able to find their way from when I first stumbled upon The Unfinished Literary Agency, to a future when I came back to a post-human world to pick up my pen, then what I got up to in my Earth stories would fit in with all the extraterrestrial journeys I took. It’s an analogy of my life, part-autobiography, but fictitious.

I often write fiction about writers, writing about writers writing fiction. They’re the kind of people who have to see as much inside as others can see in the wider world which the writer can’t inhabit. To exist in that world of normality would be to deny the universe in the imagination of the writer contained within their own world, to remove temptation from the gambler, and the means to survive from the damned.

I sometimes write prequels, especially in the Cyrus Song realm of my universe, but those too are linked by a point in space and time which can only ever revolve around me. It’s become one of a few personal writing trademarks, and one I’m quite proud of, as it’s how I think of my literary mentor, Paul Auster.

Just as I like to dine in my own invention of August Underground’s Diner (and am occasionally resident chef there), I sometimes like to drink alone in a previous world I created, in a specific time and place. Although I’m a near– and far-future sci-fi writer, sometimes I have to go into the past to find the stories I need to tell, perhaps to prevent an alternative future, because there was another which could never happen.

My novels and short stories might collectively explain at least some of what’s in my head, but they don’t yet, which is why I keep on writing. No matter what other distractions I might have, I can always escape by addressing life in fiction, however violent that might be in a mind gym.

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OMAHA SANS SERIF

I never could get the hang of Wednesdays, so it was no great surprise that it should be a Wednesday when it occurred to me that particular day might be a bit different. No-one told me, it wasn’t something I heard. It wasn’t something I just told myself. It wasn’t even really a thought, just a feeling that something was going to be different on this particular Wednesday, intuition, for want of a better word.

It was a smell which prompted it, the fragrance of breakfast sausages and coffee, at my writing desk. On any other Wednesday, I’d be playing poker, either in a pub or a home game, often staying overnight and eating breakfast with the fish and the sharks in the remains of the morning, when the in-exorcised poker gods rewarded or punished those who’d entrusted their lives to luck in a game of skill.

This short chronicle centres on my typewriter and the mechanical manacles which keep me handcuffed to that retro machine. It’s also where I play poker online, every night except Wednesday, when I play live games. But when you play and lose, what do you have to show anyone else? Loose, aggressive, tight and passive are labels applied to poker players, but I had no material proof of any typecast, so I’d become as much a spirit of the poker table as I was a ghost writer who can’t be labelled.

I’d taken on extra work assignments to stop me chasing losses and playing with scared money, like I did once before in an alcoholic breakdown which ended with me living on the streets. Now I live in my writer’s studio, where I have a method of differentiating between work and home. The hardest part is writing fiction which feels as real as the poker, a simulacrum for the thrill of playing with your life, perhaps as simple as solving a cryptic crossword puzzle.

The day had gone much like any other, Wednesday or otherwise, with me in my studio working simultaneously on a short story for a magazine, and a crossword for the same publication. The story had a strict space limit (2200 words, or 4.25 pages, with a three-quarter page ad), so I’d edited it a few times to strip out unnecessary embellishments. I’d wanted to include some sideline action from the poker scene, the prop bets, the propositions. These are made between players, betting on events away from the table, often personal dares.

As on any other day, I walked clockwise into the village at lunchtime to pick up a newspaper and some lunch. If I walk in a clockwise direction, all my points of call are in order. It also allows me to mentally separate work and home, as both are in the same place. When I finish working at home, I walk anti-clockwise, but that’s for later.

As usual, I said hello to the homeless guy on the corner of the high street and put a pound in his Costa Coffee cup, the small blind in the poker cash games I used to play. He says hello back, but he doesn’t look up.

He always sits cross-legged, with his head down, looking at the pavement between his knees, and I’ve never wanted to interrupt whatever contemplation he’s having. I’d like to look him in the eye, but I can’t ask him to look at me; I can’t ask him to stop talking to whomever he’s in commune with. He may not want to look at anyone. I place my hand on his and say, “There you go mate,” just for some human contact, perhaps for my benefit more than his. It was a long time since I’d shaken hands with someone over a poker table, after I’d just won their entire life.

I went to the newsagent and bought The Guardian, then to the sandwich shop. And as usual, the man behind me in the sandwich shop asked for exactly the same as me.

I’ll have sausage and tomato on granary please”, I said, “with just a scrape of English mustard.”

I’ll have that please,” the man behind me repeated. “And a tomato soup, thanks.” In poker, that’s a raise.

This had been going on for weeks, and I’d not given it much thought. It was a little eccentric and perhaps the kind of thing I myself might do, unable to decide what to have for lunch, delegating the decision to someone else in a game of sandwich Russian Roulette. I’d never know when I might get to try something new, and free from the multitude of choices, I’d have a way of making my mind up for me, leaving it to ponder the more important things, the longer game. I didn’t want to embarrass the man by asking him, and if the shoes were swapped, I’d find the question of why I’m being followed uncomfortable. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I took some quiet pride in helping someone be more like me in their own lunchtime.

After my clockwise walk, I’m back in my studio, writing fiction, compiling a crossword, and eating whatever that other guy is.

I’ve never noticed him following me, and if I had, I’d think it more sinister than it is if I just assume coincidence. Mine is a small village, I go out for lunch at the same time every day, so I tend to see the same people, including the man behind me in the sandwich shop. I never see where he comes in from, and when we leave it’s in opposite directions. I continue clockwise, back to my studio, and he goes back the way I came.

Previously that week, I’d had the same lunch at my desk as a relative stranger had, wherever they were. On the Monday, it was tuna and green pepper on wholemeal, then salt beef and pickles on rye on Tuesday. On the Thursday I was contemplating a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel. On Monday, the sandwich shop man had mushroom soup, and it was chicken on Tuesday. Today’s soup for the other guy was tomato.

I never bought a soup with my sandwich, but today I wanted to copy my imitator, like he had me so many times. If we were to have lunch together, even in different places, I felt we should have the same. And although I didn’t realise it at the time, that was the feeling I’d have which said this particular Wednesday would be different to the rest, of Wednesdays and other days. It was a hunch.

On any other day, I’ll walk anti-clockwise around the village at the end of the day. It’s my way of leaving work and arriving home to relax, where the clockwise lunchtime walk is from home to the office. As I hadn’t finished my story or crossword, I walked clockwise to pick up my afterthought tomato soup.

I walked past the homeless guy again, looking down between his legs at his Costa Coffee cup. He seemed to be talking to himself. “Me again,” I said, “there you go,” and I dropped another pound into his pot. Another small blind, another hand.

Thank you,” he said, and I smelled sausages again, like I had at breakfast at my desk. Still looking down, he reached behind him for a cup. He took off the lid and took a sip of tomato soup.

Thank you,” I replied.

Why?”

Because you just answered a question that’s been on my mind for a while. And in a way, you’ve finished a story I’m writing.”

How come?”

Because I’ve been struggling lately. There’s a guy who buys the same as me for lunch every day. Today he bought a sausage and tomato sandwich on granary, and a tomato soup. Now I know why. I imagine he’s happier than me.”

That’s Will. He buys my lunch. Why would he be happier than you? He told me about a guy who makes his mind up. I guess you’re the one I have to thank for the variety. Does he know that?” Of course not. Will and I have never spoken. “Maybe if you told him, he might be happy.”

He seems happy to help you in his way. But surely you could tell Will what you’d like for lunch?”

I could tell them in the sandwich shop, but I’d feel uncomfortable there. I’m a bit smelly and that can’t be good for business. I’d put the customers off.”

For a moment, I didn’t know what to say. “Look at me,” was the first thing which came to me. “You’re a human being. You’re no different to me or anyone else, just that your story is different.” That’s what I loved about poker, that it was the great democratic leveller, anyone could play. But just like him, I knew mine were empty words.

I prefer to trust Will. He brings me surprises, things I might not have tasted before. He brings me fragrance, taste and touch. When I can’t see what I’m having for lunch, when Will doesn’t know what he’s bringing me, when you decide for him what flavours I’ll taste, which fillings I’ll smell, and how I hold it in my hand, depending how it’s held together, in a sandwich, a baguette, a bagel, it makes up for the lack of sight, because Will sees me when most other people don’t.”

He still didn’t look up as I placed my helpless hand on his, unable to offer anything but the money I had on me. “That’s just short of a fiver,” I said, an all-in shove at the poker table. “I can’t make Will redundant, so I can’t buy you lunch. You remind me of someone I used to know. Take that for yourself, and with my gratitude.”

People say don’t give money to the homeless, but I’ve been there. Many people who find themselves down there need coping mechanisms through their hours of invisibility, and to some it’s a survival strategy, at least by means of temporary escape. Who am I to deny someone a few hours of hope if I can’t shelter and feed them?

Back at the studio, I spent the rest of the day finishing the short story I was working on, and the cryptic crossword I was compiling, trying to make the first two across clues into a clue in themselves, about what the accompanying story is all about:

Illustrative, I see and I hear (7)

Sit uncomfortably with a book writer (8)

Or maybe:

Choppy Choppy’s hat (10)

An author in a pen (6)

Then again:

Breakfast sounds like soap (6)

The king is not well before the queen’s murderer (6)

I took my usual anti-clockwise walk at my normal time of 3am. The hour between three and four is one I enjoy, as it’s the quietest hour, and the best one to separate any day from the next. Trying to do so at midnight is pointless, as life doesn’t change with the calendar. Even though midnight on New Year’s Eve is the bridge between years, nothing changes in a moment. Although we have a birthday every year, we’re constantly ageing. The best divider is an hour to contemplate, when the world around you is at its calmest.

There’s little night life in my village, but further afield, nightclubs and even kebab shops are mainly closed after 3am, while the weariest players and the insomniacs try to find somewhere to sleep. An hour later, long before mechanical millipedes start their rush hour, the first deliveries of the day begin with the awakening of an invisible and anonymous workforce. In worlds which never sleep, there are those who make it through the night by working, and others who don’t. Most poker players are nocturnal, lights in the night.

Walking home from the office, from the studio back to the studio, I noticed the lack of nightlife hadn’t curtailed the local wildlife: tins of Special Brew on the pavement and the smell of weed in the damp October air, the howls of feral teens in the distance, calling out to other creatures of the night, like I did when I lived on the streets. I hoped my homeless guy was okay, that he had shelter at night. I’d find sleeping difficult if I thought he might be suffering.

The pond life had marked their territory, with streams of piss rolling down the pavement. I sped up to get home from work, following their calls, leading me to the end of the story, where I have to fold my hand.

Someone had left a special calling card, just outside my studio: a pile of sick, someone’s dinner post-mortem: ground meat in a red sauce, smelling like a sausage and tomato stew. If my homeless friend had been able to look at me, maybe I’d have seen the clouds behind his eyes. What he couldn’t see was how he helped me end this story.

On Thursday, the guy behind me in the sandwich shop had a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel for lunch. I never even asked him his name. No show of cards, like chopping the pot without playing the final hands. Wednesdays were never the same, because after this particular Wednesday, I never saw him again.

© Steve Laker, 2019

Some battles are fought in your head, and the war will never be won. But talking to yourself can unite you and your brain against a common foe within you both.

Courtney Manson by Warhol

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Just lately, while I’ve been writing and growing a pile of work in progress, I’ve been mucking around with The Gimp: Not of the Pulp Fiction kind, but an open-source alternative to Photoshop (and better).

Marylin Manson

I’ve also been playing a lot of poker with my coaching project and kid sister, Courtney (a natural, very much the journeyman player nowadays, and soon to be staked online). We get talking over our games, and it gives me the opportunity to open some sometimes-blinkered eyes to other things in the world.

Although I value the sciences, I believe the arts and humanities are equally important for a greater understanding of the variables in life. Sometimes then, I’ll explain a near-future possibility in simple science terms, and I’ll open an eye.

Other times, I’ll talk about my thoughts on-moment, sometimes poker-related and others just completely surreal, abstract ponderations: The kind of thing to get two poker players who like to share a reefer really into a game.

And by now, the gimp’s probably sleeping. Well, I guess I’d better go wake him.

At the poker table the other night, I mentioned that my sister has quite an iconic look in some of her online profile pictures. I thought she’d look good colourised, to go with her mind. Like mine, it’s fractured, and I could perhaps separate the screaming colours and turn it into something like Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe.

Courtney Cyan     Courtney Green

Courtney Orange     Courtney Pink

The Courtney I know is more Manson than Monroe. I share a birthday with Duncan Jones and she shares a name with Kurt Cobain. We met on the streets and that’s family just as good as any by related blood. She’s pretty cool, and the story which follows was an attempt at any life in 1000 words, a few years ago.

In the final period before the execution of an inmate on death row, he is offered a special last meal.”

MECHANICAL MANACLE

How soon is now, Morrissey wondered. The Smiths asked, The Clash happened, The Angelic Upstarts cried for last night (another soldier), then came The Stranglers and The Damned: The History of the World, Part 1.

Courtney was lost. Kurt was lost. No more smells like teen spirit. No Hole, or Babes in Toyland. Faith no More, no more. Everyone and everything was gone. All that remained was her and the ticking clock on her wrist, telling a time which had ceased to exist. Everything can change, suddenly and forever. For Courtney, it had, and it was.

All she wanted to know was, when is now? She yearned to know when she was. This was her third and final wish but she dare not speak it, for as soon as a wish is broadcast, it is granted, by a star. Or a binary system: then you get two wishes come true, for the price of two.

The first wish was for an end to all conflict and hunger in the world: that was easy. The second was that her mum and dad hadn’t got married. That was simple too, but now Courtney didn’t exist.

The story of a life which no longer happened started just a short while from now. In the very near future, a war to end all wars is going to happen. It starts when a young girl makes a wish.

Every night, as she drifts off to sleep, Courtney tries to imagine a world with no conflict. A place where people don’t fight. In a dream, the answer came to her: warring factions can be united against a common foe.

And so, “They” came to be. They are all that is unknown to Courtney, but she sought them in dreams and they came to her. They explained things in very simple terms, but in a language which Courtney didn’t yet understand. At the time, she didn’t realise this. So when a voice which was alien to her asked if her first wish be granted, she answered that it should.

It came to be known as The War of Words. It was a conflict waged in a global theatre. It wasn’t a physical war but one based in dreams: a psychological war of intelligence. They won.

Neither of the opposing sides on earth survived. Where once east and west were in conflict, now there were no battles. There was no-one to fight them. They didn’t discriminate: the foe against which the previously warring factions of earth fought, defeated all other sides. People simply didn’t wake up. They bore no physical injuries and passed quietly.

Courtney’s parents perished in the war. Her second wish didn’t need to be vocalised because it was granted as a product of the first. Now she wished that she could take back what she had done. She wished that she could be transported back to a time before her parents had started to drift apart; perhaps to the birthday when they’d given her a fine, gold antique watch.

The watch was a solid weight on Courtney’s young wrist. At times, it was an encumbrance. On occasion, it was a reassuring tie or tug. The importance of the timepiece was impressed upon her young mind as soon as it was placed around her arm.

It was a family heirloom, fashioned in the past, but futuristic in appearance. The detail was exquisite: clearly the product of dextrous old hands. The strap was formed of alternate links made from gold and platinum, to produce a two-tone bling curfew tag. The outer body of the casing was also cast in gold. The watch face was ebony and the hour, minute and second hands were fine slivers of ivory.

Within the main face were four other dials: two chronometers measuring seconds in tenths and hundredths respectively; a completely separate 24-hour clock face, with its own hour, minute and second hands; and a dial displaying the date of the month, with a smaller still dial within it, displaying the month. All of the dials were analogue and their numerals were embossed into the black wood face with platinum leaf. The workings – the actual clockwork mechanisms – were visible on top of the watch face, rather than being obscured by it, with just the protection of the watch’s flawless glass screen. The skills of the creator were visible through a transparent yet impenetrable sky, as the mechanisms danced like a miniature fairground.

The watch dated from a time when trade in ivory was legal. The remnants of one of many extinct species, it now ticked not towards something, but away from the existential death of humankind and all other life on their planet. The craftsmanship of the watch might mean that it was the last relic of humanity, long after Courtney’s body had disappeared in time.

The watch had no visible means of winding, despite the fact that it was clearly clockwork. There was no obvious source of power, yet the watch generated warmth as Courtney wore it. It were as though she was wearing a miniature steam-powered structure in perpetual motion: an automaton, which must house mechanical components of microscopic proportions.

Would you like this wish to be granted?” said a voice, from somewhere. Somewhere else, someone said, “Yes”.

Courtney blinks as though waking from sleep, as her surroundings become clearer. She’s at a child’s birthday party. Is it hers? She looks down at her arms: there is no steam-powered fairground. She can hear her parents in the background. Through the noise of the party, it’s hard to tell if they’re screaming with laughter, rage, or both. Courtney decides simply to join in her own party.

It was after the last guests had left when Courtney’s parents gave her the watch. They explained in words which Courtney thought she understood, the importance of the timepiece which she now wore.

If Courtney had only one wish in her life, it would be for things to stay exactly like this.

© Steve Laker, 2017

My second collection of surreal, horror and science fiction short stories is available in paperback.

The example of the death row inmate can be viewed as a metaphor for the life of an average person, condensing the very essence of existence into a customary prison ritual. For an average person who is not incarcerated, the last meal can be equated to the trivialities of daily affairs and the substance of life in general. Despite the apparent acknowledgement of mortality, which is effectively a death sentence as much as that of the inmate’s, albeit a prolonged one and preceded by a rather elaborate performance, the person yet remains firmly invested in the last meal that is life.”

That’s what me and the kid sis had worked out, so we carried on playing poker.

Incoherence in the past tense

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The more I have on my mind, the less inclined I am to write. I can’t write much of what’s in my head (mainly unfinished and mostly involving other people), but I can still write. There’s only so much you can get from a blog about a depressed writer, writing about being that, but I have a past I’ve written little of. There was a time when I couldn’t, when I was too drunk. Life’s a quieter affair now and I can make better sense of some of what went before.

Cat asleep at desk

I have plenty of interests but not many hobbies, as most involve meeting people with a common interest. That’s not as much of a problem as having to leave home to meet those people, only to find you have just the one thing in common and the conversation quickly runs dry.

Real-life friends I’ve known for many years (since before my alcoholic breakdown) have tried to extract me from home, but I’ve always grown too anxious as the event approaches and ducked out. Lately this has included the chance to see a play at a local theatre about David Bowie, and to meet John Hegley for a book signing at Tate Modern.

It seems nothing is so important that it will cancel out my anxiety and paranoia, and of course, I always regret missing these things and letting people down. So the depression grows deeper with more time spent alone, and I hardly dare trouble anyone for company when I’m so prone to backing out at the last minute. It’s why the few friends I have come to me: I’m not likely to leave them.

The depressive does not make their own life easy, which is pretty much how depression works (it’s self-propagating). It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad company, but they’re generally complicated, with higher- or differently-functioning brains, which is handy when it comes to my main interest beyond writing: I play poker.

An alcoholic gambler: what a mix. The perfect storm, where each feeds the other and generally turns out badly. That was indeed the case once, but before I was ill I played well and made some money. At my peak, I was playing live cash games daily at The Empire Casino, and there’d be a pub tournament most nights around where I lived in Bexley. Failing that (or as well as) there was often a home game at someone’s house, and I played online too. Those were heady days and long weeks, usually endured with a Colombian cold.

I have little to show for those days besides a PokerStars.com baseball cap, but anyone familiar with the game will know how many Frequent Player Points you need to get one of those. I host my own home games but they’re mainly heads-up (two players), as I only have a small table.

Since I dried out and got my brain fully functional, I can play again. Despite what many say, poker is not a game of luck. I play No-limit Hold Em (Texas Hold Em), and the maths in calculating odds, the psychology of bluffing or reading another player, and everything else a successful player needs to be aware of, make it far more a game of skill than luck (about 70 and 30 per cent respectively). Unwilling or unable to go out much, I found myself coaching other players, so that they can.

This blog post has virtually no literary merit, it doesn’t make many points, and it’s not the usual unloading of my mind or chest. But there’s more to me than that, I just don’t get out much to meet people and tell them. It’s helped just to sit at the desk and type away with almost gay abandon, and that’s why I originally started writing this blog, as an escape and a coping mechanism. It doesn’t matter how many people read it, just that I said it.

These are the kind of notes I normally scribble down longhand throughout the day, then review every now and then trying to make a coherent narrative. When my own life and mind are as incoherent as any confused, lost and lonely depressive, I don’t feel so abandoned when I write.

There’s much to tell which I’ve not written before, mainly because it’s from around the time my life changed (the alcoholic and mental breakdown of 2011-13), when so many other people were affected. Now that I’ve moved on from places others would rather I’d stayed, I can look back and find chinks of memory in the dark.

There are many anecdotal stories I could tell of the poker life, some of which would be more plausible written as fiction. I have other interests besides, which fellow recluses might like. When I think of all that, I realise how little those who only know me online actually know me. They know the writer, but one who hasn’t ventured far from the depressive narrative. I’m really not that depressing in real life, and anecdotal memories are a good way of reminding me.

I can never claim to have nothing to write when I’ve done so much. Even if I can’t make my thoughts coherent, I can at least share them, and some will make good stories. It was right under my nose, like all I put up there in the poker days.

Life might be shit sometimes, but I have another one, a better one I once lived to look back on. That life, to be continued…