Invisible extraterrestrial nation

FLASH FICTION

If you go outside now, it’s like a ghost town; a trope of the horror writer. Beyond the window, a post-apocalyptic zombie landscape; one of science fiction…

Three AM

NOCTURNS

If you go outside now, there’s a strange calm. It’s a kind of peace which can only be found in solitude with others. It’s a world of visitors and living ghosts.

There’s a different place on the other side of the window at 3am, where we gather at a distance. It’s a universe of quantum entanglement.

They’re out there, taking their daily walk. Time means nothing, now that many of us are unable to work.

Anxiety has turned us into insomniacs and agnostics.

Just as far apart as during the day, there are fewer of us, so there’s less risk of infection at night.

A few say hello from a distance, but most just walk around in what for many of us has become our own world.

Personal space is a minimum of two meters, but at night, we all have more space to ourselves.

The shops are closed, so we look to the stars which connect us all. Insomniacs and agnostics.

Sometimes we watch the sun rise, but when daylight comes, we go home.

We sleep, but we’ll be out again tonight.

Aliens at night

Β© Steve Laker, 2020

A world not too far from home, it’s one we’ll find. No matter the distance, we’ll always have a quantum link.

The genesis of metamorphosis

FLASH FICTION

One story from when paper and ink were rationed, written sparingly at one word per weekday over a whole year, a chapter for every two months of one history. As life changes daily, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a species can re-evolve in a year…

metamorphosis red-42761

SEEDS

(i)

“Most of us are fake people. We never wanted to be, we just ended up hiding so many emotions that we started wearing a mask. We do this so easily now that we’ve taught ourselves to believe these lies are truth. It’s quite the opposite actually. We are so fake that we don’t even remember our true identity…”

I

β€œ…It’s why we’re all locked inside now, contemplating ourselves. We’ve been forced by authority to obey for our own good. And actually, we shouldn’t resist…”

II

β€œ…Political divisions are forgotten as quickly as new language evolves, and a dictatorial government shifts its rhetoric to one of a nation together, rather than nationalism. Old foes are united against a common new enemy and the citizens largely accept the restrictions placed upon them…”

III

β€œ…and when we emerge, no matter how we look at it, we’ll be different. It’ll be a new world, which we approach cautiously, as we learn a new way of life. None of us will forget this, because it affected every single one of us. We’ll say it was a unifying human experience…”

IV

β€œ…We should stay where we are for now, do as we’re told, while there’s such an opportunity to find ourselves and each other inside. We’ll need that when we all get out of here. Maybe we’ll eventually remove the masks, like we could when we were locked in together…”

V

β€œ…A safe journey to all those who made a new humanity, and with our gratitude. You do not go in vain. We will forever remember the sentinels who changed us.”

VI

β€œAnd that’s how you indoctrinate a populace, all the while suppressing resistance, by sowing the seeds of martyrs.”

Β© Steve Laker, 2020

β€œI give it two weeks before we see martial law, unless everyone calms the fuck down and starts behaving as they’re told,” said a liberal socialist.

Recycling the middle classes

FLASH FICTION

As I begin, I don’t know how I’ll end. After a gestation of roughly nine months., we’re in the latter stages of the pandemic. For many, the end of days. Tonight’s lottery is the last, so I have little time to write this…

Disposable People

REDUNTANT OCCUPATION

It’s all happened so quickly. The last year has seen situations develop and casualties rise, more than in any global military conflict. A year ago, we were fighting over toilet roll. Even then, Brexit had been largely forgotten.

Those of us who wrote conspiracies in the UK, theorised that Coronavirus was the perfect smokescreen to divert the media’s attention from trade deals the government was signing with the USA, China and Saudi Arabia.

With the mainstream news agencies diverted, a few of us took up unofficial journalism posts, writing mainly for free in the gig economy. We were certain that Corvid-19 was a population control mechanism of human construction.

Having recently made my way through the social cleansing apparatus of the UK benefits system, I was grateful to have won back my human rights, at one of the last tribunals to be held before the system was shut down. I had to put the freedom and liberty I’d regained to good use. I had to explore to be able to report.

After the government departments closed, the indirect death toll from the disease increased the overall figures dramatically. But there was a bigger story.

A man-made virus, designed to reduce the financial state burden of the weak and elderly, benefited the balance sheets of disaster speculators, spread betting on casualty numbers, as hospitals were re-purposed and operations deemed non-essential were postponed. Eventually patients with existing terminal diagnoses were included in this group.

We suspected that those with underlying medical conditions and the over-70s were β€œshielded” for three months to give doctors time to hasten their demise. The weak and costly were being erased by social cleansing.

Over just a few months, there was a ripple effect. Medical staff succumbed to the virus, so that a situation could be forecast where those needing care outnumbered those able to provide it. Then a financial tsunami, for the invested gamblers and their sponsors. In the last few weeks, despite curfews and marshal law, the streets have become post-apocalyptic, while the protected hide away with their money.

The shops closed months ago and there have been no deliveries for weeks now. The law enforcers have fallen just as quickly as those they’re meant to police and protect. Most stay home, like they were told. A few hunt the rich.

The now invisible government has published a guide, available only sporadically online since the telecoms infrastructure is burning out under the pressure of human want and need. I got hold of a copy, which is why I needed to write.

The document is entitled ‘Professional Education: A New Vision for a Revised Population’. It prioritises specific occupations, and plans to switch education funding to support those professions. They include lawmakers and medics, educators and builders; First and Third class.

And that’s why I had little time to write what may be my last journalistic dispatch. Because like everyone else not in those categories of jobs listed, I’m in the lottery. I may be needed to help care for one of those people in the other two groups.

This is the day of the lottery, when a knock on the door may herald the beginning of many new lives, as disposable people like me are taken to provide blood, limbs and organs for those who need them the most.

It was a financial as well as a public health catastrophe, for all but the disaster capitalists. Suicides increased the death toll but helped as donors for the survivors.Β They were just part of the gamble to reap the harvest.

Clinical waste, where once we were slaves.Β 

Β© Steve Laker, 2020

The evolution of sentient plastic

FICTION

Easter is on sale and the world faces another tidal wave of plastic…

Blonde doll

HOMO POLYMER

β€œA surprise in every egg. Yes, Kinder, there’s a selection of small plastic choke hazards in each toy, but the plastic egg which holds them can be a handy cunt plug. Keep this warm in there for me baby.”

β€œMummy, who are you talking to? I need a wee.”

Ocean opened the bathroom door and a bolt of blonde hair dashed past her legs. β€œWho were you talking to?” Conscience asked again, enthroned on her Peppa Pig toilet seat.

β€œNo-one,” Ocean replied, β€œWell, just myself.”

β€œBut you’re not no-one mum.”

β€œThanks. Now, come on, back to bed.”

β€œBut you’re not no-one mum, so who were you talking to?”

β€œHonestly, Conscience, just myself. I do that a lot.”

β€œWill you read me a story, please?”

β€œWe don’t have any, Conscience.”

β€œBut we all do, in our heads. Tell me one of your stories of being Ocean, mummy.”

β€œWell, there was this one time. I was about your age. I had a dolly. Hated it. Your nanno and grampo wanted me to be a girl. Well, they both wanted me to be girly, but grampo had wanted a boy, so I had to be a really girly girl.

β€œIt’s funny now I think about it, because he’d probably have liked the boy inside me more.

β€œAnd apparently you’re asleep. In any case, I think I made the perfect mix in the only one I kept. You’re you, and even so young, you have a personality which transcends gender. If I can be proud of one thing in my life, it’s you. So, whoever’s still listening, even if it’s in a dream I hope you won’t inherit…

β€œThey lived in different times. In those days, the only costume you could wear to play yourself was a uniform, and I hated everything that stood for. I resented my school uniform, but I used the skirt I despised to score one over on the system. I lost my virginity at 12, then got my English teacher sacked when he broke up with me at 14.

β€œThere could have been loads of kids before you, but any one of them might have meant I never met you. I only had you because I remembered who your dad was. You remind me a lot of him. He could be a cunt sometimes too.

β€œWe were broke. Still was an artist and an eco-activist. We lived in communes in fields, usually just tents near protest sites, but sometimes on local traveller camps. I knew what it was all about but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was 15 then and the nearest I’ll ever get to true romance, that summer of love which made you. A brief history of anarchy, peace and freedom.

β€œSo here were are, five years later kid. I wonder if you’ll want what’s inside this Kinder egg, or if I should throw it away like the rest. See you in the morning. Don’t dream of this.”

Dreams are made of plastic. Unpaid cards become CCJs, then bailiffs emerge from eggs. Everything in the flat is made from plastic. All that we eat, drink and wash with is bound by plastic.

The council don’t recycle all plastics, so I put what I’m unsure about in the general waste. If the council won’t take the rubbish, we can pay Bill to take it away in his van. One day, he might take me.

The plastic in me will probably be recycled into the non-conscious parts of robots for those entitled to them. Or as parts of a toy, so many child’s dolls. Either way, I’ll be enslaved in the plastic which gives lives to those implanted in the chips and to those around them. Eventually those body parts, inanimate but for the host brain, will need upgrading. Always disposable people, eventually the parts which don’t work will be returned to the food chain.

Food, drink, we’re all part-plastic. We are the polymer population. We dream of becoming one with technology, our minds inside plastic androids. In Japan they already have home robots to deal with loneliness and social isolation in an ageing population. I Can’t help think how that would benefit me. They’re already a species in their own right, made from the same cosmic matter as us, but theirs was an explosive evolution.

Christmas will be paid for with hidden plastic. Christmas will bring more plastic toys to unwrap. We are the consumer generations, products of the industrial and technological ages. Each generation contains more plastic than the last, every child a greater part of the plastic population conditioned by human greed. I don’t know if I can afford another baby doll. Mum always said she wasn’t sure if I could have a brother or sister.

We’re all made of the same stuff. Last night, another mother; tomorrow, another soldier.

β€œAmbulance, is the patient breathing?”

β€œIt’s my mum?”

β€œWhat’s happened?”

β€œMy mum’s cut herself.”

β€œWhere?”

β€œIn the bathroom.”

β€œNo, where on your mummy has she cut herself?”

β€œHer cunt. She’s cut a baby out of herself.”

β€œIs the baby breathing?”

β€œHow would it? It’s made of plastic. Do you have a chip I can put in it to make it work?”

β€œIs mummy still there?”

β€œNo, mummy’s gone. She’s left me my Christmas present. I’ve got a dolly I have to look after. Bye.”

Β© Steve Laker, 2019

The invention of the pencil case

Get rid of a word and start the story again. Erase a species and another will evolve…

FLASH FICTION

Dog Pencil Case

THE INVENTION OF THE PENCIL CASE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

β€œThe kind of thing,” she said, β€œthat is never likely to be made public.”

β€œSo why would you tell me?” I wondered.

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

β€œGo on then,” I prompted. Hannah looked at my steak.

β€œAren’t you going to eat that?”

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

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

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

β€œSo you’re telling me,” I said, β€œbecause if I write about it, no-one will believe it.”

β€œBut you’ll believe me,” she replied. β€œSo, after the fire brigade put out the fire, they identified the seat of the blaze, in a pile of hay.”

β€œSomeone’s bed?” I wondered. β€œDid it catch in the sun?”

β€œNo,” Hannah replied, β€œit was deliberate.”

β€œSomeone started it deliberately?”

β€œYes.”

β€œArson. Why?”

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

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

β€œNo,” Hannah said again. β€œIt was all enclosed in strengthened glass.”

β€œA keeper dropped a lighter?”

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

β€œSo maybe the sun did start it, like the magnifying glass effect.”

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

β€œSo what do you know which no-one else does, including me?”

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

β€œAnd this is inside the gorilla enclosure?”

β€œYes. Where this came from.” Hannah rummaged in her bag, then handed me something rolled in newspaper. β€œIt’s what’s inside.”

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

β€œWhat the actual…” I didn’t finish.

β€œHold on,” Hannah said, β€œthere’s this as well.” She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out what looked like a burnt pencil.

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

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

THEY DISCOVERED FIRE?

Hannah nodded.

Β© Steve Laker, 2018

Simon Fry first meets Doctor Hannah Jones in Cyrus Song, where this story was born.

Buy me a coffee one off

Free-range chicken in Oregon

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

“As I was walking down Stanton Street early one Sunday morning, I saw a chicken a few yards ahead of me. I was walking faster than the chicken, so I gradually caught up. By the time we approached Eighteenth Avenue, I was close behind. The chicken turned south on Eighteenth. At the fourth house along, it turned in at the walk, hopped up the front steps, and rapped sharply on the metal storm door with its beak. After a moment, the door opened and the chicken went in.”

My literary mentor – Paul Auster – was once accused of using the convenience of coincidence in his writing. He pointed out that real life is often stranger – or more coincidental – than much which a fiction author could imagine. Then he compiled stories of American life in I thought my father was God and other true tales. The collection includes The Chicken, (above) from Linda Elegant of Portland, Oregon.

Auster and me both subscribe to the theory of fictional reality, which posits that in an almost infinite universe, somewhere – possibly a long time ago in a galaxy far away – everything which has ever been written in fiction has really happened.

I was already acquainted with a chicken which hatched from a Campbell’s soup tin, and who believed she was God. She hung around for a while, then disappeared into the obscurity of omnipotence, where you don’t want people to know where you are.

Clangers ChickenThe Clangers

THE CHICKEN BEHIND THE DOOR

I’ve found it difficult to write, talk, and even think lately, with the weight of many lives on my mind. I used to write so that I didn’t have to explain myself to people, instead referring them here. It’s because there’s so much in my head, and that I find it hard to speak to others, that I talk to myself. Far easier – and more entertaining for the reader – if I place myself in my own fiction.

There was a knock at the door, or rather a rap, a rat-a-tat-tat. Curious, I opened the door. There was no-one there.

β€œDown here.”

I looked down, and there was a chicken. I invited her in.

β€œSo,” she said, β€œwhat’s up with you?”

β€œTo be honest,” I replied, β€œI don’t know. I mean, I can’t put a finger on an individual irritant, because there are so many.”

β€œHave you got fleas?”

β€œIf I have, then they’ve given up jumping for a living. They’ve taken up residence. I feel permanently trapped. There are many places I’d like to be but I lack the means to get there.”

β€œWell, fleas don’t eat wood.”

β€œWhat’s that got to do with anything?”

β€œI think you have worms.”

β€œEh?”

β€œYou’ve buried yourself,” the chicken said. β€œYou’ve stuffed yourself full of problems which you don’t talk about. Let me give you some sage advice.” Coming from a chicken, that was ironic.

β€œYou’re right,” I said, β€œbut I’ve not eaten for days.”

β€œWhy not?”

β€œThe oven blew up.”

β€œSeriously?”

β€œLiterally. No, actually. The main element blew.”

β€œMind if I take a look?”

β€œBe my guest.”

β€œI already am,” the chicken said, walking to the kitchen. β€œI can’t believe you’ve finally let God into your life.”

β€œI haven’t.”

β€œWell, I’m here. Could you open this door for me please?” She pointed to the oven. β€œThanks.” Then she walked in. β€œClose the door. Please.” I did. β€œNow,” she said, more quietly, β€œturn the oven on.”

β€œAre you sure?”

β€œI want to test your faith,” the chicken said from behind the oven door.

So I put the oven on 190Β°C and forgot about it. I came back to the typewriter to write this diary entry for my blog. Everything this far is what I’ve written since the chicken who claims to be God got into the oven.

β€œYou’re right,” she said, clanging the door closed behind her, β€œit’s fucked.”

β€œLike I said,” I said.

β€œAnd yet you doubted me.”

β€œYou what?”

β€œI am God. I cannot be cooked and eaten. Placing myself in the oven proves this.”

β€œBut I already told you it was busted.”

β€œAnd yet you shut me in there and turned on the heat.”

β€œBecause I knew you’d be fine.”

β€œSo you believe in me.”

β€œWell, you’re here.”

β€œSo you believe in God.”

β€œIf God is a chicken which invites itself into my studio, then gets into the oven, asks me to cook it, then gets out unharmed, that just tells me my oven is broken.”

β€œBut has it not occurred to you,” the chicken said, β€œthat you would not put a live chicken in your oven, and that I have no feathers? There’s no fleas or flies on me. See? Here I am, naked.”

She had a point.

So I put her in the freezer to keep her quiet. Once I’ve got a new oven, I’ll be having God for dinner.

Β© Steve Laker, 2020

Unsuitable for washing machines

FICTION

A product of spontaneous freestyle writing, prompted by a business card on the notice board next to my desk; This story (2500 words) wouldn’t fit on the back of the card, so I put five sheets of A4 paper into the typewriter.

maracatalan05Mara Catalan

THE TRAVELLING TAILOR

Rumple Suits is an outfit surrounded by mystery and unverified stories. A suit by Rumple Bros. is understated, its fine workmanship lost in a crowd, but on closer inspection, a quality of tailoring beyond any from Savile Row, but they don’t have premises. A Rumple suit tells a story as unique as that which it carries in its wearer.

So proclaimed a sponsored feature in this month’s Mobius Literate, an independent publication for purveyors of surreal horror, sci-fi and fantasy. I was reading it on the train home from London Victoria as we passed through Brixton, disappointed that a story I’d submitted hadn’t been included.

I don’t employ test readers, so my new stories are hot from the typewriter. I don’t tend to bother editors, any more than I can be bothered to follow guidelines, preferring to write freestyle and hope I’m asked for my stories. I’m too impatient to wait for publication after acceptance, so I self-publish most of my work and let the reader be judge. Mobius Literate work differently, preferring to scout, hunters of writers and trappers of readers.

There are no acceptance or rejection letters from Mobius, no next-issue previews either. Until a new edition is printed, writers don’t know if they’ve made it in, and readers are clueless on what to expect. The magazine has a captive audience, and a supply chain of fiction from the undead army of authors self-publishing all over the internet.

It’s a cheap publication, usually four sheets of A3 in black and white, folded and stitched to make a 16-page fanzine. The production values are pulp fiction, but the writing quality as unique as a Rumple Bros. suit. The editors are curators of the kind of fiction you wouldn’t find anywhere else. The kind you wouldn’t expect to find anywhere, because only Mobius knew where to look.

Walking home from Catford station, I cut through Mountsfield Park, but I didn’t make Tesco Metro despite the shortcut. I picked up Chinese from Jumbo Harbour instead, glad I did, simply because of my local take-away’s splendid name. On the final walk up my road, I thought of all those cargo starships, docked at the space dock, Jumbo Harbour itself a retail and entertainment complex the size of a small city on 14 levels, just hanging in space.

I threw Mobius Literate on my desk next to the typewriter, took a shower while my prawns and noodles steamed, then watched some New Tales of the Unexpected on Netflix, looking like a tiny Judo novice in my white bathrobe.

I was full after what most people would consider a snack, so I put my uneaten Chinese in the fridge for the next day. My timing was fortuitous, because that’s when my doorbell rang.

β€œGood evening,” said a man at the door, β€œI’m sorry to trouble you at this hour.” He was smartly-dressed in a three-piece suit – dark grey – and a pastel pink shirt with a shocking pink tie, perfectly knotted and drawing my eyes up to his, which were brown and framed by pink spectacles. He was holding a briefcase. I asked him to come in, in a moment which I felt would precede a polite enquiry of β€œMay I come in?” My doormat had never been wiped with cherry red brogues before. β€œShould I take these of?” he asked. It seemed impolite to insist on wasting time.

β€œPlease,” I said, β€œcome in.”

β€œMay I take a seat?”

β€œOf course. Can I get you anything?”

β€œA Gin and tonic, if you have one.” I had. β€œAnd a phone number.”

β€œA phone number?”

β€œYes, I don’t use the internet. I need a number for Paul Jennings. He’s a writer. I gather you’re an agent.”

β€œI am,” I replied, β€œI’m Paul’s agent. In fact, Paul Jennings is one of my pen names.”

β€œWell, that makes things simpler. I suppose I don’t need the number any more. I must admit, I thought you’d be taller. Anyway, can I ask you about Paul?”

β€œMay I ask,” I asked, β€œwho’s asking?”

β€œMy apologies,” said the man, β€œof course you may. Like you, I’m an agent. May I take some measurements?”

β€œOf what?”

β€œOf you, sir.”

β€œWhat for?”

β€œMeasurements of yourself sir, your dimensions and your vital statistics if you like. So we know what to put you in. You strike me as one suited to natural materials.”

β€œMaterials? What are you building? Are you one of those undertaker prank characters I’ve read about?”

β€œThis is not a prank sir. I represent a bespoke tailoring company, who can help you tell any story you’d like to be yours. I’m here to make you a suit, sir.”

β€œWhy?”

β€œBecause you look like you need one. And because you’re small. My agency needs smaller models for our new range.”

β€œWhat, boys? Okay, so how much will this suit cost? How long will it take to make? Do I get to choose the fabrics and colours?”

β€œYou are already the fabric and the tones, Paul. But yes, the choice is yours. It costs nothing and I can make it for you tonight. Suit you sir?”

What else was I going to do at midnight, than get measured up for a bespoke tailored suit in my own home. Especially when I had an in-house tailor for just one night?

I chose an outfit of natural colours: a grey-green jacket over a matching open-necked checked shirt; dark grey pants with green socks and brown brogues; and green-rimmed spectacles. As promised, the tailor ran the whole thing up while I watched.

In his briefcase, he had a portable production facility, a factory in microcosm. The case opened out like a make-up case or a tool box, to reveal tools and materials on tiered shelves, like a theatre audience. Other sections folded out from the floor of the case, which concealed a tiny sewing machine and a loom.

Cotton reels unfolded like comets and silver blades cut through the air, as the tailor’s hands worked like humming birds under a lamp in his case. Then like a piano virtuoso, he cracked his knuckles. β€œEt, voici.” Here you go. He handed my new clothes to me in a neatly folded pile. They were soft, as though fresh from the laundry, but they were new.

β€œThe material,” the tailor said, β€œis the same as my own suit. Here, feel.”

Velvet would have been the first approximation I made, but more delicate, more flimsy, like silk. It felt like new moleskin, barely covering a notebook.

β€œPlease,” the tailor said, β€œtry on your new clothes.”

I made myself scarce in the kitchen and got changed. As soon as I put the clothes on, I felt like I wasn’t wearing them, or I’d been wearing the outfit all my life, like a well-trodden pair of shoes which fit on the ends of your legs like feet. My new clothes were comfortable in a way I knew meant they’d only been made for me. I felt at home, yet I could go anywahere.

β€œSleep in it,” the tailor said. β€œYou’ll wear it in, it’ll adapt better to your shape, and you won’t even know you’re wearing clothes. Besides, this outfit is too rare and valuable to leave laying around.”

Actually I felt so comfortable, so held together within my outfit, that I’d have worn it to bed anyway. Any remaining doubts about sleeping in my day clothes were banished when I noticed my initials monogrammed on the breast of the shirt: P.J. Pyjamas.

The new wardrobe cost me nothing, except posing for a photograph and signing a form. The agent placed a business card in my breast pocket and my heart jumped. I was a little excited he was leaving, looking forward to getting to know myself.

After the tailor had gone, I looked at myself, a Bonsai tree on reflection: lots of growth at the head, stumped by restrictions in the roots planted in a pot, I’d make a good addition to any arty bookshelf.

I loved my suit. It fitted only me, it was made for me. As unique as the story within, it was the cover which bound my life. I’d have to buy another sometime, as this one would need laundering, but for now I really wanted to sleep in my new clothes. I took the shoes and socks of, but otherwise I was in P.J’s peejays.

Sleep often eludes me, as my mind is so full of thoughts and ideas for fiction. But sometimes I’ll take a dream to sleep with me, then in the morning feel like I’ve not slept at all. I remember being awake, then I’ll recall whatever surreal images my dreams paint.

Most people aren’t aware of the precise moment they fall asleep, only remembering their dreams some of the time. I transport to a world of lucidity, where dreams are real and I can interact with them, waking up as I step out of another world.

On the night I slept in my new suit, that place became bigger, as my new outfit gave me the confidence to explore further. I was completely relaxed, feeling protected by the clothes I hardly felt I was wearing, as they became part of me. My suit enclosed me, and I was an astronaut protected by a gravity field, a new life protected in the womb.

The next day, the clothes still smelled fresh, but I’d take a shower like usual. Before I got undressed, I took the tailor’s card from my pocket. Although he hadn’t verbally introduced himself, I knew his name was Fred Nurk. He worked for Rumple Bros. Tailors. Although I mentioned them in the preamble, this was the first time I’d seen the name. I Googled and found all that stuff about them not having any premises, being exclusive and the rest.

I started to take off the jacket but it was stuck. The collar was sticking to the shirt underneath. I tried taking my arms out first, but the jacket lapels were stuck too. I tugged at the sleeves, but they just pulled at my shirt.

I thought I’d try the top two layers at once, so I started unbuttoning the shirt, but the button wouldn’t pass through the hole. I pulled the shirt collar open at the neck, but it tugged at my skin. I tried lifting the shirt and jacket over my head like a pullover, but the shirt just stretched my skin underneath.

I tried the button on the trousers but it was stuck, tried pushing the trousers down but they snagged on my hips. Pushing harder just pulled at my skin. I tugged at the ankles, but felt a sharp pull on my leg hairs, where the tops of my socks would be. I seemed to have reached an impasse, wherein I’d been eaten by my clothes.

I called the number on Fred Nurk’s card and got a recorded message:

β€œThank you for calling Rumple Brothers. If you would like to become an agent, please press one. For all other enquiries, please hold.”

While listening to regular reminders to continue holding, I flipped Nurk’s card over and saw it was printed on the back:

NOT SUITABLE FOR MACHINE WASHING. DO NOT DRY CLEAN.

In some moment of desperate logic, I had an idea and hung up the phone.

I needed to wash myself, and my clothes would need cleaning at some point. I took a tepid shower, still in my clothes, just like being in heavy rainfall. If I could loosen the glue, or whatever it was in the material which stuck the clothes to my body, then I’d put some old clothes on while I dried my new outfit.

I only close my eyes for the first 30 seconds or so in the shower, just time to rinse my face and hair. Clearing my eyes and looking down, I noticed the colour was starting to run in my jacket. I brushed myself down and the pigment from the cloth stained the water a dark green colour. The water was bleaching my suit.

My new clothes were now skin-coloured.

I felt around the neck of the shirt, down to a crease where it met my skin. My cuffs, waist and ankles were the same. I was one with my suit. I was wearing a skin suit, not like that made by a serial killer from the flesh of other people, my clothes were flaps of my own skin. I no longer had arms, but sleeves of flesh, lapels instead of nipples and trousers of skin covering anything which might have been a functioning anus.

I phoned Nurk again.

β€œThis is Fred?”

β€œAh, Mr Nurk?”

β€œHey, Paul Jennings, how’s it going?”

β€œEr, okay. It’s about the suit.”

β€œWhat about it?”

β€œAll the colour came out.”

β€œDid you get caught in the rain? Did you take a shower in it?”

β€œI can’t get it off. It’s like I’m sewn into it, but there’s no stitches to unpick.”

β€œDid the skin you were born in have stitches, or a zip?”

β€œEr…”

β€œExactly, no.”

β€œBut I look like a plucked chicken left on the shelf too long. I’ve got flaps of loose skin all over me. I’ve got fucking wings!”

β€œWell,” Nurk said, β€œwear baggy clothes for now if you want to go out. I did explain that our bespoke tailoring was unique, and now you can see why I can’t offer a replacement. There’s surgery of course, or a quicker solution might be a course of tattoos to give you a complete new body suit.

β€œAnyway, good news. You remember I said we needed models for our smaller sizes? Well, you’re in this month’s Mobius Literate. They’re running a feature on body modification, and another using models who don’t fit the usual stereotype, you know, fat people, thin people, amputees, that sort of thing. Well, we got the centrefold sponsored content ad and you’re in there. I’ll send you a copy.”

And there I was, in the hallowed pages of Mobius. In a sponsored feature, modelling my bespoke suit, as naked as the day I was born.

Β© Steve Laker, 2019

I’m not sure where I’d pitch some twisted surreal retelling of The Emperor’s New Clothes, but I feel better getting the analogies and parallels out there for people to think about. Like all my stories, I hope this one carries more than one meaning or comment, and I hope it stands up to repeated reading.