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.

Down here.”

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

So,” she said, “what’s up with you?”

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

Have you got fleas?”

If 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.”

Well, fleas don’t eat wood.”

What’s that got to do with anything?”

I think you have worms.”

Eh?”

You’ve buried yourself,” the chicken said. “You’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.

You’re right,” I said, “but I’ve not eaten for days.”

Why not?”

The oven blew up.”

Seriously?”

Literally. No, actually. The main element blew.”

Mind if I take a look?”

Be my guest.”

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

I haven’t.”

Well, I’m here. Could you open this door for me please?” She pointed to the oven. “Thanks.” Then she walked in. “Close the door. Please.” I did. “Now,” she said, more quietly, “turn the oven on.”

Are you sure?”

I want to test your faith,” the chicken said from behind the oven door.

So I put the oven on 190°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.

You’re right,” she said, clanging the door closed behind her, “it’s fucked.”

Like I said,” I said.

And yet you doubted me.”

You what?”

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

But I already told you it was busted.”

And yet you shut me in there and turned on the heat.”

Because I knew you’d be fine.”

So you believe in me.”

Well, you’re here.”

So you believe in God.”

If 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.”

But has it not occurred to you,” the chicken said, “that 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.

© 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.

Good evening,” said a man at the door, “I’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 “May I come in?” My doormat had never been wiped with cherry red brogues before. “Should I take these of?” he asked. It seemed impolite to insist on wasting time.

Please,” I said, “come in.”

May I take a seat?”

Of course. Can I get you anything?”

A Gin and tonic, if you have one.” I had. “And a phone number.”

A phone number?”

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

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

Well, 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?”

May I ask,” I asked, “who’s asking?”

My apologies,” said the man, “of course you may. Like you, I’m an agent. May I take some measurements?”

Of what?”

Of you, sir.”

What for?”

Measurements 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.”

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

This 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.”

Why?”

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

What, 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?”

You 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. “Et, 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.

The material,” the tailor said, “is 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.

Please,” the tailor said, “try 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.

Sleep in it,” the tailor said. “You’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:

Thank 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.

This is Fred?”

Ah, Mr Nurk?”

Hey, Paul Jennings, how’s it going?”

Er, okay. It’s about the suit.”

What about it?”

All the colour came out.”

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

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

Did the skin you were born in have stitches, or a zip?”

Er…”

Exactly, no.”

But 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!”

Well,” Nurk said, “wear 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.

Anyway, 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.

© 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.

 

Under the influence of poultry

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Blood dripping

Ever catch yourself going to bed and thinking, ‘I’m too tired for bed’?

Recently I put a chicken in my freezer because she claimed to be God, I didn’t believe her, and my oven is broken. Two problems stored. I phoned a friend today and asked her how long you can keep a chicken in the freezer. “Three months?” she said. Which was strange, because the chicken I’d put in the freezer only a day ago was dead, proving that God doesn’t exist.

Chicken tongue

CHICKEN DING AND SPAM

I took the chicken out of the freezer. By the neck. “Okay God, let’s talk about what’s on my mind. Let’s see what you can do about it.” She didn’t reply, so I told her anyway, an unwilling and static audience. It was late at night and worlds were colliding, the night with morning and reality with imaginary mind hackers. I tried to strike up a conversation with my chicken as my dreams become more surreal.

While I’ve been on the human scrap heap, waiting for a court appeal to regain my human rights – the Personal Independence Payment denied me over a year ago – I’ve rather fallen further apart. I don’t wear pyjamas, but I feel like a pyjama case turned inside-out. I can’t ask for help, because I’d be intruding. Best to just spill my guts.

Many of my appliances have committed suicide and joined me on the pile of broken things. I can no longer record TV, listen to CDs or play DVDs. Since the kettle broke, I’ve had to boil water in a mug in the microwave. While that still works and the oven’s out, I can at least have ready meals, not the cheapest or healthiest way to eat.

Things cost more when the things around you break, just as they do when you’re broke. Electricity is on a pre-pay key, water is metered, while dishes, laundry and showers are charged by the load.

There’s no light in the kitchen, and I’ve been wrapping parcel tape round my hands to pick up debris and dust from the floors even since the vacuum cleaner died. The toilet and shower are in a communal corridor. Welcome to social housing, specifically the kind which single men are placed in.

So, God. What can I do? Living here is preferable to the streets, but the studio is falling apart like I am. If I ever get my independence payment back, I can remedy much of what’s lacking around me, but my current environment just feeds my deepening depression.

Without the money I’ve had for the last four years, since it was denied by the fascist state’s social cleansing machinery, I can’t visit my kids, nor my ailing dad.

My parents are in the process of finding out that dad’s care – he’s 77 with dementia – will cost more than their pensions, which they’re going to lose because one of them is in care and the pensions go towards dad’s care home ‘tenancy’. That still leaves the bigger part of £1200 a week to find, on a diet of Spam. I’m writing this longhand in my diary, Editor (‘God’) notes in red marker. Turn the page I’ve written, don’t click the link. Don’t be a victim. Don’t trust a chicken which threatens to poison you by hacking your handwritten notes.

Meanwhile mum lives at home, alone and separated from her husband of 52 years, now also without her carer’s allowance, because she doesn’t care for dad any more, in the eyes of the government.

Dad’s questioning his purpose, staring at the ground and asking why he’s where he is; not just in the nursing home, but on the planet. Mum can’t do enough to help, and I can’t do as much as I’d like. Dementia kills more than one person, very slowly. The social cleansing agenda extends into all realms of hardship and mental poverty.

So how about that, God?”

Without an oven, chicken takes a very long time to cook. They say a watched pot never boils, but I have no pot to watch. Left at room temperature though, a chicken will start to move if you stare at it long enough. Mine was defrosted.

My chicken didn’t have a head, the voice came from within its cavity. “You will serve me,” it said. “With roast potatoes and trimmings.”

Perhaps one day, when I can get a new oven. This God would serve me and any friends who fancied popping round for dinner; it would aid humanity in the conversation it started and it would preserve my sanity, so that I didn’t have to talk to God so much.

The chicken mentioned trimmings, so I laid a few newspaper cuttings out on my desk. On the back of one page was an advert for The Unfinished Literary Agency, which I didn’t recall placing (I’m the proprietor of said fictional outfit). It was asking for donations, which I thought quite crass for such an exclusive organisation. But I did invent it, like so many worlds and people.

The blurb requested monthly donations, but offered nothing in return. Which irked me a little. It was a bit like the media appeals by charities, which ask for regular payments to ensure the survival of an animal or a child. Often they’ll promise monthly updates, or sometimes a cuddly toy, all of which somewhat dilutes the gift. I prefer to give one-off donations and just be momentarily pleased that I might have helped someone, anonymously. Like much else in life, even donating to charity is more costly for the already financially-challenged, often on pre-pay mobile phones, but those of us in the same boat tend to give more by simple virtue of human nature.

The chicken was moving slowly across the worktop now. “Why don’t you,” the voice from the hole said, “make a human connection with anyone who helps you?”

I never go out.” Not entirely a fact: Only when I have to.

No, I mean, like those sponsorship sites which offer something in return for regular donations, which then give you exactly the same as everyone else who donated the same amount, like a mention on their website.”

Hardly anyone reads my stuff though.”

All the better for exclusivity,” the chicken said, in a lower voice, deeper in the cavity. “You could make your gratitude far more valuable if it was a personal gesture. You’re a writer. You sometimes take on freelance work, but you’re an acquired taste. You could hire yourself out to donors.”

I started writing the copy for an ad. I thought perhaps a kettle (or part thereof, a fiver) might buy someone a bespoke poem; maybe someone would like a cameo in a short story in return for a DVD player (or part thereof, a tenner?); or a starring role in a fictional tale for an oven (or a part of it, maybe a score?), so I can give thanks to God the chicken by cooking and sharing her. Until then it’ll be ‘Chicken Ding’: a microwave meal for the price of a whole book I once wrote.

Then I binned it. I didn’t have the money to place the ad anyway. Fuck that chicken.

Ever look at something and wish you could take it back, undo what you’ve done?

Left at room temperature, long after it’s defrosted, a chicken will start to move as it begins to decay. Best to cover it with gravy before posting it on social media, as one would a flaccid cock.

neutron_head1

I picked the screwed note out of the bin, my ad hacked and covered in Spam, along with the newspaper clippings and the pages from my diary for this post. I totted up the costs of paying over the odds for living in social poverty, while the bigger patches for my punctures are beyond the means of anyone surviving on the minimal benefits of human life, like a chicken on the supermarket shelf.

blood film strip

Many of my appliances have committed suicide and joined me on the pile of broken things. I can no longer record TV, listen to CDs or play DVDs. Since the kettle broke, I’ve had to boil water in a mug in the microwave. While that still works and the oven’s out, I can at least have ready meals, not the cheapest or healthiest way to eat.

Everything costs more when the things around you break, just as they do when you’re broke. Electricity is on a pre-pay key (a score a week), water is metered, while dishes, laundry and showers are charged by the load.

There’s no light in the kitchen, and I’ve been wrapping parcel tape round my hands to pick up debris and dust from the floors even since the vacuum cleaner died.

Without the money I’ve had for the last four years, since it was denied by the fascist state’s social cleansing machinery, I can’t visit my kids, nor my ailing dad.

Everyone can be part of something if they buy into it,” the paradoxical chicken clucked, as it climbed out of the bin, Spam dripping from its skin. “Like me. Best that you don’t go begging, like I do with a collection plate every Sunday when I intrude on my believers’ lives; it’s so demeaning.

It’s no wonder people die when they can’t afford to live, and it seems as though life is against them as their surroundings break. You need a new bin by the way.

Try not to lose this connection. Perhaps make it part of a story to cover the cost of this website of ours,” he cleared his throat, clucked, “monthly? The cost of keeping this website, your only means of communication with the outside world. It’s a shocking story, shocking”, the chicken croaked from its hollow cavity. “I never knew the price of living, when you’re forced to think about it so that you have to write fiction and fact, your own story and those of others at the same time to save costs. At the end of any day, it’s only you desperately trying to feel better about yourself.”

Which was a lie, because if the flaccid one was a true god he’d know the cost of social cleansing. You might also accuse false deities of invention for the sake of self-flagellation, like a remorseful flasher in front of the bushes, curiously white.

Bic Red

Whatever I write, it’s always with horror in my heart. I don’t think it can be killed, unless it’s starved of voyeurs.

Life in lucidity’s departure lounge

FICTION

As I try to manage all things real-life, there are times I’m glad I wrote it all down, because it often means I can point someone to something I wrote before in fiction.

I once wondered if someone who was born profoundly deaf could hear words in their head, and if so, in what language. They explained how the other senses more than compensate for the one they never knew, and a longer conversation was then a very engaging one with my friend and their signer.

In the limited time available to the owner of a life, it’s hard to explain the importance of the sixth sense and using it to communicate in lucidity. But in an attempt to do that, I wrote once of a lost dog.

It’s a story of friends for life, separated by an inability to express their mind; the life of passengers on different flights, of travellers on other transport, when they could have spoken in the departure lounge…

Doggy SteamPunkSteampunk Dog by Stephane Halleux

DO ANGELS GET FLEAS?

My diary, my life: All of me is contained within your locked leather cover, which I wear the key to around my neck. Even though your restraints hide my insides, that life continues outside, starting with the cover.

The book of my life is a retro-futuristic, mechanical puzzle box, with all the old metal watch parts I’ve stuck on. If Filofax were to launch a Hellraiser range, Pinhead himself would buy one of my books. You’re my diary of a cyber punk.

Like the extra-dimensional Cenobites, you contain much pain, my dear life, perhaps you even possess it. My cyber punk diary is a haunted book, covered with scars, like the ones on my arms. Other than you, my life is in a piece of faded strawberry rope, reminding me of a better place that might be. The rope is also a key.

The cat came back a few days ago. I thought of the old woman who swallowed a fly, and she swallowed a dog to get rid of the cat. I don’t want to eat a dog, or a cat, or any animal. I never want to eat much, and I only dined on a Kamikaze fly on the way back from school. So what I’m about to tell you, I’m only telling you, because it’s really strange.

I wished I had a dog, to stop the cat from scratching me. I wished for my old dog back. And she came back. All I had to do was call for her. Let me tell you what happened:

I met a man in the woods, about 30 years older than me. If this wasn’t recorded secretly in this diary, on hearing that, everyone would just assume the worst. But that’s just the way people’s mind’s work, many because, placed in that situation, they’d probably do what they might suspect that bloke of. People shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, which goes for this book too, dear life: A weird and wonderful thing on the outside, but full of psychedelia, some of which even I don’t understand. But what’s in my head goes in the book of my life.

So the guy in the woods was a nice kind of weird too. And the wonderful part is, he was exactly as I imagined him. Because he said to me, “This is your story, Hannah. I can give you the stories to tell, and stories only happen to those who can tell them.”

I called him Daniel, because that’s the book in the Christian bible after Ezekiel. Ezekiel 25:17. The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequalities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and goodwill, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s (and sisters’) keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee, with vengeance and furious anger, those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers and sisters. And you will know my name is the lord, when I lay my vengeance upon you. He’d done all of that. He was the shepherd, and Daniel came after Ezekiel.

Daniel is a fallen angel. He’s in the woods because his wing’s broken and he can’t get home. It’s his right wing that’s damaged. He says that’s the right wing which drove all the hate and fight in him, fuelled by alcohol. With only his left wing, he’s grounded and able to think more. Instead of fighting or fleeing (he can’t), he prefers to talk, to debate, and to learn from those with opposing views to his, always trying to look for common ground of co-operation. I gather he’s been around for a long time, because he’s obviously done a lot of thinking. And that’s all I really meant about him being around three times my age. He’s older than me, so he has wisdom, and I’ve learned from that gift, because I’m not scared of him, the dark angel in the woods.

He practices what others might call Voodoo magic, but he’s not a witch doctor, just a scientist. He explained to me, with proven science alone, how I could call my dog back any time I liked. Daniel explained how what we call ghosts are real, and how I can talk to them. Firstly, we need to believe that they’re around, and they’re easier to see if we understand them better. He said to think of it as wanting to be haunted, so that the spirits can hear us. There are lots of different kinds:

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 a broken wing.

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.

Once Daniel had explained the taxonomy of ghosts, I could imagine which parts of each made up Molly, my dog. I could picture her as the ghost dog she is now. If you know what you’re looking for, it’s easier to find.

The nature of the quantum universe in which we now understand we live, is that after we die, we continue to exist in a different form. What we call ‘life’, is merely a part of an ongoing existence, the greatness of which we don’t yet understand. It’s like thinking of a person more as their soul, and their body is just the vessel which manifests that in our world. Think of the body as a computer, and the human soul as the operating system and the software. It’s the latter which brings the former to life. When the computer breaks down, all of the data is still floating around but we can’t see it. Life carries on, but we suddenly find ourselves in a place where we neither have nor need a body, a place we are free to explore and with an eternity to do it, freed of our organic physical form.

While ghosts do exist and it’s easier to see them if you welcome them into our world, there’s also an open channel to them, which Daniel gave me the keys to. It’s the place where Daniel himself lives, between the conscious and the unconscious, in the subconscious. It’s the place we go to in sleep, but which we rarely remember, because we never recall the actual moment of passing into it. We’re always there in sleep, but unless we’re aware of it, we rarely remember it when we wake. Daniel is permanently lucid, and it’s possible to exist in a lucid form in dreams. All you have to do, is make sure you know you’re dreaming when you get there.

Every night, as you fall asleep, repeat to yourself, in your head, ‘I will speak with the universe tonight, and I will be aware that I’m dreaming.’

It takes practice. But I knew I’d found the lucid world when I met Daniel. Now he’s my guide, but not everyone needs one. Even if you don’t find a Daniel, the world of the subconscious is only locked in your head. The key to unlock it, is the mantra as you fall asleep. Eventually, the key will fit, when you’re least expecting it.

When you get there the first time, you’ll probably not be there for long. As soon as you realise you’re in your own dream and able to move and interact freely, you can get a bit worked up and shock yourself awake. All those times you’re falling asleep and you feel you’ve suddenly tripped: That’s you being in touch with the dream world (the universe) but not realising you were there, before jumping awake. Don’t give up. There’s nothing to be scared of.

So now,” Daniel said, “you have to call out in your dream, without waking yourself. If you do, Molly may come, but you’ll be gone. You need to think of Molly as you imagine she is now. What she once was, in your memory, is still there. But that memory is one recorded in your mind with your eyes. In the lucid, subconscious universe, you don’t have eyes, and yet you see. When you first closed your eyes to come here, you’ll have seen ethereal shapes, most likely a deep purple in colour, and rather like a lava lamp. Those visions are us, trying to make contact. If you can make it over into this world, by hanging onto that unconscious step between wakefulness and sleep, so that you are aware you’re here, then you see me as I am now.”

And I could truly see Daniel for what he was: Not a floating purple shape, perpetually changing form, but manifested in a woodland necromancer. Maybe it was him or the universe making it easier for me by appearing as I saw things, in my imagination, but limited by that usually being in an organic body.

From now on, you need to remember me, however you imagine me. Then if you suddenly realise you’re out here, dreaming on your own, you know that you only have to look for me and I’ll guide you. But Molly is here, just as I am. Just as you no longer have eyes, you don’t have a mouth to communicate with. But all of the five physical senses are replaced, contained and enhanced by the sixth. And we all know it’s the sixth sense which allows you to see dead people. Bruce Willis isn’t here though: that was just a film.

So you need to call out, without your physical sleeping self doing the same. You need to think. And you need to think hard. You have to will it, then wish for it some more. Do that loudly enough, and your wish will come true. You can’t test the universe, but if you truly connect lucidly in the subconscious dream scape, you will get an answer. I know it works, because something brought you here.”

Some things are worth listening to, and that made me think, which was the whole idea. And last night, I did get my first brief reunion with my Molly moo.

I wished I could talk to animals, or in this case, think with them. And it was when I started thinking really hard, that I felt the thought become a wish. The best way I can describe it, is when a cry becomes a laugh, like when you’re really upset because you think something’s ended, or someone’s gone, then suddenly it’s all made okay and you laugh through the tears. I heard someone else’s thought, kind of echoed, and I knew it was a dog:

Moo?”

Moo,” I repeated.

Moo, me?” came the voice, not from a specific point, but all around, like being snuggled with your favourite person, who’s an auntie, a friend, an equal, but protective and craving love for themselves, when their own is unconditional. Someone you’d die for and who you know would return the favour.

I realised my eyes were closed. I knew that I was dreaming, and that this was my chance to hold on to that dream. But I didn’t want to open my eyes, because of the feeling: a love so great that you never want to leave it. Then I remembered something Daniel had said:

Don’t be afraid to open your eyes when you realise you’re dreaming. But remember, you don’t have eyes. Just think of it as sleeping with your eyes open though, and you’ll find it’s quite simple.”

And it was. And he was right about the five physical senses becoming one in the sixth, and of the sixth enhancing each of the five. I could see, but I could only describe things in terms a waking person might understand. I could listen to everything, for miles around, yet there was no competing to be heard. It was like an organic symphony, where the animals and trees were singing and playing instruments in harmony. But again, that’s difficult to describe for someone who’s awake. The instruments weren’t ones I recognised, but they played beautiful music nonetheless. Imagine trees which sound like pipe organs, grass sounding like harps, tubular bells for leaves and brass instruments in the wind, and you’re part way there. And the voices, from soprano to baritone and all carried in the breeze from unseen wildlife. I was listening to nature. And Molly’s was one of the voices.

I’m an atheist, but the bible says that when we go to heaven, we are made perfect. For starters, the science disproves this. But what we look like in ethereal form is as others imagine us. I believe there are three people in each of us anyway: The person we think we are; the person other people think we are; and the person we really are. In the afterlife, we’re the best of all three.

If you can imagine what I felt, try to think of a kind of an ethereal being, but able to move freely, and in solid form (Daniel explained a form of matter, called ‘supersolid’, which solidified the science in my mind: The molecules in a supersolid are arranged so that it can simply pass through other solid objects). And that form isn’t like the organic one which preceded, it’s a material made of immortality, like a mineral.

Molly was like soft, warm sandstone: As sandy coloured – with darker edges and flecks – as she was in the last life, but solid and strong, cast in spiritual stone. She still had her frayed knotted rope chew, still intact after 11 years of gnawing. Where once she was full of the inner warmth in her mortal self, now that warmth was the pure spirit of the next life, both in and around her. Next to me, that protective shield was as warm as her beating heart once was to my ear. Now that heart surrounded me.

In that subconscious woods, reality turns in on itself. It’s something I can’t explain, nor which I doubt many would understand. But that’s why I keep a diary. Maybe one day I’ll look back on these old journals, if I’m ever having an existential crisis and wondering what to do with my life. Probably something to do with animals, as I find them easier to relate to than human people. Or perhaps I might do something which helps me to understand the human condition better, so that I can then explain it to others in a way they might understand. Perhaps I’ll be a writer, or even meet one I could work with (I wonder what it would be like to have a writer who could make the animals talk). There are many scientific fields around such a huge subject, so maybe I’ll find one to excel at. Or maybe I’ll be quite good at a few things and use that somehow to work with others for some greater good. I could invent something which allowed me to talk with animals, and use that as a vet. That would benefit lots of people, animal and human alike.

So after I’d thought all that, I went back to the woods, to see if I could talk to Molly. I’d thought I had, but then she was one of the weird voices and sounds out there.

Moo?” And then, as if by magic, but in a place where there is no magic, because it’s real:

Moo.” And she ran to me, jumping at me and nearly flattening me, like she did before, when every day I was out at school was an eternity to her, wishing she could learn with me. And yet here, eternity was no different to a day, all turned inside out.

I miss you,” I said.

I miss you, moo.” So she did call me ‘moo’ too.

We talked for as long as I could hold the dream. We talked about all the things we’d done, as we’d grown up together. I told her what I was doing now, and all the things I had planned, but how I might change my mind. And the funny thing was, she said she knew. And the even weirder thing, I know now.

We walked among the trees and I carved our names. Molly said it was better than any cat could do, however clever they think they are.

But before we left, she whispered in my ear, and it reminded me of something she’d said when I was younger, when I used to talk to her, and when my younger mind could hear her. I can’t remember which of those conversations it was, but I remember it was a question.

Let’s run,” Molly said.

Why?” I wondered, when we didn’t have to, with no legs to restrict us.

Because,” she said, “one day we won’t be able to.”

So we ran all the way back to me waking up, and Molly running off into the woods, calling ‘Moo’ as she went.

I saw Daniel as I woke. He said this is the way it’s always be done. I know where to find him, and he’ll know when I need him. And I can go back there, any time I like, where time and distance are irrelevant. All I have to do, is think of my dreams and they’ll be waiting for me.

Molly’s running around in that woods, being a dog, always sniffing the ground above me, chasing things around, and chewing on the faded rope which ties this story. I looked at it, thought of the connection, then remembered what she’d asked me:

Can you kill beauty and love?”

That was quite profound for a hound; a dead dog, which is why she had to ask a living human on the ground.

Dear diary, of my life as a person.

© Steve Laker, 2017

This story is taken from my second anthology, The Unfinished Literary Agency, and was originally the story of Hannah (a palindrome) Jones in my (critically-acclaimed) SciFi novel. The other two Cyrus Song prequel short stories are those of Simon Fry (in Of Mice and Boys in 1984), and Captain Mamba (in A Young Captain Plays it Safe). The novel is available from Amazon and other book stores.

A sense of taste deprivation

FICTION

A place I found glancing around my mind, this is a flash fiction (500 words) trip, a story of an introvert recluse, and a parable of paranoia in a world where humans are merging with technology, but where a place is preserved for nostalgia…

horror-collectiblesNightmareToys.com

THE FLAVOUR OF AIR

The writer’s life is a solitary one, usually writing alone and only connecting with others when they read his work. In such a lonely place, being an author has its advantages: In a place of sensory deprivation, the writer can create people, places and events. He (in my case) can escape into situations he creates, and he can make places an extension of his real world so that he can better explore them. Alone and dealing with much in his mind, the writer gains support in his venture when readers want to know what he’s writing.

Welcome to my world, just one of many of I made. Sometimes I re-visit those old planets, but this is a new place, created around the life inside my head. This is a fictional world made real because I’ve written it. I might come back in future, or only visit briefly once.

It’s neither warm nor cold here. If the feeling of the place could be painted, it would be green. It’s fairly dark, an ambience of dawn mist hanging in streets lit by fluorescent tubes with peeling paint.

It’s best to be out in the village at night, as that’s when the mechabugs swarm windows. They look in every window with someone behind it. They form clouds at the front of the MetroMart, as us villagers stock up on what’s fresh that day.

Today there’s an offer on gourmet cat food. I don’t have a cat but the posh stuff can be passed off in a cottage pie. Some mushrooms complete that day’s single meal.

The flies disperse when the sun rises, a light grey orb behind clouds of dirty cotton wool, and the villagers return home. The village is deserted by day, the odd homeless person drifting through but never staying long.

Land sharks swim in the monochrome daylight, sharp fins of flint able to cut through granite. A few of the older villagers are amputees, mainly of one leg. At least one lost both legs and an arm to a land shark’s fin scything through the road.

We keep our curtains closed to the light, as a break in the clouds carries trillions of nano machines on the sun’s photons. They’re small enough to pass through solid materials at a molecular level but layers add filters. I use three layers to block out the sun, so my techninfection is fairly low compared to the average out there.

I know all this as tales reach me from the village. I don’t go out at night, so another villager pops in as I’m about to start writing, then drops my shopping off in the morning. He brought me a gift today, something not on my shopping list. He said it would remind me of outside.

Alone and dealing with much in his mind, the writer hopes his voice will be heard, that people will read what he’s written and know what he’s thinking.

Outside tastes of lime milkshake.

© Steve Laker, 2019

The invention of the pencil case

Get rid of the word and there’ll be another one…

FLASH FICTION

Dog Pencil Case

THE INVENTION OF THE PENCIL CASE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why would you tell me?” I wondered.

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

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

Aren’t you going to eat that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone started it deliberately?”

Yes.”

Arson. Why?”

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

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

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

A keeper dropped a lighter?”

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

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

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

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

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

And this is inside the gorilla enclosure?”

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

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

What the actual…” I didn’t finish.

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

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

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

THEY DISCOVERED FIRE?

Hannah nodded.

© Steve Laker, 2018

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

Buy me a coffee one off

Självmonterande möbler

FLASH FICTION

Alien typewriterThe Verge: It began with ‘Spacewar’, a history of science fiction in video games

APPARENTLY

Although I’m nocturnal, I usually spend nights alone, apart from the chat windows in onine video games. It’s rare that I expect visitors in the early hours, least of all an invisible entity I’d invite into my studio. But apparently that was what I did last night.

The doorbell played the five tones from Close Encounters as it always does, regardless of the time. Normally I’ll expect to find someone behind the door when I open it but at 3am, it was apparent there was no-one there.

I poked my head out the door and looked around, perhaps for someone in need of help. I walked down the steps to the car park and saw nobody. Pranksters would have gained too much ground for me to give chase, so I returned inside, apparently alone.

With no sign of activity outside, the place where I least expected to see movement was back in my studio. As I raised my hand to push my front door, it obligingly opened for me, and one of my dining chairs slid into the hall. The chair paused before passing me, pushed by some invisible force, apparently grateful I’d held the door open.

Inside, my sofa had been moved into the middle of the room and was loaded with some of my books. Was I being moved out? Why hadn’t I heard from my landlord? How had that chair pushed itself past me? Nothing was apparent.

Nothing was moving around in the studio, so I sat at the desk; this desk, where I’m sitting now, except now I’m apparently not in my studio, with furniture which assembles itself around me.

Now I’m looking at the screen of the typewriter, the same one I talk to you on, and where I play video games; at my chat window from last night, and a message I sent in a pessimist sufferposting online gaming group:

Send my current location to any interplanetary craft which may be within scanning range.

They took me literally. Apparently, they took me, and all my stuff. Apparently literally.

© Steve Laker, 2019.

This was a writing prompt: ‘IKEA’. So I made a Swedish planet.