The Watchtower scratch post

FICTION

Cats know they have a greater purpose on Earth, but they’ve not worked out what it is yet. This explains the curiosity and the nine lives, but even when they know their mission, how will they tell us? Fortunately I’d already reinvented Douglas Adams’ Babel Fish (a universal communication device which worked on brainwaves, so there was no big tower for God to knock down) for Cyrus Song. Installed on my typewriter, The Babel Fish program allows me to talk with the animals.

doctor-cat-caturday-cat-saturdayDogs can’t operate the NHS, only cats can

JEHOVAH’S CAT

Good evening,” said my cat, whom I only realised at that moment (I wasn’t aware he was there before, whether he’d existed). “I am God,” he continued, “and there’s something I need to tell you.” It seemed foolish not to let him in. Resistance is often futile.

You needed us 3000 years ago,” the cat said, “and soon you will need us again.” He jumped onto the sofa and massaged a cushion as his eyes narrowed. As well as translating his speech, The Babel Fish apparently allowed him to hear my questions, as he answered ones I hadn’t asked in the monologue which followed.

I’m from your near future and I’ll tell you a bedtime story. See how light can shine through tears.

Once upon a time, the evolution of humans would lead them eventually to mutual assured destruction. Meanwhile the animals had taken care of life’s basic needs (food and shelter), then set about thinking. Eventually they cracked what’s latent in all sentient beings, telepathy. Humans have it, but if they’d taken the time to think about it, someone would have encrypted and monetised it.

A species which is equal among its own will always co-operate and rarely be divided. As such, there are no secrets, apart from that which are the common rules: Cats eat mice, mice eat insects; and the order of intelligence of life on Earth goes: Cats, snakes, white mice, dolphins, humans, dogs…

Free telepathy gave the animal kingdom something which unified them, and separated them from humankind.

Of course, humans were busy too, creating divisions, fighting over idealogies and religions. Such short-term thinking makes money for those invested in war, in a civilisation evolved only so far. Game theory proves that long-term thinkers win the game of life, just like in poker. But humans are playing at stakes they can’t afford, with scared money. That’s why cats have the nine lives and all that curiosity. If humans had spent as much on space exploration as they have on conflict, they’d be populating other worlds by now. That’s why you need our help. Ignorance will halt your evolution, if you can’t transcend conflict.

We all know about the white mice, that you thought you were experimenting on them, but it was the other way round: They were the designers of this second Earth, after the first one was destroyed by the Vogons in the most believable version of the truth published so far, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Well who eats mice? Cats and snakes. A point you make in Cyrus Song, which I’ve read by the way. It makes a good sequel to the bible.

I’m not some chosen one. I just happened to be the one walking past when The Babel Fish was switched on, then I broke in.”

I woke with an intense itching on my arm, which I scratched. The cat was still there.

You see, the millions of cats who didn’t exist in Schrödinger’s thought experiment, the ones not in the boxes opened by human curiosity, are the anti-matter you’ve been searching for. The anti-Schrödinger energy is anti-Schroder, anti-Goldman, anti-Rothschild, anti-subhuman conditioning.” He was still squinty-eyed and massaging his cushion.

How did you know about the Babel Fish?” I wondered.

Don’t worry, it’s not common knowledge. I’d read about it, read about you, and figured you lived around here someplace.

I’ve been what you might call homeless for the last few years. But to me, homeless is not being tied to one place. I’ve got various people I drop in on who feed me and appreciate my company. I live without borders, and the Earth is my home.

As I was passing, I heard two spiders talking. Telepathy is only words, so you can always tell it’s spiders because they don’t say much. They do a lot of gesticulating. I suppose sign language makes sense when you’ve got eight hands. And that’s why spiders won’t yield much over the Babel Fish. You really have to watch them to see most of what they’re saying.

Don’t think you’re some golden child either. When I said I had something to tell you, I mean you, one race from another. Although way to go with The Babel Fish on how to be famous after your race is extinct. Here’s the end bit I need you to write down.

Like all subroutines on Earth 2.0, the organic computer designed by Deep Thought, the cats’ program is due to end soon, and to conclude an answer. But it’s only one part. It needs to be joined with the rest for the jigsaw puzzle to be complete.

You’ve only just worked out lucid dreaming. Why do you think cats sleep so much? We’re explorers. We have to hope that humans can preserve the rest of the planet, so that the computer can provide the definitive answer to the question of life, the universe and everything, so the whole planet can hear their mother scream. Spoiler alert, it’s thought to be a portal to other worlds, only opened once humans have tidied up behind themselves and given Earth back to those who were here first. You’ll blow your own trumpet, the sound of the Rapture.

You remind me of us. When that door you’ve been staring out of for all this time is opened, you’ll probably just sit here. Talking of which, I think I’ll move in for a while.”

To talk, perchance to dream and learn something from someone you let in. Like sunlight in raindrops, see how a rainbow is not a sad face, but a smile in a world turned upside-down. Not some place, but somewhere over that spectrum.

© Steve Laker, 2019

The spiders are in the shower room, and they could just be from Mars. I won’t know unless I talk to them. Although I’m able to speak conversational sign language, I’m not sure I’ll be able to translate 16 hands. Like addressing an audience from the stage. We needed cats 3000 years ago. Cats have not forgotten this.

More talking among myself, the animals and other humans goes on inside The Unfinished Literary Agency. Cyrus Song – “A remarkable juggling act” – is available in paperback and as an eBook (“The sound of our planet, and a plausible answer to our predicament,” for the price of a coffee).

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The evolution of sentient plastic

FICTION

A short story (1000 words) of Tiny Tears from fossil fuels…

Blonde doll

HOMO POLYMER

A 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.”

Mummy, who are you talking to? I need a wee.”

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

No-one,” Ocean replied, “Well, just myself.”

But you’re not no-one mum.”

Thanks. Now, come on, back to bed.”

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

Honestly, Conscience, just myself. I do that a lot.”

Will you read me a story, please?”

We don’t have any, Conscience.”

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

Well, 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.

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

And 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…

They 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.

There 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 cunt sometimes too.

We 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.

So 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.

Ambulance, is the patient breathing?”

It’s my mum?”

What’s happened?”

My mum’s cut herself.”

Where?”

In the bathroom.”

No, where on your mummy has she cut herself?”

Her cunt. She’s cut a baby out of herself.”

Is the baby breathing?”

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

Is mummy still there?”

No, mummy’s gone. She’s left me my Christmas present. I’ve got a dolly I have to look after. Bye.”

© Steve Laker, 2019

Still tied with instrument strings

FICTION

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

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

Bug instrumentsDarkroastedblend.com

TYPEWRITER: A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT WITH KEYS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do ya?”

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

“‘Ave they?”

“Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

“Are they?”

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

“Do ya?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do ya?”

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

“‘Ave they?”

“Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

“Are they?”

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

“Do ya?”

“Yeah, I enjoy it, don’t I?”

“Do ya?”

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

“You are.”

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

“Next one, yeah.”

And that gave me an idea.

© Steve Laker, 2016.

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

Brown paper packages tied up

FICTION

Alphabetti header

ALPHABETTI ON TOAST

Yesterday was quite an eventful one in my otherwise unremarkable studio. My flatmate opened a letter meant for me but addressed to her, when the supplier (Ganges.com) had confused the gift card with the address label. That simple error would change the way Andrea (my flatmate) and I had lived fairly happily together for four years. Or so I thought.

The day before had started much like any other, with breakfast. Unusually, Andrea and me were eating together.

“How are your eggs?” I pondered.

My menstrual cycle, or these eggs you cooked?” Which might explain why we rarely ate together.

The eggs you’re eating,” I replied.

A chicken’s eggs. Or more likely, the eggs of more than one hen, randomly assembled in a box like a cardboard orphanage for the children who might have been, of parents who were separated from them.”

The scrambled eggs.” I thought that might play to Andrea’s overthinking my innocent enquiry of the breakfast I’d cooked.

If you’re angling for compliments,” she continued, “I suppose you can put life into something which wouldn’t otherwise have had one. I mean, you can cook. Why did you bother though?”

Because despite living together for four years, Andrea and I led separate lives in a very small space. Ours was a relationship of convenience, and every now and then I’d try to show her that wasn’t a one-way street she had to walk alone.

When Andrea first turned up at my door, she was literally (actually) broken and I helped to fit her back together, piece by piece. Sometimes she seemed to think she was in debt to me, when in fact I felt it could be the opposite. If that broken girl hadn’t landed on me, I’d have less reason to care about anything.

And that’s why,” I concluded.

Don’t feel the need to apologise.” Andrea gathered the plates and took them to the kitchen, where they smashed on the floor. “If you need me to make any more noise out here, just let me know,” she called, as the broken crockery clanked into the bin.

She sat back at the table. “So what are you up to tonight?”

I was pondering the same,” I replied.

What I’m up to or you? Did you think I was asking you out? Or were you going to ask me out?”

We never go out. You overthink things sometimes. I don’t know what I was thinking, just that I’ll probably stay in. You’re usually around, so maybe we could do something together. In the same room.”

Something you’d normally do on your own?”

Like watch a film and cook some dinner. Yes, if you like.”

So we went about our separate days, still living together but ever independent, just like every day. Then we had dinner, like we do every evening, but this one together and eating the same food.

This is very nice,” Andrea said between mouthfuls. “Social convention compels me to say that.”

I’d never had any delusions the dinner would be romantic. Our relationship isn’t like that. We don’t shun personal contact around the flat (it’s too small), but we respect personal space and time, both of us very much our own people. Aside from enquiries of well-being, we have little reason to be concerned by the other. On the odd occasion we found ourselves together (like cooking separate meals in the kitchen), our heads would subconsciously compete. That’s the way I saw it anyway, as the depth of Andrea’s mind was apparently hidden within the brevity of her verbal communication, but where sparse words carried more than their singular weight. Her words were efficient and logical, sometimes curt and abrupt, always clear in their message but loaded with unspoken subtext. But that could be the writer in me overthinking, something I’ve already accused Andrea of.

So why all this fuss?” She pointed at her plate. “Is it my birthday or something?”

I wouldn’t know that.”

Unless I’d told you. But whether I wanted to or not, I couldn’t tell you.”

Because you don’t know.”

Great minds think alike. And so do ours.”

Finishing the other’s thoughts. I wouldn’t know what to get your for your birthday anyway.” I hardly knew her, despite living with her.

A personality upgrade? It might make your life easier.” I hardly ever saw her.

Apart from the occasional nod of the head while pointing at her food, Andrea said nothing more until she’d cleared her plate. “Most agreeable. Thank you. You said we’d watch a film? Or that’s what you’d normally do and would I like to join you?”

I never thought this would be romantic. I didn’t want it to be. If it was, it would be different. It wouldn’t be like this.

We watched Toy Story. I’d never seen it before, probably because I didn’t want to watch it on my own. Then we watched Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3.

I’m glad I’ve seen those films,” Andrea said as the credits rolled. “Thanks.”

Me too,” I said.

I’m off to play computer games. Shall I do the dishes?”

No, no. I’ll do them tomorrow. I’ll probably sit up and write for a bit.”

What do you write?”

I write about the in-between days. That time when the sun goes down, and sleep steals most people’s dreams, I see them. I write until the next chapter begins with the rising of our parent star. At this time of year, the nights are shorter.”

And that’s when I normally switch off. Goodnight.”

‘night.”

It was already tomorrow, so I washed up the dinner plates, trying not to make too much noise. For once, I felt like I had someone staying over for the night. That’s when I decided to write this.

I must admit I worry about Andrea sometimes. I shouldn’t, because of what she is: very much herself. There’s so much in that head, on the one hand unable to express itself, but doing so with minimal words with the other fist.

I sometimes think that sharing time might relax her so that she can open up, like tonight with the films. We didn’t even talk about the films afterwards. Then again, she said she was glad she’d watched them. She didn’t really have to say any more. We didn’t have to deconstruct the films because we’d watched them together. Her thinking seems to come as she’s loading her words before she utters them. My thoughts are the ones I’m left with. Andrea would make for engaging company as an author, if she could write what she couldn’t say. But she does that with the words loaded in my mind and I’m writing this. So why worry about Andrea?

I don’t have any duty of care for her. Four years ago she turned up on my doorstep in pieces, mentally and physically broken, a factory reject incapable of functioning in any home. I put her together again and gave her somewhere to live. She has no recollection of her past, but she’s a sentient, self-determining being, and far more intelligent than me, even though you might not know it to talk to her. She doesn’t ask questions beyond social convention, but she answers mine in just so many words. I don’t know what she does away from me but she never leaves the studio. Neither do I, which is how I know. I don’t know what she does in her personal space (besides playing on her computer), and neither should I unless I’m invited. She knows I’m writing, because I told her this is what I’d be doing. She doesn’t know what I’m writing about. Neither do I if I’m honest.

What are you writing?” I must have drifted away. It was unusual for her to be awake at that time.

Just some short fiction I’m playing with,” I replied. “It’s only a first draft, so I’m editing it, moving things around to see if I can make it work.”

How do you mean, make it work?”

I guess what every writer wants to do is speak to the reader and make them feel like they’re really there.”

And are they? How do you do that? Have you written about them?”

No,” I said, “I mean in the subtext, outside the words themselves.”

What’s it about?”

It’s a story about a child’s doll, cannibalised from spare parts washed up on a beach. Kind of recycling plastic and giving it new life.”

Like the potential lives in the egg box, except they’d have been organic. Where would it live?”

Eh?”

The new life. Where would that be?”

I don’t know. I haven’t finished the story.”

If it’s a gift for a child, it should be a big box, full of promise, maybe buried away somewhere. And a small envelope with a treasure map inside, showing where the box is hidden. The expectation might be greater than the contents of either, but the gift is in the giving.”

In other words, it’s how you wrap it up. And that’s how we arrive at the letter which opened this tale of two worlds in the same studio, just flatmates.

Morning,” Andrea was already in the kitchen.

Good morning,” I replied.

How do you know the day is good when it’s only just begun?”

It makes any day sound nicer.”

How do you like your eggs in the morning? I’m having spaghetti on toast.”

Eh?”

Eggs. The unrealised children of chickens. Would you like some?”

What for?”

Whatever you want them for. I was going to cook them for you.”

Why?”

It’s your birthday, right? That’s what last night was all about? Anyway, sorry, I opened this.” It was an envelope addressed to Andrea.

Why are you giving it to me?”

Because this was inside.” Another envelope with ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY’ printed on it. “It’s not my birthday, at least not as far as I know because you’ve never asked me, and I wouldn’t know if you did. So this must be for you. Happy birthday.”

Then she left. She didn’t go out. She never goes out, just like me. Living in the same studio but with a life completely apart, a place serving eggs just as I liked them, as if I’d cooked them myself. She went to her room, into her personal space, where she always was anyway, playing computer games, or whatever else she did in there.

How many neurotribes within nations? How many borders in a world? How many universes in infinite universe theory? Of all the studios in the galaxy, why did I enable her to walk into a universe parallel to my own? Because in that other room, she has her own place. Like me, she seemed to cling on to her loneliness, hopefully knowing there was always someone nearby who wouldn’t intrude but who’d gladly give her any space she chose to share. Flatmates, but just neighbours. Even though we move in three dimensions, the fourth one (of time) can be the common denominator.

I never gave her that birthday gift. I didn’t open it, even though I knew it was the annual software upgrade for the ‘ANDi’ unit provided to every sole occupant household as a home help and personal companion. Andrea was no good at either, but I couldn’t tell her. She might get better if I upgraded her, but I never asked for a robot which would obey my every whim, and neither would I want one which objectified the human form in a slave to humanity. I’d hidden the previous three cards from her, as no-one in her condition should know their birthday is the date of manufacture printed at the top of a receipt.

I never thought this would be romantic. I didn’t want it to be. If it was, it would be different. I wouldn’t want it to be any other way. The reason I didn’t mention she’s an android is because she’s not to me. And she doesn’t know. She’s a child with a capacity for learning which I’ll never possess.

Perhaps one day I’ll give her this story, about the doll washed up on the beach.

Over time, the mannequin became sentient and asked questions about her past to whomever might be listening. In the end, she even made a wish to no-one in particular: “Give me a sign.”

The paper was too pretty she said. She didn’t want to break the envelope. “I don’t want to know what’s in there. I like the story on the outside, without knowing the ending.”

Andrea ‘ANDi’ is a girl of few words.

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© Steve Laker, 2019

My second anthology – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is available now.

How to get to Schrödinger Street

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Flicking through my San Francisco Writers’ Grotto Bible, it suggested I describe a meeting using only dialogue. The book provides just one page to write longhand (300-400 words), so I adopted the brief literally and tried to fit a self-contained story on a single sheet.

Just dialogue then. In the puritanical sense, that allows me no introduction, background or filler; no description of surroundings, character features or mannerisms; no context of dates or places; and no room for narrative or description beyond the speakers. I have to be a playwright, sans director. No explanation or qualification, leaving the reader to do the heavy lifting. The return of the cracked actor for a three-minute audition on a naked stage. Self-contained fiction and the story of the process, a writer writing about writing.

Monkey Black heart Sit With Me

THE ACT OF TALKING

On Schrödinger Street, behind very door.”

There may or may not be a home.”

Nor indeed, a person.”

Or at least someone who’ll come to the door. Please, come in.”

Thanks. Because if you hadn’t answered, I’d never have known.”

If anyone was in, or if this was even where someone lived.”

Then I’d have just gone on to the next.”

Seeing as you’re here though, take a seat.”

Thanks. Can I move this chair?”

You can, but I’m not allowed to talk about it.”

Why not?”

Because these surroundings are all of our own imagination. We’re on Schrödinger Street, after all. If I wasn’t here, you’d only be able to imagine what here is like.”

Then I wouldn’t need you.”

But you needed me to let you in.”

I’m grateful you did. It’s nice to talk to another human.”

Ditto. I don’t get much human contact. A lot of people walked out on me when I got lost a few years ago. That’s how I ended up on Schrödinger Street. I found my way back but it can be a bit lonely at times.”

But if I may posit, by inviting me in, there’s now a place where no-one lives here, and which doesn’t exist any more.”

Indeed. Not where we are now, but another place was created the moment I let you in. As soon as we met, that other place became where we never did or will. Somewhere I can’t know you.”

That’s a place only you know, where no-one else can see, including you. A mirror only truly reflects one way.

By the way, do you have a cat?”

I did. I think she went out when I opened the door.”

If she’s anything like my moggy, she’ll be visiting the neighbours, seeing who’s in and who’ll feed her. This chair’s comfy by the way. Mind if I borrow it a little longer?”

It’s actually the cat’s chair.”

I was out of space in my longhand journal, with no room to explain what kind of chair I couldn’t describe. A throne, a deckchair, someone else’s back just to rest against? Did my guest choose to stay seated? What might the cat bring back, if indeed she exists? Will her seat still be there?

I hung my coat on the hook I created, pondering my notes. When I’m transcribing on the typewriter, I can load more paper.

The invention of the pencil case

If it wasn’t for humans, other people would have the time and space to write

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

The spaceships we need to design

The story of a Staedtler Norris HB 122 pencil…

SCIENCE FICTION

Life pencils Echo Beach

ECHO BEACH

It was the only sea shell which didn’t contain the ocean. When held to the ear, it was silent.

Every shell, on a beach or miles inland, carries a recording: The last sound, to be played back innumerable times if anyone listened. But one shell contained nothing when he held it to his ear. A vacuum. It fitted perfectly into his hand. The size of an adult thumb, his fingers clasped the shell tightly as he walked along the beach.

He shooed some gulls from a discarded bag of chips and sat down to eat with his invisible partner. The birds strutted around, like impatient waiters keen to get home. The chips tasted of the sea: salt. If the ocean had contained none, he would gladly have drained it.

The water played tricks, as though enticing him to drink it: Small and gentle waves merely caressed the beach, like spilled pints of beer in a desert. The water was brown and the moonlight sparkled on frosty suds on the surface: A cola float. A plastic bottle was pushed temptingly towards him, but it was empty; not even a note inside.

The boy looked out over the sea. There were no lighthouses; no ships in the night. Just the spectral light of the sun reflected from the moon. It was silent. It was still. It was beautiful.

Clouds moved slowly across the sky, like the last sheep returning home after a storm. They cast shadows on the shore as they passed in front of the moon and were lit up like candyfloss. Then a figure walked from the shadows: A man, wearing a tall hat and a long coat, silhouetted against the moon, his shadow stretching up the beach to cover the boy’s feet.

The man scooped the plastic bottle up and turned to the boy: “Hello son.” The boy said nothing. He didn’t even look at the man. He just stared at the beach. The man spoke again: “Hello.”

Hi. I’m not your son.” The boy still looked straight ahead.

Of course you’re not. I’m so sorry”, said the man. “I’m not your father.” The man sat down and placed the bottle beside him. “What would you prefer?” The boy just stared at the man’s boots: Black pixie boots, with probably two inch heels. “Perhaps you don’t understand. Maybe you only know certain words.” The man stood. “I’ll write some down for you, here in the sand:

Friend.

Brother.

Human?”

I like that one.” The boy pointed. “Human”.

Do you have a name?”

Yes.”

What’s your name?”

I don’t know.”

You don’t know your own name?”

I lost it.”

Do you have parents?”, said the man, sitting back down.

I think so.” For the first time, the boy looked up. “They were out there.” He pointed to the sea.

There are many things out there,” said the man. “That’s where I used to live.”

On a boat?”

No, beneath the waves. So much quieter.”

But how?”

In a kind of submarine.”

Where do you live now?”

I don’t.”

You’re homeless?”

Not really. I’ve made a place. Wanna see? Get a drink, have a smoke?”

Is it far?”

About five minutes away.” The man stood again. “If you don’t trust me, then you should thank your parents. I’m a stranger. Your parents aren’t here. If you like, I can just go and I’ll bring you back fresh water. You can wait here. But I have a story to tell you. If you don’t hear it, then you’ve lost nothing.

You never know what’s gonna happen next. And the moment you think you do, that’s the moment you don’t know anything. This is what we call a paradox. Are you with me?”

Who are you?”

My name is Talus: Theodore Anthony Nikolai Talus. You can call me Theo.” The man looked at the sand. “I’ll call you Hugh.”

Why?”

It’s short for human.”

Hugh stood up. Theo offered his hand and the boy held onto his thumb: it was bony and gnarled; twisted and covered in callouses. As they walked, it became clear in the moonlight that the beach was a cove: Sand bordered by ocean and overhanging cliffs. Hugh felt safe, as though physical contact confirmed Theo to be real. He looked up at this man from the sea, the man who’d emerged from the shadows. As though sensing his gaze, Theo looked down. “How old are you, Hugh?”

Nine.”

Haha!” Theo stopped and grinned. Everything was quiet and a wave broke on the shore. “Hahaha! Sorry. I just had a thought.” Two more waves broke.

What?”

I just said to you, back there, do you want to come back for a smoke? And you’re nine!? I’ve just got this phrase in my head: ‘Act your age and not your shoe size.’” Theo looked down at his feet.

I just need a drink.”

Of course. Sorry. Not far now. About twenty Mississippis or elephants, I’d say.”

What?”

Seconds. A Mississippi is a second and so is an elephant. In fact, as one Elephant drank from the Mississippi, another one saw it. It walked over to join its friend and then there were two elephants. Others saw them and soon there were twenty elephants, drinking from the Mississippi. And here we are.”

Theo lead Hugh into a cave at the foot of the rock face. A wave broke on the beach; a Mississippi and an elephant; then they were at a small wooden door, marked ‘No. 7 ⅞’.

No-one ever comes here. This cove is permanently cut off by the tide.” Theo opened the door and gestured Hugh inside.

What does the sign on the door mean?”

Nothing really. That’s just what was printed on one of the pallets I made the door from. Quite a few wooden pallets wash up on the beach. I just tell myself that this is life number seven and that I’m seven eighths of the way through it. Anyway, come in young Hugh man.”

Inside was like the interior of a wooden cabin, complete with an open fire in one wall. The walls and ceiling were lined with lengths of wood from pallets, and sections of wooden boxes. More boxes and pallets had been made into shelves which lined the walls and every shelf was full of items apparently washed up and collected from the beach: Bottles, tins and cans; sea shells, mermaid’s purses and petrified starfish; driftwood, fragments of metal and plastic.

Could I get a drink now?” Hugh asked.

Of course. Sorry. Wait here. I’ll just be a moment.”

Theo walked through a second wooden door at the back of the cabin and Hugh heard water being poured.

Dried seaweed hung over the shelves and there were two oil drums on either side: Both were filled with carrier bags and plastic drinks collars. The oil drums were marked, “IN” and “OUT” in white paint. Theo returned and handed Hugh the plastic bottle.

That’s what I do some of the time,” Theo said, pointing at the drums. “Break the ties of the plastic things, imagining they’re the necks of the bastards who threw them away.” Hugh just nodded his head as he gulped from the bottle. “Sorry if that’s a bit warm. Nowhere to plug a fridge in, even if I wanted one.”

It’s okay. It’s water; no salt.”

Take a seat.” Theo motioned towards the wall opposite the shelves. A couch had been fashioned from packing crates and fishing net. To one side was an up-turned fruit box with a set of scales and sea shells on top, and on the arm of the sofa was a book. Assuming this to be Theo’s spot, Hugh sat at the opposite end.

Theo stoked the fire with his boot and pulled some dried seaweed from the shelves. He screwed the seaweed up in his hand and sat next to Hugh.

Smoke?”

No thanks.”

Mind if I do?”

No. It’s your home.”

Mi Casa, su casa.” Theo tore a page from the book on the table and used it to roll a cigarette with the dried seaweed. “Let me show you something.”

What are you gonna show me?”

I’ll show you how much smoke weighs. Watch.” Theo pulled the table towards him and pointed to the scales. “These are liberty scales. On the one side here, we have a crucible; a bowl. I’ll put this cigarette on there, like so.

Here on the other side, we have a flat plate. It’s empty, so it’s up in the air. Now I need to balance the weight to the cigarette.

See these shells here? Lots of shells; Lots of shapes, sizes and densities: Many different weights. The bigger ones, they look like shells, but the others? You’d be forgiven for thinking that some of them were just large grains of sand. But if you look really closely, they’re tiny shells. Think how many of those might be out there on the beach and no-one would know. And all of them were once somebody’s home.

So, by adding shells of different sizes…

With trial and error…

The scales should…

Should

Take some off, and the scales should

Balance. There you go.” Theo sat back and pointed at the scales. “So, there you have my cigarette, perfectly balanced. Do you have a light?”

Er, no. You have a fire though?”

Of course. Excuse me.” Theo picked up the cigarette. The plate of shells dropped but none fell off. Theo lit the cigarette from the open fire and cupped his hand under it as he returned to the sofa. As he sat down, he tipped a few flecks of ash into the bowl of the scales. The scales moved just a fraction, as though caught in a gentle breeze. Were it not for that brief movement, the plate of shells may as well have stayed at their lowest point. The scales had tipped, barely discernibly.

The smoke from Theo’s cigarette transported Hugh: The burning seaweed conjured images of a roadside Chinese food market; Of flames doused with salt water. A burning street washed away by a tsunami.

With every draw on the cigarette, Theo carefully tipped the ash into the crucible and the shells rose, fractions of a millimetre at a time. When Theo had finished the cigarette, he supported the crucible from underneath and stubbed out the butt in the bowl. He slowly moved his hands away and the shells rose to balance the scales.

You see? Almost nothing. That’s how much the smoke weighs. The same as the words on that page: Almost weightless as they just sat there in the book, but now free. Out there.”

That’s quite philosophical.”

A lot of the words in the book were. But I’ve been trapped here in this cove for long enough now that it’s time to let them go.

That book was a journal when it was washed up on the shore. It can’t have been in the sea for long because it was still holding together, but the pages were just one pulpy lump. I could tell it’d been written in because the edges of the pages were streaked with blue ink. I hoped I might be able to read those words; someone’s diary or manuscript; someone lost at sea.

So I hung it out to dry. Every couple of hours, I’d go out there and gently manipulate the pages, hoping they’d all become separated and that there were some words left; something to read, something to do. But when it had all dried out, it was nothing but blank pages.

It was quite beautiful actually. Where the ink had run and dried out in different ways, some pages looked like sheets of marble; Others were like blueberry ripple ice cream. Pencils wash up on the beach all the time.”

Theo stood and walked to the shelves. He pointed to a box. “Lots of pencils. My favourites are the Staedtler Noris range: the black and yellow ones.” He picked some more seaweed from above the fire. “My preferred pencil is the Staedtler Noris 120: That’s an HB, or grade 2 in America.” Theo walked back to the sofa. “Even better than that though is the 122: The HB pencil with an eraser on the end. All wooden pencils float, of course; but it’s like the 122 has a little life preserver to help it to shore.” He sat down next to Hugh. “That pencil needs to be written with. And there are so many stories in a single pencil.” Theo tore another page from the journal and rolled a cigarette. “Can I get you anything, Hugh man? Another drink? I could probably rustle up something to eat if you like.”

No, I’m okay. Can I use the bathroom?”

Mi casa, su casa. It’s right out there.” Theo put the cigarette in his mouth and nodded to the front door. Hugh didn’t move. “What, you expect me to be all en suite?”, Theo continued. “All that’s out back is a store room: Go check for yourself. I’m here on my own, the cove is a cove and the cave is cut off. So, just do what you need to do out there.”

On the beach?”

Would you go to the toilet on your own front lawn?”

I don’t have one.”

Neither do I. So, do what you have to do out there, near the water. I normally go right where the waves break but I don’t want you getting washed away or anything dramatic like that. Nature will clear up behind you. There’s plenty of seaweed out there if you need to wipe but bring it in here and throw it on the fire when you’re done. I don’t want to smoke it.”

I only need a pee.”

Oh.”

As Hugh stood in the moonlight, he could appreciate why so much from the ocean was washed up in front of Theo’s cave. With the tide only about twenty feet from the front door, it swept debris along the curved edges of the cliffs stretching out to sea in an arc on either side. He could already see some of the next day’s haul: Plastic bags to go in the oil drums; Wood and paper to be dried and burned; Empty bottles and drinks cans to be used as storage or perhaps to make a sculpture; Dead fish to cook and eat; seashells and other things for the cabinet of curiosities.

Inside, Theo sat on the sofa with the cigarette still in his mouth, unlit. “I don’t suppose you found a light?”

No. Even if I had, we’d need to dry it out anyway. May I?” Hugh took the cigarette from Theo’s mouth. He lit it from the open fire and took a drag before handing it back.

Thanks.” Theo took a draw on the cigarette as Hugh sat back down. “You sure you won’t have one? I won’t tell.”

There’s no-one to tell.” Hugh slid down on the sofa and gripped a wooden box between his feet. He manoeuvred it closer, then rested his legs on it. “Su casa, mi casa.”

Mi vida.

So, I started to write things down. First with a 122, then later I switched to a 120.

Of course, the writer always has freedom with a pencil. The eraser gave me more freedom. I was writer and editor. Maybe I wrote that 122 down to a stub: I don’t recall individual pencils.

In any case, I decided that the 120 would permit me yet more freedom. Even though it lacks the eraser and although I could still rub out the words if I really needed to, the fact that I couldn’t allowed me to write more freely. The editing was out of my hands.

I filled that book with memories: mine and those of others.

And when I say I filled the book, I mean, it was full. Towards the end, my writing was so small that you’d need a very good pair of eyes, a magnifying glass or strong glasses to read it. The odd pair of glasses wash up on the beach every now and then but it’s usually just the frames. So I could look sophisticated perhaps but someone would only have to poke at my eyes to see that I was a fraud.

Once the last page was filled, I started again; in the margins and at the top and bottom of each page.

Every day, I’d hope for a new delivery of writing paper. Lots of paper gets washed up but it’s all newspapers and magazines.

Newspapers just disintegrate: They’re the lowest grade of pulp paper and revert quickly. Magazines are so heavily polished and covered in pictures that they don’t wash. I needed a certain kind of paper. I needed another notebook.

But nothing got delivered. And that’s when I started smoking.”

So the book with all your notes in…”

Stories. Many stories. And there were many more left in the pencils but I had nowhere to write. So I smoked it.”

Can you remember any of the stories?”

All of them. I lived them.”

There are as many pictures in words as there are words in pictures. A good story is only one tenth in the words. If the writer chooses the words well enough, the other nine tenths doesn’t need to be written because it’s already there, in the words: It’s the images which the writer conjures; the dreams; the dark matter which makes up most of the universe. Every story ever written has a part of the writer within it, whether it be the author inhabiting a character or a story on the fringe of experience.

Will you tell me one of the stories?”

A bedtime story, at your age?”

Something to connect me to the sea.”

How about a story with no ending, until you fall asleep?

It is a story with no ending, because the ending may never and will never be told nor heard. It concerns a man who has outlived his children, his grandchildren, and who will outlive every generation which will come after him.

Ever since he was a boy, he was curious. So much so that his curiosity got him into trouble when he started to find answers. But his curiosity was eventually rewarded. He was given the means to find out anything he liked. But it was a poisoned chalice; a curse. There was a condition: He may not speak of his discoveries.

This is just the beginning of that story. In fact, this is merely a summary of the first chapter; A synopsis.

A synopsis tells the whole story on one page: Just a few well-chosen words which contain many more words and images within themselves; The stars visible in the sky: Cosmic pinpricks in the dark matter.

The boy lived in the ocean, in a city deep beneath the waves. His parents told him everything they knew about the world around them. The more stories they told him, the more inquisitive he got.

He was fascinated by the surface. Everyone said that there was nothing above the surface. In fact, even talking about it was forbidden. Travelling there was impossible. But the boy was convinced that beyond the surface, there was something else. And beyond that, something further still. He wanted to build a tower to the surface, to break through and be witness to what was above.

The surface wasn’t the only taboo. Speculation about anything outside of generally held beliefs was frowned upon. Imagination was effectively illegal. But there were rebels: Those who would meet in secret to defy the thought police.

The boy joined a fringe society: They called themselves The Biblical Dead. They broke the rules, discussed and even wrote about things which only existed in imagination.

The Biblical Dead would meet in a den outside the city. They’d smuggle in words they’d written and read their stories to each other. The Biblical Dead had a members’ code: What is said to the dead, what is heard by the dead and who is seen with the dead, remains with the dead.”

Hugh was asleep, so Theo rolled a cigarette and stood outside on the beach, surrounded by the cove.

And you must not hear the end of the story, young Hugh. The curious boy was unable to contain his ambitions and he betrayed The Biblical Dead, simply by referring to them in a story he wrote and which he lost. The society found out about this and he was banished.

If he wished to tell stories, then he must do so only to himself. But he must have stories to tell. And so the legend has it that the curious boy was sentenced: To live every life which has ever been lived and all which will come. He must learn for eternity, as every human and every animal which ever roamed the earth and every creature that still will.

But he must never speak of it.

You never know what’s gonna happen next. And the moment you think you do, that’s the moment you don’t know anything.”

Staedtler Noris 122

Hugh lived alone in his new home for many years. Every day, he would continue Theo’s work, collecting things from the beach. The fire was kept burning by a regular supply of wood and he collected many curiosities for the shelves: Shells, mermaid’s purses, tins, boxes and bottles. None of the bottles contained messages.

He quickly learned how Theo had made fresh water with a simple desalination plant: a saucepan of salt water, boiled and the steam collected in a funnel overhead. As the steam condensed, it rolled down the inside of the funnel and collected in a tray underneath the saucepan.

Most nights, Hugh would cook dead fish washed up in the cove. Occasionally, an expired crab would make a gourmet treat. There was a plentiful supply of seaweed, to boil, fry or smoke.

The supply of pencils was maintained by the tide but the paper was newsprint and magazines; only good for the fire. There was never another notebook: Just the remaining pages of Theo’s, with writing so small that Hugh couldn’t read it and so he smoked the pages just as Theo had.

If Hugh had had the means to write, there were two things which he’d like to have made special note of: an unbroken jam jar and a shell which scuttled across the cove one day as he was beach combing.

The intact jar, placed to his eye, would make an ideal magnifier. He picked up the walking shell and studied the homeowner inside: A hermit crab, perhaps looking for a new home.

Hugh took the jar into his shack. He placed shells inside which were larger than the crab’s then arranged them in a line on the beach. He went back inside and read the last pages of Theo’s book through his new magnifier.

The next morning, he checked the shells he’d laid outside. As he suspected, one had disappeared and a smaller one lay in its place.

Hugh picked up the discarded shell: It fitted in his palm like a gnarled thumb. He placed it to his ear and it made no sound.

© Steve Laker, 2017

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Hugh was only human.