The invention of the pencil case

“The most intellectual species to ever walk this planet was intent on destroying its own home, and while humans were busy with their own imploding evolution, the animals took a back seat and concentrated on the obvious things: Shelter, food and telepathy. All under the noses of the humans. It was a brilliant plan.”

FLASH FICTION

lions poaching2

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

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Many of my stories are connected in some way (just like all of us, to everything in the universe), and this could be a prequel to a plot device and the best laid plans. My second anthology – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is available now. Hannah Jones and Simon Fry are characters (and friends) from Cyrus Song

A girl, Sheldon (and Peter Cook)

FICTION

“The reason no other animals evolved like humans, is they watched what we did. Then instead of doing that, they concentrated on the important things, like their basic needs and expanding their minds, to eventually speak telepathically, all the while unbeknown to us. It was quite brilliant in its subtlety.”

That’s not from the story which follows, but it’s a good introduction and from another one I’m writing. Like that, this is about animal sentience. But I’m a surrealist. So I imagined the young character from my children’s book, with her talking dog and cat. I watched a documentary on AI in the home (worried and amused), then imagined if perhaps a future ethics committee might get stoned, or have some other reason for integrating universal translation algorithms into AI home assistants. So I put the Babel fish into Amazon’s Echo, Google Home and so on, went to 2042 (18 minutes before 9pm) and this come out of the typewriter…

cat optimist

A GIRL, SHELDON COOPER AND PETER COOK

On earth, it was generally accepted among cats, that cats were the superior species. In this feline hierarchy, humans and dogs were equal but different, with little regard for the white mice and dolphins.

This social order came about when Amazon integrated universal translation algorithms into their Alexa AI home assistants, and others followed. In 2042, life in the home was very different to the one we know now.

The term “animal” had long since fallen into obscurity, now reserved for those who are less than “person” in its modern definition: a sentient, self-aware and self-determining being, which has a conscience, experiences emotions, and displays empathy with other people.

A few exceptions aside, most Persona non grata had written themselves out of any worthwhile news and were confined to their own history. Only a few Tory grandees clung on in antiquated underground offices, blathering about the past and not being listened to.

Do you know what I think?” Sheldon Cooper asked.

“No,” replied Peter Cook, looking up from his chair. “And I didn’t ask.”

Well, let’s see what Ellie thinks. She’s just coming downstairs.”

I know,” the dog acknowledged.

“How?” the cat wondered.

I can hear her.”

Oh.”

What are you two talking about?” Ellie wondered, wiping her hands on Pete.

I thought I felt your presence,” Sheldon said, sitting up on the sofa. “Nice of you to get dressed. Did you wash your hands?”

Yes,” Ellie replied, “what are you talking about.”

Well, he,” Peter nodded at the cat, “was going to spout on about something…”

I don’t spout,” Sheldon protested.

“As I was saying, I didn’t want to hear.”

“You don’t know what I was going to say.”

“Aha!” said the dog, sitting up, “how do you know?”

Can you read my mind?” Sheldon asked.

No,” Peter replied, “can you?”

Okay,” Ellie interrupted. “Who’s for dinner?”

“I’ll eat him if you want,” Peter said.

I’d make your breath smell better,” the cat replied.

“Okay,” Ellie interrupted again. “What would you like for dinner? I’ll cook.”

Do you have tuna?” Sheldon asked.

We do,” Ellie replied.

“Line-caught?”

Yes.”

In water, not brine?”

Yes, in water.”

Cut into chunks, with some black pepper and a squeeze of fresh lemon?”

Like you always have it.”

Yes. That please.”

Fine. Pete?”

Er…” Peter yawned, “Got any steak? You know, that one they grow, not farmed.”

We should have. If not, I can print you some.”

Yeah, do that anyway, fresher.”

Hey, why does he get printed food?”

I’ll print yours if you like, cat.”

No, I like it the way you do it.”

So, why…” Ellie thought, “never mind.”

What are you having?” Pete asked Ellie.

I’ll probably just print a pizza.”

Is it Thursday?” Sheldon wondered, as Ellie made dinner, “I sense it’s going to be a strange night.”

Here we go,” Ellie announced, returning with food, “up at the table please. Anyone wanna smoke?”

Told you,” said the cat. “Do you mind if we eat while you smoke?”

What shall we talk about?” Ellie ignored the cat.

“Death,” Pete said. “But you wouldn’t know about that, would you cat, with your nine lives and everything. Have you worked out what those are all for yet?”

We will find that out around 3000 years from now.”

Oh, here we go…The self-proclaimed superior species on this planet, haven’t worked out why they’re here yet.”

Well neither have you, dog.”

I sometimes think I’m dead already.”

Why?” Sheldon wondered.

“Can you tell me I’m not?”

Well, I can see you’re not. So what, you think all this is a computer simulation, like The Matrix?”

“Could be.”

But you lack proof.”

And you don’t know why you’re here, cat.”

“I need to urinate.” Sheldon jumped down from his chair and wandered around the garden.

I love the way you two get on,” Ellie said to Peter.

Sarcasm?” Pete wondered aloud.

Only partly. I’m very fond of the way you are.”

Well, everyone’s themselves Ellie, and most people shouldn’t apologise for that. I think with dogs and cats, it’s a mutual tolerance and a begrudging respect.”

What about humans?”

What about them?”

Do you just tolerate us?”

Sometimes it’s confusing,” Pete thought. “We do look up to you, because you’re pretty smart. But sometimes you overcomplicate things. Dogs look at things more simply. We worry less. I mean, go out for a walk with us a couple of times a day, open a box of DogNip chews, and I’ve pretty much nailed my day.”

You’re much less paranoid and insecure than us humans.”

Oh, I don’t know Ellie. Having you around is nice for company, but all dogs have an inferiority complex, and issues of balance.”

Balance? Of what?”

We wonder about things like the difference between friends and family, and the colours of cars. I mean, we’re perhaps more in touch with our instincts, but those are a bit sexist and misogynistic. And I think purple cars smell nicer than green ones.”

How’d you mean?”

Well, they’re like candyfloss.”

Yes, but the sexism and misogyny.”

Oh, all that old-fashioned nature stuff, going to mum for milk, and dad for protection. Then in humans, the hunter-gatherer and the cook.”

Well, we’re more a commune here, friends and family.”

Yes, I know. I remember when you came out of hospital that time, and you were in a wheelchair. I didn’t know whether to hug you or sit on your lap.”

Ellie?” Sheldon was back. “Where are my wipes?”

“I don’t know. Use mine, they’re upstairs.”

“But those are yours, and they’re upstairs. I specifically hid mine here, so I had them when I came in.”

“I might have eaten them.” Pete said.

Why would you do that?” the cat asked.

To freshen my breath? I don’t know if I did, I’m just saying I might have.”

The paradoxical dog,” Sheldon muttered, jumping back on his chair.

Did you wipe your feet?” Pete asked.

I always clean my feet, so yes.”

One day you’ll forget.”

So what if I do?”

You’ll know you’re getting old. Anyway, why do you get to go out at all hours and I don’t?”

Excuse me,” Ellie interrupted, “You can go out whenever you like Pete, on your own, or with your friends.”

“Oh. And there was me, thinking you enjoyed walking with me, playing your favourite game in the park.”

“Which one?”

Throwing sticks.”

My game?”

“Well, yes. I assume that’s why you throw sticks, because you enjoy me fetching them for some reason.”

“But that’s your game.”

“No it’s not. You made it up.”

“Yeah, because you like fetching sticks.”

“No I don’t. I couldn’t care where they end up, but you seem to have so much fun throwing them, I just figure I’m humouring you.”

One day,” Ellie said, “you dogs will get over your inferiority complex.”

Not while there are cats around,” Pete replied, “they have a superiority delusion.”

It’s not a delusion,” Sheldon argued.

So what about them lives then, what are they for?”

Curiosity, which is just as likely to kill anyone else as it is a cat. But cats seek knowledge, so we were given nine lives with which to discover it.”

While everyone else already worked out it’s pretty dull, so they’re just sitting around relaxing,” Pete suggested. “Ellie, what do you think about death?”

That’s a very big question, because it depends on the definition of death.”

What, more than either dead or alive?”

Well, yeah. It’s not a bipolar subject. I mean, I don’t fear my own death – except maybe the means of departure – but being forgotten scares me, like being erased from history. I believe that life as we know it, is a passing phase, in something we don’t fully understand yet.”

Do you subscribe,” Sheldon interrupted, “to quantum physics?”

Well, it stopped being a theory long ago. If you mean, do I get that everything exists in more than one state simultaneously, and that quantum entanglement means every subatomic particle in the universe is connected to another, telepathically, then yes. Definitely.”

Good,” the cat said, “because a lot of philosophical and theoretical examples of my species perished in that debate.”

See?” Pete perked up. “Bloody cats, getting everywhere, proving things. When was a dog ever involved in an experiment? I mean, why not Schrödinger’s dogs? By the way, what in the name of anyone’s arse, did mankind think it was getting up to, sending one of my kind up to space, before we had the technology to ask if it was okay?”

That,” Ellie replied, “was humanity getting up its own arse. But Laika was our little trailblazer, still floating in a tin can out there somewhere. We owe her a lot.”

At least you’re grateful,” Pete said, “fetching your sticks, flying your spaceships…And yes, Laika’s floating around out there, unceremoniously abandoned, but it’s quite poetic in a way.”

What, like Space Oddity, David Bowie?”

No, I just think it’s funny. Who’s to say Laika didn’t get out there and everything worked fine? Then she sussed the controls and just buggered off. Maybe it was all an elaborate plan, and the dogs had another planet somewhere.”

Unlikely.”

But equally, not impossible. You couldn’t talk to us back then. What you might have thought was static noise, could have been her talking. But there was no universal translator back then.”

The paradoxical dog,” Sheldon murmured.

Well, yes,” Pete agreed, “but the point is, humans had no right to do that. Because back then, humans didn’t regard what they called animals as having feelings or emotions. But what was clearly a sentient, self-determining and self-aware being, was used in an experiment without consultation or consent, simply because it was assumed to be inferior. That is immoral, and even more so for the cowardice in persecuting a person whose voice couldn’t be heard.”

So is much which humanity has done,” Ellie agreed, “against its own kind too. It’s a burden which rests heavily on those of us who give a shit.”

If I might add a cat’s opinion,” Sheldon said, “it might make things easier to understand.”

Go on.”

Humans were in denial. Your science hadn’t proven the obvious, that so-called animals could feel, so it was conveniently overlooked and humans continued, well, being human.”

Now I feel good about myself. Thanks Sheldon.”

Sarcasm?”

No!

Oh. And I thought I was getting the hang of that one.”

Ever since we’ve been able to talk,” Pete said, “there is still much about humans which confuses us.”

Same,” Ellie added, “only now that we can talk, can we talk like this.”

Really, I hadn’t noticed,” Sheldon noted.

Sarcasm?” Pete wondered.

No. Cats have always been able to talk, and to hear you. Nothing’s changed with humans, because you still don’t make sense.”

But you can understand me?” Ellie checked.

I can hear you, and the rest of the human race, in you. But with a growing number of exceptions, humans still seem hell bent on destroying our planet.”

You mean,” Pete said, “the planet we all share?”

You’re only here because the humans brought you. Earth was originally the cats’. Then humans came along and our ancestors agreed to let humans be humans, hoping they might learn.”

“Who says?”

Many ancient feline scribes.”

Like the human ones,” Ellie added, “who wrote the various human religious scriptures?”

Very much so,” Sheldon confirmed, “and those ancient human scribes wrote of cat gods, did they not?”

In Egypt, and some other places, yes.”

So,” Sheldon continued, “doesn’t that prove that man worshipped cats as gods?”

Not at all. Each ancient script is an individual’s interpretation of events, as they saw them, and recorded using the means available to them at the time. It’s what all ancient alien theories are built on, and it’s what unifies science and religion in many humans now. The point is, it’s a paradox. But it doesn’t matter who was here first, it’s what we do now that we’re here.”

Sometimes,” Pete spoke now. “Sometimes, I wish I was a dyslexic insomniac.”

Why?”

Because dogs are generally agnostic, and that would allow me to lie awake at night, wondering if God is a dog.”

Really though,” Sheldon said, “we’re all the same.”

Hardly,” Pete said.

No, I mean inside, and at a fundamental level. Forget animals and humans as the outdated terms which they now are. As people, we are all the same. Just as the root of all humans’ conflicts – both internal and external – is in an inability to see others as alternative versions of themselves, so that can be transcended to encompass us all. Whether we’re an atheist cat, an agnostic dog, or a whatever you are Ellie, all those scribes wrote what they saw, and science proved what we now know. And that’s that we’re all connected and the only true creator is the universe itself.”

“Yeah, but who set that off?” Pete wondered.

Oh, for fuck sake.”

It’s a good job we can all talk now.”

© Steve Laker, 2017.

The Unfinished Literary Agency will be published early next year. My other books are available from Amazon and can be ordered from any book shop, or requested at libraries.

Dining in the belly of cults

HORROR FICTION

Blood dripping

This is a story from my second anthology, of a writer moving from one field to another, using prose to aid his transit. It’s a tale of dark mirrors and cult followings, and a restaurant review full of tributes…

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AUGUST UNDERGROUND’S DINER

If the proprietors of this new place in Islington were looking to make it almost impossible to find, then make diners regret the effort when they did arrive and found a shuttered steel door, they have succeeded magnificently. But this was just a prelude to the rest of a pleasingly disturbing night at London’s first horror-themed diner, in a converted old warehouse on the edge of Holloway.

The weirdness begins as soon as my partner and I walk in on a gloomy Friday evening, not to anything resembling a restaurant, but an old lighting shop, frozen somewhere in the 1980s, and a large sign: ‘No children’. The business had clearly been one of selling lights, lamps and an array of artists’ materials. The shop – or showroom – occupies a large studio on the ground floor, where the previous tenants had apparently manufactured their own designs as well.

A plastic pink elephant, big enough for a child to sit on, holds a human skull in its trunk, and the skull’s eyes glow green. There’s a naked androgynous shop window mannequin, decapitated, and the head replaced with a shoulder-width light unit, with red, amber and green bulbs. It’s like a humanoid hammerhead cyborg traffic light. On the far side of the studio, a metal sign bears the previous occupant’s name: SHADES. But the first letter is obscured by a neon pink, flashing arrow, pointing down some stairs to what is now HADES.

Downstairs, the basement restaurant is starkly and sparingly lit with bare red bulbs, like those still in front of singed lace curtains in some of old Soho’s upstairs windows. And again, ‘No children’.

The place is like a horror and cult film museum, with rare old posters framed on the walls. I note Night and Fog, Man Bites Dog, Gummo, August Underground’s Mordum, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible. I somehow think the night will be.

There are display cabinets, some free-standing on the floors, and others on the wall. In the larger displays are costumes, including Pinhead’s leathers and Freddie Kruger’s jersey, hat and glove. There’s a stuffed alien in a cabinet, and a face-hugger pickled in a jar on the wall. There’s a stuffed St Bernard (presumably Cujo), and (my favourite) an E.D.209 enforcement droid outside the toilets. I could go on (about the Bates Motel guest book, Damian Thorp’s tricycle and lots of other paraphernalia), but I’m here to review the food.

A few other diners are dotted around: a young couple, having a horrifically romantic evening, and a group of business types, clearly working on someone’s bonus or expenses. There’s a dog under the young couple’s table, a beagle I think. Dogs are okay here, but children aren’t.

We’re seated in a booth, and I discuss my next project with my guest. After this restaurant article, I’m embarking on a slightly new path, that of horror fiction. How a food critic came to write horror may be the subject of future stories, by me or by others. But with this opportunity providing the perfect link, it’s perhaps relevant to fill in some details.

I’m here with my agent, which is entirely in parallel with the journey I’m about to make. It was he, after all, who advised me to stick with factual writing, and specifically food, when I foolishly tried to convince him I could be a horror writer. With the benefit of hindsight, he was right to keep me away, and indeed my restaurant reviews have picked up what I like to think of as a cult following (and I do have spellcheck on).

The problem with a cult (it’s still on), is that once it gets too big, it ceases to be. So it seemed logical to maintain that status by going underground, where only the determined and curious follow. Therefore, it is completely logical for me to now be sitting in an underground horror-themed restaurant with the agent who has held me back, as I move from one life to the next.

One of the businessmen clicks his fingers and shouts “Garçon!”, which I’m not sure is the correct etiquette here.

The menu is like a coffee table book. There’s the menu itself, with ‘Jemma’s’ at the top. Then before the dishes, an obituary for Jemma Redmond, an Irish biotechnology pioneer and innovator, who first used human stem cells in 3D printer ‘ink’, then developed the technology to make it affordable and portable. The upshot: Replacement human organs, on-demand where needed. Jemma Redmond died 16.08.16, aged 38.

After the menu is a history of the kitchen, presented as a retro-futuristic brochure for ‘Kitchens by Jigsaw’, with photographs of industrial food processing and preparation machinery, like room-size interlocking clockwork engines made from brushed steel. There are mechanical drawings of the industrial cutters, grinders, mincers and cooking appliances, like Cenobite puzzle cubes splayed open into diagrams by Maurits Cornelis Escher.

The book finishes off with a few short stories by writers who already enjoy cult status in horror. They’re like Lovecraft, Kafka, King and Poe, but sick and twisted Teletubbies, writing tributes to the YouTube trollbot films of old, made from spliced children’s shows. Seeing Lady Penelope gang-raped by Thunderbirds, Zebedee nailed to the ground, and Dylan decapitated, will turn anyone from food critic to twisted fiction writer, trying to excuse what they’ve seen. And at the bottom of every page, the message is repeated: ‘No children’. This seems almost a mission statement.

The menu itself is horrified, with things like ‘Steak by Leatherface*’, ‘Suicide Club Fugu*’, ‘Triffid salad*’, and the simply-named ‘Naked Lunch*’. There’s a nod to the trollbots, with ‘Peppa Pig, hand-prepared by Kruger’s’, and there’s ‘Specials’, more akin to challenges, in the size and heat of dishes.

A ‘Crispy aromatic hind quarter of suckling’ at 64 ounces, can be had for free, if it’s eaten in under an hour. I’m more intrigued by what kind of animal could still be suckling when a part of it is that size. It comes with ‘optional extra ghost sauce’, implying that a dollop of burning ectoplasm has already begun to eat into the flesh (you get fries with that).

Another is ‘Dante’s wings’, described as ‘Nine wings of increasing fire, before you wish that more heat might rescue you from the hell pain of death.’ (That comes with fries, too). If I’m to remain outside Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and ‘survive’, the book of the dead says I will go free.

*Vegetarian options can all be printed.

As this is on me, I pay. I settle up when we order, so as to be done with the formalities. There’ll be no quarrels over splitting the bill, and the tip from my anticipated earnings is sufficient to cover any kind of evening we decide to enjoy.

I’ve seen a few staff walking around, like cosplay characters at Jack Rabbit Slims. But where Tarantino’s joint was staffed by 1950s and 60s film stars, August’s has horror icons.

Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees serve tables, while Pennywise and Leatherface work behind the bar. Freddie Kruger taps his fingers on the counter, speaking to Pinhead (presumably both have more than one set of clothes). And they really get into character here too. If it wasn’t for the (understandable) adults-only entry, I could imagine those two gleefully popping birthday balloons at children’s tables.

Samara Morgan approaches the business types and reminds one that “Garçon means boy.” The server is a young Japanese girl, so perhaps she’s Sadako Yamamura. After she leaves, one of the men says something and the others laugh, attracting Pinhead’s gaze. I wonder what a headbutt must feel like.

We’re served by Candyman (or one of them), and I wonder what it might be like to come here on one’s birthday, would these characters sing ‘Happy birthday’? Perhaps, but only before killing the patron who’d asked for such a thing, so that they may not speak of it again.

The Candyman character isn’t all bad (really, if you read the story): The Candyman of legend emerges from a mirror. He has a hooked hand, he’s covered with bees, and he has revenge on his mind.

The Candyman was once a slave, called Daniel Robitaille, who was an accomplished painter. The plantation owner asked Daniel to paint a portrait of his daughter, and she and Daniel fell in love. Her father, the racist, had Daniel hunted down by a mob and run out of town. They chased him until he collapsed, exhausted, then cut off his hand with a rusty saw, smothered him in honey and threw him into a beehive, chanting “Candyman, Candyman…” Before he died, Daniel vowed to return and exact his revenge upon them.

Conversely, many classic fairy tales, enjoyed by children for centuries, have their origins in ancient folk tales, myths and legends. Little Red Riding Hood is a particularly gruesome one, based on a 16th century French fable. Back then, rape wasn’t a crime. In fact, there wasn’t even a word for it. The story is a warning to young girls, of all that stalks the night. The wolf is a representative predator and the woods a metaphor for the world beyond childhood. The girl collects flowers before going to her granny’s house, where the wolf entices her into bed, dressed as her granny. The wolf eating the girl is a metaphor for rape (and the granny before, the man this wolf represents being a particularly perverted individual). The huntsman cutting them free can be seen as a metaphor for childbirth or abortion. It’s no wonder the stories are dressed up, but those ancient horrors served to protect. Like ‘No children’ here.

One of the men from the other table nearly bumps into the E.D.209 as he walks in an arc to the toilet, and the remainder carry on talking quietly. The young couple seem oblivious to the horrors around them, as they’re lost in their own story of dark love. If I were to guess, I’d say they’re art school graduates, or possibly musicians. The dog seems content, with a steady supply of food handed down to it.

I order a steak from Leatherface’s list of prime cuts, a rare rump (you get fries with that). My companion orders from the printed menu, and I wonder if he’s a vegetarian. Our working relationship has been distant, so we’ve never dined before. Truth be known, I’d never have taken him out for a meal unless it was to celebrate us parting company.

The tension only became tangible recently, when in fact it’s been simmering away for some months now, as I’ve been finding myself, and trying to redefine myself, but I’ve felt restricted, bound and gagged by an employer who dictates and dismisses rather than listen. Perhaps I shouldn’t be using a restaurant review to slag the guy off, but he’s paid me for this and I want to use it as a crossover, an artistic gift to demonstrate to someone who’s set in their ways, that people can change. He says writers should stick with one discipline, where I grow restless when compartmentalised. I want to express myself more, and write more useful things.

He says a food critic is useful, as are all factual writers, because they inform people. My point has become one of having many points to make, and fiction will better allow me to do that, like all those classic fairy stories. For starters, I can tell of the wonders in this place, while making it very clear why they have a ‘No children’ policy. I believe more than he does that more people can be spoken to through fiction, because while one demographic might see a wonderful story, another may see the unwritten parallels and warnings. The man’s a total arse, but in a way, I’m doing him a favour. Let’s face it, I’d never get paid for another review after this one. But a shocking venue deserves a similar review.

I’m bored of writing for the same people, the kind of people who can afford to come to a place like this, but it was from within those that some of my cult following (still on) emerged, and it was their encouragement which gave me the push I needed. So readers, you know who you are, I salute you and I will see you in other places soon. As for the rest, try this place (but don’t bring the kids).

The businessmen are still one short, as they continue their muted banter. The young couple are still young and in love, and the dog asleep.

There’s nothing shocking about my steak when it arrives, perfectly cooked and seeping blood (you get fries with it, to mop up). But it’s curious and surprising in its taste and texture.

Although I just called my agent an arse, there is one word I will never use, in a review or elsewhere. It’s that word beginning with ‘M’, so beloved of some foodies, but if I even see the word on a menu, I’ll leave a place immediately and vow to never return. I’ve seen some savage cinema but that word is a monstrosity on its own and in any context.

This steak is juicy, sweet, marbled with fat and perfectly seasoned. A quick glance at the menu again and I learn that the meat is produced on the premises daily. The burgeoning horror writer in me imagines the kitchen by Jigsaw extending into an on-site abattoir, with this old warehouse site easily able to accommodate one. I’m slightly disappointed when the businessman returns from the toilet. The young couple are still very much into the atmosphere, and one another.

We choose desserts from the ‘Peter Davidson trolley’, all of which are from ‘The Universe at the end of Upper Street’. My ‘Ectoplasmic jelly’ is a green snot-like goo, which I can’t help think kids would love for its sheer grossness. But although it looks like a freshly caught Slimer ghost, it tastes of toasted marshmallow. My companion has something resembling a splayed vagina, which he says smells of fresh body odour (it does) but tastes like scented cream (lavender). It tastes to me like something I couldn’t mention, even in horror fiction. It’s that fucking M-word.

We finish with cocktails from a list of horrors, which aren’t the drinks themselves but the theatre which surrounds their delivery. Our bloody Marys summon the Candyman with our drinks, then Pinhead offers olives, from his head.

The businessmen are getting raucous and the young couple amorous, so we decide to leave, bidding the place farewell.

Back outside, it’s long since dark and a few of the other buildings around the old warehouse are lit up, a couple of accident repair and MOT units, and a children’s adventure play centre.

Now we go our separate ways. He’s off to pander more to the privileged, while I remain a cult and still poor, writing more fiction. Some will be horrible tales, but with a moral message.

As for August Underground’s Diner, for the kind of people who can afford to come here, I’d say bring the kids and leave them in the play centre. For those who can’t afford it, try one of the food challenges and eat for free.

© Steve Laker, 2018

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.

Still tied with instrument strings

FICTION

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. 

The origin of unfinished literature

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FLASH FICTION

A recurring theme in my writing is The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s a fictional place (and there’s a book), which exists to tell the stories of others who are unable to tell their own.

The agency is also an analogy of the writing world, where writers crave an audience, in a place where people don’t have time to read. It has parallels, to how inner frustration made my own mind up to write down everything in it.

Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them, and sometimes I wonder if we may have a greater purpose, but haven’t worked out what it is yet…

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THE OFFICE OF LOST THINGS

They are afraid of the sun, shrinking away as it climbs in the sky, and they are liveliest at night. They follow us, and we can’t outrun them. They are The Shadows.

I first became aware that I’d picked one up when my own shadow started carrying a guitar. No matter where I walked, indoors or outside, my shadow followed me. And regardless of what I myself was carrying (a bag, my jacket, thrown over my shoulder…), my shadow still travelled with its guitar.

This being Bethnal Green, I found an Italian greasy spoon, where the proprietor, a doctor, explained my condition. His Cockney dialogue was easy for the Babel fish in my ear to translate, and when he told me I was Hank Marvin, he offered me a cure, pointing to an item on the menu: “GSEG”, which was scrambled eggs, and my hunger was gone.

I was on my way to Islington, delivering a manuscript, to a place I’d heard about from other writers.

Above Hotblack Desiato’s office near Islington Green, is The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s where all the storytellers send their stories, and sometimes meet to share them, like a secret society, but open to all.

I climbed the stairs to the agency office, a windowless room in the loft. The lights were out and no-one was in. I tried the light switch but it didn’t work. Fumbling around, I found a desk, which I discovered had drawers, and the fourth one yielded a box of candles. I lit a cigarette, then a candle, and looked around the small office, which a broom might call luxurious.

On the desk was a typewriter, and next to it, a stack of papers: hand-written manuscripts. Besides the desk and a chair, there was just a large book cabinet occupying one wall. It held possibly hundreds of unwritten books, all from writers seeking attention, and all in a place where the sun never shines.

I sat at the desk and looked at my flickering shadow, cast by the candle. There was no guitar, just my cigarette dangling from my mouth, like a smoking tulip.

With no-one else around, I decided to stay for a while and started typing.

© Steve Laker

Wherever our lives may lead, we are all but a plot device.

The Unfinished Literary Agency (my second anthology) is available now. 

The real human lending library

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Everyone happens in a place, and if I were to put my finger on where I became a writer, it would be McDonald’s. When I first found myself homeless through drinking, I’d spend my days there, eventually becoming a bit of a fixture.

Seeing a solitary figure in the same place every day, scribbling in a note book, people were naturally curious, and it wasn’t long before I was relating my story to small groups. Mine is a cautionary tale of the dangers of addiction, but which led me into a life I’d never have known if I hadn’t been thrown into it. I’m part of the human library.

Human libraryDeccan Chronicle

I made a lot of friends and lived a lot of life on the streets, so when people started asking me what I’d do with all those notes I was making, I said I might one day turn them into short stories, and maybe publish a book.

This all leads to The Human Lending Library, an entity which I thought fictitious because I’d made it up, along with The Unfinished Literary Agency. I’m re-posting the story below because someone recently prodded me to say that there really is a human lending library, where people borrow people instead of books, and the borrowed tell their story. It originated (unsurprisingly) in Denmark in 2000.

The real human lending library serves exactly the same purpose as the one I imagined, back when I originally wrote Reflections of Yesterday. The story is set in a place close to my heart (Lewisham), where I saw much of the light and dark in the human condition. As an aside – with reference to the recent thinking on Stephen King (a horror writer I’ve been compared with) having an entire universe where he interconnects his stories – there’s an early appearance by a couple of characters from my own Cyrus Song in this unrelated story, as extras in a background scene.

The following fable was the result of long conversations and many notes, some made by the human whose story this is. For the most part, I transcribed those notes directly, which is why this is a bit of a long read.

This is the story of Huxley and Marlene: That’s “Mar-lay-nah” innit…

Reflections of yesterday Reflections of yesterday5 Reflections of yesterday4

REFLECTIONS OF YESTERDAY

The Unfinished Literary Agency is an underground publishing house, which I set up to tell the stories of others; Stories which would otherwise go untold. Like most of the characters in these stories, Marlene thought she was unimportant: She was a nobody. No-one would want to read a story about a random girl like her. So I made a suggestion on how we might make the story more interesting, while keeping it real.

It starts with a Beagle: a dog called Huxley, Marlene’s best friend and confidante. She insists on her name being written that way, without any character accents to denote that it’s pronounced “Mar-Lay-Nah”.

They were having a picnic in Mountsfield Park, surrounded by her life, in three Sports Direct bags. A man asked: “Why do so many homeless people have dogs?”

“Because most people aren’t like you, sir. Most people don’t stop to talk. In fact, most people just walk on by. If someone just says hello, it makes me feel better. While there are so few people like you, I have a dog. I have Huxley, and he’s company. He listens. I’m Marlene. What’s your name mate? Sit down if you like.”

“Jay, and thanks.” Jay swung his rucksack from his shoulder and sat next to where Marlene lay on her sleeping bag, under a tree. It was a quiet time: mid-afternoon. Parents would be returning from shopping in Lewisham and getting ready to pick the kids up from school, before coming to the park. Every now and then, people walked by on the pathways. There were only two other people on the grass: a young red-haired girl, seated cross-legged, looking at something in her hand; and an older man, lying on his side and propped up on one arm. The girl passed something to the man and he looked at his hand for a while, before blowing something from his palm.

“You’re Muslim, right?

“Yeah, the rucksack sort of gives me away, doesn’t it?”

Shared irony is always a comforting bond: A tie formed when two people who’ve never met before, realise in a moment that they’re of similar intellect; When one can crack a joke and the other doesn’t feel the need to demonstrate anything by finishing it off; When one doesn’t have to ride the coat tails of the other, because they both get what didn’t need to be said. They are equals. There’s usually some wag around in a social situation who’ll feel the need to fill things in: The kind of person who might give you unsolicited advice at a pub fruit machine or pool table. There were no spare parts in this conversation.

“How long have you been here?” Jay asked.

“Today, only about an hour. I try not to think about how long it’s been in all.”

“You know.” It was another shared moment.

“You’ve been here?”

“Yeah, I was out here for just over a year before I converted.”

“So what happened? I mean, if you want to tell me.”

“I think I might be as reluctant to share the tale of how I came to be here as you are. My conversion to Islam though, was an awakening. Some might call it an epiphany but I don’t believe in God. Or Allah.”

“What? Explain that one, please.”

“Well, one day when I was out here, someone gave me a copy of the Quran. To be honest, my first thought was, ‘Thanks. This looks delicious’, but I couldn’t throw it away. No matter the contempt I have for religion and all that it’s caused, I respect every other human and that includes their beliefs. I wondered perhaps if I might reject God because I don’t understand him. I find that sense of not knowing unnerving, a fear of the unknown. The best way to deal with fear is confront it. So I decided I’d educate myself. I felt I owed it to the man who’d given me his copy of The Recitation.

“It was a coping mechanism and a comfort. It was escapism to safe entertainment. At it’s core, the Quran is just a different telling of the same events; The same stories, told by someone else with a different perspective. An alternative to the Bible. Despite what many perceive, a lot of the ancient Islamic texts have their roots in the one thing which unites us all: Humanity. In many ways, Islam is actually much more tolerant than Christianity. The Quran was the Guardian, to the Bible’s Telegraph. And where Jesus was just a nice guy, I wouldn’t be surprised if Muhammad smoked a bit of weed. I don’t know, I just found the Quran much more accessible than the Bible. The Bible’s dictatorial, whereas the Quran is a guide. It was refreshing to see a different take on things. But either book in the wrong hands…

“So I took the faith and changed my name to Javeed. It means forever. But when I say I took the faith, I didn’t. Because I can’t have faith in something which is unproven; a paradox. I need to question what I don’t understand, and religion will not be interrogated. Instead, it tells us that we must believe and have faith. I’m not ready to relinquish my will. But I did have a new found faith in humanity and, just as I’d read that man’s Quran, I felt indebted to Islam. So I started attending the mosque. It was shelter, company, and food. Was I using Allah? If he exists, then he will judge. Until then, I consider myself free.”

“So why do you still dress that way? Do you go to prayers?”

“Because I get something from it. I see other people’s ways of looking at things. It taught me to see that failure, me losing my home and all, was just that to the weak man: A failure. But the strong man sees a challenge and he rises to it, to change, to make things better. And I felt I might be able to do some good. You see, there are a lot of young Muslims who feel alienated and persecuted. Well, I know how that feels. I suppose the best way to sum up a situation I don’t understand, is I’m not bound by Islam but by humanity. With my brothers, we are all members of the same human race. That’s what I found Islam to be. It’s not a religion to me, it’s a family.”

“What about the women?”

“Well, that sits very uncomfortably with me. But I could run away and ignore it, or I could try to do something about it. I see those women and girls as suffragettes. They’re way more persecuted than the men, and by the men. Over time, I’m trying to make the Imam and others more progressive.

“So you’re radicalising them? That could take a while.”

“My name is Javeed. It means forever.”

“What was your name before?”

“Jim. Which means Jim. Anyway, Marlene, I should go. I’m cramping your style. I think these people walking past are giving us an even wider berth than they’d normally give you alone. They are no-one. Because every one of them who walks past, you’d probably not recognise if you saw them again. Let them stay that way. Let them retain their anonymity, and be forgettable. Here, let me compensate you for your time.”

“Compensate me? Like, pay me for talking and listening? I’m a captive audience mate. Besides, it was nice. You actually remind me of someone, but I don’t remember who.”

“I wouldn’t know. In any case, it was a pleasure. You’re a valuable person Marlene. Don’t forget that. Here…”

“A tenner? You sure?”

“Of course. It seems quite appropriate. On the reverse of the ten pound note, is Charles Darwin: Evolution and the rest of it. And his ship, HMS Beagle. Well, I do believe Huxley here is a Beagle.”

“Can’t argue with that. Thank you. Thanks mate.”

“You’re welcome my friend. I don’t care what you spend it on. That’s your business. I’d like to think that you used it to do something, to make things different. Keep your head up kid. I know you can swim, you just gotta keep moving your legs.” Jay stood and shook Marlene’s hand. “Be safe.”

Something. Something to make a difference. To eat a hot meal would make a change. But she couldn’t dine out wearing five layers of clothes, or with Huxley and her house in tow. Instead, she bought some food, which she had no intention of eating. She bought five loaves of bread, some wafer thin ham, a block of Cheddar and some tomatoes; all of which were reduced as they approached their sell-by dates. She also got some plastic knives and cling film. The food probably would have been destined for the homeless, but she had a plan: She would make sandwiches and sell them. Any she didn’t sell, she would give to the homeless, most of whom lacked the resources to make a sandwich of their own. The way Marlene saw it, she was buying raw materials to make into something and add value. In percentage terms, the margins were very large, so she could cover her costs, make a little profit for herself and give something ready-made to those with no money. The business plan required her to place faith in the general public to buy her goods, but other than that, it was sound.

On the first day, most of the sandwiches went to the homeless. Pure prejudice seemed to keep people away. Her stall was a makeshift table made of plastic bread crates, her hand-written sign listing her sandwiches: Ham or cheese, with or without tomato. Sandwiches just like mum used to make. All were priced at 50p. But it seemed that the same anonymous people who passed her by, were equally unprepared to give her money for something she’d done. They needn’t have any concern for hygiene. She wore plastic gloves while making the sandwiches, and sanitary wipes to keep her hands clean. She’d lost £5, but she’d given homeless people something to eat.

The next day she spent less and broke even. At least people were coming to her now, parents with kids mainly, perhaps reassured by her presence on a second day. For the next few days, she reached a plateau and her venture stagnated. She was covering her costs, giving a few sandwiches to the homeless and making a few pence each day. She needed to upsize but for that, she needed more capital.

She wondered about what she was doing; interrogated her business model. Perhaps she appeared too needy. But she’d never begged, and people were buying from her of their own free will. She wasn’t asking for anything. There was no mention of helping the homeless on her sign, as she imagined people might make the wrong association with her food. Perhaps those people weren’t even eating her sandwiches but 50p was such a small sum, and at least they got something. Some of her customers became familiar faces. They talked to her and she learned about them.

It was at the end of the second week that Marlene decided to make a change. She wrote a new sign, with just the sandwiches on and no prices. She stood an empty baked bean tin next to her sandwiches on the stall, and stuck a label on the tin: Thank you.

Human psychology is a deep and complex field of study and her human lab mice proved a theory: If presented with something which requires questioning, most will walk on by. But some people will seek answers. The revamped sandwich stall invited people to enquire, at least about the price of a sandwich, or to find out what they were being thanked in advance for. Without too much prompting, some humans quickly exhibited completely altered behaviour. They found themselves in a new paradigm; one where they were being thanked for taking something, and invited to leave a donation. The important decisions about the transaction had been placed firmly back with the customers: Whether to take something and if so, how much to pay for it. She remained a few feet from the stall; still present but not so close as to distract from people’s own free will. At the end of that first new day, Marlene’s tin contained £6.35.

She had a viable business model, of the simplest kind: Source cheaply, add value and sell at a profit. The added value here was the sandwiches being made: It was Marlene’s time. Her modest success was down to her honesty, and her trust in that of others: She could make no secret of the fact that her stall was unconventional. On the few occasions when she was asked the price of her sandwiches, she simply asked people to pay whatever they felt the food was worth. And there were those who took food and left nothing, but she wasn’t going to question them. One could quite easily be someone just like her, who might be embarrassed. By maintaining a distance, Marlene relied almost entirely on human spirit and her faith in such was somewhat restored.

But she wasn’t getting anywhere. Her business was standing still. She wasn’t making anything of Jay’s gift. So Marlene and Huxley took a walk. They couldn’t walk as far or for as long as they used to.

The sky was peach melba with a crème brûlée topping, and a warm breeze drove the day’s dust out of Mountsfield Park. Midges were beginning to form vortices around nothing, and ants were retreating to warmth. Marlene instinctively raised her wrist to her eye as something approached, but one midge didn’t make it home that night. Greenwich was the limit now, and even that took from afternoon to night, with frequent breaks. But everything in between was their time. Evenings were Huxley’s.

Marlene didn’t know Huxley’s exact age but they’d said he was already getting on a bit when she took him as a rescue dog from Battersea. His snout and some of his coat were greying, but no matter his age, Huxley liked to walk. He liked being outside – perhaps something to do with his previous life, chasing hares – so he was the perfect dog for a homeless nomad. He wasn’t a weaponised dog. An owner makes a dog and a dog’s love is unconditional. Marlene was sure Huxley would kill or be killed for her, but she never sought to find out. She threw Huxley a stick. ”Sticks and stones. My old bones…”

Fetching sticks aside, the only time Huxley wasn’t with Marlene, was when she’d had to work to repay a favour, or buy him food. A slut, a dirty whore, a re-useable doll: Just words. But she’d had fingers broken, been raped and left for dead in the park when she’d first washed up there. It wouldn’t have happened if Huxley had been there, but she hadn’t wanted him there. She would kill or be killed for him.

The Royal Borough of SE10 was no better than SE13: Postcodes didn’t change the status of a homeless person. But with that status come certain rights: You are always safe with your own kind. Although not true of humanity as a whole, there was an unwritten code in the homeless community; a people without borders. They were people of limited means but with deep resources.

And so Marlene and Huxley would regularly join a group who congregated in Greenwich Park, at the top of the hill, by the Royal Observatory. There they were left alone at night, by all but the most curious and determined. They looked out at Docklands on the peninsular, with the City in the background. All of life was there, most of it indiscernible to the untrained eye.

At low tide, the banks of the Thames attracted beach combers. They’d look for coins beneath the bridges and barriers; They’d turn over stones and prod through the mud for other treasures; One day perhaps, a priceless artefact or discarded weapon. Further out, walkers would be among the undead, as street people pushed against the tide of robots to pick up after them. The invisible cleaned up after the anonymous.

Fiction writers have sometimes been accused of over-stretching the imagination; of inventing convenient coincidences to carry a narrative. While it is true that fiction is often stranger than fact, by its very design, it is also true that life imitates art. Although they can be tropes for a lazy writer, strange coincidences do occur in real life. However fantastical these situations can seem, when reported as fact, they become received wisdom. When written as fiction, the author is more likely to be questioned. This is exactly why Marlene said that the next chapter shouldn’t be written about, but for the same reasons, I insisted it should. She had entrusted this story to a writer and that writer was me. I couldn’t teach Marlene to write. At least, I couldn’t teach her how to write as I saw writing, because I would have to teach her how to write like me. When I myself don’t know why that is.

I was writing the story of Marlene, but I was also writing the story of a writer, who wanted to be a writer like Paul Auster: One who writes “in a certain way”, which sometimes frustrates him, because he can’t teach others how he does it; a writer who used himself in many plot devices and a named character in at least one story. On occasion, he’s used seemingly wild coincidences in his plots. But by way of a demonstration of how life can turn up these events, in October 1989, he asked listeners of National Public Radio’s Weekend All Things Considered programme to send in true stories, to be read on-air as part of the National Story Project. The response was unexpected, with over 4000 submissions. Everyone, it seemed, had a story to tell. True Tales of American Life gathered some of these personal accounts to demonstrate that life could really be stranger than fiction. One such story was “The Chicken”, from Linda Elegant of Portland, Oregon:

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.

Other Auster trademarks are tributes to people he admires, with cameos or as a clue to a name in one of his characters, subtle references at various depths of immersion; Stories set in and around areas he knows intimately, like a pre-teen knows his or her genitals; and links to his other stories, through places or people; sometimes fleeting, others more overt.

It was while on the hill in Greenwich that one unlikely thing happened, when an unexpected Ellery Moon came into the story:

It was unusual but not unprecedented for someone inclined by curiosity to climb the hill and share the view from the summit. There’d never been one with a guitar before, least of all a twelve string. Ellery had come there to look at the Maritime Museum from an elevated viewpoint.

Odd and quirky things do happen. Sometimes, something breaks through the monotony and invites us to think differently. It’s a meeting of magnetic poles: Attraction and repulsion.

Ellery was a scholar of European neoclassicism in the visual arts. It was a modernising movement when it emerged in the mid 18th century, but also a conservative one. It sought to fight back against received wisdom and accepted norms, by simplifying things. In architecture, it was an admiration of the function and simplicity of ancient Greek and Roman buildings, relatively unadorned with fussy decorative features. Ellery saw the maritime museum as an example of the architecture, with imperialism at its heart. Nationalism was something he found repellent but in order to understand that which he didn’t know, he needed to question it. “Architecture is frozen music”, he said. As far as Marlene was concerned, he simply spoke to buildings, as others do animals or plants.

Although Ellery’s interests were not ones she shared, Marlene found his interpretations of the world fascinating, and him an engaging orator. Everything was linked, he said. And where there were no obvious connections, they were still there to be discovered. He explained how certain things were triggers for him, which would most likely not affect many others: He was in touch with his senses to an extent where an oil painting, a piece of music, an architectural structure, or even a passage of words, would evoke in him a vision or a memory; one so powerful that it could make him visibly weep. Although it wasn’t recognised as a mental illness, it had a name: Stendhal Syndrome. It was another easy label to apply.

Ellery’s songs were not exercises in subtlety, his voice an embattled rasping call to action. His lyrics, an angry mix of threat and paranoia, chasing doomed dreams as he faced invisible oppressors. For him, music was an inferno, into which he’d toss caution and the inhibitions which he believed bind us in life. Anthems, protests and love songs, delivered in a rasping 60-a-day voice, with his guitar a machine gun triumphing against those unseen forces. He sought no-one’s approval for anything he did.

He taught Marlene to sing. She’d never been able to sing, but Ellery told her she always could, she simply lacked confidence. “You need to get out of your comfort zone and face a fear”, he said. “At school, I was just like all the other kids; mumbling words behind a hymn book in assembly. But then I started going to pubs and I was introduced to Karaoke. Some friends of mine were in a band, and it was hearing their voices over a microphone that made me wonder what I might sound like if I opened my lungs. And that was where I found it: All my anger and frustration was in my voice. It sounds narcissistic and clichéd, but when I heard my own voice over the speakers, it was an awakening. I didn’t even notice anyone in the room, even though the bar was packed. I was just into screaming and howling, but in some sort of tune. When I’d finished, I looked around and everyone was silently staring at me. I just thought, ‘Fuck you’ as I put the mic back in the stand, then they starting applauding. At first, I thought they were glad I’d finished. But they kept going. A few of them cheered and whistled, perhaps even more relieved that I was done. But then, one person stood up; then another; six in all. One shook my hand, then another, who slapped me on the shoulder and told me, “Nice one, mate”. They liked me. Wanna know what song it was that I ripped apart and threw around that room?”

“I’d imagine it was more an interpretation or tribute, rather than a straight cover or impression?”

“Fuck yeah. If you’re gonna sing a song, it’s more of a tribute to the original artists to give it your own style, rather than just ape them. The great thing is, it works if you’re shit at singing. It’s subjective, both to the performer and the listener. To the ears of some, a cover tribute takes on greater meaning than the original. Music history is littered with examples, depending on who you listen to. But the best example is probably Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails on Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt: “It’s his now.” For me, even though I’m a space boy, Bauhaus owned Ziggy Stardust’s eponymous track. That was even better than the Starman himself. There are examples in films and TV series too, where someone has taken a classic and re-imagined it, or turned literature into film; or vice versa. The arts are self-pollinating, but if we treat them as less than living entities, they will perish. I want to cede a new renaissance.

“So my first ever song performed in public, was George Michael’s Praying for Time, from the Listen Without Prejudice album.”

“But sung as…”

“But sung as me. That was the thing. For four minutes, I made that song my own. They said I sounded like an angry Michael Stipe. They said I held my forearms upwards, screaming at them all the time, whether I was standing or crouching; like I was displaying stigmata in my self-harm scars.

“These are the days of the open hand. These are the days of the beggars and the choosers. This is the year of the hungry man. Whose place is in the past. Hand in hand with ignorance. I sang twenty years and a day. But nothing changed. The human race found some other guy. And walked into the flame. And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate. Hanging on to hope. When there is no hope to speak of. And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late. Well maybe we should all be praying for time…

“But I was still using someone else’s words. To be honest, I don’t know if any of my own songs are any good. It’s impossible to be discovered, so no-one will hear them. But they’re all I want to say and if people get to hear them, they might tell others. The best chance to be heard, was to cover something someone else had already done. In so many cases, the words are there, and I wish I’d written them. But I didn’t, so I sung them. Even as I tell you this, I’m unsure as to what might be too much to say. I want you to get it, without having to question too much; but I don’t want to insult your intelligence by telling you too much, because then I take away from your personal interpretation. And right here, right now, I just don’t know when to shut up.”

Words can only be stopped when the mouth is otherwise occupied, and a first kiss is a catalyst for many more. Exchanges of bodily fluids quickly evolve, from the first drop of saliva, to ones which can be life-changing.

As one life ends, so another begins. It’s just changes. They have happened in the past, to create the now; and others are planned, to shape the future. The world turns on its axis, one man works while another relaxes.

Ellery sang at the birth, and Marlene gave them Ebony: An ornamental wood, dense enough to sink in water, with a smooth finish when polished, making it valuable.

A “Paupers funeral” is one paid for by the state. It’s normally at 9am, as that’s the cheapest slot, and you can only be incinerated. It’ll be attended by a suited figure, there to ensure that everything is done. There’ll be three pieces of music: One to welcome the mourners; another to accompany the lowering of the coffin; and the end.

The music didn’t even have words which Marlene could imagine Ellery singing, in his angry, impatient voice, struggling to escape, from something. She remembered him singing Amy Winehouse at The Dublin Castle, where Amy used to drink and play; and Madness. Suggs spoke about her, in the way Suggs speaks:

“We used to see her around in Camden, we started off in The Dublin Castle, a place where Amy very much liked. I wrote a song about Amy Winehouse which is on this record called ‘Blackbird’, without going on about it, it was a very tragic thing.”

When a panic attack strikes, it will do so without warning and for no apparent reason. A partner unable to free himself; their baby sealed in a burning box; and Marlene, on the wall.

“Even if I am in love with you. All this to say, what’s it to you? Observe the blood, the rose tattoo. Of the fingerprints on me from you. We’re still alone, around the danger zone. And we don’t talk about it. The passing of every soldier, but the only soldier now is me, fighting things I cannot see. I think it’s called my destiny. I am changing. Don’t give away the good too soon. I tried hard to resist, when you held me in your handsome fist. It reminded me of the night we kissed. Of why I should be leaving.”

And as one story ends, so another begins. Huxley went quietly at the PDSA in New Cross, where he met and said farewell to Doctor Jones. Hannah Jones then became a part of the story again, when she called Marlene a few months later: An injured beagle had been brought into the hospital by a stranger. He’d found the dog at the kerbside and guessed it had been hit by a car. It was barely more than a pup and it hadn’t been chipped. Before he went to Battersea, would Marlene be up to meeting him?

They were having a picnic in Mountsfield Park, when a man asked: “Why do so many homeless people have dogs?”

“Because most people aren’t like you, sir. Most people don’t stop to talk. In fact, most people just walk on by.”

“Ignorant people, perhaps. You’re homeless though, right?”

“What gave me away? The bags?” Shared irony is always a comforting bond: A tie formed when two people who’ve never met before, realise they’ve clicked. “Yeah, I’ve lost the lot mate: Home, money, people I cared about. I’m Marlene. Ironically, it’s derived from Mary Magdalene. But mine’s Mar-Lay-Nah, after the Suzanne Vega song.”

“I’m Jim. It means Jim.”

“Wanna hear a story, Jim? This guy came up to me once, right here. If you grew a beard, you’d probably look like him actually.

“So this other guy, he gave me a tenner. The Bank of England tenner has Darwin on it, and a picture of his ship: HMS Beagle. And Huxley here is a beagle. And the guy just said to make something with that tenner. It took me to a lot of places, that note and those words. I met a lot of people and heard their stories. And after that, I realised what it was I could do. I worked out that it was the best way to give the most back. Money is like the air: breathe it in, breathe it out. It’s just selfish to hold on to it.

“One day, I might learn to play this twelve string here. It was Ellerey’s. He taught me to sing. He allowed me to find my voice, even if it was in the words of others.

“But before I go out busking, I’ve set up The Human Lending Library. It’s a massive place, full of stories, but not housed in a building. It’s a library without borders. You don’t borrow books; you borrow a person. You don’t take them home with you, although some might appreciate that. No, you just ask one of them to tell you a story. And most of the time, they’ll have a story to tell, which they didn’t think anyone would want to hear. It might be their own or someone else’s: Someone who’s no longer around to tell their own story. But if someone asks, that changes things for the story teller. And it often changes the way the listener thinks of those story tellers.

“Libraries stand for freedom. Freedom to read, to think, and to pass on wisdom. They are about education, which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university. They’re safe entertainment. Some of the most under-appreciated people in society are librarians, yet without those gatekeepers of knowledge, we are ignorant.

“Our children lack the knowledge we have. We need to teach them. With knowledge, they can navigate the world, understand things, question others and solve problems. We must tell them the truth and not let them be lied to or misled.

“We should read aloud to others, or recite stories to them. Read them things they enjoy, even if those are stories we’ve already tired of. Or tell them a new story. And we can write. All of us – readers and writers – can dream. All of us can make a change, just by thinking more and doing things differently.

“Well, I’m one of the librarians and we’re everywhere. All anyone has to do, is rather than walk past, just ask. Both parties get something far greater than money from that free transaction.”

And Jim was lost for a moment.

Marlene didn’t expect a donation; She didn’t ask. It was pure coincidence that Jim gave her a ten pound note. A coincidence which gives meaning to the phrase, what comes around, goes around. Marlene’s situation too.

Marlene didn’t think this story worth telling. But by looking at things differently, she didn’t fail and end up back in the drain. She returned to where she felt she belonged, where there are far greater things than money. History repeating need not always be a death toll. Even in the darkest places, there is hope. Sometimes, we need to be stripped of everything to realise that there is more to life and to start seeing the world differently. The Human Lending Library is fictional, but with its base in the facts of Marlene and others’ lives.

She mock-fretted that if her story was told, people might read it and be moved to act upon it. Pretty soon, the librarians might receive sufficient donations to change their circumstances and living arrangements. There might one day be no Human Lending Library.

I told her not to worry. Such a dream was just that: firmly in the realms of fiction.

(C) Steve Laker and Marlene (that’s “Mar-lay-nah”), 2017

For Huxley

the-human-library-project

From The Unfinished Literary Agency, available now in paperback.

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A story written into a person

HORROR FICTION

Blood dripping

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THE PERPETUITY OF MEMORY

When you see what Dom Pablo has done, at first you may recoil. But Dom’s art is personal and subjective. Each work is unique and creates another life for the owner. A gift from an admirer.”

The invitation to be part of a rare commission by Dom Pablo Solanas was a work of art in itself: exquisitely crafted by the artist and a future priceless piece. This alone was a luxurious gift, even to someone of Christiana Kunsak’s means, yet it was merely an invitation to a private audience with Solanas himself. A box, carved from a single piece each of ebony and rare boxwood, interlocked to form a puzzle.

The piece is entitled La armonia. The accompanying notes state that the name only exists for as long as the puzzle is in its unsolved form: once the puzzle is solved and the two pieces separated, a mechanism inside the piece ensures that they cannot be re-joined. Once the puzzle is complete, La armonia ceases to exist and the work becomes La ansiedad.

La armonia was a rare and beautiful thing. It also held a secret: an invitation to meet with Dom Pablo Solanas. The nature of that meeting was unknown and therein lay a form of gamble; a wager with oneself: La armonia was unique and intricately crafted; its aesthetics were unquestionable in that initial state. Further value must be added for the simple fact that the piece contains a secret. If that secret is revealed, it may reduce the value of the work. The invitation will be spent. La ansiedad may not be as pleasing to the eye as La armonia and it is the permanent replacement, with La armonia destroyed forever. Conversely, the construction of the work is so fine and detailed as to invite curiosity, more of what it might become than what it is: should that beauty be left as potential, or revealed? Is it something which may be left to a subsequent benefactor? What might they find inside La armonia? Christiana could not deny herself a pleasure which someone else might yet have, and which she may never see.

As soon as the first link clicked audibly out of place somewhere inside the box, La armonia was no longer. There were no instructions on how to create La ansiedad: it was a work to be created by a new artist from the original. Only when the puzzle was complete would it reveal its secret and until then, it was nameless and fluid.

Held in both hands, the wooden box – around the size of a large cigar box – felt as heavy as it should, carved from solid wood and not hollowed out. It was slightly heavier at one end than the other. The seamless interlocking of the ebony and boxwood formed variously alternate, interlocking and enclosing patterns of dark and light. Aside from the initial click, no amount of tilting, pressing, pulling, twisting and pushing of the device produced any change. Christiana alone had been privy to that first movement, so to anyone other than her, La armonia still existed. But she wanted to create and to see La ansiedad.

The box remained unaffected by manipulation, until Christiana’s housemaid picked it up to clean around it. Snatching the box from the maid’s hand, Christiana heard another click from the device and almost immediately noticed a change: the box remained a cuboid but the dimensions and patterns had altered. Closer examination of the new patterns revealed some to have assumed shapes which suggested movement: swirls, series of dots and even directional arrows. The introduction of a third party had revealed a form of instruction.

Over a period of around four weeks, the wooden box became a collaborative project, with guests to Christiana’s apartment invited to examine the puzzle and attempt to solve it. During that time, the box took on many geometric forms: pyramid, cone, octahedron and latterly, a perfect cube, with opposite ebony and boxwood faces: it was more perfect in form that it had ever been but it still harboured something inside.

The geometrically perfect cube would let up no further information and remained static for a number of days, until the housemaid picked it up once more while she was cleaning. The top half separated from the bottom, the base now a half-cube on the table. The surfaces of the half cubes where they’d separated were a chequerboard design: a game of miniature chess could be played on each ebony and boxwood surface, the size of drinks coasters.

Christiana placed the two halves back together and a perfect cube once again sat upon the table, for a while. After around five seconds, the cube began to make a whirring sound, as though a clockwork mechanism had been invisibly wound inside. Slowly and with a smoothness suggesting the most intricate mechanical construction, the individual tiles on top of the cube folded back from the centre to the edges, eventually forming a five-sided cube with a checked interior. It was seemingly the lack of any further outside intervention which allowed the wooden device to complete a long transformation by self-re-assembly and after a while, the device resembled a chequered wooden hand. A slot opened in the palm and a card was offered between the forefinger and thumb: a card roughly the size of a visiting card and folded with such accuracy as to disguise the fact that it was anything other. Yet unfurled, it was an octavo sheet: eight leaves. The reverse of the flat sheet was blank but the eight pages to view on the face were images of art.

Oil and watercolour paintings; portraits, landscapes, sill life and abstract; cubist, surrealist and classical. Wooden, metal and glass sculptures; pieces made using prefabricated materials, notably shop window mannequins, plastic dolls, action men and tin soldiers. Body art as well: tattoos drawn in such a way as to give them a third dimension: an arm with skin pulled back to reveal muscle and bone beneath by way of a zip; a human chest splayed open to reveal a metallic cyborg beneath: living art made from human flesh, these two suggesting something beneath the skin visible only with the benefit of intimacy with the bearer. Another tattoo made the wearer’s right leg appear as though the limb were an intricate sculpture made from wood: one organic material transformed into another, which can be transformed in a way that the material it’s made from cannot, to create the illusion of just such a thing. All of these things had been made by the hands of Dom Pablo Solanas. All were arresting at first sight and invited closer inspection. Even as facsimiles and at such small sizes, the works of Solanas were breathtaking. At the bottom of the sheet was a phone number: apparently a direct line to Dom Pablo himself.

La ansiedad quietly whirred into motion again, the mechanical fingers retracting into the wooden flesh of the hand until the sculpture was briefly a chequered ovoid, before flipping open like a clam shell. It continued to change form, seemingly with perpetuity.
Dom Pablo arrived promptly and attired in a fashion exhibited in many public portraits of him: conflicting primary colours which somehow worked, on a man who also wore a fedora hat at all times, and who sported a perfectly manicured handlebar
moustache.

Ms. Kunsak. A pleasure to meet you.”

Please sir: Christiana. Likewise, Mr Solanas.” Christiana offered her hand, which Solanas held firmly.

As you wish. And please, call me Dom Pablo.” His voice was deep and relaxed. “Christiana: what is it that you’d like to do today?”

I already have a great gift before me. This is a chance for me to turn your natural gift into something I can share. I have everything I could need around me, but this is an opportunity to own something which is so treasured, I may not wish to leave this apartment again.”

Indeed. That is one of the rules I apply to my arts. Just as I turn my raw materials into others – like flesh into wood – so I wish to allow others to use me as a creative tool, so that what I create is their own. My subjects and prefabricated materials are artworks in themselves but together, we make unique pieces. By allowing a subject to commission me, I am subverting the art and holding a mirror to the process.

You will of course have an idea of who the giver of this gift is. Association with such a person is to be in the membership of a society which respects certain things, like privacy. Therefore, I never discuss the details of a commission with the subject. It is highly unlikely that anyone should wish to attract attention to anyone outside of a certain group, that they have been a part of my work. All of my pieces are unique and personal.”

It is those very people, those within my inner circles, that I have in mind as I enter into this: it was within my closest circles that I came to receive this, and only those of a certain standing will have access. Dom Pablo: I should like to carry your work with me in those circles; I would like you to use me as a canvas and make me a living work of art.”

A truly beautiful idea. Although the canvas is living, I must render it inanimate so that I may work. As such, I shall administer a general anaesthetic, so that you feel no discomfort. I don’t like to talk when I work. When you awake, we will have new art and the Dom Pablo art changes lives. You will enter an even more exclusive, innermost circle of my very own. Excited? Sleep now…

***

“…When you see what Dom Pablo has done, at first you may recoil. But Dom’s art is personal and subjective; each work is unique and creates another life for the owner. My art remains with you, just as the motion of La ansiedad is perpetual. This latest work is entitledThe perpetuity of memory.”

Christiana stared into the mirror, and the illusion of wood carved from human flesh was real. It would take a level of intimacy permitted to very few, to see the original material beneath the artwork, made by Dom Pablo. The mannequin beneath the wooden skin.

© Steve Laker, 2015

Both The Perpetuity of Memory and The Unfinished Literary Agency, are available now in paperback.