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 history of the potting shed

THE WRITER’S LIFE

A question asked directly of me (and I assume of others) on Quora was, What made you realise you were a writer? I didn’t really have a lot of choice in the matter, and the enquiry gave me the chance to pot some history. When you’re feeling shit about yourself (depression does that) and have no-one to hand, sometimes you just have to go over it all again for your own benefit.

Alien smoking pot

They say not to dwell on the past and to move on, but I must never forget that my ability to travel forward in time obliges me to travel back every now and then, lest I forget. The penitent man in the eyes of God seeks forgiveness in a life of servitude in return for entry to heaven. The atheist with many more questions will forever carry the burden of guilt, but never seek the forgiveness of a deity made in another man’s image. So I write open letters to the other humans around the world, to whom it may concern…

Robot writingTechRadar

As a human who writes, I don’t fear redundancy by technology just yet. For now there’s enough pure humanity still detectable in our own species to protect (most) writing as a human interface, where the readers’ and writers’ gains are more about preserving life than getting paid for what we do.

Every writer will tell you a different human story (their own), and mine is probably as original as most. I started writing on the streets, like a budget version of Charles Bukowski. I didn’t so much realise I was a writer as happen to be one.

I worked in London in print for 25 years, from the days of hot metal and the trade as an art, to the digital revolution and print as technology. From corporate finance and security printing in the 80s boom, to working with design agencies in the West End, print was always an industry fuelled as much by alcohol as ink. Deals were done in pubs and bars, and a lot of people made a lot of money.

I went on to run my own companies, latterly home-based when I was married with kids. But the alcohol in that environment wasn’t the same lubricant it had been in the city. Eventually my drinking got the better of me and I lost everything in 2011: Home, marriage, kids, business.

I found myself on the streets and only then realised that anyone, no matter who they are, could be just one or two luck-outs away from there. I literally had nothing but the clothes I was wearing. I had no TV, radio or internet. I was cut off.

Being December, I’d seek warmth in McDonald’s after I’d got enough money together for a coffee. I could read the free newspapers but there was nothing else to do. So I begged some money for a notepad and stole some pens from a bookmaker, and the rest is quite literally history.

Becoming a writer just happened, but what made me realise I was one? I’d never had time like that alone with my thoughts, and the opportunity presented itself to get some of them down. Many went into the blog as I’d use library computers, and others became the foundations for short stories (some of what I experienced out on the road people wouldn’t believe, so it’s easier written as fiction).

I got back on my feet, but I’m always an alcoholic (albeit a functioning one) so I couldn’t go back to work. After all that, I didn’t want to. In some respects, I was happier on the streets just writing than I’d ever been in well-paid jobs. I’d rather not have lost everything else, but were it not for that, I wouldn’t have become a writer.

It’s about freedom and satisfaction with life (there’s no point being a writer if you’re out to make a lot of money). My alcoholic breakdown left a lot of scars (on me and others), but those who knew me throughout said that I emerged a better person (and a pretty good writer). I look at the world differently now, in a way no-one can until they’ve been at that all-time low.

I don’t know what I’d do without writing, when I have so few physical people around my in real life. It’s hard enough living with myself, let alone burden anyone else, so I address much of what’s real in fiction. It’s not so much virtual detachment as the only coping mechanism I have, when to write beyond the headlines would be speculation. So long as that remains fictional, there’s hope, because the real life news is that my dad’s health is deteriorating and my son is the same teenage lost boy I once was. I hope we all get better as I’m the Marmite filling in a generational sandwich.

The whole of my life, before and after the fall, is in my books and online writing, a mixture of fact and fiction, real and virtual. From Linotype print to the scars of the road, ink flows through my veins and written into my skin. My words on the page are as deep as the tattoos on my arms: my children’s names, in Helvetica typeface.

Nowadays I tell my kids, be the best that you can at that which you enjoy the most, because then you give the most and you get the most back. My dad told me something similar once, and I hope that one day I will. I know I have good guides.

I may not Douglas Adams

An elephant plugged into the wall

THE WRITER’S LIFE

If there’s something more disconcerting than footsteps approaching your door late at night, it’s hearing the sound of a key in the lock. It could be someone returning keys I’d lost, and their excuse for letting themselves in, that it was the easiest way to be sure they had the right address. That’s potentially a psychopath killer I just allowed to walk into my home, just with my imagination (I wonder if many other people have such thoughts). It started with a writing prompt: ‘A knock at the door’…

Elephant butt

In real life there’s rarely more than a waste of time at my internal door (the outside one has a bell), but I sometimes wish I could turn the door off like my phone. Like the rest of the social tenants in the building, my main income is from disability allowance (that’s what it’s called when you have mental health issues). Yet I seem to be the only one who has things, or rather, who makes things last on a budget, which is then messed up because I’m always being asked for baccy, money (and even food) by those who’ve run out. Anything for a quiet life, but if only that door wasn’t there.

A Do Not Disturb or Fuck Off sign would be redundant, as it’d be ignored. They always turn up at the most inopportune moments, just as I’m cooking or eating. They’re not to know of course, but it’s like they have a radar. I’d give them x-ray specs, but then they’d see the other reasons why I sometimes don’t go to the door. Short of installing an electrified Braille panel, there’s no way to repel the ignorant and illiterate. There’s no point ignoring the knock, because they’ll only come back later. Sometimes they do, when they’ve run out of what I gave them. That’s when they get told where to go (after I’ve closed the door on them, and I chant voodoo incantation as they walk away).

Voodoo magic works in the quantum universe, as that’s where it’s drawn from in the first place: Every single one of us is connected to everything else in the universe through quantum entanglement (sub-atomic particles, ripped apart at the moment of The Big Bang, which retain a quantum link to their partner, over the vast distances of the cosmos). If you’re connected to that ‘spirit world’, you can use your connectivity with things to impart wishes on them, otherwise known as a spell or a curse.

In a future world of my imagining, we’ll live in houses made of nano-blocks: These are microscopic machines, which can change shape and form. The upshot is that your entire home can be changed with a gesture.

Imagine if you will, a single-room living pod (this is comfortable universal housing, in a world of over-population) which can be changed into any other room. During the day, you might work in your home office, then make it more of a living space when you finish for the evening. You touch your office chair and push it gently into the middle of the room, as it changes into a sofa. You swipe your desk and it becomes a coffee table. Press the back wall and a kitchen appears, and so on. Then later it can become a bedroom, and all the time you can create new furniture, change it and move it around on a whim. A different home every day. In that world, I’d remove problems of the door with a swift swipe of the hand.

For now I’m still in this room, albeit with a stranger I’ve just invited into my imagination, which makes them real, and host to other stories. I’ve been on a freestyle ramble around my virtual life and worlds, remembering places I wrote before, where I might show my new guest around.

Perhaps we’ll dine out at August Underground’s, or maybe print a pizza. We could invite some local cats and dogs round and plug in the Babel fish, or take a trip to London. Or we might just talk into the night, before one of us kills the other, or we think of more things we could do together.

There’s always an elephant in this room, and that’s me, recently climbing the walls with no-one to talk to and writer’s block. The elephant plugged back in, and there was a knock on the door.

Making flans for Simon

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’d originally planned to spend the weekend making plans for Nigel, but when I realised I had no close friends called Nigel, my plans had to change. Instead I called on Simon Fry, my character, persona, and alter ego from Cyrus Song. We were having dinner and he’d asked me to bring dessert, so I’d made flans.

HHGG Deep ThoughtA poster on Simon Fry’s wall: a design sketch from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie.

I’d decided to speak to Simon because he’s the person most likely to understand me. Even though I created him, he’s a completely separate person, and any decent writer will tell you that’s a perfectly plausible statement to make.

Before Cyrus Song, I already had Simon Fry’s life story written down. It fills a notebook, which I still have, along with the one containing Hannah Jones. A very small percentage of what’s in those journals is in the novel, but the characters’ speech and mannerisms write more than the words on the page. It’s knowing my characters so well which allows me to bring them to life (convincingly, I’m told). Every writer puts a piece of themselves into their stories and characters, I’m perhaps slightly above and beyond with some of mine.

I have a deep understanding of the human condition (the critics and reviewers say), and I have many personalities in my head, so each of my characters is a mix of those, and of other people I know. I know how Simon talks, because I know how he thinks, but only as far as a poker player would another. Even though I created him, I can’t read his mind. He has so much of his own story in that other notebook, that he’s a strong enough character to not need me (it applies to Hannah too).

It’s handy to be able to do things like this as a writer, and as a socially anxious one, I really do make (as in, create) friends. It sounds tragic perhaps, but it’s actually very useful.

Doctor Hannah Jones is based less on me, but with elements of others I know well in the real world, within her (I’ve tested it out on some of those other people). With all of those people in there, my understanding of human thinking and inter-personal psychology, I can hold a perfectly convincing conversation with Hannah, just as I can Simon. I don’t know if this is proof of my writing skills or confirmation of multiple personality disorder.

It’s the best way I have of getting to know myself. Some would say it’s talking to myself, but it’s more like questioning different parts of myself, so that the whole can get along. We may disagree, but I favour debate over conflict, especially when it’s in my head. This is my coping mechanism, but it’s more my mental health management strategy.

I said after I’d written the book, how much I missed those people, because they’d become so real when they were around me all the time as I wrote them…

I put the flans in Simon’s fridge, and I noticed he had a can of squirty cream in the door. Then we both sat on the sofa, wondering who should speak first.

“I’m not going to be your counsellor am I?” It was Simon. “Because I’ve counselled myself on many things before and wondered why I didn’t get a second opinion.”

“To be honest,” I replied, “I’m not entirely sure how this is all going to go.”

“What did you expect?” Simon wondered. “Because things rarely live up to expectation.” I’d caught him on a pessimistic day (he has those).

“I don’t have any expectations,” I said, “just an interest.”

“Very wise,” Simon nodded. I thought he’d say that.

“What about you?” I asked.

“The same,” he replied, “but if we both sit here just looking interesting, it’s not going to get us very far. So can I ask you a question?”

“It’s not like I can stop you.”

“True, in part. But anyway, why me?”

“I needed someone to talk to, to make it easier for me to talk.”

“So that I can ask you the questions you want to be asked, so that you have an excuse to answer.” Simon is very perceptive.

“You’re right,” I replied (he knew he was), “because you’re the one I spent longest in, and where I found myself.”

“So you’re haunting me?”

“No more than I hope I’m on anyone else’s minds. But in you, I found ways for you to deal with things, which helped myself and others to understand things around themselves.”

“In Cyrus Song?”

“In that book, where a lot of other people might find themselves in those characters.”

“And you have the advantage that you can come round here and talk to one of them.”

“I consider it a privilege.” And I did. Because these words are not entirely my own.

“Well, I can tell you,” Simon said, “that you created a whole world for me to move around in freely, as you can see for yourself. Beyond this world, you’ve created others which you’re equally free to occupy, but you’re always welcome here.” I’m not sure he could really say anything else (I’d be a bit fucked, like humanity at the start of the book).

“Perhaps we could invite Hannah along?” I wondered.

“Yes, I wondered how long it’d take you to get round to that. Let’s see how we go,” which is how I myself usually tell people to chill out. “And let’s do that soon,” which is something I rarely say, for fear of intrusion into someone else’s life.

This was turning into a story in itself. A man who was after my own heart, had overcome a lot in his life, and especially in the two week period covered in our book. Although it’s a surreal and twisting science fiction yarn, and with a nod to Douglas Adams, it’s very much a book from my own heart, and with a dark inner soul of its own. It’s a story of two people, who with a lot of help, find out much they didn’t know about themselves and the universe around them. I’ll be talking to Simon again soon.

As a writer I have multiple universes I can visit, but as a socially anxious person, I felt more at home in Simon’s flat. Even the flans seemed like some sort of unconscious collaboration, an ever-present threat of potential comedy while we spoke, should either of us be inclined. But we’re far too grown up and introverted for that sort of thing.

Cyrus Song is available now. The prequel stories of Simon and Hannah (and Captain Mamba) are told in The Unfinished Literary Agency.

Simon said we should meet

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I suppose it was partly to do with my curiosity: my ongoing one, with myself; and the deeper one, of the human condition. When I sometimes find it difficult to separate fact from fiction, yet I find the latter the greater comfort; when I can occupy my characters, so that they speak more than their own lines; and when I know them better than many friends who are not myself, I thought it might be interesting to meet up with one of my leading roles. So I popped in to see Simon Fry, six months after Cyrus Song…

Meeting MindsFine Art America

I knew I was at the right place because it looked familiar. The man who answered the door though, didn’t look entirely as I’d expected, even though I’d written him. “Come in,” he said, beckoning with his head.

I was having dinner with Simon Fry, a character I created for Cyrus Song, and I wanted to know how all that had gone for him. His flat was just as I’d left it inside, as I always knew the furniture wouldn’t fit any other way.

I hadn’t given Simon sufficient recognition for his looks in the book, as he was a person very aware of his appearance but without a particularly high opinion of himself. Now that I saw him, he was quite striking. I wondered how things had worked out with Hannah since the book.

“Are you planning a sequel?” Simon wondered, which was one of the things I wanted to ask him about. “Because,” he continued, “I’m wondering whether to hang around waiting for you, or just get on with things.” I had to assume this was a shared sense of humour in an otherwise quite surreal situation.

“I wondered pretty much exactly the same,” I replied, “whether you’d just get on with life after I left you.”

“A strong character doesn’t need the writer to carry them along all the time. If the writer’s good enough, they’ve put enough into that character to make them come to life in a story.”

“Well I’ve got your whole life story in a separate notebook. Very little of it is in Cyrus Song but it was only by knowing you that I was able to convey your story so plausibly. It’s all in what’s not written.”

“Every story,” Simon said, “is where memories go when they’re forgotten.”

“Did you say that or did I?”

“Both of us I suppose. Strange isn’t it?”

“In a nice way,” I agreed. I wondered if it might be worth letting Simon flip the table on me, and let him write my story. I’m more comfortable inside one of my characters anyway.

“I suppose you’re wondering,” Simon wondered, “about Hannah.” I wasn’t sure if I was.

“How is she?” It seemed the most obvious thing to say. I didn’t know the answer to expect, let alone how to respond to any.

“Last time I checked, she was fine.” He seemed to be leading me.

“When was that?”

“I thought you might ask, seeing as her doctorate was in human psychology, before we started talking with the animals.” Funny that. It just goes to show what happens when you talk to a friend who can relate to you. They can give you the answer, without you having to ask.

So that’s the weekend sorted. I might carry this on, as it could help both me and Mr Fry work out how we use the perfectly plausible answer to life, the universe and everything in our book.

Cyrus Song is available now, and the prequel stories of Simon, Hannah Jones, and Captain Mamba are in The Unfinished Literary Agency.

Writing intended for reading

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Rather than freshly back, I’m jaded from a week away, without actually going anywhere. It was a week in which I found myself conducting some sort of twisted social experiment, on myself (when there’s only oneself for company, there aren’t many others willing to be experimented on): I stopped writing. It was a depressive episode, a writer’s block, everything which helps the others along.

writing_on_the_wall_by_blue70Blue70, DeviantArt

It started with separation anxiety, after my last monthly visit with my children. Geography and finance are the governors of that infrequency, so the time together is precious. Meanwhile I was helping some friends with their own issues, yet no-one seemed to have the time to ask me how I was doing. No-one asks, so I don’t get the chance to tell anyone how it tears me apart every day. That’s just what living alone is like, and no-one seemed to be reading my writing.

Christmas had already been a solitary one for many people around me: a family mostly reliant on public transport, and regular visitors to my studio displaced by their own families (one was having a baby).

Aside from the monthly outing with the kids (a known and practised quantity), anxiety means I find travelling very difficult. I have mobility issues, even though my disability isn’t physical. This causes problems in itself, not only by being a self-perpetuating mechanism, but by rendering me almost exclusively displaced, unless people come to me. But it’s often the same people I’d like to get to myself, and therein lies the biggest issue.

I’m not able to demonstrate how much I care for some people, not through an inability to express myself (sometimes I do that a bit too much), but because my brain keeps me locked up. It’s frustrating, and it must make me look pretty shit when I won’t get on a combination of buses and trains to visit someone in hospital, but it’s the invisible disabilities of anxiety and paranoia which make it that way. So I feel even more shit about myself, which fuels the depression.

I want to tell people about my own struggles, but I don’t want to be a burden. I want to help with theirs, but don’t wish to intrude. I care about people but I don’t want to bother them. Then I wonder if that makes it look like I don’t give a shit. It’s all self-perpetuating.

So I’m living alone, feeling pretty hateful towards myself, missing a load of people who can’t visit me and who I wish I could go to myself. But the same regular visitors I might rely on as chaperones are the others who’ve been away. Another self-propelled paradox, just like anxiety and paranoia, which have no place together, other than to encourage each other along. I wished I had someone to do that for me.

I questioned my value as a writer, and as a person. I’m living alone and lonely, I’m depressed, and I’m an alcoholic: surely the perfect storm, at least for a relapse.

Although such a thing might have pleased some, it didn’t happen. I’m diagnosed with alcohol dependence syndrome, self-managed with controlled intake. The term ‘functioning alcoholic’ doesn’t mean someone who gets drunk but just about maintains bowel function, it’s someone who drinks little and often throughout the day.

I didn’t hurt myself, and there was no attempted suicide. That would be a failure and a defeat. If I wanted to kill myself, I’d make sure I was successful. The only attempt at anything which could be pinned on me, was some attempted accounting I did when I wound up a couple of my old companies, before the rest of my life fell apart. I got over that, so a depressive episode wasn’t going to beat me.

Episodes of depression are like unwelcome friends or relatives: They turn up unannounced, with no prior warning and no idea of how long they’d like to stay. Friends and relatives of someone with depression might sometimes fear to tread, wondering how long they’re likely to be lumbered. Sometimes you have to place yourself in others’ positions to see how they see things, and you may not like what you see. It’s all part of living alone with depression, but I do wish others could appreciate what depression actually is. Anxiety breeds paranoia and vice versa. They conspire together, and loneliness magnifies it all. Sometimes it wants to kill me, but I won’t let it.

Just as some advanced species in my sci-fi writing have transcended war, concluding it to be a waste of time, I try to rise above a situation. The only way to explore it is to question it, and write about what I find. Thoughts can quickly grow when you’re your own sole interrogator.

And there it was, staring me in the face, like it had been all along. Except I was so wrapped up in myself and with no-one else to point it out that I didn’t see it. Another paradox. I was away from home, while still being at home. I didn’t feel at home being away, even though I was here. The thing I’d lost was the writing, and I’d only stopped doing that because I didn’t think anyone was reading me. I still don’t know, but why should that stop me?

It begs other questions, like why can’t I go out and write, if writing is my home? That’s a whole load more blog posts. For now, it’s all I have, so I’ll just keep doing it, doing it at home, and seeing what happens. Just as in real life, I need people to find me, as I lack the confidence to find others.

It’s only writing which gives me a reason to live. If people don’t read me, is that less reason to live? When I have no-one else to talk to, is my writing just talking to myself?

Now that I think about it, it’s the only thing I can do. If no-one reads, it means it’s more private and I can say more. I’m a socially anxious writer with things to say, and it’s perfect, because that’s the kind of thing people like to read. It’s a paradox which works.

I write, because one day I won’t be able to. My words will always be there to read, even when I’m no longer around. All I have to do is leave them where they can be found. Unlike my attempted accounting of old, I’ll persevere with my attempts to be read.

The day I farted Stardust

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Two years ago today, I woke to the news of David Bowie’s further travels. Ziggy Stardust, the thin white duke, the cracked actor, Major Tom was a starman again. The news was delivered by text message from one of my best friends. Ashes to ashes, funk to funky…

Ziggy Stardust cover art

It was news I wasn’t prepared for. David Bowie was immortal (but of course he is, just like the rest of us). He was back with the stars he came from, exploring further (“Knowledge comes with death’s release…”). It was poetic that I received the news as I did. Short of getting a telepathic message from the Starman himself, my friend was the best sentinel I could think of.

We’ve been friends for the best part of 40 years, we went to school together, and on my 40th birthday, he gave me a very personal gift: Bowie in Berlin; a book by Thomas Jerome Seabrook, which tells the story of the three-year period when Bowie made some of his most intensely creative music. We grew up with Bowie together, and there’s an inscription inside the book:

To my old friend,

These three albums [Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger] struck a chord with us, when we were younger. I remember smoking, playing pool and hanging out, with Bowie in the background. ‘Soundtrack to our lives’: Let’s live to it again.

Your old friend, T x

Along with my hi-fi separates and my signed copy of Diamond Dogs, the book is one of my most treasured things. When I was ill, had my breakdown and ended up on the streets, my ex-partners looked after my belongings until I found my own place, for which I’m forever grateful.

At some point during that period of homelessness, I dreamed that I’d one day have a place I could call my own, with copies of my own books dotted around. It was a daydream, as I sat in McDonald’s scribbling in a notepad (I probably still have it, as I managed to retain most). I knew I’d most likely never work again, so I wondered, “What the fuck…”

I was street homeless for three months (in winter), sleeping in garages and on benches (and once in a bin). Then for six months I had the squat, and a further seven months of sofa-surfing followed, before I took the tenancy above the pub. After a year of suffering that landlord, I was offered the place I have now: a small studio in a quiet village, and with a social (legal) landlord. After my first year as a tenant, I was given an indefinite rolling tenancy. It’s the nearest someone who doesn’t own their own place can get to actually having one.

All of that covers a period now just into its fifth year, and all documented on this blog. As I’ve noted several times, I needed to have a base before I could really sort myself out. Conventional wisdom works the opposite way, but if you give a human shelter and take care of their basic needs (like food and warmth), the rest will follow.

The day between Bowie’s birthday and the day he left, has become a day of reflection. Last night, I sat and looked around my little place, thankful for all I have and all I’ve done, and for the guidance. Because if you believe in the universe, it will talk to you.

I picked up The Unfinished Literary Agency from my coffee table, and I had a flick through: It really is a very good book, of which I’m proud. It’s my fifth, published on the fifth day of my fifth year as a writer, and my shit don’t stink.

We can all be heroes, even if it’s just for one day.

“And it was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor.” (Five Years, David Bowie).

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.