A gospel of biblical instruments

FICTION

In cat mythology, white mice were the second most intelligent species on Earth, after cats. Then it was dolphins, humans, dogs and everyone else. While infinite monkeys and apes developed tools, it was only humans who could be trained to use their opposable thumbs to write stories.

Of course, white lab mice are the diet many snakes like to staple.

Gorilla elephant Nature Fuck

SO LONG AND THANKS FOR ALL THE ANIMALS

The original carvings were found deep in a forest, but debate varied over which were the first. In the space of a week, new inscriptions were discovered several times daily, all in woodland, all identical, but unlike anything recorded previously. Meanwhile, two school friends had uncovered what could be a key.

How does it switch on, Jay?” Kerry stared at herself, next to Jason, as they both looked back from the black glass-like sheet.

I don’t know, Kay,” Jay replied, as he looked back at Kerry. “It’s nothing obvious that I’m missing, is it?” He handed the pane of glass to her. About A4 in size, the glass was no thicker than a sheet of paper. “What’s it made of, anyway?”

Well,” Kay said, moving it in and out from her face, “it’s got imperfections.”

What, your face?”

Fuck you, wanker. No, I mean, the glass, or whatever it is, it’s not completely smooth. It’s like something from a dark and twisted hall of mirrors. See what I mean?” She handed the mirror back, and Jay looked at himself as he moved it in front of him. “Everyone’s ugly in the back of a spoon.”

Jay turned the sheet over in his hands. “I look the same on both sides,” he said to their reflections, “bumpy. In fact, I’d say I’m quite corrugated.”

Well,” said Kay, “your forehead often is.”

Eh?”

You frown a lot.”

Jay frowned at the glass sheet. “Well,” he said, “no matter how much I wish it to switch on, it won’t. There are no buttons, so there must be some other way.”

You actually think it’ll switch on? Jay, it’s just a sheet of some old material.”

I know,” Jay replied, “but it’s this weird stuff, and where we found it. It’s got me wondering.”

We found it buried in the woods, Jay. Lots of things are buried in woodland, and time and the elements change things. This could just be a part of something plastic, and the material has been melted, or eroded.”

But it was wrapped up. And it was near those tree carvings, like the ones on the news.”

Tree and stone carvings had been cropping up spontaneously in the previous few days. At first, pranksters were suspected, but it had become too elaborate. Now, the same conspiracy community which once surrounded crop circles had been stirred, and the internet was an ocean of theories.

The carvings weren’t any recognisable text, nor were they pictographs which gave any clues to their origin or meaning. They incorporated geometric shapes and patterns, like crop formations, but appeared on tree bark and rocks. Jay and Kay found the glassy sheet when they’d been metal detecting, and at first, the haul was just a soda can and some tin foil, but the foil was wrapped around the slate.

Any theories on the news?” Kay wondered.

Only one,” Jay said, “a really out-there one.”

Try me.”

Imagine we’re in biblical times.”

You wha’?”

Two thousand years ago, give or take: Imagine we’re there, or then, if you like.”

Okay.”

Okay.” Jay adjusted himself in his chair. “You know I don’t believe in God, right? But no-one can deny that the bible might be based on fact, on actual events. Ancient scribes may have recorded actual historical events, but they’d have been limited in the terms they used and what was available to them, in the way they recorded things.”

Yeah,” Kay said, “you’ve said. Imagine if you could’ve given one of those old guys a smartphone. They could’ve recorded it all and we’d be able to see what they saw. It’d solve the whole religion problem.”

Well, yeah,” Jay agreed, “and if you gave them say, a mobile phone, or a tablet computer, they’d probably think it was some sort of sorcery, or it could be alien technology. And they’d probably write of it as some sort of magic mirror.”

And that’s what you think this is?”

It could be,” Jay tried to assert. “It just won’t switch on. If it’s what I think it could be, it’s either extinct through pure neglect or technology. Or it could be a technology so far advanced, that we just don’t understand it.” He held the slate to his face again. “Hmm, never noticed that before,” he frowned.

Show me?” Kay moved next to Jay, and looked at them both in the glassy surface, frowning. “What didn’t you notice?”

The way one of my eyes seems to take just a split fraction of a second to catch up. Only that one, the left one, watch.” Jay looked at Kay’s reflection.

“You’re right, it does,” she said. “You’ve got a lazy eye mate.”

I think it’s pretty cool actually,” Jay said, looking from himself, to Kay, and back again. “It’s like that one is taking things in more, while the other one concentrates ahead. Then the left one catches up and tells my brain all the other stuff it needs to know.”

That is pretty cool,” Kay said, “you freak.”

Then something slightly unexpected, but entirely plausible happened: The slate crackled and sparked, first an arc of blue lightning, and the sparkle of a glitter dome. Then a graphic appeared on what had become a screen.

That looks familiar,” Kay said.

Kind of what I expected,” Jay replied. “Let’s see what the latest news is…”

The latest developments were trending, in news and on social media: Analysis of the designs found on trees and rocks, had revealed them to be neither carved nor burned into any surface.

Your theory?” Kay wondered.

That,” Jay said, “the carvings weren’t made from the outside, at least not by any method we understand.”

Meaning how many things?”

Two, equally crazy ones.”

Humour me, agent Jay.”

Okay, Kay. One: It could be that the marks were made by technology we don’t understand, which would suggest alien, either extraterrestrial or of this earth, as in, government. But we can discount the latter. They wouldn’t put on any show, other than to whip up hysteria, perhaps as a smokescreen. I dunno. So, aliens: aliens among us? Or visiting ones, leaving us messages, meaning what? Or,” Jay looked at the design on the tablet. “Or it could be, that the ones which look like this on the trees and the rocks… That’s theory two.”

Which is?”

That the carvings, inscriptions, or whatever; the words, pictures, designs; they could be made from the inside.”

How?”

Nature. I don’t mean colonies of insects, parasites or fungi. These are carvings on the outside, with no signs of being carved. So the opposite of that, is that they were pulled in from the inside.”

What the actual?”

Nature made them.”

You already said that.”

The earth made them, Kay.”

The wha’? The actual planet. Planet earth, put the messages there?”

It’s a bit like self-harm, isn’t it? So what this could be, Kay, is messages in the earth, the trees, the rocks, from the earth, where they’re all a part of the nature of that planet.”

Saying what? Jay?”

I don’t know. Maybe telling us to fuck off.”

Us?”

Humans.”

Shit.”

We are. We’re so un-evolved, when you look at us, and all we could be, with all that’s around us. We’re ugly. Those ancient aliens who may or may not have made up the stories in the bible, they were probably a race so technologically advanced because they’d harnessed the natural, sustainable energy from their environment, rather than plundering it of all its resources for their own gain. I mean, we’re only just developing wind, solar and tidal energy technology. We’re having to, because we’re running out of coal and oil. But still, perpetual energy sources only serve a small proportion of our needs. And we use less than one per cent of the energy available for free on this planet.

Those technologically advanced races, who may or may not have visited biblical humans, they were ones who’d become efficient through sufficiency. There are races out there who might have harnessed the natural energy of their parent star, with something like a Dyson Sphere. Look it up.”

I know what a Dyson sphere is, and I can only begin to imagine what a race might be capable of, once they’ve effectively captured all the energy of their sun with solar arrays. Actually, I can’t begin to imagine the possibilities.”

Which is exactly,” Jay said, “what those biblical scribes would have found.”

Your number two theory definitely has legs,” Kay confirmed. “How would the ancient alien tablet fit in though?”

Only if it was that.” Jay pointed at the design on the screen. “That being alien technology, like a magic mirror described in the bible.”

But it’s just showing that same design?” Kay suggested.

But look,” Jay said. “I’ve got a theory on how we managed to switch it on.”

How?” Kay looked at the same design as Jay on the screen. “Oh, like that,” she said, as the pattern began to change. “But how?”

Two heads are better than one, perhaps?”

They didn’t have to speak. It was the act of knowing, and the same like-mindedness which had switched the tablet on before. Perhaps the technology was ancient, advanced, or both, but it wasn’t redundant. It was woken by thought, specifically, the alignment of the thoughts of more than one person.

As Jay and Kay continued to watch the screen, the pattern continued to morph, into more complex and fractal patterns, perpetually zooming in on recursion. Then the whole screen changed, from screen saver to what was apparently an operating system.

It’s a bit like Linux,” Jay suggested.

You wha’? That,” Kay pointed, “is way more, Jay.”

It’s the only way I can think to describe it, as being accessible. Look, it seems to know what you want to do.” They both peered into the screen. “It’s three dimensional, and if you look ahead, you can see bits going off to the side. It’s like travelling down a wormhole.”

And that was the best way the modern day scribes had to describe what they saw.

Let’s see where we’re going,” Kay said, as they both watched the screen. “Ooh, look. What’s that?”

The wormhole opened onto a scene, apparently from a remote camera, with an overlay of what could be coordinates and time, but in an indecipherable text. The main picture was a live video feed, of a field, with a row of large chimneys in the background.

I wonder how we look around,” Kay wondered. Then something strange but expected happened:

The view on the tablet screen changed, as Kay (and Jay) willed some remote camera, perhaps in the countryside near a power station. Panning the landscape, they saw electricity pylons stretching into the distance, standing like frozen, bow-legged old ladies.

The pylon nearest the camera started to move, not by tilting, by lifting, first on one side, then the other. Soon, the pylon began to move forwards. A second pylon did the same, then a third, and quickly, a line of electricity pylons were walking through the mud beneath them, casting off electrical wires as they went. A battalion of iron old ladies, had lifted their skirts, cast off their bindings, and began a bow-legged march away from the power station.

The camera pulled away from the generator, which shrunk into the distance as the viewers were once again plunged into a spectral plughole, depositing them, through the magic of the mirror, in the middle of an ocean. As they thought about what might be around them, the camera obliged.

There was an oil rig, a steaming, fire-breathing skeletal leviathan. Suddenly, it held its breath, as the rig unplugged its umbilicus from the sea bed, and the natural elements in its man-made structure took on sentience.

The camera switched, gradually more quickly, around different scenes: Electricity pylons marching over fields, and oil rigs, swimming to shore, retro-futuristic dinosaur machines, striding through the human landscape.

© Steve Laker, 2017.

An idiot species’ guide to how to save the world is my Douglas Adams companion piece, Cyrus Song.

Everyone’s ugly in the back of a spoon,” with kind permission of Léanie Kaleido (she has a YouTube channel).

This story is taken from my second anthology, The Unfinished Literary Agency.

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Tricks, treats and puppy dog tales

FLASH FICTION

A tale from the archives, which I dust off for Halloween. There’s an unwritten sub-text, of an old landlady of mine, who once set fire to people, and who had a small dog…

Pumpkin lamps2

TWO WISHES

There’s an old lady who’s very upset: she’s lost her dog. She’s here at the pub where I live with mum and dad: the lady; not the dog. Because the lady lost her dog. The lady and the dog are regulars but it’s just the lady today because she’s lost her dog. She’s telling mum and dad about her dog: it’s lost. The lady doesn’t know what happened to the dog. It just disappeared when she was at the pub yesterday. Today is Halloween. Mum, dad and the old lady are sitting by the open fire, telling ghost stories. The rest of the kids are out trick or treating and I’m here.

I’m creating a wish in the kitchen. I may only be eleven years old and a bit simple, but I can make wishes come true. Simple is a label: like a label on food. I pay the label placed on me no more attention than a chicken would on its packaging. The chicken is dead and unable to read the label on its packaging. I’m not dead but I have this label of being simple. Unlike a chicken though, I can grant wishes.

I know that I’m best off in the kitchen because it’s where people can’t hear me and I can’t hear them. I know they talk about me and I do have a tendency to take things literally, which sometimes gets me into trouble. I do as I’m told and more: if someone asks me to do something, I’ll usually do it. If someone wishes for something, I’ll do my best to make that wish come true.

I asked the sad lady in the pub what she wished for and she said she wished she could have the nicest roast chicken dinner she’s ever tasted. So I’m making a wish come true by cooking a Halloween feast. They think I’m simple but I know they’re humouring me and just want me out of the way. I’m a savant, rather than a servant and I’m both in the kitchen. I’m in charge of the kitchen: I choose the ingredients and I cook them to make nice meals. On this occasion, I’m not only cooking a meal but I’m granting a wish as well.

The chicken is resting and I’m finishing the potatoes off in the roasting tin. I put the vegetables on to boil, before going into the pub to lay the place settings for the banquet. The old lady is still upset. She’s saying she wishes someone could bring her little dog back. As I lay out the cutlery, she’s saying how she misses the little wagging tail and the cute yapping noise her little baby made.

All I can do is grant the old lady her wish, so I serve up what I hope will be the nicest roast chicken dinner she’s ever tasted: she gets a leg and so does mum. Dad’s greedy, so he gets two legs. I wait while my diners taste their meal and they all comment on how it’s the nicest chicken they’ve ever tasted. They’re just humouring me of course: What are little boys made of, after all?

I return to the kitchen, happy that I’ve granted two wishes.

I remember my dad saying yesterday, “I wish someone would shut that fucking dog up and shove it down the old bat’s throat.”

© Steve Laker, 2016

First dog in space (is still there)

FICTION

This is one of my favoured tropes, of 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.

be excellent

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now. My other books are available from Amazon and can be ordered from any book shop, or requested at libraries.

A library of appetite disorders

FICTION

Most Schlock covers don’t objectify a fantasy female warrior (they do men, demons, ghosts, monsters and aliens too), but it’s always nice to see my name on the front of a webzine (and print quarterly) where I feel at home. I like to think it’s the kind of cult pulp fiction people might pick up in WH Smith at a spaceport in some alternative universe.

Schlock Skinny KidOther science fiction, fantasy and horror writers are available.

DIARY OF A SKINNY KID

What’s beneath the headline is the story of everything below the neck. Once a story breaks, trust is lost, like a cradle from a tree. I learned that as a journalist for a local newspaper, before taking a more sedentary and solitary path as a freelancer, writing mainly about the arts and humanities. Sometimes I cross over into fiction, but I try to blur the edges when stories have a basis in past experience.

The internet means I can write and do most of my research from home, and digital printing democratised publishing, helping me and thousands of other writers become published authors. Previously the only way was vanity publishing, where the writer took a leap of faith and paid for stacks of their own books from a traditional printer. With editors removed from the publishing machine, it’s pumped out a lot of shit. As a result, a niche industry has developed underground.

The rage among the entitled classes are bespoke, one-off printed editions of books, a market served by boutique publishers, who are always striving for something new and different. The most exclusive in this rarefied world is Mobius, who can somehow gather sought-after cult writers better than any little black book in the underworld of pulp fiction.

Few writers have one or more novels in them. Most have a collection of short stories which make up their own fictional autobiography. There’s still a big difference between publishing your own novel and having a publishing house, but there’s a far greater difference between self-publishing your own shorts (as simple as posting them on a blog), and having them accepted for outside publication, whether it be online or in print. Writing short stories is more difficult than writing a book, simply because the author has fewer words.

The editor of an anthology or periodical, online or in print, is like a conductor, a Master of Ceremony. The captains of those ships are curators and innkeepers, of works and writers who might not otherwise find themselves together.

I’ve had many stories published by third parties, online, in magazines, and in cult collections. I’ve published my own novels in paperback, but apart from the quarterlies, I’ve not had a short story published in an anthology (although I’ve published two of my own). Published periodically but not permanently, my stories are my own and those of others I never chose to be with. This is where the story starts, when I saw an ad for Mobius in a friend’s university rag mag.

My friend is a psychology student from UCL, on a placement with Lewisham Hospital, just up the road from me. 30 years my junior, we’d been friends since she was at school, through consequence and convenience when the weather was fair, and sometimes she’s stayed over when it rains, sharing stories only we could tell, beyond the birth dates of children and the expiry of parents in our tattoos. Now she spoon-feeds me, as we talk about our lives and she gives me ideas for new stories.

She didn’t like red horror, so this would be a psychological story, more black mirror. Nothing new there, but I was trying to branch out further with my writing, and wanted something I might make into a screenplay, a story within a story, which could turn in on itself and stand up to repeated reading. A story which might be suited to the stage. Mobius could be that.

The ad was brief, a few lines in amongst vacancies for student flat shares, campus clubs and guinea pigs:

Mobius is launching a student arts council project, and we’re looking for volunteers and contributors. We are inviting submissions from authors which tell the stories of the individuals we all are. Successful entries will be published in a unique anthology, which forms the centrepiece for a planned exhibition at The British Library, to raise awareness for our ongoing and future humanities work. Entitled ‘Fictional Reality’, we aim to present something which could only exist in fiction (or the mind) as real. We want the viewer to confront the realism of fiction.

Fictional realism is the theory that in an infinite universe, everything which can happen, has happened. All fiction – places and people – are created as they’re written, then exist as chance would predict they must, in a multiverse of infinite possibilities.

There was an email address, so I sent off a query letter (basically, I’d be interested in contributing, could you send me the editorial guidelines please?) My friend had returned to her student digs, so while I was waiting, I continued writing.

All stories are tales within others, when each contains a part of the writer. Whether it be a mannerism of a character, or a location in a familiar distant dream, the writers of short fiction tell their bigger story in parts, which don’t necessarily fit together, in the way some people don’t when they first meet.

It’s a lonely existence, being a writer, so to be curated into a fiction anthology would mean my story was part of a whole made of many other people. Being a writer suits me, because I can work on my own. I miss the human contact, not of any workplace, but in an outside life. All I have is my psychologist friend, and she’s rarely around now she’s of legal drinking age. Acceptance into this anthology would help the reclusive writer get out and meet new people.

Writers don’t all like to get together in real life (the one outside this writing life, the bigger story beyond), so the publisher has to think about a seating plan. Authors are unlikely to ever dine together, but the order of the stories in the anthology should reflect the kind of conversation which might be expected around an unlikely dining table.

Anyone reading that book in The British Library would be privy to a conversation between minds who wouldn’t normally meet, because they never met, only in the collaboration of a secret world spewing its guts into a bowl. With each story carrying its character, the whole volume should speak an interesting narrative, a whole of many parts, which individually have bigger stories to tell.

The chapters in this exclusive Mobius project would make up a unique life, a new one. So does any collected works anthology, where something can be one of a collection of unique things. I wondered what Mobius could do which would make this venture truly unique, unlike anything before.

Away from the modern democracy of digital, the traditional methods of printing still thrive, even the fine art of letterpress, where galleys of text are assembled by hand before impressing by mechanical platen into the paper. Before print became technology, it was a skilled craft which allowed the fast distribution of information through multiple copies. The only truly unique printed documents are antiquated texts and scrolls, hand-written by artisan scribes. That couldn’t be the truly unique centrepiece promised for The British Library, as it had been done before.

I’ve had many writing desks, many temporary, some in public libraries, others bolted to the floor, and all doubling as dining tables. The one I’m sitting at now is the horse for my typewriter, where many of the stories only me and the psychologist could tell are hidden in a dark web; and where I was invited to meet an agent for Mobius, who I assumed would be an arts student from UCL. An email arrived on my desktop, inviting me to meet a guy called Rupert Surname in the reading room of The British Library.

Rupert hadn’t described himself, leaving him to my imagination. I didn’t know his full name, so I couldn’t look him up on social media. Most people called Rupert at university would probably revert to Facebook’s roots, and use it as an in-campus social network. I didn’t know how tall he was, how old (although I assumed student-age), or what he’d be wearing. I’d ruled out a red jersey and yellow-checked trousers with matching scarf.

The reading room at The British Library is huge, a cathedral to reading and learning. There are hundreds of desks, some grouped socially, like wooden beasts of burden for books and computers. Other desks roam alone, seeking light beneath a window, or preferring the solitude offered by walls of bookshelves. There are nomadic chairs, ridden by students to feast around a beast, a camp fire, or left at a universe laid flat in MDF. Some were tethered to unattended laptops, while the riders smoked outside the realm of fictional realism.

Among the menagerie of mascots left to guard unattended windows on other worlds, there was a Rupert, naked and white: A stuffed bear, sans his usual modesty, sitting next to a laptop about the same height as him. Anyone at eye level could have read what I did on the screen:

Your story must clothe the bear. His jersey will need two sheets of material for the body and one sheet for each arm. The bear’s trousers require two sheets in total, and the length of his scarf is to be your own space, to weave as long as you wish. Please submit the first three sheets for preview.

Was this a student’s own project? A student of what? Fashion, knitting, philosophy? It gave me another idea for the story I was already writing. My journey to King’s Cross hadn’t been for nothing, as I had a plot device.

A sheet of A4 cartridge paper holds around 500 words from my typewriter, so I’d already knitted most of Rupert’s upper half, the first three pages I’d normally send to a prospective publisher. I sent it to Rupert Surname, and queried whether they’d like a synopsis of the whole story. As mine was to be one part of a curated volume, the final work would only be complete once all the contributors’ chapters had been chosen. The publisher retained license of freedom for the final work. If my own life outside this story was one they could influence, by placing it among the tales of others, then I was happy to be guided.

Although The British Library was outside my comfort zone (away from home), in the brief time I’d been there, I’d not felt alienated. There I was, surrounded by knowledge and almost silence, alone but not, part of many stories unfolding in one place as I wrote my own. If Rupert invited me there again, I’d be glad of the excuse to visit. If not, then perhaps to view the final exhibit at the end of this Mobius project. Even if I wasn’t a part of it, I’d still been on the stage where it was produced.

While I waited for a response, I worked on another story I’d been writing for the general market. It was about an understudy actor, stumbling home and ringing on the wrong doorbell. Fictional realism was the music of chance, when my doorbell rang.

It was my UCL psychology student from Lewisham. It was still rag week and there was a new edition of the student mag, with a pulp fiction supplement. And my story was in it.

The story I was writing for Mobius and the British Library, the one which was meant to be exclusive; tales of individuals making a unique whole life for visitors to gaze at; the book produced in some way which made it truly unique, which was meant to enclose my own story, safe from reproduction, was now in a photocopied pulp comic; and I was reading it just as you are now, and just like anyone so inclined, not to seek out something completely new and singular, but happy to read cheap, disposable fiction on the underground.

What,” I wondered, “about The British Library?”

Oh, that’s still going ahead,” she said. “I’m taking your story there.”

What? But I never finished it.”

And you never will. But you have already.”

How?”

The truly unique nature of the project is in the way the story will be presented, in a way which can’t be reproduced.”

Beneath the forest and savannah of the reading room at The British Library, is a network of tunnels lined with shelves. Everything which is published in Britain is held there: one copy of every book, magazine, newspaper, musical score, screenplay, script, and even university rag mags. Even the poorest writer, with no sales, can take comfort in knowing that a copy of their story is held in that subterranean cavern for reference, knowledge and learning. It’s a world off-limits to the reading room, but readers can request a copy of anything ever published, which is retrieved by a robot and delivered to the student’s desk. We are never truly dead until we’re forgotten, and published authors will live in that underground publishing world for as long as The British Library still stands.

So,” I wondered, “what’s so unique about the curation?”

Well,” she said, “words can be copied.” Of course, even if it’s an ancient scribe plagiarising the bible to make his own version. “And so can DNA.”

What’s that got to do with it?”

Would you donate your own skin to have your story told?”

Why would I?”

It would be a way of telling your story as very much your own, if it was printed on sheets of your own skin. Bound into a book, with 49 other shades of flesh, wouldn’t that make for quite the publishing sensation?”

For starters, I wouldn’t do that. Donate my skin? Maybe to a burns victim, but for people to stare at in an exhibition, as I’m stretched over some sort of frame?”

Your skin grafts would be bound with others in the book.”

What, and people would just be able to flick through the pages, looking at my story, all stretched and laid bare?”

Among others, and together you tell the whole story.”

In a book which anyone at all can just finger? I thought this was exclusive. Surely such a unique thing should be encased in glass?”

No-one could read the book in its entirety. It’s not the kind of book you’d borrow from any normal library.”

Well, I wouldn’t donate my skin. That contains me and protects me.”

As does mine, as a student. That’s how comes I’m part of the final story. Student financing, pulp fiction sales; those only cover accommodation and books, not the life I want to live.” She looked down at her white coat. “So I sold my skin. I want to pay you back for all the favours you’ve done me.”

What the fuck are you talking about?”

I’m far more comfortable if one story is told upon another, in a safe place where one can meet like-minded people. Like a glass cage at The British Library, where my body can entwine with others for public entertainment, but remain safe. You’ll be there. Your story will be there, writhing in and out of others, your words coming together like so many authors of others’ stories, trapped in a box and in their own skin, while people file past and gawk at an artistic representation of you and others at work. Reality stripped naked in fiction, Q.E.D. Mind if I take a shower?”

I pushed my chair out of her way. As she stood up, I noticed a new tattoo above her collar:

Diary of a skinny kid
What’s beneath the headline
is the story of everything below the neck…

© Steve Laker, 2019

Google lists all 60-odd stories I’ve had published in my favourite cult pulp fiction mag.

Life in lucidity’s departure lounge

FICTION

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

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

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

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

Doggy SteamPunkSteampunk Dog by Stephane Halleux

DO ANGELS GET FLEAS?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Crisis Apparition’ is normally a one-time event for those experiencing it. It’s when a ghost is seen at the time of it’s predecessor’s passing, as a way of saying farewell to family and friends. It would be like going about your daily business, then suddenly seeing your mum outside of normal contexts. Minutes later, you receive a call to tell you that she’s passed away. With practice, the deceased may be able to visit you more than once, to reassure you. If they do that, you might have a guardian angel. In my case, a fallen one with a broken wing.

The reluctant dead’ are ghosts who are unaware they’re deceased. They go about their lives as if they were still living, oblivious to their passing. This innocence (or denial), can be so severe that the ghost can’t see the living but can nonetheless feel their presence: A kind of role reversal. This can be stressful, for both the haunter and the haunted. In films, it’s usually someone moving into the home of a recently deceased person. Perhaps they lived and died alone in their twilight years. To them, the living might be invaders. These are not ghosts which need to be exorcised: Simply talking to them about their death can help them to cross over and leave your home.

Then there are ghosts who are trapped or lost: They know they’re dead but for one reason or another, they can’t cross over yet. Cross over into what? Some may fear moving on because of the person they were in life, or they might fear leaving what’s familiar to them.

There are ghosts with ‘unfinished business’, broadly split into two categories: A father might return to make sure his children are okay. Or a lover might hang around, making sure their partner finds happiness and moves on. But there’s also the ‘vengeful ghost’; perhaps a murder victim, back to haunt their killer.

Residual ghosts’ usually live out their final hours over and over again. They often show no intelligence or self-awareness, and will walk straight by (or through) you. Many think that these types of ghosts left an imprint or a recording of themselves in our space time.

Finally, the ‘intelligent ghost’: Where the entity interacts with the living and shows a form of intelligence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moo?”

Moo,” I repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I miss you,” I said.

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

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

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

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

Let’s run,” Molly said.

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

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

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

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

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

Can you kill beauty and love?”

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

Dear diary, of my life as a person.

© Steve Laker, 2017

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

Unsuitable for washing machines

FICTION

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

maracatalan05Mara Catalan

THE TRAVELLING TAILOR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please,” I said, “come in.”

May I take a seat?”

Of course. Can I get you anything?”

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

A phone number?”

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

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

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

May I ask,” I asked, “who’s asking?”

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

Of what?”

Of you, sir.”

What for?”

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

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

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

Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The material,” the tailor said, “is the same as my own suit. Here, feel.”

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

Please,” the tailor said, “try on your new clothes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOT SUITABLE FOR MACHINE WASHING. DO NOT DRY CLEAN.

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

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

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

My new clothes were now skin-coloured.

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

I phoned Nurk again.

This is Fred?”

Ah, Mr Nurk?”

Hey, Paul Jennings, how’s it going?”

Er, okay. It’s about the suit.”

What about it?”

All the colour came out.”

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

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

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

Er…”

Exactly, no.”

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

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

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

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

© Steve Laker, 2019

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

 

Introverted writer syndrome

FICTION

One of my apparent trademarks (labels), is a writer who writes about writers writing. It’s the party in my head, my depression, and making it my friend, so that I can talk to it. It’s teaching the teacher to teach. It’s telling a mirror it’s not a true reflection.

Such an exclusive and excluded way of life can reverse things, or turn a way of life inside-out. So I wrote a story in a story, about a writer writing about a writer, writing about a writer, writing about a recursive introvert within an extrovert…

Ghost janitor2

THE GHOST JANITOR

I usually write at night, mostly ghost writing for other authors. This world was turned on its head recently, when I returned to my studio to find someone seated at my desk, writing on my typewriter.

I knew the man, Oskar. I’d met him at a writer’s retreat, and we had more in common than most, so we got talking. Oskar has what I don’t, and which I envy in him: a heart which knows nothing but love. He’s like a big, friendly dog.

What are you writing?” I asked.

Oh, sorry,” Oskar turned around, “I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I let myself in.”

Sometimes Oskar gets lost, so I gave him a key to use in emergencies (these things are subjective). He turned back and continued typing.

So what’s making the transit from human to machine?”

A stage play,” Oskar replied, “It’s about a stage writer, who’s also the cleaner at the theatre he writes for. The thing is, no-one knows about him. Nobody knows he’s a stage writer, or that he’s the cleaner. No-one even knows that he lives at the theatre.

If it wasn’t for a stage door being left open one night, Oskar would be homeless. He goes unnoticed because he lives under the stage, only venturing out at night, to clean up after the cleaner.

The cleaner employed by the theatre is an old lady, and she’s not very good. She spends most of her time smoking, drinking, and writing letters to her dead husband. Oskar knows this because he watches her from under the stage. Then when she goes home, he cleans the theatre so that it’s done nicely, and the cleaner keeps her job. It’s Oskar’s way of paying his keep.

There’s an old typewriter in the theatre director’s office, which looks out over the stage. That’s where Oskar writes most nights. In this story, he’s writing a stage play when the director walks in on him, not in her office, but she sees him through her window on the stage. She notices the main spotlight is on, then she sees Oskar, holding his hands aloft and taking a bow before an invisible audience.

She spots the paper in her typewriter, and puts it in an envelope. She goes down to the stage and asks Oskar what he’s doing, and he says he just switched the spotlight on to clean the stage. Then the director says, “I found this in my typewriter. I don’t remember writing it, so I wonder if I could leave it with you.” He asks her, why him. “Because I think you were looking for it,” the director replies, “and you’re the caretaker.”

So Oskar takes care of it. After the director leaves, he finishes his stage play. It’s the story of an understudy, someone who stands in for actors on stage. One night, the actor playing his role is ill, so Oskar is given the part. It’s not the starring role, he’s just in a group at for the final musical number. Oskar can’t dance or sing, because he’s funny, like me, and he’s called Oskar, like me. But at the end of the show, the whole audience stands up and claps. Oskar gestures towards the rest of the cast, then raises his hands and takes a bow.

No-one ever noticed Oskar, but he could write about people who could. He could create an audience. When he took that ovation, just for a moment, the whole world was Oskar’s.”

Oskar turned back to the screen. “So what do you think?”

I think Oskar gave the story a happy ending, for himself and his audience.”

And the theatre director,” Oskar said, typing again, “I’m just going to write an encore, for when Oskar comes back on stage.”

I left him to write while I got on with some cleaning. When I’d finished, Oskar was gone, back to wherever he lived whenever he wasn’t in my studio, which was every night but this one. He’d left an envelope on my desk. Inside was this story.

And Oskar had written his encore:

I wanted to call this story ‘Down, down,’ because it’s what’s inside me; a feeling that people duck when I’m talking to them, because I’m just a big, soft, pillow, stuffed with feathers, and they think I’m silly; and because in the end, the theatre audience liked him. I thought of calling it ‘Audience syndrome’. But I can’t play the lead role, because people will see me, which means the twist doesn’t work. But then if they just see me and not my syndrome, I’m the star. I can’t get the story out of the story. I’ll leave it up to you.

© Steve Laker, 2019