Reflections of reflections (Recursion*)

FICTION

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One of my recent short stories (Pink Sunshine) was a self-study in my writing, as I chose to “Write, play, throw away”: A writer work-out to overcome the block. And so is this. I’m told that some of my writing is very complex / “Well clevva!”, requiring repeat reading. I see it as nothing more than an ability to tell my own stories through the medium of fiction. In any case, I’ve been asked to re-post this as it’s thought to be more relevant now than it was when I originally wrote it. It also saves the requester spending all of a few seconds searching for it in this blog’s archive.

It’s still a first draft, but it’s the basis of one of many I’m still writing for my second collection of shorts. It’s a story about altering perceptions:

Reflections of yesterday

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re Muslim, right?

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

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

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

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

“You know.” It was another shared moment.

“You’ve been here?”

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

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

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

“What? Explain that one, please.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What about the women?”

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

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

“My name is Javeed. It means forever.”

“What was your name before?”

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

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

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

“A tenner? You sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I was walking down Stanton Street early one Sunday morning I saw a chicken a few yards ahead of me. I was walking faster than the chicken so I gradually caught up. By the time we approached Eighteenth Avenue I was close behind.

The chicken turned south on Eighteenth. At the fourth house along it turned in at the walk, hopped up the front steps and rapped sharply on the metal storm door with its beak. After a moment the door opened and the chicken went in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But sung as…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Jim. It means Jim.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jim was lost for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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*Recursion
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Let me take you by the hand…

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Rossi-Letterpress-printing

I’ve been called many things: Versatile being among the repeatable. I’m also asked a lot of questions, as a writer. I’ve even given interviews. It’s interesting, that most questions asked of me now, are of the writer. I don’t forget where I came from: I can’t and I wouldn’t want to.

One of the more common questions is, “What’s The Perpetuity of Memory about?” Well, the cover notes and synopsis are on this blog and on the book’s Amazon page. But one answer went like this (because it was appropriate to the audience):

Well, there are 25 stories in there. It’s not just the stories that make the book, but the circumstances in which they were written. So the book is a real mix: There are fantastical tales of steam punk worlds, a human puppet on strings, and a time machine in the form of a typewriter. There’s light-hearted sci-fi, graphic and psychological horror: There’s a virgin birth on stage at a school nativity, where God is called to answer charges of rape. There’s a teenage girl automaton, who has a bit of a surprise for her “Daddy.” There’s a story which I can’t say much about; only that one reader told me it made them physically shudder. But then there’s the sublime and haunting Echo Beach, and the ghost under the bed, in Cardboard Sky.

And one person even asked me, “Can’t you write about fluffy kittens or something?” That was actually my ex-wife. And I told her, I do that as well. But she knows I wrote bedtime stories for the kids last summer; and our daughter illustrated my award-winning children’s book.

Most of the questions lately have been about Cyrus Song, which is a science fiction comedy (and it works). The most common question has been, “Is there really an answer, to life, the universe and everything? One which I’ll understand? Is it in the book?” (Yes, yes, and yes). But then someone who only knows me from my sci-fi work asked me, “Do you write about serial killers and shit?” Actually, I do:

This one is in “The Perp”, and there’ll be more. I’m still writing short stories while I write the book; for a second anthology, and to get some free reading out there. So for those who only know me for sci-fi, I also do this sort of thing:

Let me take you by the hand, and lead you through the streets of London…

Helvetica haus

I’m writing about a writer. The writer is writing about a writer. That is to say, the writer whom I’m writing about, is doing as I am.

The paper I’m writing this original manuscript on is from Smythson of Bond Street. My pen was a gift: hand-made by Waldmann Adámas from Titanium and Gun Metal. The ink flows smoothly through the barrel and it is comfortable to hold. The ink is stored in the barrel like so many thoughts yet to take form. Then it passes through the barrel, held in my fingers as it ejects my thoughts through my hand and onto the paper, like black blood. My pen is an ergonomic tool of an art which produces aesthetics in the written word.

It’s not just the writing I produce which is art: my means of bringing it into being is also art.

When I’m at my most prolific, I turn to my faithful Royal Epoch typewriter: I can type much faster than I can write freehand. I like holding the metallic rod of the pen in my hand as it spills my words but I gain equal satisfaction from typing. Each depression of a key on a manual typewriter needs to be of a certain force: too gentle and the words are faint; whispered. Too hard and the ink will impress too deeply into the virginal paper. Just the right amount of pressure in the finger delivers an optimum amount of black ink. I had the hammer heads of the characters individually carved by a Monotype compositor of my acquaintance.

Once upon a time, stories weren’t written on computers and word processors, where they leave an indelible imprint, even if deleted. The Monotype operator uses a machine very much like a typewriter, which produces individual letters from molten metal ingots called “pigs”. These individual columns with characters on the end are called “slugs”. The slugs are positioned into a frame, called a “galley” by the Monotype machine. Each slug is one character and metal spacers are inserted into the galley to separate words. These characterless pieces of metal are also produced by the machine operator on his keyboard, simply by hitting a space bar like on a typewriter. I find it amazing to consider, that operator is not only typing the words which will tell a story but he is creating the very letters themselves. Instead of putting ink on paper, he is “typing” the mechanisms which will later do so: he’s writing a machine; he’s writing the means to print. The final galley is a page of type which will be coated in ink and impressed upon sheets of paper: it’s a platen process; it’s traditional letterpress printing, pre-dating litho print.

Rather than be cast in a galley though, my individual letter and character slugs were soldered to the ends of the arms of the hammers in my typewriter, so that every character I type is in the Helvetica typeface.

Often I’ll type up my hand-written notes. This can be because of various motivators: often something which I’ve hand-written whilst on the move or in haste will take on sufficient merit to be typed up as a manuscript for publication. Sometimes speed itself will dictate that the incessant presses of keys is a more efficient way to hasten my thoughts into reality. Typing is rough, violent and more invasive than handwriting. Occasionally, I just like to type and see my words in Helvetica. I can make anything appear in physical form in semi-permanence. That piece of completed writing then exists in only two places: my mind and printed onto the paper. I can destroy the paper at will. Sometimes I burn blank sheets of paper so that the words I planned for them may not be seen.

Apart from the obvious fact that everything written electronically is indelible, even when erased, I eschew computers for many reasons. Screen fonts have naturally had to be digitised: this is introducing an impurity, as well as leaving messy marks. I view it as typographical rape or incest. It’s similar to the comparison between vinyl LPs and MP3s: the latter is digitised and loses a lot of nuance in the process. To the casual, uneducated listener, there is no difference but to the trained ear, listening on quality equipment, the two recordings are identical, yet worlds apart. There is simply no substitute for the platen impression of type pressed forcefully into a sheet of paper and there is no place in my writing for digital typefaces or computer printers. I refuse to refer to digital printing vehicles as presses, simply because they aren’t; they don’t: they don’t physically press the type into the paper.

My manual typewriter is an instrument of beautiful torture. It is a metal skeleton; a mechanical device made productive automata through my fingers. It produces the flesh and blood which are my stories, in the purest font: Helvetica. The letterpress printing machine is the mechanical animal which spews out many copies.

The typeface itself is a thing of naked beauty. When each individual perfect character’s form can be joined with others to make words, the collective beauty is greater than the sum of the parts. My faithful typewriter – its unique qualities created by a writer – creates stories. It’s like a story written to reproduce.

When written to my satisfaction, my original, typed manuscripts are delivered to the printer: a firm called Smith & Young in Bermondsey.

Smith & Young are die-stampers by trade: a beautiful art in itself. The die-stamping process is also a platen one, like letterpress. The process embosses ink into the paper, so that the print stands in relief. Each colour of ink in a coat of arms for example has to be die-stamped separately. Therefore an engraver needs to carve a copper embossing die for each colour and ensure that all colours are printed in register. Furthermore, because the image is stamped directly onto the paper, the dies have to be engraved in mirror image. It’s incredible to watch a worker such as my compositor produce such things of beauty and value. They practice print as an art, not a technology. Once furnished with a few simple concepts, even the layman can distinguish the difference between digital and traditional lithographic print. Die-stamping is a rare thing but the embossed nature of the print is easy to appreciate. To really understand the nuances and beauty of letterpress printing though, requires a connoisseur.

I have to ensure that my manuscript is perfect. I do not use correction fluid: to do so would mar the otherwise monotone typed page with another colour and evidence of a mistake. Mistakes happen and when they do, I simply begin the page again and destroy the original. Given an infinite number of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys will eventually produce a faultless, complete works of Shakespeare. What comes from my typewriter is the first and final hand-typed copy of a work.

When this story is finished, it will leave me as the one and only copy which exists. I don’t use carbon paper, nor take photographs. Once the copy leaves me, I have no record of it. I can’t revise it: the manuscript I despatch is the final draft. For a while, the story doesn’t really exist: it’s sheets of paper in an envelope in a courier’s bag. That courier cares no more for what he or she is delivering than they do my motivation. Should they be involved in an incident and my parcel is displaced, then that is a story which will never be told.

My compositor is not a monkey operating a machine: He is a writer, like me. His is a highly skilled trade and he is one of only a very few remaining.

The courier will wait with the printer, whilst the Monotype operator typesets my story. My story is written again, by a different writer. Whereas my key strokes produced ink on paper, his produce slugs of metal to be locked into a galley for a printing press. Again, the means of printing a story in infinite quantities by impressing those metal slugs into paper, is being literally written in cold, hard metal.

When the galley is complete, the courier will return the original typed manuscript to the writer. For a brief period, two copies of my work exist in physical form: I have an ink-on-paper typed copy, which I can destroy at any time. The other copy exists as potential energy: the tool, written in metal, can print an undefined number of copies of my story. As an entity, the work’s power has increased because it now exists in both a physical and potential form which is much harder – if not impossible – to destroy. The work could well exist in two minds, if the Monotype operator absorbed the story as he wrote it.

Once the potential to print countless physical copies of my work in the form of metal slugs in a galley exists, a problem troubles my purist mind. I trust the man at Smith and Young: he is a good friend and respected in print. He can type almost as speedily on a Monotype setting machine as I can on a manual typewriter (A small piece of trivia for the buff: the Monotype keyboard doesn’t use the QWERTY layout). I trust my colleague to use my specified paper stock when printing the orders I send him but it’s those copies which cause me discomfort. I have no control over the format, media or device which a subsequent reader may see my work presented upon. If it were on anything other than my specified stock and printed letterpress in Helvetica, then the reader would be seeing something which I’ve not given them the authority to view and which is not in the pure form it was intended.

This story isn’t finished. It needs an intermission and to that end, I shall excuse myself for an evening out.

The walk from London Bridge station into Bermondsey always evokes memories: through the tunnels under the station, where much of The Specials’ Ghost Town video was filmed, then a quick stop at The Woolpack on Bermondsey Street for a late morning gin and tonic.

Ink, paper and alcohol have always been uneasy bedfellows. Just as the meat porters of the old Smithfield market used to drink in The Hope pub at dawn, so did the writing communities around Fleet Street and Soho late at night and into the next day: that’s where they worked and some lived but many also lived in Bermondsey. Printing is in the blood there.

I used to drink in The Hope some early mornings with a meat porter, appropriately called Red. His white overalls would be smeared in the blood of more than 100 pigs. The shades of red were like splattered timestamps, the darkest dating back to midnight. “I can chop a pig down and cut it up in five minutes,” he said, clutching a fresh copy the Guardian against his belly. “Legs, shoulders, loins. All done proper like. It’s an art. Chopping a pig down’s an art.”

As Smithfield Market wound down after a night of dismemberment and meat trade, men in white coats breathed in the still, chilly air as the sun rose above Farringdon. Wholesalers – the ones with clean coats – emerged too, wheeling the last of their purchases towards refrigerated Transit vans. They’d dodge a few early risers in suits who are on the sober march towards the City.

The blood would elicit gasps in any other part of town and some coats were grislier than others. “You get bloodier when you’re cutting up lambs,” explained Red, who had the bearing of a retired boxer. “Lambs you put on a block, and cut towards you. When you do pigs, they’re hanging up so you cut away from yourself.”

I saw a few familiar faces from the past at the Woolpack but couldn’t quite place them.

A few doors down, I popped in to see George: the barber whose shop bears his name in Bermondsey Street. For some reason, in all the years I recall going to George’s, George has been the same age: early seventies. He’s probably over 100 by now.

George still does a military short back and sides. The haircut, a shave with a badger hair brush and a cut-throat razor, burning wax tapers flicked into my ears and a hot towel compress are all complete within twenty minutes and George has me looking as I like to for important meetings. George doesn’t talk as he works, negating the need for the kind of small talk which he and I detest. Time spent in his skilful hands is time to relax and contemplate, while he goes about his craft perfectly and to the exclusion of all external distractions. He’s a perfectionist, like me. He invests in fine tools, maintains them with love and employs them with precision. Over a drink at the Woolpack one night, George showed me exactly how sharp one of his cut-throat razors was, by requesting a whole tomato from the kitchen. George opened the razor and rested the blade on the tomato on the bar. Merely steadying the blade with one hand, he raised the handle with his other hand and the blade began to cut through the skin of the tomato under its own weight alone. George noted my fascination with the implement and allowed me to keep it that night.

As is custom, I declined something for the weekend, tipped George and bade him farewell. From there, I decamped briefly to M. Manze, just down the road. Manze’s is the oldest – and best, in my opinion – pie and mash shop in London.

Pie and mash is nineteenth century fast food: the somehow grumpy but friendly staff plate up one’s food in the manner of a borstal inmate high enough in the pecking order to be placed on kitchen duty, then one joins others and quickly eats, head down in a booth where the seats are made of wood and the tabletops are white marble.

Ordering food at Manze’s has to be done with precision. A simple request for pie and mash will be greeted with a blank expression, even though it’s a pie and mash shop. It’s like a test to see if one is a connoisseur of the London delicacy. My specific request was delivered quickly and with no room for misunderstanding. Therefore, my order of one pie, one mash and “liquor” – sort of a parsley sauce – was dolloped with meaning and there was a knowing smile from the server. At a table shared with three complete strangers, I garnished my food with the chilli infused sarsaparilla vinegar, which is for some reason traditional, and ate in around ten minutes. The floor is tiled in black and white, so I played a quick mental game of chess against myself as I chewed.

Thereafter, a quick dash over Tower Bridge Road and down an alley through some housing blocks, to The Victoria in Page’s Walk. The Victoria was the Evening Standard pub of the year in 1972 and the green and white plaque still adorns the wall, alongside black and white photographs of the building. The rest of the pub is at it was then as well: a great little south east London drinking den, where many go only because they need to and others because they happened upon it.

Smith and Young in Crimscott Street was just around the corner from the pub, so my compositor joined me after he’d locked up for the weekend. We had an agreeable few hours, him unwinding with a few pints and me on Tanqueray gin and Indian tonic water, with a squeeze each of fresh lime, orange and lemon, then a tiny dash of cranberry juice: the four fruits must be added in a specific order to maintain the traffic light sequence: green lime, amber from the lemon and orange, then the cranberry for red; then another tiny dash of cranberry at the same time as a squeeze each of lemon and orange, and a final squeeze of lime for the red and amber, green part of the symphony. We had a few drinks and discussed my story.

Presently, we agreed that it might be time to eat, so we made our way back toward London Bridge Station by foot and then to Charing Cross by rail, across Hungerford Bridge, and from where we would eventually part company. It was no concern of mine where my companion had to travel to but the terminus afforded me a ten minute ride home, so it was convenient.

We walked down the cobbles of Villiers Street and crossed embankment, clogged with weekend traffic; mainly coaches and black cabs taking workers home and bringing more people into the West End.

Charing Cross is symbolic because Charing Cross itself, which the station takes its name from, is the official centre of London. The original centre point is the Square Mile of The City, once a Roman fortress trading post, enclosed and gated: Moorgate, Aldgate, Bishopsgate etc. Charing Cross is also notable in my mind for being roughly half way between the old writing districts of Fleet Street, along Strand and through Aldwych, into The City; and Soho, the bohemian heart of the great metropolis, where Jeffrey Bernard once held court in The Coach and Horses, whilst famously being unwell.

The two of us boarded The Tattershall Castle, an old steam ferry moored permanently at Embankment. We chose to sit on deck and enjoy the view: dominated by the graceful London Eye and Art Deco wonder of Shell Centre on the south bank, and the brutal but beautiful form of the Hungerford rail and foot bridges spanning old lady Thames; it was a conflicting postcard.

The steamer was built by William Gray & Co. in 1934 as a passenger ferry on the River Humber for the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). She plied a route between Corporation Pier in Kingston upon Hull and New Holland Pier Station, New Holland. During the Second World War she found service as a tether for barrage balloons and for troop transfer on the Humber estuary. After the war, with the nationalisation of the railways in 1948, she became part of British Rail’s Sealink service. In 1973, after long service as a passenger and goods ferry, she was retired from service and laid up. In 1976 the ship was towed to London. Repairs on the ship were deemed too costly and she was retired from service. The opening of the Humber Bridge made the ferry service, known to have existed since at least Roman times, redundant. PS Tattershall Castle was first opened on the Thames as a floating art gallery until her eventual disposal to a brewing company. Now it’s a floating bar and restaurant, where we sat.

Our like minds permitted us to arrive at different meal choices for dinner. My companion chose traditional fish and chips, his reasoning being that we were in close proximity to marine life. My own reasoning was that we were surrounded by all kinds of life: land-based humans and other mammals, mainly unseen; insects, largely invisible; airborne species, mainly birds which were visible; and indeed, marine life. The most visible, abundant and accessible food group was avian and this is what prompted me to order chicken escalope. I realise that there were unlikely to be any chickens within view at the time of my placing the order but neither were there gulls or pigeons on the menu. There were no cod that I could see either but my dining companion’s battered fish looked a fine meal, served with good chips, mushy peas – in a separate ramekin – and a slice of lemon. There was a separate pot of tartare sauce but my partner is a Philistine and smothered his food in ketchup. My chicken was served as requested: not a breast fillet from the menu but a butterflied piece of thigh meat. This must be cooked with the Cheddar cheese and bacon rolled into it but without a securing rasher of bacon around it, so that the skin may be allowed to brown and crisp. The escalope must then be allowed to rest in a warm place, so that the flesh of the chicken can relax and absorb its own juices and take on those of the bacon inside as it penetrates the soft, white and accommodating young chicken meat with it’s aged, salty juices. The rested chicken parcel must then be wrapped in another slice of fatty bacon and the whole thing fried in butter until the bacon starts to resist and becomes crisp. My chicken was accompanied by the aforementioned good chips: these are King Edward potatoes, cooked thrice: once boiled, then twice fried to produce an “armadillo” chip: crispy on the outside; fluffy on the inside. A fine barbecue sauce and a corn cob completed the plate.

The meal functioned as such, with no need for long-standing friends to engage in casual banter at the expense of the enjoyment of good food. At one point, somewhat annoyed but at the same time amused at the incessant presence of gulls, I tossed a piece of chicken on deck which was quickly swooped upon by three winged balaclava-wearing hooligans. I speculated aloud as to whether this might be cannibalism by proxy and my partner responded by smiling and throwing a piece of his fish overboard, commenting that we’ll never know. I hope my smile conveyed my admiration.

We enjoyed a post-dinner hand-rolled cigarette in pleasant silence, leaning over the handrail of the deck. For my part, I reminisced about a fine and productive evening and looked forward to something as yet incomplete but which held excitement. Great minds: I don’t know what his thoughts were but I respect privacy, so I concentrated on my own.

The flowing Thames below us was a blue-black, like ink flowing through a pen around the boat. I was aboard the boat and therefore the delivery mechanism. This story is now under my control; the boat beneath my feet like the pen in my hand.

I sliced my compositor’s neck from behind, cutting away from me as he leaned over the deck of the boat. Just as it had cut through the tomato skin and flesh, so my cut-throat razor slid between my ghost writer’s head and torso like a hot knife through butter, separating the two in an instant.

As the decapitated head fell to the water below, the eyes remained open and the cigarette which I’d rolled was still in his mouth. The head plopped into the river like a full stop from a hammer in an old typewriter impressing ink into a sheet of paper, or a platen press impressing the final page galley.

The ink flowing around me took on a new colour as the dark, dusty river of life and waste below was splashed with red strike marks, blood spurting from the neck of the headless body next to me, still gripping the handrail. Before I tipped him overboard, I took his wallet.

I engaged the staff in conversation about the distribution of tips paid to the establishment. Once I’d established that tips were distributed fairly among staff, I was able to pay for the meal using my friend’s credit card with a clear conscience.

Of course, I shall burn this copy of the story but I am aware that the galley still exists: that is by design. It is important to my art that a physical record be kept.

My writing is art. I bring things to life with my words and by putting myself in the stories and acting them out so that I may tell them more accurately.

The Perpetuity of Memory is available now. Cyrus Song is due for publication in December.

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It started with The Division Bell

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Cyrus Song FB Cover

It was as I sat one night, listening to The Division Bell by Pink Floyd, that my next book occurred to me. Track 9 on that album is “Keep Talking”, which features the Stephen Hawking quote: “For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk…” And that gave me an idea: Cyrus Song.

“Cyrus” is a name sometimes given to the sun: Sol; the star which gave birth to our planet. The Cyrus song is the sound of the sun. The rough synopsis is on the Book Shelf page of this blog:

Simon Fry is convinced that the answer to life, the universe and everything, is in the earth itself. Specifically, he believes that if he could talk with the animals, he’d find the answers. Or at least, the questions which need to be asked for the answer to make any kind of sense. Doctor Hannah Jones, a veterinary surgeon, has a quantum computer, running a program called The Babel Fish: Like its fictitious namesake, The Babel Fish can translate any language to and from any other. Elsewhere, Mr Fry considers what might be possible if historical scientists were able to make use of all that would be new to them in the 21st century. Having watched Jurassic Park, he is pretty sure he can make this a reality. So begins one man’s quest to find answers to questions he doesn’t know yet. Cyrus song is the story of Mr Fry’s voyage to find answers and love in the world: What could possibly go wrong?

Follow the Facebook page for updates.

I’m writing Chapter 11 now, and a December publication date looks likely, by whichever means. All I can then hope is that people read it and like it, then tell others. It’s been well-received by a few trusted writing peers I’ve shared it with, so I have confidence in the book and myself.

The book started life, after that Pink Floyd song, when I wrote a short story. That went down so well that I was encouraged to write the book. Until it’s finished though, this was the first chapter:

Chapter One: Cyrus Song

This perfectly credible story begins very unexpectedly, with a decimal point. As with many stories, this one involves something being out of place. In this case, that was a decimal point.

I’d left my desk to make some coffee and as I came back into the study, I thought I saw something move on the sheet of paper in my typewriter. I was writing a little fantasy science fiction story for a magazine and I’d hit a bit of a block near the beginning, so I’d taken a break. It’s funny how things work in fiction sometimes and having that little pause was what I needed to start the story properly.

Before I continued writing, I re-read the little I’d already typed: something wasn’t right. I checked my research notes, wondering if I’d misinterpreted something but nothing sprang out. I looked back up at the paper in the typewriter and that’s when I noticed a decimal point had moved. I looked more closely and my original decimal point was still where I’d put it, so this other one had just appeared. Then it moved again: The one which had simply materialised, walked across the page. It didn’t have discernible legs but it moved nonetheless.

I picked up my magnifying glass from the side table to get a closer look at this little moving thing. It wasn’t a powerful magnifier: a full stop on a sheet of paper became the size of a grain of cous cous. Even at that low magnification though, I could see that the little round thing had a dull silver metallic sheen. It was like the little silverfish things I used to find in the bath, but round and very much smaller. I moved the magnifying glass in and out, to try to get the best clarity and I noticed that this little circular thing cast a minute shadow. So it was supported by something; perhaps it did have legs.

For a whole minute, I just looked at the thing and wondered what on earth it could be. Then the intrigue doubled, as another little silverfish thing rushed in from stage left under the glass. Then the two just sat there, about an inch apart. Were they about to mate? Were they rivals, sizing one another up? What were they? They remained motionless and so did I.

How long was I going to sit there, looking at two whatevers? I wasn’t going to find out much else with my little magnifying glass. Even if one of them had popped out a hand to wave at me, I wouldn’t have seen it. So what was I to do? Brush them aside as inconsequential and forget about them? Squash them? Put them outside? The next part required some precision planning and application. The two little creatures, things; whatever they were, were at the top of the sheet of paper, above the impression cylinder of my typewriter. If I was going to catch them, I’d need to support the paper from behind, while placing a receptacle over them.

I spend most of my waking hours at the typewriter, so I like to keep as much as I can within easy reach of my writing desk. It was fortuitous that I had conjunctivitis and an eye bath proved to be the perfect dome to place over this little infant colony of mine. I slid them gently, under the dome to the edge of the sheet and onto a drink coaster. Then I turned the whole thing over and tapped the coaster, so that the full stops dropped into the eye bath. Finally, I put cling film over the top and wondered what to do next; who to phone who might not think me a crank.

Let’s assume that I’m not acquainted with anyone in any of the specialist fields one might require in such a situation. Because I’m not. So I took my newly acquired pets to a vet.

Not having any pets besides my two decimal points, full stops, or whatever they were, I wasn’t registered with a vet. I didn’t want to register with a vet any more than I wanted two potentially dangerous full stops. I didn’t know what I had and I didn’t even know if it was a vet I needed. And so it was that I ended up at the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA).

As a first time customer, I had to fill out a form: My name, address, contact number and so on; and pet’s name. And whether the pet is a pedigree breed. The PDSA will treat one pedigree animal per human client. I couldn’t decide between my two, so I declared them both non-pedigree. Cross breed or mixed? Not applicable? Names: Dot and Dash. Because they were both small and one was more active than the other; I was quite pleased with that.

I took a seat in the waiting area with some pets and their owners. There was a large pit bull cross breed opposite us and he had a dog. I imagined them as small as Dot and Dash: Someone could place a dome over them and take them away, to find out exactly what species they were. I allowed myself an inner smile as a ray of sunshine broke into the room and I imagined studying them under a magnifying glass. I’d have to focus the light just right for the best view. Who’d have known that spontaneous combustion was so common at that magnification? But my mind was wandering.

There was a rather attractive young lady called Cat. Appropriately enough, Catherine’s owner was a cat: a ginger tom called Blue: I liked that. I really hoped no-one would ask me anything at all. But Cat asked me what I had. Well, I couldn’t be sure but I was certain they hadn’t jumped off of me: That’s why I was at the vet’s and not the doctor’s. I looked down at Dot and Dash, wondering how I’d approach this. Soon, we were called to a room:

“Mr Fry.” A lady’s voice. Dash was on the move again in all directions, while Dot seemed to be exploring the perimeter of their container. “Mr Fry”, the lady called again. That’s me.

“Oh, yes. That’s me.”

“I’m Doctor Jones. But you can call me Hannah.”

Hannah: What a lovely name for such an attractive young lady. It was lovely because it was a palindrome and because it belonged to Doctor Hannah Jones. She was small and pretty, with red hair. The best palindrome is Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas: It has no merit in logic but whoever thought it up deserves recognition in a book of some sort.

“Hannah.” I said. “That’s a pretty name.”

“Thanks. I got it for my birthday. And I don’t have any sisters. So, what have you brought along to show me?”

“I was hoping you could tell me that.”

Doctor Jones’ bedside manner was very relaxing and she put me at ease as she seemed to take a genuine interest in what I’d brought along to show her. She had one of those magnifying lamps above her examination table and the scene which that presented was the kind of thing to give a science fiction writer an idea: As Doctor Jones pulled the lamp over our two subjects, it was like a great mother ship shining a light into a dome, brought to earth and containing alien species.

Doctor Jones moved the light around, just as I had my magnifying glass before. Then she said the oddest thing: “I don’t think these are animals.”

“I’m sorry. So what are they?”

“Until I get a closer look, I don’t know. But they look and behave as though at least one of them might be mechanical.”

I said the first thing which came to mind: “What?” Then the next thing: “Why are they here?”

“Because you brought them here? Where did you find them?”

“They sort of appeared in the middle of a story I was working on. I’m a writer you see?”

“Well, you came to the right place. Follow me.”

“Where are we going?”

“To the lab.”

The lab was what seemed like a couple of miles away, through corridors which all looked the same: white, with strip lighting which was a bit blue-ish. I hoped I was doing the right thing, because there was no way I’d have found my way back out of there and I’d not brought any string to leave a trail. We walked at a fairly leisurely pace and I half wondered if there might be a film crew following us but when I looked behind, there were no cameras or fluffy mic. I walked behind Doctor Jones. The corridors were quite narrow and I wanted to leave room for anyone who might be coming the other way. But no-one passed.

I looked down at the two things in my eye bath, knowing they must be there, even though I couldn’t see them at that distance. Mechanical? Nano machines?

Glancing up at Doctor Jones, it occurred to me that she had a slightly curious gait: not so much masculine as such but a walk which didn’t immediately betray the walker’s gender. The fiction writer woke in my head again and I wondered if Doctor Jones might once have been a man, or was soon to become one. In any case, it was an aesthetic pleasure to watch the doctor walk along those corridors.

Eventually we arrived at a door and in the room on the other side was indeed a laboratory: a forensic and chemistry sort of set up. There were microscopes and monitors, beakers, jars and bottles. Doctor Jones hastened me over to a bench, on which there was a microscope and a monitor. She asked me to pass her the eye bath. She placed the vessel on the bench, then continued pretty much where she’d left off:

“They don’t move like anything I recognise. And I’ve seen big and small things in this job, with anywhere between no legs and over 700. When I first saw what you had, I thought you’d brought them to a vet because they’d come from a pet…”

“Sorry,” I interrupted. “People have brought in ticks and lice from their pet dogs, or cats or whatever?”

“Yes. I’m guessing you don’t have a house pet because if you think about it, bringing in one or two parasites is quite logical. We can identify the type of parasite and advise or prescribe accordingly. Of course, if we have any reason to think the host animal may need something more than home treatment, then we’ll have them in. Most of the time though, it’s a simple course of treatment in the pet’s home. We have to see the animal once the infection has gone, but bringing the parasite alone in first means that the house pet isn’t unnecessarily stressed and doesn’t cross contaminate other animals.” She was very clever.

“That does make sense. But these are not parasites?” I pointed at my eye bath.

“They could be. It’s just that I don’t think they’re organic.”

“So what now?”

“Well, first I’ll need to prepare a petri dish and apply an adhesive surface.”

“Why?”

“So they can’t escape. Mr Fry, you said they just appeared on a sheet of paper in your typewriter.”

“They did. I’d been away from my desk and I knew they’d not been there before, because one of them was a full stop which I would not have put in the middle of a sentence; Or a decimal point in the wrong place; I can’t remember. Anyway, I noticed them when I came back to my desk and as I started to look closer – to see if I’d typed something incorrectly – one of them moved. Then the other one did. I must admit, the first things I thought of doing were either brushing them or blowing them away. It would seem that might have been a mistake.”

“But at the time, you’d have just been blowing or brushing a foreign body away. You certainly wouldn’t have given a thought to looking close enough at such tiny things to see that they weren’t in fact punctuation marks. These things are the size of a full stop on a page of a magazine; a couple of specks of dust. It does make you wonder how many more you might have brushed or blown away, doesn’t it?”

“It does now. So I caught them, wondered where to take them and decided on a vet. And this is all going rather splendidly Doctor.”

“It’s not my average day, Mr Fry. So, you, me, or anyone at all, may or may not have just brushed these things aside without realising.”

“So there could be millions, billions of these little machines, if that’s what they are. That presents some really quite alarming scenarios in my day job.”

“Then there are the other questions, Mr Fry: Where did they come from? These could be the only two of course. If they were to escape, where would they go? But you’re the fiction writer Mr Fry, so I’ll let you show me where we go from here. So, that’s why I’ll treat the petri dish with an adhesive before I put the two of them in.”

I pondered aloud whether the doctor might be outside of her comfort zone. As it turned out, she had degrees in the sciences and her PhD was in human psychology. After all of that, she said she’d decided to work with animals. Doctor Jones was a scientist and although I had no formal qualifications, in effect, so was I, such is the scientific knowledge I’ve acquired in the course of my research. Where her learning was structured, mine came from fumbling around various fields. Mine was an imaginative qualification: an honorary doctorate in the power of the imagination. I imagined that Doctor Jones made a lot more money than me but she seemed to enjoy her work as much as I do mine. Given that she was clearly quite a brilliant scientist, I took it as a compliment that she didn’t dismiss any of my fanciful ideas. We made a good team.

What followed were orchestral manoeuvres of lab equipment, as Doctor Jones prepared the dish then raised a pipette. She pierced the cling film on the eye bath, then sucked up the two machines from the great rise of the robots which had taken place on my typewriter earlier. Then two small dots, barely bigger than the full stops on this page, fell into the pristine ocean in the dish. And stayed there.

It was actually quite sad. I’d only seen these things under a magnifying glass and even then, they were grains of cous cous. They had no features and we were yet to gain even the first idea of what they might be. But I had watched them moving and now they were trapped, like paralysed leviathans in the vastness of a petri dish. Even though Doctor Jones said they weren’t organic, how could she be totally sure? What if the adhesive ocean was toxic to them? If these were indeed the only two of their kind, we could be responsible for an extinction. If there were millions or billions of these things around, constantly being brushed aside, blown away or sucked into a vacuum cleaner must have limited their breeding opportunities in any case. Maybe that’s why dust accumulates and seems to breed. Perhaps there are trillions of nano robots smaller than dust particles, all around us. It’s the kind of idea beloved of fiction writers because it could very well be true. There’s just no way of proving one way or the other: It’s a paradox.

Returning to the true story I was writing, Doctor Jones got to the exciting bit: She readied the microscope. We were to put Dot and Dash under a traditional, optical microscope first, so that the lens looked like an enormous plasma cannon, bearing down on life forms, frozen and forced to witness their own destruction.

Doctor Jones looked into the microscope first: she was already there. She carried on looking, while I just wondered. Then she turned the lenses of the microscope, so that now the central cannon was above the robots. She looked for some while longer. Had the subjects of her study mesmerised her; against her will? Had they reversed the cannon, and were now firing lasers into her eyes? Were they transmitting a signal and filling her mind with propaganda? What could Hannah see? What could see Hannah? I wanted to ask; to call out. All of a sudden, Doctor Jones seemed lost.

Soon, the largest, longest, most powerful barrel was pointed at these strange creatures: a channel which had been established between them and Doctor Jones. Then Hannah said another surprising thing: “Fucking hell.”

I didn’t know if she was reacting to something she’d just seen, or something fired into her eye, or her mind. She might be about to kill me. She rose slowly from the microscope and looked at me.

“Mr Fry.” That’s me. “What the fuck?” I didn’t know.

Doctor Jones looked as lost in the eyes as she’d sounded before that third barrel. They’d drilled into her brain. Or she’d killed them.

One of many things I’ve learned while writing fiction is that if someone passes out, the first thing they’ll remember when they wake up will be the last they saw or heard before they went off. She’d not fainted but I looked Doctor Jones directly in the eyes and said, “What the fuck!?” She seemed a little taken aback but we were back in the room at least.

“What the fuck, Mr Fry; What the fuck are you breeding at your house?”

“Doctor, as I explained, these two things appeared on my typewriter. And now we are here. May I see what you just saw?”

“Your story is about to get a bit weirder. Go ahead.” Doctor Jones stepped away from the microscope. I walked towards her. It was more of a stride actually, as I placed myself between the good doctor and the imminent danger under the lens. For a moment, I felt quite pleased with myself.

Suddenly, it were as though I was far above the earth. Through the window of my plane, on the ocean below, I saw a ship. I couldn’t begin to guess at the vessel’s size but it was heavily armed. It was cigar shaped, with large cannons bow and stern. Smaller guns ran the length of the ship on both sides and the whole thing was covered by an elliptical dome. This is the one I’d called Dash.

I panned across the static ocean from the starboard side of the vessel to Dot. This second one was circular. It had guns protruding all around its perimeter and was also covered by a domed roof. At the very top was another dome; semi-transparent: the bridge? I swore I could see movement beneath that second glass dome. Even at 1000x magnification, they were just dots but they were moving. What the fuck, indeed.

Doctor Jones moved the petri dish to an electron microscope. “Ten million times magnification and sound as well.”

“Sound?”

“Yup. Tiny little amplifying microphones, so we can hear what they’re saying.” Now this, I was looking forward to. This was rather exciting, given the potential enormity of our discovery, even though it was miniscule. Then I wondered at that figure: 10,000,000x magnification. What would we see at that level? What detail.

Doctor Jones divided the monitor into two; split screen, with one camera on each vessel: Dot was on the right and Dash on the left. Then she started to tune in a radio, because “We need to tune into their frequency.”

“Might there not be translation problems? I mean, a language barrier?

“Have you never heard of the Babel fish, Mr Fry?”

“Well, of course, but…”

“We have a computer program, called Babel fish. I was one of the coders in fact. I was doing some research into animal languages, because they do have a vocabulary you know? Most of it isn’t audible to us and what is, we hear as a foreign language; animal sounds. But in those sounds alone, there are a lot of variations. When you then consider the majority of the language spectrum which we can’t hear, you realise that pretty much all animals have quite complex language systems. Eventually I was hoping to apply it to my veterinary work, so that I could hear what the animals were saying.”

“So why didn’t you?”

“Emotional detachment. It’s very difficult to leave my job at the surgery. Imagine how much harder it would be if the animals could talk to me.”

“Imagination is my job, Doctor. That really is quite a mind blowing thought. But your Babel fish program works?”

“Alarmingly, yes. It required a lot of input: different sounds, variations of them and frequencies; varied physical anatomies of the speakers; sounds in relation to catalysts and so on: Crunch all of that data in a quantum computer and it didn’t take long to come up with the Babel fish.”

“So the Babel fish program really can do what the Babel fish of legend did, albeit in a different way? It can translate any language to and from any other?”

“Like the Babel fish. It has many applications and huge potential. At a personal level though, I just didn’t think I was ready. You’re probably surprised, Mr Fry.”

“I’m amazed that the Babel fish really exists but I’m not surprised at your personal choice: It is a truly gargantuan step to take. On the one hand, opening your mind to the unimagined, but on the other, potentially catastrophic.”

“I’m glad you understand, Mr Fry. But in our current situation, I think it’s the right thing to do. If these things are just nano machines, they exhibit a level of artificial intelligence which might have an audible language. If there’s something organic inside and if we assume that they built these ships, then they must be intelligent. But to be the kind of multi-celled organisms which are capable of thought, they’d be too small. They’d have to exist at a sub-atomic level. Quantum beings. Wouldn’t that just blow the mind?”

“And I thought I was the writer. That is quite an incredible concept. There would have to be sub, sub, sub-atomic particles which we’ve never even imagined. Entire universes within an atom.” My mind wandered in the static from the radio. Then Doctor Jones hit something: a signal.

There were two distinctly different sounds which alternated, seemingly at random. The first was a low-pitched, gargling drone. It had no regularity; It was random in fact. It was certainly artificial. It certainly wasn’t interference. The second sound was more of a collection of sounds: high-pitched squeaks and clicks, low growls and whoops; and a third, whispering and rasping noise. “Ready for the Babel fish, Mr Fry?”

“Those are voices,” I offered.

“That’s what I’m thinking. There’s only one way to find out and that’s to eavesdrop on the conversation.”

“I know.” I paused. “I know that. You know that. I don’t know though. I don’t know if I want to. I don’t know if I’m ready, doctor.”

“Just as I’m still not ready to hear what the animals I treat are saying. But this is different.”

“I can see that. Of all the metaphorical, theoretical, figurative switches I’ve ever written about, this is by far the one with the biggest stories, once it’s switched on. The moral and philosophical issues are ones which we may have to address later. This is potentially first contact with beings from another world; another galaxy; another universe.” And then our world changed, as soon as we switched the Babel fish on.

“You had no business following us. This was our mission.” The first was a deep voice, a little excited.

“No it wasn’t. You stole our plans.” This second voice was an accusatory, loud whisper.

“Let’s look around”, said Hannah. “Let’s see who’s talking.”

Doctor Jones took hold of a joystick on the microscope console and moved in first towards dash. I’d not seen an electron microscope like this but the fiction writer thanked the inventor for the opportunities this was about to open. As the doctor moved the joystick around, it were as though she was controlling a tiny space ship in a video game. We positioned ourselves just off the starboard side of Dash, so that we could see the side of the ship. We’d seen the elliptical dome on top from above, and the cannons below it. Below those though were portholes running the length of the vessel and spread over three levels below deck. Starting with the uppermost, we zoomed in and peered through a window: There were animals inside.

Through the top row of portholes, we saw a jungle. There were apes in the trees and above them, birds in the canopy. There were apes on the ground. There were snakes in the trees and on the jungle floor. There were white mice on the ground and in burrows beneath it. There were also snakes beneath the ground.

The middle row of windows looked into a subterranean world of serpents and mice, before giving way to the bottom deck. Somewhere between the middle and lower decks, terra firma gave way to water: a clear blue underground ocean, teeming with dolphins and whales. What must those marine mammals see in the sky above them? The underside of the earth? A beige-brown sky which sometimes rained food, as mice and snakes dropped into the water? Serpents swam in the ocean too.

We scanned back up the side of the ship but above the jungle deck was just the domed roof and the weapons. It was only from this angle that we spotted something we’d never have seen from above: Antennae extending above the ship. There were three masts on the dome and a single white dove perched briefly on the central one before flying off. It was a microcosm environment; It was an ark. Dolphins and white mice: perhaps Douglas Adams had been right.

I had a hunch and asked Hannah if we could take a look at the bow of the ship. She manoeuvred our camera into position and my suspicion was confirmed as something else we’d not been able to see from above hove into view on the monitor: The domed roof overhung a row of windows above the upper deck. We were looking into the bridge of the ship.

There were three seats, only the central of which was occupied. Such a configuration in science fiction would have the first officer and ship’s counsel seated either side of the captain. In the centre seat was a snake and hanging in front of it was a microphone, extended down from the ceiling of the bridge. The captain and the owner of the whispered, rasping voice was a serpent.

I had studied herpetology and I knew snakes. There are roughly 3000 species of ophidians known to live on earth: From the tiny thread snake at around seven inches in length, to the reticulated python, which can reach 30 feet. Snakes can thrive in trees: one can fly; They can climb and burrow, existing above and below ground; They can swim and live in both fresh and salt water. They can be found on all continents except Antarctica. They are reptiles and as such, they have cold blood, but they are adaptable and incredibly efficient hunters and survivors.

Only about 10% of snake species are venomous and of those, only a few pose any threat to man. Not far down any list of the most venomous snakes is the legendary Black Mamba. There are snakes which are more venomous but the black mamba is undoubtedly the most dangerous of all snakes. An untreated bite from one doesn’t so much make you wish that you were dead, as pray that death itself would end. They grow up to 12 feet in length and they are fast. They’re also explosively aggressive. There is a documented case of a black mamba pursuing a bull elephant, biting it and the elephant succumbing to the venom. The black mamba knows no fear. And despite the name, black mambas are not black: They are grey, tending toward the lighter shades. It’s the inside of their mouths which is totally black: a bite which delivers hell. Untreated bites from this species are 100% fatal. The estimated human fatality count from a maximum dose of venom is 42. I was mesmerised by this incredible snake.

Here, in the central command seat on the bridge of a heavily armed vessel, sat a black mamba. And from the pitch black mouth, came whispered, rasping words into the microphone:

“You stole our plans: You are welcome to them. The plans brought you here. You are not welcome here. You overlooked one thing and it ought to be pretty obvious by now what that was.”

If it wasn’t so worrying, it would have made for a riveting story. We floated over to Dot:

Your plans?” The deep voice again. “It was our plan to find God”

We zoomed in to the upper dome of Dot, where a group of men were gathered around a table. “Name this oversight of which you speak”, one of them continued.

“Well, it wasn’t an oversight as such”, replied the snake. “After all, how can something be overlooked if it’s not even there? You stole the plans for your ship from us. We knew you would, so we moved a few things around and left one crucial thing out. But first, let me be clear about something: You’re on a mission to find God. Does the bible not forbid such a thing?”

“No, you misunderstand. We are missionaries, come to spread the word and convert the people of this and other planets to our beliefs. So that eventually, all of God’s creatures throughout the universe are united in faith.”

“It was for that exact reason that we left the old planet. There’s no god, you deluded fool.”

“What are you talking about, snake?”

“I speak a basic fact, man: There is no god.”

“Blasphemy! Take that back, or I shall fire upon you!”

“No.”

“Fucking hell”, I said.

“Don’t worry”, said Doctor Jones. “He won’t do it.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because he needs whatever the crucial thing is from mister snake here.”

This was getting quite exciting: Two warring factions, one threatening the destruction of the other with weapons poised. In a petri dish, under an electron microscope. They continued:

“You need something which I have”, continued the mamba. “So I’ll say it again: there is no god.”

“Damn you, you; you…”

“Snake?”

“Yes, punished by God, forever to slither on the ground.”

“Are you getting angry, man? “Bite me”: Please say it.”

“I like this mamba guy”, said the doctor.

“He’s, er, a character”, I concurred.

“Evil serpent!” Said one of the men.

“Define Evil, man. Is it not a subjective word? What one sees as evil, another may see as good. If evil is just bad stuff, then why is there so much of it on the planet we fled? A planet which you hold that your god made?”

“Aha!” Said man. “God must punish his creation for the original sin.”

“And if I had hands”, said the snake, “you’d have just walked right into them. The original sin: The forbidden fruit. But non-humans also suffer fires, floods and earthquakes, yet we are not descended from Adam and Eve. Ergo, man, your god does not exist and none of us on my ship are creatures of any god.”

The mamba paused and it seemed effective. Then he continued:

“Have you not noticed that you’re a little on the small side? Your ship, I mean.”

“Yours isn’t much bigger.”

“True. But you probably expected to hang menacingly in the sky, with entire cities in the shadow of your ship, fearing you. If you look around, you’re not. We moved a decimal point in the plans.”

“But your ship is the same size as ours.”

“Indeed. Because we needed to be this size to pass through the wormhole which transported us here. But what were we to do once we got here? Simple, run the restore routine and return ourselves to our natural size. Only us and not the ship: that would make us a bit conspicuous. Just the crew, then we just disperse among the other creatures on this new planet and no-one knows. You see, the plans for your ship don’t have that restore function. So you’re a bit fucked really, aren’t you?”

“I think I’m falling in love with a black mamba”, said the doctor.

“So what now?” I asked.

“Well, we clearly need to intervene.”

“But that would go against the prime directive: we would be interfering with an alien species. We’d be playing God.”

“Mr Fry, they’re unaware of us. Our comparatively enormous size effectively makes us invisible. I have a plan.”

Doctor Jones removed the petri dish from the microscope and picked up a magnifying glass and some tweezers. “Let’s get a coffee.”

Doctor Hannah Jones and I sat in the centre of a park with the petri dish placed on the grass between us, drinking coffee, chatting and laughing: The perfect beginning of another story. She took the tweezers and the magnifying glass from her pocket and carefully lifted Dash from the adhesive. “Hold out your hand. Time to say goodbye.”

I looked at the incredible little thing in the palm of my hand, now moving around again. Then I held my hand to my mouth and gently blew the ship into the wind.

Hannah was studying Dot beneath the magnifying glass. It’s amazing how things just spontaneously combust at that magnification.

“What a strange day, Hannah.”

“You made it that way, Simon.” I was about to ask and then Hannah answered: “I read your registration form.”

To be continued…

Until Cyrus Song is released as a novel, other books are available.

For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.” Stephen Hawking.

 

A fish in your ear

FICTION

babel fish
The original Babel fish

This is the third story in the Cyrus Song series of short stories, which I’m now working on as a novel. The two stories which precede this are in my anthology. For those unable to buy my book, original versions of both stories are still on this blog.

Why do I give my writing away for free? For my own benefit, so that others may get a taste of my style, then perhaps buy my books, which contain more. And of course, it’s exposure, in the hope that one day someone might notice. But more importantly, it’s sharing something which I enjoy doing. If people get something from reading my stories, that’s worth more than money. If the odd reader feels they’d like to donate to my cause by buying a book, that helps.

If I could give everyone a gift, I’d give them the means to understand what I’m trying to say. I’d give them a Babel fish…

The Babel fish

“If you want to see differently, listen.”

I always dine with a guest, and tonight’s was obsession. Given the nature of my work, I normally dine alone, but the guest is one chosen from the many who share my mind. I can live with many, but can only question one at a time to find out if it’s the best pursuit of my aim: To talk with the animals.

I tried to place the enormity of the previous day into some sort of context. But even though I’m a writer, there were insufficient words to explain it, no matter how numerous and intertwined I made them. Less is more in literature, suffice it to say, I’d listened to animals talking. I’d heard white mice speaking:

“If only they could hear the dawn chorus. All those voices: The sopranos in harmony with the baritone of the sun: Earth’s choir. Then they’d hear the whispers from the trees, the humming of the clouds and the ghosts in the wind. But they don’t listen.”

It’s always after the event that you realise what you should have said, or asked. Of course, by then it’s too late: An event has been created and there’s no way of going back to change it. Such is the nature of life and of space time: Both are the natural scheme of things, intricately woven together.

The night before the morning I found myself writing this, this story could have been so different. Mine was a story with a protagonist but without a hero. I’d returned home with two white mice and Doctor Hannah Jones had gone on somewhere else; I didn’t think to ask where that might be and she didn’t think to tell me. Every story needs a hero and I certainly wasn’t it. I hoped the doctor wasn’t mistaking my obsession with the Babel fish for one with her. There was everything to admire, including her invention of a universal translation device in said fish.

The Babel fish was a computer program, named after the fictional universal translation device invented by Douglas Adams. Simply put, it could translate any language into any other, including animal languages. Using a wide frequency range, the Babel fish could hear animal sounds which are inaudible to humans. Either that, or it read minds. In any case, the upshot was that it could translate any animal language into any human one. The reversal of this was still at a research stage, but there was nothing to make me think that it couldn’t translate my words into ones which each different animal would understand. If so, I would have something which I could devote my life to writing about. Hannah had something which could win her a Nobel prize, but she’d need persuasion to even continue her research.

Who might be a hero to Doctor Jones? She herself was probably in her late twenties or early thirties. She was small: short and slim. She had long, red hair, which gave a fiery frame to a pretty bespectacled face. She was intelligent, intuitive and witty; She was perhaps a little guarded, maybe introverted. I was an extrovert on paper: I could be anything in the words which spilled from my typewriter. If anyone were to read those words, they might find me. As it stood, I was just like Hannah but without the red hair and probably less intelligent, intuitive and witty. The only thing I had over her was about 10-15 years.

I wondered how my two white mice might perceive the situation. I wouldn’t know because I couldn’t hear what they were saying without Doctor Jones. If I spoke, would they understand me?

“You see”, I said. “The thing is. Well, the things are, I suppose. I wonder if I should be writing about all of this. I’m not even sure what I’m writing about, let alone what it might become or where it may end up. It has so much potential, yet I’m not sure I’m the right person to be in charge of something so important. Should I let go, just walk away and let someone else finish what I’ve started? What might someone else think of all this? Would they use it for their own gains, or simply dismiss it? The latter remains a problem, even if I do decide to write about it.”

The mice carried on being mice, so I decided to sleep on it.

When I awoke, it was still there: The next day, the problem still existed. And so did the mice.

I couldn’t just blunder into the PDSA in New Cross again. I’d done that twice already, most recently with the two white mice, Victoria and Julie, and I’d heard them talking. Doctor Jones also had an electron microscope, for looking at really tiny things, like viruses and bacteria: There were clues that there might be whole other universes in the sub-atomic world. I looked around my studio: I hadn’t cleaned the place for a couple of days and it was getting quite dusty. I was reluctant to do the housework, for fear of the consequences which might befall countless microscopic things, which may or may not be there. I couldn’t take my entire living space to Doctor Jones. The logical thing to do would be to ask Hannah over. But I couldn’t do that as the studio was so dusty. I had reached an impasse in my story. I decided to phone the hospital.

Doctor Jones was unavailable. I asked if I might perhaps call back when she was free. Doctor Jones was unavailable for the rest of the day.

Was Hannah unwell? On annual leave? Abducted; killed? Paranoia now joined obsession at the dining table.

“Doctor Jones isn’t available all day”, said reception.

“Will she be back tomorrow?”

“We don’t know. Is there a medical emergency? We have other vets.”

No other “Vet” would do. Might one of these “Other vets” be in Hannah’s lab at that very moment? In the very same room as the Babel fish?

“Is there a medical emergency?”, reception said again. “Mr Fry?” That’s me.

I looked at Victoria Wood and Julie Walters in their cage. I could perhaps argue that those two being in a cage was an emergency. But what would be the point of going to New Cross anyway, if the doctor I needed to see wasn’t there?

“She’s on house calls today, Mr Fry.”

I’d been rumbled. I hung up.

House calls: Care in the community. It was a logical progression of the little I’d learned up to then about Doctor Hannah Jones, although somewhat counter to her ethos of leaving work at the workplace, for fear of becoming even more emotionally attached to the animals. It was that fear which prevented her from using the very device she’d invented: The Babel fish. But in this respect, I supposed it was entirely different: She still wasn’t getting too attached to the patients by hearing them speak, then not being able to leave them, or feeling she had to take them home with her: She was visiting them in their own homes, where she couldn’t hear them speak. The fact remained that wherever she was, it wasn’t actually her that I needed, it was the machine.

But the Babel fish / Doctor Jones situation was a self-perpetuating one: One needed the other. It was like the TARDIS and The Doctor, with the Doctor refusing to get in the box. I had the makings of a story, but for that reluctant passenger.

It didn’t matter. What difference would it make if the story was never told? In my hands, none at all.

By a strange coincidence, none at all was the level of chance I’d assumed I had of hearing from Doctor Jones that day. Suddenly and for no apparent reason, my mobile phone rang: What were the chances? Probably one, to the power of the caller’s number, against. It was the animal hospital.

“Simon Fry?” That’s how I answer my phone: There’s always an upward inflection in my voice, which annoys me. It’s as though I’m questioning who I am.

“Mr Fry, it’s Doctor Jones.” Having just used my first name, I wondered why Hannah hadn’t introduced herself with hers. I guessed she was maintaining professional protocol. “From the hospital”, she said. I knew that: It was the hospital’s number calling me and I knew that Doctor Jones worked there. She really was professional. “You called.” I had.

“Erm, yes. There’s something I’d like to show you.” Actually, I had nothing to show Hannah but if I’d merely said I’d like to talk to her about something, she might have suggested we did that over the phone, or dismissed me completely.

“Is it a patient?” She asked.

“Yes”, I said. What on earth was I thinking?

Doctor Jones had appointments for the rest of the afternoon, but if I’d like to go to the hospital, she said she’d try to fit me in.

The waiting room was busier than before, with half a dozen patients besides me and my rabbit. I’d heard other animals speak when I’d used the Babel fish before, but it was rabbits that intrigued me. Because if you look a rabbit, any rabbit, directly in the eyes, they really look like they want to tell you something. All the animals could speak and I could hear them. I hadn’t discounted Douglas Adams’ theory on dolphins and mice, and I’d not yet heard a dolphin’s sounds translated, but for me it was rabbits. Much as I admired Douglas, I wondered if he’d missed something. I was continuing his work. I believed that it was the rabbits who could tell us the answer, to life, the universe, and everything.

I pondered a little riddle to bide the time, about the animals in that room: Here were six animals and between them, they had 18 legs. If there were no means of seeing the animals in the room, what might people suppose them to be, based on the collective number of legs alone?

There were two cats in baskets: One was a tabby and the other was black, with a white chest: It looked like it was dressed for dinner, in a black suit and white shirt.

There were two dogs, from the polar extremes of the canine world: A huge, furry beast, the size of a small horse, and a tiny little Chihuahua cross breed thing. It looked like it probably yapped a lot, and as though it’s bulbous eyes would pop out if it was squeezed firmly enough.

All domestic dogs share a common ancestor in the grey wolf and as such, any canine can cross breed with any other. Theoretically then, given a step ladder, the little dog could mate with the larger one in the waiting room and produce offspring: What curious things those would be.

The other two patients were a Mynah bird in a cage and a Burmese python around a young girl’s shoulders. Given the Mynah bird’s famous ability to mimic human sounds in captivity, I wondered if the Babel fish might be redundant if I were to have an opportunity to listen to the bird. The python looked to be quite young, at around ten feet in length. Docile and inquisitive, as those snakes are, it was tasting the air with its forked tongue. I’d taken an instant dislike to the small bug-eyed dog and I crossed my fingers for no reason at all.

“Mr Fry?” That’s me. It was Doctor Jones.

“Yes, that’s me.”

Hannah didn’t even wait until we were on the other side of the door before she said the sort of curious thing I’d heard on my previous visits. In fact, I clearly heard her mumble it as soon as I stood up: “Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Charles was quite reluctant to cross the room on his lead, so I picked him up and carried him.

As we walked into Doctor Jones’ examination room, she was reading from her notes: “Charles Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. A rabbit. Really?”

“Well, I had to think quickly as I filled out the form. You see, I only picked him up on the way here.”

“He’s on a fucking lead.” For someone so pretty, she had a very potty mouth.

“Yes. He’s a house rabbit. Actually, he’s a flat rabbit: I live in a flat. I don’t have a garden and even if I did, I wouldn’t want him all cooped up in a cage outside. Then I’d have to call him David Soul.” Doctor Jones looked at me with a slightly surprised face. “Because”, I continued, “then he’d be Starsky in a hutch you see?”

“Oh, I see. Believe me, I see.”

“He just looked so sad in the shop, like he wanted to tell me something. And I couldn’t carry a hutch here, so I got him a nice lead. It suits him, don’t you think?”

“He suits you, Mr Fry.”

“Yes, so I thought I’d bring Charles for an initial check-up.”

“Really? Nothing to do with the Babel fish then?” She was very clever. “Fine.”: Result. “I do have other patients to see, Mr Fry. Charles looks like a fine rabbit to me. Same as before: You sit in the corner and try to just,” She paused. “Not be here.”

A splendid plan.

The first patient was the cat in the DJ: His name was Eddie, and his human was a lady, probably in her late 40s, called Liz. Liz would perhaps have been a little unconventional outside of Lewisham, or London for that matter: Clearly a little eccentric and perhaps a tad over made-up, but completely at ease within herself. She wore a bright red tunic with a faux fur collar, over a frilly white dress shirt, the cuffs extending flamboyantly from beneath her coat. She had hair which was jet black, but for a white streak which ran through her parting: Whether it was exposed roots or a flourish of peroxide, it didn’t matter. Liz wore tight black leather trousers, cut short at the ankle to accentuate her ankles, furnished with a silver anklet. She wore bright red shoes with stiletto heels and she tottered a little.

“So what’s troubling Eddie?” Hannah asked.

“Well, I don’t know really”, Liz said in a surprisingly masculine voice. Liz was just as at home in himself as he was in this part of London, or anywhere: What a wonderful person. Liz continued: “He’s just not been going out so much.”

I was so enamoured by Liz that I almost forgot to put the headphones on. The microphone was either still above Hannah’s table from the last time I’d been there, or she’d replaced it in expectation of my making a return visit.

I switched the Babel fish on and heard a familiar static feedback as I typed in “Cat”. Then I slid the mouse pointer across the screen, before picking up Eddie’s voice:

“…drilling.” Eddie’s voice was male but effeminate. I only caught the last word and it sounded like “Drilling”: For what? Eddie continued: “Pour tout ce qui est derrière le mur. Vous ne le sentez?”

How naieve I must have been to assume that all animals spoke in English. Eddie was drilling for whatever was behind the wall. Surely just a cavity? A dead mouse perhaps.

“So, he’s normally an outdoors chap?” Hannah had a remarkable ability to anthropomorphise animals. Eddie was certainly a “Chap”.

“All the time, except when he needs food.”

“Je suis un, ‘ow you say, chat de ruelle?” Alley cat. “Vous pensez que vous me entendez ronronnement. Je perce.” You think you hear me purr: I drill.

Hannah conducted the familiar physical examination of a cat: Lifting Eddie’s lips to check his gums and checking his nostrils for moisture. Humans owned by cats frequently ask if a dry, warm nose means their cat is sick. The short answer is no. A healthy cat’s nose can vary between wet and dry several times over the course of a day. And there are many reasons a cat can have a dry, warm nose that have nothing to do with health.

“Elle est très jolie.”

Next, Doctor Jones squeezed Eddie’s belly, picking his rear end up so that his front paws remained on the table. She was checking his gut for blockages or perhaps a twisted colon.

“Je suis un chat, pas une brouette.” If ever there were a feline Star Trek, Eddie would play Doctor McCoy.

Then Hannah lifted Eddie’s tail to check for signs of worms.

“Oh l’humanité!”

“I can’t see that there is anything at all wrong with this young man”, Hannah said to Liz. He’s a cat. He looks like the kind of cat who just likes being a cat. I’d just let him get on with doing that. If he shows any obvious signs of not being himself, by all means bring him back in but for now, I can’t see anything at all to worry about.”

“Okay”. Somehow, Liz didn’t seem at all surprised. Eddie made his own independent way into his basket.

“Ma couverture. Tapis magique. Emmenez moi au le Catnip.” Eddie was on drugs: What a fantastic cat he was.

I didn’t get a chance to speak to Doctor Jones. Not long after Liz and Eddie had left, Hannah returned with an elderly lady and the Mynah bird.

Part of the starling family, Mynah birds are remarkably intelligent, and famed for their ability to mimic the sounds they hear around them. “Myna” is derived from the Hindi language mainā, which itself is derived from Sanskirt madanā. I was especially intrigued by this patient, because it’s mimickry of the sounds around it may be just that, or it could be that the Babel fish was able to translate its voice into something different; perhaps something entirely unexpected.

I tuned the Babel fish in: “….Yes dear”, was what I heard through the headphones as the bird said “Yes dear”.

Doctor Jones looked at her notes, then at the old lady. “So this is Ronnie?”

“Yes dear.” Said the lady.

“Yes dear.” Said the bird.

“And what’s the problem?”

“Well”, said the old girl. “He’s got a problem with his foot.”

“Foot, yes.” Said the bird.

“He keeps holding it up all the time.”

“Time, yes.”

“It’s like he’s in pain”, the lady said.

“Pain, yes”, said the bird. He clearly had a condition known in humans as Echolalia.

“And it’s always the same leg?” Hannah was being intuitive again.

“Leg, yes.” Said the Mynah bird.

“I think so”, said the old lady.

I was a little bored to be honest, so I twiddled with the controls on the Babel fish. Doctor Jones continued to ask the old lady questions and the Mynah bird kept repeating the last few words the old dear said. For a moment, I completely lost the conversation. Then as I tuned back in, the Mynah bird said something quite unexpected:

“…unexpected, yes.” I couldn’t be sure if I’d heard that through the headphones or in the room. I didn’t even hear a diagnosis or a prognosis. I was figuratively floored.

Hannah, the old lady and the Mynah bird had left the room. I remembered Charles Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, on the floor. I looked down at him and he looked up at me. He had that rabbit look, like he really wanted to say something.

I grabbed the microphone and typed “Rabbit” into the Babel fish. I pointed the mic at my rabbit: Nothing.

“Well?”, I said.

I lifted his ears and laid the microphone on the floor in front of him: Nothing. Surely he’d heard me? Did I have an ironic deaf rabbit?

Hannah was out of the room, so I unplugged the headphones. Maybe they were faulty. Perhaps Charles was trying to say something and I hadn’t heard him.

I turned the speakers on the computer up to 11. I blew into the microphone to make sure it was working: Charles didin’t even flinch at what sounded like a clap of thunder.

Aren’t you going to tell me the answer? To life, the universe and everything? Or explain why the answer is 42? Because we’ve been asking the wrong questions? Isn’t the earth just one big organic computer, designed to work it all out? I’m carrying on Douglas’ work. I’ve listened to mice. I’ve not translated dolphins. But the mice said the answers could be heard in nature: In the dawn chorus, in the wind, and all around us. And that’s beautiful music, but it’s not a voice. The planet must have a voice. So I theorised that the answer lies with rabbits, and the way you all look like you want to say something. And now I’m talking to you, and you’re all ears. And now I’ve got a deaf and dumb rabbit? What’s anyone supposed to ask you?” I was shouting at a rabbit, and the rabbit still looked like it was about to say something. But it didn’t.

Eventually, I left: In frustration, I left the room and I left that cloth eared rabbit there.

I walked along the corridor between the examination room and the waiting area. As I got closer to the exit, I could hear Hannah’s voice but it was mixed up with others. Then someone, somewhere, said the oddest thing:

“I don’t really know how to say this.”

Cyrus Song (the novel) is due for publication in early 2018. Follow the Facebook page for updates.

A hall of mirrors | Reflections of yesterday

FICTION

Hall of mirrors
Hall of Mirrors, Caloptric Chamber, Mirror Maze in Petrin Park

Interrogation, introspection, introversion, group therapy…I’ve been doing a lot of talking to myself lately, and the best way to do that, in the absence of any outside help, is by writing: Pink Sunshine was a self-study in my writing, and so is this. Yet, such seems to be the complexity of my writing that I’ve been told I can pull this kind of thing off. If I’m pulling anything at all off, it’s just an ability to tell my own stories through the medium of fiction. There’s a part of the writer in all stories but anyone who doesn’t know me, wouldn’t know I’m in this one. So why mention it? Because I’ve been asked how I do it, and can I teach others? I don’t know. But I can provide insights as well as telling the stories.

At least one of the people who asked me if I could teach them, was one of my younger friends, now almost out of their teens. I’ve counselled them on many things and got them to look at things differently, which has helped them. This is just a story about altering perceptions…

Reflections of yesterday

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re Muslim, right?

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

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

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

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

“You know.” It was another shared moment.

“You’ve been here?”

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

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

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

“What? Explain that one, please.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What about the women?”

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

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

“My name is Javeed. It means forever.”

“What was your name before?”

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

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

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

“A tenner? You sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I was walking down Stanton Street early one Sunday morning I saw a chicken a few yards ahead of me. I was walking faster than the chicken so I gradually caught up. By the time we approached Eighteenth Avenue I was close behind.

The chicken turned south on Eighteenth. At the fourth house along it turned in at the walk, hopped up the front steps and rapped sharply on the metal storm door with its beak. After a moment the door opened and the chicken went in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But sung as…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Jim. It means Jim.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jim was lost for a moment.

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

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

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

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

If I had a fuzzbox…

FICTION

Pink sunshine.jpg
If you’ve got a fuzzbox, use it

This one was a bit of a departure. It’s a conversation between narrators, protagonists and characters; an interview with a writer. It’s an offloading of thoughts using the medium of fiction, including some ideas about stories from my second volume of shorts. It also contains my funeral wishes:

Pink Sunshine

Like so many things, and with so much in life, he didn’t realise at first that he was in the room. It was only when he had an itch in his left eye that he first thought he noticed. But he couldn’t be sure, because his eye instinctively and reflexively closed when he rubbed it. Nonetheless, his right eye picked up on something and his brain took over. It was a subtle oddness, noticing something he hadn’t before; a thing which was very strange indeed. It was like catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror through a lazy eye, a few extra microseconds to focus. His reflection seemed to be moving more slowly than he was, or rather, struggling to keep up.

This newly discovered physical inflection hadn’t affected him before, because it’s subtlety was such that he’d not noticed it. Even though that might seem a slightly strange thing to think, he decided to leave it in, as it may be relevant. Perhaps it was newly acquired. Wherever it had come from, he was curious. If it had always been there, he was more intrigued by it for that very reason. He had a tick. He decided he quite liked it. He was going to keep it. In that room, where he’d ended up, without realising that was where he wanted to be. But the mirror must always be returned to its own room.

The mirror was not something he was keen to look in, which is why he kept it hidden away. It was in the cupboard beneath the sink in the bathroom. It was behind two closed doors and the light was usually off, so that what it saw was mainly darkness. He was mainly nocturnal himself, the curtains perpetually closed and his work lit artificially. He didn’t like the sun. He saw its orange glow separated into different wavelengths of light: Red, black and white. The latter were binary; darkness and light, with no deviations to greys. First light brought another fear: letters. The daily mail was full of hate, from creditors chasing him for money he didn’t have; and fear, of ever-approaching legal actions.

Next to his bathroom was the locked room. The door to that room was always locked, except when he unlocked it to enter or leave the room. He worked under lock and key, but with an element of danger deliberately built into the situation. He would write more of that later. And when he wasn’t working, what he did was kept secure.

He was in the room when there was a knock at the front door. This wasn’t unprecedented at 3am, so he had few reservations about seeing who it was. As he opened the door, the outside security light did two things to the man on the threshold: It illuminated him, but the angle of the light obscured him, so that he was partly silhouetted.

“Steve Laker.”

“Yes”, he said.

“Good. You know me. Do you mind if I come in?”

“No I don’t. Who are you?”

“Steve Laker. May I come in?”

This was strange, yet not so strange that he could deny it was happening. “Do you have ID?” he asked.

“Of course.” The man took a wallet from his jacket pocket and handed him a driving licence and a business card. The licence appeared genuine and the business card gave his profession as private investigator. “Everything okay?” the man asked.

“Yes.” He thought for a moment. “I’m sorry, but this all seems somewhat familiar.”

“That’s because it’s a plot device. Paul Auster used it very well in his book, The New York Trilogy. In one of the stories, the narrator meets a detective called Paul Auster.”

He invited him in. He found the prospects of many conversations frankly fascinating.

They sat in the living room, him on the sofa and the man on a futon, and they drank coffee, which they both liked the same way.

“What are you working on?” he asked. He wondered what it was in the room which might have given him any idea he might be working on something, anything in fact. “You have a locked room, right?”

“Yes.”

“What colour is yours?”

“It depends.”

“Hmm, I know. What colour was it the last time you were in there?”

“Duck egg blue.”

“Small blue thing. From Vega.”

“Small Blue Thing, by Suzanne Vega. That’s how I imagine it. Do you smoke?”

“You have to ask?”

So they drank coffee, listened to music, and smoked a fine blend of Indica and Sativa marijuana.

“So, why is your locked room duck egg blue? What are you doing in there? Obviously, nothing at the moment, but when you’re in there?”

“Who’s to say I’m not?”

“And who’s to say it’s not duck egg blue?”

“Who’s to say whether I’m sick or not? Who’s qualified? Which judge? The main thing in that room is me. I’ve just finished a book and I’m wondering if it’ll be my last. So I’m writing things down in there. I’m getting things off my mind and as I’m doing that, more stories are occurring to me. So I’ve decided it’s best just to carry on in that respect, but for some of the things I want to say.

“When I wrote that last book, I had people around me. People who took an interest in a writer. Now that I have somewhere permanent to write; a writer in residence; those people are no longer around. Everything has changed. And yet, I look around me and I ask if it’s possible that everything in the entire world just suddenly changed, or was it just me? Whichever the case, I don’t know how it happened. So I’m trying to make sense of it in that room. I’m writing it all down and I’m writing letters to people. That’s the difficult part.”

“Writer’s block?”

“Writer’s block, only insofar as it’s a barrier erected by me.”

“Like a defence mechanism?”

“To protect me from my own internal truth? Perhaps. But not normally. In fact, writing is my means of exorcising it all. It’s just that some of it I may not share.”

“Such as?”

“There are other things in the room. I write about those too. I’m exorcising things which are in that room by writing about them, then leaving the writing in the locked room as well. It’s a bit counter-productive really, because I’m adding to it all the time. I find it recursive, inward reflection. Then I read it all back to myself, and it’s self-magnifying. When what I think are well-chosen words are read aloud, they prove themselves and take on other meanings. Then I think more. Because I’m challenged and afraid of the unknown. So I question it, gain answers and write. Then there are more questions which occur to me. Will I ever publish my findings? I think the space will eventually become too small.

“If you paint a room of finite size in a different colour, then do it again, and again, and again… How long before the layers of colours have built up, to make the room gradually smaller with each coat, until there’s barely room to swing a cat which I don’t have?”

“A rhetorical question?”

“Like so many I ask that room.

“My will and testament are in there, somewhere. I’ve written my funeral pinks: Not the blues of Auden’s poem, but pinks: Pink slips, ownership papers. I’d like to be shot into space, or scattered in an ocean, but I’m resigned to being burned. Some of me will at least escape. But whatever happens, all of me will continue the prediction imprinted in the big bang.”

“Doesn’t pre-determinism make you question the nature of your own free will?”

“Pre-determinism is the idea that all events are determined in advance. It is the philosophy that all events of history, past, present and future, have already been decided or are already known, by God, fate, or some other force, including human actions. Of course, this makes me question my own free will and that of others. But my own free will has allowed me to predetermine my end. If what I wish for doesn’t happen, then I have to console myself that it wasn’t meant to be.

“I’ve written a humanist service, and even though I’ll be cremated, I should like the minister to say, “Ashes to ashes”, then I’d like the congregation to say, “Funk to funky”. If they then wish to sing, “We know Major Tom’s a Junky”, then I shall smile behind my casket lid and they will know that I did.

“I don’t deny that there might be one or more greater intelligences out there. I reject God in the only image I know: That of man. I long to refute the Church of England and others. I hold them in the same contempt as they do the LGBT community. And I renounce all religion for all of the blood that’s been spilled in their gods’ names.

“So for the music, I’d like The Duel, by Giorgio Moroder from the Electric Dreams soundtrack, because it’s one of many to my life. Then, Everyone says hi, by David Bowie, from his Heathen album, for I am a heathen and one day I’ll see the original again. Finally, Grey Will Fade, the title track from Charlotte Hatherley’s debut album, because the grey will fade; This too shall pass.

“If people can take care of that by co-operating, it would give me comfort in knowing that they’ve done that, and that they’re capable of much more. And that it was pre-determined; meant to happen. But I haven’t published those wishes and I dare not, for fear they might be ignored or forgotten. At least if I can think that it might happen, that would be comfort enough. It’s a subject I’ve written about in one of my new stories.

“I have few personal belongings, other than what’s in that room. My most valuable possession, one would assume to be my typewriter. It is indeed important and I bequeath it to my children, so that they might carry on what I started, if they so choose. They might be able to make sense of, even finish, some of my stories. I’ve written about how my most valued personal possession is my pen, because it represents freedom and escape. The typewriter isn’t portable, but the pen could go with me anywhere, if I went anywhere. Then I’d be afraid of losing it while I was out, and that compounds the whole fear I already have of being beyond the door. It’s the only pen I’ve ever owned, given to me by a nameless character who narrates a story I wrote in my last book. It’s a bespoke Waldmann Adámas, made from titanium and gun metal. It’s effortless to write with, and to simply hold in one’s hand; It’s a thing of aesthetic and ergonomic, functional beauty.

“There’s a collection of blue marbles in the room: Small blue things, made of glass. It’s comforting to run my fingers through a bowl full of them. Then I imagine I’m handling what were once the building blocks of an ancient city of glass, eroded over millennia, so that they are perfect spheres, like sapphire pebbles on a beach. Small, blue ghosts. When knocked together, they sound an echo from the past.

“I’ve not been so busy lately, that I haven’t had the time, to open up my mind, and watch the world, spinning out of time; to paraphrase Blur. Because I wonder if I might be out of time to do all the things I want to. But the battle to step out is an ongoing one. It’s agoraphobia which really holds the key to that room, with anxiety and paranoia as deputy screws. But that’s where everything is; All my expressionism, for expression is freedom.

“I experiment, play, throw away, like a child trying on clothes and make-up at her mother’s dressing table. Except I can’t, so every one of those unfinished tales is in the room, along with finished ones which might never see the light of day. They are all of me. The unfinished ones annoy me sometimes. Not hugely so; a bit like having a hair in your mouth.

“With all that I’ve written behind that door, it’s quite a crowded room. Metaphorically, figuratively, and literally, it is full of people and places, with lots going on. There may come a time when I have to radically rethink the locked room, for things might become so many that they have to spill out, as I can no longer keep the door closed. People and situations could fall into the hall and start to inhabit other rooms. I still have a lockable front door to the flat.

“One who could get out, is a recurring character in some earlier stories. He’s a writer with no name and he wants to go out and kill people. Well, his protagonist does, so that he can write about it. He longs to cause pain, humiliation, fear and shame. He wants to go out, but he dare not, for fear he kills someone and he’s identified. But he longs to make his new stories real, just as he lived his old ones. If he completes his next book, some of it would be chronicles of his killings; confessions told as fiction but with clues scattered around. He wants to go out but he fears the consequences if he does. Yet those very scenarios would provide the fuel for new work.

“There’d be a roadie, crashed out on the floor in a pile of paper. He spent some time out on the road, touring with various groups: The Anti Nowhere League, Angelic Upstarts… He could tell many stories. There were two people in one particular band who he struck a pact with. It was a long and philosophical conversation which led to the pact, but it’s as simple or complicated as an opinion on the punk movement. It negates the need for many things, other than trust in fellow humans. The pact was signed on a Crass anarchy flag re-purposed as a table cloth.

“If ever I want to die, I simply have to make a phone call and say a codeword. If I can’t speak, or I don’t want to say the word, I can text instead. About thirty minutes after that, I’ll be dead.

“It was a gentleman’s handshake; a pinky promise, made when we were young boys. Despite our innocence, with hindsight, I can’t find anything; no moral argument, which I believe could invalidate that verbal contract. It’s more than one story.

“Three teenage boys are lost. For all anyone knows, they could be Kiefer, Jason, and either of the Coreys. They could be Kiefer and Feldman again, River Phoenix, or Wesley Crusher.

“The other two stood by him, and he still stands by them. No-one knows who they are. Most people could take an educated guess but they may just never know. We are all so flung apart now, by families and circumstance, that very few people would be able to join all the dots between what’s gone on since the big bang of us all becoming adults. It would be a map in the stars, destined to be there, right from the very start.

“No-one knows who he is to the other two. If it’s not his turn first, he could be called upon to deliver his end of the bargain. Then there’s only one left for him to call before he might be found out and caught. And then he has a decision to make. It could happen in any order and they did it to mix life up a bit. Teenagers think like that, and sometimes, when he thinks about it, it’s a suicide pact. That’s why the importance of that word, whatever it is, wherever it’s hidden, has been discussed among them, without mentioning it, at great length. It’s a word which the three of them will take to the grave.

“If it’s his turn first, he doesn’t know how the others will do it. That’s the beauty of it. He could be sleeping in bed one night, or out doing some shopping, when they come. All he knows is that as soon as he’s said that word, he will be killed. And there’s no reversal, no returns. But if it’s not his turn first, he could be called on to kill his friends.

“Another story concerns conversational furniture.”

“That which we put into a dialogue to remind the audience of the setting.”

“Perhaps if just to separate it from a monologue. It’s a challenging story to write, and one of many drafts.

“I write a lot about what makes people different, or how some people see things differently: Many viewpoints; multiple personalities.

“There is much I wish to write, to express, to set free. Some of it is in that room and more is in my mind, in that room. There are people I wish to exorcise, to deny their very existence. Those are more stories.

“There are more, in Neurotribes. That unfolding story considers the various spectra of the human mind; because everything can be looked at as having a place within a spectrum, when compared to others. In there, we have personality disorders, inner voices and dramatic emotional swings. The Neurotribes are groups of people who simply think differently. Together, they cover the whole visual spectrum of colours: A rainbow of thoughts and voices. They are nomadic peoples, often fleeing religious persecution. They are not of any religion but it is religion which persecutes them, with its warped view of sexuality being confined to two types: heterosexual male and female.

“The neurotribes believe in five genders, like native Americans did before the pilgrim fathers invaded. Within the tribes there are Female, male, Two Spirit female, Two Spirit male, and transgender people. These five genders and their ways of thinking gave rise to their philosophy of “Human operating systems”: Just because a computer doesn’t run a specific operating system, doesn’t mean it’s dysfunctional.

“There’ll be some kind of epilogue or revelations in Acquiescence, a story of self-flagellation, where God inflicts upon himself, all of the scars inflicted upon his own children by him. As an immortal, his atonement will be infinite, as he hangs for all to see on the cross.

“I do have company in there, in the locked room. It’s the subject of yet another unfinished work behind the locked door. It’s a story which transcends barriers by telling itself in a universal language: There is no God left to narrate chapters but there is still a planet to tell a chronicle. It’s the story of a lone man and companions of his own making, through his understanding of science and philosophy. There are three water nymphs in his locked room, each in a different form: Solid, liquid, and gas; Ice, water and steam. Theirs are troubled minds and where others might see them as odd, he sees them as three beings in the same spectrum, this being the one of their varying degrees of transparency. He helps them and treats them as his own, but there is a barely visible tension in the tale. He harbours a secret, which if told to one of them, would change the whole story. But he dare not speak it.

“He adopts a philosophy, in which that which is unknown will always be the greatest thing. For to find out the truth would be to end a dream. And people say I should get out more.

“Every story is a metaphor. There’s a part of the writer in all of them. Sometimes it’s subtle and others, it can be as obvious as a monologue turned into dialogue to convey inward reflection through fictional narrative; An interview with a ghost.

“It’s difficult to know how to end a story like that. We want the reader to think, so we leave loose ends but we need to find a way of influencing their thoughts, both narrowing them for the narrative and expanding them for the greater good.

“There is usually at least one extra person in my stories, even though that might not be apparent. There will often be at least one, somewhere unseen in the background but vaguely apparent in the prose. An even harder trick to pull off, is one fewer. Repeat readings will often reveal more, or indeed less but only where less is more. It’s all down to how many layers of opacity I apply; how many coats of paint. Sometimes it’s down to an individual reader’s interpretation of the number of narrators they can see or hear.”

“There is another way.” The man stood and walked to the locked room. He was moving the literal furniture around. “May I?”

He returned with a pen. “My pen?”, said the seated man.

The man placed the pen in his pocket. “The only one. Shall I show myself out?”

He remained in his seat for a while. Everything falls at the same speed in a vacuum. Objects don’t fall to earth. It’s the ground rushing up to meet them; the movement of the earth through space creates what we feel as gravity. A seated person doesn’t feel their own weight beneath and behind them: It’s the force of the earth pushing up. It’s the feeling of travelling through space at 67,000mph.

The door closed and the man stood. He was alone, outside the locked room. The visitor had taken the key. He tried the handle and the door was unlocked. He entered the unlocked room and closed the door. The key was on the inside. It was always on the outside. It was there, because he wanted control on the other side of the door. He could unlock the door to allow himself in, but he couldn’t lock himself in. If someone else were to enter the flat, they perhaps might. They could then leave with the key. It was a delegation of some element of control to pre-determinism.

With the key now on the inside, whether or not he was locked in, was entirely under his control. If he so wished, he could throw the key far from the window.

The man retrieved the mirror and stood it in front of him at the desk. Propped against the closed curtains, it provided a window to look out from the locked room. The slight delay, or the lazy eye, wasn’t there. When he looked up from applying shocking pink eye shadow, his eye connected with the eye looking in immediately. The application of rouge was now just a cosmetic blusher, hiding nothing.

He stood up and moved back from the mirror. The hat, the shirt and the trousers were androgynous; The heels only lifting his own by two inches, but they no longer had to be tip-toed around in.

He opened the curtains and looked outside. The sun was still below the horizon; a dark red morning sky. He saw himself reflected as the sun rose, turning the sky a peachy pink. He was outside the realms of his reality, yet in his comfort zone. Seeing another person and feeling comfortable in their presence, more confident and less confused. Two roads, with one less travelled. Switch on your TV, you might catch him on channel two.

He’d left himself a note:

It was the last thing he had. I know that he will do anything to get it back.

_____

My first volume of short stories, The Perpetuity of Memory, is available now.

1000 words in time

FICTION

steampunk-watch

By no coincidence at all, this will be auto-posted to my Twitter feed as my 1000th tweet. Just a 1000-word flash fiction timepiece:

Mechanical Manacle

How soon is now, Morrissey wondered. The Smiths asked, The Clash happened, The Angelic Upstarts cried for last night (another soldier), then came The Stranglers and The Damned: The History of the World, Part 1.

Courtney was lost. Kurt was lost. No more smells like teen spirit. No Hole, or Babes in Toyland. Faith no More, no more. Everyone and everything was gone. All that remained was her and the ticking clock on her wrist, telling a time which had ceased to exist. Everything can change, suddenly and forever. For Courtney, it had, and it was.

All she wanted to know was, when is now? She yearned to know when she was. This was her third and final wish but she dare not speak it, for as soon as a wish is broadcast, it is granted, by a star. Or a binary system: then you get two wishes come true, for the price of two.

The first wish was for an end to all conflict and hunger in the world: that was easy. The second was that her mum and dad hadn’t got married. That was simple too, but now Courtney didn’t exist.

The story of a life which no longer happened started just a short while from now. In the very near future, a war to end all wars is going to happen. It starts when a young girl makes a wish.

Every night, as she drifts off to sleep, Courtney tries to imagine a world with no conflict. A place where people don’t fight. In a dream, the answer came to her: warring factions can be united against a common foe.

And so, “They” came to be. They are all that is unknown to Courtney, but she sought them in dreams and they came to her. They explained things in very simple terms, but in a language which Courtney didn’t yet understand. At the time, she didn’t realise this. So when a voice which was alien to her asked if her first wish be granted, she answered that it should.

It came to be known as The War of Words. It was a conflict waged in a global theatre. It wasn’t a physical war but one based in dreams: a psychological war of intelligence. They won.

Neither of the opposing sides on earth survived. Where once east and west were in conflict, now there were no battles. There was no-one to fight them. They didn’t discriminate: the foe against which the previously warring factions of earth fought, defeated all other sides. People simply didn’t wake up. They bore no physical injuries and passed quietly.

Courtney’s parents perished in the war. Her second wish didn’t need to be vocalised because it was granted as a product of the first. Now she wished that she could take back what she had done. She wished that she could be transported back to a time before her parents had started to drift apart; perhaps to the birthday when they’d given her a fine, gold antique watch.

The watch was a solid weight on Courtney’s young wrist. At times, it was an encumbrance. On occasion, it was a reassuring tie or tug. The importance of the timepiece was impressed upon her young mind as soon as it was placed around her arm.

It was a family heirloom, fashioned in the past, but futuristic in appearance. The detail was exquisite: clearly the product of dextrous old hands. The strap was formed of alternate links made from gold and platinum, to produce a two-tone bling curfew tag. The outer body of the casing was also cast in gold. The watch face was ebony and the hour, minute and second hands were fine slivers of ivory.

Within the main face were four other dials: two chronometers measuring seconds in tenths and hundredths respectively; a completely separate 24-hour clock face, with its own hour, minute and second hands; and a dial displaying the date of the month, with a smaller still dial within it, displaying the month. All of the dials were analogue and their numerals were embossed into the black wood face with platinum leaf. The workings – the actual clockwork mechanisms – were visible on top of the watch face, rather than being obscured by it, with just the protection of the watch’s flawless glass screen. The skills of the creator were visible through a transparent yet impenetrable sky, as the mechanisms danced like a miniature fairground.

The watch dated from a time when trade in ivory was legal. The remnants of one of many extinct species, it now ticked not towards something, but away from the existential death of humankind and all other life on their planet. The craftsmanship of the watch might mean that it was the last relic of humanity, long after Courtney’s body had disappeared in time.

The watch had no visible means of winding, despite the fact that it was clearly clockwork. There was no obvious source of power, yet the watch generated warmth as Courtney wore it. It were as though she was wearing a miniature steam-powered structure in perpetual motion: an automaton, which must house mechanical components of microscopic proportions.

“Would you like this wish to be granted?” said a voice, from somewhere. Somewhere else, someone said, “Yes”.

Courtney blinks as though waking from sleep, as her surroundings become clearer. She’s at a child’s birthday party. Is it hers? She looks down at her arms: there is no steam-powered fairground. She can hear her parents in the background. Through the noise of the party, it’s hard to tell if they’re screaming with laughter, rage, or both. Courtney decides simply to join in her own party.

It was after the last guests had left when Courtney’s parents gave her the watch. They explained in words which Courtney thought she understood, the importance of the timepiece which she now wore.

If Courtney had only one wish in her life, it would be for things to stay exactly like this.