A small phantom bereavement

THE WRITER’S LIFE

It’s very difficult to move on when you’re a fish in treacle. Once, I drank myself into the gutter, but I got back up. All depressives have episodic attacks, and my most recent was the longest I’ve known. Now I’m trying to get beyond a few things, but they’re matters guaranteed by their nature to trouble my mind, so it’s more a case of working out how to deal with them while they’ve moved in. When I have few to talk to in physical life, writing is a coping mechanism.

Butzi StageEmily Mann: “When a theater goes dark for the night, a stagehand leaves a lighted lamp on stage… Some old timers say it is to keep the ghosts away. Others say it lights the stage for the ghosts to play. Whichever theory one adheres to, most people agree: A great theater is haunted.” —PHOTO BY PAUL BUTZI

Depression is subjective, and as individual to the person as the character it inhabits. For me, it’s more a feeling I’m about to lose something, than grieving something which is gone. It’s an amplification of the usual anxiety which tells you there’s a shit sandwich in the mail. You don’t know what it is, and often it doesn’t show up, but you know it’s coming. Frustration sets in, and the unknown can become a fear, like all which we don’t understand. I try to look in from the outside to find answers.

There was a time (while I was drunk) when I was more aware than is normal, that my life will inevitably end somewhere. It’s a certainty, it became an obsession, and once there was a voice to constantly remind me. I tried to take my life at least twice, just to shut it up, if living meant having to listen to it every day. I still get the odd anxiety attack from nowhere in particular, but like the cracked actor in my head, those became dark friends for a writer.

If I spent time in my outside surroundings, I have a whole village, with much that might improve life (a park, library, charity shops, coffee shop, pubs, restaurants), but irrational fear keeps me away. It’s a separation anxiety from home, when that’s such a precious commodity, not quite agoraphobia. It’s a constant insecurity.

Buzzfeed recently ran a poll, which asked people which fictional location they’d most like to live in. I’ve used existing fictional homes to shape my own, both in fiction and real life, and my studio is a small version of Matthew Broderick’s room in WarGames, with a bit of Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter’s apartment from The Big Bang Theory. It’s the partial basis for Simon Fry’s flat in Cyrus Song, and bits of it are in other stories with parts of me. It’s filled with music and my Savage Cinema film collection, and it’s where my desk is, so it’s life in a box. It’s a box which is both physical and virtual, like one which might house a Schrödinger’s cat.

I thought I had life, the universe and everything tied up, and I do in theory (it’s all to do with quantum entanglement), but sometimes this life reminds you what an arse it can be, before you can move on to the more interesting stuff, once you’re free of your physical body.

My dad’s recent illness reminded me of the frailty of life. Friendships too, as I’ve lost some, yet gained others.

The youngest of the young people I used to counsel at the squat is just turning 18. The last time we spoke, she was on the threshold of a new relationship. Like all before, I advised caution, as I do with anyone, including myself (the reason I’m resolutely single). There’s someone for everyone, one person can make the difference, and everyone should be allowed to leave their baggage at the door, as I preached at the squat.

They’re all adults now, and hopefully they learned enough from me to not make the same mistakes I did. I’m still friends with one of the others, and it’s been rewarding, to see her settle into life as she’s got older and grown wiser, with help when it was needed. A ghost from the past, who still revisits. 

I continue to write sci-fi, where I imagine future humans (if there can be such a thing; if we can change) as organic-technological hybrids, who’ve transcended current humanity, so that they can resolve issues by understanding and without conflict. All we have to do is step outside ourselves to see a bigger picture, and from there we can be more objective.

I read and learn more about science as it progresses every day, fuelling the fiction author. I write of AI, wondering what it’s like to be human, and humans wishing for all the answers, when those might be in a merging of the two. For as long as I still occupy a physical form, I’ll also haunt computers.

I have many physical ailments pending medical diagnosis, but I fear going to hospital. I need to, as I’m approaching a time when I may have to fight again to prove that my mental health is a disability anyway, as I reapply for Personal Independence Payment (PIP).

I’ve been through the dehumanising process twice, was refused twice and appealed, and both times I took my case to tribunal and won. This time I have physical conditions to add to the list, which might even get me the mobility element of PIP as well as the daily living. It’ll only be based – as it always has been – on what the doctors say, even if government out-sourced assessors think they’re better qualified than a GP and other specialists, and I have to waste more of taxpayers’ money with another tribunal.

I fear the whole process, and the last two made me more unwell than I am. It’s a process designed to wear the applicant down, it’s about six months away, and will last at least six months more. It’s nice to think I might hold it together over the coming year, with the help of those still around, real and virtual.

My blog is a reflection of me on the other side of the screen. It’s nice to have people looking in and along for the ride, as I come back every now and then to address the grief, a phantom in my head. The writing desk is a dressing table, where I get ready for the next part: Tomorrow.

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An altruistic future haunting

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Like most writers, I put a piece of myself into each story. Whether it’s a mannerism in a character, or a setting from the fringes of experience, I’m in most of my stories. When friends have sought sanctuary or counsel and I’m unable to help directly, I can normally point them to a story which might assist, because they may see themselves.

I’m working on a third collection of short stories (among other things, both in the real and virtual worlds), and there are those which will never leave me, because I was so deeply invested in my personal life and others when I wrote them. Echo Beach and Cardboard Sky are included in both The Perpetuity of Memory and The Unfinished Literary Agency. Each is different in both, and either could be a work-in-progress epitaph, should I ever stop writing.

I am both Theo and Hugh (short for “Human”) in Echo Beach, and I am George and the girl beneath the bed in the Cardboard Sky. Because we should never be afraid to place ourselves in different positions to see things another way, and the unknown only retains the power of fear for as long as it’s misunderstood.

At least one reviewer said I can hold a dark mirror to the soul, and that I have a deep understanding of the human condition. This is a story of withdrawing from one life to find another, then helping that one along. It’s about not being afraid of what’s under the bed. You just need to let it talk to you…

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CARDBOARD SKY

The story of how I became a ghost is surprisingly ordinary: I died. My actual passing was like that moment when you fall asleep every night: You don’t remember it. The next day, you’ll remember being awake before you slept; you know you’ve been sleeping and you may recall dreams. But you won’t remember the transit from wakefulness to slumber. So dying was just like that, for me at least.

It didn’t take long to realise I was dead because people just stopped talking to me. I could still walk around but no-one could see or hear me. A couple of times, people just walked straight through me, as though I wasn’t there. I wasn’t but I was.

As someone walks through you when you’re a ghost, you get to know a lot more about them on the inside. I don’t mean how their internal organs look (just like in a hospital documentary or horror film), but a feeling of their inner self. It’s surprising how many people you thought you knew, turn out to be complete cunts.

Even though I was invisible and inaudible, I felt vulnerable in this brave new world. I’m used to being looked at. I like it. I dress provocatively. But here, no-one was looking at me, which made me anxious. I felt invisible. I was invisible. That’s how I ended up sleeping under George’s bed.

So kids: It’s not a monster under the bed, it’s a ghost.

It was while I was under there that I decided to write this story.

I’d suddenly found myself homeless. I had no personal belongings, nowhere to go and nothing to do. But like any child’s bed, George’s had cardboard boxes underneath it. I wouldn’t pry into something which might be private, but like most children’s beds, George’s sat above a wasteland of discarded ephemera: a little-used word but for the purposes of this story, it was the right one. It’s a collective noun, for things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time. Or collectible items that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity. Ephemera also has a certain supernatural aura about it (Ephemeral, an adjective meaning lasting for a very short time), so to a ghost and a writer, it suits the story very well.

As a ghostwriter, I could be anyone I wanted. I could do that in cardboard city but I had less to worry about under the bed.

It wasn’t me writing the story; I was employing someone else. When a man writes something, he is judged on his words. When a woman writes, it is she who is judged. Being a ghost was perfect. Because if a ghost writes the story, then they control it. If a ghost tells this story, it doesn’t hurt as much.

Among the discarded stationery, I found a note: ”If you don’t finish that story, I will personally punch you in the face. Cool?” I had no idea who’d written it, nor the circumstances surrounding it. I assumed it was a note given to George. Or it might have been one he’d planned to give to someone else and thought better of it. It could just as easily have been addressed to me. Whatever, and if nothing else, it was a kick start. Sometimes that’s what we need.

It wasn’t a physical kick (There was no room under the bed) but it was a mental jolt, like the friend who places an arm around your shoulder and tells you they believe in you. That’s a very brave thing for them to do, because the kind of person who says that kind of thing is going to end up stuck with you.

I needed something to sustain me while I wrote, but I was under George’s bed. I had no idea how the rest of the house was laid out, so I wouldn’t know where to find the food. It occurred to me that even if I found any food, I was ill-equipped to cook it. One revelation leads to another: Ghosts don’t eat. Do they?

Eventually, I’d gathered enough odd paper to make a useful pad. All I could find to write with was a crayon. A fucking green crayon. So then I began to write, in green crayon.

Should I really have been denied drugs, when it was that which drove me, once I learned to control it? Should those who thought they knew better have removed my lifeline? If I’d allowed them to do so, I’d surely have died from the withdrawal. At least that’s what I was afraid of. So I kept going. I kept shooting up. Then I ran away. I was 16.

Once you’re 18, the law says you can leave home without your parents’ or guardians’ permission. Strictly speaking, if you’re 16 or 17 and you want to leave home, you need your parents’ consent. But if you leave home without it, you’re unlikely to be made to go back unless you’re in danger. You are extremely unlikely to be obliged to return home if that’s where the danger lies.

It didn’t matter to me that I had nothing. Just as long as I could get a fix, I had all I needed. Even personal safety and well being become passengers when the heroin is driving.

There’s a dark magic within you. A frightful thing I cling to.

But as a ghost I couldn’t score, just as I couldn’t eat.

So I had nothing to do but write. It would be romantic to write that the flow of ink from my pen replaced the alchemy running through my veins, but I was writing with a green crayon.

The writing was a distraction, but it couldn’t mask the withdrawal symptoms. It turns out that even being dead can’t do that. So I was faced with the prospect of cold turkey, a cruel joke as I was hungry and couldn’t eat.

How could I write but not be able to eat? Actually I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure if it was delirium tremens brought on by my withdrawal, or the limitations of my new body, but I had no fine motor skills. I could rummage through things and pick them up, but I couldn’t do something like thread a needle if anyone had asked. I probably wouldn’t have been able to put a needle in a vein if I was alive, and I certainly couldn’t make my hands write. My fine motor skills were like those of a toddler. So I simply did what many authors do: They have an idea, some thoughts, a plot, and they’ll employ someone else to write their story for them: A ghostwriter. I was both a writer and a ghost. So I just thought my story; I willed it, in the hope that someone else might write it one day, now that I couldn’t.

I needed to haunt George.

I’ve read a lot and learned through self-teaching. I could have been so many things if it wasn’t for chasing the dragon. But that dragon must be chased, just as a puppy must be played with. So I’d read up on ghosts and the various types of haunting.

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, the “intelligent ghost”: Where the entity interacts with the living and shows a form of intelligence. I certainly wanted to communicate with George. In fact, to lesser and greater extents, I fitted parts of the descriptions of all types of ghosts. I’d not long been dead and already I had a multiple personality disorder.

All I could see of George when he first came into the room was his feet: Black elasticated plimsolls and white socks, like I used to wear for PE. I couldn’t say what size his feet were but I imagined them having a boy of about ten years old attached to them. I guessed George was quite a hefty lad by the way the sky fell slightly as he climbed onto the bed above me.

I laid still, because even though I myself was inaudible, my developing motor skills would betray me if I dropped the crayon or kicked anything. I could hear pages being turned and I was aware of movement above me. It could be that George was writing; doing homework perhaps. I didn’t want to entertain an alternative. I hoped he was writing.

No matter what we do in this life, we may eventually be forgotten. It’s a comfort I gain from writing, knowing that whatever’s published is recorded, and will be out there long after I’ve gone. The democratisation of publishing and reporting has meant many good and bad things, but for as long as the conversation is global, we need to keep it going. There may be voices with whom we disagree, but through writing, we can posit an alternative opinion and seed a debate. Beyond all that is happening in our constantly evolving universe is a simple fact: What is right will win. What is right can emerge from the anarchic democracy which is the internet, but only if there are enough voices. There will always be sides and factions but with everyone involved, those who engage the most because they are passionate enough will prevail. We don’t need to shout louder than the other side; we simply need to educate the ignorant. Evolution will tell the story of whether we became a liberal race and prospered, or if we destroyed ourselves because we were unable to evolve. Either way, history will record it. If we destroy ourselves, eventually our history will be lost in the vastness of space and time, and it may be as though we never existed. From the quiet above, I gathered George was quite a deep thinker.

There’s only one race on this planet and that’s the one we all belong to: The human race. Where death may scare most people, it doesn’t trouble me. I’m seeing evidence that the human consciousness exists independently from the body and continues to live after our bodies give up or we destroy them. What does scare me is even more existential: Being forgotten, as though I never existed. The human race faces an existential threat: That of ignorance. Simply by talking, we can make a difference. Listen to the previous generations, for they are our history. Talk to the next generation and don’t patronise them: They’re intelligent beings. They are the human race and the future. Maybe George would be heard one day.

After a while, the sky fell further and the lights went out. George had retired for the night.

Ghosts can see in the dark. As soon as George had been quiet long enough for me to be sure he was asleep, I was getting restless. I moved around and stretched a bit. I’d managed to keep the shakes under control, but now George was asleep, the withdrawal was becoming quite uncomfortable. Despite my anxiety and a developing agoraphobia, I was tempted to just get out and run around; to do something to distract myself. I decided against it. I’d be like a child who’d just learned to walk. I would bump into things and knock things over. I didn’t want George to have a poltergeist: They’re bad. I’m not bad and I didn’t want to be the victim of an exorcism, made homeless all over again.

I thought I’d try my night vision out and have another go at writing. I managed to draw a crude stick man, a house with a smoking chimney and a space rocket with flames coming out of the bottom. He was a green man, who lived in a green house (so shouldn’t throw stones) and he had a green rocket which burned copper sulphate fuel (copper sulphate produces a green flame). I wasn’t evolved enough to write.

I fought an internal flame: One which was a danger I wanted to flee but at the same time, a beckoning warmth. I didn’t know what time of day it was, and I had no idea how long George slept for. He might be one of those kids who was in and out of the bathroom all night, or he might be near enough to adolescence that he hibernated. Either way, or anywhere in between, I couldn’t keep still for even a minute.

The shakes were more like tremors now: Delirium tremens: a psychotic condition typical of withdrawal in chronic alcoholics, involving tremors, hallucinations, anxiety, and disorientation. Heroin withdrawal on its own does not produce seizures, heart attacks, strokes, or delirium tremens. The DTs were the manifestation of my other addiction, which I’d used heroin to cover up. It was somehow less shameful to be an addict of an illegal substance and hence a victim, than it was a legal drug which most people can consume with no ill effects. As an alcoholic, I was less of a victim. I was a sadomasochist.

As soon as you tell people you’re an alcoholic, if they don’t recoil, they just assume you’re always drunk. Or they presume that you must never touch a drop. Both are true in some alcoholics but there’s the “functioning alcoholic”, who still drinks far more than anyone should but who doesn’t get drunk. They can get drunk, but most functioning alcoholics simply drink throughout the day (a kind of grazing), to keep the delirium tremens and other dangerous side effects of alcohol cessation at bay. It’s called Alcohol Dependence Syndrome but most people saw it as a cop out. I couldn’t educate the ignorant, or get them to listen long enough for me to explain. So I started taking drugs. I got so tired of trying to explain alcoholism to people, educating their ignorance, that I gave up. You get much more sympathy as a drug addict. Yeah, right.

So as in life, this once functioning alcoholic is now a ghost.

For the brief period that I was on the road in the last life, one saying; one sentiment, was always to be heard in the homeless community: “Be safe”. Those two words convey much more than their brevity would suggest. But when you’re homeless, relationships and lives are fragile. It’s quicker and less sentimental to say “Be safe” to someone you may never see again than “I love you”.

Even if I was restless, I felt safe under George’s bed. To keep busy, I broke a promise and looked in the cardboard boxes. I placed the green crayon in my mouth, like a green cigarette. I sucked on it like a joint and the taste of wax was actually quite pleasant. It helped just a little as a distraction from the shakes.

The first box was a complete mixture: Sheets of paper, smaller boxes and random other stuff; like a model car, some Lego and, well, just all sorts. I gathered the papers first.

Some of George’s notes were apparently to himself: They were in a handwriting different to the first note I saw, so I couldn’t be entirely sure, but one such note read, “You came close a few times but you backed off. You didn’t want to be one of those boys who made her cry. That’s the only reason you did it.” If they were intended for someone else, he’d not delivered them.

There were unopened presents, and gifts addressed to others, but George hadn’t delivered them. Some things were wrapped, while others weren’t, but they were clearly intended for someone else as they had notes attached. A packet of 20 Marlborough Lights: “Should really have got two tens, then I could have given mum and dad one each. Like that’s going to stop them.”

I’d not seen or heard the parents. Without knowing even what day of the week it was, there could be many scenarios. In one, George’s parents argued a lot but they were very much in love. Perhaps they were frustrated and united against a common foe. With my parents, that was me. Whatever it was, I imagined something bonding them and keeping them together. That could have been George I suppose.

I wondered at what point in human evolution it might have been, that we started analysing things and where we started to over-analyse. Marriage guidance, or relationship management; fucking counselling, from professionals and the plastic police alike: We all have someone. We all love someone. They care about us and vice versa. But over time, something’s not right, so we take the lid off and start poking around in that jar. We keep chipping away, feeling more free to say things in an environment, which we might not in another. And eventually we say something irreversible. Something that’s niggling us deep inside and which doesn’t affect us until it’s dug up. And from there, the relationship breaks down further and ever more of the undead join the feast.

Rather than encourage engagement, that kind of situation can invoke the fight or flight reflex in the previous life; the past. And whether fled or not, the past is history.

So we arrive in the next life with so much unsaid. We want to say it but we have to learn all over again, how to speak. And I suppose that’s why we want to haunt people.

George woke up. A light was switched on and the sky above me moved. I waited for the feet from above but there were none. There was movement like before, and the sound of paper. George must have been writing. Or drawing. After what I guessed to be around 20 minutes, he stopped, the light went out and the sky moved again. I was trembling quite violently by then, so I bit down on the crayon between my teeth and returned my attention to the boxes.

I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.

Do the first one: Get to know yourself and be happy with what you are. Then do the second: Those who loved you first time around will be the ones who are still there. So you’re not lonely.

Life, packaged.

The human body is merely a temporary host.

Put like that, we simply inhabit a body for a period of time, like a possession; In “life” we are already ghosts possessing bodies which give us physical form. That organic structure will age and eventually die, but our consciousness is separate from what we look at as a living body and it goes on living, long after the host gives up. Life, as we know it, is merely one part of an ongoing existence, the greatness of which we don’t yet understand. Knowledge comes with death’s release. You may well have lived in another body in a previous life: Deja vu tells us that; that feeling that you’ve been somewhere before. George had deep dreams.

The trembling had reached my head. There was more than one person in there, and the dialogue was two-way. I wasn’t talking to myself; I was talking to another person.

I began to realise that perhaps George and I were somehow connected. I always subscribed to pre-determinism in principle. A part of me knew that the Big Bang carried an imprint equal to its original noise; that everything was mapped out in that pre-spacetime manifestation of knowledge and understanding. I was drawn to believe that our futures were mapped out long ago, but that they were as inaccessible as our pasts: We had no control over either. Great swathes of George were alien to me. But why wouldn’t I explore, if George was my destiny? Or it could be the withdrawal, and I may have been withdrawing to a comfort zone. I couldn’t do that to George. What had this kid done to deserve me, inside him?

Life had been very much a game of give and take: If George had taken something, then he was indebted to someone else. If he received something and it wasn’t in recognition of anything he’d done, he was in someone else’s debt. When he gave something, he expected nothing back. It was simply an accepted fact that life gave back far less than was put in. No-one understood him, least of all himself. Did I? Could I?

His life revolved around visits to toy fairs with his father. They couldn’t afford the mint-and-boxed or the ready-made, so dad would just look around and George would use pocket money to buy spacecraft parts.

Broken and incomplete model kits were fuel for George’s shipyard in a cardboard box under the bed. When weekends were over, the shipyard had to remain where it was. When George was at his dad’s to build his craft, he didn’t. Because time was too valuable. So we were at George’s father’s house and it was the weekend.

When he wasn’t constructing, he was thinking. And he made more notes. He made the normal in my life fantastical, by explaining how science fiction writers were just one small step ahead of the real world. George knew I was there, or at least that it was possible for me to physically be there.

There were clippings from newspapers and magazines in the next box, including an obituary: Jemma Redmond was a bio-technologist who died aged 38 in 2016, like so many others in that awful year. The passing of her life was overshadowed by many more well-known figures in the public eye. But like George, she worked quietly, tirelessly and passionately. And she achieved some incredible things. She developed a means of using human tissue cells as “ink” in a 3D printer. She also helped in the design of 3D printers which reduced the cost of their manufacture. Jemma Redmond made it possible to “print” human organs for transplant into patients, and she reduced the cost so that the technique could be applied in the developing world. This is not science fiction. This is science fact, just a few years from now. Most people wouldn’t have known, unless it was brought to their attention and they then had the attention span to listen. But if anyone were to Google her name, her work is recorded in modern history.

There was a printout of a scientific paper about NASA’s EMdrive. The Electro Magnetic drive is a fuel-free means of propulsion, which could replace rocket fuel and all its limitations of bulk and speed. The EMdrive could take a spacecraft to Mars in 70 days. At present, it’s a two year trip, with a lot of psychological and physiological risks to any humans making the journey. Many of those problems would be overcome with the EMdrive. It’s due for testing soon and with development and improvement, could make other stars in the galaxy viable destinations for exploration and research. This is not science fiction. He had articles about solar sail arrays, the size of Colorado, taking tiny scout ships out to explore the cosmos ahead of humans. All of this could be possible within George’s lifetime.

But very few people know about these things because all of the bad news in the world shouts louder. If more people knew about the technological and scientific thresholds we’re at, they might talk about them. Others would then learn and eventually there might be a chorus of voices so loud that mankind has to listen and consider another way forward for the species.

George thought what a wonderful world ours could be if we concentrated on this stuff, rather than religion, conflict and capitalism. Of course, George was young and naïve in the eyes of most. He’d never be taken seriously if he proposed an alternative plan for humankind. So he kept and curated records, and he wrote about them. Like so many other people, he was recording his thoughts in the hope that someone might discover them later, or when he was older and might be taken more seriously. He was aware that he was documenting the present and the contemporary, and that it could become either history or the future.

The trembling had almost taken control of my limbs by now. Where it was first shaky fingers, then hands, now my arms and legs ached as though they needed to spasm.

The light went on again and the sky moved. There was more rustling of papers and scribbling with a pen or pencil. I started singing a song in my head, as I wondered something: I knew I didn’t need to eat, but would I need to get my hair cut out here? It was a song by the Crash Test Dummies: God shuffled his feet. If crash test dummies were to have nervous systems, I knew how one might feel by now. The light went off and the little big man upstairs settled back down. I needed coffee: lots of cream, lots of sugar.

My coffee used to come from a jug on a hotplate. George was planning a replicator. He explained in his notes how a replicator was just one step further on from a 3D printer. Scientists could already print human body parts after all. To print a cup, then some coffee to fill it, was actually quite simple. George was keen to point out in his notes that one should always print the cup before the coffee.

Like the quiet voices of mankind, George could only imagine. He could only wonder at the sky, or lie in bed and dream of what was beyond the ceiling. Humans travelling to other stars was one lifetime away. It was only a matter of generations before the dream could be anyone’s reality. George wanted to be anyone.

George escaped in his sleep. And he explained in his notes how it was possible to travel all over the universe. Not only was it possible, but everyone does it, every night. Everyone has dreams and George wrote his down. The spacecraft and all of its missions were in the same cardboard box; a microcosm universe beneath George’s bed. He explained how time travel could be possible:

It’s a simple matter of thinking of space and time as the same thing: Spacetime. Once you do that, it’s easier to visualise the fourth dimension: I am lying beneath a bed and I’m occupying a space in three dimensions (X,Y and Z); my height (or length), width and depth. Trembling limbs aside, I will occupy the same space five minutes from now. So the first three dimensions have remained constant, but the fourth (time) has changed. But also, I did occupy that same space five minutes previously. That, and every moment in between is recorded in the fabric of space time: I am still there, five minutes ago. I know the past. I don’t know if I’ll still be here five minutes hence: I can’t predict the future, even though it may be pre-planned from the start of all time as we understand it.

Of course, there is what’s known as The Grandfather Paradox: This states that if I were to travel back in time and kill my granddad, I would cease to exist. But if we assume that in George’s new world order, various ethics committees exist in the future, then time travel to the past could be undertaken in a governed, regulated and ethical manor. It might be a little like the First Directive imagined in many science fiction works, where it’s forbidden to interfere in any way in a species’ development, even if that means remaining invisible whilst watching them destroy themselves. This in itself is a paradox because no-one is qualified to say that it hasn’t already happened, conspiracy theorists aside.

When you’re despairing late at night and you just wish someone was there, but you don’t really want anyone around. When you’re confused, perhaps by internal conflict. That’s when you need a guardian angel. If someone would just phone you at that time, that would be perfect, because you’re not bothering them. You’ve not caused them any trouble. Guardian angels need a sixth sense and the ability to travel back in time.

George estimated his brave new world to be around 200-250 years from now; perhaps ten generations. There was a long way to go and a lot to do, and George would most likely not see any of it. Or so he thought. He was young and he had much to learn, then he needed to learn how to deal with it. The things which George wanted to do were the things I regretted not doing.

All things considered, I thought it might be better to not let George know that one of his prophesies does come true. It was too soon. He wasn’t ready. I couldn’t let him know that it was possible to send letters from the future, or that people from the past could be visited. It was a one-way street, a bit like going to see grandma because she can’t get to you. The departed are still around, we just can’t normally see them. Often they’re just watching over us. Sometimes they might want to speak to us but we need to be receptive.

By now, my arms and legs were in full spasm and I could feel my torso waiting to convulse. I cleared everything from around me as quietly as I could, so as not to interrupt whatever dream was unfolding above me.

The human body has an internal mechanism which shuts it down when stimuli get too much. An inconsolable baby will cry itself to sleep, and if a pain becomes truly unbearable at any age, we will pass out. I hadn’t tried to sleep since I’d been dead, but it looked like I was about to be shown how to.

I don’t know how far I travelled in the fourth dimension but I was woken by a voice:

“Georgie?” It was a man’s voice. Dad was home.

“In here dad.” George calling to his dad was the first time I’d heard him speak.

“I got you your magazines.” Dad was now in the room, quieter but closer. He had big feet.

Thanks dad.” George’s voice had changed. Now that he was speaking at a lower volume, his voice was deeper: Young George’s voice was breaking.

“Writing, the science one, and paper craft. Is that right?”

“That’s the ones. Thanks.”

“What’s all this?”

“Notes. I’m writing a story. Here.”

There was a long period of quiet. George was shifting about on the bed and his dad was pacing around the room. There was that same distinct sound of pages being turned that I’d grown used to.

“Jemma Redmond. I read about her. Amazing woman. Deserves a posthumous Nobel.

“The EMdrive, eh? That’s exciting. I think we’ll use that for the interstellar stuff, and the solar sail ships for the wider galactic vanguard missions.”

“There’s some pretty deep stuff in here Georgie. Did you do this all yourself?”

“Well, I kind of had some help.”

“From whom? I’d like to meet them.”

“You can’t dad.”

“Why not?”

“Promise you won’t laugh?”

“Can I smile?”

You may smile”. There was a pause. “So, I had a dream.”

“We all have those. What about?”

Nothing specific. Just a load of dreams mixed into one I suppose.”

“So you wrote about it. It’s good to write down your dreams.”

“But not all of that writing is mine. See, there was this girl.”

A girl? In your dream?”

“Yes. A small girl, with blonde fizzy hair. And green teeth.

Green teeth? Was she a witch? Is she under the bed?

Shit!

“No. Well, she was kind of a witch. A dark witch but a good one. She was just wandering around, like she was showing me things. She might have been lost. I want to see her again.”

“I imagine you do. At least your witch has somewhere to live now.”

***

George left at the end of that weekend but it wasn’t the end of the story. He visits every weekend and he continues to record things for historians of the future. Eventually, he may realise that he was part of the machinery which kept the conversation going. He didn’t know this yet but he was encouraged in his chosen vocations.

I was there, under the bed. If I’d been able to write, I’d have just added a note for George:

Do what you enjoy. If you enjoy it, you’ll be good at it and people might notice you. If not now, then in the future. Don’t put off till tomorrow that which you can do today. Because if you do it today and you like it, you can do it again tomorrow.

Your life is not empty and meaningless, regardless of who is in it or absent from it. Your life is what you make it, for yourself and for future generations. Don’t give up.

Hopefully George will continue this story, now history, but in the hope that it might be read in the future. And maybe he’ll find the notes I left for him.

Dust to Funky. Be safe George.

To this day, Dad has never gone through George’s things under the bed. I’d have noticed.

© Steve Laker, 2018.

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now in paperback. When memories are forgotten, they become stories.

Snakes and stepladders

THE WRITER’S LIFE

It was by strange coincidence that I walked into a lost property office when I myself was lost. As I leaned on the counter, I remembered having the thing I’d lost, but not what it was. I rested my head on my hand and my elbow slipped, banging my head on the counter, and then I realised what it was: I’d lost my memory. I’d been self-censoring for too long, with so much stuck inside me.

Royal PythonA royal python

While the fiction writer was away, things had been happening in the real world, and one such happened on Friday, when I got a text: “Could you order rats on the internet please?” It was my mum, and in my family, this is a normal event. It also allows me to tell a story of my life, as I step back into writing…

Long ago (in 2010), after my marriage had broken down through my drinking, I lived in Bexley. I was still running a print management business, and I had a nice flat in an old manor house, with a heated swimming pool in the garden. The kids would stay with me at weekends, and so it was on the eldest’s seventh birthday. He asked if we could have a party, but I wasn’t sure how many of his friends would make the journey, and feared a deflated son. So I offered to buy him something with the money I’d otherwise have spent on a party, specifically a snake.

At the time, I was volunteering with a reptile rescue centre, and although snakes thrive in captivity, are cheap and easy to keep (after the initial outlay on housing and an actual snake), people were still naïve. Most of our guests were snakes and there were three main reasons for them becoming homeless: Their size, their diet, and their longevity.

Among the collection was a 12-foot Burmese python, which could potentiallly grow twice as big. She’d been bought as a yearling at about three feet, and the owner didn’t know some constrictors could grow that big. Most snakes feed on rodents, which can be bought frozen in bulk (you need a zookeeper’s license to feed live prey, it’s inadvisable to feed a captive-bred snake live food, can be inhumane for the prey, and a risk to the snake if the prey turns). So if you’re squeamish about having dead rats next to your frozen pizza in the freezer, perhaps best not to have a snake. And they can live for 30-40 years or more.

We had half a dozen or so royal pythons in the collection, which are relatively small (5-6 feet maximum) and easy to keep, but they’re secretive and can be fussy feeders. So the talking point in the room isn’t so much the snake, more a nicely decorated vivarium.

I could write reams on snake husbandry, breeding and minor veterinary treatments (I filed a paper at The Zoological Society of London, on treating snakes with scale mites), but a personal blog is not the place to learn about keeping snakes. Anyone considering keeping snakes should thoroughly research the subject, certainly more than most of our donors had.

I’d work with the rescue centre some weekends, and the kids enjoyed coming with me, because they’d learned a lot about snakes through me and were fascinated. Mostly we’d go to local and school fêtes, where we’d show the snakes (and a couple of lizards), engage with the curious, and educate the willing. It was mainly dispelling myths: Snakes aren’t cold and slimy, most are not venomous (certainly no constrictors), and very few bite in any case. In general, they’re placid, inquisitive creatures, and it was always a joy to witness someone’s first ‘Snake moment’.

On at least one occasion, I’d had a lady moved to tears. It was her 40th birthday, and she’d asked if she could learn about snakes. I happened to be free, so I sat down with her and a royal python at a table, and I answered her questions. She confided that she’d been not so much frightened as nervous about snakes, because she knew so little. At the end of the meeting, she held a five foot royal python in her hands and started crying. “It’s so beautiful,” she said. I must admit, that caused me a bit of a moment too, having helped someone overcome a common, pre-conditioned repulsion of an unfairly maligned creature, so that they could better understand it.

There was amusement too, like when we were at an event on Blackheath during the London Olympics, and I was charged with Alexa, the aforementioned 12-foot Burmese python. The Burmese is a fairly stocky snake, and pythons are constrictors, so they’re heavy on muscles. A snake of her size weighs in at around 25kg, which you’re very aware of when you’ve got one draped around your shoulders. Like most snakes, she was inquisitive too. To her, I was a warm tree. For me, it got tiring, so I’d let her down on the grass to give myself a rest.

We’d displayed signs around our reptile enclosure, clearly stating ‘No small dogs’, and as Alexa was stretching herself on the ground, I spotted an old lady with a toy ‘dog’ (the kind which would fit very easily down a large python’s throat). “Excuse me, madam,” I said politely, and pointed to a sign.

Oh it’s okay,” she replied, looking down at the snake’s food, “he’ll only lick you.”

That’s very nice madam, but my snake’s tongue is flicking because it sees food…” I picked up the snake, the rat licked my foot, and I resisted the urge to kick it.

The point is, snakes are fascinating creatures and totally undeserving of all the myth, suspicion and ignorance surrounding them. Generally speaking, kids are for more into snakes than grown-ups, perhaps because our greater general understanding of them isn’t shrouded in so much superstition as a generation or two ago. For at least the last 30 years, all snakes bought by the home enthusiast have been captive-bred, and there’s a large conservation scene among those who study and keep them.

I’ve been fascinated by snakes ever since a reptile breeder visited my primary school in 1977 (when I was seven), and my children have inherited the passion from their part-reptilian parent. I suspect my parents have snake DNA too, and that circles me back to the beginning of the story and that text from my mum.

So I got my son a royal python for his seventh birthday. My ex-wife wasn’t so keen, so I had the snake at my place, but he was very much my son’s project. The snake moved with me to Sidcup, where I lived for two years after Bexley. Eventually of course, I drunk everything away and I ended up back at my parents’, with a snake.

When I had my breakdown and all sorts of people were supporting my parents, the reptile rescue centre asked if they’d like them to take the snake. But they declined. The snake belonged to their grandson, so they wanted to keep him in the family. They paid me what I’d paid for the snake and the whole set-up, to give me money to stay afloat, and the arrangement was that I’d buy him back when I got myself sorted out.

I’ve lived in my studio for almost two years now, I have a rolling tenancy, and therefore the nearest I’m ever going to get to a permanent home. But ever since we started talking again after I’d sobered up, my mum (who’s 73) and dad (76) will not sell the snake back, not through any concern for his well-being, but because they’re so attached to the little guy. For now I just order his food for mum and dad’s freezer.

People think I’m weird, and I am. But don’t blame the parents.

In commune with the universe, not immune to internal conflict

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

Alcoholics and depressives or not, it’s still a brave person who calls themselves a writer, confident that they have the right to do so. It takes courage to share one’s own stories, yet many writers who do just that, because they’re writers, have the same sense of self-doubt.

Arthur DentConcept art: Arthur Dent with Vogon ship above (Touchstone Pictures)

A recent conversation with a writer peer whom I admire, and someone I consider a friend (same person), inspired me to do a few things. The most valuable piece of advice, was to stop being embarrassed about being proud of myself. But for me, that’s one of the eternal scars of chronic depression, anxiety and paranoia, hastened to the fore by an alcoholic breakdown: not something to be proud of, when it affected so many. Everything is reconciled, and not only am I better, but I’m a better person, as are those around me. It still takes some getting used to all that’s gone on though.

Like so much of my fiction writing into reality, my organic and digital lives often cross over, blurring the lines between reality and magic. Now, some of the old short stories I wrote, about writers writing about writers, are coming true, just as science quickly catches up with well-researched near-future science fiction.

Getting acclaim for Cyrus Song from a book critic (and appropriately for that book, a translator and interpreter), means that if I were so inclined, I could rightfully call myself a critically acclaimed science fiction novelist. Already I was an award-winning children’s author, and I’ve been compared to some of the most respected writers of horror, sci-fi, fantasy and surrealism, while being original at the same time. So why do I find it all so hard to accept, when I’m otherwise in touch with the universe and the universe apparently speaks back to me?

This is more an internal conflict, where the mind can be a universe to explore in itself. My mental conditions seem to be fuelled by paradoxes and irrational fears. When I’m someone who can address most issues from an outside perspective, internal understanding becomes frustrating. My IQ is what it is, but I can’t help wishing I had more processing power.

I crave attention, only because I want people to read my writing (especially the latest novel), so that they can see that what others are saying is true, and hopefully hear everything I’m trying to say. It’s a paradox when you crave that which you find hard to face in yourself.

As is often the way, I’ve expressed this far better in a short story I’ve just finished, which is due out this weekend. Fiction does allow me to get so much more over, apparently in an engaging way. The story is called Are ‘Friends’ Emojis? The title is a play on the Gary Numan song, Are ‘Friends’ Electric? Given the most recent review of my anthology, I suppose it’s not so much of a ‘Black Mirror for the page, flitting between dark sci-fi and psychological horror, but underlined by a salient sense (and deep understanding of) the human condition,’ so much as a look at one possibility for a life after this, and how that might be a craving for some, with the consequences of choice. It’s about how we see people and connect with them, in a world made small by technology, and of real and digital lives combining. It’s more a two-sided mirror.

I also write nice stories, like Echo Beach (okay, so it’s dark, but it’s still escapist), and I wrote that award-winning children’s book, used in family learning sessions, for parents with learning disabilities.

I’m one of those common phenomena: a writer who’s embraced technology for the democracy it has given many like me. It’s a determined writer who remains hidden, but it’s still an intrepid agent who finds the talent.

Until I’m discovered, I’ll carry on self-publishing and self-publicising, and see if I don’t.

Have you fed the snake?

THE WRITER’S LIFE

royal-python
A Royal python (Python regius), like my parents’ permanent house guest

Yesterday I took my parents to lunch, for their golden wedding anniversary. I must admit, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

This wasn’t an unprecedented gesture on my part, and no unexpectedness arose from actually being there. It’s true that I wouldn’t have been having lunch out with my parents as recently as three years ago, because I’d done my drunken best to kick everyone away from me. But I’m better now. I’m a writer, I earn modest royalties from my books, and I can treat my mum and dad. The initial surprise was in how my local had changed since I was last there.

I don’t not go to the pub because I’m an alcoholic: I’ve got that genie back in its lantern. I don’t go to the pub for the same reason I rarely go anywhere beyond my studio: Anxiety. If I were able to overcome that, I might be able to make more of this idyllic setting I’ve found myself in. Then I might be able to pick up a newspaper, pop to the pub for lunch, then finish with a coffee in the coffee shop under my studio. But those things don’t happen.

My local is the one I chose among a number of agreeable looking contenders when I first came here. It’s not my local in proximity; there are other pubs nearer home. It became my local because it looked friendly, and when I first went in there with my removal man mate, we found it to be just that. It’s an old pub; the building dating from the 16th century, with an open fire and higgledy piggledy furniture. They serve traditional Sunday roasts, at a decent price and without farting around: Just the kind of thing my parents like, being as they were, fans of the Wetherspoons roasts (RIP). My local was a place I might go, if ever I plucked up the courage to go there on my own. I never did. Yesterday’s visit was going to be fine: I’d mentally prepared, and I had pleasant company.

But like ‘spoons roasts, my old pub has gone. The pub itself is still there but the atmosphere has left, as though someone popped a balloon. Now it’s a gastro pub. My village has room for another one and if I were wealthier and less anxious, I could enjoy a fine meal at a different quality eatery every night. But the boozer had gone, along with the friendly locals. When we arrived at 12.30, we were the first. My heart sank when I looked around and saw that all the furniture was uniformly laid out and the whole place had been de-cluttered. It was that very cluttered nature of the place which made it homely, even if there were few others around. Now, everything was gone.

I’d reserved a table, which we duly occupied when we were requested to do so. Immediately, the menu caused me slight alarm by proxy, on behalf of my parents: Being of a certain age, they are used to having things a certain way. In the case of roast beef, this would include the meat being cooked way beyond my personal preference (rare) and in a Bisto gravy (other gravy brands are available). This roast beef came with a red wine gravy and I assumed the meat would be served pink. We asked if we might have an alternative gravy but the reply from “Chef” was that he’d already prepared the sauce. I was tempted to tell the pretentious cunt to climb down from his rocking horse, and that I’d boil a fucking kettle if he really couldn’t manage it, but I managed to hold my tongue.

When my parents’ lunches arrived, they looked just like the sort of roast beef dinner I’d relish: slightly pink meat, and the red wine gravy was silky and delicious. My appetite excluded me from participating in what would have been an expensive waste of money. Instead, I related some anecdotes to my parents while they ate, before writing some notes in my pad (My parents get that I carry a notepad around all the time, and they enjoy hearing what I’m thinking as I write, I think). My mum commented that there were no prices on the menu: There were but she’d not noticed. It didn’t matter, because I was paying.

In the time we were there, the place filled up considerably. It got quite lively in fact. It wasn’t the old boozer atmosphere though: Compared to what I remembered in that place, this atmosphere was a bit wanky, with pretentious types, hipsters, yummy mummies and fun dads. I began to take a dislike to some of those people, because they’d taken over my old place. Of course, it was never mine but still.

Once, I’d have grown more anxious and paranoid, feeling somehow that it was me who wasn’t welcome there. It’s irrational but that’s how my mix of mental malfunctions works. Now I live by coping mechanisms and what was taught to me by one of many psychologists: Cognition.

Although it’s never been openly discussed, my parents don’t seem uncomfortable when I’m apparently being utterly rude and disrespectful by writing notes in my journal, right in front of them. There’s no paranoia on their part, as I tell them what I’m writing about. They had their mouths full, so it was good for them to listen and not have to reply.

I was writing about the people in the room. Because what I’ve known for some time now is that however objectionable someone might be, they’re human. And given that I don’t discriminate on any grounds, it would be hypocritical of me to take a dislike to someone based purely on the way they look and seem. I’m sure these invaders of my old pub were nice people once you got talking to them, but I wasn’t, so I wrote about them.

That guy over there, with his man bun and generally infuriatingly fucking friendly face, could be a psychopath. Equally, he could be gay and mourning a break up with a partner. That annoying little kid over there: She might be wearing that hat because she has cancer and not long to live. The two girls in the corner, could be sisters or lovers; this could be their first or their break-up date. Everyone has and is a story. We don’t know until we ask. And if we don’t ask, we shouldn’t judge. What a wonderful world this would be if people thought a little differently. What a wonderful one mine has become since I did.

There are many interesting people among my friends, some with many stories of their own. And I’m probably one of very few people whose pensioner parents have a pet snake: Adopted from me when I had my breakdown, because I needed the money and the snake needed a home. My parents’ house was once going to be an interim measure but now they won’t let go of the little guy.

It would probably do me some good to get out more, but monthly trips to see the kids and the odd pre-arranged thing like yesterday is about my limit. My anxiety is only crippling in that it renders me housebound. It’s fortunate that I’m in a place where I don’t mind being.

And what are my problems anyway? First world problems is what they are. As such, they are insignificant compared to those of millions of others. Those are the important people: The silent ones. The ones with no voice, or no means to make themselves heard. At least I have that. And with that, I might make a difference. I know that I already have to some people and that’s worth more than money.

It’s becoming a trope: That I’m not a writer for the money. I’d be deluded if I thought I’d make anything from what I do. But even if I’m doing it for free, it comes back to me in other ways.

Life can throw up surprises, and that’s what makes being alive so much fun. I write stories about it, and people seem to like that.

 

Shameless plug
A shameless plug

I have a new short story out soon: It’s called Reflections of Yesterday and it’s about perceptions; how we see people, and how we look at them. If you look at things a different way, the story takes on a different meaning. That story will be in my second collection of shorts. The first is available now.

Gallivanting with royalties

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Some royalties
Some royalties

Yesterday was the first of two lunches this month, paid for by book royalties. I took my children to a pub, which is normal these days: I can be trusted around drink. There we enjoyed starters, mains with sides, desserts and drinks, at modest cost (it was a Wetherspoons), because my royalties are modest at best. But as I’ve said before, I’m not a writer for the money; days like yesterday are the reasons I do it.

The inevitable separation anxiety has kicked in today. Most people experience this sometimes but for me and many others, it’s particularly hard. It’s the come-down after a high. It’s being with someone and enjoying yourself so much that you can forget where you are. But the next day, you look around and it’s all gone. It’s not as painful as it used to be. Once, it was self-pity, because my drinking had brought about the family split. Now, with a lot of work from all parties, everything’s settled to a point where we can all agree that with hindsight, things have worked out for the best. Everyone is in the best place, especially the children, with a stable mum, in a stable relationship. But nevertheless, it hurts, and it’s compounded by depression.

But what am I to do? Start drinking again, to cope by blocking it all out? I think not. My children, and the many others who’ve regrouped around me, are many reasons not to lapse.

After lunch, and just as the pub started filling with wankers (there was a football match on), we departed to the shops. I have many friends who are football supporters but the men’s game holds no interest for me, given that it’s so capitalist and just not what I call sport. I accept that friends wish to watch matches in a group environment with their peers. I only wish that a minority would have a little respect for those around them, especially in a family environment. But live and let live, so we left.

In Waterstones (other book retailers are available), my son (aged 12) pointed a book out to me: Ideas Are Your Only Currency, by Rod Judkins (other books by other authors are available). Unsure if this was inspired or ironic, I flicked through the book and it’s perfect, for me, right now:

FUTURE-PROOFING FOR THINKERS.

‘What skills and abilities will a student need to prosper in five, ten, or fifteen years’ time?’

In a world of change, where skills become out of date quickly, it is ideas that last.

We all need to be prepared for a world that is fluid, global and interdisciplinary. Distinctions between specialties will blur and overlap. Change is happening at electrifying speed. In this vortex there are no maps.

Featuring 100 interactive chapters to inspire groundbreaking new ideas, this is perfect for fans of Keri Smith’s Wreck this Journal, Paul Arden’s It’s Not How Good You Are and Rolf Dobelli’s global bestseller The Art of Thinking Clearly.

It’s not a self-help book. For me, it will be a reference tool; a source of ideas. Before I’ve even started to read it, I have a new short story in draft form: The Art of Thinking QWERTY.

Of course, the simple act of thinking more is something I’ve always advocated. For me, it’s creative thinking. For others, I just wish they weren’t so ignorant. I’ve been saying this in my general rhetoric and especially on social media: If we all just thought more, it would go some way to making life more tolerable. Some people get me, many don’t.

Next Sunday is the date for my next lunch with royalties, when I take my parents for Sunday roast at my local pub. It’s quite comforting sometimes, knowing that I’m the middle layer of generations in my family: It’s nice to have elders and younger people to talk to.

I’m the generational sandwich filling. I am Marmite.

A discomfort I can barely explain

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Little man on top of the world

Despite having everything I could hope for, there’s still a tension to life which I can’t quite grasp. This is not a new thing. It’s one of the many products of depression and anxiety, PTSD, personality disorder…

I really do have everything which my modest needs require: Food and shelter are taken care of in a way which others might take for granted, and so may I have done once. But I know how fragile any situation can be, and I remember how easy it was to gradually slip off of life’s ride. When you’ve been a tramp, even basic human needs become gifts.

I’ve been at the studio for exactly a year, with all indications that I’m now on a rolling tenancy and likely to enjoy many more years here, as my two neighbours have. Private renting comes with its own inherent anxiety, when a tenant is at the mercy of a private landlord’s personal whim. My own landlady is a social one, in that she accepts housing benefit tenants for the properties at the more modest end of her portfolio. The studio is very comfortable, well decorated and maintained, and no more than I need. The reasonably low rent is one which my housing benefit covers.

The fridge, freezer and cupboards are full. So for that matter are the biscuit barrel, the crisps basket, and the Minecraft Darth Vader Paul Auster mini bar (another, long story). I’ve usually got weed to chill with too. Just lately I’ve had more days when I actually feed myself than not, which is some kind of progress. Sometimes it’s as though I just buy food to look at it, or for other people to eat. Now I’ve got back into an old habit of planning meals. So often in the past, my indecisiveness was such that I’d grow tired of thinking about food and just not bother: Irrational, but just another part of the cocktail which makes my brain what it is. If I plan meals in advance, that part of me saves the indecisive one having to make a decision. It’s part of the fun mix which is my borderline multiple personality disorder.

Even though the studio is small, it’s crammed with the things I love: Films, music and books. It’s not so crammed as to look like a mentally ill hoarder lives here; Through the keyhole would reveal a cool, cosy little place: That of someone who likes their own space and who is perhaps somewhat eccentric. It’s been likened to Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter’s apartment, albeit smaller: I’ll take that. And in the corner by the window is the desk, with the typewriter and all of a writer’s tools, on and around it.

I’m content with my writing at the moment. I’m pleased with the three books which are out. My children’s story at least is getting good reviews in the marketplace: It’s helping people. I only wish that some of the people who tell me in private that the other two are good, would post reviews online. I find it frustrating and unfair that I spent three years writing my anthology and it would take five minutes to post a review. That sense of entitlement is another part of my frustrated mind. It’s the part of many depressives which allows them to crave contact with others, only to then push those people away.

Now that I’m free of editing for a while, I can devote more time to actually writing, which is what I’m paid nothing to do. As such, I’m having fun with some new stories. I’m practising a way of working which my more successful and wealthy peers employ: Experiment, play, throw away. This will sometimes produce a daily output of a few thousand words, which will then be consigned to the slush pile, or become something else.

I’ve invented a new character: A kind of Lewisham Tank Girl. She’s involved in one short story I’m writing at the moment and could well be a recurring character (in no more than three, before I have to consider another novel). One day I might do a head count of all of my characters and perhaps write something fun which they can all be in. I fear some may harm or kill others: Experiment, play, throw away. I’d first need to re-read everything to see who’s still alive.

So I have relative security in my housing situation, and as much writing as I can fit in until I’m no longer able to do it. I have things to look forward to in the short term too: This weekend’s monthly visit to Milton Keynes, to gallivant with my children; and a lunch I’ve arranged for my parents on their Golden wedding anniversary a week after. This is something which makes me want to grab all those old friends who dropped me when I was drunk. I want to grab them by the necks and show them that everyone who was affected by my illness, is cool with me now. I worked hard to rebuild those relationships, so that now everyone gets to actually enjoy my company, rather than fear it. I will live with the guilt for the rest of my life: That’s the price I pay for sobering up. But I haven’t lapsed and neither will I. Those around me know how important they are to me and if I returned to drinking, I would lose all of that.

The lunch with my parents is just a traditional Sunday roast at my local: Not a place I frequent, but it’s been very pleasant on the half dozen or so occasions I’ve visited in the last year. So I’ve booked us a table, so that my parents can enjoy a the tradition of Sunday roast, as they do, and my company, which they now do: They’ve told me so. They’ve also both told me that they’re proud of me. Well, I’ve come a long way and it was fucking hard, but I did it because of them. But I can already hear the friends I no longer speak to: “He’s taking them to a pub. Oh, right…” Well, fuck off, those people. I am an alcoholic. I am a functioning alcoholic. This is not to say that I just about manage not to soil myself; It means that I can go to a pub and enjoy a social alcoholic drink in good company: Company which I do not crave with those who still judge. That’s part of the life sentence; a penance I must pay.

All those people I should be kissing.
Some are here, and some are missing.

There’s plenty on my mind, which I’d like to share, only to illustrate how frustrating my life can be. There are things I wish to say to people; Things which I would gladly air in public, but then I have to consider the other parties. So those are conversations to be had with other people, or more than likely, just with myself. Or in fiction. Because with words, I can destroy people. But I can also do a lot of good with my writing, not just for myself. This month’s royalties will just about cover the cost of the lunches with my children and my parents.

So everything is good for the most part. But still there’s that discomfort I can’t explain.

And that’s what clinical anxiety is: It’s irrational, it’s that niggling doubt, not a fear (that comes with the panic attacks), but an unease about something which may or may not be there, like a presence. The important thing is, it’s always there. And one of the reasons for that is those who still think ill of me: I’m sure they’re happy. But that’s paranoia and insecurity.

All of which is why, when I’m asked how I am, I’m just okay. It’s easier that way.