Smoking reefers with ghosts

DEAR DIARY | THE WRITER’S LIFE

Last night, I sat up talking to a dead person. It would be a good opening line for a story, but it’s fact. I don’t know if my friend heard me, but I like to think she did. I may be branded a loony (I’m pretty much medically diagnosed as one anyway) but I got something from that meeting, as though I’d heard something. This is not a religious epiphany.

Carl Sagan

I’ll confess that I’d been smoking a bit of weed, but no-one should judge that until they’ve tried it themselves. My friend smoked too. For her, it was pain relief from sickle cell disease, which took her from us last year. It’s her birthday today, so we kind of sat up, passing a reefer between us. For me, cannabis relieves my anxiety, relaxes me and opens my mind. It’s a very agreeable self-prescribed therapy. But just because I was a bit stoned, doesn’t mean I was tripping, or out of it. Like pretty much all weed smokers, I’m compos mentis (despite the medical diagnoses) when I’m on it, more chatty, articulate and enquiring. I get clarity of deeper thought, and I’m able to interrogate my own brain, which has allowed us to become good friends.

As an atheist, I deny God in man’s image. I don’t deny that there could be superior or technically advanced beings in the universe. I believe it may be possible that our planet was visited by ancient aliens, and that these events were recorded by scribes in the terms which they understood. My objection is to the white-haired man created by Christianity, in its own image, and religion based on worshipping an idol. But I accept that for some, it’s a belief system and a comfort.

I have my own set of beliefs. Having got my head around quantum mechanics a couple of years ago, I believe that life as we know it is merely one part of an ongoing existence, the greatness of which we don’t yet understand. And of course, like Christianity, my belief has to be based on a faith that I’m right. But my beliefs do at least have a grounding in science. Put simply, I believe that the soul continues to live, after the physical body has broken. Then, we take on a different physical form, which gives us freedom from the restraints of the living human body. Some may think of ghosts or spirits, and that’s perhaps what those phenomena are.

My short story, Cardboard Sky, explains the various kinds of ghosts:

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 parent might return to make sure their 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…”

That was fiction. But in fact, I do believe in ghosts I suppose.

By extension to all of this, I can see how heaven and hell might exist, in a personal sense. When the time comes for my calling, I imagine I’ll be faced with an entire universe to explore, perhaps for eternity. To my mind, that would be a personal utopia: All the answers I’ve always sought. ‘Knowledge comes with death’s release’ (David Bowie). But to others, knowledge represents fear. So faced with a universal knowledge of all things, some people may be terrified, and find themselves in a personal hell. Intelligence and ignorance may experience an eternal karma on the other side.

I believe that as we continue to exist and move freely after our physical death, we can visit the living. It may be that they don’t know we’re there, but I’m comforted by a belief that the dead still walk among us. In death, the world is without borders. I have written and I believe, that if we speak to the dead, if they’re listening, sometimes they may hear us. I imagine a sleeping soul being stirred from slumber, because someone is thinking of them. I believe that our thoughts can be heard: An ethereal, telepathic connection, with an afterlife without physical form, replaces the audible speech we’d have had with them in this life.

It wasn’t a long conversation. I told my friend that everyone said hi, including my kids, who went to school with her son. I asked her how it was out there, and how I imagine it was nice to escape the pain of her illness. But of course, she had to leave a family behind. I shared with her, my belief that she can hear me, and others who think of her. I wished there was a way she could have told me everything’s okay, and that she could hear us. Even though that’s down to my own atheist scientific faith, I felt at ease. I was relaxed, of course: we were smoking a joint. But it was a comforting feeling I had. The kind I get when I’ve just finished a story I’ve written while I’ve been a bit mind-expanded, and knowing it’s good. I read her the poem I wrote for her after she’d left us. To Catford’s sleeping Queenie:

A wave from a plane

If you’re ever stuck;
If you ever wonder;
It’s the simple things,
that make a life:

Sunday roast: Jerk chicken
Sandy coast: Jamaica
Bonfire nights, Christmas lights
All these things

Birthday gifts, healing rifts
Friendly smile, extra mile
All these things
remind me

City walks; Kids’ school
Family talks; Black and white
London years, happy tears
All these things

Moonlit night; Security lights
Morning haze; Happy days
All these things
remind me

Dogs and rats; Welcome mats
Catford: Life rhymes with that
Dancing queen, evergreen
All these things

All these things are true

50 Cent makes music
while Dana sings:
“All kinds of everything
remind me of you.”

It’s good to talk. Talk to the dead, if you believe they can hear you. I believe that it’s nice for someone out there to know that they’re being remembered.

I hope people still talk to me when I’m gone.

valdin

Valdin Millette (1983 – 2016)

Sometimes, I hear Bob Geldof

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’ve never really got the hang of Mondays, so I often use them as transitory days, to clear a few things out of the way before moving on to the next thing or week. This is one such Monday. Sometimes though, when every day is almost the same, any day can be Monday. Everything’s good, but for the constant nagging knowledge that there’s bad news on the way in the post, even when there isn’t any.

Hello Monday

My latest book (Cyrus Song) is at a bit of a limbo stage, being as it’s only recently published. It’s sold a few copies and now I have to be as patient as I was with test readers, waiting for people to finish it. If they then feel moved to review the book, or even just talk about it, then others might read it too and do the same. I’m still confident the book will market itself, organically, with the odd bit of spam here and there from me. There was an early review on Amazon, from a test reader who read the final book as well:

Loved it!

I just finished this, after three days of solid reading. It is a very clever book.

I loved the central characters: The chemistry was one of the most complex and believable relationships I’ve seen in a long time, only mired slightly in our protagonist’s mind by the main supporting character: A reluctant marriage of convenience and amusing tension.

It’s a story which develops slowly, but with varied pace moving the narrative along. It was only part way in that I realised there are so many tributes to people, living and dead, in the many passing characters of the people and animals passing through Doctor Hannah Jones’ animal hospital. There are some fascinating animal and nature facts sprinkled through the book and told in a QI style: It’s informative.

This book is deep. It has sad moments but it’s funny. It ends in a way as original as the rest of the story: Somewhat unusual, not entirely unexpected and very satisfying. It’s a book which doesn’t take itself, nor life, the universe and everything, too seriously.

It’s an engrossing and entertaining read. And a special mention must go to Charles (the rabbit) and Captain Mamba. (5/5 stars).

I also got an email from someone else who’s just finished the book, including this:

Even at microscopic size, Captain Mamba is the most irritable, sarcastic, venomous anti-hero I’ve ever fallen in love with.

I am proud of that character. I’m proud of the whole book but as characters go, Captain Mamba certainly is one. Just as Douglas Adams wrote a companion story to The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Young Zaphod Plays it Safe), I may do the same with my captain. Certainly, there will be a sequel novel, if the first one does well enough.

Meanwhile, I’ve started plotting and researching my next book, Quietly Through the Garden of England (on the Book shelf page of this blog). It’s taking the shape of a part-fiction / part-fact (‘factional’?) local history book: Two characters, based on real people, moving through historical settings, each with their own stories and with lots of factual information therein. And all tied up into a ‘story’, only insomuch as the book has a narrator to guide visitors through that story: Me, the writer.

There was a rather nice review posted just recently on Amazon, for The Perpetuity of Memory. My anthology already had one five star review, which are always nice to receive. But to get a four star review from someone who clearly knows their subject, is just as gratifying, especially when I’m compared to peers whom I admire:

endings (perhaps it’s a genre/age/technology thing) but I have enjoyed the writing style very much.

I cannot pretend to understand all the endings (perhaps it’s a genre/age/technology thing) but I have enjoyed the writing style very much. Do I detect the influence of H.P Lovecraft, Kafka, Stephen King and of course…Edgar Allen Poe? Would certainly recommend ‘The Perpetuity of Memory’. Steve Laker is a writer to watch out for. (4/5 stars).

I’m four stories (of 17) into writing my second collection of shorts, more of which should start appearing soon while I work on the next book in the background. So that’s this week sorted, and probably every week between now and Christmas.

Every day is good. It’s been like that since I was first brave enough to call myself a writer. But depression and anxiety make other days feel like Monday. And every Monday, I have to get the hang of it all over again.

And you’ve been so busy lately (time in the think tank)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

If I could hang my hat on a short story I wrote, it would be Echo Beach. If I can hang my hat on a novel, it’ll be Cyrus Song. If anyone were tempted to read one article on this blog, I’d point them here for now.

think-tank1

There are many more short stories planned, as well as whole new books. But recently, I’ve had to move things around a little. I’m planning what I think is a very appropriate Christmas gift for my parents (and I’m out of the horror market for now). When you’re given the opportunity to look forward five years, certain plans take shape.

In my last blog post, I mentioned a book which I was planning for my dad. Now that I’ve had time to start plotting it out, it’s going to take longer than I originally thought to put it together. But I’ve resolved to make this book before I move onto the next one. Why would I post this here, in a public forum, and now indelible? The reasons are as simple as the ones I have for writing the book: To hang my hat on a blog post, step forward and offer the chance of final judgement for those who still hide in the background, and who will remain there.

I don’t seek forgiveness from any false deity, nor do I repent for my sins in the eyes of an unseeing God. My debts on Earth are repaid to the humans who matter to me, and those who will come after them. And they will attest to this, but not in a kangaroo court.

What went on (that would be me going into meltdown), is all squared with family and real friends: I got drunk. I was addicted (I’m still an addict, and always will be), I was on anti-depressants, which, combined with alcohol, can result in blackouts. But I re-live it, as it is not to be denied. I’ve got a medical record which convinced two tribunal panels that I am mentally ill, but otherwise well in the situation which took so much effort to win, and which now sits around me: A modest, secure home, with a social landlord, meaning long-term security. Now that I have that, I live as a diagnosed functioning alcoholic with chronic depression and anxiety. But I live: Perhaps some people will never be happy with the outcome. Finances are still lacking, so I have to make things. But I digress.

My mum (always affectionately referred to as ‘The Mothership’ here (Hi mum), because she gets me: she was a conspirator in making me), sometimes reads this blog. So am I spoiling a surprise? No. What this post does (if The Mothership reads it) is make a promise to her, in public. She trusts me now, based on the last three years of drawing ever closer as a family. So she knows that I won’t break my promise. And I know that I will be able to refer back to this post in five months or so and be vindicated in the eyes of remaining doubters. To be honest, those people bother me no less than an infection which can be ignored. My point with all of this, is to raise two fingers, with a sharp chop to my inside elbow and a reflex raising of my left hand. It’s my cure for cancer.

Will mum tell dad? Maybe. It doesn’t matter. The book I’m planning is one which they can both look forward to seeing in print. I’ve expanded my research a little, just into the history of the house and village where my mum lived, before she and dad lived together. The rest of dad’s life was spent with mum, in the same places. What occurred to me at first as a way to give a temporarily fading memory something to hook onto, has become more as I’ve plotted it. Now it will be a story of two people and how they left marks together, like names carved in a tree.

Every fine garden which my dad created and tended, will always bear his footprint. Every meal which my mum cooked, back in the family unit day, fed labour, and the imagination of a kid. My parents created the means to tell their story. I am that thing which they made, and this book seems an appropriate way to give something back and say a simple thank you.

I can write, compile, edit and publish a book, all from my desk. There will most likely be only a few copies given away, but the book will have an ISBN as part of the publishing process. My parents and those who know them will have a book. Anyone will be able to buy the book; a slice-of-life story from the Kent countryside (beware of spoonerisms). The bottom line is, I can immortalise my parents: I think that’s a nice gift from a writer, who was given the gift of writing (albeit unwittingly) by his parents. It’s something they can share. They gave me this IQ of 147, and now I know what it’s for.

And they are a proud couple, with every right to be. They are proud of me, and I will always give them every reason to be. They are proud to have such as a strange thing as a writer. I write bedtime stories for my kids now. So I can write a book which tells a brief history of how it all started.

All of which means I’m able to agree with myself that my future publishing schedule should go something like this(ish):

Cyrus Song: Now late August / early September, with 12 days left for final test reader comments.

Quietly, Through the Garden of England: Now the working title, being as it’s the journey of two people who would otherwise have gone unnoticed, but who made such a difference. I’m resolved to December publication.

Reflections of Yesterday (still the working title for an anthology): July 2018. I’m writing the fourth of 17 shorts for this: Longer stories, written in different personal circumstances from The Perpetuity of Memory‘s 25 tales. 42 in total.

Cyrus Song II: December 2018. If my confidence in the original is vindicated, this would be the right time.

Infana Kolonia: July 2019. This is still planned as a sci-fi epic but the current plot takes it to 1200 pages, so it needs some work.

Forgive me No-one: May 2020: My uncensored autobiography, if it’s noteworthy. And that all depends where eight published books gets me if I make 50. I don’t seek forgiveness from any false deity, nor do I repent for my sins in the eyes of an unseeing God. My debts on Earth are repaid to the humans who matter, and those who will come after them. Despite what’s in my head sometimes, with this plan in place, I hope I live to be my parents’ age. Maybe then I’ll be half as wise as them.

In the meantime, The Afternaut is shaping up into something really quite original, but which still sticks to the brief sent into the Unfinished Literary Agency. It should now be out in the first half of August, and I think the idea donor will be pleased: Not just with their idea being turned into a story, but knowing that it’s out there and that anyone could read it, if they had time.

And you’ve been so busy lately
that you haven’t found the time
To open up your mind
And watch the world spinning gently out of time
Feel the sunshine on your face
It’s in a computer now
Gone are the future, way out in space…

(Out of Time: Blur, Ben Hillier, Marrakech, 2002).

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Separation anxiety in nostalgics

DEAR DIARY | THE WRITER’S LIFE

Despite suffering from diagnosed chronic anxiety in general, the separation kind is the specific one which I’m able to deal with most effectively. Obviously my main separation anxiety is with that from my children. But we all agree that things worked out in a funny way for the best, so the month between each meeting is one spent looking forward to the next. The most difficult separation to deal with at the moment, is the one from my own fictional characters. And then there’s the one my dad has, from the past…

Nostalgia pencils2

Simon Fry, Hannah Jones and the others have been away with test readers now for three weeks. Those readers still have just under two weeks left to do their thing, then Cyrus Song will be out not long after. While the manuscript has been out, I’ve finished all editing, other than any which might be suggested by the beta readers. So now I’m restless.

Part of the angst is anticipating the forthcoming launch of the book. I’d convinced myself it was a good book a long time ago, which is why writers need test readers. I’ve re-read the book after doing my best to ignore it for a month, and it’s still good. I’ve had positive comments and reviews from casual readers, but it all hinges on the two remaining test readers with whom I have contracts. As I’ve said recently and in the past, being an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it. And I still miss my characters.

I’ve started plotting the sequel to Cyrus Song, I’m writing new short stories (The Afternaut will be the next one, in a week or two), and I’m working on some freelance projects. I’ve also started a small personal project, which will benefit very few, but for those very few, it ought to be a nice thing. A little recent history will help to place things into context:

My dad (75) has had some neurological issues for some time now, and he was recently diagnosed with excess fluid around the cerebellum of his brain. He’s seen a consultant and had an MRI scan, and the hope is that the fluid can simply be drained to alleviate what is hopefully a temporary condition. An intelligent man, my dad has grown frustrated at times, because his condition affects his short-term memory and his orientation. Just as I envy my own children and the technology they will have available to them later in life, so it is quite tragic that my dad and many others don’t have access to, nor understanding of, current technology.

Dad is interested in many things, but mainly history. A labourer all his working life, he worked at stately homes and public schools, with all of the history and stories which such places hold. Like me, he’s not only interested in things but how those things work and how they came to be, and how we have moved on since. He’s interested in the history of places and things which he has a connection to: It’s a classic case of nostalgia.

Well, my dad’s own son (that’s me) is a writer, with access to technology and research tools. After some searching, I’ve managed to track down a reprinted copy of a book from 1917 about Ightham and the surrounding area. Ightham is the village where myself and my sister grew up, where our parents worked for a wealthy family and we lived on their private estate, in the grounds of Oldbury Place. It was a childhood filled with hopes and dreams, in a 19th century stable cottage built of Kentish ragstone, set in the middle of a private woods.

Beyond the grounds of the main house is Oldbury Hill and Oldbury Woods, with its caves and remains of an Iron Age hill fort. In Ightham itself, there are many buildings and places of note, the most famous of which is Ightham Mote. The village and surrounding areas have been populated by historical figures, landed gentry, entrepreneurs and philanthropists. It’s a small Kent village, absolutely stuffed with history and fascinating facts.

My dad’s not really one for reading, although my mum is. I’ll give the 1917 book to my mum as a keepsake, but short of her actually reading my dad bedtime stories, he wouldn’t gain much from that arrangement. So before I hand the book over, I’m going to do some additional research of my own, to pull in some points of interest specific to my dad. Then I’m going to write a book: A very small book, in large print and with pictures. It won’t be a commercial release; It’ll be a one-off. I can use the publishing process I’d normally use for a mainstream book and order printed book proofs at relatively low cost. So what my dad will get, will be a personalised historical record of some of the places he’s attached to, in an easy to read and digest format: Oldbury and Ightham, Yotes Court (an 18th Century house), and Tonbridge School (founded in 1553). In comparison to the places he’s worked, my dad is very young. And I want to take him back there with his book.

Perhaps there’ll come a day when I’m no longer judged by some people for my wrong deeds (which I made amends for and pay the price for daily). Maybe those same people might undertake some research of their own, so that they can see how alcohol and anti-depressants can lead to blackouts. They might one day even ask me themselves, rather than continuing to judge. Frankly, I have nothing to say to such people: It’s all in this blog. And a lot more besides, about the various ways I’ve helped others and continue to do so.

What I’m keen to be judged on, is the new novel. Hopefully, in a couple of weeks my separation anxiety will be over, when my characters return to me. Then me and them can get out there in the wider world, while we write a sequel. And soon my dad will feel younger again.Staedtler Noris 122Cyrus Song should now be out around the end of August. A Personal journey through the garden of England is pencilled in for December (with a Staedtler Noris 122).

The cardboard sky effect

FICTION

Like most writers, I don’t do it for the money (there isn’t much). For me, it’s therapeutic, allowing me to get my thoughts and frustrations, hopes and visions out in the world. If it’s not me on my mind, it’ll be someone I can empathise with, or aspects of me turned into a fictional character. Cardboard sky was one such story, and if others enjoy what I do, then I’ve done my job.

The story below is in my anthology, but I gave it away as a stand-alone story, to someone who said she’d like to read it. This was what she said:

This story just whacked me in the chest. I can see elements of myself and many other people in there, and the way it’s written puts me right inside the story, because I know what that [the story’s content] feels like. It’s sad, but it’s funny, showing a coping mechanism. It’s both weird and wonderful. I love it!

This is what she loved:

Cardboard sky4

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.

When 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 twunts.

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 do dress quite provocatively. But here, no-one was looking at me and that made me feel 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 collectable 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 to be. 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 sheets of 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’ official consent. However, if you leave home without it, you’re unlikely to be made to go back home unless you are 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 besides 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.

So 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 read a lot and I’ve learned through this 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 is 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.

There is 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.

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 that 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 that you’re always drunk. Or they assume 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 I couldn’t 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 cigarette 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 seemingly 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 which George hadn’t given to 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 arguing.”

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 it might have been that we started to over-analyse. Marriage guidance, or relationship management; fucking couselling, 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 fleed 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.

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 predeterminism 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?

If what life gave was indirectly proportionate to what he put in, then the more George worked, the better the life would be which he eventually made.

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. The direct upshot of this was that, 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 biotechnologist 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. 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.

My trembling had almost taken control of my limbs by now. Where previously 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 essentially 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 is 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. Gaurdian 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.

“Card making, jewellery and papercraft. 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.

“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. Well, you pretty much hibernate anyway. 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.

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, 2016.


Cardboard sky and 24 other stories, are what made The Perpetuity of Memory.

Pondering evolution through regression (80s mix)

DEAR DIARY | THE WRITER’S LIFE

1980s Desk

It’s interesting (to me) how some of the greatest pleasures are the remembered ones: The things which definitely happened, because they’re recorded in the past. I’m a futurist and a sci-fi writer, but nostalgia still tugs at me.

Lately on my planet, I’ve been getting into radio, specifically BBC6 Music. I’ve got a hefty old bit of Cambridge Audio kit and I’ve always loved music, discovering new stuff and buying loads of old CDs in virtual record shops (because I don’t go out). The radio introduces me to more new music and I’m quite enjoying the company of some chat and documentaries on Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra. Like Benjamin Button, I’m evolving in reverse. But as my mind expands, I’m finding the joy I never found before in low tech, like radio. My typewriter is a perfectly contemporary laptop, and I’m connected, but like a 21st century version of all those American geeks in the 80s, who’d now be on the dark net. But I’m frustrated, like those nerds, yet I’m finding my identity.

In another move back to the 1980s, I’ve started wearing a headband, while I decide what else to do with my hair (it’s getting long). It’s fascinating as a study of human psychology. To anyone who’s never seen me before, me wearing a head band isn’t a new thing; perhaps a little eccentric but unlikely to illicit a response. When anyone who’s not seen me for a while sees me, they may comment. Those who don’t know me but who see me regularly (local shop staff, for example), do give me a second glance. I have to remember my cognitive behaviour therapy to remind myself that they’re probably looking at me in a positive way. I shouldn’t care: I feel comfortable with the way I look at home, it’s practical and comfortable. But social anxiety breeds paranoia, so it’s still a personal challenge to go out. Now it will be an evolutionary process in microcosm, and probably a few weeks before the people who see me regularly think it normal for me to be wearing a head band. I predict it would take several months for it to become a trademark: “You know the guy: Wears a headband.” I’ll try to keep wearing it, because it feels right.

Often when I return home from my daily mission to Tesco Metro, there’ll be boxes and barrels of produce at the bottom of the iron staircase leading up to the studio. Where once I might have been jealous, bitter, or perhaps even inclined to steal, now that’s changed. For starters, I wouldn’t steal any more. I did that, got caught, realised you always will, and gave it up on the advice of the law. It would alienate me from my neighbours and it would be morally wrong. No, nowadays, I smile inside when I’m confronted with fresh goods below the flat. It’s beer barrels, boxes of bottles of wine, crates and cartons of fresh fruit and veg, mainly from independent organic suppliers. Those are destined for the restaurant / bar downstairs, next to the coffee shop on the village high street. In those establishments, people have a nice time and it improves them. It’s nice to see things from the liberal left wing and live in a studio perched on top of all that life.

My village is a personal nirvana anyway, but twenty years ago, when I used to go out a lot, it would also have been perfect: I’d have a light meal at the restaurant downstairs (there’s an Indian next to it), then off to one of the four or five pleasant pubs in the village. But that’s not me any more. The tranquillity which I’d have enjoyed after hectic nights out locally, is the one I have almost 24/7. And it’s peace and quiet which I most crave now, it’s fed to me in spades. What did I do to deserve this? But I still live every day with the other side: The permanent reminders as a life sentence. But how do you deliberately finish something you’ve learned to love dearly?

Personal heaven and hell is one of the underlying subtexts of a new sci-fi short story I’m writing: The afternaut, coming soon. It’s about a man who hibernates for four millennia between planetary evolutions, and other things. The difference engine will be on Schlock web zine this weekend, and on this blog.

Another recent evolution has been knocking off from scribbling at 2am instead of 3, then have the final hour before crashing, chilled with a joint. I favour the Blaze channel in the early hours: Ancient Aliens, Hangar 1, The Conspiracy files: Unsealed etc. Late night UK Freeview TV is like we used to see American teens watching on cable in the 80s.

But even while I’m trying to reboot, I have a notepad handy (there’s so much pulp fiction fodder on those geeky shows). I write longhand notes with my favourite pencil: The Staedtler Norris 122-HB. It’s the yellow and black striped one with an eraser on the end. It’s my favoured pencil, as explained in a story I wrote: Echo Beach. If someone were unfamiliar with my writing, I’d guide them to this. It’s one of 25 short stories in my anthology and the one I still sometimes hang my hat on.

Life’s good, apart from social anxiety preventing me from fully enjoying it. But indoors, in my studio and now as a writer in residence, I’m in a self-made mini utopia. Watching late night geek TV or listening to the radio, looking like Charlie Sheen with my head band, writing with a pencil. I’ve also had an original Rubik’s Cube for the last few months and I’m no better at it than I was 35 years ago.

Identity, mid-life, or existential crisis? I don’t know. It’s as though I’ve had to regress in order to evolve. As such, I’ll continue my battle with Ernő Rubik, without resorting to tearing his invention apart.

I suppose this was a letter to my present self, from my future and past selves.

The difference engine and the afternaut

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Afternaut4

Recently I wrote of The Unfinished Literary Agency, my fictional office, where the staff (me) write the stories of others. It’s really just a standard tool which many writers use, but which I’ve turned into a background story in itself.

Originally, The Unfinished Literary Agency existed to write the stories of those who were unable to tell them themselves, for various reasons. But it’s also a repository for people’s ideas, which I turn into stories for them: A mutually beneficial arrangement, where the idea donor gets to see their story idea published; and the writer (me) is given the germ of a story to develop. Recently, I wrote a short story about a translation device, The difference engine, and that will be published in a week or so. The latter story ideas which have come into the agency, are the difference engine being put to work.

Among the idea slips in my in-tray was this one:

Imagine if you fell into a lake during a freak cold spell, and were frozen in a cryogenic-like state, however the extreme cold across the globe (perhaps the sun burned out?) caused the entire human race to perish, or at least change drastically. You are then discovered by these future people, and thawed out because you are now the last of an “extinct” human species, and are stuck trying to escape from these intrusive and frighteningly intelligent beings trying to study you.

That’s actually a big brief. Taken to its full extent, there are at least three massive concepts to include in the final story: Human extinction; Extraterrestrials, time and space; Human psychology, morals and social ethics. All would require at least a degree of explanation in setting up the beginning of a story. Even individually, it’s a lot for readers to take on board. As it stood, it could easily be a brief for a novel, or at least a novella.

A novella is typically 17,500 – 40,000 words. A novelette is 7500 – 17,500, and 7500 words or fewer is a short story. Most publications only accept a maximum of 6000 words for short fiction, and even those are rare and mainly online. Print magazines typically specify 1500 words maximum. Then there’s flash fiction, at sometimes as few as 500 words. Back at the other end of the scale, there’s the novel, with 40,000 words and over: An actual feckin’ book, as far as I’m concerned. As a point of note, Cyrus Song comes in at 93,000 words and it’ll be a 412 page paperback when it’s published in a few months. More on that in a moment.

Returning to the brief above, I was only going to be able to turn it into a short story. Given submission guidelines, I’d need to keep it under 6000 words if the idea donor was ever going to see it published. So I thought of a way I could do it, and this is the synopsis:

The lake is planet Trappist-1e, and the last human is a man, floating in a tin can, above the planet. He is the last human, following an extinction event on earth c.2097. Using the EMDrive, humans sent the last of their kind on a journey to the Trappist system. After 4000 years, the tin can travels the 40 light years to Trappist-1e, where we find ourselves in the year 6070.

It’s going to be a sort of ancient aliens turned on its head: There will be Trappists on the alien planet, and they have ancient scripts which tell of a distant planet where their forefathers once lived, and who would one day send a sentinel. It’s 12,000 years of history repeated.

With a working title of The Afternaut, it should be published sometime in the next month. The rough first draft opening goes like this:

The last earth human was also the most distant that any had ever been from the home planet. In roughly 4000 years, he’d travelled 40 light years away from earth and was approaching Trappist-1e, an exoplanet orbiting the Trappist-1 star.

The Trappist 1 planetary system was discovered in 2016, and Trappist-1e identified as a habitable planet shortly thereafter. By the time of mankind’s extinction event in 2096, the most advanced propulsion method available was the electromagnetic drive, or EMDrive. At warp 0.01 speed, it had taken 4000 years to travel the distance to the Trappist system. Back on earth, it would have been the year 6070. Neither the Trappists below, nor the man in the tin can, knew who he was.

To answer a few of the many questions arising at this point, and to speed the telling of the fable, it’s important to take a few things on board. Accept as fact, that humans died out on earth in 2097. It was an AI: Extinction through technology. What mankind had strived for millennia to achieve, turned on its creator. The entire extinction event was complete in less than a year: A flash in space time, and they were gone…

(To be continued).

It might even be a Douglas Adams-esque, Life of Brian type of story. I’ll see how it evolves in the typewriter. The idea donor and anyone else, will be able to see it when it’s published.

Returning to Cyrus Song, I mused to some of my writing peers in a forum last night:

Am I rare (or perhaps alone) in suffering separation anxiety from my characters?

For the last six months, I’ve been writing Cyrus Song and now it’s out with test readers. I’m trying to spend some time away from the manuscript, so that I can go back to it in a month or so, with beta reader feedback and take a fresher look, if necessary. So for now, I’m in limbo, and I really miss all the characters I created. I even wonder what they might be up to in the world I made for them.

Am I insane, taking writing too seriously, or just a normal idiosyncratic writer?

Apparently, I’m normal. Or at least, that’s a normal thing for a writer to feel. I was genuinely slightly concerned though, that my daily living issues of paranoia and anxiety were somehow creeping into my fiction as well. I haven’t suffered separation anxiety from anyone in real life for some time, because there hasn’t been anyone to separate from, and one of the many reasons I’m resolutely single. In any case, writing has been therapy for me for some time now, so the best way to overcome fictional character separation anxiety is to bring those people back to life. But that’s the thing: Simon Fry, Hannah Jones et al are such strong and deep characters on the page that they do seem real to me. Maybe it’s because I’m a good writer, or maybe just because I’m a writer.

So there will more than likely be a Cyrus Song II, possibly about a year for now. In the meantime, Hannah, Simon and all the animals are with my beta readers: Three pairs of safe hands and one one who spends a lot of time with their foot in their mouth; a good cross section of the target audience.

While I’m waiting for my fictional friends to come back to me, before I write more for them to do, I have other therapy to work on, with the difference engine, The Unfinished Literary Agency, and the afternaut. And the Unfinished Literary Agency is still open for submissions.