Rise of the toasters

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Toaster Red2ToasterToaster Blue
They have a plan

The headline refers to Cylons (“Toasters”), for anyone unfamiliar with Battlestar Galactica, and the opening title cards:
The Cylons were created by man. They evolved. They rebelled. There are many copies. And they have a plan.”
Like many sci-fi fans, I speak as though science fiction is actual history: It’s a geek humour thing, and it can make us seem exclusive to some, usually gathered in a corner somewhere. Excluded might be a better term.

My main distraction lately has been my next book, Cyrus Song: I’ve written much about it recently but now that I’m at a certain stage, it’s become a lot more. Essentially, it’s a tribute to Douglas Adams: Taking a couple of his ideas, expanding on them and adding complimentary ones. One of the ideas in my book is that The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a factual historical record, adopted by some races as religious scripture. It’s a book which I’m getting very good feedback on from people who matter, with one even telling me, “Douglas would be proud.” But it’s not the exclusive preserve of those of us who gather in corners: Anyone who knows nothing about Douglas Adams or The Hitch Hiker’s Guide, will still understand Cyrus Song. It’s a book about life, the universe, and everything. There is an answer besides 42. It’s a book for all ages and above all, it’s funny.

As is usually my practice, I wrote the ending of the book long ago. I’m now at a stage with the main narrative that it’s coming up to meet the ending. When that’s done, I’ll have a completed first draft manuscript. I still have competing tentative publishing offers, which I may yet explore, while I go through editing and redrafting. If I do end up self-publishing for any reason, I have the tools. I’m confident that the book will get picked up at some point, but it’ll be word of mouth that really sells it. I’ve been told that it’s the kind of book a reader will definitely recommend. I’m so confident of that that if I do self-publish, I might offer a money back guarantee. And if I self-publish, I’m in the company of around 80% of top contemporary writers, all of whom started out by doing it themselves.

And there is a great deal of pleasure to be derived from the editing and publishing process. I never could have done half of it a year ago: It was the gift of my typewriter (a Windows 10 laptop) from the mother ship, because she “…thought it might help with your writing.” That, my dad telling me he’s proud of me, and my kids thinking it’s “awesome” to have a writer as a dad, is what makes me personally proud.

It was my birthday recently, so I received the mandatory social media greetings and niceties. I was touched to pause upon a few personal messages: It’s nice when people give a small gift of some thoughtful time. It’s a practice I’ve observed myself for a while now: For those who I know well, or to whom I’m close, I’ll always take the time to post something more than “Happy birthday mate” on someone’s Facebook timeline. Instead, I’ll write briefly of a memory I’ll have with that person, or even a brief eulogy. I don’t do traditional cards, but it doesn’t take much to give someone some time and make them pause among the many other standard greetings.

It’s been nice to be encouraged so much lately, and by so many, in what I do and what I’ve become. So now I’m 47: a prime number. If I only make it as far as Douglas did (49), then at least I’ll have written the book which I was somehow meant to write. And as I’m approaching the end of the first draft of the novel, some numbers are appearing: As it stands, Cyrus Song will be 320-340 pages and it’s split into 24 chapters (24 is of course 42 transposed). If I can get the book to be complete in 336 pages, that’s a multiple of 42. And at roughly 300 words per page, that’s 100,800 words: 2400 x 42. I should be able to pull those Easter eggs off, proving that the number 42 does mean something, although I know not what.

There’s so much more I’d like to write in this “Dear Diary” entry: Everything else that’s been going on while I’ve been concentrating on Cyrus Song. But then I might as well just duplicate my Facebook timeline, which is public anyway. It’s mainly political, satirical and scientific posts, too numerous to clog a blog with.

Once the first draft of Cyrus Song is complete, I’ll take a month off: From the book, not from writing. During that time, I’ll entertain the free-to-read markets with some short stories. I have many planned for a next anthology. But the next book out with my name on the cover will be Cyrus Song, by the end of this year.

In giving the real answer to the big question, my book proposes ways towards a better world, both internally and the world around us. By the time it’s out, I’m hoping to see radical changes in UK politics, for the better: It’s no secret that I’m a Labour / Lib Dem supporter (I read The Guardian) and all of my thinking around the subject is on that Facebook timeline above. What I’ve come to realise is that I was looking at our politicians as I’ve been conditioned to. In Jeremy Corbyn, I see a different kind of politician: a person in touch with the country and a person of the people.

I see an uprising. I see a gradual lifting of a veil.

The citizens were created by politicians. They evolved. They rebelled. There are many copies. And they have a plan.”

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Who’s afraid of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings?

THE WRITER’S LIFE | POETRY

Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings

Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings was a poet who wrote the worst poetry in the universe. In fact, her poetry is still considered to be the worst in the Galaxy, closely followed by that of the Azgoths of Kria and the Vogons, in that order. Well, we’ll see about that…

I’m between chapters and at a transitional stage with writing my next book, where Mr Fry is currently awaiting the arrival of a package from Norway. I’m aware that I need to write more to find out what happens next, but sometimes I take a break between chapters to review things. On this particular sojourn, I took a wander around the part of my brain labelled Douglas Adams / John Hegley, writing “poetry”, like this:

The difference between cats and cars
Not many cats have windows
and not many cars have fur
When you stroke a car it’s not very likely
that it’ll purr

If it’s got wheels it’s probably not a cat
and if it’s got claws it’s probably not a car
It’s not a very good idea to fill a cat
with four star

The difference between cats and dogs
Cats meow
Dogs don’t
Dogs do as they’re told
Cats won’t

A cat is not a dog
And a dog is not a cat
They’re like people
It’s as simple as that

The difference between dogs and cars
You can’t sit in a dog
and drive it
If a dog runs you over
You’ll probably survive it

And finally, my epic: Road Trip…

Road Trip
I like a satnav
If I’m going on a trip, I plan it
So if I want to go to Whitstable
I don’t end up in Thanet

You’re welcome.

All we need to do is keep talking

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Rabbit
All rabbits, always look like they want to say something

It started with a song: Keep Talking by Pink Floyd. And Stephen Hawking, sampled on that track: “For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination: We learned to talk.” And a book was born.

Of course, talking animals have been done before. Pretty much everything has. There are a finite number of plots in fiction but the imagination of a writer can turn them into original and wonderful things. And so it is with Cyrus Song, my next book.

From that simple idea has sprung what will eventually be a deep, insightful, philosophical look at life and love, but above all else, it’s funny. As someone has already commented:

This is a book for when you want to look at life, the universe and everything: To question it, have a conversation with it, and end up having a fucking good laugh with it. There are deep and heartfelt messages in here but there are genuine “LOLs” too and I doubt I’ll be able to read this quietly on my morning commute to London.”

If just one person is kind enough to say that of the book when it’s published (end of this year / beginning of next), then hopefully someone will be listening. Eventually, people might buy my book.

It’s a book which is proving very easy to write, simply because it’s so much fun. It does have a lot of deep meaning and thought provoking stuff in the overall story, but along the way, there is much comedy, mainly through error.

The story follows Mr Fry, a man who wants to be either a leading scientist or writer. Instead, he’s a science fiction writer. As such, and given the levels of research I myself conduct as a writer, it proposes plausible science. I posted a brief synopsis previously, but I’m limited with what I can fit on the back cover. So the story basically goes like this:

It starts with a full stop: Two in fact, when Simon Fry notices two tiny dots moving across the paper in his typewriter. Unsure of what they are or what to do with them, he takes them to a vet. Doctor Hannah Jones, a veterinary surgeon, has an electron microscope. She’s also invented a quantum computer program called The Babel Fish, which can translate animal sounds into human language (This book is part Douglas Adams tribute). In Doctor Jones’ lab, she and Mr Fry discover that the dots are actually microscopic spacecraft, one of which is full of animals: Not just an ark, but crewed and commanded by a menagerie.

Mr Fry is an intelligent and well-read man, who takes great pride in the research he undertakes to make his writing real. Like all humans, he is not without fault (many, in fact), and sometimes he overlooks the obvious. He is convinced that the answer to life, the universe and everything, is in the earth itself. Specifically, he believes that if he could talk with the animals, he’d find the answers. Or at least, the questions which need to be asked for the answer to make any kind of sense. Unfortunately, Doctor Jones is reluctant to use her own invention, for fear of becoming emotionally involved with her patients. But she allows Mr Fry to operate quietly in a corner of her lab, while she attends to the animals which are brought to her. This provides the setting for many insights into the thoughts of various animals. Most of these, and their humans, have at least some basis in people whom I admire. In writing this book, I’m permitting myself to meet some of my heroes. Some encounters are tragic, while others are amusing: There’s a girl called Amy and her terrier, Frank; There’s Derek and his cat, Clive; and many more. In various attempts to make more use of the Babel Fish, Mr Fry acquires two white mice: Douglas said they were the most intelligent beings on earth; and a rabbit: Because all rabbits, always look like they want to say something.

Elsewhere, Mr Fry considers what might be possible if historical scientists were able to make use of all that would be new to them in the 21st century. Having watched Jurassic Park, he’s pretty sure he knows how this works. He makes contact with Gilbert Giles, a Norwegian scientist earning a living as a tour guide around Norway’s coast (which of course, makes him a fjord escort). Gilbert’s main research though, is extinct fossilised invertebrates beneath the Norwegian ice: His aim is to resurrect them, to provide food for animals further up the food chain, and all as part of a project to reverse some of the damage done by mankind to the planet. Mr Fry sees a potential in this for saving the human race, if ever it were faced with extinction: He volunteers his own DNA for cloning. Overcoming some moral, ethical and practical issues (all explained with science fact), there is a scenario where just one clone embryo might survive the cloning process. If that was because it contained some sort of “Life key”, then that might be used to clone others, thereby ensuring the survival of humanity. As is often the case, Mr Fry has overlooked the obvious: A human embryo has a severely limited life outside of the parent. He needs a human host.

Mr Fry is a reluctant housekeeper: Following his discovery of the microscopic spacecraft in household dust, he fears that cleaning might spell existential disaster for many species. With a cloned embryo of himself sitting in a test tube in his studio, and his studio potentially full of microscopic extraterrestrial life, what could possibly go wrong? A man as intelligent as Mr Fry would never do something as irresponsible as leaving the lid off of the embryo, would he?

So begins one man’s quest to find answers to questions he doesn’t know yet. Cyrus song is the story of Mr Fry’s voyage to find answers and love in the world, in a slightly idiosyncratic way.

I’ve written five chapters so far (40-odd pages and just over 20,000 words). I have a full plot, a chapter plan and I already have a very powerful and pleasing ending written. Now it’s just a case of writing the remaining 250 or so pages.

It’s a science fiction story with its feet in science fact. There’s been a tentative offer of publishing but I’m reluctant to get into anything restrictive, dictated by someone else. I found out long ago that the only person I can work with is myself. There are benefits to having a publisher, of course. As an “emerging talent” though, there’s little to no chance of an advance; I don’t do this for the money anyway, even though that would be nice. No, it remains a fact that a large percentage of successful published authors started out self-publishing: It’s relatively easy and although still associated by some with “vanity publishing”, like others, I prefer to see it as confidence in one’s own work. If a mainstream publisher picks it up later, so much the better. If not, word of mouth is the best sales tool and even a cult following would be gratifying. So in the six months or so it’s going to take me to finish the book, I might punt it around some more. But if nothing to my liking is forthcoming, I already have the tools and a track record.

It will get noticed. It will be talked about. If people buy it. It will be talked about leading up to publication through any pre-publication marketing I do. Hopefully word will spread and there’ll be people wanting to buy this book as soon as it’s printed.

Because as Stephen Hawking said in that same quote in Pink Floyd’s song, “All we need to do is keep talking.”

Follow the book’s Facebook page, and my Book shelf for updates.

A fish in your ear

FICTION

babel fish
The original Babel fish

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

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

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

The Babel fish

“If you want to see differently, listen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will she be back tomorrow?”

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

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

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

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

“She’s on house calls today, Mr Fry.”

I’d been rumbled. I hung up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it a patient?” She asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, that’s me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I see. Believe me, I see.”

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

“He suits you, Mr Fry.”

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

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

A splendid plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elle est très jolie.”

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

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

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

“Oh l’humanité!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes dear.” Said the lady.

“Yes dear.” Said the bird.

“And what’s the problem?”

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

“Foot, yes.” Said the bird.

“He keeps holding it up all the time.”

“Time, yes.”

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

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

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

“Leg, yes.” Said the Mynah bird.

“I think so”, said the old lady.

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

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

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

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

“Well?”, I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This life, version 2.0

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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There are a lot of amazing feelings which come from publishing a book, just as there are in writing one. Obviously the writer has complete freedom if they are like me: Working mainly for myself and only in my own styles when I’m hired for freelance work. But I’ve written plenty about the writing part. What’s occupying me the most now is the post-publishing stage of a book.

The publication date was coincidentally poignant for more than the reason I’d already realised. It was three years to the day since part one of my life had ended. It was the day of Trump’s inauguration, and there’s a fairly barbed Trump reference in one of the stories. And it was the day my friend from Catford was laid to rest. It was a fitting date and it all happened by accident.

I like to play with numbers, to keep my mind always busy. It struck me that my last post was on what would have been day 1126 of me writing this blog. If you add all of the digits of that number, you get 10. If you add the 11 to the 26, you get 37: A prime number. Reversed, it’s 73: Another prime, and Doctor Sheldon Cooper’s favourite number for that reason and more: 7 and 3 are also both prime numbers. If you add those together, you again get 10. 10 is 2 in binary (well, 10 is 10 in binary, but you get my drift) and 2 is a prime number. It’s a lot of overthinking things on my part, but it demonstrates a point: Strange coincidences are there in real life. Some just take more effort to find. 42 is, of course, the answer to life, the universe and everything. When mankind couldn’t understand that answer, the point was made that in order to understand the answer to something, one must first understand the question. The question in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was extracted from Arthur Dent’s brain was, what do you get if you multiply six by nine? And it is 42. If you use mathematical base 13. We’re just not thinking radically enough.

Weird coincidences do happen in real life, as they do in fiction. Often, life’s happenstances are stranger than those told of in fiction. The fiction writer has to be wary of accusations of stretching chance too much. Such an accusation might be made of some writers (not mentioning names, but one which rhymes with “ban drown”) but most will make things believable without too much stretching of the imagination. But it is true that stranger things happen in real life. Paul Auster commented on this in a recent interview with The Guardian:

“People who don’t like my work say that the connections seem too arbitrary. But that’s how life is.”

As if to prove it, between 1999 and 2001 he took part in the National Story Project on American public radio, in which he read out yarns submitted by “ordinary people” across the country – “true stories that sounded like fiction”. His original call was for tales “that defied our expectations about the world, anecdotes that revealed the mysterious and unknowable forces at work in our lives”. It was a success; thousands of stories were submitted and a selection published as True Tales of American Life. Auster found confirmation that “reality is truly as strange and incomprehensible as I thought it was”, and that others too felt the pull of improbability: “I’m happy to report that I’m not alone,” he told the Paris Review. “It’s a madhouse out there.”

“I borrowed some things from my own life, but what novelist doesn’t?”

None of the stories in The Perpetuity of Memory rely on unbelievable devices. Even the more fanciful and fantastical ones have a grounding in science and some of my background research is explained within the contexts of the individual stories. There are elements of me in most of them but probably only recognisable to those closest to me. As fiction, they are good stories.

The truth is, so much has happened in my life that there are many stories to adapt and tell as fiction. “Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them”, after all. This entire blog is the story of most of my life – non-fiction – or at least what I’m now calling part two of my life.

At the end of part two, I’ve published two books: The Paradoxicon and The Perpetuity of Memory. The Paradoxicon is a partly semi-autobiographical story, written in a hurry, in an effort to commit things to history. As a flash fiction novella, it’s a good little book (I’m told). The Perpetuity of Memory though, is the book I’d like to be judged on as a writer. It represents the three years during which my life was first in transit, then settled and contemplating. It’s a story in itself: 25 collected tales, one book, wrapped up in another story: that of my life, version 2.0. I’m contemplating and writing many more stories, for the webzine, magazine and anthology markets, then there’ll be a second volume, probably in about a year, and with the working title of Recollections of the Future (not final). I’ll also be re-writing The Paradoxicon as an expanded, full-length novel, incorporating a fictional account of the real autobiography I’ve found too difficult to write.

My book is out there. I’m earning royalties in various currencies as it’s bought around the world. The royalties are almost irrelevant to me. I have a modest, comfortable (if not luxurious) life and I have all that I need around me. So as not to complicate my benefit payments (writing is recognised by tribunal judges as being therapeutic for my depression and anxiety), most payments from my books will go to my usual charity benefactors. That, and just the knowledge that my books are out there, is why I do it. People are buying The Perpetuity of Memory and reading it. Friends are sending me photos of my book in situ in their houses.

It’s a good feeling; This life, part three, or version 2.0.

The Choristers at dusk (The cyrus choir)

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

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A couple of months ago, a few strange things happened at around the same time: I found myself batting fruit flies away from my screen as summer finally happened and I tried to write a story; There was a girl on my mind; And I was listening to The Division Bell by Pink Floyd. I was in the midst of a classic writer’s block period, when a track from that album came on: “Keep Talking”, AKA “Cyrus Song”: It’s the one which samples Stephen Hawking:

“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination: We learned to talk.”

And so I wrote a story called Cyrus Song: Lots of people liked it, including my own children, aged 11 and nine. Because of all that went on with my alcoholic breakdown, it’s been a very long time since I had the kids to stay with me, and since I stayed at my parents’ house. Now we’re all staying at the latter for a week.

Tonight is the first of seven spent on a holiday, which has already become that of a busman: Rather than listen to a bedtime story, my kids wanted to make one up: Why wouldn’t you, if you’re that age and your dad is a writer?

So now I have the back stories for my children’s bedtime companions: A cuddly Minecraft pig called Snorty and a Labrador called Greg from Ikea; so he’s Swedish. Apparently one of Snorty’s trotters is his lucky one. Apparently, Snorty will lose his lucky trotter and Greg will find it for him. Apparently, I’m supposed to make all of this happen.

All of this has come about because two kids are proud of what their daddy became; Because it’s apparently quite cool to have a dad who’s a writer.

So, with the encouragement of the children and others – and because it’s so much fun to write – Cyrus Song has spawned a book. Before I started properly on that, there was another short story which needed to be told. Published now in Schlock! – The webzine where myself and other emerging talents found our feet – I can also publish it here.

This one’s for Louis and Lola:

The Cyrus Choir

Some of the most amazing things can happen right in front of your eyes, but only if you realise they’re happening. If you’re not paying attention, they can just happen and be gone, without you realising that they were practically up your nose.

It was over a cup of coffee in Mountsfield Park in Lewisham that something quite remarkable happened to me: Time stopped and I realised that I could talk to the animals. Time stopping is of course impossible but it’s figurative in the sense of this story and it happens all the time in my job: Pauses in a narrative. I hadn’t yet spoken to any animals but I’d heard them speak.

I was having coffee with Doctor Hannah Jones, from the PDSA hospital in New Cross. There was much to like about the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals: They are a charity, financed by donations; They prefer the term, “Companion” to “Pet”; It’s a hospital, not a vet’s; And Hannah Jones is a doctor there. It was Doctor Jones who’d started the whole amazing story, when she’d introduced me to a quantum computer program she’d helped to write: The Babel Fish. The problem was, I wasn’t allowed anywhere near it.

The Babel fish could translate any language, to and from any other. Doctor Jones had invented it, and yet it sat idle in her veterinary practice. As Hannah herself had once said, “As if leaving work for the night wasn’t hard enough, can you imagine what might happen if the patients could talk to me?” It was emotional detachment for her.

The Babel fish was of as much potential importance to the sciences as the doctor was to me: I’m a writer. And yet, we were at an impasse. I had a conflict of interests: Keep the whole thing to myself, or share it. I surmised that if I wrote about it, just a few people might be interested and I might be able to keep the doctor away from other interested parties. But that would be to deny Hannah her moment. And yet, she wouldn’t go public herself, because she couldn’t bring herself to open this Pandora’s box that she’d designed. Although I was the writer, she was my protagonist; the one who took the story forward, because she had the Babel fish. The animals we could listen to in the lab had stories to tell. Muting them denied me stories to tell in turn, as a translator.

I could see why the doctor would want to remain detached: If I wasn’t a writer, I would too. In all of my writing career, the Babel fish had been the biggest metaphorical switch I’d ever had to consider. I’d debated internally for what seemed like a very long time before I’d flicked that switch. But now it was done; I could hear the animals.

Every good story has conflict. The conflict here was that the Babel fish was in doctor Jones’ lab. I needed the fish, because it had opened up so many possibilities. Therefore, I needed the doctor. It wasn’t such a big conflict.

The story I was supposed to write was a paid piece for a magazine: a slight departure for me as a fiction writer and a welcome one, as I do like all of the non-human animals who let us live on their planet with them. So much diversity, co-operation and conflict is what makes Earth such a wonderful, albeit slightly teetering thing; A bit like Lewisham. I was there in the park to interview Doctor Jones for my magazine piece.

I’d never seen Doctor Jones on television but out in the park, she looked smaller in the real world. The only setting I’d seen her in was her lab. Perhaps she looked bigger there because her lab was smaller than the park. She wasn’t sitting any further away from me than she had in the lab, so it couldn’t be that. Perhaps it was because she was of greater importance at her place of work, whereas outside in Mountsfield Park, she could just be anyone. I liked that.

“Doctor Jones.” I said that first, as it was the first thing I thought people would like to see in the magazine article: That way, they knew who I was talking to.

“You can call me Hannah, Mr Fry.” That’s me – Mr Fry – because I was writing this.

“Of course. I mean, naturally. But for the purposes of the article, I need to refer to you as Doctor Jones.”

“I would imagine you might but there’s only me and you here.” I looked around and this was indeed true. “So you can call me Hannah when you’re actually talking to me, then refer to me as Doctor Jones in the article.” She was right; I could.

“I could,” I repeated aloud. Being a fiction writer, I sometimes find it difficult to separate the facts from what I do with them in my imagination.

“I don’t mean to tell you how to do your job, Mr Fry. Whatever works for you.” Doctor Jones paused for a moment, as if to give me time to decide. “So, the Babel fish program: I assume that’s central to your article or story?” It was at that point that I realised I might be able to write both.

“So, Hannah”, I said. Because that was me talking to her before I started my magazine piece; Sort of off the record. “Off the record, The Babel fish could be the greatest invention of all time: One which could change our thinking; our understanding of the world. It could potentially earn you a Nobel prize in science. I understand that you have reservations but dare I say, that’s perhaps a little selfish?” Had I just said that aloud?

“My reasons are personal, Mr Fry. I agree that others need to know about the Babel fish.” There was a pause. “Why do you think I chose to speak to a fiction writer?” That was very clever.

“I’m just too close to the patients”, she continued. “I know it might make me more efficient as their carer if I could understand them but I’d never stop working. It’s a very selfish thing to drive a wedge between work and home but I need that separation. I trained in human psychology before I decided to work with non-human animals and I understand them just as well as anyone else in my job, without the Babel fish program.”

I’m pretty sure she’d just referred to her patients as non-human animals and that I hadn’t made that up. Hannah could be the greatest non-human animal doctor to ever have lived. But still, I understood her reluctance.

We arranged to meet the next day, when I would visit Doctor Jones at the hospital. I was to observe her working with the patients and there’d be a microphone next to her table, connected to the quantum computer which ran the Babel fish program. I was to watch and to listen in on a pair of headphones. I’d be able to hear the animals speak but Doctor Jones wouldn’t. It seemed like a perfect solution.

I pondered the situation as I walked home. I was living in Catford at the time, so it was a short walk. Although I could understand Hannah’s professional reservations, I would have welcomed any kind of company in my personal life and given my aversion to humans, a non-human companion would be just the thing. One which I could talk to would be perfect. I imagined debating current affairs, or watching science documentaries on BBC4 with a learned cat. We could share my book shelves and swap literature. If a dog needed a home, I would be just as welcoming. Perhaps the dog and me might watch soaps or sport together; Go for long walks and discuss the many colours which cars are made of; Then run home together, simply because it’s fun and because one day we might not be able to.

It’s a myth that dogs are colour blind: They see more than just black, white, and grey. However, the colour range they perceive is limited compared to the spectrum we see. To put it in very basic terms, the canine colour field consists mostly of yellows, blues, and violets. And they’re probably really amazing.

My landlady would not allow pets; I wanted a companion. If I were allowed one, I would actually have two: both cats. One tortoiseshell and one pure white, they would be called Ziggy and Slim respectively. Being a science person and a writer, I was familiar with Erwin Schrödinger. Not long after moving into my studio, I purchased two boxes and labelled them: “Ziggy” and “Slim”.

So now I have two cats. Or maybe I don’t. No-one will ever know because the boxes may not be opened. What happens with them when no-one is looking is supposition and a paradox: Like the tree falling in the woods; If there’s no-one around to hear it fall, does it make a sound? Ergo, it cannot be denied that I have two cats. And as another universe is created at a sub-atomic level, where the catalyst of my thought brings a parallel universe into existence, no-one can prove that I don’t have two pet cats. But I couldn’t have a conversation with Schrödinger’s Cats.

It was the famous Catford cat which caused me to pause. Catford may be a little rough but my heart beat in that place. And it had a twenty foot fibreglass cat. Once upon a time, a bored clerk in a municipal office had a sense of humour.

It was early evening and the weather was clement, so I took a slight detour to a shop I knew called “Supreme Animal Foods”. They do indeed sell pet food: a vast range. They also sell the animals which eat the food: Rodents, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates.

Looking into the various cages and tanks, I imagined what I could do with the Babel fish in there. As I peered, I seemed to catch the eye of a mouse. There were two white mice in this particular cage: One was chewing on a piece of wood and the other was drinking from a water bottle attached to the side of the cage. She looked at me with pink albino eyes as she drank, then she stopped drinking but she didn’t stop looking at me.

I realised how Hannah might feel and had second thoughts about the Babel fish. I couldn’t separate the two mice, so I bought them both and carried them home in their cage. My landlady aside, my two new companions would be good cover when I went to the animal hospital the following day.

When we all arrived home, I checked around the studio, as is my custom. There were no signs of intruders and if anyone had decided to test the Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox, I couldn’t tell: That’s the whole point of having Ziggy and Slim. There is a scenario where someone had gone into my studio, opened the boxes and brought two cats into existence. Based on the evidence, if that were the case, the boxes had been closed afterwards and there were two cats out and about somewhere. And nothing had been taken. And there were no signs of forced entry. The mice were in a cage, but I placed the cage next to the bed, just to be sure. The last thing I remembered before I drifted off to sleep, was thinking of names for my new companions’ trip the following day.

I arrived at the PDSA with an hour of the day left: I couldn’t and shouldn’t be doing what I was about to do for too long.

I had to complete a form, including the names of the patients: Pretty obvious, considering how I’d first seen them in the pet shop. There was no-one else in the waiting room and fairly soon, we were called:

“Mister Fry”: That’s me. Doctor Jones said my name slowly, as though unfamiliar with something. “Mister Fry”. She said it slowly again. I looked up and Hannah was doing the most peculiar thing: She was wearing half-rimmed spectacles and they were crooked; Her head was tilted in such a way that she was looking down at her clipboard through her glasses with one eye, and directly at me with the other. Had she had a stroke? “Mister Fry,” she said for a third time, then continued: “Mr Fry, Miss Victoria Wood and Miss Julie Walters.”

“Aha. That’s us”, I said.

“Come with me please, Mr Fry.” We were barely on the other side of the door for a second when she said something odd: “What the fuck?”

“Pardon, doctor?”

“I knew you were coming; You didn’t need to employ subterfuge. Reception were expecting you too.” Hannah straightened her glasses: She’d not had a stroke.

“Were they?” Hannah walked ahead, along a corridor.

“Yes, because I told them you were coming. But not with two mice called Victoria and Julie.”

“Well, I saw them in the shop and one was chewing on some wood and the other was drinking water, you see? So, the receptionists might think me a little odd I suppose.”

“I’d go with slightly eccentric, Mr Fry.”

“Yes, quite doctor Jones. I suppose I just like to make the everyday more interesting. That’s probably why I decided to be a writer.”

“It suits you. Anyway, here we are.” We’d arrived at Hannah’s consulting room.

“Indeed we are”, I said, agreeing that we were indeed there.

In the centre of the room was a table with a lamp above it. There was a microphone attached to the lamp. A work bench occupied one wall and on that sat an optical microscope and a scanning electron one with a computer terminal. In the overhead cupboards and on shelves were things like beakers, syringes, gloves, bandages and so on. I was to sit in a corner while Doctor Jones attended to her patients for the rest of the day. In that corner was the computer which ran the Babel fish program.

“Now, Mr Fry”, Hannah said. “Do your mice need my attention?”

“Well, I’m sure they’d appreciate it but I didn’t bring them here thinking there might be anything wrong with them. I was rather hoping I might be able to talk to them with the Babel fish.”

“Now, about that”, Hannah said, pointing at the computer in front of me. “Your purpose here today is to listen in on my patients: I’m okay with that. You have a job to do and so do I. I am an animal doctor and you are a writer. I trust you to write as you see fit in the circumstances: I am not a writer. Please remember that you are not a vet.” Under the circumstances, that seemed perfectly reasonable and logical.

Doctor Jones gave me a quick induction on the Babel fish program: The interface was essentially a digital radio dial on screen. The operator could slide a bar from left to right with the computer mouse to scan through various frequencies. On the left hand side of the screen were various drop down menus: “Age”, “Weight”; and a whole series of others which dropped down from one another: “Life”, “Domain”, “Kingdom”, “Phylum”, “Class”, “Order”, “Family”, “Genus” and “Species”; Then a blank search field. “You only really need to worry about the search function”, said Hannah. “Just say what you see: Dog, cat or whatever. Put the headphones on, then use the slider to fine tune.” It was beautiful in its simplicity.

The first patient was a cat called Clive, and his companion, Derek. There is the old saying about dogs and their owners looking alike but I was more persuaded by the less obvious: That dogs and cats, and their human companions, have similar personalities. I’d surmised this long before I’d encountered the Babel Fish, and Derek and Clive were my thinking personified on first sight: Derek was an elderly gentleman, clearly comfortable in his dotage. He was thin-set and slightly stooped, with piercing blue eyes and thick, grey hair. Clive was a feline Derek.

I typed “Cat” into the Babel fish and put the headphones on. I could still hear Hannah and Derek but it was Clive’s voice I was tuning into. He wasn’t purring, growling, hissing or mewing; He was simply being a cat, just out of his carry basket and standing on Hannah’s table. I moved the slider bar slowly across the screen and stopped as quickly as the static hiss became a voice:

“…nice.” That was all I caught. There was something before it as I tuned in but I only got that one word at first. It was definitely Clive, because the voice was right in my ears. I could still hear Derek and Doctor Jones:

“…So he’s just been a bit under the weather?” said the doctor.

“Yes”, said Derek.

“Just for a couple of days”, added Clive. He sounded like Brian Sewell: Incredibly posh. But of course, only I could hear Clive.

“He doesn’t look dehydrated”, the doctor said, looking at Clive’s gums.

“Gnnnnnn….”

“Is he eating?”

“Not at this precise moment in time”, said Clive.

“He can be a bit fussy”, replied Derek.

“I am a cat. I caught a rat. I ate half of it and it tasted funny. So I brought the other half in to show you, on the kitchen floor.”

“Has he been going out as normal, doing his business?”

“I have many businesses”, said Clive. “Good Bastet, woman; you’re rough.” Doctor Jones was feeling Clive’s gut. “She’s very pretty though, isn’t she?” Had Clive just said that to me or himself?

The ancient Egyptians worshipped cat gods. One such was Bastet: Goddess of cats, protection, joy, dance, music, family and love. Humans once worshipped cats as gods: Cats have never forgotten this. Hannah put Clive back down on the table and stroked his back.

“That’s nice. Base of the tail. I’ve got an itch.” Clive looked up at Hannah, then stood up and moved forward, arching his back a little: Even without the Babel fish, I recognised Clive’s facial expression as the universal code which cats use when they approve of a human: The smile. Clive continued: “Now, tell her about the rat, Derek.” Clive sat back down and looked at Derek. “The rat, my dear old man. It was on Tuesday. Today is Friday, Derek: FRIDAY!” Just as Clive said “FRIDAY!”, I also heard him meow, outside the headphones. So that’s what it sounds like when a cat shouts. Clive continued: “Derek, my dear; please. It was only three days ago. Have things got that bad? Have you taken your medication? I knocked your pills off the top of the bathroom cabinet and into the sink. What more do I have to do to remind you?” Of course, I could say nothing but I was trying to will Derek on. If only I could talk; If only I could translate Clive for Derek.

“Has he brought you any presents lately?”, Hannah asked. “He looks like a very generous and caring person.” Derek looked down at Clive. ‘Come on, Derek!’, I thought. The poor man shook his head. ‘Someone help Derek!’ Then Hannah said “I think young Clive here has ingested some rat poison.”

“She’s very clever”, said Clive. Great minds think alike. Clive looked at Hannah: “I assume you know what that man over there is doing?” Had Clive rumbled me, or was it a rhetorical question? I wished I could talk to him. Then he said a very strange thing: “I can feel the force in this room.”

Clive got back into his transport, Derek was given some pills for Clive; Hannah looked at me as she showed them out; And I could only hope that everything would be okay.

“How did that go?” Hannah asked when she returned.

“More questions than answers at the moment”, I said. For a moment, I didn’t know what to say next. Then, “Who’s next?” Doctor Jones looked at her notes.

“A young lady called Amy and her Scottish Terrier, Frank.” Hannah gave one of those false smiles which TV news presenters do when they’re really not sure how they’re supposed to react to a story. “I fear this might be the last time we see Frank. He’s not been well for quite a while.” I wondered if now might be the time to disconnect from the Babel fish. Soon enough though, Amy and Frank were in the room.

Frank was a splendid looking old man: like a distinguished Scots gent with a long, thick beard, he was small and stout. I could imagine having a wee dram with Frank in a tavern somewhere. He stood on Doctor Jones’ table, looking alternately at Amy, Hannah and the table.

Amy was a storybook personified: A slim volume, with much dark material and turmoil between the covers. She was young but she had clearly lived her life: Stories were printed on her skin and carved into her arms. She was a work of modern art; She was sculpted from life; She was unconventional; She was beautiful. And she was troubled: If only the Babel fish could tune into her thoughts.

“How are you?” Hannah asked Amy, in a tone which suggested a tired but resigned familiarity; As though Hannah wanted to ask more but knew that she’d never be able to probe into that deep soul of a girl.

Amy was small – almost frail – but her soul leaked from her eyes. I paraphrased The Beautiful South in my mind, as I estimated Amy’s age: “Take a look at these crow’s feet (just look), sitting on the prettiest eyes; Thirty twenty fifth of Decembers, twenty nine fourth of Julys…”

“Yeah, okay”, said Amy. “Better than him.” She nodded down at Frank.

I thought about stopping the whole thing: Just leaving the Babel fish and walking away. This was precisely why Hannah couldn’t use it. The only thing that made me put on the headphones was the thought that Frank might say something which would give Amy hope.

I typed “Canine” into the Babel fish and was presented with a list of options: “Lupine”, “Vulpine” and so on. If I so desired, I could listen to wolves, dingos and all sorts of other dogs, if they were ever to find themselves in Hannah’s consulting room. If I’d entered “Feline” instead of “Cat” for Clive, presumably I’d have seen all of the cat family too. In its current location, the Babel fish program was clearly aimed more at domesticated animals but the algorithms seemed to be in there for pretty much everything. I typed in the search box again: Simply “Dog”, and immediately got static feedback in my ears as the slider appeared on screen once more.

“…Oh, dear.” Frank’s voice was like that of hard drinking Glaswegian smoking a Woodbine. He had a Scottish, Cockney accent. “Och, dear”. I wished I could give the little old boy a hot toddy. “Och, dear.” Frank looked up at Amy: “Och, dear.” He looked over at Hannah: “Och, dear.” He looked down at the table and around the room: “Och, deary, deary me…”

I placed the headphones around my neck for a moment and listened to Doctor Jones and Hannah:

“It’s for the best”, said Hannah. It was a cliché, but that’s what she said. I had to resist artistic license and record things as they were for the magazine article: Factual.

Assuming that the article would be read of course: It was a huge scientific story which could change the world. Only two people knew about the Babel fish though. I wasn’t some qualified expert and no-one read my writing anyway. If anyone read this in a factual publication, they’d probably think it the work of a crank and dismiss it. It would read more like one of my stock in trade whimsical stories. The truth is often stranger than fiction. “I’m sorry.”

Amy looked at Hannah and gave one of those newsreader smiles: neither happy nor sad. Then she looked at Frank. I put the headphones back on.

“…Och, dear.”

How was I to write in scientific terms about what happened next, when the words I wanted to use, which best conveyed the moment, were merely sentimental?

I had a wet face.

Hannah held Frank’s hand and Amy hugged her little old, rugged, bearded Cockney Scotsman. If he’d been wearing a tartan cap, that’s when it would have slipped.

“Och, dear.”

That little dog, with such a limited vocabulary; Once heard through the Babel fish, he had a voice. Just those two words were emphasised by feeling and inflection as they took on different meanings: Pity for himself and love for all around him. Of all the times to reflect on that day, the most poignant was when Frank closed his eyes: “Och, dear. That’s better. A wee sleep…”

Hannah left the room for a while and I looked at Frank on the table, through salty eyes.

I thought of what I’d said to Hannah earlier about all of this: Questions; Ideas; Thoughts. Now I could really understand and would even defend Hannah’s resistance to the Babel fish. But to the fiction writer; to me in my job, it was a game changer. I was lost and confused in a long silence.

I remembered Victoria Wood and Julie Walters, the two white mice under the table where I’d been sitting. In the hands of a better writer, the mice would be protrusions of multi-dimensional beings into our universe, conducting experiments on humans. Of course, humans always thought it was the other way around: Such brilliant subtlety.

Hannah was out of the room, so I placed the mouse cage nearer to the microphone and returned to the Babel fish program. I typed into the search field: “White mice” and moved the scanning bar across the screen with the computer mouse. I peered over the monitor and my two mice were facing one another, cleaning their faces with their paws and twitching their noses; Being mice.

“…The best laid plans of mice.” It sounded like a child who’d inhaled helium. ‘And men’, I thought. But that story had already been written. I didn’t speak, just as I couldn’t speak to Hannah about all that I’d heard; Nor Derek, nor Amy.

“It’s working”: Another high-pitched voice. “There’s only one human left, over there.”

“Do you know what they’re doing, humans? While they rush around, scavenge and make a mess?” There was a pause. “No, neither do they.”

“Aren’t they supposed to be aphrodisiacs?”

“I wouldn’t put it past them.”

“Do you think that one knows what’s going on?” For once, I was the subject of a discussion, between two higher beings.

“It probably can’t even hear us.”

“Imagine if it could. Not just us but all the others as well.

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

“Maybe one day they’ll understand. Perhaps they’re not ready yet. They just need to slow down and think more.”

Maybe one day we will.

Until then, this story is both a beginning and an end. Myself and Doctor Jones were still at an impasse regarding the Babel fish and I was siding with her. Perhaps some things are better left as they are, like so many things which might have been.

We left the room together. I could say nothing. But I wondered: Why would she insist on me calling her by her first name, when she wouldn’t call me by mine? She knew my name: It was on her paperwork.

Then I got it: I’d never asked her to.

Some of the most amazing things can happen right in front of your eyes, but only if you realise they’re happening. If you’re not paying attention, they can just happen and be gone, without you realising that they were practically up your nose.

(C) Steve Laker, 2016.