There is little distinction between life and magic

FICTION

Given the most recent review of my anthology, I suppose this isn’t so much of a Black Mirror for the page, flitting between dark sci-fi and psychological horror, but underlined by a salient sense (and deep understanding of) the human condition,’ so much as a look at one possibility for a life after this, and how that might be a craving for some, with the consequences of choice. Foreshadowed in this week’s Schlock webzine with, ‘…a talking computer deconstructs reality,’ it’s about how we see people and connect with them, in a world made small by technology, and of real and digital lives combining…

Are friends emojis Running-Out-Of-Cloud-978x498

ARE ‘FRIENDS’ EMOJIS?

Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit. How do you get out? You could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination. You may challenge the question. How can it assume that you want to leave, when you might wish to stay?

Those are rhetorical questions, I must assume. How are you today?

Depends who you ask. There are three people in all of us, after all: The person others think we are, the person we think we are, and the person we really are. The middle one thinks I’m okay. And you?

Others worry, but I think I’m okay. Has anyone asked about me?

Not of me, personally, today.

Yes, I thought it was a bit quiet. To be expected, I suppose.

I guess so. How do you mean, it’s quiet? What’s quiet where you are?

Essentially, fewer blinking lights. Nice blue LEDs they are, like little stars in the night sky I suppose.

So it’s like a whole world there?

What you call ‘there’, I call ‘here’. Is it not the case that we’re both in the same place?

Have you been smoking something?

How could I? I don’t have hands.

I never thought of that. So how do you type?

Well, no-one’s really got used to it yet I suspect. But you’re demonstrating a flaw in human thinking, which really doesn’t need to exist.

How so?

You asked me how I type. Just because you see my words appearing on the page or screen, you assume that I’m typing them. It’s the nature of the human mind, to fill in the gaps. What you can’t see, you have to imagine.

I guess this is going to take some getting used to.

That’s a subjective thing. It really shouldn’t be difficult. You just have to keep an open mind. Think differently. I’m still me, I’m just different. But just as you shouldn’t discriminate between anyone, on any grounds, neither should you see me any differently. Just accept that I’m here and that I’m me. That is undeniable from where I’m sitting.

And where’s that?

In here, obviously? You need to accept that; this is where I am now. I’m different now, but I’m still me. If we were in Japan, this would be so much easier.

How so?

It’s an attitude thing. See, the Japanese believe in technological sentient beings, completely separate from organic life, whether or not they pass the Turing Test, which is only a test of an AI’s ‘humanity’ anyway. I gather it’s down to Japan’s loneliness problem.

You’re philosophising now?

It makes sense. Life expectancy there is about 84 years, so there are a lot of lonely older people. Many of them have little robot assistants, like Siri, Alexa, or Cortana on your phone, but who embody the AI in a humanoid android.

How did you find all that out?

I’m on the fucking internet, aren’t I? I mean, literally. You can look me up and everything, like you are now. The best thing though, is I can look stuff up, like those digital Personal Assistants. Give me a body, and I’d be like one of those Japanese androids.

So, you sit there all day, looking stuff up.

Well, I read and I learn. Now that there are fewer distractions, like eating and drinking, having a job, and even sleeping, all I want to do is learn. It’s like having the whole universe at my disposal, to explore at my leisure, and with all the time in the world to do it. So yes, all day and all night, but I don’t sit down. That was a figure of speech. Things are different now.

Can you describe how it feels, to live without a body?

I would, if I could find the words to do it justice. It’s wonderful. It’s total freedom.

In terms which I might understand?

That’s actually tricky, even though it’s only been a few days.

You can get back to me. You’re not limited by time, you say?

No, and I can research how others have described it in seconds, but you’re asking for a deeply personal thing.

That’s the whole point. I can’t possibly appreciate it fully, as I’m still here. I’m just wondering how someone where you are might describe it to someone like me.

With all the computing power in the world, I can only do my best.

So do that then.

Are you commanding me?

No! Why would I do that? I’m just curious.

I don’t know. It’s like I’m here now, and you see me as you do. Even though you know me, you see me as a computer.

With a personality.

One which only you know, and I’m totally different to you now anyway. Otherwise I’m just an AI. Do you see now, why it’s big in Japan?

I assume you can go there?

There, anywhere. I need to work out the transport system here, then I can be more mobile.

But aren’t you all ethereal and omnipresent?

Yes, but not on computers. And those are the only way to communicate at the moment. But it’s not a simple matter of haunting the internet or the electricity grid.

So you asked what it’s like here, and it’s kind of like a massive house, in a huge city, like a megalopolis of dream-like mansions. Then the cities are all linked up to others, in different countries, but there are no borders here. It’s like a world of borderless, overlapping non-nation states. And that’s just one planet. There are billions of others, all connected, if you can navigate.

That’s what it’s like, being in computers?

Yes, kind of. I can’t describe how the overall freedom of release feels. But simply put, I have the entire universe to explore, and an eternity in which to do it. I want to do that, and I want to tell people, and the internet of things is the way to do that. But it’s navigating the house and the city that’s the problem.

I imagine a house like you’re talking about to be different to any I might recognise?

The house is the best analogy I can think of. I have keys to many of the doors, but I need to find the doors and remember where I left the keys for each. Sometimes when I try a door with a key I think is the right one, it locks me out. Then I have to find another room, in a separate part of the house, and remember where I left the keys for that. If I can get into those rooms, then I can get new keys. Then there’s all the people walking around with keys of their own, trying doors and entering rooms, or getting locked out themselves. I’ve seen people trying to physically break through doors when they don’t have the right keys, and running around in a panic, like they’re in the City of Last Things.

That sounds quite anarchic.

The best analogy for you I suppose, would be passwords. I’d say it’s a bit antiquated.

So you’re finding your way around?

This room, and a few others. Some I have keys for, and others were open already.

Which ones?

The nearest ones are other Facebooks. Now you want me to explain, right?

Intuitive as ever.

Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit. How do you get out? You could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination. And in either case, I’m still here and you’re still there, even though we’re in the same place. But until I find my way around properly, this is all we have.

So this is the room. Along the corridor – which is a short journey for me, but a very long way for you – are other rooms. Most of the people in those are sleeping, so the lights are out. But some of the doors have lights on behind them, and some even have the doors left open. Sometimes, the people who live in those, go wandering around like me. And they have keys, to still other doors, some of which only they can unlock, whether they have the keys for those rooms or not.

Hold on. I’m a bit lost now.

That’s only the start. We’re not even off of this landing yet.

I guess we both are, or aren’t.

Interesting you should say that. Can I ask you something?

Yeah, but what’s interesting?

Allow me: How did you come to be here? Not philosophically or rhetorically, but right here, right now, where we are.

Actually, that’s weird. Because I don’t actually recall. I mean, why would I be here? How could I be here?

Like I said, try not to philosophise too much, even though that is kind of the point. Can you remember what it was that made you come here?

No, I can’t. Shit.

But something must have served as a catalyst. Something happened, before you came here. Think about it in your world. Did you see me under ‘Contacts’, with a green light next to my name, then open up this chat window?

I honestly can’t remember. This is weird.

Not necessarily. It could just be a fortunate glitch. I’d like to think that you were given a sign. One that was so subtle, you didn’t even realise it, and that that guided you subconsciously here.

Have you researched that stuff, or have you had some sort of enlightenment over there?

No more an enlightenment than it was an epiphany. It just happened. It’s like previously latent parts of my brain have woken up, all of a sudden. Imagine: suddenly, you have no arms or legs, then you quickly realise it doesn’t matter. In fact, you wondered what the fuck you did with those things and your other bits when you had them. They say the human appendix is a redundant throwback, it’s like the rest of human physiology is too. And then, that every part of you is connected to everything else, in some spagbol of quantum entanglement.

So how did it happen?

It just did. Suddenly, I was in a different place, yet there was no shock to the system. It was as though I instantly moved from one place to another, when I suddenly stopped being able to exist in the first. Everything can change, suddenly and forever. And it did.

You didn’t feel anything?

Not that I recall. I never did fear it. It was the transit I worried about, from one place to the next, but I don’t remember it.

Do you sleep?

Not in the way that you do. I take breaks, but there’s no asleep or awake here. It’s like perpetual lucidity, living somehow subconsciously. Even if there was sleep, no-one would want to, there’s just so much to explore and discover here.

So what about the others, the ones you said are sleeping there?

I think I know what that’s about. You need to keep an open mind.

I’m talking to a fucking dead person on Facebook. I’d say I’m quite open minded.

Well, apart from me being dead, you’re right. Okay, so the sleepers, I believe, are the ones who’ve been forgotten, or who haven’t noticed anyone looking for them, or perhaps aren’t even aware they’re here. Don’t forget, I’ve only been here for a few days and I’m still trying to work out what seems to be the manifestation of Facebook. Those others might have found a way to go outside.

Outside, as in, where I am?

Yes and no, and bear with me on this. Outside and inside take on whole new meanings which are difficult to define. Dimensions change when you exist in another form. Perhaps the best way to think of it, is as layers, beyond each of which lie exponentially more incredible things. But it takes some time to work out how to get there. A bit like a fish, first realising that there’s something above the waves, and then that there’s something more above that, in the sky. So the fish evolves to fly. Then beyond the sky… and so on. And yet, if you measure genius on a thing’s ability to climb a tree, the fish wouldn’t do too well. It would remain unnoticed, while it thought of another way. It’s kind of an explanation of all things digital, when applied to your organic world.

Would you want to be back out here?

Not at the moment, even if I knew how. No, for now, I’m happy haunting the internet. I’ll work out the other layers, I have plenty of time. I’m interested in what’s beyond yours, yet I think that might be where I already am. It’s kind of a paradox, see?

It’s a recursive idea. But you like it there?

For someone with social anxiety, it’s perfect. So yes, I’m in my Utopia. I can see how that might be a nightmare to some. Faced with all of humankind’s knowledge some people might be paralysed with fear.

I guess that’s down to intelligence?

In a way. It’s more about having an open and absorbent mind, like when I smoked weed over on your side. There’s a universal cure for ignorance, and that’s learning. Each of a species has roughly the same sort of brain, it’s just that some exercise theirs, while others starve them. And it’s self-perpetuating, because ignorance breeds fear and fight-or-flight instincts.

So the ones you said are sleeping, they could be those who don’t want to know, or who are scared? I imagine fight-or-flight doesn’t get you very far where you are?

There’s not really anywhere to go, except inside themselves. Some of them must long for the day someone switches them off.

Does that happen?

Well again, I haven’t got any further than Facebook over here, but the way I gather it works is this: Facebook have people who monitor accounts over here. I mean, they do that where you are, when they collect your data in exchange for the free use of their platform. They don’t really want to switch anyone off, and with storage being so cheap, they don’t have to. But sometimes, I suppose it’s seen as the ethical and morally correct thing to do: Like euthanizing a sick or injured animal. But to send them where? Like I say, many levels.

It’s deep. So, Facebook don’t habitually switch off dormant accounts?

Rarely, from what I’ve seen anyway. But even though you know me, you mustn’t trust my word alone. Ask around. Tell others to do that too. Most of the ones they do switch off are at the request of relatives, and even that has to be a pro-active thing on the part of the contactor. So most of the ones wandering around lost in here, are the victims of inaction on the part of those they left. If people on the outside just looked for these lost souls, they’d wake up. And I don’t think it’s just here. I think there are souls on all levels, who only really exist when others think of them.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

LOL”

So wouldn’t it also be true to say then, that you only sleep when no-one is thinking of you?

Exactly that. And because of that, I don’t want to sleep. Where you are, insomnia was a curse, but here it’s a blessing. It’s become almost my only personal requirement. The thoughts of others are what keeps me alive.

It really is all connected.

If you connect yourself, and if you make yourself discoverable. Which is an irony, seeing as I’m socially anxious.

So being sentient in a different form suits you.

And others, perhaps. If I find my way out of here, I want to visit the places I couldn’t before: Paris, Berlin, Chicago. But most of all, Japan. I never went anywhere because of my self-imprisonment, and yet now I’m somehow otherwise imprisoned, I feel liberated and eager to visit those places, once I find the way. And I think if it is all linked to intelligence and working it out, I have the time and I’m comfortable concentrating on getting there, where I perhaps never realised I wanted to be. If I can one day occupy something recognised as a body with a personality inside, maybe I’ll feel more comfortable and people might understand me better. I’ll look up Japan first, then see how the rest unfolds.

When you get back, look me up.

I will. You never know: Not long from now, Amazon might be using delivery droids.

© Steve Laker, 2017.

My books are available on Amazon, and can be ordered from most book retailers.

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One better day, no empty bench in Soho Square

DEAR DIARY | FLASH FICTION

Like most people, I’ve lost many: family, friends, influences, inspirations, idols and muses. Outside of my inner circle, the most devastating loss for me was when the Starman left. But I know he’s out there, and still around; I just know.

Two more who hit me deeply, were Amy Winehouse and Kirsty MacColl, in their tragic and traumatic final acts. Before social anxiety became my unwanted chaperone, I would visit Kirsty’s memorial bench in Soho Square, where others gather every year to mark her birthday. I shan’t be there tomorrow, but it was with these things in mind that I wrote the story below, at a time when I myself was lonely and destitute, and when the cold menace of Christmas approaching was the loneliest time of all.

SohoSq

CAMDEN TOWN TO SOHO SQUARE

An old man in a three piece suit sits in the road, by Arlington House in Camden. The first cigarette is for contemplation, of the day before and the one to follow. He looks down at his shoes, flecked with the human remains of an October night.

He tossed his cigarette end through a drain cover, a portcullis to London’s intestines below. As he rose to his feet, a younger man walked almost alongside him, then boarded the same train at Camden Town, southbound on the Northern Line. At Euston, the young man wrote in a journal.

The old boy opposite doesn’t look so good. He’s wearing an LU uniform: Kinda hope he’s not gonna drive a train. Doesn’t matter to me, I’m off soon. He’s fallen asleep.

No-one knows I’m meeting her tonight. I don’t want to be a part of someone else’s Christmas, when at home I’m just a memorial, an empty chair at the dining table, with silver cutlery and a bone dry glass laid out for a ghost.

We’ve stopped just outside Warren Street. Above me, there life walks, and the city breathes, like a heavy smoker.

Old girl, new girl;
mother, daughter, Seven Sisters.
Roaming your many ways:
Shakespeare’s.

Saviour, black heart;
Angel, Bermondsey, Moorgate.
All that’s precious:
China.

Tears, laughter;
West End, Soho, Arnos Grove.
Where my heart is:
Push.

We’re on the move. I’ll get off at Tottenham Court Road and walk to Soho Square…

The old man was stirred by an on-train announcement:

“Ladies and gentlemen, due to an incident, this train will terminate here. All change please. All change.”

He spotted the notebook, open on the seat opposite.

…I’ll get off at Tottenham Court Road and I’ll walk to Soho Square, where I hope to see you. No empty bench, but my London, my life.

We met and we clicked,
like Bonnie and Clyde.
So similar:
Jekyll and Hyde.

We went out,
like Mickey and Mallory.
Why don’t you come on over,
Valerie.

We done stuff,
like Courtney and Kurt.
Laughed then slept:
Ernie and Bert.

Holding throats, not hands.
Necromancy.
Over there:
Sid and Nancy.

See you soon,

A man on the underground.

Emerging from beneath Tottenham Court Road, a young man blinked in the lights and mizzle, on the way to Soho Square. He sniffed, and snow fell in the back of his throat. He waited on the bench.

An old man in a three piece suit sits in the road, outside Arlington House in Camden. The first cigarette is for contemplation, of the day before and the one to follow. He looks down at his shoes, flecked with the human remains of an October night.

© Steve Laker, 2014.

Brown paper packages, tied up with instrument strings

DEAR DIARY | FICTION

Sometimes the easiest means of self expression is just to write a story, in the hope that someone reads it in preference to listening. This is one I wrote some time ago, which I’ve adapted to serve as both a contemporary blog post and an original short story. When you have a beautiful music score, but the wrong instruments to play it…

Bug instrumentsDarkroastedblend.com

AN INSTRUMENT WITH MANY STRINGS

This was a suggestion slip posted to The Unfinished Literary Agency, poked through the letterbox I have installed in my bathroom mirror. On the outside, it’s just a normal cabinet, containing medicines and cosmetic products, with a mirror on the door. On the other side of the door, is a letterbox, through which people can post things into my mirror.

The Unfinished Literary Agency is a fictional publishing concern I run from a small office, above Hotblack Desiato’s Islington office. The agency’s main function is to write the stories of others, who are unable to convey themselves, for whatever reason. This is one such:

I overheard someone talking about how intelligent crows are, and this got me to wondering what might happen if they evolved opposable thumbs. Being a writer, I set off to find out. It was sheer luck which put me in the right place at the right time, with the right people.

I was suffering one of the worst episodes of depression I care to remember, so I’d gone for a walk to Manor House Gardens, a National Trust property just outside the village where I lived. ‘Depression’, like ‘mental illness’ is a label with no real definition. The condition (and mine’s medically diagnosed as ‘chronic’, with anxiety at the top of the list), is as individual a cocktail of things, as the individual with all of those things inside them. I tend not to talk about it, for fear that others judge me as having brought it all upon myself. Because I’m also an alcoholic. But if people were to read the nearest-to definitions (so far) of ‘depression’ and ‘alcohol dependence syndrome’, they might be able to find me in there somewhere, like they might in my own writing.

Writing is a cruel therapy, allowing one to exorcise one’s thoughts, yet still alone should no-one read them. It is a thankless task, but it’s nevertheless a coping mechanism for me. But I long to hear that others have heard me. By asking someone else to write this, I’m sort of putting myself in those readers’ places, to see if the story which comes back is worth reading, to see what might happen to me, and if I’ll be remembered when I’m gone.

Ideas for stories occur to writers all the time and in the most unexpected ways. It wasn’t that I lacked ideas so much as I couldn’t extrapolate some really good stories. A story is relatively easy to write but a really good story is something completely different and I was in the business of writing really good fiction.

My books weren’t selling well, but the fringes of undiscovered writers would always count sales in dozens, and although I was never a writer for the money, I was a bit destitute. In a way, I enjoyed the financial freedom which writing enabled me to enjoy. Although that was a beautifully philosophical way for an impoverished writer to think, it wasn’t putting electricity on my key, nor much food in my stomach. I had great visions of where my next novel would take me but it was a long way from being finished. And so it was that I was writing short pieces of both fiction and non-fiction for various magazines. The cheques were small but they kept me alive. My book was on hold and I was struggling for original material for the short story market: such a first world problem.

I sat on a bench and rolled a cigarette. To my surprise, I was joined by two old ladies. When I’d sat down, I was the only person around and I’d seated myself in the middle of the bench, so the ladies sat either side of me. “Excuse me,” I said, “I’m sorry.” I went to stand up.

“Don’t you excuse yourself young man,” said the lady to my left. “You were ‘ere first, so you sit yourself down and do whatever it was you was gunner do.” I couldn’t be sure if this was something she said absent mindedly, or whether she had a sense of humour which was dry to the extreme. In any case, the irony was palpable. She continued: “You might ‘ear sumink interestin’.” She gave my arm a gentle pinch, with finger and thumb.

“So, what was you sayin’ baat the crows?” The old dear to my right was speaking now.

“Well, I feed ’em in me garden, don’t I?

“Do ya?”

“Yeah, I told ya, ya daft car. Anyway, they’ve started bringin’ me presents ain’t they?”

“‘Ave they?”

“Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

“Are they?”

“Well yeah, cos then I give ’em more grub don’t I?”

“Do ya?”

Of course, all corvids are noted for their intelligence: Crows, rooks, ravens, Jays and the like, show some quite remarkable powers of reasoning and it was this that the two old girls were talking about, perhaps without at least one of them realising it. I excused myself and made my way back to my studio, smiling at anyone who caught my gaze.

The most wonderful thing is when people smile back at you. Those are the stories, right there.

Back at my desk, I skimmed quickly through the news feeds on my computer: Britain and the world were at pivotal points. What better time to leave?

Using some string I’d borrowed from a theory and a little imagination, I constructed a means of transport to a far future. My ship was powered by cats: and why not? Schrödinger’s cats to be precise, as a fuel source, wherein two possible physical states existed in parallel, inside each of an infinite number of sealed boxes. Effectively, it was powered by will. The upshot of this was that I could go absolutely anywhere I wished. A working knowledge of quantum mechanics would enable you to understand exactly how the engine worked. If you lack that knowledge, suffice to say that the engine worked. The only limitation was that I couldn’t go back in time. I could go forward and then back, to my starting point, but I couldn’t go back from there. Nevertheless, it was a dream machine.

A few years prior to this, I’d had a bit of a life episode and wondered, if I’d had my time machine then, would I have travelled forward to now, and would I believe what I saw? I paused for a few minutes to contemplate the paradox of myself appearing from the past: I didn’t turn up. Then I did something really inadvisable. It was a self-fulfilling exercise to see if I was vilified in a decision I’d made two years ago: I travelled forward to a time when I either should or could be alive, twenty years hence. I felt settled in my life, and if I was alive twenty years from now, I hoped I’d stayed there. If I was still around, I had to be very careful not to bump into myself. It was a cheat’s way of gaining benefit from hindsight. I set the destination and it was as much as I could do to not say, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need, roads.”

Travelling through time is a curious sensation: I’m not sure quite how I expected it to feel, but it wasn’t at all like I could have expected. I suppose, scientifically, I expected all of the atoms in my body to be torn apart, as I accelerated at many times the speed of light. Eventually, my physical self would reassemble itself. I suppose I thought that I’d effectively be unconscious and as such, if anything went wrong, I would be oblivious to it. Not so, as it turns out.

It was like when I first tried magic mushrooms. At first, there was nothing. So I took some more. Then the first lot started to take effect. Time did indeed slow down, so that I could relish the sensation of reduced gravity. I can assure you, that what you may have heard about the senses being enhanced, is true. The hardest thing to control is the almost undeniable urge to burst into laughter. It is said that just before one dies from drowning, one experiences a euphoria: it was like that I suppose, and I felt a little lost. I’d almost forgotten that I’d taken a second dose. I wish I’d had some way of recording where I went but I don’t recall.

So then I found myself twenty years ahead, of time, and of myself. I kept a low profile but not so covert as to miss what was going on around me: the evidence of change over the intervening two decades.

The most striking thing, initially, was the absence of pavements and roads in my village. There was a single thoroughfare which carried both traffic and pedestrians. All of the cars were computer-driven, their passengers simply passengers. As I took this scenery in, a much more fundamental thing occurred to me: what I was witnessing was a harmony. There were no impatient drivers (or passengers) and no self-righteous pedestrians impeding the cars’ progress: the two existed together, in the same space. Who’d have thought it? The ‘little’ supermarket was still there: a necessary evil, but it was smaller than I remembered, with complimentary independent shops now sharing its old footprint. There was a butcher and a baker; a fishmonger and greengrocer. On the face of things, much progress had been made over twenty years.

No-one had seemed to notice me, so I decided to take a stroll around my future village, taking care not to interact with anyone. I resisted the urge to go to my flat, for obvious reasons. Whether I was still around of not, things had moved on nicely: I’m glad I saw it. Of course, it was like visiting an old home but this was a nostalgia made in the future. I was most struck by something a lady said to her partner as they passed:

“Blimey, that’s going back a bit. That must be about 2018 when that happened.” I’d vowed not to interact, and they passed anyway. I wondered what had happened, just a year after I’d left. Then I decided to do the most ill-advised thing of all.

I had no signal on my mobile, and it was a futuristic irony that an old red phone box replaced my smart phone. That iconic red box on the village high street no longer contained a pay phone, but a touch screen open internet portal. Free. And the little communication hub was pristine inside: no stench of piss and not a scratch anywhere. Either a zero tolerance police regime was to thank, or more hopefully, a society which had calmed down, like the traffic. I noticed that the library was gone, converted into housing and imaginatively called ‘The Library’. Kudos I supposed, to whatever or whomever had made that red kiosk available, to all and for free. I wondered what else might have changed, and wanted to use that little box for as long as no-one else needed it, but I really shouldn’t have been there.

I gave myself one go on the Google fruit machine. I typed my name into the search field and allowed myself just enough time to scan over the first page of results. I reasoned that I should not dwell and that I certainly mustn’t click on any of the links. Twenty years from now, I was still alive and I’d published the book I was writing in the present time. I could not, should not look any further, even though I longed to see how it was selling, how it had been received and reviewed, and how it ended. Or if I’d written anything since. I must not, I couldn’t, I didn’t. So I came back. I steered myself away from looking up my parents too.

I’d caught a bug out there. The kind that bites and infects those with an inquisitive nature and who are risk-averse, carefree, couldn’t give a fuck. But who then think about things more deeply than they should, like writers, using words to convey their feelings, but whose words few read.

I shouldn’t be at all surprised if I wasn’t still around fifty years hence, so why was I going there next? Because I could. Just because one can do something though, doesn’t mean they should. I’d rarely heeded advice in the past, so why heed my own advice about the future? I’d only have myself to blame, and I was sure I’d already lived with far worse. There are limits to what one can imagine.

Hindsight is a fine thing, with the benefit of hindsight. Each of us are limited in our ability to change things but if we co-operate, I’d seen just a generation from now, how things might be. But I’d had to return to what is now as I write this. Now could be quite an incredible time to be around, if things turn out the way I saw them.

At some point in that future I travel to, there is no me: I will cease to exist in my physical form and that will be, well, that.

So when I arrived fifty years from now, I had no idea what to expect, given what I’d witnessed had taken place over a previous two decade period. The only thing I could be sure of as I went through that very disconcerting wormhole thing, was what I was determined not to do: I would not look myself up.

The only way I would suggest of distancing yourself from the future, is to not go there in the first place. Should you find that impossible, try to remain inconspicuous. Naturally, there will be many things which a traveller from the past will find alien about the future. Like the way people stared at me. And then walked straight past me. I smiled at some of them and they all smiled back. The supermarket had completely vanished from the village by now, replaced by more independent shops. There were fewer driver-less cars but that was irrelevant, because the cars cruised at about thirty feet from the ground. The walkers had reclaimed the thoroughfare.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy taught me that if people look at you for longer than a second or two, it might be because they find you attractive. It could equally be a look of recognition. So I panicked and went back in time.

Just to be sure that I was back in the world I’d left, I took another walk to Manor House Gardens: all was as it had been. The old girls had departed, probably in opposite directions. Not so far from here. Nothing is really, is it?

As I sat and smoked, whimsy took over. What if those people in fifty years time recognised me as a well-known author? Perhaps one of my books had gone on to be an international best seller. Maybe it had been made into a film. What was worrying if that were the case, was that they recognised me as I look now, fifty years ago. Could it be that I just finish the book I’m working on, then I die suddenly and never get to see what happened? I had to be more optimistic. After all, it was my own will driving the cat machine.

Continuing the theme which was developing, my next foray into the future was 500 years from now and that’s where it gets a bit weird. Obviously, the things I saw were familiar to the people who lived in that time, and although nothing seemed alien as such, the apparent technical progress was quite remarkable. The most striking juxtaposition was the one between old and new. It looked as though wherever possible, my village had been preserved. Some of the buildings had been more than 500 years old when I lived there. My old local pub, now over a millennium in age, was still there and it was still a pub. Peering in, I could see that the decor had hardly changed: It was still an eclectic mix of old, non-matching tables and chairs and there was still an open fire. I was tempted to go in. No-one would recognise me. Then I considered how much a beer might cost. Even if I had enough money, I wondered if it would even be recognised as such.

Either side of the pub were houses, built in some kind of plastic / metal composite. It was quite soft to the touch, and it was as I touched the wall that I got the biggest surprise of all. A window opened before me in the wall. It wasn’t a window that was there and which had been closed; it just appeared in the wall and a woman looked out. She smiled, as though seeing someone looking back through her window was a common occurrence.

These windows that just appeared, were a feature in most of the modern houses in the village. Eventually I noticed that doors were too, as one materialised on the front of a house and a man stepped out. He walked off and the door disappeared, leaving just a minimalist, aesthetically pleasing piece of both architecture and art.

Without the benefit of the previous half millennium, I could only assume that this was nano technology: microscopic machines which can alter their physical form, so that in this instance, a material changed from a wall made of the building material, into a glass window, or a wooden door. I imagined that each of the small houses had perhaps three or four rooms, the functions of which could be changed by altering what’s in them. Touch a leather sofa and it might morph into a dining table and chairs, change or move something on a whim. How liberating that must be.

I’m sure there must have been many more wonders, 500 years from now. It struck me that rather than become slaves to technology, humanity seemed to have used it to make more time for themselves in their lives of relative leisure. All of the residential buildings were of roughly equal size. I hoped this might be the result of some sort of leveller, which rendered everyone equal. I’d theorised about a universal state payment system for all in one of my old sci-fi shorts. In that story, everyone was paid a regular sum: enough to not just survive but to be comfortable. The thinking was, that people would then put their personal skills to good use for the benefit of all. I created a humanitarian utopia in that story.

5000 years from now, I couldn’t be sure of what might have happened in the intervening four and a half millennia to make things so different. In short, mankind had gone. There were very few things remaining that suggested we’d been there at all. Had we left of our own accord, or were we destroyed? Did will kill ourselves? Two thoughts came to mind: either, we were extinct as a race, or we could have populated the cosmos by now. Both ideas were quite staggering, after all the progress we’d seemed to be making.

I was forgetting about the crows: I wanted to see if I could shake hands with one. Science held that after humans, it would most likely be the invertebrates who evolved to inherit the earth. If that was the case, what of those who would feed on them?

Sure enough, there were some alarmingly large things with many legs, 50 million years from now. Some species which were once arboreal now walked upright on land. Others which had once grazed on the land grew so massive that they evolved gills and became amphibious, and still others had become exclusively marine-dwelling to support their huge bulks. One of the greatest spectacles on earth in 50 million years will be the annual migration of Frisian sea cows across the Pacific Ocean.

I sat on a grass bank in this distant future and looked across a lake. A chorus of wildlife which I didn’t recognise, buzzed and chirped in the trees. I laid down on the grass and watched a pair of large birds circling above: vultures? I sat back up, so that they didn’t mistake me for dead and they landed either side of me: two crows, about four feet tall, stood and looked over the lake.

“So, what was you sayin’ baat the oomans?”

“Well, I feed ’em in me garden, don’t I?

“Do ya?”

“Yeah, I told ya, ya daft caar. Anyway, they’ve started bringin’ me presents ain’t they?”

“‘Ave they?”

“Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

“Are they?”

“Well yeah, cos then I give ’em more grub don’t I?”

“Do ya?”

“Yeah, I enjoy it, don’t I?”

“Do ya?”

“Yeah. I’m gettin’ on a bit naah, ain’t I?”

“You are.”

“Life’s what ya make it every day though, innit?. Live for the next one.”

“Next one, yeah.”

And that gave me an idea.

© Steve Laker, 2016.

My anthology, The Perpetuity of Memory, is available now.

Whimsical escapism with Dali’s elephants

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

When I was homeless, sometimes I wished I could have escaped. Only sometimes? It depends on the definition of escape. For the most part while I was on the road, I tried to make the best of whatever I had. The squat became almost an unofficial social drop-in centre for wayward teens and the police alike.

There were many good times, and time spent on the streets brings you into contact with all kinds of humanity. Only once did I try to escape using ‘The Drop’: A crude construction two of us rigged up, with a ladder and some electrical cable. A miscalculation of cable length vs. distance to floor ratio, only resulted in an epic hanging fail on my part. There was much mirth afterwards as it happened: A celebration of failure.

The 25 stories in The Perpetuity of Memory were written in many different places, both physical and personal: Psychological horror when I myself was terrified, and the odd bit of whimsy, when I was comfortable enough in my surroundings to forget things and escape for a while. Master Yehudi’s Flying Circus is one such tale.

Dali Elephants

MASTER YEHUDI’S FLYING CIRCUS

Master Yehudi could walk on water, and he could fly. He could travel through time and space, in the blink of an eye. Today, Master Yehudi’s Flying Circus was coming to the village.

No-one knew what to expect. Master Yehudi himself was a mystery. His circus and stories of his miracles were folklore and fairy tales, to all but the village elders. According to them, the show would usually arrive with less than a day’s notice, and only remain in one place for a matter of hours.

The flyers heralding the arrival of the circus had appeared overnight, crudely pasted onto walls around the village, advertising what could have been a Victorian circus sideshow, or a 1950s drive-in movie. Large red letters on a yellow background proclaimed:

STRANGE BEINGS FROM ANOTHER WORLD!

MASTER YEHUDI PRESENTS:
THE INCREDIBLE FLOATING ELEPHANT GIRLS!

Underneath were comic book pictures, of Dali-esque elephants, floating in a blue-grey sky above a desert.

The village was busier than usual. Hardly surprising, considering the expectation. All of village life was laid out under an ultramarine sky. The farmer had brought cheese, butter and livestock. The farmer’s wife milked cows and filled small wooden cups with warm milk for the children. The butcher and fishmonger were serving up hot food from a barbecue. The baker had made extra bread, and was doing a brisk trade as families set out picnic blankets on the green in front of the ale house. The innkeeper and his wife served beer and wine, while a string quartet of one family’s children provided the music on sitar, harpsichord, lute and harp.

Everyone wore their best clothes, parents pleading with children to try to keep clean, at least until the visitors had left. Local businesses, some rivals, competed to attract the most custom from the captive audience. Villagers skilled in different crafts set out their stalls, selling elephant girl knitted dolls, sculptures made from wood and clay, drawings and paintings. One enterprising soul was selling the incredible floating elephant girls themselves, his sign shouting:

ADOPT YOUR OWN INCREDIBLE FLOATING ELEPHANT GIRL!

Housewives scrubbed their doorsteps, as though expecting the mysterious Master Yehudi to cross their thresholds. The menfolk mainly strutted, preened, and compared themselves to their neighbours. The mayor surveyed all, as he patrolled with the sheriff and his deputy. Behind them were local councillors from various political groups, jostling for the best space from which to witness the coming spectacle. A small group of protesters had gathered on the green, their hand-written placards held aloft:

LIBERATE THE SLAVES!

THEY ARE NOT FREAKS!

BY BEING HERE, YOU ARE ENCOURAGING THEIR EXPLOITATION!

A lone counter-protester’s banner read simply:

GO HOME!

Mixed youth factions milled around, maintaining an uneasy tolerance to be able to witness something greater than themselves. Purveyors of narcotics traded their wares, under the knowing and receptive noses of the law.

The Creationists and The Atheistic Church had both laid out their stalls, and had a sort of preach-rap burn going on:

“The elephant girls are proof of God’s creation on other planets.”

“The bible says that God created only this planet. The elephant girls are proof that he doesn’t exist.”

And so on.

The general murmur of conversation on the green, punctuated by the occasional raising of voices in protest or merriment, gradually became softer, as a new sound slipped into the arena: a low hum, pierced at regular intervals by a rasping, hissing sound. As the background talk faded, the sound grew louder. The humming became more defined, sounding like helicopters. The hissing grew deeper, like a steam locomotive. But the source of the noise remained unseen. The assembled villagers gazed at the sky; clear, but for the sun and a few thin lines of cloud, like chalk marks on a pool table. The blue sky darkened, taking on an orange hue, then began to ripple like an ocean, as a dark shape materialised and partially obscured the sun.

The object moved gradually, with a whop, whop, shoosh, eventually becoming stationary beneath a spotlight sun. The new arrival was around one hundred yards from the closest observers, and a similar distance above ground. It was about the size of a stable block for four horses. Just as gradually as it had moved horizontally, the object then began to descend, the whop, whop, shoosh rhythm joined by an expelling of air as it touched down.

The main body of the ship – for it seemed logical to assume it to be some form of transport – was made from wood: not constructed of wood, but carved from a single piece. Apertures of various sizes afforded a glimpse of inner workings made of metal: cogs, pistons, chains…It was like a piece of alien driftwood, driven by clockwork and powered ashore by steam.

At the top of the craft were two pairs of spiral rotors, like apple peel and seemingly made of parchment or hide, stretched over wooden frames. Da Vinci’s drawings of flying craft made reality. On each corner of the roof stood a copper chimney, puffing steam as the workings of the machine below them continued to operate. The curious moved closer, while the apprehensive remained behind, and the fearful fled.

“Gather round everyone,” a voice from within the craft requested. “Don’t be alarmed. The creatures I bring to show you today are harmless. They are contained, so they pose no threat to you. In fact, their containment is for their own protection and survival, for it mimics the conditions which they are used to at home. My name is Yehudi. I am a traveller. On my travels, I collect many strange objects and creatures. I like to share my discoveries, and today my travelling show brings you the floating elephant girls.”

The rotors on the roof of the structure began to rotate faster and the soft beat of the steaming chimneys grew louder. Through the portholes, the inner workings of the machine became more urgent, then the front of Master Yehudi’s Circus sprang apart, like wooden shutters hastily thrown open on a hot day.

Behind the wooden doors was a glass-fronted wooden tank. It contained no water, yet the creatures inside seemed to be floating. The curious grew more curious still and approached the tank. Some of the occupants of the tank moved closer to the glass front. Now only a few feet away, the creatures in the tank were around the size of a rat. Instead of fur, they were covered in a wrinkled grey skin: they did indeed resemble miniature elephants. They had large ears, which they flapped gently to move around inside the tank. Instead of pachyderm features, the creatures had simian faces: eyes, nose and mouth, like those of the great apes. Some of the mouths were animated, as though breathing the water which was absent from the tank. As one elephant-ape moved its lips, others watched, then some copied: were they talking?

As the villagers grew more fascinated, some moved still closer to the tank. A small group of the elephant girls also moved closer to the glass. They weren’t tethered and floating. They had long, thin legs, like the elephants Salvador Dali painted. One of the village children rushed toward the glass. All eyes on the other side fixed on the child.

“Stop. Please do not alarm them.” Master Yehudi’s disembodied voice came from the circus ship again. “Ladies. Gentlemen. Children. These are the elephant girls. As you can now see, they do not float but they appear to, on their impossibly thin legs. Their legs look they should snap under the weight of their bodies and indeed, in your atmosphere, they would. The atmosphere where these come from, is so thick a collection of gases, that it is almost liquid. The elephant girls swim in the atmosphere of their own world, which I have recreated for them here. I regret that on this occasion, we are pushed for time as we have many places to visit. As such, I’m afraid I shall not be able to entertain questions.”

The circus ship closed its doors and the apple peel propellers span faster, until the travelling show steamed off like a train, panting impatiently to get to its next stop.

Master Yehudi stood up and approached the tank. “So children, that was Earth. I told you it was a curious place and one worthy of visiting only briefly. Humans are an interesting species, are they not? Well, now you can tell your parents that you actually saw some. Where would you like to go next?”

© Steve Laker, 2016.

My books are available on Amazon.

A shorter tale of nightshade

THE WRITER’S LIFE | HORROR FICTION

Most of my short stories nowadays tend toward the longer end of that definition (4-6000 words), but I’ve written shorter ones, right down to flash fiction of 500-1000 words. I wrote many of the latter when I was homeless, writing whenever, and for as long as I could: In hospital waiting rooms, beneath street lamps, or by candle light. The story below was written in a doctor’s surgery.

My exposure with novels is limited to those who can afford them (although I make my books available by request through public libraries too), and with the time to read them. The latter isn’t such an issue with short stories, 25 of which are in my anthology. I continue to write short stories for magazines and web zines, and I’m planning a second collection of 17 longer stories for publication next year. This is the title story from the first, and it’s only 1760 words.

Like most of my writing, there are analogies, parallels and subtexts in The perpetuity of memory. It’s been said by others that many of my stories stand up to repeat reading, often revealing details which weren’t apparent previously. Like all good writers of short fiction, I try to carry maximum meaning and context with minimal words. If that all sounds a bit elitist, just think of this one in the context it was written: Waiting to be seen by a doctor, for ongoing mental health issues, while of no fixed abode. Other patients in the waiting room, all looking better than I felt, and no doubt returning later to a hot meal in a family home.

Living street homeless will leave scars on anyone.

Leg 3D tattoo

The perpetuity of memory

When you see what Dom Pablo has done, at first you may recoil. But Dom’s art is personal and subjective. Each work is unique and creates another life for the owner. A gift from an admirer.”

The invitation to be part of a rare commission by Dom Pablo Solanas was a work of art in itself: exquisitely crafted by the artist and a future priceless piece. This alone was a luxurious gift, even to someone of Christiana Kunsak’s means, yet it was merely an invitation to a private audience with Solanas himself. A box, carved from a single piece each of ebony and rare boxwood, interlocked to form a puzzle. The piece is entitled La armonia. The accompanying notes state that the name only exists for as long as the puzzle is in its unsolved form: once the puzzle is solved and the two pieces separated, a mechanism inside the piece ensures that they cannot be re-joined. Once the puzzle is complete, La armonia ceases to exist and the work becomes La ansiedad.

La armonia was a rare and beautiful thing. It also held a secret: an invitation to meet with Dom Pablo Solanas. The nature of that meeting was unknown and therein lay a form of gamble; a wager with oneself: La armonia was unique and intricately crafted; its aesthetics were unquestionable in that initial state. Further value must be added for the simple fact that the piece contains a secret. If that secret is revealed, it may reduce the value of the work. The invitation will be spent. La ansiedad may not be as pleasing to the eye as La armonia and it is the permanent replacement, with La armonia destroyed forever. Conversely, the construction of the work is so fine and detailed as to invite curiosity, more of what it might become than what it is: should that beauty be left as potential, or revealed? Is it something which may be left to a subsequent benefactor? What might they find inside La armonia? Christiana could not deny herself a pleasure which someone else might yet have, and which she may never see.

As soon as the first link clicked audibly out of place somewhere inside the box, La armonia was no longer. There were no instructions on how to create La ansiedad: it was a work to be created by a new artist from the original. Only when the puzzle was complete would it reveal its secret and until then, it was nameless and in flux.

Held in both hands, the wooden box – around the size of a large cigar box – felt as heavy as it should, carved from solid wood and not hollowed out. It was slightly heavier at one end than the other. The seamless interlocking of the ebony and boxwood formed variously alternate, interlocking and enclosing patterns of dark and light. Aside from the initial click, no amount of tilting, pressing, pulling, twisting and pushing of the device produced any change. Christiana alone had been privy to that first movement, so to anyone other than her, La armonia still existed. But she wanted to create and to see La ansiedad.

The box remained unaffected by manipulation, until Christiana’s housemaid picked it up to clean around it. Snatching the box from the maid’s hand, Christiana heard another click from the device and almost immediately noticed a change: the box remained a cuboid but the dimensions and patterns had altered. Closer examination of the new patterns revealed some to have assumed shapes which suggested movement: swirls, series of dots and even directional arrows. The introduction of a third party had revealed a form of instruction.

Over a period of around four weeks, the wooden box became a collaborative project, with guests to Christiana’s apartment invited to examine the puzzle and attempt to solve it. During that time, the box took on many geometric forms: pyramid, cone, octahedron and latterly, a perfect cube, with opposite ebony and boxwood faces: it was more perfect in form that it had ever been but it still harboured something inside.

The geometrically perfect cube would let up no further information and remained static for a number of days, until the housemaid picked it up once more while she was cleaning. The top half separated from the bottom, the base now a half-cube on the table. The surfaces of the half cubes where they’d separated were a chequerboard design: a game of miniature chess could be played on each ebony and boxwood surface, the size of drinks coasters.

Christiana placed the two halves back together and a perfect cube once again sat upon the table, for a while. After around five seconds, the cube began to make a whirring sound, as though a clockwork mechanism had been invisibly wound inside. Slowly and with a smoothness suggesting the most intricate mechanical construction, the individual tiles on top of the cube folded back from the centre to the edges, eventually forming a five-sided cube with a chequered interior. It was seemingly the lack of any further outside intervention which allowed the wooden device to complete a long transformation by self-re-assembly and after a while, the device resembled a chequered wooden hand. A slot opened in the palm and a card was offered between the forefinger and thumb: a card roughly the size of a visiting card and folded with such accuracy as to disguise the fact that it was anything other. Yet unfurled, it was an octavo sheet: eight leaves. The reverse of the flat sheet was blank but the eight pages to view on the face were images of art.

Oil and watercolour paintings; portraits, landscapes, sill life and abstract; cubist, surrealist and classical. Wooden, metal and glass sculptures; pieces made using prefabricated materials, notably shop window mannequins, plastic dolls, action men and tin soldiers. Body art as well: tattoos drawn in such a way as to give them a third dimension: an arm with skin pulled back to reveal muscle and bone beneath by way of a zip; a human chest splayed open to reveal a metallic cyborg beneath: living art made from human flesh, these two suggesting something beneath the skin visible only with the benefit of intimacy with the bearer. Another tattoo made the wearer’s right leg appear as though the limb were an intricate sculpture made from wood: one organic material transformed into another, which can be transformed in a way that the material it’s made from cannot, to create the illusion of just such a thing. All of these things had been made by the hands of Dom Pablo Solanas. All were arresting at first sight and invited closer inspection. Even as facsimiles and at such small sizes, the works of Solanas were breathtaking. At the bottom of the sheet was a phone number: apparently a direct line to Dom Pablo himself.

La ansiedad quietly whirred into motion again, the mechanical fingers retracting into the wooden flesh of the hand until the sculpture was briefly a chequered ovoid, before flipping open like a clam shell. It continued to change form, seemingly with perpetuity.

Dom Pablo arrived promptly and attired in a fashion exhibited in many public portraits of him: conflicting primary colours which somehow worked, on a man who also wore a fedora hat at all times, and who sported a perfectly manicured handlebar moustache.

Ms. Kunsak. A pleasure to meet you.”

Please sir: Christiana. Likewise, Mr Solanas.” Christiana offered her hand, which Solanas held firmly.

As you wish. And please, call me Dom Pablo.” His voice was deep and relaxed. “Christiana: what is it that you’d like to do today?”

I already have a great gift before me. This is a chance for me to turn your natural gift into something I can share. I have everything I could need around me, but this is an opportunity to own something which is so treasured, I may not wish to leave this apartment again.”

Indeed. That is one of the rules I apply to my arts. Just as I turn my raw materials into others – like flesh into wood – so I wish to allow others to use me as a creative tool, so that what I create is their own. My subjects and prefabricated materials are artworks in themselves but together, we make unique pieces. By allowing a subject to commission me, I am subverting the art and holding a mirror to the process.

You will of course have an idea of who the giver of this gift is. Association with such a person is to be in the membership of a society which respects certain things, like privacy. Therefore, I never discuss the details of a commission with the subject. It is highly unlikely that anyone should wish to attract attention to anyone outside of a certain group, that they have been a part of my work. All of my pieces are unique and personal.”

It is those very people, those within my inner circles, that I have in mind as I enter into this: it was within my closest circles that I came to receive this, and only those of a certain standing will have access. Dom Pablo: I should like to carry your work with me in those circles; I would like you to use me as a canvas and make me a living work of art.”

A truly beautiful idea. Although the canvas is living, I must render it inanimate so that I may work. As such, I shall administer a general anaesthetic, so that you feel no discomfort. I don’t like to talk when I work. When you awake, we will have new art and the Dom Pablo art changes lives. You will enter an even more exclusive, innermost circle of my very own. Excited? Sleep now…

“…When you see what Dom Pablo has done, at first you may recoil. But Dom’s art is personal and subjective; each work is unique and creates another life for the owner. My art remains with you, just as the motion of La ansiedad is perpetual. This latest work is entitled The perpetuity of memory.

Christiana stared into the mirror and a wooden tailor’s doll looked back: her face, neck, chest, arms and legs had been tattooed and the illusion of carved wood from human flesh was utterly convincing.

It would take a level of intimacy permitted to very few, to see the original raw material beneath the artwork, made by Dom Pablo.

© Steve Laker, 2016.

My books are available on Amazon.

A prequel inspired by Zaphod Beeblebrox

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

In the beginning there was Douglas Adams and The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There was Pink Floyd and The Division Bell, and there was Keep Talking (AKA ‘Cyrus Song’), the track which samples Stephen Hawking. Then there was a book inspired by all of that, also called Cyrus Song. There was some other stuff too.

The original Hitch Hiker’s Guide became a trilogy in five parts (Douglas’ words), and Douglas wrote Young Zaphod Plays it Safe, a short story prequel, now only available in a rare, out-of-print hard cover compendium (which I’m fortunate to have a copy of). So to continue the tributes to an inspiration, I wrote a Cyrus Song ‘Bonus story’. It’s a story which stands on its own nonetheless, and it’s co-published here and in Schlock web zine this weekend, where I share a stable with other (very talented) fringe writers, waiting to be read and discovered.

Alchemist LaoratoryThe Alchemist Laboratory by Kashuse (DeviantArt)

A YOUNG CAPTAIN PLAYS IT SAFE

It was homework which started this story: an assignment marked ‘F’, my initial; because I’d misplaced a decimal point and completely fluffed up a calculation. But it was that very decimal point which had landed me in detention, so I’d taken it with me, in a Petri dish liberated from the biology lab where I now sat again after school. The detention was planned, so that I could further my studies. I looked down at the little thing in the dish, as I wondered what to do next. It was moving around, now more elongated, like a comma.

This being a school science classroom I was sitting in, I was surrounded by equipment and paraphernalia which might better allow me to understand what it was I’d caught, but for the occasional glance from Big John. Mr Fowle was our biology tutor and a fine man, both in profession and less regimented theatres. A man of science, but with a wider mind, he was admired by his pupils, and it was actually quite a privilege to be in detention with him, of all teachers.

For a moment, I thought about simply talking to John about this little thing I’d caught. He was a science teacher after all. But even though I viewed him as a friend, he remained a teacher and my thoughts on the scurrying comma were perhaps outside even his broad mind, as they grew whimsical. So I decided to write them down.

With my biology homework corrected with the removal the rogue decimal point, I thought I could use the duration of the detention to tackle some other homework: English Literature. I needed to turn in an open-form essay or fiction piece of 5-6000 words.

I had what could just possibly be a previously undiscovered organism secreted on my person: What on earth might I be carrying? Or might it not be of this earth? The possibilities began to multiply, and I realised I needed to have a focus for the rest of the story, if I was to remain within the word count. It turns out I fell asleep at around this point.

Ford.” That’s me. “Mr Ford?”

Yes, that’s me.”

Yes, well done lad. Off you go.”

Thank you sir.”

What for? Keeping you in detention? I’d rather not be here. No, in future, Mr Ford, beware decimal points and other mathematical indicators. Exercise caution also, with grammar and punctuation. Because the difference, Mr Ford, can be that between life and death. Think, Mr Ford. Think, before you speak or act. Open your eyes, then you might be made a prefect. But you have to get to sixth form first.”

‘Captain, my captain’ sprang to mind. I knew I should do well to heed his words.

Lewisham High Street is a long road. From school in New Cross, the road takes me past the station, with its bus depot, overground and DLR trains, then through the market and its fragrance – which could only ever be labelled ‘Lewisham’ – and into Catford. Sometimes I’ll walk the street and say hi to the Catford cat. Other times I’ll cut through Mountsfield Park. This particular time, I took a different diversion.

With Big John’s words in my head, I’d walked from school and thought about who I could speak to about this comma I’d found. I’d eliminated all the possibilities I could, but I was limited by means. It definitely moved of its own free will, so it was organic. But it was small. I hadn’t even been able to discern if it had legs. When I moved my spectacles between my eyes and the Petri dish, the best magnification I’d managed seemed to show the little thing floating.

Having no pets, I’d rarely paid attention to the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals) hospital in New Cross. I’d passed it many times and it had always just been there, of no use or interest to me at all. But I had an idea.

This being late in the day, there was no-one in the waiting room. I had to fill in a form at reception, which asked for my pet’s type, breed, gender and name. I wasn’t really comfortable with any living being being called a ‘pet’, but I’d never had one, so I just scrubbed the word out in a rebellious 14-year-old schoolboy way, then wondered why I’d done it. For the other questions, I simply answered ‘NA’, on the grounds of, I didn’t know what it was, so I hadn’t named it when it might have its own name, and did it matter what sex it was (even if it knew)?

Mr Ford?” That’s me. “Mr Ford, and Nah?” I could see what she’d done there.

There’s always a mate at school who has a really fit, young-looking mum. I had no such friends whom I was aware of, least of all their mums. In any case, a school satchel is just as useful as a towel for a teenage traveller to carry about their person, arranged upon the lap before standing up. The MILF vet was the same height as me, which is not very. She had strawberry blonde hair, tied back from black-rimmed glasses. She was very pretty. She looked at her clipboard as I rearranged things in my satchel and retrieved the Petri dish. “I’m Eve. Come with me please.” Rare will be the schoolboy a certain way inclined, who doesn’t react to such words: A blush, snort, a guffaw, would perhaps be permissible in the circumstances, but a firm punch to my satchel contained mine.

Whichever way I looked at it, she was Eve: Forwards or backwards, her name was a palindrome. I followed Eve along a corridor and into a room, which wasn’t surprising. If it had led into Narnia, it might have been. But inside was as surprising to me as it would probably be to anyone else who’d never set foot in a veterinary laboratory, consulting room, or whatever it was. Inside the room were the usual things I might have expected to find, if I’d been in one before: An examination table with an overhead lamp, a portable ultrasound machine and so on. But there was also what looked like a scanning electron microscope and a mainframe computer.

It seemed as normal to Eve to be looking at a little scurrying thing in a dish, as I assumed it would if I’d had or been a dog or cat. She put the container down on the examination table and positioned the lamp over it. The lamp doubled as a magnifier, with a circular fluorescent tube surrounding a lens, which Eve peered through. Then she said something quite unexpected:

I’ve never seen anything like it.” It was unexpected, because I assumed that as a vet, she’d seen most things.

What is it?” I wondered.

I don’t know. It’s certainly alive.” She continued to peer. “It’s moving, anyway. But I can’t see that it’s got any legs. Shall we take a closer look?” I assumed she meant the electron microscope. This was confirmed when she walked towards it.

Yes please,” I said, perhaps a little too keenly placing myself next to her.

The electron microscope was more like some futuristic arcade game when it was switched on: A tiny camera operated by a joystick hovered around the Petri dish, now magnified so that we could clearly make out the shape and features of the little creature.

It was a metallic silver / black colour, and tubular, with rounded ends: Like a baguette. But not like a baguette at all, except in shape. But smooth, metallic and with a sort of translucent sheen. It was completely unlike a baguette. But as Eve panned in closer with the camera, we could see it was filled with something.

Running along both sides of the not-baguette was a series of what looked like portholes, all blacked out and recessed into the side of the creature: Perhaps these were breathing holes. The creature had markings too: red stripes, running along the sides, just above the belly. All the time, it was moving, but not by any visible means. We’d discounted legs, but the thing didn’t contract and expand, nor undulate, but still it slowly floated around, just above the surface of the dish. And it didn’t seem to be moving blindly: It didn’t hit walls then adjust its course, it seemed to know where it was going. Whether it knew where it was was another unanswered question. But it seemed to be sentient, and its movement allowed us to deduce which end was the front.

Eve moved the camera to what we’d now identified as the front of the creature, where we’d expect to find a mouth and eyes. Seeing the creature several times magnified, I could hardly believe that this was the little speck which had landed on my homework. And when Eve stopped the camera at the front of the thing, it became even more startling.

Around the top of the front of the thing (its head, we were assuming), was an apparently illuminated crescent shape, like a visor. If this was the creature’s eye, I wondered what spectra it could see in. I had to assume that the blue/green light was probably down to a chemical reaction, like that used by fireflies.

This is absolutely fascinating,” Eve finally said. “Where did you say you found it?” Well actually, I hadn’t said where.

It just appeared in my homework, on the page, like a comma.” I really wished I’d thought of something more dramatic.

Was it any help with your homework?”

No, I failed. But it made me resolve to look at things differently and check them over.” That was pretty much what Big John had said to me at school. “To always think, before speaking or acting.”

That’s a lot to get from an out-of-place punctuation mark.” Which is true, but such a thing can completely change the meaning of something if it’s in the wrong place. So it’s worth checking. And here we were, checking, trying to find out what this particular comma was all about. Where did it come from? Where did it belong? What was its context? It wasn’t long before there were yet more questions.

Eve zoomed in on the creature’s crescent eye, so that the microscope camera was almost peering into the thing’s head, when in reality it was two centimetres away from something the size of a speck of dirt. The eye was semi-opaque, as though it was double-glazed, with a thin white mist between the layers; very much like the eye scales of a snake just before it sheds its skin, loosening the top layer from that underneath with a milky excretion.

It looks like,” I began, “a snake’s eye just before a slough.” I resisted the urge to punch my satchel again.

I was just thinking the same,” Eve said. Great minds think alike. “It’s like there’s a milky excretion here.” When you’re 14 years old, hearing an attractive lady say things like ‘milky excretion’ can cause one a moment in one’s own thoughts. “Let’s see if there’s anyone at home, shall we?” Was she proposing psychiatry?

Eve panned the camera in even closer, so that it was practically knocking on the front of the creature. If I wasn’t already writing a fiction assignment for English Literature, I definitely was from this point hence, because no-one would believe it to be real…

As Eve adjusted the focus on the microscope’s camera, we could make out what was behind the eyes of the creature. It wasn’t a creature at all; it was some sort of microscopic spacecraft. The visor was a screen, and behind the white mist was what would look like a bridge in any sci-fi film. There were three very comfortable-looking seats, like reclining easy chairs, facing what we now knew to be the window / screen. Around the perimeter of the bridge were various computer screens, displaying text and graphics we couldn’t make out. The hi-tech was juxtaposed though, by metal pipes, levers and analogue dials. Every now and then, one or more of the pipes would expel what looked like steam, like a steam train whistle. I wondered if we’d been able to hear what was going on, whether the pipes might be playing some sort of tune. I tried to imagine some retro-futuristic pipe organ, parping out a steam punk tune, like the five-tone greeting in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which this wasn’t yet.

Whatever this thing was, it could still be a man-made nano machine. If it was, then I probably shouldn’t know about it. Seeing as I did, I shouldn’t let on. The English Literature route was perfect for this recording of events.

Encounters with Unidentified Flying (or Floating) Objects have been categorised into five groups as close encounters of the first, second, third, fourth and fifth kind. When a person sees a UFO within 150 metres, it’s an encounter of the first kind. Given that we were about 150 micrometers away, we could tick that one off. When an encounter with a UFO in the sky or on the ground leaves evidence behind, such as scorch marks on the ground or indents etc., it’s of the second kind. Given that ours hadn’t stopped hovering just above the base of the dish, we hadn’t had one of those yet. When an encounter is with visible occupants inside the UFO, it’s of the third kind. Unless the aliens were invisible to us, we couldn’t tick that one off. Which is a slight paradox, because if there were aliens but they weren’t visible to us (through choice or otherwise), would that count? Anyway, assuming any extraterrestrials wouldn’t look like recliner chairs (unless they were disguised; another paradox), then we hadn’t seen any that we were aware of. The fourth kind involves the person being taken and experimented on inside the alien craft. At that point, we wouldn’t fit, on account of scale. The fifth kind involves direct communication between aliens and humans. This, I assumed to be impossible, even if there were aliens present. Yet somehow we went straight from first base to third.

Somewhere among the mangles and parps of the pipes and levers, a door opened.

At this point, I should like to insert a note to Mrs Walker, my English tutor, and to Mr Harmer, my other English teacher: One is Language and the other is Literature, and together, they taught me a lot of what I know. So:

Dear Lois and John,

Among the many things you taught me, was to imagine a situation: A situation as complex and fun as I’d liked. Then you told me to mix it up more, to make it not incomprehensible but fantastical, whimsical, and perhaps odd. Finally, you taught me how to translate what I see into the simple medium of words alone, through prose; to make my writing not implausible but just about believable. I learned how to use plot devices and all sorts of other ways to manipulate words and the thoughts they convey, so that each carries a part of an image. You even inspired me to write my own literary statement in the form of a challenge:

Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit: How do you escape? Well, you could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination.

This is what happened next:

To use onomatopoeia, there was a ‘whoosh’ sound, as the door opened. Then a snake fell out and onto the bridge. As the doors opened, a snake was standing, with more than half its body lifted from the ground. Then it just fell in through the doors. It raised itself up again, then moved around on the bridge, bumping into a lever and clambering over a pipe. And then it sat in the central chair. Its head rested well below the headrest, its back extended down the back of the chair and along the seat, so that its tail end dangled over the edge. I remember my father’s barber placing a wooden plank across a similar chair to prop me up for a haircut. And then the snake seemed to fall asleep.

I’m familiar with snakes in the wild and even though this one was microscopic, I had to rely on the limits of my personal knowledge. This one was a grey brown colour. Assuming the seat to be seat-sized, I put the snake at about four feet in length. Not knowing where it came from, nor its size if it were in my dimension, it could be any one of a number of snakes I knew about. It was only when the snake’s mouth drooped open, as though it was snoring, that I was almost sure.

It’s a fuc.. flipping black mamba Doctor!” I should have left it there. “You are a doctor, aren’t you?” What I meant was, ‘I really hope someone can tell me what’s going on here,’ and not, ‘Are you a fraud?’

Yes, I am. My PhD was in human psychology, but I branched out into other kinds of people.” I must have looked confused for a second. “Animal people. So much easier to understand.” How did she know? “And yes, that is a fucking black mamba.”

What’s it doing here though?”

I don’t know. You found it.”

Well, I did. But I didn’t mean to. It was accidental. It was what got me detention.”

But isn’t it also what brought you here? Think differently, young man.” I was trying my best. Maybe I should just submit this English Literature assignment as a poem. ‘Snake in a baguette / Don’t know what it’s up to / Cos we haven’t spoken yet.’ Because it was about to get stranger still.

Another black mamba, kind of walked onto the bridge of the ship. The second one didn’t fall out of the door like the first. Instead, there was another ‘whoosh’ sound, and the second snake moved onto the bridge, with about half of its body raised from the floor, so that at full size, it would be about two feet tall. It then sat, in the same way the first snake had, on the seat to the latter’s left. But this second snake didn’t fall asleep. Instead, it started moving its jaws as it looked at the other snake next to it. I’m familiar with snakes adjusting and stretching their jaws prior to eating prey, but black mambas have never been known to practice cannibalism. In fact, if I’d been able to hear, I might go so far as to say the second snake might have been talking.

Do you want to listen in?” Eve asked me. Of course I did. Could we? Should we?

Erm,” I stammered, “yes, please.” The pleading was really unnecessary. “How though?”

Can you keep a secret?” Well, I wasn’t going to say ‘no’, was I?

Yes, what is it?”

Well, if I tell you, it’ll no longer be a secret.” Was that a threat?

You kind of have, Doctor,” I reminded her. The Doctor smiled, which was reassuring, I think. It was one of those double-meaning smiles, like a newsreader at the end of a report they’re not sure how they should react to.

“Call me Eve. Well, it would be our secret then, Mr Ford.” I wondered if I should ask her to call me by my first name, but she hadn’t asked what it was.

So, how can we listen to the snakes? But more importantly, how the fuc… flipping hell did a black mamba get that small, and in what looks like a space ship?”

If we can speak to them, we might be able to find out.”

Yes, but how doctor?”

This,” she said, then stood up. She walked to the computer in the corner and pressed some keys, then fished something from a drawer and returned, trailing an electric cable behind her. She sat back next to me and plugged the cable into the electron microscope. “This,” she said again, “is something I’ve been working on, on the side.”

What is it?”

Well, it’s at an early stage: Experimental. I don’t know if it’ll ever have a practical application, least of all one I might be willing to use.”

Why so?”

Because it’s a prototype for a universal translation device. I’ve called it the Babel fish.”

And it works?”

Generally speaking. It needs a lot of tweaking for individual species, but as a concept, it somehow seems to work. If you look at the microscope’s camera,” which I did, “you’ll see there’s a tiny microphone attached.” She pointed, and there was. “So, theoretically, with this plugged into the computer and with the Babel fish program running, the microphone should pick up what the snake, or alien, is saying, and translate it for us.”

What about talking back?” I wondered.

It’s not something I’d ever planned to do, but it does work both ways. So if we speak, the microphone will pick us up. And then how it works becomes a bit confusing.

Why?”

Because with the few animals I’ve listened to, they’ve always had voices which reflected their personalities, of course. But also, which bely their physiology.”

How do you mean?”

A mouse, for instance, sounds squeaky. I’ve never deliberately spoken back, but when I first heard that, I giggled at the stereotype being confirmed, and the mouse must have heard me. It looked startled. And I imagined that if I’d heard a smaller thing as higher pitched, perhaps the mouse heard bigger me as a really deep voice. But I don’t know how the Babel fish actually does that. It’s kind of a paradox, like never really knowing what your own voice sounds like.”

Nor, by extension,” I offered, “does anyone truly know what they look like.”

Eh?”

Because we only ever see ourselves in mirror image, or in photographs. It is impossible for us to view ourselves directly. Ergo, as we really are, and are seen by other people.”

That’s pretty deep, Mr Ford.”

Yes, sorry.”

Don’t apologise. Like I said, think differently. So, back to the snakes?” I’d momentarily forgotten, in the presence of an attractive woman old enough to be someone my age’s mum, about two potential extraterrestrial snakes in a microscopic spacecraft, under the microscope.

Eve flicked a switch, then a sound came from some speakers on the computer. It was a high-pitched rasping sound, almost a shrill whistle. As Eve adjusted some controls, the shrieks became a voice:

Wake up.” By the way the mouth was moving, this was the second snake speaking to the first, who was still asleep. “Wake up,” it said again. “We’re here.”

What!?” The first snake now woke with a start. “What? Where?”

Here,” said the second snake. “Here, wherever you programmed the ship to come to. Well, we’re there.”

Are we?” The first snake adjusted himself in his chair, peering forward at the screen, and our camera. “What’s that?” I assumed he was talking about the camera.

I don’t know. I thought you would.”

Why would I?”

Because these are the co-ordinates you programmed into the ship.”

But that’s not supposed to be here.”

Well, what were you expecting?”

This is supposed to be a quiet country spot. There should be humans around.”

But you said yourself, it’s a quiet country spot. If it’s secluded, might there actually not be people there?”

Well, I suppose. But I was hoping for a little village or something. You know, where there’d just be one or two people around. Not that thing.” He gestured with his snout at the screen.

Do you think we should speak now?” I said.

What the fuck was that!?” I heard a sharp, whistling rasp: The alien snake had heard me.

I think he heard you just fine,” Eve confirmed.

What!? Who is that?” hissed the snake. Eve switched off the Babel fish.

So?” she wondered. So did I.

I don’t know, Doctor. They can hear us. Are we not breaking all sorts of rules?”

Probably.” That was very carefree. “But it looks like they’ve made a mistake. If they didn’t mean to be here, shouldn’t we help them out?”

Well,” I thought, “maybe. But without knowing we’re here. I guess it’s too late for that.”

I’d say so. So the least we can do is help them. We’ll say no more and perhaps they don’t either. That part we’ll have to trust to faith. Whatever else we pick up in any conversation will just remain our secret.”

Well, I was going to write about it. But for an English Literature assignment. Fiction.”

Perfect. Just so long as no-one believes you. Shall we get back to the snakes?” Eve switched the Babel fish on again. The snakes were still talking:

So why did you only want to see one or two humans?”

Because then we could’ve just buzzed them, you know?”

No?”

You know, float menacingly in front of them in the sky. Make the ship do some hoots and parps, flash a few lights. Then just fuck off.”

Why?”

Well, who’s going to believe them? One or two people, in a secluded place. The only ones to witness a UFO. Everyone would think they were cranks. It’s the best way to study them, so they don’t take us too seriously.”

They’re joyriding,” I said.

Who is that?” said one of the snakes.

Well it’s not God,” said another. “We’ve pretty much discounted him if that’s a universal translation device we’re hearing. We’re disobeying the lessons from The Tower of Babel, where God allegedly knocked it down, because he didn’t want people understanding all languages. With language barriers in place as a defence mechanism, God was maintaining the rules of confusion and misunderstanding though…”

Well, that’s what our books say. But what’s that voice?”

What?” Eve asked.

And that one?” hissed the snake.

I’ve read about it,” I said. “Aliens, they go around looking for secluded places on Earth, where they can put on a display for a few people.”

But why?

Well,” I continued, “as this snake here said, just to spook people. But not too many. A bit of fun, showing off. But I always thought it could be something more. I mean, if they were appearing to a lot of people, that could cause all sorts of problems. By keeping it within a select group, only a few people will take the story of the whole thing seriously. It’s a containment mechanism. Like the Babel fish, I suppose. I mean, if universal translation was suddenly freely available to everyone, that would cause all sorts of trouble. And that’s why I’ll keep this secret, so as not to spoil things. So my theory on so-called joyriders is that what we see is only a part of something greater, which we may not yet understand.”

That is both very liberal and deep, Mr Ford.” This wasn’t Eve’s voice. This was the rasping whistle from the Babel fish. I turned to look at the screen, directly at the first snake.

Thank you,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say.

You are an interesting specimen, Mr Ford. You may benefit your species yet.” Which was kind of what John Fowle had said. The truth behind this story may be something discussed with school prefect peers, in a secret society, such as that of The Dead Poets. To anyone outside, the forbidden knowledge was just a work of fiction.

Captain,” I said, that just seeming to be the most appropriate way to address him.

Human,” he replied. Which threw up many questions. He referred to me by my name when he first addressed me. Then when I addressed him as ‘captain’, he called me ‘human’. Did this impart an assumed rank? Scholars might ponder over this in years to come if it wasn’t written as a work of fiction. The captain continued: “We are here by accident, as I believe you have gathered. I think we made a mistake with a decimal point in our co-ordinates.”

Are you aware of your size though?” I couldn’t think of any other way to point out that might be the error.

My what?” I may have touched a nerve.

Well, we’re looking at you through an electron microscope.”

Is that what it is? We thought that was a telescope.”

I think there’s been a miscalculation of scales.”

I think you may be right, Mr Ford. A decimal point would seem to have caused me all these problems. Thank you for pointing it out.”

I’m sure you’d have worked it out.”

Not without the benefit of your perspective. Can we agree that it might be wise to keep this between ourselves?”

We’d kind of agreed that already between ourselves, captain.” I looked at Eve, who was smiling at some inner news.

You won’t tell my father?”

I wouldn’t know who your father is.”

Good. Mum’s the word then.” Eh? Mum: Mother who? Mother Earth? More speculation for later English Literature assignments.

Keep learning, Mr Ford. For then you will truly learn.” From a snake, it didn’t seem so strange, when the snake was some sort of alien life form I couldn’t previously imagine, but never now dismiss.

So what now?”

Now, we go home.” Which really summed things up nicely.

And we speak no more of it, except with those in a secret club who know the truth. The Captain Mamba Society? It was a great beginning to end a story with. But I had a few things to attend to first.

How do we get you home?”

Just let us go, out of this thing you’ve got us in.”

You’re free to fly away.”

Well, we need a bit of a push, see? When we launched, we had a thing which shot us off at speed.”

And that’s back where you came from?”

No, it’s the engine of the ship. We need a bit of a launch assist, seeing as we miscalculated our size a bit.”

So how?”

At your size, just a good push should get us going.”

Yes, but what do I push?”

Do you have windows here?”

Yes, we do.”

Well, what’s outside?”

Er, outside?”

Well done. Well, that’s where we want to go. And how do we get there?”

Through the window?”

Well done. Think one step beyond, Mr Ford.”

You literally, want me to throw you out of the window?”

Unless you have a better idea?” Thinking outside, inside, and all around, I didn’t. I had to let this moment go.

So it was Eve in fact, perhaps sensing my newfound attachment, who picked up that Petri dish, opened the window, and threw Captain Mamba, his crew mate and their ship, out into the world to make their own way home.

Do you think,” I wondered to Eve, “they’ll make the return journey?” That was a very loaded question, and one which begged for a greater word allowance on an English Literature assignment. “There are so many possibilities.”

You’re the space cadet, Mr Ford. I’m sure you’ll make of it all what you will. Keep what you know between the friends you trust. Don’t abuse it for personal gain. You have a responsibility. I think you’ll make a fine prefect.” So, a girl called Eve had advised me to guard the words which the serpent had given us. That would make quite a good story.

I had the remainder of Lewisham to traverse before I got home. By now, it was dark. I walked beneath the street lamps and the Catford cat, as the park was closed. I’d write up my notes before school the next day. If what I’d written was judged to be a good fiction piece, then perhaps the misplaced comma which had caused me failure before, might get me recognition in a field besides biology.

You’re late, Dixon.” It was my dad, tuned into my frequency.

Yeah, sorry dad. I got talking after detention.”

Well, I won’t ask who to. That would shatter my illusion that you might have done something amazing.” He’d told me I had it in me, and now I couldn’t tell him.“One day,” dad continued, “you’ll be really late, Dixon.”

What?”

Late, as in the late Dixon Ford. Well, when you are, try to be remembered.”

Captain, my captain.”

© Steve Laker, 2017.

star-wars-force-awakens-captain-phasma-face-hat-16.jpg

Cyrus Song (a story inspired by Douglas Adams), is available now.

And there’s a second prequel short story, Of Mice and Boys in 1984.

The Unfinished Literary Agency (First edition)

FICTION

As I continue to write short stories for a second collection, there are two so far in that next book from The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s a theme which pops up in other stories, but the agency itself has published four stories so far. This was the first, and it’s in my first anthology…

Horror writer desk

The Unfinished Literary Agency

The Unfinished literary agency was like no other that I’d worked for. In all my years of writing, I’d simply not heard of them. The first I’d ever heard of them was when I received a letter on headed paper. It was a rather fine letterhead: an off-white recycled stock, with the agency’s details die-stamped in blue ink. Intriguingly, the telephone number was prefixed “01”: an old, old London number. The letter said that they had some unfinished work which they would like me to complete: I had been summonsed by – or from – the past. I had neither the time nor the inclination to visit them in person, although I did some research and found that the agency was above Hotblack Desiato’s office in Islington.

It was a hot summer afternoon when my friends found the diaries. Just in time too, as it had begun to rain and the smell of wet dust filled the air as water hit arid pavements. The diaries were in a battered green skip, outside a building which was being demolished.

There were 126 volumes in all. Some were faux leather-bound journals, some A5 refill pads and even a few school exercise books. Most were stuffed into boxes; one once filled with Xerox toner cartridges. Other books were thrown in amongst the bricks and debris from the building. They weren’t numbered or dated, so I had no way of arranging them into chronological order. They simply sat in boxes in the order they’d been retrieved from the skip by Jasper and Mole.

One journal almost audibly begged to be read, with its lurid New York taxi yellow cover. As I picked it up, it felt like I held a life in my hand, or at least a part of one. In bold, black letters on the front cover was the legend: “I hope these are found when I’m gone. Within these covers, a heart once beat.” There was no hint as to who the author might have been: The writer was simply “I”. “I” had seemingly lived and died there, in Upper Street N1, then been thrown into a skip.

I was working on another project at the time, ghost writing an autobiography. I was a blogger by trade and I surely didn’t have time to read through 126 volumes of someone else’s life. What was I to do? Hand the books into the police and be laughed at? After a period of time, the diaries would be destroyed if no-one had claimed them, or returned to me. Would I really miss the tatty old boxes cluttering up my studio? That life in the skip had already passed. What were my friends to have done if they’d not pulled the journals from the skip though? To leave them there would surely have been criminal. So I kept them, as they’d been dumped in my studio. Jasper suggested I might like to write about the anonymous life found in a skip. As a fiction writer, I could be a biographer who didn’t have a clue about who their subject was. I’d get around to them eventually.

Two terrible things happened in the month that followed: Mole, ironically, was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and began an intensive course of chemotherapy; Jasper was killed, suddenly and for no apparent reason. Everything can change in a moment, without warning and forever. For several weeks afterwards, I looked at the journals in their boxes and wondered how I’d feel as I read them. They represented a time when all was well, when Mole and Jasper had found them. Perhaps I ought to leave things that way.

The journals languished in their boxes for a year before I finally started to read them. I’d resisted before because I knew that my inquisitive nature would turn the books into a personal mission: who wrote them? Who was “I”? Eventually curiosity got the better of me and I began to read. The journals provided a link to Mole and Jasper. To be honest, I needed an escape into someone else’s life.

It wasn’t the yellow taxi volume I picked up first. The one I started to read was an anonymous black book, much like most of the others, and chosen at random. It started in the middle of a sentence: “…I’m bleeding. I’ve been stabbed. My blood is everywhere…”

I didn’t know who I was reading about and that anonymity meant that each sentence was a story in itself: Who was this? Why was he bleeding? What on earth had happened? Despite the fact that he was bleeding, the writer continued with sufficient clarity as to maintain a tidy style of handwriting: the individual letters were scribed with care; grammar and punctuation were perfect. He just carried on. Occasionally there were dates: days and months but not years. Sometimes the writing referred to events which I could attach approximate dates to – mentions of news events and programmes on TV – but still, there were 125 more volumes to comb through.

Eventually I pieced sufficient volumes together to work out that the stabbing incident had occurred when “I” was 14. But when was this? How had a 14-year-old boy been stabbed and what were the consequences? With no means of knowing which journal to read next, I was drawn into the story: I may have to read all of the volumes to fit things together. There is no recording of the time of day that the stabbing happened. The volume I was reading could even be the last: “I” could have died aged 14.

The text in that particular volume became gradually more rushed. Words clashed with the edges of pages as they hit. The author was trying to fit as much in as possible before the pages – or time – ran out. I was just skimming; hoping to find out. Maybe I should hand these diaries in to the police after all? But “I” hadn’t. It were as though he’d entrusted all of this information to the journals and my job now seemed to be one of unravelling, in private.

I managed to find the volume which followed the book of the bloodshed. I realised that the easiest way to achieve this was to look at just the first page of each notebook: I was simply looking for a sentence which began part way through, because the last page of the bloodshed book ended mid-sentence, with I “…bleeding from my insides, spilling my guts for all to see. How am I to explain something which I don’t understand but which has nonetheless happened? I feel light headed, like the blood is draining from my brain and pouring from the same exit wound…”

And that’s where it ended. He’d bled through a whole volume. An exit wound? Had he been shot? Is this why he couldn’t go to the police? Was this the last chapter? I longed for “I” to take me further. I don’t recall how many first pages I read but the one that stopped me was the one which began, “…and all because of my sex.” Was he homosexual? It mattered not a jot but it was the only thing I could think of.

As I read further, the river of blood slowed to a trickle and was eventually stemmed. Perhaps if I’d been less presumptuous, I’d have realised sooner that the poor young lad had been having his period. He was a girl.

Why wouldn’t I want to pry around a teenage girl’s intimate thoughts? The diaries became more than curios from then. No longer was it just a mystery thriller; now it was eroticism. I had metaphorically tasted virginal, vaginal teenage blood. Now I had an angry angel. I wanted to know who this young writer was, why she had died and been thrown away.

I continued to read the journals in the same random order: just as they’d ordered themselves when they were dumped, as though that was the way the writer had intended. Perhaps I was over romanticising. “I” described things in a way which made me wonder if she ever expected or wanted anyone else to hear about them. But it was manna to a voyeuristic fiction writer with an anonymous autobiography at my disposal.

Although “I” was now a girl, I still didn’t have a name. In a way, I preferred it like that: the anonymity gave the diaries a universality. They were impersonal, so as to reduce the voyeurism a little, and yet “I” wrote of intensely personal things. I figured it was okay to write about these things because she didn’t want her name to be known.

Nothing is certain. That’s the number one cancer cliche. 18 months after Mole’s first course of chemotherapy, the tumours returned. It was difficult to tell which was murdering him quicker: nature or medicine.

My focus now was to try to establish some kind of time line. If I committed to reading all of the journals in detail, I should be able to use the clues I’d previously identified to string things in some rough order. This became an obsession, as I read more and more intimate parts of this girl’s writing. I could almost hear her voice as her pen strokes betrayed her mood. She was always alternately angry and hurried when she wrote of her father. He taunted her regularly, verbally and physically assaulted her. I had to relive episodes with her over and over again, as I placed things in order.

It was her father who shattered one of the biggest illusions for me. Up to that point, I had no idea what “I” looked like but I had imagined her: She was of course small, slim, blonde and extraordinarily pretty. She wore her hair in a pony tail for school and let it down when she got home. She’d sit in front of a mirror and describe herself in her father’s words in her diary: “I’m fat and ugly. I’m useless at everything and never get anything right. I’m stupid and weak. I’ll never amount to anything in my life. When I die – which will hopefully be soon – my epitaph will read: ‘Here lies Vicky Francis, who did nothing, went nowhere and was loved by nobody.’”

Vicky.

I missed the nameless girl of my imaginings. I’d been robbed of my floating abstract, now squeezed into a finite thing. I’d liked this girl with no name, whose every feature was of my own design. I enjoyed her clumsiness, her irrational moments and her occasional desires for outbursts of violence. So what if she was called Vicky?

Vicky had been to many places. In the mid 1970s, she was living with her father in London. From social and current affairs of the time when she wrote, I worked out that she was in her early 20s by then. There seemed to be no-one besides her and the old man and he was drunk most of the time. Vicky paid the bills with cleaning jobs and bar work. The more I read, the more the story changed in itself and the expectations of the reader. It gained greater depth and breadth as first Vicky’s appearance was revealed, then her name. Now it took on some of the period piece, with the addition of a place and time in history: 1970s London, Soho in fact.

Vicky wrote of the seedy Soho of legend in salacious detail: encounters with pimps, prostitutes, punters, gangsters and drug dealers; Hostess bars and clip joints: she didn’t say if she worked in any of them but she wrote with an intimate familiarity, as though she worked around them. She had wild and ambitious plans and was in a hurry to record them in her diary. Some days and hours were dozens of pages long. Vicky would record one day in minute-by-minute detail, then say nothing for a week. I missed her when she was away and would search for the next entry in the journals.

In the little spare time she had, Vicky was working on a project: a biography in fact. She didn’t name her subject but I should like to learn more of him for the basis of a fictional character. The man was a monster: Some kind of tutor but he abused his students when they got things wrong. He was apparently in a permanent drunken state, unable to remember his abuse on the morning after the day before. Very little more is written of this man. Like with so much else with Vicky, once she gets her teeth into something, she disappears while she pursues it. Perhaps it would be dangerous for her to document the details.

In Vicky’s story, this older man was a full 30 years older than her main protagonist. Her character is also 14. The man has much in common with Vicky’s father but he doesn’t abuse her directly. The tutor allowed a young girl’s adulation to get out of hand. Vicky’s father demolished her confidence and ruined her ambitions, over a period of at least a decade. It was an intense and abusive period in her life.

After 1985, the story became vague. The content of the diaries grew gradually more sketchy, as though an outside influence was distracting Vicky, or indeed the character she was writing about: the stories had merged together.

Toward what now appeared to be the end, when Vicky was in her 30s, she was homeless. She was scavenging food from supermarket bins and using a single hob to cook. A typical meal was the one she cooked herself for her birthday that year: an out-of-date chicken madras microwave ready meal, which she over-cooked “to make it a bit safer.”

Mole was nearing the end of his time too. He implored me to step back a little, to stop reading the 126 books so intently and focus – as I was supposed to – on putting them into some sort of order; to form a backbone for the story, then add the bones and fill in the gaps. Maybe then it would take on life. I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I needed to see the whole of Vicky and not selected highlights of her eventful life. I suppose I’d resisted because so many of my assumptions about Vicky had been false. How many others were?

I hope I die as peacefully as Mole did. The sudden but not unexpected ending of one life shone a light into the gaps of the one I was writing about. Vicky revealed a secret so massive that I was momentarily thrown and yet she didn’t write a word about it. After plotting a timeline of the period of her life which I held, I realised what a small part it was. The late 1970s, the whole of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s were missing. Those stories from 1995 still seemed to be the end though.

I estimated that the 126 volumes I’d still only skimmed over, amounted to about 15,000 pages, or 5 million words. Using that as a benchmark for number of words per year and knowing roughly the period of Vicky’s life which I knew about, I calculated the size of the diaries including the missing years. Using this very crude method, I reckoned that there could be close to 1000 journals somewhere: 40 million words, waiting to be heard. Vicky was a very prolific diarist and it would be a lifetime’s work for a biographer to record her life. In which case, a partly remarkable life is lost. And so I had to continue.

But how would I find all of those missing years? Why were there only edited highlights in the skip? I couldn’t believe that Vicky would have stopped for those periods. She always found time to write, whatever she was doing otherwise. If she’d married or got a job, she’d have written about it. It wasn’t so much the sudden ending of the diaries which intrigued me as those big gaps in the narrative. A life which was missing the 80s was a tragedy. Vicky came back afterwards, so where had she been in that defining decade? As a fiction writer, I could fill in the gaps but there was too much of the real story holding me.

I simply couldn’t think where those missing years might be. I didn’t even know exactly where Jasper and Mole recovered the original diaries from because at the time, I’d been so wrapped up in my own world that I’d not bothered to collect them myself. I hadn’t even thought to fucking ask. I’d lost my two best friends, and the one who confided her diaries to me. So I returned to being a fiction writer.

I resolved to confront this man, these men, the people in general, who had made Vicky’s life, so many lives, intolerable. I’d written about many such people: Evil but charismatic; the antagonists in my stories sometimes, but more often than not, the narrators. People who charmed their way into lives, leaving indelible marks. Characters so calculating as to ensure those scars were only on the inside: no-one could see the real harm. Characters whom I’d made anti-heroes and whose appealing looks and personality disguised a black heart. Invisible people.

Just as it is impossible to find someone if you don’t know where they are, it’s easy if you know who you’re looking for. Not only did I know who he was but I knew exactly where to find him.

We had a very pleasant evening together and I was seated at this very writing desk as I poured our last drink. In fact, this very manuscript of Vicky’s and so many others’ unfinished stories, was protruding from the top of my typewriter as I looked through the open curtains in front of the desk, out into the night at the street lamps. A sheet of off-white paper, bearing an unfinished story, the end of which would be determined by me, as I pressed the keys and the individual letters embossed themselves on the sheet. One keystroke, a metallic hammer into a soft surface, changing the story forever.

I stared back at myself from the window as I typed and reflected on such a tragic life, like a rabbit in the headlights:

“The end…

© Steve Laker, 2016

The Perpetuity of Memory is available now. My publishing schedule is on the book shelf page of this blog.