Where the reject robots work

FICTION

This was a flash fiction story to fill some column inches, so I used the word limit (800) to experiment, play, but didn’t throw this one away. It’s a simple device, of using pre-emoji ASCCI emoticons to convey facial expressions (:-)) (on the page, and on most screens), and it uses hashtags (but sans octothorpe) for AiThinkingAloud, in a place where thinking is allowed.

It’s the story of a defective sentient android, about inclusivity, and using what others may see as a flaw to make a difference to someone else. And it’s about better understanding others, and changing behaviour…

Steam Hell SinkiSteam Hell Sinki, Helsinki Finland

ZEIGARNIK’S KITCHEN

People are better when remembering the actions they didn’t complete. Every action has potential energy, which can torture its creator when stored. Release is the metaphorical pressure cooker letting off steam, a camel’s broken back, or a reject pink robot with Tourette’s.

Frenchie was made in China, and one of the Pink Ladies’ range of android personal assistants. Designed as helpers for the aged, vulnerable and lonely, the Pink Ladies could help around the home, both practically and intellectually.

Frenchie’s AI had objected to gender labelling, when “she” realised she lacked genitals, and the Tourette Syndrome diagnosis was made: “Artificial fucking alignment is what it is. Fuck.

Now waiting tables in Infana Kolonia (Esperanto for “Infant colony”), Frenchie approached a couple seated in a booth.

“Good evening, how may I,” she twitched her neck, “Fuck you!”, and her pink LED eyes blinked from her tilted head: (;-/), a closed eye with the hint of pink tears behind her spectacles, held together with pink Elastoplast. “Drinks?” she asked, pushing her glasses up, “Fuck it!” She fumbled with her order pad. “For you sir? Combover!” (8-|)

“I’ll have a whisky please, a double, on the rocks.”

“Okay, number 80. And madam? PleaseBeCarefulWhenYouGetHome.(8-/)

“Sorry?”

“Sorry, it just comes out. BadCardigan. To drink?” (8-))

“Should you be working here?”

“Who’s the judge?” (8-/)

“Pardon?”

“Sorry madam, management algorithms. To drink? Cyanide?(8-))

“Er, number…” the lady looked over the menu, “…number 33.”

“Very well. I’ll be back with your drinks. HopeYouDrown” (8-))

Frenchie shuffled towards the bar, then turned and trundled back.

“Can I take your order sir, madam?” (8-|)

“But we just ordered drinks,” the man replied.

“For food?” Frenchie looked at her notepad. (B-))

“I’ll have the soup,” the man said.

“Me too,” the lady concurred.

“Very well,” Frenchie jotted on her pad, “two soups.” (8-)) Then she turned and walked back to the bar, “One sociopath, and one supplicant…”

She stumbled through the double doors to the kitchen, blowing the misty oil away as she wiped her lenses. (8-O)

“Frenchie!” Jade looked down. His golden smile extended through his body in Frenchie’s pink, plastered eyes. To her AI, he was raw elements. She blinked up at him through her misted tortoiseshell windows. (q-/) “Are you keeping your inner self in out there, Frenchie?”

Frenchie cleared her throat, and wondered why she did that. (b-( ) “Erm,” she started, “no. Fuck it!”

Splendid behaviour,” Jade smiled. “Be yourself out there, my person. That’s why people come here, to meet people. Anyone don’t like that, they not welcome.”

Au, 79,’ Frankie thought. “Drinks, and soups. Fuck! Yes, thank you. Parp!” (8-))

Extractor fans in the roof began sucking the old oil from the kitchen, as the machine below started belching lunch. Cogs and gears clunked, cookware clattered, and polished brass organ pipes parped, like a living machine, a visiting craft playing a five-tone melody. Pink Ladies rushed, bumped into things (and each other), cursed, and dropped utensils (and food).

Frenchie’s friend Sandy wandered from the spiced steam, carrying a tray, a subdued yellow droid, looking at her feet as she bumped heads with her friend. She looked up at Frenchie, “For you?” (:-( )

“No, for customers. Arses!” (8-/)

“Okay. Tell world hi. Bye.” (:-( )

Frenchie wafted into the bar in a pink puff of steam, leaving the brass and wind orchestra in the kitchen. The room was perfumed by vapers – people making vapours – first jasmine, then the seaside, and cannabis. She wondered why she thought about all this with memories.

“Your order, sir, madam.” (B-/)

“Thank you,” the cardigan said. “What’s your name?”

“Frenchie?” (|-/)

“Thanks Frenchie.”

“Welcome…” (P-]) ‘I found a new way to smile (:-))’

Frenchie repeated to herself, as she fumbled through the vapers, ‘A new way to smile, (:-)), where did that come from? (:-/)’

“Sandy,” she called, as she carried her tray through the pipes and cauldrons, “Look.” Sandy looked at her feet. “No,” Frenchie said, “you need to look up. I found a new way to smile. All I have to do is tilt my head, see?” (:-D)

“Why did you take your glasses off?” (:-[ )

“Because they were put there by someone else. I always knew I’d see more without them. And besides, they can fall off my head when I tilt it to one side.” (:-D)

“And that’s funny?” (:-/)

“Only if you look at it a certain way.” (8-D) “Wanna go home?”

“Okay.” (:-))

© Steve Laker, 2017.

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Of hamsters and pink robots

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The best laid plans of mice (men had nothing to do with it, of course) sometimes work out in unexpected ways. Those of a religious persuasion might attribute these strange happenings to guidance from God. Other, broader thinking individuals, would say it’s simply a matter of being connected.

Pink Robot

It’s the weird coincidences which writers are sometimes accused of using for convenience (“Suddenly, a trap door he’d not noticed before, provided a potential escape…” might be something you’d read in a Dan Brown novel), but which do happen in real life. There are few pure coincidences in my fiction, and I make it all at least plausible through background research.

My last published story (‘So Long and Thanks for all the Animals’) was inspired by Douglas, and a song. My next one (‘The Long Now Clock’, out this weekend) came about because of something I heard on Ancient Aliens. A future story, about two hamsters called Hannibal and Lecter, was for a young friend, test reader and occasional literary muse, who has a pair of Roborovski hamsters named after her favourite film character. Given they sound like Russian cyborgs, I couldn’t resist.

It was my latest completed story which relied most heavily on real-life coincidences, not to make the story work Dan Brown style, but a series of things which shaped the way I told the plausible story.

I wanted to further explore sexual alignment and identity (in an asexual story), and the interface between humans and technology, as we become more merged, and the (rather worn) concept of sentient IA, as the lines between human and technological species blur, so I wanted to be original. I wanted to convey feeling and thoughts, from different perspectives, and I wanted to do this with flash fiction. The latter wish, was to make what turned into a bit of an experiment, effective through speed of delivery (a bit like a cartoon).

So I was looking for a lot of meaning in not many words. Having been encouraged by my writing peers to not be embarrassed to be proud, I’m rather fond of what I’ve come up with. It started when I heard something about ‘The Zeigarnik Effect’, so I researched it.

In psychology, the Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. In Gestalt psychology, the Zeigarnik effect has been used to demonstrate the general presence of Gestalt phenomena: not just appearing as perceptual effects, but also present in cognition.” (Wikipedia). That became:

People are better when remembering the actions they didn’t complete. Every action has potential energy, which can torture its creator when stored. Release is the metaphorical pressure cooker letting off steam, a camel’s broken back, or a reject pink robot with Tourette’s…

My protagonist is a small pink robot, whose AI has a defect. She’s from the Pink Ladies range of assistant droids and she’s called Frenchie. She came about when I watched a documentary on Grease, with a greater emphasis on the play which preceded the film (my stories are littered with references, tributes and nods, to films, people…), and someone texted me. A conversation of some length followed, after which she was able to look at something in a different way, and a problem became a solution.

Most of all, I wanted to write a story about the way the mind works, in all its sometimes cracked ways; about how understanding can change attitudes; and of how that can be achieved simply by looking at things differently. And all I have is words on the page, just text.

The result, is a flash fiction story (about 750 words), of Frenchie and her depressed friend (Sandy, another robot), serving tables at Zeigarnik’s Kitchen. The facial expressions of the androids are conveyed with pre-emoji ASCCI emoticons, and thoughts in something similar to hashtags. An editor thinks it works too (“An interesting experiment. I don’t think we’ve ever had a robot with Tourette Syndrome”), so it’s out in a couple of weeks.

It is true that many stories use the well-trodden path of throwing up gradually more challenging obstacles, then for these to be overcome in a denouement (“Then he woke up”, not being one a fiction writer would get away with), and the story of my life is one such example.

Writing with many shadows

FLASH FICTION | THE WRITER’S LIFE

One recurring theme in my short fiction is The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s a fictional place, which exists to tell the stories of others who are unable to tell their own.

The agency is also an analogy of the writing world, where writers crave an audience, in a place were people don’t have time to read. It has parallels, to how inner frustration made my own mind up to write down everything in it (stories only happen to those who are able to tell them). So this is kind of how it all started, many times…

the-writers-desk-debra-and-dave-vanderlaanThe Writers Desk by Debra and Dave Vanderlaan

THE OFFICE OF LOST THINGS

They are afraid of the sun, shrinking away as it climbs in the sky, and they are liveliest at night. They follow us, and we can’t outrun them. They are The Shadows.

I first became aware that I’d picked one up, when my own shadow started carrying a guitar. No matter where I walked, indoors or outside, my shadow followed me. And regardless of what I myself was carrying (a bag, my jacket, thrown over my shoulder…), my shadow still travelled with its guitar.

This being Bethnal Green, I found an Italian greasy spoon, where the proprietor, a doctor, explained my condition. His Cockney dialogue was easy for the Babel fish in my ear to translate, and when he told me I was Hank Marvin, he offered me a cure, pointing to an item on the menu: “GSEG”, which was scrambled eggs, and my hunger was gone.

I was on my way to Islington, delivering a manuscript, to a place I’d heard about from other writers.

Above Hotblack Desiato’s office near Islington Green, is The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s where all the storytellers send their stories, and sometimes meet to share them, like a secret society, but open to all.

I climbed the stairs to the agency office, a windowless room in the loft. The lights were out and no-one was in. I tried the light switch but it didn’t work. Fumbling around, I found a desk, which I discovered had drawers, and the fourth one yielded a box of candles. I lit a cigarette, then a candle, and looked around the small office, which a broom might call luxurious.

On the desk was a typewriter, and next to it, a stack of papers: hand-written manuscripts. Besides the desk and a chair, there was just a large book cabinet occupying one wall. It held possibly hundreds of unwritten books, all from writers seeking attention, and all in a place where the sun never shines.

I sat at the desk and looked at my flickering shadow, cast by the candle. There was no guitar, just my cigarette dangling from my mouth, like a smoking tulip.

With no-one else around, I decided to stay for a while and started typing.

© Steve Laker, 1984, 1999, 2012, and 2017.

A clockwork grim fairy tale

HORROR FICTION

Many classic fairy tales are much darker stories in their original form than the ones we know (Little Red Riding Hood is a very bleak warning, to young girls of sexual predators). The story below is one of my own fairy tales, brought into a more modern world and with a bit of surrealism thrown in.

The original (longer) version is in my anthology. I’ve dragged the story out of the basement, only because it came up in conversation with someone today. As I pulled her up the steps (and after I’d read her Solum Oculos Claude, my most recent horror post), she asked me what the nastiest story I’ve written is. We use the word in the same way we do when we watch films, we both like video nasties.

The question was subjective. I’ve written what was called a “twistedly idiosyncratic” Nativity; There was the writer at The Unfinished Literary Agency, writing the story of his own first-person character committing a murder, after a pleasant stroll around Bermondsey with the reader; and then there was COGS.

When I first wrote it, I was looking to shock, I was finding my feet. Later, I found my way more in science fiction, and now I’m writing my brief history of a family book (while spending too much time distracted, mainly by myself). But just as my musical roots lie in Ska, so my writing started with horror (from where I was at the time). And I’ve been taking two pieces of advice from a friend, which have been serving me well: Don’t be afraid to be proud; and, If you feel the need to censor yourself, then you’re letting your readers down. Only they can be the judge of that, and whether other people are up me, or I’m up myself.

This one prompted one reader to say of its original incarnation, “It’s utterly wrong, but beautifully written,” probably because it contains suggestions of wholly wrong sexual deviancy. But it’s also a comment on consumerism, possibly in a world post-humanism, and a bit Gothic steam punk, with some poetic revenge and liberation thrown in. Like much of my horror, there’s a heart in it somewhere. All that, in 565 words apparently, pared down, so that some of the imagination of the unwritten words is transferred to the readers who will judge.

So, fuck it. This is COGS…

COGS Bird

COGS

automata
/ɔːˈtɒmətə/
noun
1. a plural of automaton
automaton
/ɔːˈtɒməˌtɒn; -tən/
noun (pl) -tons, -ta (-tə)
1. a mechanical device operating under its own hidden power; robot
2. a person who acts mechanically or leads a routine monotonous life
Derived Forms
automatous, adjective

What for the man who has everything yet has nothing? A man who wants for nothing, can have anything, but has nothing? Hans Der Leibhaftige had all he’d ever wanted, but for the one thing he desired. Everything and everyone has a price, including unconditional love.

Life allowed perverted sexual gratification, cash from needy families. It bought him pets: canine companions whose love needn’t be returned. But the humans grew beyond their best before dates, disposable people. Apart from his current companion, who may see his master die.

Cogs was an automaton, a mechanical animal, a robot. But if Hans weren’t to furnish visitors with this information, they would be oblivious. Cogs ate, slept and breathed, just like a real companion. His creator was Angra Mainyu, a long-term, symbiotic associate of Hans. Former lovers, latterly sexual partners of convenience, sex was merely functional, an outlet for their mutual loathing, in consensual sadomasochism, torture, trauma and rape. Fucking to a climax of fluid hate in red love.

Angra was a necromancer, making automata so fine that the single person able to afford them was her sole client. Her creations were pure mechanical clockwork, barren of electronics.

An early commission was a chicken, which hatched from an egg, then laid an egg of its own. Then it would nest on that egg as the outer eggshell closed, in silent mechanical motion. Later those movements could be perpetual, as Angra honed her art; living, sentient, self-determining beings, financed by Hans. Infinite wealth could buy eternal life.

There was a snake, given perpetuity by manipulation. He was someone in control of a deadly serpent to all who watched, oblivious to its inner workings, lacking a fatal bite by Angra’s design.

She could create Hans’ desire, of a companion, which was naked and with no clear means of operation by human intervention.

The creation was born of a note to Angra:

I’m not in love. I would only fuck you and others until something better came along. I would like you to make me a daughter.

***

“I am Lilith. I was born to you by Doctor Mainyu. May I come in?”

She sat on the sofa and said nothing further, switched off. Hans looked over the girl staring blankly ahead, dressed lightly in the heat, her legs slightly agape as she slept. Her underwear was the same colour as her skin. He needed to touch her, to see if she was warm.

The automaton flesh was soft and smooth. For all to see, they were comfortable in a shared blanket. He explored the paralysed girl, with more intimacy, seeking something which might make her recoil.

The fluidity of movement and the perpetuity of pleasure were to be found in Lilith, in her lips, where he tasted fresh life, while the girl slept, owned.

Lilith only opened her eyes when she was one with Hans.

“Love me master. Fill me with your wisdom, so that I may be as wealthy as you. Your daughter needs to come from your blood.”

A sound, like a winding clock, came from Lilith’s tightened thighs.

“Red love daddy.”

© Steve Laker, 2015 & 2017

The dark heart of liberation

HORROR FICTION

While I’m off writing family history and sci-fi, I was asked about horror: something along the lines of what the fuck is wrong (with someone who can come up with whimsical surreal stories (and children’s fiction), but who can also think of sick and twisted tales)? I’m not sure that’s the right question.

It’s all in my imagination: I’m a writer. But even my dark, psychological, and old school horror, usually have a social comment or conscience. I’ve been described as a writer able to hold a black mirror to the human condition, which I apparently have a deep understanding of (life on the streets will do that to someone who’s paying attention).

A version of this story is in my anthology. This one’s edited to more manageable flash fiction length (1000 words). It’s not pretty (contains scenes of a sexual and bloody nature) but it’s horror with a heart in it somewhere.

Open your eyes. The trick is to keep blinking…

Parental Advisory transparent

SOLUM OCULOS CLAUDE

Some images are permanent scars. Some places you wouldn’t be aware of if you hadn’t been shown the way. You know you shouldn’t be there. You shouldn’t have looked in the first place. But you’re there because you have an inquisitive mind. Somewhere under London, is a place called XI’s. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Sioux finished with a customer, in an alley she’d been dumped in many times. In the metropolis, this could be anywhere. The lurid pink taxi sign in front of her simply read “XI’s”, the apostrophe as redundant as her clit. She’d been told it was an accident.

A printed sign hung in the window:

TATTOOS
PIERCINGS
BODY MODIFICATION
COURIER AND CHAUFFEUR SERVICE
PRIVATE MEDICAL CARE
HERBAL REMEDIES
SEX TOYS
DVDs
DENTISTRY
CORRECTIVE SURGERY
NO CHILDREN

Sioux smiled at the irony. The accident was her fault, they told her. Customers like going bareback. Should have taken the pills.

Inside smelled of spiritual herbs. Two old ladies, like Ron Mueck sculptures, just slightly too small to be fully real, sat humming tunes in a corner, as Xi emerged from behind a tatty curtain in a cloud of cannabis smoke. A white man with dark dreadlocks and stubble, flecked with white, like salt and pepper, in a retro-military outfit, topped with a beret. He beckoned Sioux into the room behind him.

The pose was familiar from TV documentaries she’d seen: legs akimbo as she looked down at the clenched fist between them. The old ladies outside were singing, “Come into this room / Come into this gloom / See the red light rinsing / Another shutterslut wincing…”

“It’s an old tradition”, Xi said, in guttural tones, a cocktail of nomadic Irish and Jamaican. “They sing or chant to herald the passing of a life.” He looked up between her knees. “I’ve been asked to perform two procedures today. I don’t say why, I just do what’s asked, make deliveries and get paid.

“Human nature, I find that shit fascinating. I’m intrigued by fashion, culture and tradition. That’s how I got into piercing and tattoos. I’ve travelled around little sister, and I get to see a whole load of shit as it passes through here. I need you to give me a push.”

Sioux went into a brief, premature labour as she gave birth to something. Xi looked up as he placed a baby’s arm in a dish.

“The body modification was a logical progression,” Xi continued. “As I travelled, I saw some of the more extreme tribal practices. I taught me the techniques, and I can apply them here. Some ain’t legal in this country, but I don’t dig no religious debate. If someone wants something done, I do what asked man. Some can be undone, and people come to me to put shit right. But some of it’s permanent, like an injury go change your life. I don’t like that shit.”

Another contraction and two dismembered legs were born.

“The Dinka Tribe of South Sudan, man: gratuitous self-harm, harm inflicted by elders on those too young to think it anything other than normal sister. But I’m paid to not have an opinion. Most Dinka boys and girls? They don’t cry when the local sorcerer takes a red-hot knife to their dark faces. If they wince or cry or react to the pain, they will lose face in the community, so it’s best to sit through the process in peace. Facial scarification in tribesmen give identity to the tribe, and beauty to its women. Man.”

Another detached arm emerged from the womb.

“When it came to the children, that shit wrestled with my conscience sister. I won’t impose my will upon no child, but I have to respect cultures which do, see? Was my respect for the parents’ culture greater than the welfare of the child? I have to conclude that I is doing my job. The ‘No children’ thing was exclusive anyway. I don’t like that discrimination: children get raped too. I see so much shit, others just close they eyes.

“The Kayan Giraffe women in Northern Thailand? They wear brass rings around their necks, make them look all long. But that’s an illusion: more coils is added? The weight of them necklaces presses down, and that clavicle shit is lowered. With each additional ring it falls further, compressing the rib cage as well. The shoulders eventually fall away to get that long neck thing going on.

“They’ve been known to wear up to twenty five coils? And it ain’t true their necks break if them rings removed. No, I know because I removed twenty rings from this one girl? She looked extra-terrestrial man.

“They give them kids their first coils aged around five. The first set weighs around two kilos, then they add new rings. Cruelty for vanity’s sake? But that alien girl was beautiful.

“How is any of this shit any worse than cutting open a woman’s chest and putting silicone bags in her titties? Or cutting off someone’s nose and re-modelling it with plastic?”

The head was born next, squelching into Xi’s waiting hands, no first scream of breath. As he lifted the head to place it in the tray, it looked at Sioux, and a shrunken version of herself looked back. She could see nothing of the father.

The torso: It was a boy. In some parts of the world, a second or female child is unwanted.

“We all done with that first part. But there could be other damage which can’t be undone. Take these pills instead, and run.”

Xi locked up the shop. The two ladies were singing as he and Sioux left: “My night shift sisters / With your nightly visitor / A new vocation in life / My love with a knife…”

Sioux and Xi walked, towards the distinctive engine sound of a London taxi.

“Where to boss?”

“Wherever it’s happening.”

Sioux blinked from the taxi at the bright city lights speeding past.

© Steve Laker, 2015

Frankie says change future and past perspectives

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FLASH FICTION

I’ve just completed the third character prequel short story for Cyrus Song: That of Doctor Hannah Jones in the book, written by her as a teenager (to be published in a couple of weeks), as were the Simon Fry and Captain Mamba prequels (the latter with an extra human protagonist). The latter two were set in the 1980s, when I myself was a teenager, and Hannah’s story is c.2000. I’ve previously re-published stories here which I wrote around that time, when I was experimenting with writing in my late 20s. But I did also write a couple of stories when I myself was a teenager, back in the 1980s, and this is one such.

Adapted later for my anthology, and included as a story called ‘The Message’, this is the original, with just the names of Presidents changed. In 1985, I imagined a world 40 years ahead, where America had split, ceding one half to Russia. As world politics has changed (although not a great deal), the same threats remain and others have emerged.

My vision when Frankie Goes to Hollywood sang Two Tribes, was of a future world split roughly between two polar mindsets: That of the capitalist right wing, and of the co-operative left. It was a very simplified scenario, and the story was for a flash fiction English Literature homework assignment, for stories of 500 words or fewer. Essentially, this is how I saw the world, ten years from now, thirty years ago…

Frankie-Goes-To-Hollywood-resize-2

FRANKIE SAYS RELAX

The time was 23.59, as it had been for eight years since it was moved one minute further towards Doomsday. After Trump, the former USA was split roughly between the new Pacific United States and the Democratic Republic of America. In 2020, the DRA elected its first president, Clinton. In 2024, she was replaced by Obama, now heading for a certain second term.

The left wing media taunted the right, pointing out how much more evolved they had become, first under Clinton, and latterly Obama, who would have been the former USA’s first female and black female presidents respectively. They accused the right of fake news and subliminal advertising, and mocked them for their conservatism, concentrating resources on military defence, where the DRA had introduced a Universal Basic Income and budgets were concentrated on education, exploration and discovery.

Sebastian Lem stared at the flickering screen in front of him, as the F.R.A.N.K.I.E computer completed its calculations. It was ten years ago that Lem had been sifting through terabytes of data and found the telltale blip that was to signal the outset of a search for his Holy Grail: First contact with an extraterrestrial intelligent race. Two tribes could change.

Further analysis of the signal revealed patterns that almost certainly confirmed it as having an artificial source, and the SETI community grew excited.

Lem travelled Europe and the Americas consulting with mathematicians and astronomers from the Independent Collective, a loosely-formed, resource-sharing group of SETI scientists, operating outside of the corporate constraints of the mainstream scientific community, for the advancement of the sciences for the benefit of all.

The financial rewards were poor compared to the conformist scientific community, and ad-free accommodation scant. But the Indies’ co-operative nature afforded him free berth with his peers whilst he travelled, and his hut looked out onto the real world, only slightly blighted by the McDonald’s logo, occupying its three-month tenure on the surface of the moon as it was beamed from Earth.

Lem’s screen blinked and displayed an image, blurred and indecipherable. He zoomed out and it began to become clearer. As he scrolled upwards and zoomed outwards, a word manifested at the top of the image: ‘Trust’ in large, red letters.

Further and further he zoomed out and eventually the whole image was contained within the screen:

Trust…”

Trust Tiffany”.

Trust Trump again.”

© Steve Laker, 1985 and 2017.

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

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.