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.

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Thinking differently, aloud (talking to myself, and hoping telepathy works)

DEAR DIARY

Imagine a world where everyone’s basic human needs are taken care of, a world with no homelessness or poverty. In this same world, people are paid a basic wage, simply for being who they are. Difficult though it may be to imagine, it’s a world which doesn’t have to be too far away. In fact, it’s one we could live in right now, if we think differently. Not as a hive mind, but as a colony.

steampunk_observatory_by_akira_ravenlier-d4mlbeqSteampunk Observatory by Akira-Ravenlier (DeviantArt)

Here’s a radical idea: Imagine if data were taxed. That’s not to say that we – the average internet user – should pay a tax on all the data we access for free. Rather, the companies who make huge profits from mining and selling our personal data, would pay a rate of tax on the volumes of information they use. It’s not an entirely new idea, but it’s still radical and would require a lot of work to come to fruition. But it’s an idea which could work, and which could solve many other problems as a fortunate side-effect. Big ideas need big money though. New ideas need new money. Is there such a thing as social capitalism?

For over a generation now, human kind has had free access to more or less all human knowledge. That’s the internet by design, and the way things should be: sharing and co-operation, mainly for the greater good. The cost of this free access is personal data, which is a fair exchange for most, although there remain those who are ignorant of this: Some people really do think they can have something for nothing. But when we sign up to Facebook, Google and all the rest, we agree to give them our personal data in return for the use of their platform (it’s in the Terms & Conditions, which very few people read). The internet companies then use this data to sell targeted advertising, keeping their sites free to use, and it’s a model which works well for the most part, and to monetise it in any other way (subscription sites aside) would go against the whole ethos of Sir Tim Berners-Lee‘s genius (my insertion of that hyperlink was the basis of Sir Tim’s brainchild: a link to further information, stored elsewhere. Rather poetically in this illustration, that’s the father of the internet himself). And yet, here sits this unimaginably huge thing which we’ve made through co-operation and altruism. Sir Tim’s wish was for it to remain free forever, and so it should. But might there not be a humanitarian way to monetise it?

Because at the same time, we have humanitarian issues to address: causes which require revenue. Close to home, and close to my heart, is homelessness. Cutting through many debates to get to a point, is it not an immoral government which presides over a public, who see a home as more of a luxury than a necessity? Let’s not get into the many debates about individual liberties and how we got here, this is about a new idea which – like all – would need development. For now, I’m trying to keep it on that track. But homelessness is just one of many social issues which could be addressed by the introduction of a Universal Basic Income.

Quite simply, a universal basic income is amount given to everyone, regardless of status. It’s just enough to put a roof over someone’s head, feed and heat them. It’s the means for people to live modestly. What have they done to deserve this? Unfortunately, that’s the most common question. Instead, I’d ask, what have they done that they should be deprived a home? We’re not talking about Acacia avenue semis here, but basic accommodation, a bit like I have.

What I have, is a studio flat: a 12 foot square room, with not even enough room for a bed, once my other stuff is crammed in. I use a futon, which I could write a whole blog post as an ode to, as it’s at least a bed. And it’s mine. I have a small separate kitchen, and I have a toilet and shower room off-suite. As I’ve said before, it’s not an ideal flat, but as a studio which I use as an office, it’s fine. It’s as much as I need.

My rent is covered by the housing benefit I receive from the local authority, and it’s paid to a social landlord. I’m a social tenant, because I’m recognised as a vulnerable individual with a disability. Mine is invisible, but I’m no less deserving after the years of work it took to get to this place in my life. As well as housing benefit, I receive benefits commensurate with my needs, as I’m mentally unwell and unable to work in the conventional sense (for anyone else). With my basic needs taken care of, I can concentrate on being the best at something which I enjoy. From that, I gain satisfaction, and I hope that others gain from what I do too.

I’m perhaps not the best example, but I’m an example nonetheless, of someone who has been given their basic needs, so that they are free to do something worthwhile. For many others, this might be finding work with a company, or forming their own. For some, they may wish to study, then enter employment later with higher qualifications. And there will be some, to whom the basic income is enough, because they want for no more. Even so, the problems of poverty and homelessness could be solved with a universal basic income. As an ex-tramp myself, I know that all a human needs is a secure base from which to build the rest, whatever that may be. As the benefactor of that rare modern phenomenon, the social landlord, I know how that works. The greater debate about the way things came to be like this eventually becomes moot, as people realise what happens when everyone is given their basic human needs, in order to live as a human being. For the most part, it’s a positive thing.

Society as a whole needs to adopt a wider view, and just like those given a home to sort themselves out, so everything that’s left behind will get cleared up too, because people will be free and available to address those things.

Many countries already operate a Guaranteed Minimum Income system: Canada, Ireland, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, The Netherlands, and many of the United States of America. Other countries are advocates, including many in the EU (including the UK, while still a member). And the founders and CEOs of those online giants are supporters too, because they see the long-term advantages of happy people and nations. It’s those people who hold the keys.

While the rest of the world lags without a universal income, such a societal change requires not only a different mindset, it requires capital. In the UK at least, we are not of a sufficiently evolved mindset (as a nation) to accept a simple tax-the-rich policy, but this overall point I’m striving to make ought to transcend current politics. Because I believe there is a way to effectively make the necessary money appear, as if by magic. And all it is, is a radical idea. At the moment, it’s a case of throwing it out there and seeing what happens.

It’s no secret that the internet giants pay very little tax. That’s another debate which can be left aside for the purposes of this, because there is another way. It’s a far-reaching vision, but many of the founders and CEOs of those online behemoths are true visionaries themselves, thinking long-term of future worlds, not necessarily run by their companies.

Elon Musk made his money from PayPal. Ask the average person in the street what PayPal does, and they’ll have an idea, but most wouldn’t be able to tell you how the model works, and how that fortune came to be. And yet the idea is a very simple one. Essentially, PayPal is a means of exchanging money, which is simple and free. I myself have a PayPal account, which I use to receive some freelance payments, then make small online purchases with. For me, it’s a micro account which I run completely independently, and for many people, that’s the simple solution it represents. Others use it in more sophisticated ways, but in total, there are tens of millions of PayPal users with sums of money sitting in the limbo which is PayPal, a holding house between merchant and buyer. Many of those accounts lie dormant most of the time, and all contain funds. To a business, this is a cash asset, and it has liquidity. All of those millions of currency can be used, to invest, to speculate, and to grow. PayPal exists on the money made from what are effectively stock market cash trades. Give a good investor your funds, and that investor will grow them for you. And that’s what Elon Musk did very successfully, while providing a free service for many others. Now we have the Tesla electric car and all of that company’s research into producing power which can be transmitted, just as Nikola Tesla himself envisioned. Musk is also one of the pioneers of commercial space travel and exploration. His long-term vision is to change the world and humanity. Elon Musk made his initial capital so that he could pursue this greater goal.

Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon, envisions a future world where his company’s infrastructure exists in ‘cloud cities’, manufacturing and distribution facilities constructed above the earth’s surface. His vision is to return much of the planet to nature, while some of mankind moves into these vast cloud cities. The sci-fi writer can be a pessimist in seeing a two-tier dystopia in that, or a natural utopia. In any case, it’s long-term vision. And it’s that of the internet entrepreneur most likely to be labelled a capitalist, because Amazon sells tangible goods.

Returning to Google and Facebook, they make the majority of their money from our personal data, which they sell to advertisers. In return, we receive free and unlimited use of their platforms. It’s a simple business transaction of an intangible product. But what if we suddenly said, “Hold on. I realise I’m receiving something in return for giving you my data, and that it’s in the terms and conditions of our contract. But I think my data is worth more than that.”

Naturally, there would be objections and much debate. In an ideal world, we, the serfs, would say to our governing classes, “Hey, we’d like you to tax those companies for mining our information. We accept that they use it for their own gain and to improve their business and our lives, and we accept that they are very tax efficient with their business affairs. We also see that you don’t have sufficient means through tax collected, to use that as a government should: to benefit the tax-payer. So we wonder if perhaps we might make a suggestion: could you could place a ring-fenced social tax on our data please?”

Once the mechanisms are calculated and agreed, the revenue raised from placing a tax on personal data could be sufficient to finance a universal basic income sustainably. Like I said, it’s a very simple but radical idea, but one which governments and the internet giants subscribe to. Unfortunately, the machinations of government (especially in the UK) are painfully slow. Politics can be radical, if the elected politicians think differently, or if someone just thinks differently, perhaps by listening. There is a rumour of Mark Zuckerberg running for US president. For my part, I’ve tried to write all of this in such a way that it’s accessible, and I hope it’ll be shared.

It’s power to the people. It’s about addressing the balance of power and returning that to the people. That’s anarchy. But could human kind use what it has created, to evolve as a race? I just wrote a late night diary entry. 

But I’m just part of Earth 2.0, the organic supercomputer designed by Deep Thought in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to work out why the answer is 42. The computer only works if all of the component parts co-operate to the greater good of the machine.

steampunk_goggles_11_1_by_ambassadormann

For an alternative answer to the greatest question – that of life, the universe and everything – I wrote a ‘Sci-fi Rom Com’ (it’s now been called): Cyrus Song. It’s about what happened when three humans were able to talk to the other people they share this planet with: The animals.

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.

Smoking reefers with ghosts

DEAR DIARY | THE WRITER’S LIFE

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

Carl Sagan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A wave from a plane

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

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

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

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

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

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

All these things are true

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

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

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

valdin

Valdin Millette (1983 – 2016)

The difference engine and the afternaut

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Afternaut4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(To be continued).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do rainbows look sad?

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Zippy and George

Despite life in general being pretty good, depression is always just around the corner, waiting to piss on my bonfire. No matter how well things can seem on the outside, those suffering from anxiety and depression are always expecting bad news in the post. We know it’s coming, even if it isn’t. A rainbow is a beautiful thing, but it still looks like a sad face. Such is life.

On the flip side, there are of course situations which look worse than they are. I’m not a pessimist. I realise that being an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it. So despite suffering chronic (as in, life-affecting) depression, I do tend to look on the bright side. But the dark dog is always skulking in the woods somewhere: One of many ways I describe the perpetual anxiety I have. It’s subjective, it’s as unique as the individual, and others would describe it all differently. We’d all describe it as “a bit shit” but I try as a writer to convey more than that generalisation (true though it is).

Of course, it’s always nice and life-affirming, when something which initially doesn’t look good, turns out to be okay: A bit like someone offering a plate of Russian Roulette sandwiches, where all look the same, but some are filled with Nutella and others with shit. That’s kind of what happened this week, when a lady I know from the council knocked on my door. She’s a very nice lady and part of the team who housed me at my studio when I became vulnerable. My landlord is that rare angel who works with the local authority to offer homes to benefits tenants. As I’ve said before, my studio as a flat is pretty “unusual”, being very small (a bedsit with a separate small kitchen) and with an off-suite toilet and shower room (for my exclusive use). But as an office, it’s feckin’ ace. And seeing as my work is also my life, that’s how come this small living space / cool workspace became known as Le Studio Chez Moi: It fits me and vice versa. The point is, it’s not the kind of place which private renters will be falling over themselves to occupy, even though it’s in a quiet location in a peaceful village. So my landlord rents out the lower end of their portfolio to people like me, who are grateful of somewhere to live. Something I’ve always lacked though, through many years of renting, is a sense of permanence. This is not to be confused with a sense of entitlement, which is something I lack. But for my own personal well being, a permanent home has always been my wish.

When I moved to the studio 15 months ago, I was put on a one year tenancy agreement and the council raised a bond to cover my deposit. At the time, I was told that my landlord may grant a longer tenancy at the end of a first year, depending on how that year went. I’m a good tenant and the first year was without incident. So when that lady from the council turned up at my door, brandishing a manilla C5 window envelope with my name and address peering out, my heart sank (what was I saying about being an optimist or a pessimist?). As it turned out, my deposit bond has been renewed and I’ve been granted a rolling tenancy: It’s the nearest I will ever get to having a permanent home. Council tenancies for life are a thing of the past, but what I have now is the nearest modern equivalent. So that envelope, that potential shit sandwich, turned out to be one filled with chocolate spread, which was nice.

I’ve said before that I don’t want to politicise this blog, and that’s still true. But beliefs are part of what makes the person, so I’ve made it clear in the past that I’m a Labour voter. My day-to-day observations on politics and everything else in the world are on my public Facebook timeline, but I will say a little about recent political events:

I voted Labour and I’m pleased that at least the Tories didn’t get an overall majority. The next few weeks will see more disruption, with coalitions and co-operatives formed. It’s all too complicated to call at the moment but in modernising politics, coalitions will play a part. I don’t see Labour forming a coalition (although I think they should with the Liberal Democrats) but Nicola Sturgeon has said that the SNP will work with any progressive parliamentary party. Progressive is what politics is finally becoming, and that’s a good thing.

Even unilaterally, Labour have a voice in parliament now, which will throw a spanner in the works of Kim-Jong May. The Imperial Dictator called the general election egotistically. She assumed (wrongly) that she would win a landslide majority, giving her the green light to steamroller through her hard Brexit, unchallenged. Under this “no plan” of hers, she was seeking to make the UK an annexe of Trump’s US, with cheap labour (no minimum wage), which could be exploited by employers who’d get tax breaks for investing in UK PLC. Either that, or she called the general election because she was shit scared of Brexit. Both have been equally divisive. Whatever happens next, in the short term at least, I predict increased civil unrest, as the far-right get more marginalised. And May has shot herself in the foot, just like her predecessor.

Social media is a minefield in times like these, with fake news spread by the ignorant. Some of the levels of ignorance I’ve seen have been frankly mind-boggling. I’m talking about those who thought Brexit meant “Immigrants out!” and “Muslims out!”: Fascists, who are probably low-earners and who should naturally vote Labour, but who vote Tory because they think Kim-Jong May will goose step all “Immigrants” out of the country, like some pied piper of the apocolypse. It’s hilarious that most of these people wouldn’t even be allowed entry into some “Pure Aryan race”, when one of the prerequisites for such a twisted fantasy would surely be a high level of intelligence. These are the people who wake up in the morning, see a couple of milk bottles on the doorstep and wonder how they got there. Now there’s a pint I’d like to spill.

So, two weeks ago on Facebook, I predicted a hung parliament. Just over a week ago on this blog, I noted that I sensed an uprising and a lifting of the veil: I stand by that and I’ll watch what happens next with great interest.

Away from political punditry, my next novel is almost complete. In terms of publishing, that means I’m about half way through the whole process. Cyrus Song itself is 90% complete: I wrote the ending a long time ago, and the narrative is now approaching that finale. If I pull off the two “Easter Eggs” I’m planning with the word and page counts, there’s about 10,000 words to go. And that’s a book, written. In first draft. At the end of this month, the manuscript goes out to beta readers, all of whom have signed non-disclosure agreements. I’m hoping I’ll get their feedback by the end of July and in the interim, I’ll be poring over my own copy of the manuscript and tidying it up for the second draft. Then there’s editing and checking spelling, punctuation, grammar, tenses, perspectives, continuity etc. After that, the actual book can be compiled and indexed, then there’s acknowledgements, references and a load of other stuff to write before it’s finally ready for publishing. Barring events which even the finest heirophants couldn’t predict, Christmas is probably now at the far end of my publication window. At the moment, I’m aiming for October. 

So it’s all good. But up above the streets and houses, a rainbow still looks like a sad face.

A writer in a residence

THE WRITER’S LIFE

writer-in-residence
Writer not in residence

Without wishing to tempt fate, or count the eggs which the horse laid before it bolted and I found out where the stable door was, I may have cause to relax just a little bit. All the clues point to my landlady giving me a rolling tenancy, without actually telling me.

Apparently this is par for the course, according to the other two benefits tenants who live in this little hut perched atop a coffee shop. Like me, they came here on an initial one year tenancy and it was never renewed. Which may not seem like great comfort but it’s the most secure I’ve been in a long time.

Three years of varying degrees of homelessness meant that I became quite knowledgeable in a few areas, including squatters’ rights and latterly, those of tenants. We squatted only in abandoned commercial premises and never forced entry. Since then, I’ve had a tenancy agreement and the limited rights which one of those represents. Even without a tenancy agreement, a sitting tenant is entitled to two months’ notice to vacate a property, under the terms of a Section 21 eviction notice, and the latter is a legal requirement of the property owner.

I’ve been at my studio for almost a year now and a Section 21 notice to evict me at the end of my current one year tenancy would therefore have been required almost two months ago. There wasn’t one, and I’ve received a notice from the council about ongoing housing benefit payments being made directly to my landlady. So apart from an actual tenancy agreement, I feel quite secure. In law, I retain the right to two months’ notice, and a tenancy agreement doesn’t give any extra rights. But the key was in speaking to my neighbours, neither of whom have a paper contract but who have both been here for several years on rolling tenancies. Given that the council have confirmed they’ll continue to pay my rent, I have to assume that I have a rolling contract too.

Renting is never secure, as it will always lack the permanence I crave, but this is the next best thing: A rolling tenancy with a council landlady.

The studio is small: It’s a living room barely twelve feet square, with a small kitchen. The toilet and shower are off-suite but for my exclusive use. As I’ve said before, as a flat, it’s not the best; As an office, it’s fantastic. And seeing as writing is my life, I treat the studio as an office which I also relax and sleep in. I’m unlikely to ever make a living from my writing and I’m too ill to work, but writing gives me purpose and it’s therapy. I call it my job, because it’s what gives me and others satisfaction. Whatever it is, when anyone asks me what I do, I am qualified to answer that I’m a writer. It took a long time to be able to say that with confidence. My landlady simply squeezed an extra flat in where others might not; The kind of place which might only be taken by the needy and unfussy. Well, there was a place with a me-shaped hole in it.

And despite its shortcomings, I love my little studio. The flat and the strange little building it’s in with three others is quirky. The end wall on the outside is apparently a rare example of a mill wall, where sacks of flour made from corn were thrown from a first floor door, opening onto thin air, so that they could be dropped into waiting horse carts in the yard below. The door is still there, fifteen feet up, and the wall itself is Grade I listed. The flats sit on top of a coffee shop in the village high street, which is quite a poetic thing for a writer. It’s quiet. It’s very quiet around here, in the studio, in the mews, which is in the yard, tucked behind the village centre. It’s ideal for me. It’s small, but I don’t need any more. I’m paid a basic state income on account of my depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, OCD and many times PTSD. That security has allowed me to improve myself and give something back.

Of course, that’s part of the whole Universal Basic Income (UBI) model, now being trialled in Finland, Ireland, Scotland, Canada and the Netherlands, among others. While it may be some way off in the UK as a whole, it’s something being studied and which I’m a great advocate of, not just because it would suit me, but many others and much more as well. The argument for a UBI is gaining traction, thanks in part to such visionary advocates as Elon Musk, and the author, Rutger Bregman, whose latest book was the subject of a feature in this weekend’s Observer:

As liberal democracy seems to be crumbling under the weight of widespread despondency, some hardline opinions are in danger of becoming received wisdoms. In the global market, we are told, we must work harder and improve productivity. The welfare state has become too large and we need to cut back on benefits. Immigration is out of control and borders need to be strengthened.

The choice seems to be either to accept this new paradigm or risk the likes of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders gaining power. The centre ground is being dragged to the left and right, and collapsing down the middle. Meanwhile progressive politics has returned to its comfort zone, busily opposing everything and offering almost nothing. Where is the vision, the ambition, the belief?

Yet into this bleak picture drops a book and an author bristling with hope, optimism and answers. Rutger Bregman is a 28-year-old Dutchman whose book, Utopia for Realists, has taken Holland by storm and could yet revitalise progressive thought around the globe…

“I’ve heard for years that my ideas are unrealistic. You want to stick to the status quo? How’s that working out?”
Rutger Bregman

The full article is here.

It’s a facsimile of this model which has allowed me to publish three books, which are now being enjoyed by others, because they’ve told me so. And although I lack some written proof regarding my tenancy, other correspondence and all of the available evidence allows me to conclude that in this instance, no news really is good news. I’m a writer in residence, with the current residence being the most secure that someone in my situation can expect, and the most security I’ve had for the last six years, following that knifepoint robbery in Lewisham which triggered everything which lay beneath, prompting my fall into the gutter and subsequent recovery.

With three books published, I’m now able to relax and concentrate on the next ones: a sci-fi space opera, and a second volume of short stories. I’ve already finished the first for the latter, and I’ve gone back to my slush pile, which contains many unfinished works.

The bubble could burst at any moment. This won’t cure my anxiety, but tonight, I may allow myself a small celebration, with a pizza. Because it was a man from Iceland who used to say, “I’ve started so I’ll finish.”