Wish upon a dark star

THE WRITER’S LIFE

It’s queer how a few days can change things, sometimes like a flipping of the table with life. On Friday night, I found myself in a position familiar to many with depression, regularly staring into the void: Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit (and there’s no light). How do you get out? It happened four years ago, when I found myself drunk and on the street. I wasn’t drinking this time, but I needed to detoxify my environment.

Death star

I’ve written before: you can stop imagining, or you can use your imagination. And it was doing that, which made some of what I thought I could only imagine, actually happen. In a way, I made a wish. I wished upon a star and the universe answered.

We’ve all got it, and in most people it’s there to be found. It’s as obvious as being the most world-weary person around, then a two-year-old hands you a toy phone, and you say “Hello?” Anyone, from the humblest hobo to the queen, would answer that phone. To not do so, is to not be human. Some people don’t even get that, let alone their universal connection to everyone else. And all I did was in the logic of science, applying transcendent psychology. I rose above the situation to view it from the outside. It’s like being a stage director to actors.

The real clincher was when I cracked for a moment. With so much to do for so many people, and with no-one to do it with, I felt more alone than normal. I also longed for one of the people I was helping to ask how I was (because people don’t tend to, usually worried about getting too involved with a depressive). I didn’t cry, I got angry with people who hold a personal grudge with me, trying to turn those I was helping against me for their own selfish gains, and take credit for what I’d done. This is advice for others as much as a relating of my own story.

Before I did some physical damage by proxy to another human being (used here in its widest, most inclusive context), I stepped back.

I was reminded of something I myself said to someone, and it was they who repeated the words back to me (they’d already asked me how I was). Then I spoke to another (to check facts) and it was the same: Some people really are so stupid and ignorant (not only through lack of schooling, but of life) that they can’t be educated. Sometimes I can’t see the obvious, or more importantly, why I couldn’t help. It’s hard to comprehend, but some people really are – sometimes through choice – so arrogant and selfish, blinkered by their own conditioning, that they can’t see beyond their personal bubble. And that’s always the weakness.

Because of that insular bubble, even those around them (with a few equally delinquent exceptions) – the ones they think are closest to them – actually mock them behind their backs, just as they themselves speak ill of others unfairly. It was quite a revelation, and I didn’t even have to say it. It wasn’t me putting words into the mouths of others who can see for themselves. I don’t need to slag people off behind their backs, when those people do such a good job of discrediting themselves (and I have a blog).

The advice to anyone else? You’ll never lose a real friend, because those who believe what they’re told about you without checking, aren’t worthy friends. In believing all they’re told and not questioning, they’re as ignorant as those who tell the stories. Just don’t feed the animals in their personal zoos.

For me, why worry about it, when it seems to be taking care of itself? It was quite literally like wiping the shit from my shoes on their doormat (I hope I left a lingering stench). The problem (someone else pointed out), was that I was too busy being nice and I’d forgotten how to be nasty (but only when it’s deserved, when everyone around can see when things are explained to them in full, that mine is the superior moral side).

Incurable fascists are incapable of reasoned debate. Ignorant ones will always lose an argument, but they keep on whining, a dying wasp on the pavement to be trodden on or kicked into the drain, or simply left to flounder. When something lacks the basic life instinct of knowing when to give up, they’re best left to suffer in their own company.

I thought about others in my life and about myself, and how we’d changed and progressed over the last four years. Some of those who’ve stuck with me have done well, while others got left behind. The ones still with me then, are the only ones to move forward with and further away from those who couldn’t keep up. There’s only so much you can do for some people before you have to give up, for your own sake.

For my part, I’ve sobered up and written five books (each successively better than the last). Because of that and other achievements, I’m happy with what I am, as are those still around me. I made a mess of my life and I sorted it out, with the help of others (and I thanked them). Then I helped others with their own problems, and they remained friends.

It seems that some people are incurably deluded, and not a little jealous (including of the company I keep), when they themselves are stuck in the same place (and people). But it’s of their own making and they’re best left with their own kind, a gradually diminishing, near-extinct minority sub-species. Stunted by evolution, they will fail and die out.

I said in a previous post that I’d start to separate the fact from the fiction this year and to exorcise some more toxins, so this was a good start. I’m a writer and a blogger and I’m left-wing, so I can say what like (within Amnesty’s definition of free speech as a human right), about the right-wing, the religious zealots, the abusers of power, sex or trust, the haters and the doubters, or anyone else who might be looking for themselves.

All but the most fortunate can see their own third, inner self. The really unfortunate ones are those who can’t see the first or second either. They don’t see how other people see them, nor how they themselves look. They are delusional, like the witches in classic fairy tales, who looked in the mirror (and at each other) and only saw beauty staring back at them. A truly false reflection.

To those still gazing inwardly, some advice: If a two-year-old offers you a toy phone, there’ll probably be someone on the other end. Try it, then you might know what it feels like to be human.

David Bowie taught me it was okay to be different and to speak out. Sometimes I still wish upon the dark star. Happy birthday Starman.

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Eating pizza by the roadside

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I rarely make resolutions at any time of year, because I’ve normally resolved to do something long before I actually do it, only then congratulating myself quietly. Some will be known, because I’ve said so (I’m going to publish a book), but others I don’t speak of, when they belong to someone else. I’m always picking up the pieces, but I’m dropping things all the time.

Pavement pizza

Sometimes the problem is knowing where to start with the eternal conflict in my mind, which is why it helps to be a writer, especially when one is depressed and anxious. The problem with both, is that those of us with the most to say take the longest to learn about. Sometimes I need to proverbially throw up.

If I made films or music, I might be easier to understand in a shorter form. But I’m a writer, mainly of books, which require a greater investment of time. I write short stories, of course, and I’ve even given poetry a kicking, but fewer people read than listen or watch.

I’ll deal as quickly with Christmas here as I did at the time: Quite simply, Christmas didn’t happen, despite my efforts to arrange something around family. A combination of displacement and disinterest conspired to allow everyone to have their own Christmas, whether or not that was what they wanted. Unless I misread something in a greetings card from my old sister, who uses a calligraphy pen for such occasions: It was like reading a page of ambigrams, which I daren’t hold to a mirror for fear of invoking a curse. I have a pen for every occasion, so it’s one to revisit.

The main festivities were politics (specifically other people’s), and my younger sister (Courtney), who became a mum just before Christmas. As a vulnerable young adult with a history of personal issues, she’s needed help with many things for as long as I’ve known her. And since not long after I met her, I’ve been one of those the authorities contact when things go awry, mainly her (once, in the middle of a pool tournament, two police officers walked in because she’d run away (again). We found her in the end). Long story short, with much effort over the festive period, she was given a place for herself and her daughter, and there is much still to do.

I can speak and write about it now, because it’s happened. But for six months, myself and others worked to make sure things went the way they did. We claimed no credit and sought no reward. The birth itself was marred only by a third party with a sense of entitlement, gatecrashing the delivery room and awarding itself accolades on social media. Such selfishness didn’t sit well with a new mum who was already stressed enough, nor her own mum, or her grandmother. Those of us who’d actually done something constructive (quietly, in the background) didn’t feel the need to displace Courtney’s closest relatives in what we’d effectively made possible, let alone claim false credit or reward for undoing all our doing. As a demonstration of self-discreditation, it was text book (or rather, Facebook, as the interloper’s self-flagellation was performed in public). More on that another time perhaps.

Facebook breeds guilt and paranoia, it’s full of personal agendas and selfishness, and I’m spending gradually less time there for those and other reasons. It’s a soap opera with a willing audience, when better coping mechanisms for life can be found in less judgemental spheres. It’s an existential crisis, and it’s recording.

I have many crises of my own, and other people’s to help them with, which I don’t publicise or seek recognition for. The reward is simply seeing a plan come together for the greater good. It only becomes public when others choose to tell their own story (or give me permission), and every story has two sides. Facebook doesn’t allow both or all to be presented equally. It’s a place of conditioning and formed opinions when debate and mutual understanding might be better aspirations.

Sadly, this is more a recent phenomenon, and not one born of my own anxiety and paranoia. A people fractured by the politics which govern them, has become divisive and divided at a personal and social level. Rather than be a part of it, I’m always looking for ways to change things, and Facebook lacks activists in its main infrastructure. Developing…

Most of the friends I have on Facebook, I know in real life, and some of the latter wouldn’t exist were it not for social media. Most of those pay little attention to anything outside the Facebook timeline (they don’t even see it skewed by algorithms), but they have different agendas, and they’re not writers.

Where I’ve found connection with kindred spirits – in the virtual and real worlds – is in the places of shared interest, in public and private groups, away from the main crowd. Stirring up someone else’s personal business is of little interest to me, when there’s a whole world out there to poke at.

97% of Facebook users make very little difference to the world, because most don’t look beyond themselves and that inner web of conditioning. Most time on social media is wasted.

By contrast, I look at life in the blogosphere, with its sheer scope and depth. Although my following is modest, and mainly made up of people I’ve never met, there’s more community here. It’s a borderless place, which permits greater liberty for citizens of the earth. It’s where I can write, lay down my heart and be heard. It’s a place I find much easier to make my own. There’s more debate than conflict, greater understanding and acceptance (and comment is free, should anyone decide to use the facilities provided here). This is where others write too, and I enjoy reading and learning about them.

I didn’t write much here over Christmas, instead using the solitude to work on other things. There’s still much on my mind, and there always will be. There’ll forever be few who understand me, because they don’t question or get to know me (myself included, before this latest internal dialogue). There’ll rarely be many who read what I write, but if I keep writing the words, more might (including me).

I know only 3% will read this blog, but they’re the ones who matter. If opinions differ, those are the enquiring people, who are more likely to seek common ground and co-operation than conflict, or at least agree to differ but with a mutual understanding. Such a thing requires a level of intellect sadly lacking in many, almost allowing themselves to be radicalised by social media, regurgitating little of substance and sharing their own pavement pizza.

Some of the best debates I’ve had as a science fiction writer, have been with actual scientists. As an atheist, I enjoy the odd theological sparring match with friends of various persuasions. We’re able to be friends despite fundamental differences, because we talk and we understand, rather than accept nothing outside that which we’ve been taught (I’d question, by whom?) I received a new year pleasantry from one such evangelical friend on Facebook messenger, and thought it a good time to pay him due respect in return:

It’s fair to say, I gave a lot of consideration to your book (the Bible, when I was homeless). I think we can agree that gods and aliens can be interchangeable and co-exist. Therein lies the left-wing way to consolidate science and religion. If we don’t talk and understand, that breeds conflict. We may agree to differ on some things, but the best way to learn is to keep talking. Have a good one x

It being Facebook, that got a thumbs up.

The thinkers play a long game, and that’s evolution. Life revolves and evolves around worlds, not individual people. But it’s not just physics which makes the world go round, it’s the people who make up that world, at large or in microcosm.

All we need to do is keep talking, and that’s a resolution for everyone. I need to be able to tell more people what I’m thinking, so I’ll just keep writing. This is where people come to find me, so I can talk to them.

For my own sake, I resolve to speak more personally, about that which I’m able to. The thing which connects all of this, is what I’ve always written about anyway: The life of a writer with depression. It’s only now that I’ve come to terms with the former that I can talk more openly and honestly about the latter.

There’s much I never wrote about life on the streets, and while an autobiography is some way off, I can face those things again, without using the medium of fiction and with the benefit of hindsight. Many of those experiences are, after all, the bases of my many PTSD diagnoses. I have a third anthology planned, completely separately, and I’m already finding that unlocking more internal doors can reveal other depths in a wider context, and not all dark.

It was a writer friend who told me not to be ashamed to be proud, and it was David Bowie who always said it was okay to be different. I just needed time to think about that. I kicked some new year poetry into the gutter while I sat there:

Monkey Black heart NY

Thank you for taking the time. When I’m so often the one picking up after others, it’s nice to have somewhere to spill my own heart.

The perpetual cracked actor

THE WRITER’S LIFE

It’s said that there are three people in all of us: the person we see ourselves as; the person others see; and the person we actually are. Sometimes I’ll host a meeting of the three in my own mind. I was wondering what to do with this latest personality crisis: Take a break, to see how it develops, perhaps signing off of the blog for a while before going off-grid; or just spilling my guts here, this being my blog after all. But this blog is part of the crisis, and I know that others have them too. So maybe something I write might strike a chord somewhere unseen.

Cracked Actor

The latest question of existence centres around a shift I’m experiencing, personally and mentally. In reality, I’m allowing myself to reconnect more with the many emotions which are dampened by my anti-depressant medication. This is not to say the drugs don’t work (cannabis does), nor that I’ve stopped taking my prescription; It’s more about my ever-developing mind, a thing which comes with its own blessings, but laden with baggage nonetheless. And the thing is, writing about it could prove paradoxical, as questions give rise to more when you interrogate something. My inner writer is damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

The biggest inner conflict, is that this blog is my platform, and my marketing tool for self-promotion of my digital self (social anxiety prevents me from being too confident in the organic world). But this is also my blog, and my public diary, where the less socially awkward me can be open, with others and myself. So fuck it.

Many of my struggles, I simply can’t write about, because they involve third parties. Some are the people I wronged when I was drunk, and with whom I’m now reconciled, but still the truly repentant man feels guilt, and that’s a life sentence. As an alcoholic, some would still expect me to relapse, but I didn’t and I won’t, with so much at stake. Sobriety has also given me the ability to be a constantly evolving writer. In some ways, it comes down to that imaginary big red button again: The one which if pressed, would make me ‘normal’ again. Yet I still wouldn’t press it, even though parts of me are perpetually confused (the word is discombobulated).

Just last night, I finished reading Cyrus Song to a friend who has difficulty reading. In that sentence alone, there is much to celebrate: Someone who wouldn’t otherwise have read my book (one which was hailed by a book critic as “an extraordinary juggling act…”), heard the sound of the Cyrus Song, and that person gained the knowledge of the book through my altruistic gesture. Because, trust me, reading my own stories to others is one of my least favourite things to do (except when I wrote bedtime stories for my children), because I tend to write in a way which is better read and absorbed by the same person.

My friend wasn’t a captive audience: she’d asked me if I could read the book to her, as she genuinely wanted to read it, but couldn’t. There was no coercion or subterfuge at all, and at the end, my listener was silenced for a moment, before muttering a stream of expletives. With this particular friend, those happenings are respectively rare and uncommon words of praise. Despite not being bound and gagged, she suggested she’d been captivated throughout, which was borne out by an unusual disinterest in anything to do with her phone.

But I felt somehow unfulfilled. I started to doubt the book and myself, and to question my friend’s enthusiasm. I was getting paranoid (it goes well with anxiety). And then I realised what it was.

Even though I’ve read Cyrus Song several times (I wrote it, edited it, and re-wrote it), I still pick it up now and then to look something up as I plan other stories. And sometimes I’m still struck by something I wrote, as though someone else wrote it. And it’s because I see someone else as writing it, that I see it as being a good book.

I’ve already said that I write in a way which is meant to immerse, and it seems I can do that with my writing, but not when I’m reading it aloud. It’s my social anxiety vs. digital self-confidence issue again. There’s a different person reading to myself in my head, than the one who reads aloud (I’ve not been diagnosed with any multiple personality disorder, but I’m on the bi-polar ‘spectrum’). It’s just low self-esteem, despite the facade.

Anxiety and social conscience are self-perpetuating and mutual. Even though I’m more in touch with the universe and the person inside me, when expressed digitally, I still suffer some form of human recursivity. It sounds odd, because it is. It’s just like the previously latent part of my brain awakening in sobriety, and getting my mind firmly around concepts like quantum physics. Now, through greater inner focus (and the time to do it), I feel as though I’m opening up other dimensions in my mind, which allows me to turn things inside out, then back again, in my thinking and in my writing (hopefully with the latter making the former more intelligible).

Days spent alone, reading, thinking and writing, are the ones which feel most productive, as it’s the best means I have of getting things out there. My writing is said to convey a great understanding of the human condition, which isn’t surprising when I carry so many around. It’s become a perpetuity of solitude, where my words are the best way for me to leave home, and where the cracks of the actor inside can’t be seen.

In commune with the universe, not immune to internal conflict

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

Alcoholics and depressives or not, it’s still a brave person who calls themselves a writer, confident that they have the right to do so. It takes courage to share one’s own stories, yet many writers who do just that, because they’re writers, have the same sense of self-doubt.

Arthur DentConcept art: Arthur Dent with Vogon ship above (Touchstone Pictures)

A recent conversation with a writer peer whom I admire, and someone I consider a friend (same person), inspired me to do a few things. The most valuable piece of advice, was to stop being embarrassed about being proud of myself. But for me, that’s one of the eternal scars of chronic depression, anxiety and paranoia, hastened to the fore by an alcoholic breakdown: not something to be proud of, when it affected so many. Everything is reconciled, and not only am I better, but I’m a better person, as are those around me. It still takes some getting used to all that’s gone on though.

Like so much of my fiction writing into reality, my organic and digital lives often cross over, blurring the lines between reality and magic. Now, some of the old short stories I wrote, about writers writing about writers, are coming true, just as science quickly catches up with well-researched near-future science fiction.

Getting acclaim for Cyrus Song from a book critic (and appropriately for that book, a translator and interpreter), means that if I were so inclined, I could rightfully call myself a critically acclaimed science fiction novelist. Already I was an award-winning children’s author, and I’ve been compared to some of the most respected writers of horror, sci-fi, fantasy and surrealism, while being original at the same time. So why do I find it all so hard to accept, when I’m otherwise in touch with the universe and the universe apparently speaks back to me?

This is more an internal conflict, where the mind can be a universe to explore in itself. My mental conditions seem to be fuelled by paradoxes and irrational fears. When I’m someone who can address most issues from an outside perspective, internal understanding becomes frustrating. My IQ is what it is, but I can’t help wishing I had more processing power.

I crave attention, only because I want people to read my writing (especially the latest novel), so that they can see that what others are saying is true, and hopefully hear everything I’m trying to say. It’s a paradox when you crave that which you find hard to face in yourself.

As is often the way, I’ve expressed this far better in a short story I’ve just finished, which is due out this weekend. Fiction does allow me to get so much more over, apparently in an engaging way. The story is called Are ‘Friends’ Emojis? The title is a play on the Gary Numan song, Are ‘Friends’ Electric? Given the most recent review of my anthology, I suppose it’s not so much of a ‘Black Mirror for the page, flitting between dark sci-fi and psychological horror, but underlined by a salient sense (and deep understanding of) the human condition,’ so much as a look at one possibility for a life after this, and how that might be a craving for some, with the consequences of choice. It’s about how we see people and connect with them, in a world made small by technology, and of real and digital lives combining. It’s more a two-sided mirror.

I also write nice stories, like Echo Beach (okay, so it’s dark, but it’s still escapist), and I wrote that award-winning children’s book, used in family learning sessions, for parents with learning disabilities.

I’m one of those common phenomena: a writer who’s embraced technology for the democracy it has given many like me. It’s a determined writer who remains hidden, but it’s still an intrepid agent who finds the talent.

Until I’m discovered, I’ll carry on self-publishing and self-publicising, and see if I don’t.

Missing persons outside my comfort zones

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

This story begins with me sitting on a bench, much like I did in my homeless days, when I wrote many of the stories in my anthology. But I wasn’t homeless this time, just out of my comfort zone, away from home and on my way to see my kids in Milton Keynes. Now that I have what every human craves – a secure base – being away makes me somehow paranoid that I’m going to lose it. It’s an irrational fear, but it’s firmly nested in my own insecurity. But then some not entirely unexpected things happened, as I began to plot a new story in my notebook, about a cat from Catford.

Catford CatCatford: This writer’s spiritual home

First, was a phantom train. I plan my journeys to Milton Keynes well in advance, bearing in mind Network Rail’s rather splendid work on London Bridge Station, Thameslink, Crossrail, and HS2, all of which have affected my journey via London. In the midst of many weekends of engineering work, there was what appeared to be a new or ad-hoc service running into Victoria from my village station. I’d had plenty of time to ease my paranoia about this unknown quantity, by simply walking to the station and asking a human what was going on, rather than trusting everything to a website. But anxiety and paranoia prevent all but the most necessary of brief outings, once every day or two to Tesco, two minutes away, and the monthly trip to Milton Keynes via London. The latter is exhausting, and only possible because of what awaits (my children), but it’s at least a known quantity, so I’m able to plan, but for that ghost train. Long story short, in the month since I last travelled, the timetable has changed. And so have the fares (albeit, not much). I needn’t have stressed, if I’d followed my own advice and checked. Me, who believes that being an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome (because it doesn’t), but the optimist has a better time leading up to it (because they do). Welcome to my world, and the idiosyncratic way my brain can work.

It was mainly that unnecessary (and ungrounded) fear which kept me awake on Saturday night, so that by the time I went to bed at 3 o’clock on Monday morning, I’d been awake for 44 hours. I normally roll in at about 3am, it’s just the way my body clock has settled. It’s said that when your day isn’t dictated by anything much, a natural sleeping pattern will emerge. I struggle to understand what’s ‘natural’ about mine, when sometimes I simply can’t switch my brain off, even at 3am, and even with prescription sedatives. It’s the time of day truly in the twilight between the last and the next. At 2am, the previous night is still unwinding and straggling home. At 4am, early morning workers and services are waking up. But at 3am, the least happens, but not in my brain. In there, 3am became eternal.

So I dream lucidly, which I’ve been writing a lot of lately, as I’ve embraced it in favour of fighting it and trying to get some actual dead time sleep. My sleep seems to be more subconscious than unconscious, in that zone between wakefulness and proper REM sleep (where ‘They’ exist, in The Paradoxicon), and where I’ve found that I can take some degree of control of my dreams. If I’m getting all spiritual about it, I’ve learned that it’s like talking to the universe (from this blog). And that can be complicated and confusing, but better to embrace it and learn from it, than to fear it and flee. In the same article, I wrote of how others think the universe talks back. When it’s explained in the way I wrote that I get it, it makes sense at least to the superstitious and those who believe in luck and guiding spirits (and to an extent, me). Some would call these universal interactions signs from God, but I’m an atheist. ‘God’, extraterrestrials, a higher intelligence, the universe: they’re all interchangeable. I’m a scientist, not an agnostic though, so I appreciate ‘The force’ as that of the universe. I certainly witnessed messages and signs on Sunday, as I deliberately set out to look out for them (they tend to be only as obvious as necessary, sometimes not even occurring to the less observant).

The first interaction came early on, as I boarded the train to London. There were two particularly unpleasant, well-to-do looking people on the platform. It is said that one should not judge a book, and I’m an advocate of that, as I don’t wish to be judged for what some see as my cover. But I believe it’s fair and accurate to base an initial general opinion of someone on the newspaper they read. And in the vast majority of cases, I will confront potential conflict with dialogue, to encourage debate, so better to understand an opposing point of view. But this vile couple, probably in their 70s, were reading The Hate Mail on Sunday, and the Sunday Pun. I was quite prepared to change seats, carriages, or trains to avoid them. But they travelled in First Class, like the fascist capitalists they are. The universe had stepped in, and saved at least one life.

The train journey to London is quite pleasant when all runs smoothly, with full-length, on-time trains, as was the case on Sunday. Then it’s 50 minutes into London Victoria, via the Bowie lands of Bromley and Brixton, and then past my favourite London structure, Battersea Power Station. On Sunday, the journey was even nicer, albeit ten minutes longer, as engineering works diverted my train onto a different line for a leg of the trip. I was jotting notes in my journal, and happened to glance up to see Catford outside. Having lived there for ten years, SE6 is where my heart still beats.

A further treat was provided at Victoria Station when I alighted from the train, as a load of Pullman carriages parked up on the adjacent platform. Unfortunately for those privileged enough to travel in those on Sunday, the steam locomotive was out of action, so they got a diesel engine instead, which for me was just as nice (I like trains).

A quick trip through London’s light blue vein (the Victoria Line), and I was at Euston, where I’d hoped to meet a street girl called Zoe.

I first met Zoe five weeks ago, as I was smoking a cigarette outside Euston Station, and she asked me for a roll-up. I was happy to oblige, because I can’t roll for shit, so she rolled them both. It was obvious the young lady was on the streets, and naturally, I can empathise, although I submit that it’s far worse for a lone and vulnerable female. So we chatted for about ten minutes, about life on the streets and the world at large. That’s what it’s like out there. You find humanity in people who are only there because, for whatever reason, their lives fell apart, and most are judged as having brought it all on themselves. Trust me, it’s no-one’s greatest wish, and it’s not something people deserve. I know that addiction can transcend all other needs, I’m an alcoholic (sober now, but always with Alcohol Dependence Syndrome on my list of doctors’ diagnoses). When you’ve been there, you form a bond with that community, and it’s one which you can only get if you’ve been there, as others would confirm. Trouble is, few people ask them. There’s a deep human connection with someone in that situation, past, present and future. Lest we forget we are human.

I left Zoe to catch my train to Milton Keynes, leaving her some money and a promise to meet her four weeks later. As far as I was concerned, she could spend the cash on whatever she needed or wanted, I can hardly preach about feeding an addiction, and I wouldn’t. If a can of cider or a joint helps her to ease the fear of the streets, so be it. She’d asked what I do. Seeing as I’ve got used to it now, I told her I’m a writer. I don’t know of many occupations which illicit the kind of intrigue or amazement in people that being a writer does, and it had been just such a ‘WTF’ moment as usual. She asked me what I’d written, and I told her. She was especially intrigued by the concepts behind Cyrus Song, so I promised her a copy when I next passed through Euston, four weeks from then.

Come the time to plan ahead for the usual (routine, after 18 months) trip to see my kids, two weeks ahead, I checked the National Rail website. Unfortunately, the Sunday I was due to return to London was one of those when multiple engineering works conspired together, to make the journey all but impossible. Even if I was prepared to change trains five times and trust all connections, I wasn’t going to make it to Euston at the time I’d said: about 10.30. So I put a request out on Facebook, asking anyone who lived or worked in the area to keep an eye out for Zoe, as she’s regularly around Euston Station. It was a simple message to say that I couldn’t make it, but that I’d be there the following week (I’d checked that I could, aboard that phantom train at the top). The message was shared a few times, and I placed my trust in social media and humanity.

Was I being presumptuous or having delusions of importance? Did I consider myself so special that this girl would make the effort to meet me again? Who the fuck was I to foist a copy of my book on her, like some self-important evangelist giving a starving person a bible (‘Gee, thanks. This looks delicious’)? Well, she’d asked for the book, as she said she liked to read, as I did when I was out there. It’s the only affordable distraction. But again, I’ve been there, and I know what it’s like to crave human contact, and to have so little that you pin your thoughts on some distant promise. I remember how nice it is to have a ‘member of the public’ (because most homeless people don’t value themselves as such, and neither does much of society) simply give you some time, to talk and listen, not of your life and your problems, but of hopes and dreams. Invariably those people are financially generous too, but the monetary is not the greatest value the homeless place in their contact with others. Anyway, I couldn’t make it, and when I arrived on Sunday, I’d had no confirmation that she’d got my message.

Before setting off with the book, I’d looked on what3words, to find Zoe an address. The concept is the brainchild of Jack Waley-Cohen, Mohan Ganesalingam and Chris Sheldrick:

what3words provides a precise and incredibly simple way to talk about location. We have divided the world into a grid of 3m x 3m squares and assigned each one a unique 3 word address.

Better addressing enhances customer experience, delivers business efficiency, drives growth and supports the social and economic development of countries. With what3words, everyone and everywhere now has an address.

And it’s that social element which is one of the most important, because the system is being adopted by national and international address databases. The upshot of this, is that ‘everyone and everywhere now has an address.’ Having an address is essential to gaining some sort of foot back into humanity, because with an address, you can apply for a bank account and for any benefits owing. I came up with what I thought was a radical plan to solve homelessness, a universal basic income, financed by a social tax on personal data. But for as long as such a solution is a slow political plod in the distance, and while attitudes of the homeless deserving their lot are still only too common, those people remain downtrodden and forgotten. They wouldn’t be human if they didn’t crave a base, somewhere of their own. While that’s just a plot of land or a park bench, that place can be used as an address, recognised as such, and allowing those of otherwise no fixed abode to make a start on rebuilding their lives. It would take a particularly humanitarian postman to actually deliver a letter or a parcel to these three-word addresses, but there’s nothing more practical to prevent such an act of humanity, as to deliver something to someone who has a place where they belong, even if that address is a tent. Traditionally, the homeless have made use of the charity afforded by most churches offering to serve as a postal address (for the purposes of bank accounts and benefits etc.) The what3words system gives more of a sense of belonging, even if that’s a patch of concrete, grass, or woodland.

So I found Zoe an address, assuming she’d be unaware of what3words, and in case she needed it (as I didn’t pry into her personal affairs any more than she was prepared to tell me in confidence). Then I waited at engine.dice.cheek (her place) but she wasn’t home, and she didn’t return in the 20 minutes I could hang around. Of course, she may not have even remembered we’d met, let alone arranged to meet, but I thought at the time that she would. Equally, she might have been housed. But although I try to remain optimistic, I know what it can be like out there, so I just hope she’s okay.

I’ve kept Zoe’s copy of the book (I can’t give it to anyone else, even if I wanted to (I don’t), as I’ve signed it for her), and I’ll take it with me next time I’m passing through, in the hope that I can find out she’s okay. And if not, the months after that…

The final leg of the outward journey has coping mechanisms in Virgin’s Pendolino trains (The tilty ones: I like those) to Milton Keynes. I was amused for a moment, by a young lad, seated on the other side of the aisle with his parents. Probably about my own son’s age (12), he was saving family numbers in what I assume was a new phone. My own kids are fortunate to have both sets of grandparents still intact, with my parents and my ex-wife’s being ‘nanny and granddad,’ and, ‘nanna and grampy’ respectively. I didn’t catch the train boy’s paternal grandparents’ names, because I was so enamoured by the nans’: ‘Nanny’, and ‘Granno’. Granno: The images it played out in my mind were many, based only on the genius of a family who call one of the parents’ mum’s ‘granno’. My social anxiety and paranoia are eased when I witness such human thinking.

I met the kids at Milton Keynes, and there was no foreword, no caveat, nor addenda from their mum and step dad, so we were free to gallivant. First, to the pub (with the full knowledge of mum and other dad, because I can do that now, even with kids in tow) for lunch: a ‘spoons, so a known quantity. The food, company and ambience were fine, but it was in the pub that things unravelled a little: I paid cash for lunch and drinks, and my change was 43p. Can we see where the problem is? The three of us ordered exactly the same as we had the last time we were there, but something had reduced in price by a penny. Because the change last time was 42p. It wasn’t planned the last time, and even though I keep an eye out for 42, it’s not an obsession, apart from ‘mild’ OCD. But there was now an imbalance in the universe. Salvation came later, in the unlikely form of McDonald’s, when we later went for frappés, and ours was order 41.

Shopping and further gallivanting kept us busy for another couple of hours, then it was time to leave. I always get the most painful separation pangs, when I give the kids a hug, and we descend to our respective platforms to wait for trains in opposite directions. I’m in the habit of just walking away and not looking back in those situations, I just have to keep going. ‘Trains pass at high speed and can cause suction on the platforms,’ the signs read. Sometimes I look at my kids over the other side of the rails, with their mum and other dad. Sometimes I just spend some time in the gents, then sit against the wall, far from the platform edge. I like trains, but I don’t want to play with them any more. But I did get a little reassuring sign from the universe, when my 16.41 train was a minute late: It’ll be okay.

The return journey is a reverse of the first, but lighter of wallet and somewhat heavier in shopping and heart. I stopped for a while at Euston to smoke, but still no sign of the person who lives around engine.dice.cheek.

I get home and I’m exhausted. I used to commute to London every day for 25 years, but nowadays, even a leisure day is mentally tiring. It’s the best day of the month, the one spent with my kids, and with life all rather good for everyone now. But when you have depression, you may have all of your wishes granted, yet still there will be times. It never goes away.

I’m home, I’m dry, and I’ve worked hard to get better. I smile, but I can never be complacent. The reminders and the guilt remain, including those who still judge but lack the confidence for confrontation.

It’s life-long, every day, and it’s personal. The Catford cat looks down, watching over the people and frozen. I miss my kids, and I apparently deserve the pain. The only way I have of exorcising even some of it, is to write it down.

Thanks for listening.

Zoe is probably in her mid-twenties, about 5′ 3” and slim, with blonde / ginger frizzy hair. She’s often around at the front of the station, in the retail square. It’s always nice for a homeless person if someone speaks and listens to them. Human contact is what the lonely and lost crave the most.

The cardboard sky effect

FICTION

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

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

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

This is what she loved:

Cardboard sky4

CARDBOARD SKY

The story of how I became a ghost is surprisingly ordinary: I died. My actual passing was like that moment when you fall asleep every night: You don’t remember it. The next day, you’ll remember being awake before you slept; you know you’ve been sleeping and you may recall dreams. But you won’t remember the transit from wakefulness to slumber. So dying was just like that, for me at least.

It didn’t take long to realise I was dead because people just stopped talking to me. I could still walk around but no-one could see or hear me. A couple of times, people just walked straight through me, as though I wasn’t there. I wasn’t but I was.

When someone walks through you when you’re a ghost, you get to know a lot more about them on the inside. I don’t mean how their internal organs look (just like in a hospital documentary or horror film) but a feeling of their inner self. It’s surprising how many people you thought you knew turn out to be complete twunts.

Even though I was invisible and inaudible, I felt vulnerable in this brave new world. I’m used to being looked at. I like it. I do dress quite provocatively. But here, no-one was looking at me and that made me feel anxious. I felt invisible. I was invisible. That’s how I ended up sleeping under George’s bed.

So kids: It’s not a monster under the bed, it’s a ghost.

It was while I was under there that I decided to write this story.

I’d suddenly found myself homeless. I had no personal belongings, nowhere to go and nothing to do. But like any child’s bed, George’s had cardboard boxes underneath it. I wouldn’t pry into something which might be private but like most children’s beds, George’s sat above a wasteland of discarded ephemera: a little-used word but for the purposes of this story, it was the right one. It’s a collective noun, for things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time. Or collectable items that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity. Ephemera also has a certain supernatural aura about it (Ephemeral, an adjective meaning lasting for a very short time), so to a ghost and a writer, it suits the story very well.

As a ghostwriter, I could be anyone I wanted to be. I could do that in cardboard city but I had less to worry about under the bed.

It wasn’t me writing the story; I was employing someone else. When a man writes something, he is judged on his words. When a woman writes, it is she who is judged. Being a ghost was perfect. Because if a ghost writes the story, then they control it. If a ghost tells this story, it doesn’t hurt as much.

Among the discarded stationery, I found a note: ”If you don’t finish that story, I will personally punch you in the face. Cool?” I had no idea who’d written it, nor the circumstances surrounding it. I assumed it was a note given to George. Or it might have been one he’d planned to give to someone else and thought better of it. It could just as easily have been addressed to me. Whatever and if nothing else, it was a kick start. Sometimes that’s what we need.

It wasn’t a physical kick (There was no room under the bed) but it was a mental jolt, like the friend who places an arm around your shoulder and tells you they believe in you. That’s a very brave thing for them to do, because the kind of person who says that kind of thing is going to end up stuck with you.

I needed something to sustain me while I wrote. But I was under George’s bed. I had no idea how the rest of the house was laid out, so I wouldn’t know where to find the food. It occurred to me that even if I found any food, I was ill-equipped to cook it. One revelation leads to another: Ghosts don’t eat. Do they?

Eventually, I’d gathered enough odd sheets of paper to make a useful pad. All I could find to write with was a crayon. A fucking green crayon. So then I began to write, in green crayon.

Should I really have been denied drugs, when it was that which drove me, once I learned to control it? Should those who thought they knew better have removed my lifeline? If I’d allowed them to do so, I’d surely have died from the withdrawal. At least that’s what I was afraid of. So I kept going. I kept shooting up. Then I ran away. I was 16.

Once you’re 18, the law says you can leave home without your parents’ or guardians’ permission. Strictly speaking, if you’re 16 or 17 and you want to leave home, you need your parents’ official consent. However, if you leave home without it, you’re unlikely to be made to go back home unless you are in danger. You are extremely unlikely to be obliged to return home if that’s where the danger lies.

It didn’t matter to me that I had nothing. Just as long as I could get a fix, I had all I needed. Even personal safety and well being become passengers when the heroin is driving.

There’s a dark magic within you. A frightful thing I cling to.

But as a ghost I couldn’t score, just as I couldn’t eat.

So I had nothing to do besides write. It would be romantic to write that the flow of ink from my pen replaced the alchemy running through my veins. But I was writing with a green crayon.

The writing was a distraction but it couldn’t mask the withdrawal symptoms. It turns out that even being dead can’t do that. So I was faced with the prospect of cold turkey, a cruel joke as I was hungry and couldn’t eat.

So how could I write but not be able to eat? Actually I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure if it was delirium tremens brought on by my withdrawal, or the limitations of my new body, but I had no fine motor skills. I could rummage through things and pick them up but I couldn’t do something like thread a needle if anyone had asked. I probably wouldn’t have been able to put a needle in a vein if I was alive and I certainly couldn’t make my hands write. My fine motor skills were like those of a toddler. So I simply did what many authors do: They have an idea, some thoughts, a plot, and they’ll employ someone else to write their story for them: A ghostwriter. I was both a writer and a ghost. So I just thought my story; I willed it, in the hope that someone else might write it one day, now that I couldn’t.

I needed to haunt George.

I read a lot and I’ve learned through this self-teaching. I could have been so many things if it wasn’t for chasing the dragon. But that dragon must be chased, just as a puppy must be played with. So I’d read up on ghosts and the various types of haunting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All I could see of George when he first came into the room was his feet: Black elasticated plimsolls and white socks, like I used to wear for PE. I couldn’t say what size his feet were but I imagined them having a boy of about ten years old attached to them. I guessed George was quite a hefty lad by the way the sky fell slightly as he climbed onto the bed above me.

I laid still, because even though I myself was inaudible, my developing motor skills would betray me if I dropped the crayon or kicked anything. I could hear pages being turned and I was aware of movement above me. It could be that George was writing; doing homework perhaps. I didn’t want to entertain an alternative. I hoped he was writing.

No matter what we do in this life, we may eventually be forgotten. It’s a comfort I gain from writing, knowing that whatever is published is recorded and will be out there long after I’ve gone. The democratisation of publishing and reporting has meant many good and bad things but for as long as the conversation is global, we need to keep it going. There may be voices with whom we disagree but through writing, we can posit an alternative opinion and seed a debate. Beyond all that is happening in our constantly evolving universe is a simple fact: What is right will win. What is right can emerge from the anarchic democracy which is the internet, but only if there are enough voices. There will always be sides and factions but with everyone involved, those who engage the most because they are passionate enough will prevail. We don’t need to shout louder than the other side; we simply need to educate the ignorant. Evolution will tell the story of whether we became a liberal race and prospered, or if we destroyed ourselves because we were unable to evolve. Either way, history will record it. If we destroy ourselves, eventually our history will be lost in the vastness of space and time, and it may be as though we never existed.

There is only one race on this planet and that’s the one we all belong to: The human race. Where death may scare most people, it doesn’t trouble me. I’m seeing evidence that the human consciousness exists independently from the body and continues to live after our bodies give up or we destroy them. What does scare me is even more existential: Being forgotten, as though I never existed. The human race faces an existential threat: That of ignorance. Simply by talking, we can make a difference. Listen to the previous generations, for they are our history. Talk to the next generation and don’t patronise them: They’re intelligent beings. They are the human race and the future.

After a while, the sky fell further and the lights went out. George had retired for the night.

Ghosts can see in the dark. As soon as George had been quiet long enough for me to be sure he was asleep, I was getting restless. I moved around and stretched a bit. I’d managed to keep the shakes under control but now that George was asleep, the withdrawal was becoming quite uncomfortable. Despite my anxiety and a developing agoraphobia, I was tempted to just get out and run around; to do something to distract myself. I decided against it. I’d be like a child who’d just learned to walk. I would bump into things and knock things over. I didn’t want George to have a poltergeist: They’re bad. I’m not bad and I didn’t want to be the victim of an exorcism, made homeless all over again.

I thought I’d try my night vision out and have another go at writing. I managed to draw a crude stick man, a house with a smoking chimney and a space rocket with flames coming out of the bottom. He was a green man, who lived in a green house (so shouldn’t throw stones) and he had a green rocket which burned copper sulphate fuel (copper sulphate produces a green flame). I wasn’t evolved enough to write.

I fought an internal flame: One which was a danger I wanted to flee but at the same time, a beckoning warmth. I didn’t know what time of day it was and I had no idea how long George slept for. He might be one of those kids who was in and out of the bathroom all night, or he might be near enough to adolescence that he hibernated. Either way, or anywhere in between, I couldn’t keep still for even a minute.

The shakes were more like tremors now: Delirium tremens: a psychotic condition typical of withdrawal in chronic alcoholics, involving tremors, hallucinations, anxiety, and disorientation. Heroin withdrawal on its own does not produce seizures, heart attacks, strokes, or delirium tremens. The DTs were the manifestation of my other addiction, which I’d used heroin to cover up. It was somehow less shameful to be an addict of an illegal substance and hence a victim, than it was a legal drug which most people can consume with no ill effects. As an alcoholic, I was less of a victim. I was a sadomasochist.

As soon as you tell people you’re an alcoholic, if they don’t recoil, they just assume that you’re always drunk. Or they assume that you must never touch a drop. Both are true in some alcoholics but there’s the “functioning alcoholic”, who still drinks far more than anyone should but who doesn’t get drunk. They can get drunk but most functioning alcoholics simply drink throughout the day (a kind of grazing) to keep the delirium tremens and other dangerous side effects of alcohol cessation at bay. It’s called Alcohol Dependence Syndrome but most people saw it as a cop out. I couldn’t educate the ignorant, or I couldn’t get them to listen long enough for me to explain. So I started taking drugs. I got so tired of trying to explain alcoholism to people, educating their ignorance, that I gave up. You get much more sympathy as a drug addict. Yeah, right!

So as in life, this once functioning alcoholic is now a ghost.

For the brief period that I was on the road in the last life, one saying; one sentiment, was always to be heard in the homeless community: “Be safe”. Those two words convey much more than their brevity would suggest. But when you’re homeless, relationships and lives are fragile. It’s quicker and less sentimental to say “Be safe” to someone you may never see again than “I love you”.

Even if I was restless, I felt safe under George’s bed. To keep busy, I broke a promise and looked in the cardboard boxes. I placed the green crayon in my mouth, like a green cigarette. I sucked on it like a cigarette and the taste of wax was actually quite pleasant. It helped just a little as a distraction from the shakes.

The first box was a complete mixture: Sheets of paper, smaller boxes and random other stuff; like a model car, some Lego and, well, just all sorts. I gathered the papers first.

Some of George’s notes were seemingly to himself: They were in a handwriting different to the first note I saw, so I couldn’t be entirely sure but one such note read, “You came close a few times but you backed off. You didn’t want to be one of those boys who made her cry. That’s the only reason you did it.” If they were intended for someone else, he’d not delivered them.

There were unopened presents and gifts addressed to others which George hadn’t given to them. Some things were wrapped while others weren’t, but they were clearly intended for someone else as they had notes attached. A packet of 20 Marlborough Lights: “Should really have got two tens, then I could have given mum and dad one each. Like that’s going to stop them arguing.”

I’d not seen or heard the parents. Without knowing even what day of the week it was, there could be many scenarios. In one, George’s parents argued a lot but they were very much in love. Perhaps they were frustrated and united against a common foe. With my parents, that was me. Whatever it was, I imagined something bonding them and keeping them together. That could have been George I suppose.

I wondered at what point in human evolution it might have been that we started analysing things and where it might have been that we started to over-analyse. Marriage guidance, or relationship management; fucking couselling, from professionals and the plastic police alike: We all have someone. We all love someone. They care about us and vice versa. But over time, something’s not right, so we take the lid off and start poking around in that jar. We keep chipping away, feeling more free to say things in an environment which we might not in another. And eventually we say something irreversible. Something that’s niggling us deep inside and which doesn’t affect us until it’s dug up. And from there, the relationship breaks down further and ever more of the undead join the feast.

Rather than encourage engagement, that kind of situation can invoke the fight or flight reflex in the previous life; the past. And whether fleed or not, the past is history.

So we arrive in the next life with so much unsaid. We want to say it but we have to learn all over again, how to speak. And I suppose that’s why we want to haunt people.

George woke up. A light was switched on and the sky above me moved. I waited for the feet from above but there were none. There was movement like before, and the sound of paper. George must have been writing. Or drawing. After what I guessed to be around 20 minutes, he stopped, the light went out and the sky moved again. I was trembling quite violently by then, so I bit down on the crayon between my teeth and returned my attention to the boxes.

I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.

Do the first one: Get to know yourself and be happy with what you are. Then do the second: Those who loved you first time around will be the ones who are still there. So you’re not lonely.

Life, packaged.

The human body is merely a temporary host.

Put like that, we simply inhabit a body for a period of time, like a possession; In “life” we are already ghosts possessing bodies which give us physical form. That organic structure will age and eventually die but our consciousness is separate from what we look at as a living body and it goes on living, long after the host gives up. Life, as we know it, is merely one part of an ongoing existence, the greatness of which we don’t yet understand. Knowledge comes with death’s release. You may well have lived in another body in a previous life: Deja vu tells us that; that feeling that you’ve been somewhere before.

The trembling had reached my head. There was more than one person in there and the dialogue was two-way. I wasn’t talking to myself; I was talking to another person.

I began to realise that perhaps George and I were somehow connected. I always subscribed to predeterminism in principle. A part of me knew that the Big Bang carried an imprint equal to its original noise; that everything was mapped out in that pre-spacetime manifestation of knowledge and understanding. I was drawn to believe that our futures were mapped out long ago, but that they were as inaccessible as our pasts: We had no control over either. Great swathes of George were alien to me. But why wouldn’t I explore, if George was my destiny? Or it could be the withdrawal, and I may have been withdrawing to a comfort zone. I couldn’t do that to George. What had this kid done to deserve me, inside him?

Life had been very much a game of give and take: If George had taken something, then he was indebted to someone else. If he received something and it wasn’t in recognition of anything he’d done, he was in someone else’s debt. When he gave something, he expected nothing back. It was simply an accepted fact that life gave back far less than was put in. No-one understood him, least of all himself. Did I? Could I?

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

His life revolved around visits to toy fairs with his father. They couldn’t afford the mint-and-boxed or the ready-made, so dad would just look around and George would use pocket money to buy spacecraft parts.

Broken and incomplete model kits were fuel for George’s shipyard in a cardboard box under the bed. When weekends were over, the shipyard had to remain where it was. The direct upshot of this was that, when George was at his dad’s to build his craft, he didn’t. Because time was too valuable. So we were at George’s father’s house and it was the weekend.

When he wasn’t constructing, he was thinking. And he made more notes. He made the normal in my life fantastical, by explaining how science fiction writers were just one small step ahead of the real world. George knew I was there, or at least that it was possible for me to physically be there.

There were clippings from newspapers and magazines in the next box, including an obituary: Jemma Redmond was a biotechnologist who died aged 38 in 2016, like so many others in that awful year. The passing of her life was overshadowed by many more well-known figures in the public eye. But like George, she worked quietly, tirelessly and passionately. And she achieved some incredible things. She developed a means of using human tissue cells as “ink” in a 3D printer. She also helped in the design of 3D printers which reduced the cost of their manufacture. Jemma Redmond made it possible to “print” human organs for transplant into patients, and she reduced the cost so that the technique could be applied in the developing world. This is not science fiction. This is science fact, just a few years from now. Most people wouldn’t have known, unless it was brought to their attention and they then had the attention span to listen. But if anyone were to Google her name, her work is recorded in modern history.

There was a printout of a scientific paper about NASA’s EMdrive. The Electro Magnetic drive is a fuel-free means of propulsion which could replace rocket fuel and all its limitations of bulk and speed. The EMdrive could take a spacecraft to Mars in 70 days. At present, it’s a two year trip, with a lot of psychological and physiological risks to any humans making the journey. Many of those problems would be overcome with the EMdrive. It’s due for testing soon and with development and improvement, could make other stars in the galaxy viable destinations for exploration and research. This is not science fiction. This could be possible within George’s lifetime.

But very few people know about these things because all of the bad news in the world shouts louder. If more people knew about the technological and scientific thresholds we’re at, they might talk about them. Others would then learn and eventually there might be a chorus of voices so loud that mankind has to listen and consider another way forward for the species.

George thought what a wonderful world ours could be if we concentrated on this stuff, rather than religion, conflict and capitalism. Of course, George was young and naïve in the eyes of most. He’d never be taken seriously if he proposed an alternative plan for humankind. So he kept and curated records, and he wrote about them. Like so many other people, he was recording his thoughts in the hope that someone might discover them later, or when he was older and might be taken more seriously. He was aware that he was documenting the present and the contemporary, and that it could become either history or the future.

My trembling had almost taken control of my limbs by now. Where previously it was first shaky fingers, then hands, now my arms and legs ached as though they needed to spasm.

The light went on again and the sky moved. There was more rustling of papers and scribbling with a pen or pencil. I started singing a song in my head, as I wondered something: I knew I didn’t need to eat, but would I need to get my hair cut out here? It was a song by the Crash Test Dummies: God shuffled his feet. If crash test dummies were to have nervous systems, I knew how one might feel by now. The light went off and the little big man upstairs settled back down. I needed coffee: lots of cream, lots of sugar.

My coffee used to come from a jug on a hotplate. George was planning a replicator. He explained in his notes how a replicator was just one step further on from a 3D printer. Scientists could already print human body parts after all. To print a cup, then some coffee to fill it, was actually quite simple. George was keen to point out in his notes that one should always print the cup before the coffee.

Like the quiet voices of mankind, George could only imagine. He could only wonder at the sky, or lie in bed and dream of what was beyond the ceiling. Humans travelling to other stars was one lifetime away. It was only a matter of generations before the dream could be anyone’s reality. George wanted to be anyone.

George escaped in his sleep. And he explained in his notes how it was possible to travel all over the universe. Not only was it possible but everyone does it, every night. Everyone has dreams and George wrote his down. The spacecraft and all of its missions were in the same cardboard box; a microcosm universe beneath George’s bed. He explained how time travel could be possible:

It’s essentially a simple matter of thinking of space and time as the same thing: Spacetime. Once you do that, it’s easier to visualise the fourth dimension: I am lying beneath a bed and I’m occupying a space in three dimensions (X,Y and Z); my height (or length), width and depth. Trembling limbs aside, I will occupy the same space five minutes from now. So the first three dimensions have remained constant, but the fourth (time) has changed. But also, I did occupy that same space five minutes previously. That, and every moment in between is recorded in the fabric of space time: I am still there, five minutes ago. I know the past. I don’t know if I’ll still be here five minutes hence: I can’t predict the future, even though it may be pre-planned from the start of all time as we understand it.

Of course, there is what’s known as The Grandfather Paradox: This states that if I were to travel back in time and kill my granddad, I would cease to exist. But if we assume that in George’s new world order, various ethics committees exist in the future, then time travel to the past could be undertaken in a governed, regulated and ethical manor. It might be a little like the First Directive imagined in many science fiction works, where it is forbidden to interfere in any way in a species’ development, even if that means remaining invisible whilst watching them destroy themselves. This in itself is a paradox because no-one is qualified to say that it hasn’t already happened, conspiracy theorists aside.

When you’re despairing late at night and you just wish someone was there, but you don’t really want anyone around. When you’re confused, perhaps by internal conflict. That’s when you need a guardian angel. If someone would just phone you at that time, that would be perfect, because you’re not bothering them. You’ve not caused them any trouble. Gaurdian angels need a sixth sense and the ability to travel back in time.

George estimated his brave new world to be around 200-250 years from now; perhaps ten generations. There was a long way to go and a lot to do, and George would most likely not see any of it. Or so he thought. He was young and he had much to learn, then he needed to learn how to deal with it. The things which George wanted to do were the things I regretted not doing.

All things considered, I thought it might be better to not let George know that one of his prophesies does come true. It was too soon. He wasn’t ready. I couldn’t let him know that it was possible to send letters from the future, or that people from the past could be visited. It was a one-way street, a bit like going to see grandma because she can’t get to you. The departed are still around, we just can’t normally see them. Often they’re just watching over us. Sometimes they might want to speak to us but we need to be receptive.

By now, my arms and legs were in full spasm and I could feel my torso waiting to convulse. I cleared everything from around me as quietly as I could, so as not to interrupt whatever dream was unfolding above me.

The human body has an internal mechanism which shuts it down when stimuli get too much. An inconsolable baby will cry itself to sleep, and if a pain becomes truly unbearable at any age, we will pass out. I hadn’t tried to sleep since I’d been dead but it looked like I was about to be shown how to.

I don’t know how far I travelled in the fourth dimension but I was woken by a voice:

“Georgie?” It was a man’s voice. Dad was home.

“In here dad.” George calling to his dad was the first time I’d heard him speak.

“I got you your magazines.” Dad was now in the room, quieter but closer. He had big feet.

“Thanks dad.” George’s voice had changed. Now that he was speaking at a lower volume, his voice was deeper: Young George’s voice was breaking.

“Card making, jewellery and papercraft. Is that right?”

“That’s the ones. Thanks.”

“What’s all this?”

“Notes. I’m writing a story. Here.”

There was a long period of quiet. George was shifting about on the bed and his dad was pacing around the room. There was that same distinct sound of pages being turned that I’d grown used to.

“Jemma Redmond. I read about her. Amazing woman. Deserves a posthumous Nobel.

“The EMdrive, eh? That’s exciting.

“There’s some pretty deep stuff in here Georgie. Did you do this all yourself?”

“Well, I kind of had some help.”

“From whom? I’d like to meet them.”

“You can’t dad.”

“Why not?”

“Promise you won’t laugh?”

“Can I smile?”

“You may smile”. There was a pause. “So, I had a dream.”

“We all have those. What about?”

“Nothing specific. Just a load of dreams mixed into one I suppose.”

“So you wrote about it. It’s good to write down your dreams.”

“But not all of that writing is mine. See, there was this girl.”

“A girl? In your dream?”

“Yes. A small girl, with blonde fizzy hair. And green teeth.”

“Green teeth? Was she a witch? Is she under the bed?”

Shit!

“No. Well, she was kind of a witch. A dark witch but a good one. She was just wandering around, like she was showing me things. She might have been lost. I want to see her again.”

“I imagine you do. Well, you pretty much hibernate anyway. At least your witch has somewhere to live now.”

***

George left at the end of that weekend but it wasn’t the end of the story. He visits every weekend and he continues to record things for historians of the future. Eventually, he may realise that he was part of the machinery which kept the conversation going. He didn’t know this yet but he was encouraged in his chosen vocations.

I was there, under the bed. If I’d been able to write, I’d have just added a note for George:

Do what you enjoy. If you enjoy it, you’ll be good at it and people might notice you. If not now, then in the future. Don’t put off till tomorrow that which you can do today. Because if you do it today and you like it, you can do it again tomorrow.

Your life is not empty and meaningless, regardless of who is in it or absent from it. Your life is what you make it, for yourself and for future generations. Don’t give up. Hopefully George will continue this story, now history, but in the hope that it might be read in the future.

Dust to Funky. Be safe George.

To this day, Dad has never gone through George’s things under the bed. I’d have noticed.

© Steve Laker, 2016.


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

Pondering evolution through regression (80s mix)

DEAR DIARY | THE WRITER’S LIFE

1980s Desk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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