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.

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Of Mice and Boys in 1984

FICTION

This is a second character prequel from the Cyrus Song universe (the first is here), but a stand-alone short nonetheless, and a story from a teenage boy’s English literature assignments. This is also in this week’s Schlock web zine, where I share a stable with many talented fringe writers, also worth a read.

Some of the names in the school register in this story, are those of friends I went to school with. In the story, they are bit parts who carry the narrative along. In reality, the few words dedicated to each are my idiosyncratic tributes to some of the many friends who’ve supported me as a writer. There was only room for a few, but I have plenty more stories in me with which to make further nods. For now, we’re going back 33 years…

Of mice and boys in 1984Admirável Mundo Novo X 1984

OF MICE AND BOYS IN 1984

“Adams.” (Tall kid, quiet).

“Yes sir.”

“Bachelor.” (I’ve never seen his face, he sits two rows in front, and never turns round).

“Yes sir.”

“Berry.” (Sort of disappears and reappears sometimes, most odd).

“Sir.” (Here today then).

“Ford.” (Small kid, long hair, glasses, sitting next to me).

“Sir.”

“Fry.” (Small, short hair, no glasses: That’s me). “Fry?”

“Sorry, yes sir.”

“Sorry you’re here lad?” But I didn’t have time to answer. “Hayman.” (Blonde flick, goes ape shit if you break his glasses, even if you truly didn’t mean to (hope his parents are richer than mine)).

“Sir.”

And so it went on, till Mr Harmer got to Yehudi in the register. As usual, there was no answer. Because Gordon Yehudi had never been in an English class, nor any other for that matter. He didn’t exist, apart from that name in the class 4284 register, and in the stories I wrote for English literature homework.

The class number (4284) is the way our school’s inner thinking came up with making them, when it had nothing better to do. We’re in the fourth year (14 and 15 years old), and there are four fourth forms in our year: we’re the second, hence the number 2. The last two digits are the year, so Nena’s 99 Red Balloons is at number one in the singles chart, and David Bowie’s latest album is Scary Monsters.

I’m writing this in English class, because it’s my English homework. One of Mr Harmer’s many philosophies is that writing should not be dictated by the clock (or Hitler: Harmer remembers the war), and that words should be allowed to flow as they happen to us, wherever we may be. So while we were doing that, he’d be alternately reading aloud from a coursework book (this year, those are Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, and appropriately enough, George Orwell’s 1984), or popping out for a smoke. And almost every time, he’d leave the room, then come back a moment later, to ask if any of us had a light.

This story is fictional, but it’s based on a small adventure which Ford and myself had earlier. Ford is sitting next to me, but I know he won’t copy from me. Ergo, if his story is similar to mine, it is not plagiarism. It’s a story of a strange weekend, from start to finish:

It starts on Saturday, when we liberated two white mice from Supreme Pet Foods in Lewisham. That’s not to say we stole them, we did pay, and we got them a cage, bedding, food and toys. But Supreme Pet Foods’ main trade is in pets, with the food and supplies just an afterthought. So we told ourselves and one another, that we were saving the mice from becoming snake food. But the main reason for the mice’s liberation, was to be the subjects of an experiment, not for cosmetics (a worse fate than becoming snake food), but because Ford wanted to try something on his computer. “I want to hear them talk,” he said.

Now, I’ve got an Atari 800, but Ford’s got some Tangerine thing, similar to Apple but a different flavour. And he’s a bit of a thug when it comes to computers, taking them apart, ordering bits by mail order and replacing them. So he’s got a hybrid, cannibalised, custom machine. He’s even got an acoustic coupler and a phone in his room, so he can get on the internet and do whatever people do on there. Personally, I can see how the internet could be humanity’s evolution or destruction, but I’m just an English student for now, so I can’t do a lot about it yet.

That’s the most frustrating thing about being 14 in 1984: We have very little voice. We have Bowie telling us it’s okay to be ourselves, but we can only express that in clothes. If I were sufficiently fashionable, I’d probably be mocked for my choice of attire. I thought of being a punk, but most of the punks I know are just into The Sex Pistols and smashing things up. They don’t seem to get that one of the foundations of punk as a movement, is anarchy for peace and freedom, which is a worthy pursuit. But the punks I know just shout angrily about anything they don’t like, with no agenda. If they were to read more, they might have informed voices worth hearing. And still for now, they are quiet. I can see how the internet could change all that, but for now it’s the preserve of those with the means and the know-how to get connected. Fortunately, Ford is one of those.

He called his machine Tangerine Dream, which is also the name of a German electronic music collective, who provided much of the soundtrack to Risky Business, Tom Cruise’s 1983 debut film with Rebecca De Mornay (In that film, she made me less afraid of travelling by underground).

Anyway, we were at Ford’s house the next day (Sunday), and very nice it was too. Ford’s father is a herpetologist, which is someone who studies reptiles and amphibians. Mr Ford’s speciality was snakes, and he had some in his study. We were only allowed in there if Ford’s father was there, or if he delegated responsibility to Sandra, Ford’s mum. Sandra had many interests, which she shared with the garden fence, so a wave of the hand was usually enough to get rid of us.

“Ford,” I said, “we’re not going to feed the mice to the snakes are we?” I figured not, as that’s what we’d liberated them from, but I wanted to check.

“Wouldn’t that kind of defeat the object, Fry?” Well, yes, that’s what I thought.

“Well, yes, that’s what I thought,” I said.

“Well, speak up then Fry.” Which is what David Bowie was encouraging us all to do, but we lacked the voice.

“Ford,” I said, “are we going to be using the internet?”

“Quite probably old chap, why?”

“I just want to see if it’s all I think it could be.”

“Not yet. I’ll show you later. But first, dad got a new snake, look.” Ford pointed to a vivarium I’d not noticed before, but I’d not been in Mr Ford’s study many times. He still had the two snakes I remembered, both royal pythons, a male of about three feet, and a female around four. The male was a bumble bee, and the female, inferno, those being the names of the colour morphs in the snakes. The bumble bee morph is deep brown, almost black, with vivid yellow markings. The inferno is a similar contrast, but with different patterns and in black and deep orange.

Ever since live reptile imports were banned, a market has grown for selective breeding in captivity. It’s all regulated, with monitors placed on the size of the gene pools, and it’s no different to dogs, except snakes have fewer legs. Royal pythons are particularly good for selective breeding, and many years of fine-tuning has produced some truly stunning morphs, which fetch very large sums of money. Although I’m a bit of a mail order animal rights activist, I can’t level any sort of objection against snakes in captivity. Most snakes are reclusive and territorial by nature, so they actually thrive in captivity, away from predators and fed by man. They feed rarely, make little mess, and are fascinating creatures. Having a captive population aids our learning about them. I wouldn’t mind betting that if a straw poll were conducted among snakes in captivity, most would say they’re either satisfied or very satisfied. If only we could talk to them. “Fry?” It was Ford.

“Yes,” I said. “Sorry, I just drifted away there.”

“Where to?”

“Oh, nowhere. I was just wondering what it would be like to talk to the animals.”

“I’ve often wondered that myself,” Ford said. “Especially since dad got this guy.”

In the tank I’d not noticed before, was something I never thought I’d see in real life: a light-grey coloured chap, draped over a branch. The colour betrayed the snake’s true identity to the uninitiated, who may only know what it was when they saw the pitch black inner mouth as it killed them. Mr Ford had a black mamba. I said something I wouldn’t normally at Ford’s house, but Mr Ford was out, and Sandra said it a lot:

“Fucking hell Ford!”

“He is awesome, isn’t he Fry? Shall we get him out?” ‘You fucking what?’ I thought.

“Pardon?”

“Only joking. No way. The vivarium’s locked anyway, it’s the law. Dad’s got a license.”

“Ford, why has your dad got a black mamba? Aren’t there nearly 3000 other kinds of perfectly good snake?”

“It’s for precisely that reason that dad has one of these.”

“By these, I presume you mean that, Ford?”

“Well, yes. But one of that wouldn’t wouldn’t be grammatically correct, would it Fry?”

“Fuck off, you pedantic cu arse.” I figured Mr Harmer was okay with the odd ‘foof’ word to enhance the drama, but perhaps female genitalia was a step too far. Human biology was more of a topic for our weekly secret meetings of The Biblical Dead: sort of a Dead Poets’ Society, with computers. “So,” I continued, “why has your dad got a black mamba?”

“Because of their famed aggression. He’s studying their DNA.”

“What’s he going to do?” I wondered. “Engineer a genetically modified race of human-snake hybrids who know no fear?”

“Er, no Fry. He’s written a thesis on how he thinks mambas are actually timid and retiring, and that their reputation is a bit undeserved. See, the majority of mamba bites to humans occur where man has invaded their land. The snakes feel threatened and they lash out. 100% of black mamba bites are fatal, partly because medical help is usually too far away.”

“So your dad’s thinking of building hospitals?”

“No, no, no.” That would be a no then. “No, he’s thinking longer term. Yes, having sufficient antivenom is useful, but dad’s looking more at prevention. Mambas aren’t endangered, so this is more for human benefit, but what he’s looking at, is ways to reduce the incidence of bites.”

“But how? I mean, he’s looking at their DNA. He can’t be thinking of altering them?”

“Definitely not.”

“So what? Change their attitudes? Talk to them, so that they have a better understanding of us?”

“Exactly. I mean, I don’t know. It does make you wonder, but dad’s a bit vague, and being the precise man that he is in his work, when dad’s being vague, I know that’s my cue to shut the fuck up.”

“Fascinating,” I said, none the wiser, but with the idea for a book, should I ever become a writer later in life. “So, what’s the experiment with the white mice?”

“Well,” said Ford, “I got the idea from dad, and what me and you were just talking about.”

“Talking?”

“Exactly. See, I don’t know what he’s working on with the mambas, but I’ve got an imagination. And it sort of fitted well with our English lit homework.” Which is exactly what I’d been thinking: Great minds, and all that. “I wondered if I could rig something up on my computer. Some sort of voice translator.”

“To talk to the animals?” Hadn’t I heard this somewhere before?

“I doubt it would be a two-way thing,” Ford said, as I deflated. “But I reckon we could listen to them.”

“Does it work?”

“I don’t know yet. I’m kind of hoping it does, or my English homework’s a bit done for.”

“But it’s English literature, Ford. Use your imagination. How could it work?”

We walked to Ford’s room: Bed, sofa, desk, chair, computer, and even an en-suite toilet. And of course, his own phone and the internet.

“Well, I figured it must break down into two things. If I can break things down into stages, it’s easier for my brain to handle, like long journeys. So put simply, those two things are listening, then understanding. And to do that, I need a microphone and a translator.”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed Ford,” but I thought I should point it out, “microphones have already been invented.”

“Exactly. So all I have to do, is make the translator.”

“Which is exactly all you had to do in the first place, Ford.”

“I know. I just needed to eliminate everything else. And translators kind of exist.”

“Well, people who can translate, yes.”

“Yes, but I’ve found some programs on the internet: Things the geeks are working on. They reckon that one day, you’ll just be able to type or speak a phrase into a computer, in any language, and at the press of a button, it’ll translate into any other.” So that’s what the internet would be for.

“That would be awesome. When?”

“The nerds think early in the next century.”

“2000AD? That’s miles away.”

“More than our lifetimes, Fry.”

“So what of now? The translator, I mean.”

“Well, I found some voice recognition software. I figured if I somehow merged the code with translation algorithms, that should do the trick.”

“Well,” I said, “in theory, that’s all you’d need to do. But don’t you just type in game programs from computer magazines, Ford?”

“Well, I do. But seeing as I’ve got the internet as well, there’s a lot of other people out there doing the same, and more. It was actually a game code that I swapped for the software I ended up with.”

“How?”

“It was a multi-level text and graphic adventure game: fucking huge. The code was in one of the mags, and it was about forty pages. Forty pages of machine code, which I typed up over a few days. Then I ran the program and the fucking thing kept crashing. So I checked the code and I found the error. Only it wasn’t my typo, it was a misprint in the mag. So I figured I could commodify what I’d done, and trade it in a non-monetary way.”

“Oh, I see. And that’s how you got the code for the translation program. It’s a nice ethos, trading personal time and skills.” I could see how the internet could be huge for that in the next century.

It’s at this point that I can reveal where the two white mice were, all this time. I can only reveal it now, as I didn’t know they were under Ford’s bed before. All I knew was that after we bought them the day before, I didn’t have them. That’s about as dramatic as it’s been so far.

“So,” Ford began, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve named them.” I suppose I didn’t mind, depending on the names he’d chosen.

“What did you call them?” I wondered.

“Pete and Dud.”

“Why?”

“Because they’re male.”

“Are they?” It’s a completely redundant question, and I don’t know why I asked it.

“Yes,” Ford replied, “and they remind me a bit of Derek and Clive, the way they sit there together, looking around and chewing things over, turning occasionally to the other one, and chewing it over some more.” And I suppose they did look a bit like that.

“So, which is which?” I asked.

“That’s Pete, and that’s Dud,” Ford said, pointing at the mice in turn, which for the reader is as redundant as my question about their gender. For now, Pete was on the left, and Dud on the right.

“So what now?” I wondered.

“Now,” Ford said, quite confidently, “we find out if my reputation is intact.”

“Have you got one?”

“Not yet.”

“So how can it be intact, if you don’t have it yet?”

“I’m building a reputation, Fry.”

“What as, Ford?”

“I don’t know. Something on the internet though: It’s the future.”

“No shit.” I was beginning to realise that perhaps you could be anyone or anything on the internet.

“Yeah, real shit,” Ford continued, as Tangerine Dream went through what seemed like an unnecessarily long boot-up. “I’ve got everything plugged in, so you should start to see lights coming on soon.” Lights coming on are normally a good thing, especially if they’re green.

“Where?” I wondered.

“On the computer, the disk drive, the monitor, and the printer.”

“But those lights always come on, Ford.”

“Well, it’s always good when they do. But there’s the microphone as well.” I looked at the microphone: a small, black thing with a foam top, very much like a microphone.

“The microphone doesn’t have a light on it, Ford.”

“No, I know.”

“So how can it come on?”

“It won’t, because it doesn’t have one.”

“So why did you mention it?”

“Because it’s there, and it needs to be switched on.”

“So,” I began, as I needed to check I’d got this right, “if I’ve got this right, we’re waiting for the computer to boot up, like we normally do. The only difference is a microphone which doesn’t have a light. Other than that, we’re looking at exactly what we always do when we switch on your computer.”

“Well, yes. And then we need to test the microphone. But it’s the extra processor and memory board I’ve put in. This is the first time I’ve started them from cold, so that I can run the translation software.”

“I see,” I said. I didn’t see anything, but there were some new parts in Tangerine Dream, and there was translation software. Ford’s constant thuggery inside computers could be about to do something far ahead of our time. Or it might simply not work. Ford’s idiosyncratic IT skills were roughly 50:50 hit and miss, so he was right about his reputation hanging in a balance.

While the computer continued to whir and crank into life, Ford placed the microphone next to the mice, who looked at it indifferently, before chewing some more of whatever they had in their mouths. Then Sandra’s banshee voice shouted up the stairs:

“Simon, Dixon? Lunch.”

With Mr Ford away, I wondered what we’d get for Sunday lunch. It was Ford’s dad who maintained a form of tradition in the house, with family meals eaten together at the table, and a full spread for Sunday roast. Sandra, on the other hand, didn’t give a shit, so we usually got proper teenage boy’s mate’s mum’s food, and so it was today, with fish finger sandwiches and home-made chips. Sandra pinched one of mine and dipped it in mayonnaise, which might have been a bit seductive. There’s always one kid at school who’s got a fit mum, and in my class, that was Ford.

After lunch, Tangerine Dream had woken up. First, Ford tested the microphone:

“Is this thing on?” Well, I heard him.

“Maybe a bit louder?” I suggested.

“IS THIS THING ON?” he shouted.

“I meant, turn the speakers up. Turn the speakers up, but speak quietly. Without you leaving the room, that’s the best way to test the microphone, Ford.” Which it was, because the microphone lead was only about three feet long.

“Oh yes. I suppose that is the best way.” Sometimes, he caught on quick. He turned the speakers up. “Is this thing on?” It was. “Ooh,” Ford said, in an effeminate way, “I didn’t realise what my voice sounds like to everyone else.” This could bode well or badly for the future internet. “I sound quite nice, don’t I?” Ford was destined to tread the boards, or grace the silver screen one day, when the future internet democratises it.

“Yes, Ford. You sound lovely dear boy. Could we just talk about why we’re doing this first?”

“Why?” he said, into the microphone.

“Yes, why are we trying to hear what the mice might be saying? I mean, it’s all based on theory, with a little science, which is perhaps a bit anarchic. We’re assuming mice actually speak, but that we can’t hear them. If they do, maybe we should leave it at that, for all the trouble it could cause.”

“It’s based on supposition and blind faith, Fry. And mine is a simplistic device, made with some bits I found lying around. I’m sure there are many more scientific studies into animal language and communication, but for me, I just want to know if there might be.”

“Why?”

“For the future. All I want to find out, is if animals do talk. It may be that they can, but that my set up isn’t sophisticated enough. It’s just something I want to look into, while I consider my own future.”

“That’s deep.”

“Not really. More open minded really. I might be a vet, a human doctor, I don’t know. But I’m interested in communication and translation, getting more people talking and breaking down barriers. Because conflict comes from ignorance, and I don’t like conflict.”

“This is getting even deeper. Have you spoken to the mice already?”

“No, why?”

“Because Douglas Adams said in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the white mice are protrusions of pan-dimensional beings into our world.”

“And I think he’s right.” Ford seemed somehow convinced. He had his hand on his hip, and he was still speaking into the mic.

“But wouldn’t it go against a lot of things it shouldn’t, Ford?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, moral and ethical considerations we’re yet to know about. And all that stuff in R.E. about the tower of Babel.”

“And you believe all that?”

“Well, of course not.” I could accept that the bible might be a transcript or dramatic retelling of actual events, but I didn’t subscribe to the creator of any church on Earth. “And,” I continued, “seeing as our device is an attempt to replicate the Babel fish, which disproved God in Douglas’ book, aren’t we somehow testing Douglas in the same way?”

“Well no, because we know that Douglas Adams does exist. He’s alive and he’s only 32. Actually, I wonder if something weird might happen in 1994, when he’s 42.”

“I’ve wondered that myself,” I said. “I don’t think too much matters to him. He seems to have this whole life, the universe, and everything thing squared in his mind. He did say, that in order to understand why the answer is 42, we first need to understand what it’s the answer to. And that’s what we’re all here on Earth to do, to work that out.” I like to think I’m somehow working in collaboration with Douglas. That’d be a nice job to have. “I haven’t decided what to do with myself yet. I’m thinking I’ll most likely be a scientist or an influential writer. Then if I’m not much good at either, I figure I’ll make an okay sci-fi writer.”

“It’s good to have a plan B. Splendid behaviour,” Ford noted. I suspected he didn’t have a plan B. “Shall we see if this works then?” Everything looked like it was loaded and ready to go on Tangerine Dream. All that was required, was for Ford to relinquish the microphone.

“Yes,” I agreed, “but you’ll have to give the mic to the mice, Ford.”

“Ooh,” he said, “I’d forgotten I was holding that.” The stage was definitely wanting.

Finally, Ford placed the microphone next to the mice, and nothing happened. We waited, and still nothing happened. Ford looked at me, then we both looked at the mice. The mice looked at one another, then at the mic. So Ford picked it up again.

“Is this still on? Ooh, I can still hear me.” I think Ford could hear himself, and I could hear him. I had to assume Pete and Dud did too. Unless they couldn’t hear him, perhaps because his voice was on a different frequency. Or the mice could in fact be deaf.

“Ford,” I said.

“Mr Fry,” he said, into the microphone. Actually, I quite liked the sound of it.

“Ford, do you think we’ve perhaps been a tad unlucky?”

“Well, that would make a change.” Ford referred, unknowingly, to many chapters from meetings of The Biblical Dead boys’ club, in my mind. In that context, any intended sarcasm had found a good home. “How do you mean?”

“I mean, all these mice. Not all of these two, but all white mice. They’re bred mainly for research and food. I wonder if the checks on their genetic pool extend so far as to find out how many of them might have defects, such as deafness.”

“That’s an interesting paradox, Mr Fry. But I have a back-up plan.” I take it back.

“Which is?”

“Text-to-speech. Or rather, speech-to-text.”

“Speak and Spell, reverse engineered, then.”

“Pretty much. Lots of stuff aside, which I don’t know about, there’s less processing power required to convert text to text. Well, the power of the system I think I’ve built, isn’t in the communication, it’s in the translation algorithms. Basically, Tangerine Dream knows what it wants to say, but it can’t say it. It doesn’t have the processing power. In a few years, perhaps. But for now, it’s done the hard work.” I was growing somewhat confused.

“Eh?”

“Simple way to think of it,” Ford asserted. “Tangerine Dream here, is the translator, but it can only communicate in text. The upshot of that, is we type in a question, and it gives us an answer on the screen.”

“From the mice?”

“Tangerine Dream’s translation, yes.”

“Blimey!” We really were about to find out if white mice were as Douglas had said: Protrusions of pan-dimensional beings of superior intelligence, into our universe. If so, we might be able to question them on the true nature of the life, the universe, and everything. We could make Douglas immortal, even though he seemed to have sussed out he was anyway, based on the pure science behind his writing. If Douglas didn’t want the attention, it was just an English literature assignment anyway. One about two boys, who were meant to be reading Of Mice and Men, and of George Orwell’s other vision of the year this was written. “What should we ask?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’m thinking,” I thought, “that we don’t have an international committee to hand. My limited knowledge of first contact protocol, would be a welcome. We have to rely on your computer’s untested ability to get the translation right though. We don’t want them to think we’ve told them to fuck off, when all we’ve said is hello. So, the universal language is maths.”

“That is a fact,” Ford confirmed, “at least for all who understand mathematics as we do. We could start with prime numbers, perhaps. Maybe we could type a sequence, then see if they carry it on.”

“Let’s try that,” I suggested. So Ford typed, in bold, contrasting letters on the computer screen:

1 2 3 5 7…

Then the cursor flashed on the screen. “Can they see what we’re doing?” I asked Ford of the mice.

“It doesn’t matter,” he replied. “Whatever this new hardware and software is, it’s essential function is to translate. Lacking the means to understand how it does that, I’m placing my faith in it reproducing something on the screen. This is day one for me too, Fry.”

The cursor continued to wink, suggestively. Then an ellipsis appeared, like this:

The ellipsis sat, with a cursor blinking at the end of it, like a tiny snake doing push-ups on screen. Then it moved again:

…Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of chess?

“Ford?” I wondered what he was thinking.

“No, I wouldn’t.” He’d rather not play chess.

“Ford,” I said again, “have you left a chess program running?”

“No, Fry. I use Fritz. Fritz never says that in the chat window.” He pointed at the chess invitation on screen. “Have you used Fritz 7.0 yet, Fry?” Fritz is a chess engine, and more geeky than most commercial chess programs, it’s used by the professionals and they’re all linked up on ChessBase, which is on the internet. I can see the internet being a big thing for chess in the future. I told Ford I hadn’t, because my computer was an Atari 800 with a tape drive, no printer and I didn’t have a phone, or a doorbell on my house. “Oh,” Ford continued, “well Fritz’s standard is, ‘Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of Global Thermonuclear War?’ A reference to WarGames, see?”

“Yes, Ford, I saw it. Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, it was out last year. In which, David Lightman has a room very much like yours, in a fine house like this.” Then some more text appeared on the screen:

Fine…

Then the ellipsis snake blinked again.

“Do you think we’re waiting for something, ” I asked, “or should we say something?”

“I know,” Ford said. Then he typed:

We mean you no harm.

I suppose that wasn’t bad for first contact. Then we got a reply:

1 2 3 5 7…

The snake again. “Prime numbers again,” I observed. Then again:

1 2 3 5 7 We mean you no harm: Is that a Carpenters song?

“What the?”

“I don’t know…”

How do you mean?

A short pause, then:

Oh, never mind. You had a question?

Yes. The question of why the answer is 42?

You are. It’s what you make of it. If you know why it’s that number and not some other arbitrary one, it’s because it’s the one everyone’s now agreed on. Because it was in the good book. Most people who know that, only know it because they looked it up. They are the inquisitive ones, who don’t just accept things but who ask ‘why?’ They’re the ones who see things, hear things, and are in contact with the universe, even if they don’t realise. You are part of the organic super computer, designed to work out the questions which need to be asked to understand the answer. The best measure of your species and your planet’s collective intelligence at the moment, is Google. And if you ask Google, ‘What is the answer to life the universe and everything?’, Google will tell you it’s 42. You have a long way to go, and young people are the future.

I must admit, it wasn’t the ending I’d expected for an English literature assignment. But I suppose it was the most direct answer to the most direct question we were able to ask. Perhaps in the future, you might be able to just ask Google a simple question and it might give you a succinct answer. Perhaps in the future, Google might know who I am. Perhaps I just end up being a science fiction writer, which I think might be nice. As for this early effort, it might be marked down for being too whimsical. But it was fiction, and Mr Harmer taught us that fiction should be allowed to flow.

So what do we do now?

You go. This is just a first step. You only found us through ingenuity and faith, but it might be best to keep this between us for now.

We won’t tell.

And apart from this story, I didn’t. Even if Ford’s story was similar, it would be from a different perspective, certainly with him in the narrative third-person lead character. The stories would exist only in the minds of those who wrote and read them, most likely Mr Harmer and The Biblical Dead society, where literature is not suppressed and forbidden by dictators, or like history and love in all its forms, in Orwell’s dystopian imagining of this year. Ours is a society where all information is shared and there is freedom of speech. For now, we are the quiet younger generation, with Bowie as one of our voices, and people like Ford, who’s on the internet, being a gender bender in his bedroom. I predict that the internet could give more of us collective, choral voices.

Whether or not we’d proven Douglas right about the white mice, the whole episode made me see what might be possible, if we just talk more, even if we can’t talk about some of it yet. It made me more aware, I suppose, of things around me, not just those we see and take for granted. In future, I think I could be an internet activist of some sort. In the future, the internet could be the thing which gives a voice to all those who don’t have one now. Perhaps that will be the evolution of mankind.

THE END…

© Simon Fry, 1984.

***

“Ford.”

“Sir.”

“Fry… Fry?”

“Yes sir, sorry.”

“Sorry to be here lad?”

“Actually, no sir.”

“Hayman.” (Blonde flick, new glasses).

“Sir.”

“King-Smith”. (‘Smasher’, wears Farrahs. Nice bloke really).

“Yes sir.”

“Laker.” (Fuck knows).

“Sir.”

“Mountney.” (‘Mole’: farts a lot: It’s funny on the chairs).

“Sir.”

“Rogers.” (Could be a brilliant mind, or a psycho).

“Sir.”

“Sharp.” (Christian bloke, likes his custard).

“Yes sir.”

“Simmons.” (Thoroughly good bloke, likes his Bowie, finishes my woodwork projects).

“Yes sir.”

“Tomkinson.” (Another geek, likes typing in programs from computer mags and putting them on tape).

“Sir.”

“White.” (Every girl’s dream, if he ever gets on the internet).

“Yes sir.”

“Yehudi.” Nothing. “Yehudi.” As expected. “Yehudi?”

“Sir?”

© Steve Laker, 2017.

Cyrus Song (a ‘Sci-fi rom com’ tribute to Douglas Adams, and the later adventures of Simon Fry), is available now from Amazon.

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.

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.

Three wishes: for not-things, and one for luck

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Just over two years ago, a dog theme cropped up in my short stories. First, there was A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie, the story which won Writing Magazine’s ‘Life-changing’ story competition last year, and which became a children’s book, now being used in some family learning classes. It’s the story of a young girl, dealing with loss and life’s changes, helped by her talking dog, and by wishing for ‘not-things’ to happen. That story was written when I was sofa-surfing, then lodging with a family, whose dog died. They’d lost a friend and family member, and that’s what the book is about.

After that, I moved into the flat above the pub, where the landlady acquired a very small dog. It was while I sat in the bar one night, watching the little thing, that I decided to write an antithesis to my children’s book. I was only in the bar for a while, so this is flash fiction, coming in at just over 500 words:

Gothic dinner

TWO WISHES

There’s an old lady who’s very upset: she’s lost her dog. She’s here at the pub where I live with mum and dad: the lady; not the dog. Because the lady lost her dog. The lady and the dog are regulars but it’s just the lady today because she’s lost her dog. She’s telling mum and dad about her dog: it’s lost. The lady doesn’t know what happened to the dog. It just disappeared when she was at the pub last Sunday. Today is Sunday, so the dog has been missing for a week and the lady is upset.

While all this is going on in the pub, I’m creating a wish in the kitchen. I may only be eleven years old and a bit slow, but I can make wishes come true. Simple is a label: like a label on food. I pay no attention to the label placed on me, any more than a chicken would to its packaging. The chicken is dead and unable to read the label on its wrapping. I’m not dead but I have this label of being simple. Unlike a chicken though, I can grant wishes. And besides, simple is how I look at life and solve problems.

I know that I’m best off in the kitchen, because it’s where people can’t hear me and I can’t hear them. I know they talk about me, and I try to do what I think they want me to, but that sometimes gets me into trouble. I do as I’m told and more: if someone asks me to do something, I’ll usually do it. If someone wishes for something, I’ll do my best to make that wish come true.

I asked the sad lady in the pub what she wished for and she said she wished she could have the nicest roast chicken dinner she’s ever tasted. So I’m making a wish come true by cooking lunch. They say I’m a good cook, but I know they’re humouring me and just want me out of the way. I’m a savant, rather than a servant, and I’m both in the kitchen. I’m in charge of the kitchen: I choose the ingredients and I cook them to make nice meals. On this occasion, I’m not only cooking a meal but I’m granting a wish as well.

The chicken is nearly finished roasting; the potatoes are in the roasting tin as well. I put the vegetables on to boil, before going into the pub to lay the place settings for lunch. The old lady is still upset. She’s saying she wishes someone could bring her little dog back. As I lay out the cutlery, she’s saying how she misses the little wagging tail and the cute yapping noise her little baby made.

All I can do is grant the old lady her wish, so I serve up what I hope will be the nicest roast chicken dinner she’s ever tasted: she gets a leg and so does mum. Dad’s greedy, so he gets two legs. I wait while my diners taste their meal, and they all comment on how it’s the nicest chicken they’ve ever tasted. They’re just humouring me of course.

I return to the kitchen, happy that I’ve granted two wishes: I remember my dad saying a week ago, “I wish someone would shut that old woman’s yappy fucking dog up and shove it down her throat.”

© Steve Laker, 2015.

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

Talking to the universe with cannabinoids (how to use the force)

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

Have you ever bet something on a ball of paper going into a waste basket? Then when it doesn’t go in, made it best of three? Whether consciously or not, we all ask questions – rhetorical and specific – of whom? Who are we speaking to when we ask if a certain person likes us, or whether this too shall end? God? Ourselves? No-one? And sometimes we might notice little things, like a certain thing or person being in a particular place, something someone says on TV, or just a weird coincidence. Could those be the answers to our questions, or at least clues?

Cannabis-BrainImage: Waking Times

Am I off my nut on weed? No, but cannabis does open the mind. It’s a medically proven fact: A cannabinoid is one of a class of diverse chemical compounds that acts on cannabinoid receptors in cells that alter neurotransmitter release in the brain. It was more imaginatively summed up in a recent Lifehacker post:

Essentially, cannabinoids’ effect on our brains is to keep our neurons firing, magnifying our thoughts and perception and keeping us fixed on them (until another thought takes us on a different tangent). That’s why when you’re high, it’s really not a good time to drive, study for a test, or play sports that require coordination, like tennis or baseball. Like alcohol, caffeine, and sugar, cannabinoids also affect the levels of dopamine in our brain, often resulting in a sense of relaxation and euphoria.”

It’s a subjective thing, but for me it means that I can think much more deeply about things, and for longer, not just when I’m high, but as a regular user of cannabinoids. My own atheism is explained on this blog, most recently in my quasi-religious posts about quantum physics and lucidity. Together with the personal statement on my Typewriter page, these are the means by which I reconcile religion with science. Smoking weed has been helpful in allowing me to consolidate things in my mind, and take on a more spiritual view of life, the universe and everything. Living alone helps too.

So very often, I’ll sit and read, write, question and learn, for many hours. And sometimes, I’ll stare out of the window from my desk, or make a nest on the sofa and listen to some music, and I’ll think aloud (yes, I talk to myself. I live alone). My IQ and my knowledge will only get me so far, and I’m hungry for more, so I ask questions of my heart and my head. I balance my own needs with those of others, but I can’t help but follow a dream, however unscientific that may seem. And if I dream, if I put my mind out there, sometimes I get an answer.

Religious people might call it a message from God, but I believe the universe talks back. I believe there is something out there, and the best term I can think of, is it’s a force (not unlike that in Star Wars), which can be used. I’ve not started practising Voodoo yet, but it’s one of many belief systems based ultimately in spirituality. But I’m no more a spiritualist than I am a Christian: I’m an atheist and I believe in forces greater than us in the universe, which is perfect common sense really.

At an existential level, the universe (The Force, “God”…) can give us huge signs as a wake up call, whether individually or collectively. My personal non-religious epiphany came when I was quite literally in the gutter: Drunk and on the streets, with no-one and nothing. Many agencies conspired to get me better, including a great deal of work on my part, but it was something which made me reflect on things I didn’t understand. It’s obvious to me now, that if I’d been more attentive of the warnings in the first 42 years of my life, I might have avoided a breakdown. But with hindsight, I’m grateful it happened.

Nowadays I’m a writer. I’ve only had the courage to call myself that for almost two years, since I built a portfolio and a track record. But I’ve been writing full-time now for nearly four years, mainly fiction. My stories are imaginative, but I like to think that they’re plausible (they’re researched thoroughly), certainly in the sci-fi genre (where much of the research is scientific). A good story needs to be affecting but believable. As writers, we can’t rely too much on chance, even though wildly coincidental things do happen in the real world.

As someone who’s been accused of relying on coincidence in the past, Paul Auster no less, set out to demonstrate how strange coincidences happen in real life, by asking National Public Radio’s Weekend All Things Considered listeners to submit their own stories. And lots of people had tales to tell, with over 4000 submissions to Auster’s request. My personal favourite was this one, from Linda Elegant in Portland, Oregon:

The Chicken

As I was walking down Station Street early one Sunday morning, I saw a chicken a few yards ahead of me. I was walking faster than the chicken, so I gradually caught up. By the time we approached Eighteenth Avenue, I was close behind. The chicken turned south on Eighteenth. At the fourth house along, it turned in at the walk, hopped up the front steps, and rapped sharply on the metal storm door with its beak. After a moment, the door opened and the chicken went in.

Weird things really do happen, and not just in America. And not many in my fiction writing, but those odd signs and coincidences are there in my real life, like they are in everyone’s, but often unseen or dismissed.

Through learning and practising, I am able to dream lucidly. Essentially, when I’m asleep, I’m aware of being in a dream, and I can interact with whatever that contains. My dreams are still surreal, but I’ve learned how to recognise when I’m actually in them.

Dreams, or the dream scape, are visions of the universe, much of which we don’t understand yet. One day, perhaps we will. For now, dreams are a representation, some of which we understand. That’s what surreal is: Not quite real, but comprehensible. Only with further thought and learning do those things become easier to accept. As Ted Arroway said to Ellie, near the end of Carl Sagan’s Contact, “We thought this might make things easier for you.”

Much has been written (by others) of dream meanings and interpretations. As far as I’m concerned, that’s as subjective as the dreams themselves, and people’s personal interpretations are therefore what they make of their own dreams. But I also believe that three people live within each of us: the person we think we are, the person others think we are, and who we really are. I treat my own dreams as a combination of the three.

There are no great messages or revelations in my dreams, but they fuel my active mind. Others may recommend keeping a dream diary. All of my thoughts (both wakeful and dreamed, as the two become virtually indistinguishable sometimes in lucidity) are in notebooks, my short stories, my novels, and on this blog. This is my universe as I see it. If I can get all of that, just by keeping an open mind and dreaming, it gives you an idea of how much is out there. Again, none of my dreams contain neon signs, but now that I look back over four years of writing, I can see that I’ve been somehow guided.

Dead people do exist in the dream scape, but they’re not always the cast of a nightmare. I’ve written before of how quantum physics allows ghosts to exist, and I wrote a story – Cardboard sky – about exactly that. People in dreams are real people, alive or dead, who are able to be there: The living who imagine and dream, and the dead who now live in a different physical form. Dreams are our way to meet them, out in the universe, where they now live. Lucidity in dreaming took me months to achieve, but it’s ultimately easiest to get there (eventually) by repeating, before sleep:

“Tonight I will receive and remember the messages of the dream world.”

Look out for synchronicity, those strange little coincidences. A call from someone you were thinking of; suddenly seeing something which suggests a third way, when we’d already considered two competing ones; a book falling open, a snippet of information, a number popping up. These are coincidences, but we know that those are common outside the realms of fiction. They seem more common than they actually are, because coincidences are more memorable than anything less subtle. It’s the way of the force, to guide us gently. So conversely, when things are a bit shit, that’s because we didn’t notice the more subtle signs. I’m living proof of this. Now I’ve learned to not live blindly thrashing around, but with a greater awareness of all around me. I opened my eyes and my mind.

There are those who believe that physical health can be improved with spiritual healing. Not being a practitioner of anything particularly physically strenuous, I’m not qualified to have an opinion. But what I do know, is that my mental well-being has improved over the last four years. Now with a permanent base, I feel secure enough to question my mind, rather than fear it. My depression and anxiety are chronic, and I have medication to help, but my questioning and exploring mind keeps the dark dog to heel most of the time.

By questioning and examining even the small things, I can play devil’s advocate with myself. If I have any kind of internal or external conflict, I’ll always try to understand my opposer’s point of view, so that I might better understand it. I much prefer debate to argument, because the latter always breaks down by definition, never leading to a solution. If you try to see things from another perspective (how others see you), that viewpoint becomes easier to understand. And it can be applied to bad things happening too, and how those could just be one of many subtle signs from the universe. To use an example:

Some unspecified time ago (many, in fact), I was involved in a relationship. For whatever reason, that partnership ended. In one particular case, I was very deeply affected. Essentially, I’d lost a life, and I was trying to hang on to it. I treasured a particular bracelet: Just a cheap, leather strap, but it had an emotional connection. So when that bracelet was stolen, I was distraught. I’d lost my one and only link to a person who’d been a part of my life. I was upset, and I was angry, at whomever had taken it from me. But then I realised there was no point. With that last connection gone, so was she. And the thief was the one who’d facilitated that. That was a whole different way to look at it. And just like my breakdown, as time went on, I realised it was for the best. And like my breakdown, it was of my own making. But unlike that, it’s as though I had a guide. Some would say, a guardian angel. From an atheist point of view, given the science behind my own atheism, angels do exist. Like the ancient gods and aliens of theorists, angels in religious texts are one scribe’s interpretation of a witness statement, or of their own vision. So mine are of my own dreams and imaginings.

Problems and delays can often be overcome if you think differently. Where there are two obvious but conflicting routes, there is often a third, less obvious one. If you’re stuck somewhere, use the time to think. As I myself once said: “Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit: how do you get out? You could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination.” If I’m ever delayed by trains, unable to leave a train station, I’ll find somewhere to sit and write.

If you pay attention to things around you, it will inevitably lead to further discovery. Something you see while you’re out and about in the world, something on TV, in a book, or in a newspaper: Look it up and learn more about it. This works especially well for me when I’m adding to my film collection. If I like a film’s direction, production, camera work, costumes, or whatever, I’ll make a note of the crew credits and look up more of that person’s work. If I watch a documentary, I’ll often look into a subject further, inevitably leading me into a day-long Wikipedia session. And from all that learning, sometimes a question will pop up in conversation that I’m able to give a qualified answer to. It’s nice to be informed. Another recent personal example, from nature:

One of the many avian visitors to the flat roof outside my studio, is a wagtail. The window in front of my desk looks out on the flat roof, so I see the little chap quite a lot. So I decided to learn more about him. He wasn’t pissing me off, but I wanted to know more, and as well as wagtails’ characteristics and taxonomy, I looked into their spiritual meanings (because I was writing):

“Seeing a Wagtail is a reminder to stay cheerful. It is a healthy practice to make ourselves feel light and happy. Being cheerful and gregarious to others will earn us the same treatment which in turn makes our lives happy and worth living.”

I live a life of discovery and exploration, not of conflict and blinkered belief. Whether you’re awake or dreaming, smoking weed or not, the universe is out there.

My books are available on Amazon.

Whimsical escapism with Dali’s elephants

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

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

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

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

Dali Elephants

MASTER YEHUDI’S FLYING CIRCUS

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

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

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

STRANGE BEINGS FROM ANOTHER WORLD!

MASTER YEHUDI PRESENTS:
THE INCREDIBLE FLOATING ELEPHANT GIRLS!

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

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

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

ADOPT YOUR OWN INCREDIBLE FLOATING ELEPHANT GIRL!

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

LIBERATE THE SLAVES!

THEY ARE NOT FREAKS!

BY BEING HERE, YOU ARE ENCOURAGING THEIR EXPLOITATION!

A lone counter-protester’s banner read simply:

GO HOME!

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

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

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

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

And so on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Steve Laker, 2016.

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