Writing about pubs? Yeah, I can do that.

This week I was delighted to watch a performance by the fledgling Potboiler Theatre group of ‘Stories from Pub Corners’ – a collection of six monologues performed in situ at the ‘Holy Inadequate’ real-ale pub in Etruria, Stoke on Trent (best pub name ever?).

I have to declare an interest here as I had written one of the monologues. I first came across the call-out for writers with ‘experience of pub stories’ to come forwards and send a draft script to be considered a few months ago. ‘That’s me’ I thought, ‘I’m a writer, and I’ve been to like, loads of pubs – I even used to live in one!’. So I applied, naturally.

As a writer you tend to often find yourself isolated. That’s not a bad thing, it’s obviously easier to write somewhere quiet without interruptions, but it does mean that getting out and collaborating when the opportunity presents itself is usually a very good idea.

This particular production started (for me) with an initial meeting with the producer/lead writer following my submission of a draft piece based on some brief character outlines. A week or so later I met the full team of actors, the director, the other writers and the musician when we came together to introduce ourselves, talk about our experiences with pubs, get some ideas flowing and workshop characters. I got to see a section of my early draft acted out, which was a first for me and a very valuable experience that I hope to have again (I’ve heard my work acted out before on radio, or even acted it myself vocally – but this was my first live, in-the-room type workshop for a visual performance of my work).

I was struck by just how well the actors brought the characters to life off the page. You are always told as a writer to ‘read it aloud’ to yourself when writing scripts especially, but even so, not being trained actors, we can never quite know what to expect when it does fall into someone else’s hands and interpretation. I was more than impressed by what I saw. These guys were really good, and seeing them in action, even with extremely early draft pieces, really helped me to go away afterwards and keep the performance in mind when writing the next draft. And to top it off – we all went to the pub after the meeting to see the space (and drink some pints).

After that it was back to the office to write a new draft for a new character outline before a further script reading (at the pub), the next week. This is where the fun, and challenge, of redrafting comes in. Originally I had written for a character in her forties, but due to the actors we had available, she had to be replaced with a younger character. So, I got given the brief of ‘Mad Lee’ – a young lad with a story to tell about the crazy night he is still recovering from, having woken up in bed with an unusual keepsake. At the script meeting, myself and the other writers read through and discussed our draft pieces. Again the value of this approach was soon obvious. Having other writers give you honest and constructive feedback in the development stages can really help you to sit back from what you’ve written and sharpen it up. It’s all too easy in any project not to see for looking. Fresh eyes and ears are very helpful indeed.

As it happened, due to what I will call prop-acquisition uncertainty, a certain central premise of my draft needed to be changed, quite dramatically! This meant I got to go away and once again rework the script. I was happy for this change. It forced me to once again go over it, consider the plot and the motivations of the character and further try to judge how the audience would react.

After that, the final-ish draft of the script made its way to the group for rehearsals (which I couldn’t attend thanks to a pretty gruelling gig schedule that weekend for my other life playing original music) – so it was only at the first performance I was able to get along to see my character come to life.

And what a life! The nature of this project is that the action takes place in a pub, amongst the audience, as if the characters are just another punter who suddenly decides to pipe up. This was often signalled by the great use of a musician who would start to play a related theme on a guitar prior to the monologue, sometimes dropping back in to add tension or comedy touches to pertinent sections and tying together the evening.

I won’t go into details of the monologues in case of any future performances, but I will say that as an audience member, it was a unique experience. Sometimes the characters were sitting right opposite me and it felt like being in intimate conversation. Sometimes they were across the room, and I felt voyeuristic, as if listening in to a particularly interesting discourse in a public space. For the last two characters, I was stood up, watching the performance though the curvature of the ornamental wood carved screens, as if framing my own director’s cut. And everyone else in and around that room was getting their own unique perspective, able not only to see the actors performance, but the reactions of the other audience members in contrast to the ‘eyes forward’ of traditional theatre.

The nerves of waiting to see my own character perform dissipated as soon as he started speaking and I recognised him (not just the actor playing him, the character himself). There he was, sitting a few feet away from me, alive, telling and owning his story independently of me, like some weird fully grown man-child I had contributed to bringing into this world for a short time: flying the coup.

Needles to say, the rest of the monologues were fantastically written and performed, and the evening was by all accounts a big success. If you hear the name ‘Potboiler Theatre’ in the future, come along. If this is anything to go by, you are sure to be in for a treat.

(Below is the poster for the performance last Monday. Keep an eye on Facebook and Twitter for any announcements of future performances or projects from the Potboiler crew!)

pub corners

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Gone Midnight – 500 word flash fiction.

By Garry Abbott.

soundwaves

Graham can’t stand these warm nights clinging to him as he tries to sleep. Getting in around the back of his neck and behind his ears, under his armpits and forming ponds below the small of his back.  He lies on his back in vest and boxers, the thin sheet over just one ankle (which for some reason feels just right) listening to the soft voices on his radio, waiting for sleep.

The production line presenter, tonsils crafted from treacle and dark wood, reads out the forecast.

‘Starting with the south west, then moving over the Midlands by mid afternoon, expect some light showers, perhaps breaking up that muggy feeling for a time…’

‘Muggy’ Graham mutters, he likes the sound of the word as it passes his lips.

‘Muggy, muggy, bloody muggy!’ he continues, realising he is thinking again, aware. ‘I’m muggy! I’m bloody muggy now!’ he protests to the radio, which becomes distorted and crackles back at him. Now it is just stuttered white noise that grows so loud it fills the room.

‘Not again. No, please’ whispers Graham, finding himself unable to move.

The radio continues to fizz sharp frequency spikes, random at first, then formed and shrill.

When does a crackle become a cackle? Zzzzzttt’ says the voice from the static. Graham closes his eyelids, the only thing he is able to do.

When does a cackle become a nightmare? Pzzzzt’ it continues.

It is only now that the terrible voice is shouting at him again that Graham remembers. This has happened almost every night for many years. He will lay and listen incapacitated to its taunts and threats until a smothering sleep comes over him, dragging him down into himself. And then, in the morning, he forgets.

‘How long can you resist? Pzzzt fzzz. How long? How long? How long?’ it continues, each repetition like a hammer at Graham’s sanity. For surely that’s what this is, his own mind turning. Becoming something of itself and angry at its captor. How can he fight what is him but is hidden? How long can he last? How long?

And then, as the terror inside of him grows, he feels the familiar lure of incomprehension and light as he stops plunging and begins to drift softly down and away from this world.

***

The next morning Graham is up early with new day ignorance. Soon later he is whistling as he waters the plants that frame his front lawn.

‘Graham?’ comes a voice from nearby. He looks up to see the new bloke who moved in next door. Graham silently squints back at him.

‘Would you mind turning your radio or TV or whatever it is down on a night? We can hear it through the wall.’

‘Oh yes, yes. Will do. Sorry, is it a bit loud?’

‘Yeah a little, but it’s more, well… It’s just that programme, whatever it is you have on, all that creepy cackling and shouting. It’s a bit much gone midnight.’

Pen Sieve. A very short story.

As I have a busy week, I’ve dusted down a short story I wrote last year which didn’t make it into my collection, but I think is still a nice little read. The themes of unseen controlling factors are present, just on a much lesser scale! You’ll see what I mean. I hope you enjoy this early, unedited draft of a little idea. Thank you.

penholder

 

Pen Sieve. 

Once there was a cleaner who worked in a big office.

Every night after all the office workers had gone home for the day, she would wipe off all the dead skin and debris that covered each desk in a thin film, vacuum the crumbs and morsels from the recently devoured meals that clung to the dull grey carpets, mop the scuffs from the tile corridors, and wipe the finger-prints from the metal door handles until they shined once more. On one day of the week, depending on her mood, but usually once a week, she would also steal a pen, and always from the same desk.

She didn’t know who the desk belonged to, at least not in real life. She knew his name because it was printed onto a flimsy piece of white printer paper and tacked to his monitor. His name was Julian Beswick, but she didn’t know him.

She rotated the specific day so it would be less obvious. Not because she was scared of being found out, but so Julian Beswick could never be sure if it was he who was losing his pens. She had figured, quite rightly, that if she were to steal the pen the same evening every week that somewhere in the back of his mind, overtime, he may start to notice the pattern and so become more vigilant. It was more fun for her to change the days. Sometimes she would steal the pen on a Friday night so that it would be gone the following Monday, and then not steal one again until the Thursday after next. In this way he could go almost a whole two weeks without having his pen stolen. And then, just as he was starting to doubt any suspicions that might be forming in his mind, his pen would be gone again, but so close to the weekend that the matter would pass into triviality.

For this was a trivial matter. The pens were not expensive. She never stole a pen that looked like it had been supplied from outside of the office. On occasion she would find, resting on the function keys of his keyboard as always, some kind of metal cased or rubber gripped oddity that had obviously been procured or borrowed. These she would leave alone until inevitably they would be replaced by a bog standard issue biro. Then she would steal it.

The thing is she had noticed how often Julian Beswick’s pens changed, that’s why she had chosen his desk to start stealing them from. One day there would be a brand new smooth biro with the satisfying black line running through it from one end to the other, the next day there would be a near dead sorry looking excuse of a pen covered with tiny puck marks from human incisors. He obviously lost them, took them home, lent them out or whatever, and then had to scrabble around for another the next day. Sometimes she would find the pen he had lost of his own accord underneath his keyboard or below his desk. On those days she would replace the new pen on the keyboard with the one she had found, carefully ensuring that they were positioned exactly the same, and then steal the new one.

She imagined Julian Beswick each morning flinging his jacket over his chair, switching on his computer and setting to work for an hour or two before the moment came. The moment when he would need to take a message from a phone call, or was off to a meeting, or had a flash of inspiration and needed to jot it down, or if he just fancied scribbling pointlessly on a post-it note. She imagined him reaching for the groove above the function keys on his keyboard, not even looking as he did so, and then fingering the plastic for a second or two before looking down to the sight of no pen. Naturally he would furrow his brow, look around, behind, underneath the keyboard, maybe even underneath the desk, and then straighten up while pulling his lips together in a moment of slight confusion.

He might even say to one of his colleagues ‘Have you got my pen?’ to which they would probably reply ‘No’ (or if she was lucky, also look around, behind and underneath their own keyboard, maybe even underneath the desk).

On the days when she replaced his pen with another, she imagined him happily gathering it up in his fingers, flicking off the lid (and at this point perhaps even starting to remember that the last pen he used didn’t have a lid) and mid-scribble catching a glance of it in his peripheral vision and thinking to himself, ‘I’m sure that’s not the pen I had yesterday’ before continuing on anyway, as he always must do.

In this way the cleaner was linked to Julian Beswick in more subtle ways then he could ever imagine. They have both worked in the same office block for twenty years.

The End

Health & Safety & The Fall of Humanity

healthandsafety

Hello!

This week sees the return of a couple of projects all aspiring writers should have a go at it, namely ‘The Show What You Wrote’ (TSWYW) and Newsjack’ – both on BBC Radio 4 Extra. Links here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/opportunities/the-show-what-you-wrote

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00kvs8r

When I say the return, I mean that the deadline for TSWYW is this Friday, ready for recording later this year, and Newsjack series 10 starts accepting weekly submissions as of next Monday.

I was lucky enough to be invited down to comedy house in London and attend a briefing about Newsjack this week. I got to meet a lot of other writers and the producers, plus drink one free bottle of San Miguel (I could have had more but was busy listening) and then join a mass exodus to the pub (which seemed so right for a room full of writers, like we were all at home again somehow).

Anyway, today I’ve just submitted my sketches for TSWYW. Unlike Newsjack, I’ve not had any material on this show yet. The last series was the first I think, and nothing got in that time. It’s very different from writing topical jokes/sketches as each episode is based on a theme and they don’t want parody/spoof pieces. It’s one of those briefs that’s almost so broad you have to be very self disciplined to get something together for it. (For example, one of the new series episodes is simply called ‘Geography’, which can mean pretty much anything on the planet).

So today I thought I’d share with you one of my misses from the last series. I know why it didn’t get in. It was way too long, over ambitious and sprawling. I had adapted the idea from a spoof musical I started writing last year (still in the pipeline) and inserted a character who causes the fall of humanity through his fastidious health and safety inspections throughout history. Yeah, it was a bit ambitious, and is basically three sketches, so if they didn’t like one, that was my submission quota for that episode done.

Anyway, I’ve reproduced it below ‘as is’, without any editing or omissions. At the very least, if you are looking to write sketches for these shows, read this and use it as a way to know what they’re not looking for! That said, I still quite like some of the ideas in here, and any writing is good practice and worth doing. Every rejection is the next step to acceptance. (blurgh)

Enjoy! (Hopefully)

Health and Safety and The Fall of Humanity.

Brief Synopsis (sketches below).

A series of three separate but running sketches featuring health & safety inspector ‘Mr Nomad’, a man who values the prevention of minor injuries and inadequate lighting above all else, while simultaneously causing major catastrophic accidents that shape the future of Humanity. I would imagine him to sound like a mix of ‘Gordon Brittas’ and Kayvan Novak’s ‘Dufrais Constantinople’ character. We move from the genesis of the Zombie apocalypse, to the fall-out bunkers of a post-apocalyptic Earth, to the advanced genetic science labs of the future. Although presented in a series, each individual sketch could work stand-alone.

 

SKETCH 1 – Health & Safety & The Zombie Apocalypse.

 

Cast

V/O:                           Dramatic voice over introducing the sketch.

Mr Nomad:               Health & safety inspector. Pedant. Jobs-worth. Self satisfied.

Baron Zipman:         Owner of Zipman chemicals Co. Think Texan oil baron.

Sandra:                     Baron Zipman’s level headed secretary.

Alarm:                       Pre-recorded ‘warning alarm’ voice, female.

Supervisor:               Voice on telephone, inept supervisor.

INT. OFFICE.

V/O:                In the executive offices of Zipman Chemicals Co, Multi Billionaire owner Baron Zipman is about to find out he has failed a health & safety inspection.

Sandra:            Mr Zipman, I have a Mr Nomad here to see you, he’s from health & safety.

Zipman:           Health & safety? Pen pushing toe rags. Well, you better show him in.

Sandra:            He’s already here sir, it’s this man standing right next to me.

Nomad:           All I’m concerned with Mr Zipman is what’s written here in my report. I have to say, it makes for some very interesting reading.

Zipman:           Not if you can’t read Mr Nomad… not if you can’t read.

Nomad:           Allow me to summarise. Item 1! I was shocked to discover this particular breach in the testing laboratories where I am led to believe you are conducting highly volatile and sensitive chemical research on behalf of the military?

Zipman:           That’s right. What of it?

Nomad:           A desk, Mr Zipman, a metal desk.

Zipman:           So? We have lots of desks.

Nomad:           Yes but are they all, (BEAT / SWELL OF DRAMATIC MUSIC) 5 inches closer to the nearest fire exit than is permitted by regulations? Are they?

Zipman:           Oh god.

Nomad:           Indeed. Your staff could really hurt themselves on that. Right in the thigh.

Zipman:           Ok we’ll fix it. Sandra, memo to sector 3, make the testing lab 5 inches wider.

Nomad:           And that isn’t all. I refer you to item 2 regarding your staff canteen…

Zipman:           We have a canteen?

Sandra:            Yes sir, you had one installed in one of the decommissioned storage facilities where we used to keep the unstable compounds. You saved money by using the old storage tankers to hold soup.

Nomad:           And very nice it is to, it’s just a shame about the (BEAT/MUSIC) loose floor tiles! A slight trip is the gateway to a bad fall. I’m very disappointed.

Zipman:           I can assure you that we will sort it straight away. Is there anything else?

Nomad:           Let’s see, just one last little advisory note here, it seems that the containment unit for your prototype molecular mutation compound Zeta666 triple X has a critical flaw in the pressure fail-safe that could lead to leakage of raw materials into the vicinity of unprotected workers. Nothing major, sure it’s the kind of thing you deal with everyday.

Zipman:           Well thanks for mentioning it all the same. Could you please ask my Secretary to come in on your way out Mr Nomad?

Sandra:            I’m here Sir. I’ve been here all the time.

FOOTSTEPS – DOOR CLOSES

Zipman:           Right, now he’s gone, is there any way around this?

Sandra:            We could seal off sector 2.

Zipman:           Sector 2?

Sandra:            Where we keep the Zeta666 triple x compound.

Zipman:           What? I mean about the desk and the tiles.

Sandra:            We could just fix the tiles sir… and move the desk.

Zipman:           That’s why I hired you! See that gets done would you?

Sandra:            Very good Mr Zipman. While I’m at it, shall I have them look at that little matter of the faulty container?

Zipman:           What? Yes, whatever…

FOOTSTEPS OVER:

Sandra:            (under breath) Oh my God oh my god oh my god…

DOOR CLOSES. PHONE PICK UP

Sandra:            Hello, sector 2, it’s Sandra here. Just a quick one, you haven’t noticed any problems in the containment facility for the Zeta666 triple X compound, by any chance? Namely the pressure…

Supervisor:      (Phone filter) Well it’s quite hard to tell you see. When we put it in we made the pointer on the dial rather large and the warning display quite small.

Sandra:            What’s it indicating now?

Supervisor:      Green…

Sandra:            That’s good.

Supervisor:      … and amber… and red.  Covers them all really. Pointless.

Sandra:            Well does the container by any chance have large amounts of steam coming from it and is it leaking a kind of glowing green ooze?

STEAM HISSES, GURGLING LIQUID NOISES

Supervisor       As it happens…

Sandra:            We need the engineers down right away.

Supervisor:      No can do I’m afraid, the only two guys who can fix this have gone home.

Sandra:            Why?

Supervisor:      Well Steve, he tripped over in the Canteen, caught himself quite bad I hear, and Dave well…

Sandra:            Ran into a desk on level 3?

Supervisor:      Right in the thigh! How did you know? It’s a death trap this place I tell you.

WARNING SIREN/ALARM

Alarm:             WARNING. HIGH LEVELS OF CONTAMINATION DETECTED IN SECTOR 2. WARNING.

Supervisor:      (Phone Filter) What’s that now? Bloody drill again I expect. Oi lads! Stop playing in that slime, you Muppets.

SOUND OF ZOMBIES MOANS

Supervisor:      Lads? Lads? LADS!!! (screams)

 

SKETCH 2 – Health & Safety & The Nuclear Fall-Out.

 

Cast

V/O:                             Dramatic voice over introducing the sketch.

Mr Nomad:                 Health & safety inspector. Pedant. Jobs-worth. Self satisfied.

Heston Bramcake:      Heroic leader of the UK nuclear survivors.

Alarm:                         Pre-recorded ‘warning alarm’ voice, female.

 INT. NUCLEAR RESEARCH SITE

V/O:                Following the Zombie apocalypse, the few remaining humans retaliated with Nuclear weapons. In a devastated and baron world, they were forced into underground bunkers to avoid the toxic fallout. The leader of the UK survivors, Heston Bramcake, is just about to find out that his network of bunkers has failed it’s health & safety inspection.

COMPUTERS BEEPING/KEYBOARDS TAPPING

Bramcake:       So this is control. The hub of the operation. The satellites are out of commission but the old cable lines still work, well some of them anyway, enough to allow us to communicate with other survivor groups around the world. We have 50 men and women here, working day and night. Sharing scientific data, passing on medical advice, and sometimes just being that friendly voice to keep them all going. God knows they need a friendly voice in these dark times, eh Nomad?

Nomad:           It’s a bit stuffy in here.

Bramcake:       Yeah well, we ain’t exactly able to turn down the thermostat are we?

Nomad:           Why? Is it broken?

Bramcake:       It isn’t broken. It doesn’t exist. These places were never designed for long term use, so we got to make do.

Nomad:           But, doesn’t that mean people suffer from hot flushes and mild fainting?

Bramcake:       Occasionally. Though it’s hard to tell it apart from radiation poisoning. They’ve got bigger things to think about.

Nomad:           I’d say! Look at those chairs. There’s no way they’re getting the necessary lumber support, and is it just me, or are there no wrist-rests on any of these terminals? Repetitive strain injury is the enemy of productivity!

Bramcake:       Maybe you’re right. We’ll see what we can rustle up.

Nomad:           Right, good. See that you do.

Bramcake:       You know what Nomad? I thought having you come here was going to be a real pain in the arse, you know, health & safety in a post-nuclear fall-out shelter?! I mean c’mon! But you’re making some good points. We shouldn’t neglect the little things or they’ll come back and bite us on the… Nomad?

SOUND OF CLAXON/HORN

Nomad:           (Shouting) Ladies & gentlemen, this is a fire drill. If you would like to all calmly and steadily make your way to evacuation point A as indicated on the laminated maps I’ve left by the exit, thank you.

Bramcake:       Where are they all going?

Nomad:           Evacuation point A. I noticed you didn’t have any procedures in place so I took the liberty.

Bramcake:       There must be some mistake, this map shows the old car park, topside.

Nomad:           Yes, evacuation point A.

Bramcake:       But that passage is sealed…

Nomad:           Was sealed… and may I say, very low. There should be a good 5 inches clearance height but I’ll overlook that for now, as long as the drill goes well.

Bramcake:       But… if they follow that map and open the outer doors, we’re all going to die!

Nomad:           That’s the spirit. Realistic role play. Here you go, put this on.

Bramcake:       What’s this?

Nomad:           High vis. Go on. (Proud) You’re a warden now.

Bramcake:       You’re insane! I’ve got to stop them! Wait!

SOUNDS OF RUNNING FOOTSTEPS

Nomad:           Oh dear. Running in the corridors. Shame. Real shame.

WARNING SIREN/ALARM

Alarm:             WARNING. RADIOACTIVITY EXCEEDS SAFE LEVELS. LOCK DOWN, LOCK DOWN.

Nomad:           Bit loud that. Where’s my decibel counter?

 

SKETCH 3 – Health & Safety & Genetic Engineering

 

Cast

V/O:                            Dramatic voice over introducing the sketch.

Mr Nomad:                 Health & safety inspector. Pedant. Jobs-worth. Self satisfied.

Professor Scott:          Chief scientist & leader of the ‘Darwin Delta 1’ research facility.                                                   Female.

Alarm:                         Pre-recorded ‘warning alarm’ voice, female.

 

INT. SPACE STATION

V/O:                The year is 2115. The most advanced genetic engineering research centre ever to be built, Darwin Delta 1, orbits Second Earth by the light of a red-star. The station leader, Professor Scott, is about to find out it has failed a health & safety inspection.

SOUNDS OF AUTOMATIC DOOR & ORGANIC SQUELCH

Nomad:           So, Professor, what is the first thing you think I noticed when I walked in here?

Scott:               The Alien hybrid embryo in the transparent egg-sac?

Nomad:           The what?

Scott:               That pulsating slimy sphere over there – you see?

Nomad:           Well no. No I don’t see. And that’s the problem. Inadequate lighting Professor… Inadequate lighting.

Scott:               We have to keep the conditions in this room just so. It’s very important research into creating a genetically modified predator race I’m afraid.

Nomad:           I am afraid Professor! I’m afraid for the safety and well being of your staff trying to negotiate their way around a dimly lit facility! Darkness is the friend of twisted ankles you know. Are these the main lights?

Scott:               Yes but I really wouldn’t…

CLICK OF LIGHT SWITCH

Nomad:           That’s better! I can see myself think again.

ORGANIC SQUELCHING GETS LOUDER

Scott:               My God. What have you done? It’s photo-sensitive you fool! It’s going to get out!

Nomad:           You’ll thank me when you see the reduction in minor injury referrals to the Med Lab. You and the rest of the inhabitants here. How many people are there here again?

Scott:               Thousands! Families! Children, babies! Oh no. If it gets to the babies it’ll have a host…

Nomad:           (serious) Babies? Where are the babies?

Scott:               The maternity ward is on the 5th deck. Right above us.

Nomad:           I though the 5th deck was catering?

Scott:               It’s a shared floor. Oh god it’s coming out!

Nomad:           This is terrible.

Scott:               I know! We need to do something!

Nomad:           I bet you they’re not correctly colour coding the cleaning equipment for medical & catering shared use. I’ll take them up some laminated reference charts.

Scott:               Quick, the waste airlock, we need to blast it out into Space, it’s our only hope. I’ll distract the creature while you open it up, it’s just down there, by the door. Hurry, there isn’t much time.

Nomad:           Here? By the door?

Scott:               Yes! Quick! Open the hatch! Pressurise the lock!

Nomad:           It’s a little close to the door, wouldn’t you say?

Scott:               What? I can’t hold it much longer…

Nomad:           One mo

SOUND OF TAPE MEASURE

Scott:               What are you doing? Are you measuring?

Nomad:           As I thought. This is very bad. An air lock within 5 inches of an access point? There’s nothing for it, it’s going to have to be immediate shutdown.

Scott:               But the other specimens will escape! This could be the end for humanity as we know it! I beg you, I implore you, I…

SCOTT IS CUT SHORT BY SOUND OF BEING EATEN

Nomad:           Oh dear. Someone’s going to have to clean that blood up. You could have a nasty slip. Looks like a blue cloth job to me, or is it the green mop? Best check my laminated reference chart, just to be sure.

The Board Room Game.

Image

My desk sits in the square bowl of a test tube corridor that marches away from my line of sight into a corner I never get to turn. On each side of the passage there are adjacent doors where my advisors wait for the ping.

The room is stark bur brightly lit. My desk itself has shades of oak and brutal corners. There must be a way to receive the ping, so I guess there is a screen now. Maybe once it was a plastic inbox, or even a telephone; but now it is a screen. I figure this screen is to my right, at an angle, so that it doesn’t obscure my view of the corridor. There are no other computer parts. The screen is already connected through its conception in this place.

As I reckon it, I am dressed in a white shirt with black trousers and shoes. I suppose I am Mr Formal. My job is to be formal, reasoned, measured. Perhaps that is why my desk has no adornments or decoration. It is a bare room, waiting for the ping.

I don’t know what the other rooms look like. I’ve never been in to see them. When the time comes, those who are interested will flock out and channel down to the angular bell bottom suite. They will argue their case and I will listen and judge, maybe interrogate, maybe ignore. It all depends, as you will see.

The screen lights up (for it was otherwise dark and unreflective), and there is a proposition, a ping.

“Should I care about this?” it reads. It is accompanied by images of sneering men making decrees upon those less fortunate.

Should I care? I don’t know. I will wait to see who shows.

Doors start to open at various distances, but that is no issue. The occupants move at different speeds to compensate. Some are quick to my desk, others drag their feet. Whether they come from near or far is really not important.

I can never be sure which doors will open. They all get a copy of the same ping, the same question, the same relevant supporting information from banks below or above us (I’ve never been). Some may join later as the discourse develops, late to the game but spurred by some new concern or data, or they may not.

First at my desk, looking much like me (exactly like me) is Pandora. A pretty name for a man. We gave him that name. None of us really have names. He carries a can of worms that he hasn’t been able to put down since we discovered the particularly strange metaphor, and is permanently topped by a neon question mark. Other than that, he looks exactly like me, right down to the black shoes.

‘Is there something more to this?’ he asks.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well there’s what we’ve been told, and what we know already, but is there more we don’t know? Can we look further, deeper?’ he continues.

‘Not before I’ve heard the others’ I reply as usual. And here they come.

The next, Pyrrho, has joined us. He is a lot like me, but his shoulders ride higher.

‘What difference does it make? I mean, to us. Will it affect us?’

‘Maybe’ replies Pandora, ‘we’d need to know more.’

‘Do we? Do we really? If we don’t know it, and it’s not apparent, then what’s the problem here? Other than those we go and find’ he persists.

Before Pandora can answer Lyssa has pushed through the others and slammed his hand down on my desk. He is my image, but red in the face and he rarely stops moving.

‘This pisses me off!’ he screams at me, and the others, ‘who do they think they are? They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it! We should do something, NOW!’

He circles around, hand over mouth and eyes bulging, but of course, he cannot decide what to do: only I can decide. Though he does scare me, I don’t like him. On rare occasion he has held me by the throat and forced me to consider no others. But usually, he goes back to his room and seethes quietly to himself.

‘We should get more information first’ suggests Pandora.

‘Why bother?’ intervenes Pyrrho.

‘Why wait!’ demands Lyssa.

Anyone else to the table? Not just now. They may come out and appeal soon, but it is time to make a decision. I address the lobby.

‘Okay everybody. Here’s what we’ll do. Go back to your rooms and watch your monitors. I’ll call up what we’ve got, and we’ll go from there.’

‘What’s the point?’ says Pyrrho, whose memory is long but selective, ‘it will be the same as always. The options will be many and unrealistic. They will deter us from our primary objectives. Lyssa will calm down eventually, as usual, and Pandora, well he’ll get his day when we have a moment to spare I’m sure. Why not make the decision then?’

‘Go back and watch your monitors’ I repeat, and they do.

Moments later we are all appraised and gathered once again.

‘Has anyone anything further to add? Now you’ve seen the options?’

A more sedate Lyssa steps up.

‘Maybe I overreacted before. I’ve been talking to my colleagues. I mean, we’re not happy about this, don’t get me wrong, but we don’t want to take the lead. Not just yet’.

A predictable response. I look to Pandora.

‘It is something we would like to look into further, but not at this time, not as a matter of priority.’

‘And what of you Pyrrho? As if I need to ask.’

‘Whatever’ he says.

We are all sick with guilt. I know they feel it because I feel it too. It rumbles in our stomachs which are otherwise devoid of contents. There is still time for this to change what happens next: unless we take our medicine.

‘Let’s see how we feel after this’ I suggest. On the desk there are four small misty plastic caps filled with a dose of elixir. It is hard to tell from the colour, being a deep plum purple, but I suspect it is strong in pragmatics.

We all pick up and pour down, and wait. It soothes the guilt somewhat, not entirely, but it bolsters our resolve. It has a hint of selfish determination followed by notes of possible future action.

‘I think we all know what we need to do Gentlemen’ I conclude, and obligingly the screen presents me with the preferred option written in bold type, enclosed in a shaded grey box. It reads:

“Stay the course. We can do more about this later.”

Underneath there is the a tick and a cross. I press the tick and the image flicks to black. The others recede back to their rooms.

Inside me the concoction stirs and repeats a little. Outside of me the television changes to the next news story as I drain another cup of tea and think about what I need to do today, how I can ‘stay the course’.

My screen flicks into action with the next proposition and we start again. This will happen a million times at a million moments today, but not all will make it ‘to the top’ otherwise we’d all be for it. We would crank to a grinding halt and make no further steps, for the choices of so many. And we can’t let that happen because, well, because we just can’t.

A new premise.

gaia

Hello.

Something a little bit different today for this week’s blog.

I was watching ‘stargazing’ live the other day where a scientist man was talking through the technology of the new ‘Gaia’ telescope/satellite that will be imaging our galaxy to the highest level of detail yet, enabling us to ‘build up’ a 3D model when it is done. (Check out the website for the science stuff: http://sci.esa.int/gaia/). This also reminded me of a Brian Cox lecture where he said that we are actually able to find the composition of celestial bodies by monitoring the returned light to our sensors (that carry back a kind of ‘signature’ that allows us to know what the light particles been in contact with?!)… it’s all baffling and very exciting.

That got me thinking, as I am prone to do, about the future. A future where we are far more advanced at imaging and representing our Universe than we are able to reach it in physical space. Also a future where our (resurging) interest in immersion video games and entertainment (virtual reality and suchlike) has continued apace.

So, as a new premise that I may or may not run with to write some new Sci-Fi stories (or one big story – or a script), I projected these thoughts a few hundred years or so into the future, and wrote a speech introducing a concept in which to base a world. This is a good exercise for science fiction which is so often based around a technological premise. In this instance, however, I thought I would share this very early stage of writing with you, and see what you think. Cheers.

 

Transcript of speech by Dr. Raelan W. Krueger (NASA Head Administrator)

Introducing ‘The Great Connection’ project.

Y. 2567

“For time immemorial we have been looking to the stars, to distant galaxies, to the very edges of our known Universe. Like a captain with his telescope, looking out ahead for new lands, we have developed the most amazing techniques to observe our Universe in exquisite detail. Where once we saw planets as simple dips in light as they passed by their suns, we can now see the mountains, see the rocks, see the particles of dust as they settle on extraterrestrial plains. With our network of telescopes and sensors we have built a moving picture of our world, far beyond our reach, but within our sights.

Unlike the Captain who spies land, however, we cannot sail our ships to these places. While we have excelled in our ability to observe, we have barely travelled beyond our own solar system, restricted by laws of nature that we currently cannot bend or break. This leaves us with a question: “If we cannot travel to the places we can see, how do we explore them?”

Before now, two answers were posited. Firstly the pessimist would say, “we will never explore them – it is beyond us”, whereas the optimist would say “we will break through the physical restrictions one day, we will make it.” While I favour the optimist, that mantra has persisted for generations, and yet the breakthrough never comes. Today, I propose a third option. If we can’t travel to the farthest reaches of the observable Universe, we will  bring the Universe to us.

The data we reap, in real time, from our satellite and imaging network is vast. Our computers can store and analyse this data, but they cannot induce from it, they cannot marvel at it, they cannot explore in the way that you and I would understand that to mean. What computers do, very well, is represent precisely and follow instructions – instructions that until now were usually relayed via very dry, impersonal methods: symbols on a screen and complicated patterns of data that only a trained observer could comprehend with a degree of difficulty. While we are finding more and more potential signs of life in the Universe, we are pouring over them in such minute detail it could take us another thousand years to realise they are insignificant, while just over there, where the computer didn’t think to look, in the corner of the eye, are the answers we have been searching for.

Alongside the advancement in how we observe our outward universe, so too have we developed how we immerse ourselves in simulation. From the less invasive virtual experience centres, to the sensory direct link systems that we now find in almost every living-room, we have been stepping into our fantasy and fiction worlds for a generation now. At first we were scared, sceptical of this new level of interaction between us and technology. Game players loved it, parents loathed it, but one way or the other we all came to accept it as the value offered for education and expression far outweighed our reservations.

And so now we are drawing a line between dots that were already in place. We have developed a method whereby we can now relay the data into an incredibly detailed and accurate simulated model that can be explored via the same technology used for immersion entertainment. Teams of explorers, of simunaughts, can now enter and explore the landscapes of a changing Universe.

But we need your help. You may already be familiar with the concept of citizen science. It is a technique we have used for centuries to sift through and classify large quantities of data in the way that only we humans can. Typically it involves experts compiling and making available a database for the general public to either interrogate or contribute towards, helping to identify and flag points of interest for further scrutiny by specialists. Some of the earliest examples around the 20th Century were for spotting birds or surveying the insects living in and around our homes. This potential was expanded so that rather than just logging our own observations, we could help to classify the findings of others. In this way, people from across the world came together to help the scientists of the 21st century and beyond to survey the ocean beds, unlock DNA sequences, and yes, even explore the stars.

So what’s different about this project to what has gone before? Three things: scale, immersion and potential. We’re not going to be looking at stills on a view screen here. We need you to plug in and move around. Our galaxy alone has 100 billion stars. Each of those stars probably has a planetary system. Each of those planets may have moons. Currently, we have the data available for over a million galaxies – a figure that is increasing daily.

The task is vast. One hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone, it sounds inconceivably big, but then that is just two star systems for each person living on this planet today. If we could get everyone on the earth to spend just a little time connected, we could have the milky way mapped in a month. Of course, we don’t expect everyone will want to help, and access to the required technology is not universal. But if every user of immersion entertainment were to plug in for just a fraction of the time they already spend in worlds of fiction, and contribute to the world of fact, we could make great strides, very quickly.

So what happens when you plug in? Firstly you will be asked to form or join a team of other simunaughts, because together we are better. Each of the teams who enter the simulation will be assigned a ship of sorts, a kind of virtual vessel that will help induce the feeling of exploration as you investigate uncharted worlds assigned to you by our mission computers. You will land and walk on these moons and planets, traverse through a resolution that can only be described as near-reality, almost indistinguishable from the real thing. If you find anything of interest, assisted by an array of simulated vehicles and equipment, you will flag this for further study. Back in the real world more resources will be trained on your marked locations, increasing fidelity and detail even further in the simulated landscapes.

We’re not talking about gathering rock samples here, we’re talking about finding the extraordinary. The possibilities are as endless as there are stars in the Universe. Imagine finding a planet with golden mountains, volcanoes of diamonds and clouds of fire. Imagine finding forests and seas teeming with alien life, or even finding the planet that brings us our first signs of highly intelligent life. Great cities in the stars. It is all possible.

What we do, is what no computer can yet achieve: think creatively and move impulsively towards discovery. No computer has yet spotted something out of the corner of its eye, no computer has had a thought of its own, and we will harness this unique gift of ours to our advantage. Human kind will become an explorer of worlds, without having even left our own.

So I endorse to you, I commend your support and raise my hand in contemplation to the stars that are now in our grasp, and I ask you to sign up, log in and join me in ‘The Great Connection’.”

Visions of Solanaceae – Horror story.

Here’s a bonus blog for you. Definitely my last of 2013. A horror story inspired by my own experiences and spooky Christmas dramas.

Not really done scary before, so it’s a bit of a try-out. I hope you enjoy it – in a scary kind of way. (Let me know if you do!)

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Garry

sleep-paralysis

Visions of Solanaceae

By Garry Abbott

I dream of waking nightmares, for in the waking world the roads lead somewhere. There are rules. It is solid. Not so in the nightmare lived behind closed eye lids. Walls are shadows that change around you, the roads are roundabouts with no exits. Even the air can take terrible form.

How do you explain to others that your life is in peril, when that peril exists only inside of yourself and they cannot see?

‘They are just nightmares’ says the doctor. ‘Intense maybe, but still nothing more than bad dreams. Do you wake from them?’

I wake from them often, I tell him, usually to a strangled utterance as the spectre fades, burned for a moment in my retina against this or that texture: a wardrobe, a dressing gown, a bookcase. The logic of breath fills my lungs and I gasp into physics, the texture returning to inanimate safety but the nightmare waiting for me in that other place.

‘So you don’t want to go back to sleep after such an episode?’

The doctor starts tapping into his green and black screen before I even answer.

‘The biggest danger for you Mr Wilkes, is sleep loss. It is likely you are sleeping light and may be experiencing sleep apnoea – problems with your breathing – that your mind is interpreting as nightmares in order to wake you up. It is not unusual for people to stop breathing all together with this condition and wake gasping for air.’

He prescribes me sleeping tablets and a spray to help me breathe easy. A two pronged attack. One will keep the air flowing, the other will keep me from waking and, therefore, remembering my dreams throughout the night: good or bad.

That night I sit motionless on the sofa, trying to sense the artificial drowsiness as the light from the mute television highlights edges in the room. I sniff and a remnant of the bitter concoction trapped in my sinuses runs down the back of my throat. I feel tubes rather than trickles of air being pulled into me. I rest my eyes to encourage the drugs. Not here, I think – I must make it to bed. But it is too late. The faint sounds of heavy traffic on a distant road grow loud. I fancy I can tell the size and speed of each engine as they push air all the way to my ears, to my focussed mind. But they become quiet again, and for a moment I think the traffic is dying down, or I am moving farther away. Yes, that’s it. I am moving away, through a tunnel.

I wake sometime later to the flashing colours of some confusing programme on the set. Red and yellow stars flicker and contorted faces pop up on the screen. I heave myself up and stumble across the room. I run my fingers around the smooth edges of the television until I feel a click and the invasive images cease. Now the streetlights and the moon compete for illumination. They must have always been here, hidden beneath. My eyes adjust enough to pick a path to the door. My head is as heavy as it has ever been and I stand insecurely between the two worlds as if one long blink could send me back and crashing to unconsciousness. Paintings and photographs suspended on walls tip and sway under my groping hands as I guide myself through narrow eyelids to the hallway and then crawl ape-like up the stairs, through the open door of my bedroom, and slide head-first under the covers. I have made it, and I allow my eyes to close. Briefly I fear the moment to sleep has passed before my head seems to fall through the pillow and I feel it no more.

Later I again wake from black timelessness and my feet are heavy as if the drowsiness has crawled down my body to my very toes. I try to lift them but they do not respond. My eyes are still closed and I hope to shake off this waking interruption quickly so I can return to the void, but the lack of sensation concerns me. I fancy I may have crept under a pile of heavy clothes and cut off my circulation. I can’t remember if my bed was made or my bedroom tidy when I came up here. I resolve to push away whatever it is and let the blood return. I try to bend forwards, I cannot. Maybe something has fallen on me? I try to reach up with my arms but find that only my fingers twitch. With reluctant urgency my eyes open. I see nothing at all, my senses for the moment ignoring the dim light I know must be there. I focus hard on the space above my torso. In my peripheral vision the moonlight begins to paint faint blue diamonds through curtains and across walls, but above me remains dark, and then the dark moves.

There is an absent mass atop me. It is not so much a form, though a rough protuberance from the dark shroud resembles that of a head with no neck. The weight is now crushing my chest and working its way over my body to my mouth, which struggles to open or summon air. The heavy shadow is inches away from my face, though somehow its presence is wrapped all around and pierces through me. I try to scream for help with my little remaining strength of body and will. At first nothing happens, my voice is trapped and strangled, then gradually it fades in. Although I feel the vibration from my throat, I hear my voice from another place, growing to a shrieking cacophony. I close my eyes and jolt forwards.

I find myself still on the sofa, not in bed at all. The loud shriek I could hear had presumably been mine, but I find myself only incomprehensibly muttering as my senses return. The room is still lit by the television that shows images of hillsides. Besides me, on the coffee table, the discarded packaging of the sleeping tablets lay next to a drained glass of water. The spray is there also, but upon inspection I find it still sealed. I never used it; the tablets were stronger than I had accounted for and my intended actions must have formed my dreams as I unexpectedly slipped away.

To be sure of my senses I switch on the light and a familiar clarity resumes. I snap open the lid of the spray and treat myself before switching off the television with the remote. I remember at this point that there is no ‘off’ switch to be found on the unit itself. No matter how devious dreams can be there are always clues to be found. I carve myself a route of light to bed, being sure to switch on the next before the last is terminated. In this way I come to the top of the stairs and reach in through my bedroom door to flick the switch as my other hand rests on the landing light, ready to make the exchange. I press them simultaneously and something pops and fizzles. All lights go out.

The trip switches are in the basement. I don’t want to go down there. I am just a step away from sleep. I step into the dark bedroom.

It takes my eyes sometime to adjust, but adjust they do, and I marvel at how well rendered my dream of this place was before. The same tone of moonlight makes the same triangles on the same walls. The same shadows draw divisions. The bed is not made properly, and it even seems that under the sheets, the discarded clothes that I had suspected trapped me before are actually there. I reach under to extract them but my hand freezes as it meets the cold touch of a human foot. Someone is asleep in my bed.

I am suddenly and uncontrollably flooded with rage at this intruder in my real world. Without thought I crouch upon the shape under my duvet, pressing my legs against its legs and my hands around the wrists so that it cannot move. The person below the covers stirs and tries to fight the pressure. I move my knees up to its chest and I feel the ridges of ribs through the sheets. It gurgles pathetically in its throat and twitches below me. I catch the glint of a reddened eye through a slowly opening lid: the wretch is terrified. Somehow I feel I can take away its breath without the need to smother. I inhale deeply, the stimulated and widened arches of my nasal passages taking in vast swathes of air, of life, away from the room and the creature below me. All the thing can do is exhale desperately and I am there to draw the terror out, to never let it ever breathe again.

I am there, and I am here. I lean down and look closely into the diminishing eyes. They are mine. The last of the air shrieks out from my crushed self and I jolt forwards into nothing.

When I awake I find myself still on the sofa, not in bed at all. The room is lit by the glow of the mute television which shows images of nightshades. I hear noises from upstairs.

THE END.