Friday, 23 August 2019

From the Cheese Cave to the End of Days


'My friend Jeremy will be in Dallas,' Bess said. 'We need to go.'

'We need to go to Dallas?'

'Yes. He has a one man show. The cats will be okay for one night and I haven't seen him in ages.'

'He has a one man show?'

'Yes, and it's in Dallas.'

'Despite our having been married for eight years, this is the first time you've ever mentioned anyone called Jeremy.'

'It is?'

'Yes, and that's why I have certain reservations as to the urgency of this proposed visit to Dallas even before we get to your use of the term one man show.'

'We've been friends for ages, since we were at school. I can't believe I've never mentioned him.'

'Well, maybe you have, but I already have a friend called Jeremy and it's not a very common name in my experience so I'm sure I would have noticed your mention of this additional Jeremy.'

'Well, we need to go to Dallas.'

'For a one man show?'

'Yeah. I don't know. It could be awful, but I have to see him. Even if it's really bad, it will still be exciting to go. We can visit Dealey Plaza.'

'Can't I just stay here? That way we won't have to worry about the cats. I hate leaving them on their own overnight. You should go and meet your friend and have fun.'

In the end we reach a compromise because Bess is similarly uncomfortable with the thought of leaving the cats unattended. We're going to set out early in the car, see Jeremy's one man show, then drive back the same day. It will be a long time spent on the highway, but we did it back in 2013 when we drove to Fort Worth to see a baby elephant then recently born at the local zoo. It's a bit of a hike, but we've done it before.

We leave at around nine. By ten we're already passing through Austin, which seems weird. Austin is usually to be found at the conclusion of a long road trip, but the travel time has passed more quickly on this occasion with Austin now marking off just one segment of a greater distance.

Bess explains how she first encountered Jeremy during a school trip to Washington DC. The trip brought together kids from all across the country rather than from any one specific school, and she and Jeremy were in the same hotel. They hit it off immediately and have kept in touch ever since.

The next major conurbation through which we pass following Austin is Temple. I look at the map and deduce that we should be in Dallas shortly after midday. We've been on the road since nine, it's now eleven, and Temple isn't far short of Waco which looks like two thirds of the total distance to me. We've been listening to a CD of a lecture by Howard Zinn entitled Stories Hollywood Never Tells, about political bias in the movie industry. Andy Martin gave me the CD many years ago and I recall having once found it interesting and enlightening. We tend to listen to either spoken word or stand up comedy on our road trips, and Howard Zinn seemed like a good choice as I hadn't heard the thing in a long, long time. Unfortunately, whilst I continue to sympathise with Zinn's general position, he pauses and mutters and doesn't seem to speak well in public, and there are a whole string of movies conveying anti-establishment, anti-war, or otherwise left-leaning messages to refute his theory; which leaves him sounding like your archetypal whining snowflake - as I believe is the current nominative - and this is a realisation which places me in the company of your archetypal whining Trumpanzee, which is awkward. Bess feels the same so we eject the disc.

Approaching Waco, we begin to notice billboards advertising the Cheese Cave.

'The what?' Bess asks, having missed the billboard.

'It's a cave, probably one of the old mine shafts where they used to dig for cheese,' I propose.

'We need to go there.'

Traffic slows as we come into Waco.

'We could just go to the Cheese Cave and tell Jeremy the traffic was too bad,' I suggest.

'I'm tempted.'

We crawl along, idly making an assessment of the city of Waco based on what can be seen from the highway. We already know they have a Cheese Cave. They also seem to have something to do with a mammoth. Inevitably we get onto the subject of David Koresh and whether or not the city has chosen to remember him with a statue, or at least a blue plaque. Realistically we both know that a theme park would be expecting too much.

By now, we're both hungry. We make several attempts to dine at branches of Cracker Barrel, an eating establishment dedicated to the dining requirements of crackers such as ourselves, but it's Father's Day so the parking lots are all crammed and with lines of customers trailing out of the entrance awaiting seating. We settle for Heitmiller Steakhouse, and Bess takes the opportunity to learn more of the Cheese Cave by reading about it through the agency of her phone. Apparently it's a store selling all sorts of cheese, so we definitely need to go there at some point.

Duly fed and watered, we return to the road. Dallas, when we arrive about an hour later, reminds me of Austin. At least the city centre has the same look about it, which I didn't expect. I think of this as being my third trip to this locality, but the two previous visits were actually to Fort Worth, the neighbouring conurbation which I've tended to regard as being simply west Dallas, at least up until now.

Dallas, the TV show, was pretty big when I was a kid growing up in England. Its influence was such as to have impacted upon the language of myself and my peers, specifically in the coining of a verb, to do a Dallas. Holding two slats of a window blind apart with one's fingers whilst peering out at an approaching visitor, perhaps with a look of suspicion forming upon one's face, was doing a Dallas. I seem to recall that Sue Ellen Ewing spent quite a lot of screen time doing a Dallas, and presume that's where it came from. It seems that I must have watched Dallas, and enough so as to negate the need for anyone to have explained the verb to me, but it was a long time ago and all I can otherwise remember are grassy plains, skyscrapers, and big hats. So this is, after all, a new thing for me.

We pass what curiously resembles a British pub, then find ourselves at Theatre Three. Jeremy's one man show will be performed in the basement, in a subsidiary venue wittily named Theatre Too, and we're here with twenty minutes to spare, which seems like good timing. We purchase drinks in special theatrical sippy cups from a goth wearing a Church of Satan pendant, then head downstairs.

Jeremy sees us in the queue - which isn't too surprising given that the queue comprises just Bess and myself - and is overjoyed that we've made it. Introductions are effected, breeze is shot, and I am relieved to realise that he's a nice guy. This is because my wife is disinclined to befriend arseholes.

The show, which is called Keeping Up With the Jorgensons, isn't well attended, just five or six of us for whatever reason, but is nevertheless an exceptional performance of a wonderful piece of writing. Jeremy spends an hour talking us through the events of a road trip taken with his father when he was a kid. It's both hilarious and horrifying, and most impressive is that I somehow forget I'm watching one man playing all of the parts - himself as a kid, his father, grandfather, neighbours and others; all are brought to life in detail so agonisingly plausible that you can almost smell the booze and the foot odour. It's exhausting to watch, but in a good way.

The hour is up. Jeremy comes out to take a bow, seemingly unconcerned by the poor turnout, and Bess and I get back on the road. The woman who sold us our tickets said something about a tornado warning, which is worrying. Back upstairs, we stare from the theatre doors at a Biblical deluge where before there was sun. We were going to take a look at Dealey Plaza, but this changes things; and Jeremy was supposed to be heading off to the airport to catch his flight immediately after the performance, so it probably changes things for him too. We run for the car, having reasoned that it may get worse, and maybe we can get ourselves out of Dallas before it hits.

It takes less than a minute to get to the car but we are both soaked by heavy blobs of rainfall sluicing from the heavens. We drive cautiously around Dallas, back onto the highway. The streets empty as everyone else takes cover. The sky darkens and we hear thunder. Visibility drops and the vehicle in front reduces to red lights in the dark grey haze of noisy water.

Back at Theatre Too, the woman selling tickets showed us the animated weather forecast, horizontal waves moving west across Dallas and Fort Worth. It looked as though we would be okay south of the city, with the storm proposed to hit Waco no sooner than 6.30PM, and it's only just gone four. I try hard to keep from visualising our car sucked up into the sky.

The rain eases a little and the sky brightens, but the roads are still slick with water and the car hydroplanes across the highway from time to time. Bess grips the wheel and drives slowly.

'It looks okay up ahead,' I suggest.

'Yes,' she says, 'once we're clear of the city…'

The sky darkens, thunder cracks, the rain renews its efforts, and this happens over and over for the next hundred miles or so. Sometimes we even see a thin stretch of blue running along the horizon or hit a dry patch of highway allowing us to go a little faster, but then I look away and when I turn back the storm has somehow revived itself. Lightning flashes, our wheels lose traction, and golfball hailstones batter the car, on and off for the next couple of hours, all the way through Waco, and then Temple. At one point a lightning bolt strikes a light pole about fifty feet away, so quick and loud it makes us both jump. The light at the top of the pole seems to explode and it resembles a special effect.

It's after six as we approach Austin, with more and more blue sky somewhere ahead of us. We're hungry so we stop in at a Cracker Barrel, reasonably confident that it will have cleared by the time we've eaten. We eat and the rain is harder than ever as we once again run for the car.

We drive slow, and eventually it no longer feels as though we're driving through the Biblical end of days, and it's after nine by the time we get home. We survived, and next time we'll go looking for that Cheese Cave.

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Emergency Veterinary Clinic


There's something wrong with Fluffy, our eldest cat. He seems fine, and it isn't as though he's acting any different, but for two nights running we've found pools of urine containing traces of blood, and Fluffy is the main suspect. Bess is so worried that we take him to the emergency veterinary clinic. It's seven in the evening, Saturday night.

Fluffy - which is his nickname - is about nine, maybe ten. His actual name is Scarface - chosen by the boy after his class learned about some similarly named Native American hero at school - but I've never been able to bring myself to address him as such because it sounds pompous and pretentious; and he is, by some definition, my best friend.

The internet is full of persons who routinely pour scorn on those of us who like cats. Apparently it means we are emotional weaklings, tantamount to adults who coo over stuffed toys and who probably watch weepy films with our understanding, sensitive partners when we could be out killin' sump'n with a gun in the good honest company of a pit bull or similar. I find it difficult to take such inane Nietzschean bleatings seriously. Anyone cracking jokes about drowning cats in sacks of bricks or quipping that our latest batch of kittens would make ideal bar snacks for their dog can similarly fuck off too. You're not funny. You're just a fucking twat.

I spend more time with cats than I do with human beings. I feel I have come to understand them fairly well. We remain different species and so have variant priorities, but we nevertheless communicate regardless of their inability to either speak or understand English. There are cable channels full of admittedly often twee documentaries about animal companionship, goats who hang out with a favourite horse, the dog which has raised a litter of baby bunnies as its own, and so on. It no longer seems meaningful to regard myself as superior or senior simply by virtue of opposable thumbs and the fact of my traipsing to the store to buy cat food. I look after them, I enjoy their friendship, and that is more than enough. They're more like small people who share our home, and I have achieved more meaningful exchanges with my cats than I have with the majority of human beings I've met, because the simple fact of a common language has no bearing on the quality of that which is communicated. Fluffy's happiness is therefore important to me.

Fluffy doesn't much like being in the cat carrier, and is loudly expressing his reservations. This is where the absence of a common language is particularly unfortunate, and there's very little I can do to put him at ease.

We answer questions at the reception desk. Yes, we've been here before, specifically when Holly broke her leg. The treatment ended up costing six-thousand dollars so we remember it well.

We take a seat and wait as instructed.

An assistant comes to escort Fluffy to the surgery, to where the vet will take a look at him.

We continue to wait in the reception area. There's a flat screen TV on the wall showing Saturday Night Live, one of the episodes which is mostly gales of laughter greeting nothing I actually understand or find funny. Ten minutes pass, then twenty.

We are called into one of the smaller rooms. The vet will be with us in just a moment, the assistant tells us before leaving us alone. Opposite the door through which we were admitted is a second door leading through to the surgery. We can hear Fluffy meowing in distress somewhere in the building, a plaintive wail every ten seconds or so. The room is a little warmer than I like and we don't even have the television as a distraction.

Last time we took Fluffy to the vet, he wailed and meowed and then magically transformed into the world's most sociable cat once the vet showed up. His meowing therefore indicates that he's still in the cat carrier, waiting his turn.

The veterinarian comes in after about twenty minutes, asks the same questions we've already answered, and then talks about what she's going to do and what she will look for as though seeking our approval for this proposed course of action. I don't understand why she's telling us this instead of just getting on with it. We ourselves have no actual veterinary training, which is why we came here seeking the expertise of someone who does; and twenty fucking minutes is not in just a moment.

She will be back in just another couple of minutes, she tells us.

We are alone again, Fluffy distantly wailing through the walls of the building. The proposed couple of minutes, once counted, come to around thirty. I'm not happy.

The veterinarian returns and tells us that Fluffy has a small bladder, an ambiguous statement which we later take to mean that his bladder presently has limited capacity due to being mostly taken up by a growth. She doesn't actually use the word cancer, but she doesn't need to. She talks about treatments which, by her own admission, aren't likely to have much effect. She discusses the cost of these treatments, effecting a weird pantomime of how we're all in this together and why oh why do vets charge so much as she rolls her eyes and sighs at the injustice of medical bills. Amongst all of this blather is the implication that Fluffy has a growth. Our veterinarian is unable to be any more specific, because if it is cancer, it may be of the kind which crumbles when manhandled, making it more likely to spread, leaving it all the more difficult to treat. In other words, we're not going to check for cancer in case it's cancer and the investigative procedure gives him cancer, which he probably already has.

We just want to take him home by this point. Fluffy has had a good ten years and is presently still fine. We're not going to pay thousands of dollars for a treatment which will extend his life by months at the most, has no guarantee of working, and will additionally cause him further distress. It's hard enough ejecting him from the bedroom before we go to bed. Chemotherapy would finish him off.

We just want to take him home by this point, but if we wait just a few more minutes, they'll bring him out to us and sort out some antibiotics in case the thing we can't yet name is infected in any way.

We sit in the waiting room for what feels like an hour.

The receptionist resembles Chassie Tucker from At Home with Amy Sedaris. Each time I catch sight of her forearm I think why doesn't she get that fucking thing removed?, and each time I realise that it isn't a birthmark but a really shitty tattoo, a big dark splotch which only resembles a rose if you get close. She has other tattoos of the kind suggesting a kid without much of an attention span absently doodling on himself with a biro during a particularly boring lesson - I Love You, amongst other heartfelt sentiments. I'm sure she's wonderful but everything is annoying me right now.

Elsewhere in the reception area, a teenager gets excited as the flat screen fills with some generic autotuned superstar singing a sappy song, Girl, You're My Girl, Girl or something of the sort. The artist accompanies himself on a glittering piano. The teenager sings along, not in the least self-conscious. She knows all of the words.

We are customers, and medicine - whether human or animal - is a business. If its custodians cared so much as they clearly would like to have us believe, the charges wouldn't be anything like so arbitrary - two hundred for the consultation, three for the treatment, another two for something else they've just cooked up which hasn't entailed any financial outlay on their part; but they'll charge because they can. I already understood this to be how it worked, so it isn't a revelation.

This latest instalment of just a few more minutes is actually forty. We're called into another room because they're just going to bring our cat so we can take him home. Fifteen minutes later I open the inner door to the surgery. I see three members of staff doing something or other, a row of cages, no-one actually paying attention to me.

'Any danger of getting our cat back?' I ask with considerable restraint, 'It's been fifteen minutes, which definitely seems a lot longer than we're just going to get him.'

The three look at me but say nothing.

The veterinarian reappears. 'I'll be just a moment,' she says.

Five minutes later we are reunited with Fluffy. He's meowing a lot. He's not happy. None of us are.

A young man with a beard intones instructions for care of sick animals from a sheet of paper as though we'll be unable to read it ourselves. Few of the instructions apply to Fluffy. Eventually he gives us the promised antibiotics.

We leave. It's been almost three hours since we got here.

We don't know how long Fluffy has left, but he's happy right now, and obviously not in any pain. We've looked up the statistics and can't rule out the possibility that he may last a long time. It could be benign, or he could have just months left. We don't know.

Worth every fucking penny.

I think of all the poisonous shitheads who'll still be walking around oblivious for decades to come, and yet somehow the clock is ticking for my cat.

It's too much to have to think about.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Anatomy of an Unintentional Nazi Salute


I see her across the other side of the grocery section in my local HEB - our local HEB because I knew she also shopped here. I knew it could only be a matter of months before our paths crossed once more, and that it would be awkward; although at the same time, having been struck from my list of acquaintances, she's someone I never expected to see again, and so somehow - just for a second - I don't recognise her.

My wife signed on to a social networking site called Meet Me, or something of the sort. She was spying on her friend's husband, acting in the capacity of both concerned friend and private detective. She described the site as a car crash of angry, unloveable losers and as such found it unwittingly entertaining. This is how she met Kelli - who likewise passed time on the site chortling at misspelt tattoos proudly displayed or people posing with their guns or fighting dogs - and it turned out that Kelli lived in our neighbourhood.

As they became friends, Kelli explained that she too was in a relationship with a person from across the other side of the Atlantic. Whilst Bess and myself were now married, Kelli remained regrettably separate from her partner, the bass player of some death metal band over in Sweden. Occasionally she'd phone or text, needing a sympathetic ear or a virtual shoulder to cry on because she hadn't heard from her hunky Swede in over a year.

'What do you think is wrong?' she asked my wife. 'Do you think it could be over between the two of us?'

The most recent email she'd received from the guy hinted at his seeing someone else. 'What do you think he meant?' Kelli wailed.

Kelli worked as a merchandising manager for some company which routinely sent her out on tour across the country with bands such as Aerosmith. On one such occasion she needed someone to go in and feed Buster, her cat, for a couple of weeks, and Bess obliged. There was also an occasion during which Kelli somehow ended up in jail at the other end of the country, and Bess once again stepped in to feed poor Buster.

I'd just finished painting a book cover, the one for
The Brakespeare Voyage by Simon Bucher-Jones and Jonathan Dennis, so far as I recall. The cover had taken me a long time but I was pleased with the result, as were the authors and publisher. My wife posted a photograph of it on facebook. Kelli responded with a meme, an image of Mike Myers' Austin Powers character grinning inanely whilst holding up an inept looking sketch, something of comically poor execution.

Did somebody say something about a drawing? ran the caption.

The joke is that the comedy Brit is showing us his drawing, but he doesn't realise that it's shit. Ha ha.

This struck me as fucking rude coming from someone I'd never met and who had presumably deduced my character to be an assemblage of hilarious clichés about drinking tea and playing jolly old cricket with Prince Charles. It particularly bothered me because I've always viewed the
Austin Powers movies as fucking shite.

Fuck you, Kelli, I thought to myself.

It sinks in. I've seen her here in HEB before. Last time she was stood in the queue at the place where people cash cheques or arrange insurance or whatever that thing is. She was dressed like a 1950s teenager, cut-off denims revealing cellulite, and with way too many polka dots for a woman in her fifties - a look which serves only to accentuate how many years have passed since she was a teenager. This is all down to a hitherto unsuspected fascination with the Stray Cats - a rockabilly revival band amounting to what the Cramps would have sounded like had they been formed by Michael J. Fox.

Kelli's next drama was when the former drummer of Slipknot kidnapped her cat. She moved to a different apartment, was somehow tracked down by this famous ex-boyfriend, and so he kidnapped Buster as part of some poorly defined act of revenge for something or other which wasn't quite clear. Bess and I began to wonder about Kelli. She was unreliable, regularly agreeing to meet but then failing to show, and her accounts of herself began to seem increasingly far-fetched. Also, there were the selfies on facebook, a new one every fucking day and always with some weird filter which smooths out the wrinkles, transforming the subject into a sparkly-eyed anime character. We had met her in real life, so we knew what she actually looked like - an aging Siouxsie Sioux with the biggest nose you've ever seen, about an inch of foundation, and the sort of chin only Basil Wolverton could truly capture - all of which at least explained the angle from which she took her daily facebook selfies, head on so as to disguise the enormity of that hooter, looking up into the lens with the big brown eyes of a Japanese child.

We met her in real life at a bar on Broadway in the company of her friend, Greg, a surly Vietnam veteran who ignored us for the entire hour that we were there. Maybe we were cramping his style.

She broke up with the uncommunicative death metal bass player from Sweden, and announced there was someone else in her life. The only problem was that this one lived in England. He came to America and we met him. He seemed okay, but I couldn't help but wonder if he knew what he was getting into with Kelli.

Kelli had seemingly given up on
Meet Me, her energies being devoted to cyberstalking Greg's new girlfriend. She couldn't help but wonder if Greg knew what he was getting into with this woman.

They had never met in person, but she was moving to San Antonio to buy a house, and the two of them were going to get married. They already knew they were made for each other due to a mutual love of buttplugs. Kelli found this hilarious and took delight in sharing what information she could glean with my wife.

Then one day, Bess found herself blocked from all of Kelli's social media accounts. I asked the latest transatlantic boyfriend whether he had any idea what could have happened. Kelli told him that Bess had sent her a message which seemed abrupt and rude, gloating over Greg and his buttplug-based relationship whilst failing to enquire after Kelli's wellbeing, like Kelli was just a source of cheap laughs. My wife was puzzled and went through all the crap stored on her smartphone, eventually finding the conversation which had given such offence. It bore no relation to what Kelli described because neither Bess nor myself had particularly taken to Greg and had found it difficult to care about what he chose to stick up his ass and with whom.

Inevitably we began to wonder, because the pattern had become difficult to miss. Was her cat really kidnapped by the drummer of Slipknot? If someone took any of my cats I'd move heaven and earth to get them back. Maybe she simply moved to an apartment with a no pets policy, we figured; and never mind the drummer from Slipknot, had the Swedish death metal bassist even existed? Even if he had, did six months of transatlantic silence not suggest that the relationship was probably done? Maybe there hadn't even been a buttplug woman moving to San Antonio to buy a house. Maybe that was Kelli as well. Who fucking knows?


Now I remember that we are no longer on such great terms, and that this meeting is therefore awkward; but it's too late. She's seen me. I've seen her. She's seen that I've seen her and vice versa. My arm flies up to wave just as I would greet any other person. By the time my arm is at full elevation I've realised that Kelli is not to be greeted. I lower my arm and quickly look the other way, realising that the gesture probably resembled a Nazi salute; and as I head for the section where they keep the beer I realise I am quietly satisfied with this thought.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Nearly New Kids on the Block


'Look,' my wife chuckled, holding her smartphone so I could see the screen. 'Someone dug up New Kids on the Block.'

I squinted at the tiny font and saw that New Kids on the Block were playing at the AT&T Centre on the 16th of May. 'They'll be a bit long in the tooth by now, surely. I'm surprised trades descriptions aren't after them if they're still going by that name - assuming we have something like the trades descriptions act here.'

We both chuckled and then rededicated ourselves to viewing Wheel of Fortune, smiling as a contestant to whom we had both taken an immediate dislike submitted an obviously wrong answer.

My wife's smartphone rang.

'Hello,' she answered. 'What's up?'

'What are you doing on the 16th of May?' asked Will, her brother.

'Well, I know I won't be going to see New Kids on the Block,' Bess laughed. She laughed because she knew that there was no way her brother would be interested in going to see New Kids on the Block, and he'd be sure to find it funny.

Nevertheless, here we are. A few weeks have passed and we're at the AT&T Centre, myself, my wife, and my brother-in-law. The New Kids are still alive, still performing, and are engaged in something called the Mixtape Tour. This means not only the hits, but appearances by Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Salt-N-Pepa, and Naughty by Nature, so it's mostly an eighties nostalgia thing - a concert based on the sort of stuff which would have ended up on a cassette tape, although not one of my cassette tapes which is why both Esplendor Geometrico and Portion Control remain conspicuously absent from the bill. Personally I don't have a whole lot of nostalgia for the eighties, and particularly not the stretch inhabited by the New Kids, but it's a night out and I figured Naughty by Nature might be approximately worth a look.

Will is here because he's a massive Debbie Gibson fan. He's a very complicated man.

I don't know anything about Debbie Gibson, other than that herself and Tiffany were presented as examples of everything which was wrong with music at the end of the eighties by the comedian Bill Hicks. The routine in which Hicks presents this argument daringly goes against the consensus by suggesting that the music of both Tiff and Debbie was ephemeral and therefore inferior to that of fucken' Hendrix, man. The routine was additionally of such macho shithead composition as to put me off bothering with any further Bill Hicks material ever again and, if anything, to leave me slightly better disposed towards both Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, as people if not as recording artists.

Back in the eighties I was in a band called the Dovers. We hosted a competition during one of our gigs - whoever applauded the loudest would win a copy of our album. The punchline was that our album was a copy of Tiffany's debut which Carl, our singer, had come by at his place of work, a design studio specialising in record covers. We never said it was something we had actually recorded, only that it was an album owned by ourselves.

Ha ha.

Tiffany's cover of I Think We're Alone Now was one of the songs on that record. As for Debbie Gibson, the title Electric Youth rings a bell, but her celebrity otherwise passed me by; and I always thought The Right Stuff by New Kids on the Block was a great song, but have no idea what happened to them after that.

Weren't they one of those dance routine based outfits? Wasn't Mark Wahlberg a member? I wonder whether they managed to lure him back to the fold, given that he's clearly a busy man these days.

Anyway, we're here and I'm sure that all of my questions will either receive answers or else cease to matter in the fullness of time. The AT&T Centre is enormous, on a scale sufficient for basketball and rodeo events, and nevertheless the place is swarming for a phenomenon long past its sell by date. It feels as though we're at an airport as we migrate towards the section of the arena in which we are to be seated. It seems incredible that this bunch could inspire such a turn out thirty years since they could legitimately be described as kids. There are a great many women in their early forties who would have been teenagers when The Right Stuff hit the charts, but the age range of tonight's audience varies wildly, including even men. We see a few women togged out in dayglo rap gear with big hoopy earrings - actually more TLC than Salt-N-Pepa, so far as I recall - but mostly it's fans of the New Kids, big gangs of them, possibly even a few hen parties. More than once I'm fooled into thinking I've spotted someone from the cast of Orange is the New Black.

Will is after a T-shirt so we join one of the many queues. After ten minutes I go and buy a beer, then come back. I've had two beers by the time we get to the front of the queue although to be fair I may be drinking fast, and it turns out that this particular concession is out of Debbie Gibson merchandise. We retrace our steps and find another concession, one with Debbie Gibson T-shirts on display.

Some of us grew up listening to NKOTB, reads the shirt of one woman who passes us by. The cool ones still do, is the punchline on the reverse of the garment. I'm apparently on that planet where New Kids on the Block were cool.

Music starts up.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

I wander over to the entrance for the nearest terrace and draw back the curtain. I'm gazing down into an entertainment grand canyon. Termite trails of fans shuffle towards their seats over on the far side. A rapper and a DJ are at work upon a circular podium at the heart of the auditorium, about a hundred feet below where I'm stood. This is the warm up act, Illtown Sluggaz which is something to do with Naughty by Nature without actually being Naughty by Nature. They sport baseball clobber and the DJ wears a cartoon bear head, like a sports mascot. He looks fucking ridiculous and I feel an involuntary shudder of disgust that I, a fully grown man, should be presented with this Disney teddy as entertainment.

'Everybody put your hands in the air,' suggests the rapper, 'and wave them like you just don't care.'

The DJ segues a few bars of Material Girl into a few bars of The Final Countdown into a few bars of Walk This Way - hits of the eighties, and everyone cheers because they recognise the songs. It doesn't matter that more than half of the songs are shite, because familiarity is the point. To my ears, it may as well be Peter Kay asking who remembers Curly Wurly or Crackerjack. I am more or less watching the twenty-first century version of Jive Bunny

'Everybody make some noise!'

I turn to rejoin my wife and brother-in-law, who has at last bagged himself some Debbie Gibson merchandise. We resume the Tolkienesque pilgrimage towards our section, ascending an escalator to the upper floor past vast stylised murals of the San Antonio Spurs and their mascot, a man in the suit of a chubby coyote with googly green eyes suggesting substance abuse - to me, but apparently to no-one else in the entire city. You would think that being able to afford this futurist space station of a venue, the Spurs could at least slip some grade school kid a few dollars to come up with a less-creepy mascot.

Our seats are on the back row, up against the rear wall, almost in the roof. The incline of the terrace seems perilously steep, certainly more than forty-five degrees, although at least we shouldn't have any trouble seeing the stage, which is still occupied by a man wearing a cartoon bear head playing snippets of Can't Fight this Feeling, The Heat is On, and other crowd pleasers. Gazing upwards, I have a view of the underside of the roof structure criss-crossed with monumental air conditioning, pipes large enough to facilitate escaping prisoners. It feels as though we're underneath the USCSS Nostromo from the movie Alien.

The venue fills to capacity, not an empty seat to be seen. A larger stage is set up against the far side, facing the central podium upon which the Illtown Sluggaz skillfully play short excerpts of familiar songs. This larger stage is picked out in neon strips delineating the shape of a huge cassette tape, and the screen behind is suddenly illuminated. We are shown a short film of the individual members of New Kids on the Block as they are now, mowing the lawn, renewing home insurance, riding a horse, having a colonoscopy…

The crowd go wild.

The face of Donny Wahlburg - brother of Mark, hence my confusion - fills the screen. He holds up a smartphone. He tells us we need to download an app called Appix in order to get the most from tonight's performance, which raises all sorts of questions that I can't be bothered to think about.

'I love you, Donny!' screams the forty-year old woman sat next to me, and she really screams, just like those teenagers in the black and white footage of the Beatles. Now the New Kids take to the stage, five tiny figures dancing upon a giant cassette tape which now has The Way written across it in neon as though by an invisible giant, that being the name of the song they are performing. A woman I uncharitably come to think of as Fat Snooky stands in her seat, directly in front of me, blocking my view. I can see only her silhouette, but what I can see suggests Snooky from Jersey Shore. The women of the three seats adjacent to Fat Snooky also stand. The terrace is at such a profound incline that my knee is higher than the top of the head of the person seated in front, and yet Fat Snooky and her friends somehow need a better view, placing me in the position of being unable to watch something I'm actually not that bothered about seeing, or wasn't until my view was so rudely obstructed.

I poke in the ear plugs as the New Kids go into My Favourite Girl. This reduces the volume, cuts out some of the distortion, and the music actually sounds sort of listenable as a result, even though it's New Kids on the Block. Despite believing that The Right Stuff was okay, they were never my sort of thing. It never bothered me that they were manufactured so much as that most of their material is quite clearly designed to make young girls go week at the knees, and its effect on me is therefore minimal. Beyond that, I'll concede that they have decent voices, and certainly with more actual soul than is the case with most boy bands; but the bottom line is that I couldn't give a fuck about dance routines, and I dislike the sort of blandly efficient corporate emoting which has been normalised by shows such as America's Got Talent and the rest. I thought we'd got rid of it all in the seventies, but somehow it came back bigger and more powerful than ever, much like an X-Men villain.

The writing on the giant cassette tape announces I Think We're Alone Now and on comes Tiffany. She seems older and a little more grizzled, but the on-screen close-up shows the face of a regular person. She reminds me of Wendy. She doesn't look as though she's had any facial surgery, and her make-up is just kind of average. Most surprising of all is that she has a rich, powerful voice, the sort you might associate with a few of the more ruthlessly authentic country artists. I'm sure she didn't sound like this as a teenager in the eighties. I'm impressed in spite of myself.

Tiff is followed by Debbie Gibson who accompanies herself on a piano which emerges from the plastic window of the giant cassette tape. She doesn't seem familiar, aside from a passing disconcerting resemblance to Debbie McGee, wife of the late Paul Daniels. Just like Tiff, she too has a surprisingly powerful voice, and I guess her piano is the only live instrument we'll be hearing this evening. She's knocking out a ballad which sounds like the sort of thing you hear on the aforementioned America's Got Talent. It's not to my taste at all, but I am warmed by just how wrong the late Bill Hicks has turned out to have been regarding this woman's musical chops.

Salt-N-Pepa are up next. I actually have a few bits and pieces of Salt-N-Pepa in my collection. They date from the era of mainstream rap having been mostly annoying and reliant on cheesy nursery rhyme style hooks, and there's only so much of that stuff I can listen to. Salt-N-Pepa give us the hits and are actually pretty entertaining. They perform with an authenticity, a certain rough, lively edge which I hadn't anticipated. It's also pretty clear that they're having a whale of a time, and the audience picks up on this too.

The New Kids return to the stage.

'You know, they said we wouldn't last,' bellows Donnie.

They would presumably be the critics. I don't specifically recall anyone doubting the longevity of New Kids on the Block, the major criticism being that they were manufactured and therefore shit, but never mind. The performance suddenly takes a peculiarly post-modern turn as we're treated to a slide show of other boy bands, everyone from New Edition to the Stylistics, reminding us that the form has occasionally thrown up a song which even miserable cunts such as myself have to grudgingly admit is decent. This is a preamble to Boys in the Band, a new song celebrating the history of boy bands, which is easily the weirdest number of the evening.

Next they tell us how happy they all are to be right here in San Antonio, which pleases the crowd no end. Houston and Austin are both called out as having played host to previous evenings of New Kids magic, which is greeted by good-natured booing from the audience of one-hundred thousand. Anyway, the point is that they like  Texas, a declaration prompting a verse of Deep in the Heart of Texas, but all I can hear are the four quick handclaps which conclude each bar and remind me of The Birdie Song. Next comes the Selena tribute - which of course we've all been waiting for seeing as how Selena was a local and all, and which is essentially karaoke, mostly sung by one lucky young Latina randomly picked out of the audience. I suppose it's the thought that counts.

'You know, life is precious,' Donnie waxes philosophically as preface to a ponderous spoken interlude, doubtless inspired by Selena's passing, and the truism that we're none of us getting any younger.

'I love you, Donnie,' screams my neighbour.

The boys briefly jig to the very worst hits of the eighties in illustration of our all having been younger than we are right now - Living on a Prayer, Eye of the Tiger, and others I would ordinarily cross the road to avoid. Naughty by Nature take the stage, and I realise I had erroneously recalled them as having incorporated Nature, the Queensbridge rapper who famously worked with Nas.

Naughty by Nature are best known for their hit OPP, the central thesis of which is that one should keep an open mind when it comes to nobbing persons already confirmed to be engaged in a sexually monogamous relationship with a third party. I have OPP on some CD somewhere so I've heard it plenty of times, and yet I still don't remember the track. I don't even remember how it goes right now even as it is being performed live on the stage in front of me. The rest of the set is convincing and energetic, but I still can't quite get away from it being just a couple of blokes rubbing their lips together on a podium accompanied by a twat in a cartoon bear head. The words are just a pointless rhythm from where I'm sat.

Blu-blub-blublu-blu-blu-bluh-blu-bluh! That's right y'all.

Salt-N-Pepa return, and then it all begins to blend into a gushing noise that's been going on far too long, unless you're here for more sincere reasons than I am. I have a notebook on my person, and I've been scribbling away for the duration of the performance, the current stretch of which is acknowledged thus:




We conclude with some spiel about how the best people are those who grew up in the eighties, then a song along the lines of you're my eighties girl, which somehow begins to feel a bit Readers' Wives; and then everyone is on stage doing everything at once for a while.

Fat Snooky and her pals make their way to the aisle. Three hours of their bobbing ponytails have left me with an impression of four young girls with Croydon facelifts - even that I've spent this time back in south-east London - but in profile I see that none of them are much younger than myself, and we're still in Texas in the year 2019. We've all had a great time, even if I've had a great time for the wrong reasons; and Will particularly has had a great time, which was the main point as this has been something to do with his upcoming birthday. The woman sat in the next seat along has apparently spent the last three hours hitting on him, but he found her advances a little weird, which is understandable.

He settles into one his monologues in the car on the way back, softly spoken and very witty with the confidence of a man who has more than earned the right to not give a shit about what anyone else thinks of his dedication to Debbie Gibson. The monologue is born from notes compared about staying at Edi's house when she used to live in Houston. Bess recalls a home which was quite different to that which Will remembers. His story expands to include a period of infirmity at Edi's place, confined to bed watching a stretch of late night television dedicated to Mariah Carey; then finding himself somehow about to buy a Mariah Carey album.

'What am I doing?'

He recreates his own reaction, disbelief mixed with horror, leaving me laughing for more or less the rest of the car journey. As with everything, not least being New Kids on the Block, I guess you had to be there.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Doctor, No


Six months before I moved to Texas I had a blood test. The results came back confirming my being in possession of so much cholesterol that I could have caught fire at any moment, and that my blood pressure was so high as to facilitate my fighting crime as a sort of blood-gusher-based superhero by opening a vein and blasting criminals with a high-pressure geyser of claret.

'It's winter and everywhere is frozen,' I explained to my doctor, 'I've been sat on my arse for the last six weeks, but okay - I'll make the effort to get out and about a bit more.'

She wasn't having it and prescribed Simvastatin, which struck me as a little premature seeing as I felt fine. I had the feeling she was just really into writing out prescriptions.

After three days of taking the drug, I hadn't slept for so much as five minutes, hadn't even felt drowsy, and I wanted to kill myself. By suggesting that I wanted to kill myself, I don't mean to imply that I felt a little bit glum and went around with a frowny face. I mean that I wanted to kill myself. I therefore stopped taking the pills and immediately felt better.

My doctor told me off, saying that I should have consulted her before quitting the prescribed medication and that I'd been very irresponsible.

'It's because I couldn't sleep and wanted to kill myself,' I explained.

'Of course, there are sometimes minor problems of that nature,' she admitted, 'but side effects usually pass after the first couple of weeks.'

'I would have killed myself by then.'

I refused further medication, instead knuckling down to riding my bike fifteen miles each day regardless of ice and snow. Six months later I underwent another medical examination at a Harley Street practice, as required by the immigration people. My cholesterol was fine and my blood pressure was normal.

Gosh.

More recently I underwent a medical examination at the Oakwell Farms medical center, something required by my medical insurance. I came close to weighing 210lbs before Christmas and had therefore been trying to get my weight down, mainly just through increased exercise and less snacking. It seemed to be working, and I was down to about 194lbs when I went for the medical.

'Shouldn't I take off my clothes or something?' I asked.

'No. Just get on the scale,' said the nurse. 'Do you know how much you weigh?'

'I was 194lbs this morning.'

'Well, you're 205lbs now.'

'That would probably be the boots and the three layers of clothing.'

The examination was over in minutes and struck me as lacking attention to detail. The results came back confirming I had more cholesterol than anyone who had ever lived in the entire history of triglycerides, and my blood pressure was so high that I could have severed my feet at the ankles and blasted myself off into outer space like a human rocket.

The results pissed me off so I ignored them. For one thing, my blood pressure was usually normal when I had it checked at the periodontist's office three or four times a year.

Another couple of months later I decided to have yet another medical examination. It seemed like high time I should have a doctor stick his finger up my arse in search of prostate cancer, and I figured I might as well have a proper check up on the same ticket. I was exercising every day, losing weight and doing well, so I wanted to know just how well because the previous examination had been a bit of a joke.

The nurse weighed me, stood me next to a tape measure, filled five big Cumberland sausage sized test tubes with blood, and asked a string of questions.

Do you smoke?

How much do you drink?

How many fingers am I holding up?

Can you tell me the name of the president?


I pulled a face answering the last one, and so did she.

The doctor came in.

'Are you going to stick a finger up my arse?' I enquired.

'No. No. There's no need. Cancer screening is all part of the blood test these days.'

'Okay.'

'I see that you smoke,' he said happily.

'No.'

'You don't smoke?'

'No, I don't.'

He seemed disappointed. 'Well, your blood pressure is a little high.'

'Is it really?'

'Yes, if I could—'

'I can tell you now, I'm not taking statins.'

'Statins are used to treat cholesterol, not high blood pressure.'

'Oh okay.'

'Well, perhaps we'd better wait until the results of this latest blood test come back.'

We waited, but I'd already knew I didn't like the guy. He was younger and fatter than myself, and I was somehow the wheezing porker in the equation. I could already sense him angling to prescribe something. He seemed to be fishing around in my medical history for anything he could work with. That was the impression I received, and the phone call came a few weeks later.

'The doctor urgently needs to discuss the results of your blood test. You have so much cholesterol that we've had to invent a new number by which to quantify it, and your blood pressure is such that at first we thought it was simply that Hulk Hogan was somehow living inside you.'

'Oh fuck off,' I didn't say, not actually slamming the phone down. I made an appointment, then cancelled it and made another for a day on which my wife would be able to come along, because she works in healthcare and is fairly adept at bullshit detection.

We were bang on time because they charge twenty-five dollars for missed appointments, a fine imposed because they could have spent those minutes curing someone, and healing the sick is the only thing with which they are concerned. Forty minutes later we were at last ushered into the presence of my doctor.

'You have a 13% chance of contracting heart disease before you reach seventy,' he smiled.

'Well, no-one lasts forever,' I said, 'and 13% - aren't those about the same odds as I have of being hit by a meteorite?'

My wife pointed out something statistical regarding the hereditary aspect of heart conditions such as the one which had an alleged 13% chance of killing me. I didn't really understand all of what she was saying, but the doctor did, and didn't really seem to have an answer for it, not directly.

'So, is there any history of heart disease in your family?'

'It isn't really a disease though, is it? I mean you can't have a stroke because you ate a sandwich with heart disease germs on it, or have I failed to understand some aspect of my impending doom?'

'It's a very real condition,' he said, apparently not having grasped my point. 'Do you know if anyone in your family has suffered with heart trouble?'

'No-one whatsoever, although significantly more or less all of them have had cancer, which was the actual reason I came here seeing as that seems a more pressing concern from where I'm sat.'

'Well, you're fine on that score.'

'That's good to know.'

'Everything is looking good aside from the cholesterol and the blood pressure.'

'Well, I'm not taking statins as I already told you.'

'Statins have come a long way and have been greatly improved over the last couple of years.'

'I don't care. I'm still not taking them.' I reiterated the account given in the first nine paragraphs above, mainly because it seemed as though he'd forgotten our having met on the occasion of the examination which had yielded the results now under discussion.

'Yes, I've heard all about your NHS,' - he curled off a wry smile, almost a sneer - 'no diagnosis, just chucking a handful of pills at you and sending you on your—'

'There's nothing wrong with the NHS,' I said, noticing I'd used that tone of voice which expresses openness to the possibility of finishing the conversation outside in the parking lot. I wasn't having this fucking tosser running the NHS down.

'Well, for now we can consider other options, healthier eating and so on.'

'I eat healthy,' I said. 'I suppose you're going to tell me I should cut my McDonald's intake down to just four visits a day, or something of the sort.'

'We eat very healthily,' my wife confirmed. 'He does all the cooking and it's all fresh. We don't eat salty things.'

'You may not think you do, but even when you open up a can of Campbell's soup because it's in the recipe, well, the salt content—'

'That isn't,' I cut him off with just a hint of Margaret Rutherford in my voice,' the sort of cooking in which I engage.'

My wife has a recipe book typed out by an ageing relative during the great depression. I barely recognise any of the recipes, which truly belong to a culture to which I am alien. Many of them seem to combine ingredients which are already recognisably food, a tin of mushroom soup poured over battered onion rings, then baked as a casserole - and the recipe concluded with a bewildering comment of sooooooo good or similar. It seems like the sort of cooking I tried when I was fifteen, baked beans plus a teaspoon of every herb or spice on the rack because if one is good, then twenty-six will surely be amazing. I like to think I've evolved beyond the culinary level of a bewildered teenager left to his own devices.

'I apologise if it seems like I'm on the defensive,' I said without feeling even remotely sorry, 'but you have to appreciate that I eat pretty well, I don't smoke, hardly drink, and I cycle one hundred miles a week, and you're telling me that it isn't enough. I may as well be sat on my arse scoffing pies and cakes all day for all the difference it makes. That's what you're telling me.'

'Well, I'd like you to imagine the effects of a stroke, being unable to speak, maybe one side of your body paralysed—'

Now he was trying to scare me, somehow imagining I had no idea what a stroke could be or how it might affect a person. 'Sure, but if you don't mind I'll just keep on as I am. I've lost a stone since Christmas and a little bit more drops of every week, so I'm not even sure what I'm doing here.'

'Well, we can see how you're getting on in another six months.'

'Fine.'

We left with no real intention of coming back. It seems I put on weight when I first moved to America, because the government forces us all to eat a cheeseburger whilst saluting the flag every morning; I have about a stone to go before I get back to what is supposedly my ideal weight for my age and height. I will get there, and if my blood pressure and cholesterol remain high then I'll just have to assume that's how it's going to be.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Tra-la-la Tra-lala-la


There are six of us, and we've met at La Fonda. It's been organised through a website called Meetup which allows you to find persons who share your interests living in the same area, and so Bess and myself are meeting persons who share our love of cats living in the same area. I had my usual reservations on the grounds that I'm not especially sociable and I don't experience any particular excitement at the possibility of meetings with strangers, but I went along anyway.

How bad could it be?

'I thought there would be more of us,' I say, noting how we're around a table with seating for sixteen.

'This is about average for a Meetup group,' explains Fleegle, because I'm naming those in attendance after the Banana Splits so as to preserve anonymity and reduce the possibility of anyone getting pissy. 'There were only the four of us at the Barn Door last month.'

'We were both ill,' says Bess. 'I wanted to come but it was a really rough weekend.'

'I went to this writers' group a couple of times,' I say. 'It was a few years ago and that was through Meetup, but it was always oversubscribed. There were usually about twenty of us, which seemed like too many to me.'

Nevertheless here we are, two men and four women, although one of the women isn't yet here so we're presently five in number. I'm seated next to Drooper, who is a little older than I am with a sort of mullet and as such resembles Ben Dover, the famed auteur producer of independent art cinema. He's very quiet and I don't think he likes me. He introduces himself as a former mailman from Virginia, or one of those states. I tell him I did the same job in England but he doesn't seem to find this interesting.

'I was doing it since 1975,' he says. 'Now I'm mostly a cat sitter. I retired a couple of years ago.'

'What brought you to San Antonio?'

'They were cutting back and they said there was an opening down here so I followed the job.'

Fleegle asks what we do, Bess and myself.

'I work in healthcare,' Bess says, 'and he's a writer.'

'Oh! What do you write?'

I hate this question. 'I write science-fiction,' because it's as good an answer as any.

'That's great! I love Robert Heinlein, and Asimov too!'

'Yeah, I like some Heinlein.' This is a diplomatic concession to a couple of Heinlein books which I enjoyed. I hated his Stranger in a Strange Land possibly more than anything else I've ever read, and have come to associate his name with far-right conservatives on social media, those who genuinely seem to believe that white people are an oppressed minority

'Have you had anything published?'

'There was a novel. It didn't sell a whole lot but, you know, it did a job. People seemed to like it.'

'What was it called?'

I tell her and she spends the next ten minutes fiddling with her phone, trying to find my novel on Amazon. Eventually she tracks it down on the publisher's website. I'm trying to discourage a sale because I don't think she would enjoy it.

Snorky is saying something, but she's three seats away at the end of the table, and her voice is quiet so I can't hear. Her testimony is interrupted by the call of a gruffly voiced moose head mounted high on the wall behind us. 'Uh oh! Chongo! It's Danger Island next!'

Snorky has three cats, she explains. It's the same for the other two, which probably means that Bess and myself are more the sort of people one might expect to meet at a gathering of cat lovers. Neither of us can remember what it was like to have just three cats.

'Where are you from?' Fleegle asks me.

Christ, I think, not this shit again?

I tell her I was born on the farm upon which they eventually filmed Teletubbies, near Stratford-upon-Avon, but lived most of my life in London. I tell her this because I'm trying to keep myself entertained, but even I'm beginning to get bored of this story.

I wonder how long it will take for us to be served. Maybe the waiter doesn't realise we're all here, or as many of us as are likely to turn up. Glancing across to the parking lot I can see a colourful six-wheeled buggy draw up, spinning around in circles before coming to a juddering halt. It is driven by a smiling orange gorilla wearing sunglasses and a fireman's helmet. Minutes later, Bingo has joined us at our table. All of our people are now here.

I order a Dos Equis and we all examine the menu.

'The fish tacos are good,' I suggest to no-one in particular.

'What's an enchilada?' asks Fleegle.

We all stare.

'I've never eaten one.' She shrugs. 'I don't like Mexican food.'

'How long have you lived in San Antonio?' Bess asks.

'I moved here in 1985, but I like the Red Barn. They serve a good steak.'

Bess and I share a look amounting to, well, she came to the right place. La Fonda is okay, but it's Mexican food for people who don't like Mexican food, who would rather not be startled by anything too spicy or flavoursome while they're trying to eat. There's nothing terrible on the menu, but much of it is tailored towards the conservative palates of Alamo Heights and will seem underwhelming if you've eaten at almost any other notionally Mexican place. Thankfully it's fairly difficult to completely fuck up a fajita beyond edibility, and as I say, the fish tacos are decent.

We order, then we eat. The food is okay; not first choice, but okay. Let's imagine we're eating in silence as you all watch Micro Ventures. Professor Carter and the kids pile into their miniaturised dune buggy and spend an educational five minutes driving around beneath someone's fridge.

'He went to the writer's group,' Fleegle tells the newly arrived Bingo, meaning me.

'Are you a writer?' she asks. 'I don't remember you.'

Fuck.

I don't remember her either. 'It was a while ago,' I say. 'I only went twice. There were too many people.'

'We meet at La Madeleine.'

'Were you in the writer's group when they used to meet at La Taza?' Bess asks, apparently attempting to introduce clarity.

'We meet at La Madeleine. What was your name again?'

'Lawrence.'

'Lawrence of Arabia!'

'I meet at La Madeleine too,' Bess says. 'You know the rock painting group? We're there at the same time as the writers on the Sunday afternoon, but you're in the little room.'

Bingo comes over so as to avoid having to shout. 'What sort of thing do you write, Lawrence of Arabia?'

'Science-fiction,' I sigh.

She addresses my wife as Good Queen Bess and begins to describe some movie about Queen Anne which will be of obvious interest to myself seeing as how I'm from England and all.

'Is that the one with Margot Robbie?' I ask.

'No, I think that's a different one, Lawrence of Arabia.'

'You know, that's where my name came from? My parents went to see it at the cinema before I was born. I think that's where they got the idea.' I don't bother to mention that as a nickname Lawrence of Arabia was already getting old by the time I was fucking five, and I now find it quite irritating.

'You must come to our next writers' meeting at La Madeleine, Lawrence of Arabia.'

Later, as we drive home, Bess tells me about a guy who once hung out with her rock painting group at La Madeleine. He wasn't painting rocks but invited his granddaughter to do so, and to use everyone's paint to make the sort of mess you make when you're bored and don't really care what you're doing. He was condescending and an asshole, and he was hanging around because his wife was in the other room with the writers' group. Now we're wondering if his wife just happened to be an orange gorilla with sunglasses and a fireman's helmet.

'That was okay, I guess,' Bess admits, 'but I thought there would be more about cats.'

'Me too.'

Friday, 10 May 2019

Introducing Charlie


I don't have a huge amount of faith in our city's animal control department. Byron's dogs once escaped from his yard and ran away. He went down to the pound to see if they had been picked up and found them both already on death row, scheduled for the big sleep later that day. Both dogs were chipped with name and address but no-one had bothered to check. I've called to report dogs running loose in my neighbourhood and have been told it would be five days before anyone could attend; but having since learned that they mainly seem to be in the business of snuffing critters, I'm no longer inclined to call them.

There didn't seem to be much point in calling animal control when I first spotted the bunny, so I phoned my wife and asked what she thought I should do. She spoke to a colleague with a pet rabbit, and procured the number of something called Rabbit Rescue.

I was sat at a bench at one of the covered pavilions of McAllister Park, drinking sweet tea and taking the usual break at the halfway point of my daily cycle. I happened to be gazing at a car parked a little way away, and there was a bunny sat looking back at me from beneath the front bumper. It was white with black ears and black rings around the eyes, obviously a domestic pet, and I stared for what may have been a full minute before I realised what I was looking at, simply because it wasn't anything I expected to see.

I decided that someone must have dumped the bunny, and vaguely recalled that domestic rabbits are ill-equipped for survival in the wild. Also, this was McAllister Park, home to foxes, some enormous birds of prey, and even the occasional coyote. The rabbit was clearly out of its element and requiring assistance.

I called Rabbit Rescue, but they didn't have anyone available. As I spoke to the woman, describing the situation, the driver of the car beneath which the bunny had sought shelter returned from walking his dog.

'I've already called animal control,' he said. 'Do you know anything about rabbits?'

Now I found myself holding two separate conversations at the same time, the upshot of which was that animal control were fucking hopeless and that I'd give my wife another call. She might know someone who could come out and pick up the rabbit, maybe Edi or Byron if they weren't doing anything. If we could get the bunny home then I could sort something out from that point on, but I could hardly ferry the bunny on my bike, and the guy with the car had his dog to consider.

'Is it tame?' asked the woman from Rabbit Rescue, who was still on the phone. 'Can you get near?'

The rabbit hadn't moved, and stayed still as I lent down to see if I could pet it.

'Yes, I think it's tame,' I said as the guy with the dog tried to tell me something. This weird bifurcated conversation was an irritating distraction and had begun to get on my tits in the absence of any advice I could actually use. 'Look, I think I can handle this, but thanks for everything.'

I picked up the bunny, which was soft and didn't even struggle.

'I'm going to call my wife again,' I told the guy with the dog.

He made grateful noises and drove off just as the bunny sprang from my arms, then settled down to nibbling at the grass nearby.

'I'll call Byron,' Bess told me. 'He owes me.'

'Okay.'

I sat on the grass watching the bunny nibble at seed heads. I petted it several times and it didn't seem even slightly bothered by my presence.

Half an hour went by and I saw Byron's truck. I waved. He waved back, then drove right past into the woodland. After another ten minutes, I called Bess again.

'I have no idea what's happened but he drove past and hasn't come back, and that way is a dead end. Maybe he changed his mind and has gone into hiding.'

'Okay. He texted me to say he couldn't find you and got lost. It's nearly my lunch hour. I'll be there in about fifteen minutes.'

By the time Bess came, I'd remembered that we have a growing frame which might be put to use. I made it myself a couple of years ago as something in which I could grow onions, potatoes, or whatever else seemed at most risk of being uprooted by trash pandas; but I noticed that my horticultural mojo doesn't seem to work so well in Texas, and never got around to planting anything which the frame might protect. It measures four feet by two and comprises chicken wire over a wood frame with a hinged lid. I'd been meaning to donate the thing to Stephen, our green-fingered neighbour across the way, but thankfully never got around to it because I now realised it would serve as a fairly decent temporary hutch.

Bess took charge of the bunny and I cycled home, pausing only to stop off at the supermarket for rabbit food and a bag of hay. Back home I found the bunny duly housed in the growing frame, which Bess had moved into Junior's room. I lay down some bedding in the office - as Bess calls the room in which I have my PC and mile upon mile of shelving - and relocated both bunny and temporary hutch. I'm sure Junior would have been happy to share his room with a rabbit, but he never sleeps and I was disinclined to subject our guest to permanent artificial daylight.

'She's a girl,' Bess told me, following consultation with her rabbit-owning colleague; and for some reason the name Maisie kept slipping into my thoughts, so Maisie it was. The idea was that we would look after the bunny until a permanent home presented itself, most likely through the Rabbit Rescue people; but inevitably we decided that fuck it - one more mouth to feed isn't going to make a whole lot of difference.

The woman from Rabbit Rescue called me back that afternoon wanting to know what happened. She was overjoyed that we had decided to keep the rabbit.

Maisie settled in and began to put on weight, which was a relief. After two weeks I was no longer able to feel the nobbly bits of her spine when stroking her. At weekends we ferried her temporary home outside to the garden so she could eat grass and see the sky while we cleaned up in the office.

Some evenings, when all of the cats are outside, she gets to hop around in the front room. I'm spending this time building her a proper hutch, more or less the same dimensions as the growing frame, but taller with two floors connected by a ramp. Eventually it's finished, and I prime the wood with a waterproof sealant, a non-toxic rabbit friendly brand which has proven harder to track down than you might think.

Bess has told Maisie's story on facebook, specifically joining a group called Alamo City House Rabbits.

You were bunny people all along, writes someone or other who has never met us, you just didn't realise!

Rabbit Rescue holds an adoption event at one of the local animal sanctuaries. Obviously we're not looking to adopt, but we go along for the sake of taking notes. A large enclosure dominates the center of the room, full of bunnies. It's quite something.

'You were rabbit people all along,' observes another woman we've never met and whom we don't even know from facebook, 'you just didn't realise!'

By the third time someone makes the observation it has become annoying. It isn't as though either of us experienced a Damascene conversion following a lifetime of rabbit detestation. Both Bess and myself had rabbits as pets when we were young.

Tina from Rabbit Rescue, to whom I spoke on the phone, says hello and tells us how glad she is that we've decided to keep Maisie as our own house rabbit, because as we know, domestic bunnies tend to expire from the heat of the Texan summer which is why they can't be kept outside. The disparity between this information and what might seem like common sense is that the wild rabbits of Texas know to burrow downwards, away from the heat of August.

'Fuck,' I mumble to myself as I watch Rug, a hairy rabbit resembling a toupée tearing around the enclosure chasing the other bunnies like a lunatic. We don't know his actual name, but Junior has decided it should be Rug, which seems fitting.

By the time we're home, we've concluded that the hutch would take up roughly the same space as the glass display cabinet near the French windows, providing we shuffle a few things around and move the aforementioned cabinet to the bedroom; and now that we have a bunny, obviously we don't want him to catch fire when the temperatures begin to soar.

He settles in to his new home in our front room just fine, and I say he because a trip to the vet has revealed that he's actually a boy, thus at least meaning we have no pressing need to have his rabbit making apparatus decommissioned. The cats get used to him. None of the gang seem particularly antagonistic, and Fluffy is actually scared of the bunny. Strangest of all, the faint bouquet of hay and vegetarianism is quite pleasant so far as front room smells go.

'I don't mind what we rename him,' I tell Bess, 'so long as it's nothing silly, and isn't a character from a game or some lame movie, or from a meme.' I'm on the defensive, recalling Junior's previous form for naming critters after arcade game celebrities or awful characters from the Divergent books, which I'm not convinced he's even read. What really sticks it in and twists it for me is that he seems to believe that coming up with names for animals is one of his unique and special talents.

Surprisingly, the boy comes up with Charles, which I like because it's a proper name and because it will also allow us to address the bunny as Charlie, Chuck, or Chas.

Charlie had a bad case of ear mites, as we found out when Bess took him to the vet, but he's been treated and now has a clean bill of health. He seems to like his hutch, and sometimes won't come out, even when the opportunity is presented. In many respects he seemed an unusually highly-strung bunny, at least at first. During the first week of his residence in the hutch, I took him outside for an hour or two each morning, letting him eat grass and experience sky from the repurposed growing frame, now in use as a run. Each day when I bought him back in, he seemed more and more agitated, and by the Friday he was tearing around inside his hutch, thumping his back foot to signify displeasure with the sonic force of a rifle report, then upturning his water bowl in a way which seemed to be saying fuck this bullshit! We couldn't work out whether he was stressed at the change of scene, or whether he'd loved it so much that he would have preferred to stay out there. Thankfully he now seems to have got used to living with us.

Now that we have a rabbit, we've realised how difficult they are to read in comparison to cats. We can tell when he's pissed off, but his expressions of happiness can be ambiguous. We know the ways of our cats so well that sometimes we may as well be having an actual conversation with them, compared to our attempts to communicate with the bunny.

We'll get there, I suppose.