Friday, 27 September 2013

Are Cats Better Than People?

We took Nibbler to the vet. Nibbler is one of our five cats, specifically the one the vet had erroneously registered as being called Burton, and just Burton - as in Burton the Cat. This was because nine months earlier my young stepson, when asked by the same vet as to the name of the mangy looking kitten he'd just brought in for his jabs, said it was Brave Burton Buzzini, giving the cat both our surnames; so they had assumed the first part was purely adjectival, like saying he was cute or inquisitive.

Junior found the cat known to our vet as Burton beneath a car in the parking lot near San Antonio zoo last summer. He was with his grandmother who, having at least twenty cats of her own, was hardly disposed towards discouraging the kid from crawling under the vehicle to rescue yet another pitiful ball of mewling fluff, this one distinguished by black fur and a bald patch on his head. Junior, having found the cat, named him Brave - purportedly in reference to the courage the kitten had demonstrated in being motherless in a San Antonio parking lot, although it seemed something of a coincidence given how much Junior had recently enjoyed the similarly named animated film about a mediaeval ginger girl triumphing against Celtic adversity. I never warmed to Brave as a name, uncharitable though that may seem - it struck me as pretentious, and reminded me of my former neighbour Gary who would make announcements regarding the proposed titles of pets he was yet to acquire.

'I'm gonna buy a husky,' he once told me wearing the grin of a man with enormous plans. 'I'm gonna call her Snow!'

Brave was small and energetic, spending much of the day launching himself claws out at my trouser leg, then hanging there meowing like something from one of those games where you hurl a ball of velcro at a wall of felt - assuming such a game exists and I didn't just imagine it. Aside from the lack of an antenna, he resembled Nibbler, the diminutive alien from the Futurama cartoon series, and the nickname stuck because it was funny and seemed to fit. He grew up to be large and muscular whilst retaining the personality of one of the Bash Street Kids, and a patch of white grown to the shape of a skull and crossbones would not have looked out of place in the black fur of his underside.

I tend to think pets find their own names by virtue of what ends up as most popular amongst those present with the vocal apparatus required to form the necessary syllables. Certainly this had been the case with the two senior members of our cat family. My wife had lived with Gus for more than a decade before we met - a stately grey tabby named Asparagus after a cat in a T.S. Eliot poem, shortened to Gus like the crystal meth tzar from Breaking Bad because it seemed to suit her character, the name rather than the profession.

Next came a Maine Coon kitten whom Junior named Scarface after a Native American culture hero he'd been studying at school. The choice startled me as I had quite independently written a novel in which a boy names his Chihuahua Scarface after the Houston rapper and former member of the Geto Boys. I was glad that neither of our Scarfaces were directly inspired by Als Pacino or Capone because I'd always hated the film and it seemed like a terrible name for a cat. As Scarface grew, briefly suffering an unfortunate bowel problem which caused him to fart out huge eye-stinging clouds of bum gas at regular intervals, he picked up the nickname Little Fluff, which abbreviated itself to just Fluff or Fluffy for use on less formal occasions. We'd worked with the idea that he was just a regular hairy cat until someone noticed that he hadn't stopped growing at the usual age and has since come to resemble cats pictured on the internet and identified as Maine Coons - named because early and presumably simple Europeans settling in Maine believed these huge moggies had resulted from the improbable union of raccoons and domestic felines. He's now three years old and, just as the internet promised, is still growing.

Maine Coons are described - rather sappily in my opinion - as gentle giants on at least a couple of websites. Sure enough Fluffy is big, and it's difficult not to feel sorry for him when he's bullied by pushy kittens at feeding time. We'd initially kept Nibbler in isolation when he first arrived, fearing that the mighty Fluff would smite him with a single blow of one huge oven-glove sized paw; but it turned out that Fluff was more scared of Nibbler than the other way around despite being about ten times his size; which also served to cast doubt on the other truism, that these cats are exceptionally intelligent. Bess scoffs at this claim and points to Fluff as he sits facing a door left only a little way open, patiently swishing his raccoon tail. She tells me that, unlike every other cat in the world, Fluff hasn't yet grasped the mechanics of pushing a door that's already a little way open when he wants to go through. I tell myself he could open the door if he wanted to; he just doesn't see it as his job.

With the arrival of Nibbler, we drew a line. Three cats were enough for anyone, and we didn't want to end up on one of those TV shows. Inevitably, mere weeks later at Brackenridge Park as we were about to climb in the car and return home from watching Sid on his weekly run, a tiny grey kitten emerged from the bushes. She was skinny but like Siamese cats often appear skinny, and certainly older than Nibbler had been when we found him; and friendly with a glossy coat, so we told ourselves through gritted teeth that she seemed healthy and happy and almost certainly lived in the park, and in any case we really didn't need another cat. Neither of us slept very well that night, and my wife announced having something to confess as she arrived home from work the next day. She'd been back to Brackenridge to see if the kitten was still there, reasoning that if not, then she really did live in the park and could look after herself.

'Thank God for that,' I said. 'I've been worried too. So did you see her?'

Bess opened the passenger door of the car and the kitten emerged from beneath the seat blinking huge golden eyes.

'How do you feel about Grace as a name?'

I liked it, not least because it was a real name and it meant Junior couldn't barge in and formally christen the kitten after some horrible Pokémon or Skylanders character; and yet even Grace didn't stick. Being roughly the same age, she and Nibbler took to each other immediately, playing with such vigour that there were times when we wondered whether we shouldn't separate them. Nibbler didn't seem to know when to stop, and Grace had effectively become his squeak toy right down to the bat-like noise she made when they were wrestling; and so she became known as Squeak Toy, Squeaky, or occasionally Bunnymouse after Bess addressed her as a bunny-mouse-bushbaby-fennec-fox-thing or whatever the hell you are, these all being creatures to which she bears passing resemblance with her soft grey fur, big eyes, and large rounded ears.

We told ourselves four was more than enough, but then came Flappy the bird who, as the name implies, wasn't actually a cat

Recently I've come to notice much lip service paid to the received wisdom that selfish Nazis with domestic cats are responsible for the destruction of all birds on planet Earth; and so the internet is frequently ablaze with keyboard politicians reminding us that Adolf Hitler also preferred animals to humans, and that anyone who donates money to a cats home whilst there remains one starving orphan in the world should immediately be put to death.

Firstly, call me a dangerous anarchist if you will, but I'd politely point out that the idea that a person who likes cats - or indeed any other animal - must necessarily prefer them to humans, having presumably worked out some sort of comparative ratings system, is crazy. There may well be one or two people out there who prefer cats to representatives of their own species, but as a general statement it's like saying there are people who prefer lasagne to Poland, or magnesium to the Dave Clark Five. In the event of your framing my person within some comically improbable scenario requiring a choice made between the life of a cat and the life of a human I would have to ask what the hell is wrong with you? If you believe the dominant moral concern of such a situation to be which of the two I would save, then frankly you should seek psychiatric advice.

Secondly, hunting is a skill which cats are taught by their mothers, and those separated from parents as kittens simply don't acquire that skill. Birds caught by such cats are the exception rather than the rule, and are more often than not fledglings just out of the nest and at a major disadvantage. This doesn't in itself reduce gratuitous bird murder to a matter of no consequence, but it's hardly the avian apocalypse imagined by at least one finger-wagging old tosspot who, upon learning of a feline presence in my home, suggested and you wonder why there are no song birds in your garden.

I hadn't wondered, because actually there are a ton of songbirds in my garden, which hopefully serves to illustrate how one should take care when dishing out condescending platitudes based on what some bloke said on the internet.

But of course, there are always exceptions and Flappy was a fledgling sparrow caught by Nibbler. We managed to rescue him before any lasting damage could be done, or so it seemed. He was just one small bird, but it was still quite upsetting. We duly fitted the cats with collars, but they chewed through them, so we do our best to keep them in during days when fledglings are about. This generally works, although if Jurassic Park has taught us anything it is that nature is unpredictable.

Bess cleaned up the baby sparrow, disinfecting where Nibbler had drawn blood being as infection from bacteria in cat saliva is supposedly the most common cause of death in such rescued birds. We kept him in a large cage in our bedroom, regularly feeding him the recommended mixture of mashed up cat food and ReptoCal nutritional supplement on the tip of a drinking straw every hour. He did well, and began to sing and chirp, hopping about in the cage or on the bed when we let him out, learning to fly and flapping his wings with what looked like excitement each time we came to feed him. Junior named him Hawkeye because the Avengers movie had just come out, which we ignored, calling him Flappy, which is probably ironic in some sense, being inspired by when a much younger and less portentous Junior would name animals after their most obvious characteristic, Wriggly the snake, Swimmy the fish, Fuzzy Larry the caterpillar and so on.

After a couple of weeks it got to the stage where we were watching for the tell-tale signs of Flappy being ready for release back into the wild; and he was almost there until one Saturday we came home to find him dead at the bottom of the cage. There'd been nothing to indicate he was anything other than fully recovered and bursting with health, but mortality is apparently high amongst rescued birds because even temporary captivity is in itself simply too stressful for them. We felt terrible. I burst into big manly tears on several occasions. That was a horrible weekend.

On the Sunday afternoon, Bess and Junior went out for a drive so as to allow me to listen to my Joy Division album in peace, returning with a solace kitten. This was also how Fluffy first came into the picture - as a response to the sort of intense personal pain which drives some of us to self-medicate with cats. The kitten was tiny, grey and stripy, rescued by a friend of my wife from a psychotic neighbour who had taken the litter of three from a local feral cat and was keeping them in a bucket of excrement prior to throwing them over a drop of fifty or so feet at the back of her house.

Junior had already named the kitten Kirby after a character in a computer game, but for once it seemed to fit, and it was at least an improvement on Mario, his first suggestion.

So we now have five cats, and I probably do like them more than I like a great many people I've never met, and at least a few people I have met, or whose moronic utterances I've found myself reading on facebook. I live with these five cats, so if I didn't like them more than I like a complete stranger, there would be something wrong with me, something fundamentally lacking in my character.

What is the point of a cat?, one particularly toxic facebook twat asked, enraged presumably by the idea that other people might hold different views to her own, where are all the sensible people who know that the right place for a cat is in a sack at the bottom of the river Thames?

I suggested that as a joke, this one wasn't particularly funny, and she told me that she wasn't joking.

See, that just makes you a cunt so far as I'm concerned.

It's not even specifically about cats, as I see it, and certainly not about giving money to stupid moggies when there are kids starving innit; it's about the basic ability to empathise, and to be able to take care of something less able to defend itself regardless of personal investment. It's about not being a cunt, and not burning ants with a magnifying glass because you think it's funny. It's a fairly basic human quality, but one that is easily swept aside by even low-level bullshit like the drive to gain moral ascendancy over one's peers, the sort of thinking by which a deluded individual claims to know what is best for everyone else; people who ironically would seem in some small way to justify the choices of those who really do like cats better than humans as a general principal.

That said, five is definitely enough.

Friday, 20 September 2013

The Pound Shop Andrew Eldritch

'Andy Martin needs to grow up a bit.' Nicholas regarded me from his bar stool, apparently waiting to see how I would react to this statement. He identified our singer by his full name, as do many; Andy Martin as though referring to a minor celebrity or perhaps a politician upon whom one might habitually offer scathing commentary. This had happened before with an individual whom I knew as Squid who stood in the canteen of Maidstone College of Art scowling over my copy of Smash the Spectacle by The Apostles.

'That Andy Martin has really pissed me off,' he told me in reference to something written on the cover of the record, referring to the author as a remote and reviled dispenser of reprehensible information. Citizen Robespierre has really gone too far this time...

It was Friday evening, the 10th of February, 1995.
Nicholas and I were sat in the public bar of Churchill's, a pub in Chatham, Kent which hosted regular gigs by local bands. The other four members of Academy 23, with which I was then guitarist, were presently somewhere beneath our feet in the cellar of the establishment, the part which had been converted into a venue. We were a band, but we weren't local, and maybe that was part of the problem.

Andy Martin was the singer and guitarist of Academy 23, the guiding force by virtue of the fact that for every single musical idea developed by any other member, Andy came up with fifteen. I had first encountered Andy - along with Dave, our bass player - ten or more years earlier when both were members of The Apostles, the previously mentioned semi-legendary post-punk group. The Apostles often found themselves lumped in with anarchopunk outfits such as Crass and The Mob, although they had little in common with many of these bands either musically or ideologically; and although it would be an exaggeration to say they were like no other group around at the time, they were nevertheless one of a kind. I bought their demo tapes from a bedroom based mail order operation called Cause for Concern; and then their records when they graduated to vinyl releases; and for anyone who cares, the Smash the Spectacle EP is still one of the greatest things ever to be pressed onto plastic so far as I'm concerned.

Eventually I met The Apostles just as Andy and Dave were having a rethink, evolving into Academy 23 in the latest of a long line of moves guaranteed to alienate their fans, or at least those fans who needed alienating. Academy 23 were, as I saw it, The Apostles but more so. I still believe Andy Martin to be one of the most original songwriters of recent times, so we had the benefit of his distinctive and evocative use of melody and powerfully erudite lyrics added to what was roughly speaking Mark Perry's Alternative TV if they'd been formed in tribute to King Crimson with a bit of that ninety mile an hour hardcore thrown in just to keep Pete, our drummer, from exploding through dangerous accumulation of red-faced punky anger.

'Andy Martin needs to grow up a bit?' I repeated the question because it sounded so peculiar. It had come completely out of the blue, and I had no idea what it meant.
Nicholas might just as well have said Andy Martin needs to splice the mainbrace.

I met
Nicholas back in September 1985 when I showed up for instruction at Maidstone College of Art. We were both taking degrees in fine art, specialising in film, video and sound, and he immediately impressed me as one of the most interesting people I had ever met, although it should probably be noted that I was eighteen, had never before lived away from home, and really hadn't met many people at that point. He resembled Nick Cave with pink hair, but original and quite stylish in his own presciently crusty way. Everything he said was funny and insightful and I idolised him without reservation. For the next couple of years he was my best friend even though I'm not sure I was ever really his best friend. I let him stay in our house when he briefly became homeless. I took care of his pets during the same period. I lent a sympathetic and slightly envious ear as girlfriends came and went, each letting him down in one way or another and so leaving him no choice but to play the field. I helped in whatever way I could when he became addicted to smack, having had the brown stuff cut in with the speed he took so as to work a night shift and continue his art degree whilst in a state of extreme poverty - deep breath - due to some clerical error whereby he received only a minimal grant from the local council despite not having a rich mummy and daddy like everyone else at Maidstone, as he put it. I briefly played in his band, and moved to the Medway towns when the degree came to an end because that was where he lived. This relationship was, at least from my side of the fence, absolutely a bromance or a man-crush or whatever you want to call it. I loved the guy and it was almost annoying that I wasn't actually homosexual. I'm not sure it would have made things any easier, but I would have found it less confusing.

After I moved to Chatham, I saw significantly less of
Nicholas than I had anticipated, but I reasoned that we were both older, and we had both done a lot of growing up. Six or seven years passed with only sporadic contact. I ended up in London living with a girl called Mandy, and in Spring 1994 we took a day trip down to Medway and stayed at Nicholas' place for the evening. He appeared subdued and was having girlfriend problems, but seemed glad to see me. He was no longer playing in any particular band, but was now performing his own material solo in local venues with just the accompaniment of a backing tape. I recalled some of the songs from our college days - Iron People, Hang Myself, something or other with Killing in the title. They were darkly brilliant, although it should probably be remembered that I regarded everything Nicholas did as a work of genius, somehow managing to ignore that it was mostly pound shop Andrew Eldritch essays on the theme of woe is me with far too much echo on everything. Anyway, this seemed like a good thing at the time. My old friend still had it, whatever it was.

A year later, Academy 23 had rehearsed enough for me to be able to play most of the custom jazz chords in the required 9/13 time signature without giving myself either double hernias or a headache which, I should probably add, wasn't easy given that my default setting fell somewhere between the Ramones and the New York Dolls. I spoke to
Nicholas on the phone, and he told me he was now running a band night every Friday at Churchill's. We could play for forty minutes if we could get there.

In a hitherto unprecedented burst of organisation, we hired a minibus and transported equipment, band members, and paying fans down to provide moral support. We arrived at a venue for the first time ever feeling like a proper rock band; and Nathan, one of our other guitarists, quite probably repeated his joke about being in it mainly for buckets of cocaine and a guitar-shaped swimming pool. I was playing in a group I actually would have paid to see were I not already a member, so my confidence had soared to a possibly quite sickening level, and we were all in exceptionally high spirits. We quickly set up, ran through half a song as our sound check, and then tried to relax as we were to be on first, followed by some group called the Happy Shoppers, with
Nicholas' solo set as the main act. Andy never really liked noisy, crowded places full of booze, so he and Pete retired to a booth with their algebra textbooks to bone up on sums and stuff. At the time Pete was studying astronomy amongst other subjects, and he now works for NASA, and that's just the kind of group we were.

I staggered upstairs, pausing only to say hello to a few others who had now turned up to see us, Simon Baker and fellow editors of the Gillingham fanzine Brian Moore's Head, and then at last I caught up with my old friend at the bar. I bought him a drink thinking, it doesn't get any better than this.

He told me he had a lot on his plate, and that his girlfriend was expecting a child and he didn't know what to do; and then 'Andy Martin needs to grow up a bit.'

I asked what he meant, but the answer was cryptic.

'I'm just saying because we're mates.' He sipped his pint. 'That bloke has pissed off a lot of people.'

We'd been there for less than thirty minutes, and whilst I know Andy to be a man of strong and sometimes hilarious opinions, it seemed that even he would have been hard pressed to enrage a plurality of locals in the given time, not least because he'd spent most of it either playing guitar or discussing the declension of Aldebaran with Pete. Then I recalled a few looks that had come our way as we were setting up. Andy was wearing a shell suit and an Adidas baseball cap, and was later seen reading a book without pictures in it, and not a biography of some guy in a rock band. He also sported a large moustache of the kind associated with both Lemmy from Motorhead and members of the Village People. He was someone who effectively had does not fit in inscribed above his head in invisible letters and we were in Chatham about to play to an audience of lager enthusiasts with an overdeveloped sense of territory.

'So who has he pissed off?'

I wasn't even remotely bothered who Andy had pissed off or why, but I wanted to see what
Nicholas would say. I had the feeling he had a need to be seen as the big fish in a small pond, the mover, the shaker, the anointed one who knows people who know people and who stands frowning upon the frozen wastes of eternity like that stupid great cock from Fields of Nephlegm. I had the impression that he resented my presence and the fact that I was a slightly different and hopefully less stupid person than I had been when we last met. This evening had not been presented as an opportunity for us to play live, or for Churchill's punters to see some band from out of town. It had been a chance for me to admire the mighty regional empire of suffering artistry that Nicholas had built for himself, the greatness that outsiders like ourselves would never comprehend.

He then told me that we could play for twenty minutes so as to allow the Happy Shoppers to perform a full set of what I remember as being covers of punk hits from the early eighties. Academy 23, who had hired a van and driven all the way down from London, who had released a CD and brought fifteen or so paying guests to a club which was still conspicuously much less than full - we were to be allowed twenty minutes contrary to what had been promised. I knew this was bullshit, just some weird little power game, because it was given as an instruction without apology.

I thought of my former friend, still wheeling out the same miserable songs from years gone by to a diminishing audience, no longer able to keep a band together without alienating every other member, still with the new girlfriend every six months, the endless cycle of supposed castrating harpies who could never truly know the tortured man-poet inside. I thought of all those years of whining and wearing self-pity as a virtue, as some sort of badge of courage; still in Chatham, the Medway delta Jim Morrison show now in its second decade. Everything that ever made the list of slings and arrows had always been something done to him: he'd been made homeless; he'd been made a junkie by some external force; he'd been made to drink himself senseless and cheat on whichever women currently just didn't understand because that was how it all worked. He'd probably wanted to slip on a condom but I'm sure she told him no, it'll be fine, trying to trap and control him just like they all did.

It was weak and a little disgusting, and I remembered that I had once been a hayseed, wide-eyed exclaiming goll-ee! at the lights of the big city. We all make mistakes.

He still spelled his name Nikki in the spirit of an eight-year old girl doodling felt tip hearts and flowers on her school book, and yet here he was dishing out wearyingly mysterious advice on who should grow up, a man in his early thirties going on fifteen.

'Twenty minutes.'

I nodded to show that I had heard and understood the command, finished my drink and went downstairs.

We played the set we'd intended to play, the full forty ending with twelve-minutes of the progressive instrumental At The Academy, all the while ignoring glares from our host. The people we'd brought along seemed to enjoy it. Others didn't presumably on account of the fact that we weren't from Chatham, so they stood about giggling into their pints because we were a bit weird, not a single leather jacket or facial tattoo between us. The Happy Shoppers ran through Teenage Kicks and a number of other standards, finishing off with
Nicholas mumbling his grim, windy songs about no-one understanding and how his heart has turned to stone as a result.

I don't think he ever realised, but the problem was that most people understood him only too well. It had just taken me a little longer to catch up.

Friday, 13 September 2013


Since jacking in my Royal Mail job in 2009 I've taken to cycling in an effort to avoid turning into a massive sedentary blob sat all day at the computer, scoffing mini-pizzas and burping out incomprehensible stories that no-one will ever read. In Texas, despite all the wide open spaces, this is not so easily done as it was in Coventry. Whilst the roads are wider, and drivers seem generally a little better behaved, their vehicles are often of absurd dimensions in compensation for something or other at which one can only guess. If you run a lawn care business or you work on a ranch and are occasionally required to go after a buffalo that's made its bid for freedom, I can see how you would have use for an enormous truck. If you're just some guy who works in the city and likes barbecue, then the only justification I can see for why you might need one of those General Motors leviathans would be as compensation for a deficit in some other, more trousery department. Whatever the reason, it means that cycling on Texas highways is not so relaxing a pastime as it could be.

The other factor is the sun, because Texas is somewhat more equatorial than the land of my birth. Cycling in England became problematic during those winters when I would throw open the front door to be confronted with a sheer wall of ice, sometimes containing deep frozen cavemen like in a Charles Addams cartoon; plus the four grudging hours of mid-grey daylight during December tended to swivel one's thoughts in the direction of either hibernation or ending it all there and then rather than getting in a few miles on the old penny farthing. Winter in Texas is distinguished as the three days when you turn off the air conditioning and wear a jumper, the unfortunate pay off being that summer is hot; as in really hot. Summer in Texas is not about popping into Currys to buy a fan, or mopping your brow and taking consolation from the knowledge that at least your tomatoes will do well; summer in Texas means staying inside during the day so as to avoid radiation sickness, water catching fire as soon as it comes out of the tap, and rivers of sweat still sluicing down your face at two in the morning. It is fucking hot, which is why we have all those snakes and lizards and cacti. Some days, opening the front door at ten in the morning can be like walking into a pizza oven. I've spent time baking in Mexico City, at one stage even having my entire face peel off more or less as a single sheet in unintentional homage to Xipe Totec, the Corn God who manifests in a mask of human skin; but Mexico City is up in the clouds where the air is noticeably sparse, so the heat is more manageable. The kindest thing one can say of San Antonio in terms of its summertime climate - which in case I didn't quite make it clear may be likened to that of the sunny side of the planet Mercury - is that at least it's not Houston.

Houston gets really hot

To return to the main point, the one thing stood between myself and my ultimate fate as a burger-chugging human sofa cosy grunting my way through all five-hundred plus adventurtastic episodes of Stargate SG1 is probably my bike, which I purchased at Walmart, and which I try to ride every day.

Happily, it seems that San Antonio had anticipated my arrival by  opening up the Tobin Trail, a surfaced greenway following creek, shaded woodland and flood plain by which I can avoid both highways and at least some of the sun. It's an urban work in progress which, once complete will form a continuous loop around the city limits; and so long as I can get going early enough to avoid the heat - which really becomes unbearable around eleven - I'm all set. Weekends excepted, I ride just over thirteen miles a day, always the same thirteen miles - from Eisenhauer Road to the top of the hill just past Wetmore then back again. It's a little repetitive, and will continue to be so at least until the city connects my regular stretch to the southern part of the trail beyond Binz-Engleman. The country lanes around Coventry were perhaps superior in terms of choice, but even with the same daily route, it's difficult to get bored in a land which dishes up something new and unexpected to an almost daily schedule. Herons, eagles, turtles, snakes, vultures, deer, lizards, and an entirely unfamiliar pantheon of colourful songbirds have yet to lose their appeal despite having become familiar, even commonplace.

I've learned that certain turtles, when picked up from the track so as to prevent their getting run over, will empty their bladders as a defence mechanism - and you'd be surprised how much liquid those things contain. I've also learned, thankfully not from experience, that alligator turtles will bite off your fingers given the chance and so are best left to their own devices. The biggest alligator turtle I've encountered was roughly the size of a respectable bull terrier, and I wasn't in any great hurry to airlift him to safety, particularly as I'm fairly sure I actually heard him telling me to piss off. Coral snakes on the other hand are smaller and prettier, with their red and yellow bands, and even knowing that their bite can kill, it's hard to think ill of something with such a cute widdle face and such a retiring disposition; in respect of which, I have come to truly appreciate the homily of terrifying creatures being more scared of you than you are of them. This was impressed upon me once as I skidded around both a corner and the interior surface of my pants coming face to face with a steep grassy bank of twenty or thirty black vultures, a hillside of Uncle Fester size carnivores all considering me with beady black eyes. I just had time to form the understanding that I was about to die when they apparently concluded as one that I was the scariest thing they had ever seen and swept up into the sky. Meeting them up close, and seeing those confused little faces on their disproportionately tiny heads, the experience taught me that even the traditionally unlovable vulture is not lacking a charm of its own.

It isn't even just the spectacular wildlife - there are the plants, also the entire ecosystem of dry limestone riverbeds which vanish beneath eight or nine feet of water after a good afternoon's rainfall, draining over the next few days to leave mud flats popping with millions of tiny frogs.

Since jacking in my Royal Mail job in 2009 and taking up cycling, I've kept track of the full tally of the distance I've travelled. I've just recently gone over 9,000 miles, more than half of those here in the US, back and forth between Rittiman and Wetmore, day after day, month after month.

Texas is hot and often weird, but it's never dull.

'You heard me,' said the turtle. 'Piss off.'

Friday, 6 September 2013

Not Particularly Gorgeous George

As the twentieth century became the twenty-first, I was living in the basement flat of a house in Lordship Lane in East Dulwich. The house was owned by Bill, my landlord, an amiable octogenarian  residing in the two upper storeys to whom I had become if not quite a substitute grandson, then possibly an ageing sidekick. The first floor, immediately above my residence but still a sort of underworld to the realm of Bill, was another flat, one which had remained empty ever since the mysterious Miss Tibbs went to live with her brother a couple of years earlier. Bill, having become accustomed to a quiet life, hadn't put much effort into advertising the place, possibly fearful of taking on a tenant who would turn out to be a serial murderer or who might fail to pay rent on time. In any case, the flat, the result of a slightly half-hearted conversion carried out many years before, was probably something of a hard sell. Essentially it was a front room, bedroom, bathroom and tiny kitchen all off a single hallway, specifically the single hallway leading to Bill's part of the house. In architectural terms it was an appendix, and the bath itself was of a peculiar truncated kind I've never seen before or since, room to sit with knees tucked up under one's chin, but that was all.

Unfortunately, as the millennium drew near, Bill learned that he would be required to pay additional council tax on the unlovable and still vacant flat and so stepped up his advertising campaign, such as it was. A young woman came to take a look around, but she had a child, and it really wasn't that sort of flat. I coaxed my friend Paul into giving it a look seeing as he was due to be turfed out of his own place, but I think it freaked him out a bit. The front room and bedroom were both pretty large, but the latter was almost completely taken up by the biggest bed in the universe, so it seemed.

The months passed into September so I went to stay in Mexico City as briefly became my annual habit up until about 2005, and I came back to the news that Bill had at last found another tenant, George Ramshall, a chef working at St. Christopher's Hospice where Flo - Bill's wife - had spent her final Christmas a few years before.

'He was in the army,' Bill told me with visible enthusiasm, 'and he's a chef, so I suppose he must be all right.'

We were both stood on the doorstep having one of those conversations we would get into on Mondays when I went up to pay that week's rent. I glanced at the bay window immediately to my right, that being the one behind which the mysterious George now lurked. The curtains were drawn, and it was two in the afternoon. I realised I had not seen them undrawn since the arrival of my new neighbour.

'He keeps himself to himself. That's the main thing.'

Bill's first impression, whatever it may have been, was clearly and understandably overridden by the relief of having the flat occupied by someone who, so far as he could tell, wasn't going to turn it into either a crack den or a brothel.

Myself, I was just curious, even a little enthused, spending the next few days in waiting for the right moment to swap introductions with this person. Whoever he was, the assessment of him keeping himself to himself had been accurate. I never saw him either coming in or going out, and his presence could be determined only by a shifting of the floorboards as heard through my ceiling, or occasionally the sound of a television tuned in to Coronation Street. Gradually I began to notice a pattern, the ordinary sounds of a person moving around usually building up to an evening of energetic creaking. It would begin about seven in the evening and carry on until after I'd gone to bed. Initially it sounded like rusty bedsprings under the influence of someone who just couldn't get comfortable, but someone who just couldn't get comfortable for three or four hours with occasional breaks as he went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea; and yet I knew the room above was not the bedroom, and anyway it didn't even sound like that, not exactly. On bad nights it worked up to something resembling someone prising apart floorboards with a screwdriver. It wasn't loud, but it was constant and defied explanation, and that was annoying.

Still, I tried to not let it get to me. I've always considered myself reasonably sensitive in terms of actions which may aggravate one's neighbours, mainly because I don't like things which aggravate me. I've never enjoyed overly loud music being as I find the prospect of someone smashing in the front door and then attempting to insert a vinyl album or even an entire turntable into my colon tends to spoil one's listening pleasure; and I'm pretty sure this preference for low volume isn't just me playing the innocent as my friend Carl once regularly took the piss out of my quiet music, describing improbable scenarios in which I would have my amplifier wired up to two tiny Walkman earphones, each mounted on a mahogany stand at either side of the room.

Hiss hiss hiss hiss hiss hiss...

Because of this I gave George's creakery the benefit of the doubt, reasoning that whatever he was doing was probably something he needed to do, and accordingly I had kept my music particularly low ever since I returned from Mexico. Then one evening, listening to the quietest Jay-Z album ever recorded, I was startled by three robustly expressive stamps upon my ceiling - Bang! Bang! Bang! - George's foot, possibly booted and pounding the floorboards. I was shocked, but I knew there would be a logical explanation for how someone could have inadvertently transmitted the universal morse for turn that shit down, you fucker. He had fallen over rhythmically, or was perhaps attempting to stamp upon a fast moving insect, or maybe even the mouse from the Tom & Jerry cartoons.

A minute later it came again.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

I looked to the volume control on my amplifier and saw that it was down low at around the second notch, noting how the music was not so loud as to cover either the noise of cars passing along Lordship Lane or the sound of a tap dripping in the kitchen at the other end of my flat. I was not, by any definition, playing loud music.

I turned off the stereo system, went outside, climbed the steps and rang the bell. The curtain to my right twitched ever so slightly. I took a breath and made ready to be entirely reasonable.

The door flew open, the mysterious and presently wrathful George bursting forth to jab his extended finger hard in my chest whilst bellowing, 'I'll tell you what it is, Pal,' - I didn't hear the rest. I was too shocked.

He was in his fifties and resembled comedian Sid Little after five wilderness years as a meths drinking park tramp. His lower jaw protruded like in a child's drawing of a particularly stupid caveman and was covered in grey stubble. The engorged pupils of his eyes swam left to right behind Coke bottle lenses like angry fish looking for something with which to pick a fight. He smelled like a betting shop and had a strong Manchester accent. I understood immediately that this was a man with whom I would not be able to reason, someone who would not respond to logic.

He worked shifts and slept during the afternoon, he told me, and every day I would deafen him with my music. He had a hard job and he needed his sleep. This was the essence of his argument.

The Jay-Z album had been the first thing I'd played on my stereo in over a week, and it could only have been deemed loud by someone with enhanced hearing as their mutant superpower. I was reluctant to point out that it looked a lot like he was imagining things from where I stood, but reasoned that maybe the deaf Jamaican guy who lived next door had been blasting out his own music, and this was what had deprived George of his sorely needed beauty sleep. I personally hadn't heard a peep out of the deaf Jamaican guy in a while, but who was I to tell someone else what they could hear? I may have mumbled something in this general direction, but already knowing I would not be able to reason with this man, I'd resigned myself to future music appreciation being conducted by means of headphones.

All went quiet, excepting the routine four hours of rattling and creaking during the evening which inevitably became a source of unspoken resentment. Bill was glad of the additional rent coming in, and the fact that George kept himself to himself, whilst admitting that he was a queer sort of feller, using the term in its older context.

'Still, so long as he behaves, that's all I ask.'

I said nothing.

Well, I said nothing to Bill. I certainly vented a quota of spleenage to friends on more than one occasion, at least once attributing the nightly four hour creakathon to a hypothetical scenario in which George spent evenings strapped into a home-built autotorture machine, a Professor Branestawm style system of levers and pulleys designed to repeatedly tantalise George's sensitive bits whilst delighting him with a mechanical carousel of images of small boys' bottoms revealed in close-up. It was an admittedly hysterical assumption, but I still had no idea what that noise could be, and there was something unusually unsavoury about the man. He'd been in the flat a year, the curtains kept drawn with the lights turned off even after dark for all of that time. He received no visitors. He paid his rent by direct debit so Bill never saw him, and on the occasions when my landlord knocked on the door in order to communicate some minor detail concerning the gas or electricity, George would refuse to answer, even pretending he wasn't at home. His occasional and irrational complaints, as I later discovered, placed obsessive emphasis on security issues and matters to which he referred only in terms of their being nobody's business but his own. He was secretive to the point of pantomime. Bill began to find this behaviour increasingly odd, not least when entering the shared hallway just to catch a door snapping shut, George retreating into his dark, smelly sanctuary like a trapdoor spider.

I would pass him in the street, or even in the betting shop at the end of the block which I entered when delivering mail, but we never acknowledged each other, partially because I'd seen the guy so infrequently that I was never entirely sure of it being him; excepting the one occasion when he hid around the corner of the dry cleaner's as I approached. I saw him catch sight of me, then duck back and flatten himself against the plate glass window like a character in an animated cartoon, apparently not understanding that he could be seen from the other side.

'Hello George,' I said as I passed, only later realising I should have offered some comment about how his powers of stealth were a testament to forty years well-spent in Her Majesty's forces.

Aside from the regular rattling and creaking, another year went by without incident when I noticed loud music emanating from somewhere above my bedroom, loud enough at least to distort the speaker from which it came. It was obviously a radio left playing in a large empty space, and I assumed that the deaf Jamaican had bought in someone to decorate his flat. The music blasted on through the night just as it would have done had hypothetical painters or decorators simply forgotten to turn off their radio as they finished for the day. By this time I'd taken to wearing earplugs at night so as to prevent being woken by the cries of urban foxes, so it didn't bother me significantly.

The next evening the radio was still on, which was just too much of a coincidence. It was George, and I had no idea what could have pissed him off this time. Based on the rage inspired by a Jay-Z CD played so quietly that I'd been unable to hear it once I stepped out of the room, I knew it could be anything, and it took me another day before I plucked up the courage to confront him.

'Listen, George—,'

'I'll tell you what it is, Pal,' - he was almost screaming this time and I thought he was going to hit me. He worked hard, he told me, and he needed his sleep, and he had a hard job that was hard. Every day he endured my constantly slamming of doors. Every day he was woken by my alarm clock going off, which was no bloody good for someone working hard at such a hard job that required him to work so hard.

This was bullshit and I knew it, and I found myself  laughing.

'I also have a hard job,' I told him. 'I don't particularly like having to start at six but there it is. I need to get up in the mornings, and so I have an alarm clock. What else am I supposed to do?'

Amazingly, he had no answer. He hadn't really thought beyond his own righteous fury and had assumed that a radio left on at sonic warfare volume as a taste of my own medicine would speak for itself. I didn't even bother to comment on the suggestion that I spent the best part of my afternoon slamming doors just to see how loud I could go. I walked away and the lesson-teaching radio fell silent.

I saw nothing more of George until spring when he volunteered to look after Bill's garden. Bill had been a keen gardener for the first fifty years of his life at the house and was particularly proud of his roses, but now in his mid-eighties he was no longer up to anything more demanding than the occasional bit of pruning; and although his friend Jim mowed the lawn every month or so, the beds were returning to jungle. George offered his horticultural services mainly, he claimed, for the sake of something to do. Unfortunately he had no experience with either plants or gardening, but having spent forty years in the army had assumed that there was no obstacle which could not be overcome by simple application of military efficiency, and so he approached the garden methodically as he might an unfamiliar piece of hardware.

He spent the first six months digging up the flower beds and sifting every last ounce of soil so as to filter out all but the tiniest stones, building a mountain of pebbles at the far end which, so he instructed Bill, would require collection by the council. In other words he rationalised the soil, but lacking an understanding of how stones are essential for drainage in heavy clay, the plants under George's care were rotting away at the root. His work succeeded only in creating something resembling the trenches of the first world war, and with a soft litter-like consistency which drew cats from miles around. Occasionally he would take a break from ethnically cleansing the earth and mow the lawn instead, down on all fours with a pair of scissors, back and forth working methodically for a full three days until the job was done. Bill had an entirely serviceable lawn mower, but George preferred his own method.

Other times he would just rest, bringing out a deckchair to sunbathe with a copy of the Daily Mirror.

'Nice weather,' I observed on one occasion as our paths crossed in the alley at the side of the house. Somehow neither of us had seen the other coming, so we hadn't been able to take evasive action.

'It's glorious.' George had been sunbathing, and although he didn't smile, for once he didn't sound angry.

That was the only real conversation we ever had.

Another year passed and the sight of a ruined expanse of soft clay seen each day from my kitchen window had become too depressing. George had lost interest, which was probably for the best, and those plants remaining were beginning to die in the sodden deoxygenated ground. I suggested to Bill that maybe I should take over care of the garden, and he almost seemed to gain an inch as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. It took a while to get it all back into shape, and the first month was spent mostly turning the cat litter back into soil by reuniting it with all those naughty stones. By summer it had begun to resemble a garden once again, and more significantly I'd reclaimed territory from the nutcase. I had seen him watching from his kitchen window when I first got started with the spade. He'd pulled back the curtain, gawping in disbelief like an enraged chimpanzee bewildered by visitors in gorilla suits.

The final confrontation came another few months down the line, and this time it wasn't directed at me. I heard Bill rattling the front door as he did each evening, testing to make sure he'd locked it properly before retiring for the night. This was followed by shouting, obviously George. Bill was old and small so this worried me, and I went upstairs to provide either moral support or a witness.

Outnumbered, George calmed a little and explained that he worked hard at a hard job that was hard work, especially for such a hard job; and after a hard day's work at his hard job he resented having to listen to Bill rattling the key in the lock for two solid hours every evening. Then he turned to me for support, but I'd honestly never before noticed the offending rattling.

There were two doors, the inner door to the upstairs hall, and the outer door which was left unlocked during the day so as to allow parcels and milk to be left in the porch. This, Bill explained, was why the outer door was left open during the day, and would then be locked at night.

George suggested that it was a security issue affecting his right to privacy, and that both doors needed to remain locked at all times. This was clearly something he thought about at great length, judging by the selotape with which he sealed up his doors on rare weekends away. He liked the phrase security issue, using it often as though the door in question was all that stood between him and the forces of anarchy. It reminded me oddly of a documentary I had seen in which a convicted and unrepentant paedophile had avoided answering questions posed - despite presumably having agreed to appear on said programme - instead preferring to rant about what he saw as the real issue, namely the brutal circumcision of very young girls in African villages. Gutless moral cowardice, I call it, he blustered over and over as the interviewer failed to engage him in discussion of his own repulsive convictions, gutless moral cowardice!

George's security issue was that the unlocked door might be breached not by the forces of anarchy but by coloureds. He described an incident in which he'd woken during the middle of the night and found one of them in his hall, presumably having just wandered in to take a look around. 'Black as the ace of spades, he was.'

Quite aside from the whole point that both doors would have been locked at that hour - which was in any case what George wanted - this was getting ridiculous. He invoked the image of this mysterious black man as his winning hand, clearly believing Bill and myself would recognise the scale of the problem now that coloureds were involved. How can we fix this, George? we would ask. What do you think we should do?

He didn't seem to realise that we now understood him to be a small child telling us he'd seen a dinosaur with lasers on its head and it had eaten a man and the man's head had come off and the dinosaur had looked at him. Bill was of the generation in which casual racism had been commonplace, but if he himself ever held such views, I never heard him express them.

George moved on to raise an additional complaint about the noise made by Bill's television set. To be fair, Bill was almost deaf and would watch football with the volume so loud as to be heard at the end of the street, but it had never even occurred to me to be bothered by this.

Exhausted and with no new understanding beyond the extent to which George valued his privacy, we left it at that.

Next day, Bill and I compared notes. We'd never really spoken frankly about the other lodger. I had no wish to seem like I was whining, and I think he felt reluctant to admit that he'd leased the first floor flat to someone who was obviously mad.

'I don't know what's wrong with the bloke,' he sighed. 'It's not like I'm having bleedin' orgies up there or nuffin'. I can't make it out!'

I told him about my earlier confrontations, the alarm clock and my supposedly slamming a door every three minutes for the best part of the afternoon.

'Don't you worry, mate.' Bill slapped me on the shoulder. 'Good as gold, you are. I've no complaints about you.' He thought some more. 'Problem is, he's not in the army now, you see. He still thinks he can order everyone around, but it's not like that. When you're sharing a house you have to expect a bit of noise.'

I agreed, and now that we'd broached the subject, it turned out that Bill had a lot to get off his chest regarding George. 'Always going on about his bleedin' hard job up at the hospice - heating up a tin of beans for people who ain't got no appetite 'cause they're all on chemo and about to kick the bucket - how bleedin' hard can it be?'

I shrugged. It was good to hear this. I wanted to ask if Bill had considered telling George to piss off, but it seemed pushy, although he was already some way ahead of me.

'I wish he'd move out. Might get a bit of piece and quiet then.'

George did move out, or specifically he went to visit some relative in Oldham and never came back. Being secretive and tending to creep around, neither Bill nor I realised he was gone for about six weeks, by which time a few months of unpaid rent and a few years of unpaid council tax had become overdue. Bill opened up the flat and found it empty but for a box of old seven inch vinyl singles. These were mostly eighties hits by Erasure, Culture Club, Bronski Beat, Gloria Gaynor, Divine, the Weather Girls, the Village People and others; and further to the obvious realisation suggested by this selection, Alan who moved into the same flat a little later described how he'd found a number of photographs of men dressed as ladies beneath the bed. This had been George's big secret, it seemed, but it made no difference to me. It inspired no outpouring of sympathy nor excused the fact of the guy being roughly the most massive cunt I've ever met. He'd spent forty years in the army and had clearly never been what you would describe as bright; so it was a shame in some respects and, I suppose, a sad story; but then the world is full of sad stories, and there are very few of us who get an easy ride. He was gone, and I understood at least part of why he'd always been so angry, and that seemed like enough.