Friday, 25 July 2014

Just Six People

For many years I was certain of it being the power of words which had forged the path by which I and my first ever girlfriend found each other. I initially knew her as the musically gifted and undeniably attractive girlfriend of Jeremy, my oldest friend on the grounds of our having been introduced on my first day at Ilmington C of E Junior and Infants School.

'This is Jeremy,' Mrs. Daglish told me, indicating a small wide-eyed boy with a brightly coloured jumper and tidy hair. 'You can sit next to him.'

A little over a decade later I would be writing long letters to his girlfriend, feeling terrible about the deception, but nevertheless at the mercy of both my own hormones and the fact that she was replying to my correspondence with missives of equal length and enthusiasm. Soon she became my girlfriend, and I spent the duration of the admittedly brief relationship telling myself that it was just one of those things, which I suppose it was. Regardless of the morality of the situation, I took from it the notion of my greatest strength being found in artistic expression, specifically in the written word. I reasoned that the greatest obstacle to my progress with members of the opposite sex was probably my own awkward physical presence, and that my best tactic would be to blind them with wit before they could recognise me for a buffoon and run away.

A few years earlier, some time during the late seventies, a teacher at my secondary school had arranged for an exchange of letters with the pupils of an educational establishment somewhere in Arkansas in the United States. I seem to recall that we had borrowed one of their teachers, a young guy resembling John Voigt with a sandy coloured moustache who smiled a lot. I already enjoyed writing, although my enthusiasm went further than my ability to string together a working sentence, and so I put everything I had into my letter. Given my age, everything I had would almost certainly have included supplementary drawings of men with bulbous noses from which might be suspended either pendulous drips of nasal mucus, cobwebs supporting grinning spiders, or both. Although modesty kept me from mentioning it myself, I was fairly confident of my being a pretty entertaining guy, and so I knew my letter would be a huge hit, a rare comedic treat for those poor, chortle-deprived American kids with their terrible cartoon shows and laughter-free sitcoms like Chico and the Man or Holmes & Yoyo.

A month or so passed, and the replies came back, and unfortunately my confidence had been entirely justified. Those of us who had written each received one reply from an American kid who had seen the makings of a potential transatlantic friendship in our letters, all except for me. I received seven replies. Possibly my audience had appreciated the drawings of men with large snotty noses, but whatever I had done, it had worked. I received letters from American kids telling me how much I'd made them laugh, letters describing things of which I had no understanding - braces worn upon teeth, the music of Kiss, and so on. Some of the letters were even from girls. The sudden flurry of attention was terrifying. I didn't know what to say to any of these kids as I'd already used my best material in the introductory letter, and the only one of the seven to whom I felt I would be able to give a worthwhile reply had described herself as the class clown, which I found off-putting. A true class clown would naturally be identified by the testimony of others, I reasoned. It was unseemly to introduce oneself as a class clown. It was like saying hello, I am hilarious.

I eventually found a pen-pal in the form of Steven Bosworth who had been a classmate up until March, 1978, at which point his family moved to Hong Kong. We wrote back and forth for a few years before his father, being something in the Royal Air Force, brought the family back to Warwickshire. Steven returned to school for the last year or so and, bizarrely, our friendship immediately evaporated, exposed as something recommended for ages eleven and under, having been artificially extended by reduction to pure text, with the occasional illustration of someone with a large nose from which a green felt-tip tsunami of bogies didst gush amusingly forth.

A year or so later I discovered Jeremy's girlfriend, punk rock, and DIY cassette culture - fanzines, and the like; and I began to record my own musique concrète, and to send tapes of it to people I'd never met, who in turn would send their tapes to me. The mailbox on the back of our garden gate was filled daily with letters and rattling jiffy bags full of industrial noise and ranting photocopied anarchism. It was the internet at least a decade before its time, a global network of cranky loners much like myself churning out page after page of random observations and opinions in bright green pen, all to be whisked off to someone in a faraway town, county, or even country with a few stamps slapped on the envelope. I maintained this enterprise for a couple of years, at least into the early nineties, my enthusiasm periodically waxing and waning according to whatever else was out there, who'd had enough and packed it all in upon finding a proper job, and how much I cared about who else would get to hear my tapes or read my self-produced comics.

In the end technology progressed beyond that to which I'd been long accustomed, and my tapes lost what little audience they had acquired as everyone replaced cassette players with desktop publishing and music software - DIY apparently having been redefined as an aesthetic rather than as production achieved in spite of financial limitations. This is why I find it difficult to set aside my cynicism regarding the current revival of the tape cassette as collectible artefact for those who spent most of the nineties sneering at such relics, but I suppose that's just the way the cultural cookie crumbles.

I resisted both computers and the internet for a long time. It wasn't so much that they had nothing to offer, but that I wasn't engaged in anything which either of them would have rendered significantly easier. I was recording music on tape, doing a lot of painting, and a lot of written research towards that painting. Friends pointed out that I might find all sorts of online resources which would aid my research, and although patently true, I barely had sufficient hours in the day to process all the notes taken from my reading as it was, even without bringing in more material. Then in 1997 I began writing music reviews for The Sound Projector magazine, edited and published by my friend Ed Pinsent whom I knew from the days of small press comics. I had somehow inherited a primitive Amstrad computer from Zoe, my then ex-girlfriend's sister, and so I wrote on that for a while, slotting large clunky discs into the drive at one side of the screen. Then when Ed bought a new computer, he very generously gave me his old one. I immediately found it more pleasurable to write and to edit my reviews with the Lotus word processing package that came with the machine. It was tidier than ring binders full of notes scrawled with biros nicked from work, and writing with the Amstrad had felt a little unnatural, those luminous green ASCII characters seeming too far removed from any creative process with which I was familiar.

In September 2005, I found myself involved with Dora the Explorer - or at least that's what I'm calling her for the moment given her being of similar, height and appearance. Dora the Explorer was impressed that I owned a computer, despite the fact that I was apparently the second last person in England to own one, but she was concerned that I had not bothered to hook it up to the internet. I needed to move into the twenty-first century, she informed me - apparently missing the point that of the two of us, I was the one with a computer. I needed to move into the twenty-first century because this would save her having to use the internets at the local library whilst searching for a job which would pay well without requiring that she be out of bed before midday or relinquish more than twenty-eight days of her free time each month.

'Okay,' I said, because it had been a decade since I broke up with the girlfriend whose sister had bequeathed me the Amstrad and my nuts were about to explode, and I could think of no good reason to say no.

Almost immediately I acquired a taste for internet bulletin boards, a form of interaction which initially reminded me of my formative years of cranky letters written in green biro to gentlemen running cassette based organisations with names like Dead Cop Produktions or Sheep Worrying Tapes; except now the interaction was reduced to just banter, no jiffy bags spilling cassettes, home-made badges, or bits of coloured paper onto the living room table.

I began with an archaeological forum, drawn in by the prospect of discussing Mesoamerica with fellow enthusiasts. It was pleasant enough for a while, but I soon tired of a climate of paranoia regarding the Club. The Club were a shadowy body who supposedly suppressed archaeological truths in order to avoid the mammoth costs incurred by a complete rewrite of human history. There was all sorts of stuff the Club didn't want us to know about, but none of it very plausible or particularly interesting, and it was difficult to get much sense out of those who had fallen for the idea. One member of the board had the user name Clubs Stink, which I guess he thought was really showing someone or other. Another accused me of being a Club stooge for suggesting that certain ancient Mexican artefacts had been carved by ancient Mexicans, rather than ancient Africans who had sailed across the Atlantic to produce stone carvings and then returned home leaving no evidence of ever having been there in the first place. He also told me that my viewpoint reminded him of those racists who were unable to ever find it in themselves to credit Africans with anything.

Drifting away, I ended up on a bulletin board maintained by the Richard Dawkins Foundation, initially drawn there by an interest in both science and Dawkins' writing. It turned out that the scientific discussion was often somewhat dry and hardly the sort of thing I was after, but more to my taste was an off-topic section frequented by persons who, like myself, preferred our discourse to feature men with large noses decked with strings of mucus drawn in the margin. Unfortunately it transpired that Richard Dawkins himself was less keen on men with large noses decked with strings of mucus drawn in the margin. Specifically he took exception to the saltier topics of discussion on the one occasion when he managed to get some time away from boffinesque scientific experiments with test tubes to look in on the forum bearing his name. Threads were deleted, expulsions occurred, and three-hundred or so members took their drawings of men with large noses decked with strings of mucus elsewhere, specifically to a bulletin board named Thinking Aloud, or TAF as it was abbreviated; and it was at this point that I began to notice a peculiar phenomenon, specifically how seriously some internet denizens took themselves.

Human rights had been violated, and Richard Dawkins was no better than Adolf Hitler. He had destroyed the precious threads of the forum, just like whoever it was who had destroyed the great library of Alexandria. This was an affront to all right-thinking people utilising side-splitting Douglas Adams quotes as signatures to their posts.

Still, it seemed like these people were generally in a minority, the price one paid for communication with the more entertaining representatives of the online community, and so I generally did my best to ignore them. I spent the next few years posting on a number of different fora, switching from one to another each time it became too exhausting dealing with people who needed so badly to be right about everything. My online presence was, in certain respects, the latest expression of the long letters I had written to the class clowns of Arkansas, Steven Bosworth, Jeremy's girlfriend, and the bloke from Smash the Cistern Tapes. I had been prone to overpowering loneliness before I met Dora the Explorer, and the overpowering loneliness continued during our relationship. I was fairly certain it wasn't supposed to work that way, but there didn't seem to be much I could do about it; and so I continued to savour time spent stood around some virtual water cooler with people I would never meet discussing the worst jobs we'd ever had, loudest air biscuit we'd ever produced, fave band, and the existence or otherwise of God.

For a while I took a mildly evangelical view of internet fora in a general sense, encouraging anyone who would listen to get involved. The bulletin board seemed to occupy roughly the same conceptual space as that in which I'd written all those letters, at least in relation to ordinary social interaction. I would liken TAF or the Hive or the Anorak Zone or wherever I was posting that month to a virtual pub one might enter with a guarantee of having something in common with almost everyone present, or at least more so than would occur in real life. Strolling into a bar, one might strike up conversations with strangers, but possibly not conversations about obscure English children's television shows of the 1960s, for example. Figuratively strolling into the Anorak Zone on the other hand, that was mostly what they talked about.

Unfortunately though, the pub analogy may be further extended to describe an establishment founded by an egomaniac nutcase who populates the lounge bar with his legion of admirers, or at least those he hopes will become his admirers, perhaps viewing him - it nearly always being him in my experience - as a benevolent God graciously presiding over this bounteous electronic playground of zany wit and common sense. This was one problem with the Anorak Zone, the virtual realm of a man who'd once written a book about the children's television show Sapphire & Steel, and who now ran the cult film and TV forum for black people, as the banner had it. This seemed fair enough at the time, although the occasionally proprietorial site owner's frequent arbitrary references to Brixton in south-east London never struck me as quite so amusing as everyone else seemed to find them being as I'd lived there, roughly speaking; and his displeasure with online behaviour which he denounced as lickle white bwoy shit struck a similarly odd chord, as did everyone calling each other mon. It later transpired that these people were largely white, middle-class, and engaged in some extended private joke, digging each other in the virtual ribs and smirking as they commented on each others posts in a phonetic approximation of Jamaican patois. By this point I'd already been banned, but the discovery seemed to explain a lot. It wasn't so much that there was any inherent racism in this peculiar masquerade, although I suppose some of it might well have been considered the forum equivalent of blackface, but I had essentially made my conversational bed amongst a cadre of giggling student tossers, people I would ordinarily have crossed the road to avoid in real life, and I hadn't noticed because I was too busy agreeing that the The Doctor's Wife had been shite.

Virtual communities are fine when one's own life is otherwise so miserable as to require either booze or endless middle-class knob gags to get you through the day without killing yourself, but the internet can be a tough environment which favours the survival and amplification of the most forthright and obnoxious, those who go the furthest in forging for themselves an online persona which they could never reveal to anyone in the real world, because if they did they would end up with broken legs. Realising this, I have reached an understanding of my own bulletin board as virtual pub analogy being completely wrong, because in real life half of the people one might encounter online may not even be capable of normal social interaction, and so you end up with a pub full of basement dwellers who believe in the enforced sterilisation of dunderheads or whatever.

Individuals in groups, particularly groups formed through some artificial agency, tend to vie for attention, for the highest quota of interaction, interaction being the entire point of posting on a message board. The individual who garners the most attention will therefore tend to be the one making the loudest, boldest, funniest, or even most provocative statements; which is fine, but tends to make for a toxic virtual environment for anyone failing to make the distinction between online existence and real life, for anyone with basic manners. This is why such places tend to last about six months before everything collapses under the passive-aggressive weight of bald old men being right about something or other.

There's the problem, specifically the need to be right smuggled in below the conversational radar as open debate or support of some cause, because some people are, so it seems, only able to elevate themselves by pushing down on somebody else. Therefore I've largely given up on bulletin boards - beyond the occasional requirements of flogging some book which no fucker is going to bother buying anyway - because the occasional pearl of wisdom, or even the occasional pearl of entertaining stupidity, really isn't worth all that sand. I'm now down to more or less just facebook, although even this, more easily customised to individual requirements as it is, is far from perfect, because I'm part of the equation, and I like to think the best of people, to give them the benefit of the doubt, and so I still find myself engaged with people whom I should probably ignore, people who communicate from the perspective of the angry, basement-dwelling loners I would never encounter in a physical pub.

When I first moved to San Antonio from England, one particular Anorak Zone bell end took it upon himself to challenge the wisdom of my decision. What the hell are you moving there for? It's in the middle of nowhere. You won't be able to just jump on the Eurostar and pop over to Paris, you know?!

As with all such questions, that one seems to have been born from the presumption that anyone who is not yourself will by definition require your opinion, which will be better-informed because it comes from you. In this case it falsely presumed that visits to Paris by Eurostar must be fairly high on my list of priorities. The online situation hasn't improved much since then, particularly as I've had the gall to live in Texas of all places, a state which for some serves as shorthand for everything that is wrong with the world because nyer nyer nyer Republicans blah blah blah...

People from the United Kingdom tend to do this quite a lot, for some reason assuming they alone have a deeper insight into the issues affecting the rest of the world, regardless of actual experience of those issues - not all people from the United Kingdom, but certainly more than seems to be the case with any other nationality so far as I've noticed. Britannia no longer has an empire, but some of its people still regard themselves as essentially the font of all culture, and of all that is reasonable and correct.

Well, this seems like a good idea to me, but we'd better find some English guy and see what he thinks before we sign anything...

I would say it's a tendency of the political left, except it's probably that I ignore the political right and only have a vague idea of what they're saying most of the time - it so often being something I've already dismissed as either annoying or deeply sinister - so it's most likely just people who need to be right about something, for whatever reason; and, in the immortal words of Toyah Willcox, it's a mystery to me. It's a mystery to me because ever since the days of the green biro, I've reached out to other parts of the world because I'm interested in how other people live their lives, because essentially I like people, even those with terrible taste in music. I've never really held with the essentially misanthropic conviction that everyone who isn't myself must be in some sense stupid and will therefore benefit from my advice regarding their situation. That I hold no such view does not seem to me either an unreasonable or arrogant proposition.

For example, I recently had a disagreement with someone I would otherwise consider a friend over an issue relating directly to the United States and the people who live here. Specifically, he disagreed with me and explained that my routine was getting old, this apparently being my routine of making statements regarding the country in which I have now lived for three years based on the experience of having lived here. He doesn't live here, and disagreed with what I had said, but more than disagreed, he knew that I was wrong and that he was right, so my experience has therefore been either delusional or anomalous in the wider context, as has been that of my wife and everyone we know. He later contacted me by email and explained that it was okay because he hadn't taken offence, fairly typically missing the point that actually I had taken offence.

It happens over and over. Always there will be someone who knows better than you do, because although they haven't been there and it doesn't directly affect them, they've read an article and it stands to reason innit, and because nyer nyer nyer you Americans with your guns, or nyer nyer nyer Texas, or just nyer nyer nyer for its own sake. The internet is a wonderful thing, and a medium through which I have formed some genuine friendships over the years, but life is just too short for the drivel of those for who lack basic manners, and really just need to be right about something, and to view themselves as a crusading force.

Keeping in mind here that my research comprises what I can recall of books read several years ago, what little I can be bothered to look up on Wikipedia, and a general feeling that I'm probably right on some level - humans were primarily nomadic hunter-gatherers up until about twelve-thousand years ago when some bright spark decided that farming was a good idea. Actually it wasn't a good idea, given that agriculture demands of the individual a much greater expenditure of energy in exchange for a more impoverished diet in nutritional terms, but soon everyone was at it and probably for reasons which are adequately explained in Susan Blackmore's excellent The Meme Machine. My point is that the human race has spent 90% of our time on Earth mooching around the plains, eating nuts, berries, and probably the occasional rodent, communicating exclusively with a fairly limited group of family members, and probably not even encountering the concept of other persons in numbers beyond the lower reaches of double figures. We were never designed to have millions of friends strung out on some vast cat's cradle of increasingly tenuous social interactions. Few people really - it seems to me - are able to maintain more than two or three close friendships at a time, and honestly, there probably isn't any good reason for anyone to do so. The more people we know, or at least of whom we know, the greater the chance of our exposure to the sort of tossers who, without the crutch of online interaction, would rightly be friendless fuckfaced trolls sat growling to themselves in some poorly-lit basement far away from the gaze - or at least far away from the facebook likes - of the rest of us.

A world of just six people probably wouldn't be that bad.

That's my opinion.

Friday, 18 July 2014

I Am Beautiful

The sorting office had emptied out a little. It was approaching noon and there were just a few of us still working at our bays, still sorting. Chunk chunk chunk as letters hit the back of the frame, usually in peculiar synchronisation with whatever was blasting from the tinny, overdriven speakers of the radio, except now it was that single by Christina Aguilera which didn't really have a beat as such, just swells of overproduced R&B vocalising. Still, I quite liked the song and so I joined in, as loud and tuneless as I could manage without committing to more effort than seemed necessary. It was something to pass the time.

I am bee-yoo-tee-foool, no matter wot they saaaaaaaaaay, words can' bring me daaaaaaaaan....

'I know you're beautiful, Lawrence.'

Shit. It was the raw horror of finding a mass of dead grubs clustered in your chicken wing. Obelix was stood at the next frame along, six plus feet of predatory Antipodean insecurity staring at me, longing for my approval for reasons I'd never quite understood.

'What?' as in what do you want? Why are you here? Why me?

He almost stammered as he gave his response. I knew this to be one of his infrequent but laboured attempts at humour, but it was just too bad. 'I said you're beautiful, Lawrence.'

His eyes appeared to be looking in different directions like those of a chameleon. His head wobbled and his fingertips skittered against each other burning off nervous energy.

Obelix had been given the title by Sav due to his being of equivalent stature and moustache to the famed cartoon menhir deliveryman and best friend of Asterix the Gaul, beyond which the resemblance ended. Our Obelix was Australian with some fairly severe personality quirks, and as such became distinguished as the only Australian I've ever met whom I didn't like. He was in England having become somehow estranged from his family, which didn't seem too much of a stretch to me. He was on his way to Poland to get in touch with some vague idea of his ethnic heritage, which made me a little uneasy in conjunction with all the people he really hated in our office being mostly black. He seemed to hate nearly everyone - although unfortunately not me - but tended to fixate on those of Afro-Caribbean ethnicity with greater venom, particularly Gary who was conspicuously Rastafarian. Gary had a salty sense of humour, and was quite loud, but I still found it difficult to see why anyone would really take a dislike to him. At least he was funny, which counted for a lot in our job so far as I was concerned.

More immediately unpleasant was the fact that Obelix seemed to live in his uniform so far as anyone could tell. He smelled bad, and not just should consider investing in a roll-on deodorant bad, but full on eye-stinging park tramp in the railway carriage bad. He'd been informed of this fact by more or less everyone, but had done nothing about it, presumably dismissing the advice as enemy forces bullying him for the sheer pleasure of cruelty. He would mumble as he spoke, waving his hands in front of his face and bearing down on you like a randy megatherium, getting far too close and personal for comfort, requiring that you hold your breath for a moment or two.

He'd turned up one day, working on the frame next to mine as I started back after a few weeks in Mexico. He'd struck me as peculiarly nervous, and the stench had come later.

'He's Australian,' I told my friend Carl. I was happy because it made the office a more interesting place to work. Two weeks later I would groan and curse when Carl reminded me of my initial impression.

'How are yew today, Lawrence?' every morning before I'd even woken up, coming for me with those hands like he's about to grab me, twitching and even drooling a little on bad days.

My response of fine devolved to a grunt, which became don't talk to me when it dawned that neither honesty nor diplomacy were working. It didn't make me feel great, but Obelix was becoming a little scary in his persistence. He would describe his hatred at length, regardless of whether or not he'd been asked. He would describe stabbing those who had spoken to him in a dismissive tone. It was, I hoped, intended to be funny, but it also presumed that I was on his side for reasons beyond my comprehension. It was the basic misanthropy of those who are not well equipped to cope with the existence of other people. His humour was awkward, an unsettling combination of the juvenile and the authentically manic.

'I was a traffic warden before I did this,' he once told me, although I hadn't asked. 'I used to pretend to be the Alien as I was giving out tickets.' He had performed a mime in illustration, the creature from the Ridley Scott film as designed by H.R. Giger dispensing parking tickets with the pharyngeal jaws of its extending tongue. I'm not sure the image really would have worked even had I been sympathetic; and now I was beautiful.

I regarded him, hoping he would understand my position and go away. I wasn't his friend. I had sufficient problems of my own without seeking to expand into new territory. I could not give him what he required.

Andre walked past, heading somewhere around the back of the packet frames. He was a songbird momentarily drawing the attention of both lion and antelope, changing the focus.

Obelix ran at the distraction, seizing it with both hands as though his life depended on it and then speaking too quickly. 'Andre's beautiful too!'

Andre turned. 'What?'

'You're beautiful, Andre.'

'Okay.' Andre rolled his eyes and went on.

I resumed my sorting, graciously bequeathing to Obelix the opportunity to walk away and hopefully learn something from this most recent encounter.

Chunk chunk chunk.

Months later, after he'd stopped coming into work following a suicide attempt - so it was rumoured - he came out as gay to everyone in a local pub in which another one of our postmen was a regular. No-one was particularly surprised to hear of this, but neither were they any more hostile than they had already been. No-one really cared. It was sufficient that he had ceased to be our problem.

Sometimes life can be cruel.

That's just how it works.

Friday, 11 July 2014

School Reunion

This is a short essay about the time I went for a drink with some people I knew from school. For the Doctor Who episode School Reunion, please follow this link and then develop an interest in something more appropriate to your age group, maybe read a book or something...

'Are you sure about this?,' my mother asked as I headed out of the door. She seemed amused by my determination, although it was a reasonable question. She hadn't enjoyed her own school days, and had perhaps accordingly developed a certain independence. It wasn't that she'd ever been antisocial so much as that she had never felt the need to be forever surrounded by friends or family as so many seem to. These were qualities she had apparently passed on to me. I hadn't really enjoyed school either, and yet here I was heading off for a reunion of people from my year.

'Yes,' I replied firmly for my own benefit as much as anything. I was cycling the thirty miles from Coventry to Shipston-on-Stour, which I guessed would take maybe three hours or so. It seemed admittedly ambitious, but would be less aggravating than taking at least twice the time to get there by a succession of ambling rural bus services. Twenty miles by bicycle was no big deal, and this would only be a little further, albeit towards the dubious goal of sitting in a pub with people I'd barely known thirty years before.

'Yes,' I said, understanding that it was too late to back out.

They had all laughed at me, but who would be laughing now blah blah blah...

A few years earlier, having a bit of a slow evening, I'd signed up with Friends Reunited, a social networking website predicated on the notion of our all being secretly curious about whatever became of that kid at school, the guy who used to set stuff on fire, whatever he was called. I submitted my details, and then considered the list of names associated with the school I'd attended from 1977 to 1982. I was surprised and a little saddened by how few of these people I was able to remember, but then nearly three decades had passed since I left Shipston and I hadn't really kept in touch with anyone. That said, there were some vaguely familiar faces, and even if I wasn't falling over myself to rekindle any acquaintance which had been tenuous even in its heyday, it was at least nice to know they were still alive.

Ethan Rock though - what the fuck? I wondered, squinting at the screen and scouring deep into the more ancient wrinkles of my brain. There had been no-one at our school by the name of Ethan Rock. If there had been, I would have remembered because his life would have been a living hell. Ours was a comprehensive school, home to all the kids who hadn't proven themselves sufficiently refined for the grammar school in Stratford-on-Avon. There may well have been a few bright sparks, but there were also farm kids who'd been raised by wolves, or else by parents who were in their own way not lacking in lupine qualities. Anything above possession of suspiciously elaborate shoelaces marked you out as flamboyant and therefore a legitimate target for playground justice. Ethan Rock would have lasted about a week.

Anyway, I signed up, and in August, 2008 I received a message which read:

Lawrence - you always helped me with my art. Glad to hear you went further with your art. You drew some fantastic drawings! Hope life is good, from the girl who threw stuff at you all the time in our art lessons with Miss Davis.

It was humbling that someone had remembered me after all this time, but embarrassing that I wasn't quite sure who this Shirley had been. The name was familiar, but nothing else came back, at least not immediately. We exchanged a few further messages, and the wheels of my memory began to turn, creaking and groaning and churning up material which had remained more or less untouched during the most recent half of my life. She had been a little rounded but sort of cute, or at least cuter than she'd probably realised at the time judging by her own less flattering description of her younger self. I distantly remembered that she had been one of those pupils who were forever being caught smoking behind the music room during break, which meant I probably would have been terrified of her, partially because she was a girl, and partially because I was terrified of nearly everyone.

But what does this mean now?, I wondered.

I tend to distrust anyone claiming that school accounted for the best days of their life, but mainly because I just don't understand such a viewpoint. Junior and infants school was fine, at least so far as I remember, but the five years of secondary education were difficult in most respects. So far as at least a few of my generation were concerned, Shipston-on-Stour was the middle of nowhere, and our future prospects entailed working either in some local shop, up at the Norgren Engineering plant, or with one arm inside a cow. I didn't want to do any of these things, but neither did I wish to leave the town in which I'd grown up. The outside world seemed to be full of explosions, and it was a long way away and looked quite scary. At one point Miss Davies - our Kate Bush-esque art teacher - arranged for a few of us to nose around a design studio in the centre of town, just above the flats next to the toy shop. This, we learned, was the creative wellspring which had given unto the peoples of the Earth the red and yellow heraldry of the Bird's custard powder packet. Being of artistic inclination, this was to be my future if I played my cards right.

Some of the kids at our school were fairly bright, despite having failed to get into the grammar school at Stratford-upon-Avon. They worked hard, and did well, and they seemed to enjoy doing so. Others, having learned how to strip down the gear box of a Massey Ferguson before they could even walk, might not have had much to say on the subject of Geoffrey Chaucer, but probably wouldn't have too much trouble finding work once they left. The rest of us were either just plain lacking in academic potential, or couldn't summon the enthusiasm, or we had other things to worry about. I was probably somewhere in the middle. I could draw and paint, and I quite liked English even if I wasn't very good at it, submitting essays which now read like the work of a promising chimpanzee; but in most other respects, I found it impossible to engage myself with anything I didn't find interesting or didn't understand. It felt like a waste of time.

Additionally, I was aware of being not entirely stupid, and that my appreciation of art might be deemed weird by some, not least in troublesome combination with my hatred of games and team sports - which from my point of view mostly seemed like an opportunity for the tougher kids to legitimately batter anyone who they thought seemed a bit gay, that apparently being the whole point of rugby football. I spent a lot of time laying low, trying to blend in, to avoid association with academic high flyers, the squares who actually liked school. It wasn't because I believed myself to be better than anyone else - although I probably did on some level, and probably wrongly. I just didn't want enemies, and aspired to a quiet, uneventful life without having either my head or my trousers flushed down the toilet on a daily basis. I just wanted to be left alone.

I finished school with the impression that at least a few of the kids regarded me as a bit odd and therefore suspicious. Unfortunately, Shipston-on-Stour was then a fairly small market town and as such felt both isolated and slightly claustrophobic, or at least it did to me. It was difficult to go anywhere without running into someone who viewed me with some measure of apparent hostility. I recall, for example, that I had got on reasonably well with Shane Perkins at school. He was no rocket scientist but otherwise he was okay, a massive and amiable red-faced kid with the pudding basin haircut of a mediaeval serf and a school uniform previously worn by at least two elder brothers; then we all turned sixteen and he was transformed into a denim-clad smasher of looms blocking pub doorways and laughing hur hur hur hur as you walked past because you were either gay, a loser, or a gay loser, or you thought you were lush but you weren't, or whatever.

Now I was cycling thirty miles to hang out with these people, or at least some of these people. The thing that bothered me most was that I, having moved away from Shipston as quickly as possible and not having been back since, might be viewed as believing myself some sort of big shot, one of those prodigal sons you always hear so much about, still full of shit after all these years.

'Greetings peasants,' I would chortle in the voice of Stephen Fry, riding into town on my huge, white horse, scattering gold sovereigns to local crones I would recognise as once having been dinner ladies. 'Let me regale you with tales of my amazing life in realms most distant, Chatham, Coventry, even that London, far off lands where the people go around naked and have their heads set below their shoulders...'

I'd had brief online conversations with at least two ex-classmates who seemed to assume that we were better because we had escaped, and that I too probably hated all those thickies with whom we had been at school. Unfortunately I didn't hate anyone, and the assumption that I might have done helpfully identified anyone who had believed as much as a tosser to be avoided in future. The thing was, I never really liked the town, particularly once I realised it was just one option of many. I personally couldn't understand why anyone would still live there, having grown old enough to move away. It was difficult for me to regard it as anything other than a strange choice. I've never been in the position of passing someone with whom I was at school on the street, and it always seems odd when it happens to my wife or other people that I know.

On the other hand, I'd never presume to know what was best for anyone besides myself, or claim to have made the superior choice; and in part I admire those who remain in touch with their own geographical roots, because they have something I've been lacking for most of my life. It's not that I've enjoyed moving around so much as that it's simply taken me a long time to find anywhere I really want to be. All of which adds up to the question of why I was doing this, who this was for? I wasn't rolling into town grinning look who's back and expecting congratulations. I've never liked the man who assumes that everybody in the next room is talking about him, and hope someone will have the wherewithal to give me a slap if ever I go down that road.

I guess I wanted to find out just who I had been at school with, now that we were all old enough to talk about it without playground politics getting in the way. I wanted to be sure that I actually had been to school with these people, because it was all so long ago that it no longer seemed real.

As I approached Shipston, my calves were beginning to feel the distance, but the thirst for novelty carried me forward as I recalled sights I'd passed every single day as a child and yet had not seen in three decades; and the incongruities, like an emu farm where once there were cattle, houses newly built where I remembered fields, and all the other subtle changes. I cycled through the town, then out the other side to a bed and breakfast on the A3400. I'd called ahead to arrange for a room. The place, when I arrived, was unfamiliar - an old converted farmhouse just off the main road, less than five miles from where I'd lived for almost a decade, and yet entirely unfamiliar to me, which probably says something about life in Shipston, or at least my life in Shipston.

I settled in, made coffee on the machine that came with the room, watched some television, and felt oddly as though I was in a film. This was my land, the land to which I was born; I had come home. This was how I believed I should have felt, and yet I didn't. It was nice to be here, but aside from that, it was just strange.

Rested, I saddled up once more and cycled back into Shipston for something to eat. The layout of the town was so ingrained in my memory as to make it feel like I'd never been away, except half of it was all wrong or different. The Chinese takeaway was still there at the end of West Street, although I'm not convinced it was called the China Kitchen in my time, all those millions of years ago.

Shipston-on-Stour in the late seventies and early eighties wasn't exactly what you would call multicultural. Out of the six-hundred or so kids at the school, a mere seven were anything other than ethnically white, and Alan Ip and his elder sister were the only Chinese. I didn't know Alan particularly well, but we shared some of the same friends so we got on okay, at least well enough to find that the occasional takeaway was on the house because you friend with Alan, as Alan's dad would explain in fairly poor English. I guessed that he appreciated the occasional relatively friendly face. I'd heard horror stories of older kids riding motorbikes into the takeaway and sitting there, revving up whilst smecking away with hur hur hur hur Mrs. Yip - fuckin' yellow cunt. Apparently that sort of thing is really funny if you're a useless inbred lump of shit with brain cells numbering in single figures, and may possibly indicate some of why I was glad to move away when finally I did. I suppose there's no place on Earth without it's share of useless tossers, but in a small town you tend to be more aware of them and their little gang of followers all stood around belching hur hur hur hur good one Baz.

Anyway, some things had clearly changed because opposite the Chinese takeaway there was now an Indian restaurant. This seemed like a good sign, so I went in and had a curry - not the greatest curry I've ever eaten, but it did its job. We were all supposed to be meeting at The George, a pub in the square, at seven or thereabouts; and although The George served food, I had a nightmare image of myself cornered by Shane Perkins wanting to know what business I thought I had showing my face around here again after all this time whilst I sat immobilised by the arrival of my pie and chips.

I was worrying too much.

I paid the bill, took a walk around the square being as it was still light, then a deep breath and into the pub. There was no-one there, or at least no-one I recognised. I bought a pint, and immediately realised I was stood about four feet from Julia Goulter. She looked different and yet the same, which was strange. We had hardly been friends at school, in fact I don't recall us liking each other at all, but it was suddenly obvious how long ago it had all been, and that life was too short for bullshit. Her face lit up, and I expect mine did too, and we talked like old friends, or at least like old friends who hadn't really known each other very well. I vaguely knew she had spent some time in the fire service and asked about that, and hearing her talk about it made me feel strangely proud to know this person, somebody who had saved lives, who had really done something.

More people turned up, faces which took a second of processing before I could recognise them, and the odd one I couldn't bring back, there being no good reason why I should remember them or why they should remember me. Half of their number I had almost entirely forgotten or hadn't expected, because word of mouth had brought them to this place, a call spread out into the real world from the facebook page which had been my own main point of reference. It soon became confusing as they piled in, numbers doubling, and I found myself at a table with Tom Pike and Fiona Morris.

Tom had been my best friend for a few years back at junior school, but we'd drifted apart as people often do when the friendship is based on the sort of crap you get up to when you're seven. Our friendship was based in part on games played in the fields at the back of his house in which Tom was Captain Kirk and I was a Cyberman from Doctor Who, which I don't remember ever working quite so well as we had hoped. When I told Tom that I was about to have a science-fiction novel published, he asked if it was based on any of the games we had played, which is to date probably the best question anyone has ever asked me on the subject or writing.

Fiona sat opposite me during art lessons conducted by the previously mentioned Miss Davies. I seem to recall that she had spent at least some of the time pulling long-suffering faces and rolling her eyes at my more ill-considered observations. This would have been contemporary to Shirley pelting me with bits of paper, and as it all came flooding back, I wondered whether it could be possible that I had been a little more popular than I remembered, or at least funnier. Distracted by the thought, I somehow encountered difficulty with my attempt to become seated, and mumbled something about how after all this time you would think I might at least have got the hang of basic chair operation.

'You haven't changed.' Amused, Fiona pulled a long-suffering face and rolled her eyes in testament to my general incompetence. She and Tom were now married, which seemed like a good match, but which also seemed quite strange as nothing I could recall from school had foreshadowed their eventual union, and so it felt a little like Beryl the Peril turning up in a Spiderman comic.

Others found places at the table in the room we had occupied with the enthusiasm of a Normandy landing, faces coming into focus with great big dabs of memory sherbert popping off left and right. Laughing, Guy Loveridge took Tom's spectacles and tried them on for size. 'You must have fucking good eye sight to see through these things!'

You never really forget a name like Guy Loveridge, but I still couldn't reverse engineer the face back to whoever he'd been at school. Maybe he was one of Jason Roberts' friends, I decided. Matthew Gibbins and Alan Newman looked completely different, and yet I knew both of them straight away, marvelling at the changes. Ringing not one single bell, some woman turned out to have attended our school only for the last two terms of the final year, but I guess she lived in the area and had known most of the others for a while, and was probably less the imposter than myself. It was getting confusing, and I made my way to the bar just as another bunch wandered in.

'Chewie!' I hadn't even considered the nickname in thirty years, let alone its owner, but here at last was someone I immediately recognised without my internal lens irising in and out to compensate for the passage of time. I never found out why Mark Nason had picked up the name Chewie, but I suppose he was roughly on the husky side, and we were one of the Star Wars generations.

He smiled, embarrassed. 'Sorry, mate.'

It wasn't him, but a doppelganger who happened to be in the pub on the night of the reunion. It was quite a coincidence. Stranger still, the cheer that had greeted his arrival was for another of his party, Darren Bell.

Darren had been a small angry-looking kid, or at least one who didn't seem to smile much. He'd been the only mixed race boy at the school, and so he'd stood out. Keeping in mind that I was eleven and didn't know shit, he had looked like trouble to me, so we'd hardly spoken to each other. Once during assembly I felt a weird plucking sensation at the back of my neck. I turned to see Darren Bell and Michael Sumners, both seated in the row behind, leaning across to pick something from the shoulders of my uniform, like they were plucking a chicken. They ignored me, going about their work and muttering to each other as though I wasn't there. I still have no idea what they were doing. I think I would have remembered having fleas, and although my dandruff had been fulsome, it didn't exactly feel like the primate social grooming it resembled. Maybe they were just trying to freak me out.

Talking to Darren now, I began to wish I'd been less of a coward at school. He chuckled, explaining with a trace of the Tom Jones how he was doing very well with his own business and living somewhere or other in Wales.

'You don't remember me, do you?'

'I've really no idea.' He laughed again, because it was admittedly an absurd question. 'I'm sorry, mate, but it's been thirty years, you know?'

I bought myself a drink, and realised now that I knew some of the people in the public bar, those who were here because it was a pub and it was Saturday night; and I'd been stood right next to one of them for the past couple of minutes.

'Richard Benfield!' Yet another one of those name that hadn't crossed my thoughts in a long time.

He didn't seem too enthusiastic. 'You here for this reunion, then?'

I nodded. 'You too?'

He shook his head and shrugged. 'No-one told me.'

He gave a quick account of the story of his life. I'd always thought of him as one of the hard kids, an associate of Darren Bell and Michael Sumners, although we got on okay, and he never seemed like he felt he had anything to prove. It turned out that we'd led similar lives in some respects, many years spent holding the shitty end of corporate sticks for the sake of a wage, a great deal of sweat from which someone else had made a ton of money. It was oddly comforting to know we had ended up with more in common than either of us could have predicted, and as we were talking, another piece of jigsaw puzzle slotted into place, specifically someone I'd noticed lurking in the background for most of the evening, someone resembling Mick Jones of The Clash. He'd been watching us, but hadn't spoken to anyone. Now realising he'd been spotted, he conceded a sly grin. 'I was wondering how long it would take.'

'You should have said something.'

'Oh I don't like a fuss. You know me.'

I did, or at least I used to. His name was Chris Adams, one of the bunch who had turned up on facebook recently, memorably reporting that he now had four children of his own. You've been busy, I told him and he didn't seem to mind. Chris had always been the calm sort at school, and I don't recall ever having seen him get upset or angry over anything. In this respect he hadn't changed, and so we stood talking for a while about life, family, Shipston, bowling - his sport of choice, and anything else we could think of. It was the umpteenth old face conversation of the evening, and yet I don't recall having to repeat myself.

'You should have let me know you were coming along,' Chris told me. 'You could have slept on our sofa. We've got so many in the house, one more won't make no difference.'

Tom had made the same offer, and it was touching. I hadn't expected either this sort of welcome or such generosity from anyone.

'So I've got to ask - do you remember Ethan Rock?'

'Don Timms.'

'Holy shit.
Don Timms? Really?'

'He went to America and reinvented himself. I don't think he was ever very happy.'

'But Ethan Rock - of all the names...'

Chris chuckled, but not unkindly.

Don Timms had been an average, likeable kid. It was really difficult to imagine him so unhappy as to want to change his name. The evening had been one revelation after another, and I would need some time to take it all in.

Last orders approached and we all cohered within our commandeered room for the inevitable group photographs. Even more old faces had shown up. It seemed like there were hundreds of us. Stewart Ward bundled forward from the group, grinning. He'd been another one of the hard kids, like a smaller, tougher version of the singer from Showaddywaddy. He'd also been very funny at least some of the time, even if it was mostly the sort of funny you had to be there to appreciate. His finest hour was, as I recall, trapping Michael Sumners inside the tall cupboard at the back of Mr. Stanier's technical drawing class. Mr. Stanier was elderly and not well equipped to deal with living versions of the Bash Street Kids.

Let me out, the cry came with muffled thumps as Michael attempted to punch his way out of his wooden prison. Mr. Stanier eyed the four boys stood respectfully in front of the cupboard, but apparently didn't feel up to telling them to get back to their desks.

'Oh dear. What have you done with Michael?'

'We don't know, sir.'

Thump thump thump - I'm in here, sir, Make them let me out.

'This really won't do. Have you got Michael in there?'

'No sir,' and so on for the next twenty minutes. Eventually Mr. Stanier returned sadly to the blackboard and resumed chalking up a load of angles, reasoning that they would eventually get bored and let their prisoner go, which they eventually did.

Stewart no longer resembled the singer out of Showaddywaddy, but looked like he'd spent the years since school lifting concrete blocks for a living.

'I fucking love this bloke,' he growled happily and grabbed me in a headlock with an arm that could easily have punched holes in the hull of Popeye's boat.

'I like you too,' I squeaked, surprised to remember that I did.

An hour later and full of just the right amount of beer to compensate for my fear of cycling along pitch black country lanes without lights, I headed back to the bed and breakfast in the pouring rain, happy in an entirely unexpected way.

There were still people I'd had no chance to talk with, or to whom I'd said nothing, having no idea what to say and feeling awkward. There were people to whom I had probably spoken for the very first time that evening. There were some who probably regarded me as a wanker, and others who didn't; yet they all felt like my people. I had come along not really knowing what to expect, with all of my bullshit and assumptions, and none of it had mattered in the least; and strangest of all - at least to me - after all those years, it genuinely felt like it had been an honour to have gone to school with such a fine bunch, and I only wish I'd been better equipped to appreciate that at the time.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Two Americas

The agent who showed us around the house smiled a lot, emphasising all that should be considered a positive. The yard was a desert with a dead tree at the centre against which was propped rusting barbecue equipment, one wheel broken off. The metal caps of a million beer bottles were trodden into the dusty earth. Three lively young men had lived here, and they had been keen on having fun and all the activities traditionally pursued by lively young men. They had been less keen on cleaning and domestic repairs. Indeed the evidence suggested that they found such activities a positive chore. A small hole had been either booted or thumped in the kitchen wall, and a few of the doors showed signs of having been kicked in at some point. The agent pointed to the greying metal and plastic skeleton of a large circular garden table, reduced to a sun-bleached ornamental wheel by the absence of glass. It was of a kind I'd seen on sale for about thirty dollars in the home and garden department at Walmart.

'You might be able to buy some glass to fix up that table,' the agent suggested helpfully. 'There's a large branch of Lowe's just around the corner.'

I didn't spend hundreds of dollars on a specially commissioned circle of glass for the repair of a fairly unpleasant bit of cheap garden furniture, although I did buy a small bottle of ReRack, a xylene based liquid plastic by which I restored the decrepit rusting shelving inside the fridge to a state suitable for storing something other than beer.

Despite its faults, despite that our landlady seemingly regarding the place as falling only a little way short of a gold-tapped mansion, despite all the work which needed doing and the fact of the garage door buckling in the middle so much that it no longer opens, we liked the house and said yes, and then moved in.

The street seemed quiet. The neighbours were mostly Hispanic and mostly pretty civilised. There had been a murder on the street behind ours about a month before, but it was the first incident of that kind in decades according to police records, which my wife checked before we made our decision. Also, a major dealer lived a few houses along, a dealer formerly of the kind popularised on the television series Breaking Bad, but more recently taken to a quieter life having been carted off to the stripey hole a few too many times for his liking. The cars would still show up, friends of friends of friends who would slow their vehicles to conduct furtive transactions with the motor running, but all the houses here are some way apart, so the trade could be relegated to just one of those things happening over there, a habit of some other guy which will forever remain happily none of our business. My wife's relatives came to visit, in one instance to cast a Hyacinthine eye over where we had landed and to offer the sort of veiled discouragement you would expect, just in case we hadn't realised quite how far we had fallen from Alamo Heights, from the lawn sprinklers and no socialism; but we took no notice. We preferred Junior's take on our relocation, which was specifically that we were now well situated for a great many cats and a wide variety of fast-food restaurants.

He wasn't kidding about the cats. The street is full of them, lounging in the sun across various lawns or patches of yard that would be lawn if there wasn't an el Camino parked there. That said, most of them now spend their time lounging in the sun across our lawn, having discovered that I'm a soft touch and will feed a stray cat if it looks sufficiently hungry. This habit began with SOF, a fluffy stray whom we suspect may be the Son of Fluffy - hence the acronym - our own hairy cat whom we were only able to afford to have fixed a few months after moving in. Naturally, we both felt fairly guilty about Fluffy's brief but successful efforts towards making more cats, but there wasn't really much we were able to do about it, besides putting out the odd bowl of food for SOF whenever he passes through following some itinerary known only to himself. We should probably feel similarly guilty that SOF himself now appears to have made even more cats with another stray whom Junior has named Emerald in recognition of her green eyes; although if it hadn't been SOF, Emerald would almost certainly have made additional cats with the help of one of the other four million felines apparently living under the shed in our next door neighbour's wilderness-themed back garden.

Emerald is small, so her waddling transformation into a silky, black pumpkin was difficult to miss. She resumed her figure after a while, and a few weeks passed before we noticed her sneaking back to temporary accommodation within an unused bedding trough attached to the neighbour's house. Inside, well sheltered from the weather by wooden boards, were three small but surprisingly chunky kittens, still with blue eyes. They were black of course, but fluffy like SOF and his father before him, and we spent an hour cooing over them.

'What chunky little monkeys!' Bess observed, melting, which became chunkamonks, then just the chunks.

'Have you seen the chunks today?' she took to asking me each evening as she arrived home from work. Usually I hadn't as Emerald had moved them elsewhere following our visit. We had no idea where, although it seemed reassuring that Emerald herself was still to be seen hanging around on a daily basis.

Weeks later, I am peering through the glass diamond set into our front door, angling my head to get a view of the drive, to where Emerald tends to wait around in hope of being fed, and where we've seen the kittens playing on previous occasions. Something catches the corner of my eye and I look over to Betty's house just across the way. Betty is the mother of Justin, who comes over to play with Junior from time to time. My wife and I get the impression that he doesn't have a particularly happy life at home and we often hear him arguing with his mother, whom he describes as crazy. He has a stepfather, some weasely looking guy who shows up every few months and is apparently on his third strike so will be inside for a long, long stretch next time he breaks into a house, steals a car, or whatever new means he chooses in pursuit of making his living. We don't say anything, but we're hoping that the magic third strike comes soon, providing it isn't our house he hits. Justin doesn't say anything, but we get the impression he's also looking forward to that day.

I see the movement again, a tiny puppy lolloping towards the rear of Betty's house, and then another, and another.

'Damn!' I step outside, then call to my wife. 'Bess, come and see!' We cross the street watching the stream of puppies. Betty is now out front with her teenage daughter - Justin's sister. The puppies bundle across the scrubby lawn, all crowding around the woman's feet. They are large and dumpy but still quite young, and there are eleven of them, or maybe twelve. It's difficult to count. We all stand around cooing for a few minutes. The puppies are friendly and still very much at the silly stage of their development.

'I'm going out to buy some food for these.' Betty is not happy, but then I'm not sure I've ever seen her crack a smile. She has a puppy in her arms as she glares across to the neighbour's house on the right, speaking loud as though addressing a person hidden behind the curtain. 'Someone has to take responsibility.'

'They're from that house?' My wife glances across. We don't really know the people who live there, except that they are Mexican and seem to have a yard sale every other weekend.

'She don't know how to look after them. Every time is the same. They get animals and they cannot take care of them.' Betty's venom is delivered with righteous volume. 'Fucking wetbacks!'

You can tell that she wants the insult to be heard. I understand the term to refer to illegal immigrants from south of the border, but my wife later tells me it has come to serve as the Mexican equivalent to white trash. It's strange to hear Betty deliver such an insult given that she too is Hispanic.

'Stupid crackhead.' There is no anger, just powerful disgust.

I see another dog, an adult boxer, trotting along at the end of the street, just past the purple house in which there resides the Wiccan family, as denoted by a web address stencilled on the trunk of their car. A few months before, the house opposite the Wiccan residence declared itself an evangelical church of some persuasion, although the banners and flags came down after a few days, presumably because you can't just declare your home to be a church if you happen to feel like it. I was glad as it had seemed kind of rude, even confrontational. The Wiccans were hurting nobody.

'Do you know who the mother is?' I myself imagine it may be the boxer, but as usual I get the impression that everyone is confused by my English accent. I am a piece that does not fully make sense in this jigsaw puzzle.

'Are you working at HEB?' My wife now has one of the puppies in her arms, whilst Betty is presumably about to get in her car and drive to HEB - the local supermarket - for dog food. Justin told us that she had applied for work there. She handed in her notice at Walmart, and none of us could really blame her, considering the long hours and everything.

'They didn't want me.' She shakes her head. 'They escaped from back there. They were in the garage, no food or water.'

She means the puppies. I am losing track of this conversation.

'Those idiots don't know how to look after their animals.' Betty regards the boxer as it approaches, sniffing the grass. 'I don't think that she is the mother.'

'I hate that thing.' My wife catches herself, realising how harsh it sounds, but we all understand.

'I think it is called Boy.' Betty turns, looking across to our side of the street, to where friends of friends of friends slow their vehicles to conduct furtive transactions with the motor running. 'The dog is from the drug house. It is a terrible animal.'

Bess describes the time she came home and found Boy stood snarling at her on our porch. I recall several occasions of this also happening to me, but I'm not sure if it was the same dog. San Antonio has a real problem with strays.

Boy disappears around the side of the house, and we hear a voice calling out.

Just you git back here, Boy!

The call echoes from our own house across the street, a peculiar ricochet effect, and I hear the mention of someone shooting a dog, shooting a puppy, although not one of these puppies.

'I called the police,' Betty tells us, 'but they say they can't do nothing. They say he has a right to shoot an animal if it is threatening him, but it was a puppy!'

'Who shot the puppy?' I'm beginning to wonder what the hell I'm hearing. This tale is getting stranger by the minute.

'It was just with a BB gun, but it is still no good. You cannot shoot a puppy like that. What is wrong with him?'

'This is the drug guy?'

'No, the yellow house.'

I look past where Cabbage Man lives, but the yellow house is out of sight around the curvature of the street. Cabbage Man grows cabbages and tomatoes in wooden frames on his lawn out front. He's very good at it, and knocks on our door to give us free fresh vegetables every few weeks over summer. The only thing with which I've had much success here has been zucchini, which I can grow by the ton, so Cabbage Man in return gets the run offs.

'Is that the guy who always seems to be out there working on his truck? That redneck type, is that who you mean?'

Again Betty doesn't seem to have quite followed the gist of my question, and the neighbours have now returned in their own truck, the alleged wetbacks. They look across to us, and the puppies flood over the lawn to meet them. The woman seems a little thin, but not really crackhead material from what I can tell.

'Look.' I point to the wood fence at the side of Cabbage Man's house. Two tiny black kittens have emerged from a gap to watch us. 'Bess, it's the chunks!'

Puppies and now kittens. It's all too much.

After a while, Betty drives off to buy dog food, despite the escaped puppies now apparently reunited with their owners, and we return to our own home, at least glad to know that Emerald has her kittens somewhere safe. For a while it felt as though we might have been labouring under an illusion, my wife and I, with our quiet life in the hood, blind to the John Singleton film going on all around us.

'You think those people are really crackheads?'

Bess sighs. 'I think Betty tends to exaggerate, you know?'

We close the door and recall all the drama that Justin has had with his mother, enough at least to give him the idea of moving away for a while. It's a shame as he's a nice kid, and a good example for Junior - very responsible and level-headed. I think of the puppies kept locked in the alleged wetback garage without food for days at a time.

'You know, those little guys seemed pretty plump and happy to me. They didn't seem underfed at all.'

My wife agrees with another sigh, then shakes her head.

Neither of us bother to remind ourselves that we like living here, because regardless of everything, it still goes without saying.